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Andy Cato: Farmers manuring town halls and NHS strike action are two symptoms of the same problem: Our food system isn’t working

The Groove Armada musician, record producer and DJ on why it’s time to turn our backs on our current industrial food system. 

Farmers manuring town halls and NHS strike action are two symptoms of the same problem: our food system isn’t working. It’s completely unreasonable to place the burden of fixing it on doctors, nurses and farmers, but this is exactly what is happening. 

In Europe, new laws oblige farmers to reduce pesticide use. No holistic plan as to how to do so; just a mandate. For many, faced with increasingly wild weather and when even a slight reduction in yield is sufficient to trigger insolvency, this is simply the last straw. Outbursts of anger are the only possible outcome. 

Yet, something has to change because the food we’ve eaten for the last 80 years has borrowed from nature and borrowed from the NHS on a massive scale. We can’t keep doing this. 

The actual environmental and health costs of food, estimated to be around £100 billion a year in the UK, need to come onto the balance sheet so that our food system can stand on its own two feet. Underneath this rather abstract £100 billion annual total are some sobering statistics, such as the fact that the NHS spends more just on diet-related diabetes than we spend on the entire UK legal system.

Growers have been forced into a wafer thin margin business, yet significant food price hikes are impossible in a world where the UK has more food banks than McDonald's. So where do we go from here?

As a start, we have to confront the truth and get rid of the notion that ‘business as usual’ farming is an option. Because no species can survive the disruption of its own ecosystem. I'm 50, and we've lost 69% of the Earth’s wildlife in my lifetime. Soil, by far the Earth’s biggest carbon store outside the oceans, has lost about 8% of its carbon since the beginning of agriculture, creating up to 20% of human-made CO2 emissions. It’s also losing its water holding capacity making it less effective at preventing floods after heavy rainfall.

For me, the solution lies in regenerative farming – a system that keeps soil covered with a diversity of plants to restore and optimise the vast 500 million year old universe of subterranean life which helps deliver nutrient-dense food in ever-improving ecosystems. 

Farmers are completely underestimated by society, for whom food has become a completely abstract concept. 

My journey into regenerative farming started when I was travelling back from a gig 16 years ago and read a brilliantly written article about the environmental consequences of food production. It had this line in it that said, “If you don't like the system, don't depend on it”. This line has complicated my life quite considerably, and it’s where it all began.

Up until that point, I had never planted a seed, or even a daffodil, but I started thinking about the idea of growing my own food. The vegetable growing didn’t go brilliantly well from the outset, but I found the very process of watching plants become food miraculous. I was completely enthralled by it and left wondering why this wasn’t the bedrock of what we learned at school. From then on, I went down a spectacularly sized rabbit hole. The vegetables became a market garden and as soon as I realised the urgency of the climate and nature crises, I made a mad decision to sell the rights to my Groove Armada songs to buy a farm in France.

When I took over the farm, it was a complete disaster; it was incredibly humbling. I realised I didn’t have the vast array of skills required to be a farmer. Farmers are completely underestimated by society, for whom food has become a completely abstract concept. And I don't say that as a criticism to urban dwellers, because I was in that camp.

I went in with these hopelessly naive ideas. I was farming on soils which were at the tail end of what’s called the Green Revolution – high end chemical input farming that saw greatly increased crop yields. So they were in a terrible state; very little biological life existed and incapable of retaining water. I thought, I’ll just remove the chemicals and crack on and grow some cereal crops. But it didn't happen. The earth was inevitably overtaken by blankets of weeds for the same reason we see these pioneer plants growing in old car parks or wherever. They're brilliant at growing in really degraded situations because they’re nature’s way of covering bare soil, repairing damage and raising fertility.

I was exhausted, but I was lucky because I didn’t have to go bankrupt if I played my records at the weekend. I was at the point of having to accept defeat, when I came across this book by a guy called Albert Howard, a founder of the organic movement; the first Westerner to document and publish the techniques of sustainable agriculture. I was totally inspired and entered a new world of literature on agro ecological approaches and the potential they offer. I didn't give up, and got some livestock involved. It was a decade or so of one step forward, two steps back. 

Andy relocated to the UK in 2021 to take up a National Trust farm tenancy in Oxfordshire.

Fast forward several years, and in contrast to the reduction in pesticides creating such anger across Europe, there are now over 100 farmers who work with our organisation Wildfarmed choosing to produce wheat without any applications of pesticides to the growing crop. At Wildfarmed, our mission is to transform landscapes, taking fields that were otherwise silent dead zones, and turning them into thriving fields full of life.

Our farmers farm in a way that combines nature and food, growing different types of plants together to make cereal fields a flower-rich habitat for bees and insects, and breathe life back into the soil. They're using two-thirds less fertiliser than they would have been beforehand. And because they're growing their crops in association with other plants, they've got a better, sort of, solar panel of leaves, and therefore that promotes carbon sequestration and so on. They’re also supported by expert agronomists, an online and in person knowledge sharing community, and by over 500 customers for the food they produce. This is the difference between creating a collaborative effort for change rather than imposing the burden of system-change on farmers. 

A farming system that harnesses nature rather than fights against it

It's no longer about the crops anymore; it's about the entire ecosystem that supports them. By valuing the biodiversity and carbon sequestration on the farm, we're not only compensating for the crops but also for the ecosystem services they provide. This approach allows us to enjoy the benefits for the landscape without significantly impacting the price for consumers. However, this requires a supply chain that is transparent and traceable. In a world where the term 'regenerative' can be loosely used by anyone, we felt compelled to establish the Wildfarmed Regenerative Standards, offering a third-party audited definition of what we're doing.

Having a traceable supply chain is crucial because it ensures that the way farmers grow food – creating cereal fields that are rich in flowers, free from pesticides, and adjacent to rivers clear of nitrate and pesticide pollution – translates into real societal values. We're collaborating with water companies, too, who understand that preventing pollution is more cost-effective than removing it.

There's a common misconception that a piece of land must be dedicated either to nature or to food production, but this binary choice is problematic. Both can coexist. We've been working with governments to ensure that creating biodiversity, whether through rewilding or integrating it with food production, is financially rewarding. For instance, we're in discussions with Defra to bring about changes that recognise and compensate the efforts of our farmers who are enriching biodiversity while producing food.

Above all, this is a hopeful story. I’ve seen first-hand, and from farmers growing every type of crop all over the world, that today we have the information, technology and understanding to create a farming system that harnesses nature rather than fights against it. The consequences of doing so, for crops resilient in the face of weather extremes, for the NHS, for the survival of ecosystems, for the quality of our rivers, will be profound. Collaboration is the key, and ultimately any collaboration will succeed or fail based on consumer choices…So come and join us! 

Consumers can currently find Wildfarmed flour in products at ASK Italian, Jolene, Franco Manca, M&S and more.

As told to Charlotte Owen-Burge on 12 March 2024. This conversation was edited & condensed for clarity.

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