Dr Gail Bradbrook is a co-founder of the social movement Extinction Rebellion (XR) which has rapidly spread internationally since its launch in October 2018. With 260 XR groups in over 30 countries, the movement has served to push the issue of climate change to the forefront of public attention. Gail has been arrested three times for acts of civil disobedience, most recently at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Originally from Yorkshire, the daughter of a coal miner, Gail trained in molecular biophysics. Her talk, Heading for Extinction, on the science of the ecological crisis, the psychology of active participation and the need for civil disobedience has gone viral and been part of the inspiration for many to join XR. Gail will be speaking at our conference, Farming and Climate Change: Towards Net Zero Carbon Emissions.
What has driven you to start Extinction Rebellion?
A passion that started as a young child to understand the world and see it become a kinder place. I’ve been trying to start mass civil disobedience around climate change since 2010; I understand from theories of change, that it is an essential part of the process.
What do you feel the current climate change threat means for our food system?
We know last year’s harvest included a 40% decrease in onion production in some parts of the UK – that’s a canary in the coalmine. Latvia declared a state of emergency during the prolonged drought in summer 2018 and Lithuania is seeking damages for failed crops from heavy rain in 2017, arguing that their harvest was a ‘natural disaster’. Academics call it ‘multiple breadbasket failure’ – it’s what happens when food production issues hit several parts of the world at once. Britain imports the majority of its food. Food price hikes are the cause of social unrest. The pathway to the collapse of our civilisation will likely lie around the issue of food production. There is a historic precedent for this – for example, the Mesopotamian and Mayan civlisations were destroyed when their food systems collapsed.
Given you think we need to reach net zero emissions by 2025, what role can you see farming systems playing in achieving this?
We also think we have to halt biodiversity loss, and the place these two agendas are aligned is in our approach to farming. I felt it was auspicious that when we launched Extinction Rebellion on October 31st, that there was also a rally in Parliament Square by the wonderful Nature Friendly Farming Network. Rewilding, regenerative agriculture, carbon capture in our soils, a large reduction in meat and dairy production – I think these are all going to be needed. My friend Hylton Murray-Philipson showed me a graph of the carbon capture his farm is undertaking these days – it was the best looking hockey stick [exponential graph] I’ve seen in a long time – most of them are displaying the full horrors of our current crisis!
The SFT is campaigning to align future diets with the food that sustainable farming systems can produce. Do you agree with this approach?
I don’t know much about it, but it sounds cool to me. We are calling in XR for a Citizens Assembly of ordinary people, to work out the details of a transition to a healthier ecology and to climate justice; so, any specific opinions by spokespeople like me are just personal. My view is that we are in the middle of many crises and that the root causes are the same, which means the best solutions will be holistic.
As two thirds of UK farmland is under grass, is this perhaps the best way to maintain and build soil carbon? Do you accept that, for those who don’t have ethical objections to eating meat, grass-fed red meat is part of the solution?
My friend Dr John Meadley, a fantastic activist from Stroud and agronomist, set up the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association. I’m not over all the data but I’m guessing that a responsible and respectful relationship with all of nature will involve, for some of us, the consumption of meat, though I deeply respect our vegan friends who hold a different viewpoint. I identify as a pagan these days and I feel my relationship with eating animals is meant to be limited and based in deep gratitude. My understanding is that reports like Zero Carbon Britain suggest much of the land used for pasture needs to go back to woodland, which it would do if it wasn’t being munched at by our sheep cousins, or the ‘white plague’ as George Monbiot calls them, as an advocate for rewilding. I don’t know what the best balance is for the UK: rewilding, pasture-fed livestock, regenerative plant farming? That’s where we need a non-ideological conversation with experts. And a just transition that supports farmers and farming is needed.
What are your suggestions for how we can carbon-offset methane emissions from agriculture?
I don’t believe in offsetting – it doesn’t factor in tipping points in climate change. We need agriculture to be part of our draw-down mechanism in the UK – not a carbon producer overall. I’ve seen some cool solutions to do with high tech, low carbon machinery. I also think people need access to land. Land needs to be redistributed in the UK, so those that want to do small-scale farming are able to. Our relationship with the land is a necessity, for our health and for our understanding of what any particular patch of land needs from us, as we work with her. Many are longing for this opportunity to work with the land, using permaculture and other sustainable methods, and we need to make this practically and financially possible for them. Fossil fuels are subsidised to a ridiculous degree (any degree is ridiculous in my opinion) – those subsidies should be transferred to farming and renewables – again my opinion, not XRs.
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