Tag Archives: farming

Spend more on food rather than holidays

Patrick Holden, director of the Soil Association, has caused a stir by saying that we should spend more money on food than on holidays, according to The Telegraph. That is bound to be a headline grabber and bound to get a strong reaction but is he right?

Some years ago there was a statistic floating around which said that in the UK we spend 9% of income on food whereas in France it was nearer 19%. That says a lot about how food is valued. Some would argue that cheap food is almost a right but I would counter that by saying nutritious food is a right and not the useless pap that many companies sell as ‘food’.

How much we are willing to pay for meal also says a lot about what food means to us and generally we don’t value it all. In supermarkets food is sold on price and price alone, the cheapest being seen as the best. Low prices have to come from somewhere and it is the continual screwing down of farm gate prices which keeps the shop price artificially low. That benefits nobody in the long term as it leads to a precarious supply situation which easily creaks and breaks at the slightest problem.

Then there is organic food. For a long time organic has been branded by the opposition as a niche market and as high priced food for tuffs. The perception is that, at best organic is much more expensive and at worst a con which is no different to the chemical soaked alternative. Organisations like the NFU have vigorously defended conventionally produced food and have been quick to reinforce the niche market claims. What this has done if to create confusion and an air of suspicion in the minds of consumers.

The recent debates about food security have also jumped on the organic knocking bandwagon and made wild claims about links to starvation and organic farming. The argument is that we need even more intensive chemical farming combined with unproven technologies like GM. Government has joined that camp because it gives them an easy way out of a difficult and frightening problem.

What we really need is to increase food production in the UK and diversify the way food is grown. That does not mean super farms in the East of England supplying 98% of English carrots, cabbage or anything else. That is not resilient agriculture it is sheer lunacy. The prolonged drought in the East Anglia last year and the recent disruption to supplies during the cold spell have shown just how precarious our food supply really is.

Farmers need to be seen as a crucial part of society and valued for the work they do and not constantly knocked or seen as scapegoats for the bad practices of the retail sector.  Agriculture and horticulture need to be sold to young people as worthwhile and engaging careers. There should be incentives for young people take on small holdings of land to grow food sustainably without chemicals. Land should be seen for what it is, an absolutely crucial part of keeping us alive and not as an investment opportunity.

What about organics? A large scale move to organic agriculture is not just desirable it is essential to produce a sustainable production system that is not totally reliant on oil. It is no use tinkering with the existing system in way that increase or perpetuates reliance on fossil fuels all that will do is delay the inevitable crisis. We must begin to move to a post oil agricultural system with more local production and distribution.

The days of cheap food have gone. We will have to pay more for food and I sincerely hope that we recover our respect for what we eat. A more nutritious diet could make a huge difference to public health of this country. The best thing is that people might even begin to enjoy good food again instead of scoffing plastic meals out of plastic trays while walking around our cities.

In the end it is not about whether organic food is just for rich toffs it is about the facing the realities of declining oil supplies, climate change and population growth. Food production has to become sustainable and just has to be less dependent on oil.

Climate-friendly farming

There is a superb article in the November/December edition of Resurgence magazine. The author, Mukti Mitchell gives some alarming figures for the organic matter content of UK soils. He says that in a forest there is 15% air, 15% water, 60% rock and minerals and 10% organic matter. In agricultural soils the organic matter has decreased to around 3.5% and in heavily cultivated soils it can be as low as 1%.

What was even more amazing is that Mitchell states that increasing the level of organic matter not only produces rich, productive soils which grow healthier food but it also sequesters huge amounts of atmospheric CO2.

Further calculations suggest that on a global scale, rich-soil farming could have a sequestration potential so powerful that it could turn back the carbon clock. These figures are backed up by the latest science. A 2007 study for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that if world agriculture adopted best practices to increase soil organic matter content, it could mitigate 6 to 10 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year by 2030, which is between 20% and 35% of current annual global emissions (29 billion tonnes per year).

That is an impressive statement; so why no action? Because once again the absolute stranglehold of agrochemical companies prevents any real progress.

Modern intensive farming has split into two camps: arable and livestock. To return to truly sustainable farming would require a mega shift in attitudes and a break with the globalisation treadmill we are now on. The result would smaller mixed farms that could easily use their muck to improve soils and grow better crops. That would create richer soils, more nutritious food and help reduce CO2.

All we need now is the realisation that the effects of peak oil, climate change and water shortages, the perfect storm predicted for 2030, needs a radical rethink about how we grow food and will not be solved by reliance on any technological ‘silver bullet’. Returning to more traditional agricultural practices will help us be more resilient, create jobs and loosen the reliance on an oil based economy. It is really that simple.

Of course all of the above applies to gardeners, organic matter is the key, composting every last piece of vegetable waste is crucial!

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Climate friendly food

UK food – new green revolution or just more GM?

According to The Independent Hilary Benn is set to announce new plans for feeding the Nation.  “In the search for a new green revolution, he will say new research is needed to develop new crop breeds and techniques.”

Pound to a penny that will mean GM, more GM and even more GM! All of which we don’t need and certainly should not be putting money into the pockets of unproven, dangerous products that do nothing more than feed the likes of Monsanto. We can feed the UK perfectly well enough already; all we need is the will to do it and a realistic approach to food and farming.

The conspiracy theorists amongst us would now argue that the ‘organic is no better for you’ report fiasco from the FSA last week was a way of softening up the resistance to GM by proving the alternative is naff. Never been into conspiracy theory but it makes you wonder just what agenda the government is pursuing…

EU parliament votes to ban (some) farm pesticides

This was the news splashed across many media channels yesterday and today. Many sources got it wrong and suggested, or implied, that all pesticides are to be banned. In fact only a small number will be banned so don’t believe the scaremongers who claim that UK agriculture will collapse!

It really is about time we realised that there is no place for poisons in food. Banning some of the more harmful pesticides is a start but it does not go far enough. There should be zero pesticide residues in all food.

The biggest losers are the multinational agrochemical companies. They will make a noise and with the inevitable support of the NFU will claim that this will push prices up, that whole crops will fail, that we will have to import more and that people will go hungry. Note that no reference will be made to the successes of organic farming which is dismissed as a niche market.

What affect will it have on our household? Nil, nothing, zero because we neither buy pesticides soaked food or use them on our home grown produce. We are far from the rich, ‘lifestyle choosers’ that the NFU, and others, like to describe people who buy organic food. In fact we are relatively poor by today’s standards but choose to buy organic food because we don’t want to eat food that contains pesticide residues. We also grow some of our own food very successfully without using any artificial chemicals in the garden. It can be done, we can have pesticide free food, and I absolutely believe that it is a MUCH healthier way to live.