Category Archives: Farming


So – I am super impressed. Further to last night’s self-flagellation and my email to Marks & Sparks querying the sustainable sourcing of my favourite nut salad – I was expecting at least a few days’ wait for some ethical … Continue reading

Rate this:

Burden of Proof: Paterson and the Bees

honey beeUK Environment Minister Owen Paterson has defied 71% of the British public, 2.5 million petition signatures and 405,000 letters to EU Ministers – all to derail a ban  on bee-harming pesticides.

Why? Because according to Mr Paterson, there’s not enough scientific proof that neonicotinoids harm bees.  At a time when UK & US honey bee populations have declined 50% over the past 25 years, this  begs the question – why is the burden of proof with those who want to follow a precautionary principle, rather than with those who stand to make a profit from applying toxic chemicals in our collective environment.

I won’t go into the detailed story line – Damian Carrington has done a great job of reporting it all here. But in short – it seems that independent science has repeatedly shown there to be a link between neonicotinoids and a drop in honey bee numbers, a species vital to our food security, and of course, inherently valuable in its own right.

Yet despite this, the UK government wanted to carry out their own trials – and these haven’t been able to conclude before last Friday’s EU vote took place. As a result – Mr Paterson has been citing lack of conclusivity in these particular experiments as a reason not to proceed with the moratorium. It is not surprising that the pesticide manufacturers are relieved.

At first glance – it may seem to make sense that we shouldn’t proceed in making such a decision without the full gauntlet of evidence to support it. After all – this would be a momentous change for industries involved; industries providing hundreds of jobs at a time of recession. Furthermore, the decision may impact how much food we can produce in the immediate short-term.  Perhaps this was the reasoning of the nine member states who opposed the ban.

But 13 states were in favour. Why the difference of opinion?

Well – let’s conduct a thought experiment. Let’s use the metaphor of the health industry. To licence a drug, the burden of proof is with the pharmaceutical corporations to prove that the medication they wish to sell, causes no harm. This seems fair, logical and the only course of action prudent to protect our public health.

Imagine if this were in fact the other way round – that it was up to governments, independently funded science and concerned members of the public to demonstrate that a certain drug caused harm,  before it was taken off the shelves. That it was only AFTER our eyes started bleeding and our veins pulsing and our hair falling out, that civil society could begin mounting a case that such medications should be removed from the shops.

A horrific idea.Yet one we embrace willingly when the chemicals sold are affecting the health of our collective environment and food – something that influences are own health more quickly than most medicine or money.

Fortunately – we still have a chance to correct this wrong. If the European Commission (the EU’s administrative arm) decides to appeal the Member States’ Ministers’ vote – we could have a second shot at saving our bees. I urge you to write to your EU Ministers and put this and all the other arguments found across t’interweb to them .

Our environment is our collective commons. Our responsibility and power to care for it should not be undermined by our democratically elected leaders and those corporations with more resources than most citizens to protect their interests. I hope our European leaders’ are more respectful of public opinion than Mr Paterson.

Aldo Leopold making conservation make sense in 1939

“When land does well for its owner and the owner does well by his land – when both end up better by reason of their partnership – then we have conservation.

When one or the other grows poorer either in substance or in character, or in responsiveness to sun, wind, and rain – then we have something else, and it’s something we do not like”

From Aldo Leopold’s “The Farmer as a Conservationist” American Forests 45 (939): 206-12.

Inexpensive Progress

My Dad has just mentioned this on his seventieth birthday-brilliant stuff by John Betjeman:

Inexpensive Progress

Encase your legs in nylons,
Bestride your hills with pylons
O age without a soul;
Away with gentle willows
And all the elmy billows
That through your valleys roll.

Let’s say goodbye to hedges
And roads with grassy edges
And winding country lanes;
Let all things travel faster
Where motor car is master
Till only Speed remains.

Destroy the ancient inn-signs
But strew the roads with tin signs
‘Keep Left,’ ‘M4,’ ‘Keep Out!’
Command, instruction, warning,
Repetitive adorning
The rockeried roundabout;

For every raw obscenity
Must have its small ‘amenity,’
Its patch of shaven green,
And hoardings look a wonder
In banks of floribunda
With floodlights in between.

Leave no old village standing
Which could provide a landing
For aeroplanes to roar,
But spare such cheap defacements
As huts with shattered casements
Unlived-in since the war.

Let no provincial High Street
Which might be your or my street
Look as it used to do,
But let the chain stores place here
Their miles of black glass facia
And traffic thunder through.

And if there is some scenery,
Some unpretentious greenery,
Surviving anywhere,
It does not need protecting
For soon we’ll be erecting
A Power Station there.

When all our roads are lighted
By concrete monsters sited
Like gallows overhead,
Bathed in the yellow vomit
Each monster belches from it,
We’ll know that we are dead.

From “High and Low” (1966) & “Collected Poems”

© The Estate of John Betjeman

Treasuring trash and keeping it local

food waste (c)

Dinner? (c)

From rags to riches, trash to cash and rubbish to resource – the dream of closed loop recycling is both worthy and lucrative. Just this week, statistics revealed that the average British shopper bins almost 10% of their weekly food shop; not chucking fridge leftovers alone would save Brits £12bn a year.

But while recycling is a no-brainer, we need to be careful that loops of material reuse are small and local, returning both the advantages (and disadvantages) close to the source of the resource.

To do this, we need to be crafty; both like a fox and the Women’s Institute. I recently visited “Materials for Living”, an exhibition organised by two parliamentary groups, focusing on design and sustainable resources. The exhibition included a showcase of how by-products of today’s food system can be used to produce beautiful, durable, USEFUL materials.

A'Peel (c) Associate Parliamentary Design & Innovation Group

A'Peel (c) Associate Parliamentary Design & Innovation Group

For example, orange peel is the rubbish of choice for Alkesh Parmar, who has utilised this by-product of juice extraction. The result of his ingenuity and hard work is a strong flexible material (A’Peel) which has the feel of bakelite, but which is completely biodegradable AND makes use of the millions of tonnes of Brazilian orange peel which would otherwise go to landfill.

Materials from fish scales (c) Erik de Laurens

It doesn't even smell. (c) Erik de Laurens

Erik de Laurens has produced a material made entirely from treated fish scales, again, an otherwise unwanted (and massively produced) by-product of the fishing industry. And pineapple leaves from the Philippines have been used by Carmen Hijosato make an alternative to leather.

Importantly, with all these projects – they return the benefits of reuse to the community from which the original resource came. On speaking to Carmen Hijosa, she was eager to emphasise that it is the pineapple growing farmers who have clubbed together to form a cooperative for processing and sell “Ananas Anam”, and it is they who profit from doing so.

Carmen Hijosa (c) Associate Parliamentary Design & Innovation Group .php

Carmen Hijosa and her pineapple. (c) APDIG

But while positive project such as those above are offering solutions – there are many other examples where material loops, in our globalised world, are extended and sloppy. The result is that the impacts (both good and bad) of those who produce waste are divorced from those who recycle it.

The export of e-waste to developing countries

The export of e-waste to developing countries

Stephen Metcalfe MP recently wrote about the horrors of electronic waste being dumped in developing countries for processing and reuse. Some argue that developing countries are keen to accept this source of materials, both as another source of income, as well as a way of joining the digital age at a cheaper price. But images of emaciated children picking their way through town-sized garbage tips reveal these countries’ lack of infrastructure to deal with the reality. For example, Nigeria, which despite having a population of 155 million people does not have one licensed landfill. The untold effects of heavy metal toxins on these people’s health and environment is reason enough to stop this digital dumping from the rich, onto the poor far, far away.

Animal by-products (c) CAFO, Foundation for Deep Ecology

Next meal for the chickens? (c) CAFO, Foundation for Deep Ecology

Moreover, there was a recent House of Lords debate about the reintroduction of feeding animal by-products to livestock. Following the British BSE crisis in the late 90s, there have been very strict regulations on feeding animal by-products to other animals. But the EC is now looking to review these laws, and as such, so is the UK parliament. While it looks unlikely that cattle (as non-ruminants) will be fed offal anytime soon, pigs and chickens can certainly look forward to it on the menu. In theory, this is a good, environmentally-efficient practice (waste not want not what?). But the reality is that with today’s modern industrial farming methods and a globalised food system, feeding one dead animal (provenance unknown) to another is a super-efficient way to spread disease. After all, MRSA has been found in intensively reared pig farms, and let’s not forget why this practice was banned after the first BSE crisis. The recipients of the recycled goods (you and me picking up a pack of chicken breasts in Sainsbury’s) will be a very distant notion for the producers of the animal by-products from god-knows-where.

So the moral of the story? Reduce – yes, good. Reuse – go on then. Recycle – oh lordy, yes purhleease. But can we do it in our own back yard?

We need to be careful that the boons of recycling are not hijacked by economies of scale, as our food and banking systems have been. We need to connect benefits and costs. We need to keep things local. We need to tighten the noose on our resources.

Our environment: what women want and the power of the middleman

Chillax Max.

Last week, a poll describing Europeans’ feelings about climate change revealed differences between men and women’s attitudes. While men appeared more confident about our ability to adapt to a changing world, women were more worried about our current impact on the planet. Women were more likely to describe climate change as a serious problem (average score of 7.5 compared to 7.2 amongst men) , and to have undertaken an action to tackle it (14% of men said they had not taken any action compared to 11% of women).

But why this divide?

Perhaps because women, front-line producers and front-line consumers, are being hit with the reality of climate change every day. Meanwhile, their male counterparts are often the middle men of powerful corporations and governments, sweating it out in their suits and ties, but buffeted from the effects.

Vast generalisation I know, but let me expand. Polls after all are built upon generalisation, and I’m having a stab at explaining.

First- to the women as front-line producers. It is well documented that women are now bearing the brunt of agricultural hard graft world over. Mark Tran has written about this trend in Africa repeatedly and a recent report by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs (Girls Grow: A Vital Force in Rural Economics) suggests that females may be the key to agricultural development and food security. Across Europe, more women are becoming self-employed as farm managers, or else heavily dependent upon seasonal wage-work. Examples towards this move, as men migrate to the ever-growing megacities can be found from all over the globe. The result: women are now nose to the soil and more aware of the change.

Women are also frequently touted as front-line consumers. While duff jokes about wives “maxing out” their husbands’ credit cards are pretty far-flung (I wish!), there can be no doubt it is more often a woman than a man in the check-out queue at Sainsbury’s with a family-size trolley of shopping.  The physiology of child birth and our present-day childcare set-up means that it’s the women who are spending more frequently on the essentials. That’s why it’s the women Cameron’s wooing as the female vote feels the recession.

But while women are busy doing growing this and buying that, it seems that it’s the men who are in the positions of power in both the corporate and political worlds. As of February this year,  within Britain’s 100 largest publicly traded companies, only 12.5% of the directors were women. Shockingly, almost half of the companies in the  FTSE 250 index have no women on their boards at all. Yet it is these same companies which are so powerful in our economy, which channel the power of the world’s consumers and producers. It is in these boardrooms that the private interests drive monumental decisions which affect us all – and women aren’t even at the table (unless they’re serving the tea).

The situation is not much better in politics; the arena (supposedly) of public interests. Thorsten (2005) found that globally, women make up only 15.7% of the members of parliament, while in Europe, only six countries empowered women adequately. On the other hand, it is pleasing to note that of the few cabinet roles held by women in Britain, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is one of them. Although even in that case, the unfortunate occupier was somewhat tainted by her husband’s agribusiness interests…

Now its not I think men are doing a bad job – its just that I think women could help them do it better. I’m in no way a man basher, but it is clear that we need change, and that women may be the front-thinkers in recognising this.

The question is, how do we get out of the fields, away from the checkout queues and into the clammy corridors of power? All while retaining our links to the natural world, and our valuable perspective. Answers on a postcard please.

The nearby nature of city farms: mummies, bunnies and relativism.

After living in London for nine years it is a shameful admission that I never visited a city farm, until yesterday.

My excuse? I felt that I already knew what a farm was. I’ve been privileged enough to know their smells and noises in “the real world”.  Perhaps conceitedly, I considered a city fake filled with yummy mummies and chubby bunnies beneath me. I certainly doubted that such a visit would serve to assuage my hunger for something natural in the grey metropolis.

But years of city living have eventually eroded this puristic outlook. Richard Louv’s Nature Principle suggests that “the nature we need is the nature nearby”, and indeed, life is too short to wait for my 25 days of annual leave to leave London for the “real thing”. After all, catching an autumn leaf mid-air or being hit on the head by a conker are arguably as good for the soul as being lost Austen-stylee on the top of Dartmoor in the driving rain.

So in an effort to cherish my nearby nature, I tried to put my prejudices aside. Stranded in central London, city farms are much of my nearby greenspace. If anywhere in the concrete jungle could reconnect me to the natural world, surely it would be within these havens of hutches and hessian? A website’s promise of “a taste of country life” sealed the deal.

First stop – Freightliners Farm. After sauntering along Upper Street and then through leafy Liverpool Road, we reached our destination. Sure enough – my suspicions of pushchair traffic and overfed rodents were justified. But I was surprised at the large number of “farm experiences” housed (comfortably) in a rather small space, ranging from pigs to a greenhouse to chicken coups. Vanguards of volunteers were roaming around in wellies and there was even some mud. Families and young adults were oohing and ahhing over the assembled livestock, clucking at the chickens and stroking stray cats. The number of visitors was a sure sign of the farm’s value to Islington’s residents.

Often considered posh, Islington is actually the Capital’s tenth poorest borough, with the least greenspace in London. So the need for such a site is imperative. Yet on leaving the site, I remained undecided as to whether the “farm” served more in connecting residents with one another, than with nature. While a friendly and welcoming place, the site, understandably, bore very little resemblance to a real farm. (One cow in particular was so fat I didn’t even recognise it as being bovine on first glance).

While gluing together a community is unarguably vital, as is the provision of greenspace –does a glorified petting zoo establish the ethereal value of nature in a child’s mind? Or are we kidding ourselves thinking a well-planned quarter acre can solve an issue as crucial as nature deficit disorder. More crucially, is our nearby “nature” actually worth cherishing?

With these thoughts in mind, we wondered south east, through Cannonbury and south Hackney to Hackney City Farm.

It was here that everything started to make more sense.

Now south Hackney may have many good qualities, in abundance, which I don’t know about. But it is undeniably, a little grim in appearance. In contrast, Hackney City Farm provides an oasis of potted plants and golden goats. The green trees of the park in which the farm sits were the first hint of photosynthesis we’d seen in a while, and the painted sign beckoned us towards a gate framed by children and straw. While peering in at a donkey, a small girl barged her way past my camera and squealed “oh-my-god-it’s-the-cutest-thing-I’ve-ever-seen-in-my-whole-entire-life”. Her friend wasn’t listening because she was engrossed watching a sow.

It was the clanging contrast between Hackney City Farm and its surroundings which made this farm precious. While Freightliners Farm obviously served a purpose to the local community, it was only in Hackney that the need for nature to be simply signposted, let alone explained in full, became so urgent. Realising this urgency gives city farms a relative victory in painting a picture erased by an urban upbringing.

The moral of the story is relativism. No, these city farms are not that great at providing an accurate account of rural and agricultural systems. But they may be able to stave off the onset of many young people’s disconnect with nature. Moreover, while they’re not the Peak District, they’re certainly a space; a space in the landscape to think and reflect. The value of experiencing the “great outdoors” is arguably the same.

In conclusion –  yes, I will cherish my nature – both near and far and yes, I will keep on trying to connect with the world, alongside mummies and bunnies alike.