Yes we can!


I know many people find the fact that their Google searches are converted into saleable data is both sinister and oppressive. However it’s not that clever, and occasionally I’m alerted to scientific papers and farming news that’s ten times as incriminating of the sources as it might be of interest to the the readers. Here’s me – a declared opponent of intensive agribusiness – suddenly shown a paper by Bayer, presumably on the strength of my previous searches, that expresses far better than I ever could the perilous course that the industry has set itself upon.  What follows is a direct quotation; the entire article is available on this link

“As a cover crop, the phacelia is doing its job – preventing leaching of nitrogen and soil erosion, but allowing the black-grass to flush through,” says farms manager Andy Blant.

“As a way of attracting wildlife, particularly bees, the phacelia is exceeding all our expectations,” says Mr Blant. “Planted at the end of April, by July it was in full flower.”

Phacelia requires little management. “We don’t let it flower for too long as it self-seeds,” explains Mr Blant. “We apply glyphosate whilst it is flowering so as not to kill the beneficial insects and bees then mow it down once it has senesced ready for early ploughing for the autumn. It can also be used as a green mulch throughout autumn, before ploughing in winter in preparation for early spring drilling.”

(My emphasis) The problem, Mr Blant, is that it’s becoming clear that while glyphosate doesn’t actually kill bees on contact, its much publicised harmlessness to animals rests on the fact that it kills plants by disrupting an enzyme that is crucial to the development of essential proteins, and which isn’t found in anything other than plants…… they say. But recent (2018) research cited in this Guardian article claims that the enzyme is destructive of bacteria found in bee gut biome and that although glyphosate doesn’t kill the bees directly they die as a result of infections caused by the gut disruption.

So this panglossian puff piece for Bayer actually says that they are deliberately growing a crop known to be attractive to bees  – not for the bees of course because they don’t actually want their phacelia plants to set seed – but as a green manure and cover crop – and then spraying it with a substance now known to be toxic to bees while promoting their product which is already under scrutiny for its persistence in the soil and its carcinogenic properties. If this isn’t an example of greenwashing I’d like to know what is!

I could go on in this vein with a dozen articles, but really I don’t need to. I think we’re increasingly ‘getting it’ when it comes to the global crises of runaway climate change and species extinction – or perhaps I should call it global species senescence to make it sound nicer. The opposing sides battle it out in a heavyweight punch up, freely making up statistics without providing any corroborating sources. Farmers v vegans makes fun copy.  I remember James Belsey, a great Bristol journalist who made ‘local’ a real and honourable territory, saying to me once – “you’ve got to remember that most journalists are bone idle.  If you want to get your project into the paper you need to write the copy yourself and hand it to them – they’ll print it!”  I was involved in setting up a charity at the time and so I did – and they did.

And now we’ve reached a genuine crisis on a number of fronts; obviously climate and ecology but also population, migration, famine and economics too. On television a few nights ago I saw a hydroponics project in Singapore – fabulous and much needed in a country that imports the vast majority of its food.  The person running this operation said – probably correctly – that the output was 15 times greater than the same area given over to conventional cultivation. That’s terrific but, me being a promiscuous reader,  I recalled some figures quoted by Ken Thompson in “The Sceptical Gardener” which were almost exactly the same for the humble allotment. What this means of course is that there’s always more than one way to skin a cat – or  peel a carrot if you prefer.

All too often the media portray the crisis we’re facing as a choice between two alternatives – universal veganism versus  universal factory farming; technological carbon capture or the end of private cars and general misery. Intensive agriculture or starvation. But the crisis can’t be reduced to a binary either-or choice. Any informed debate about our future path as a viable species needs good data, honesty about outcomes and a forensic approach to any ideas being promoted – not least by huge vested interests.

If it’s even possible that a part of the answer to the challenge of food production could be to provide many more allotmenteering opportunities around our towns and cities, the payback could well be far wider than just organic lettuces. Exercise and improved mental health are all a part of the overall allotment picture, not to mention less car-borne shopping trips and a vastly improved national diet. So yes to (not too many) industrial hydroponic farms, vertical farms with all their efficiencies locally situated to cut down on the carbon.  Yes even to processed industrial gloop – although I probably won’t be an early adopter.  We need to become ideological tarts – it’s a crisis – and there’s no time for anyone to pursue their narrow dream of purity. I’ve been reading Simon Fairlie’s brilliant book “Meat – a benign extravagance” and if you’ve got some time and a tenner you couldn’t do better than to read it as well.  It’s densely argued, full of statistics and examines a large number of alternative strategies for feeding ourselves without dogmatic attachment to any of them. The other book I’d recommend, not least because many of its ideas seem to be finding their way into post brexit subsidy legislation is Dieter Helm’s “Green and prosperous land”.

The root of the word ‘crisis’ comes from the Greek – to choose.  A crisis can be a healthy moment if it forces us to make fundamental choices about the way forward. But the way forward needs to include everyone. Solutions that throw small scale mixed farms under the technological train can only make things worse. In a crisis, no idea is unworthy of consideration – as I used to preach everyone gets their say but not everyone gets their way. In a crisis the unthinkable needs to be thought, but the destination can’t ever be simple – more profit, more growth or more technology, although some better technology would be a help. A government that can’t feed its people is unworthy to be called a government. Food banks and homelessness are two sorts of famine and both are cause not by the lack of food or the lack of housing but by deliberately allowing them to become unaffordable to poor people. We need clear data and open handed discussion about the alternatives and involving us – the real stakeholders – in the future not just the powerful vested interests.

Blow me – I feel quite excited about it!