Yes we can!

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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!

 

Farewell Mynydd Rhiw

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First off, why do I use the difficult Welsh names for places? Because that’s what they’re called and everybody speaks Welsh up here. Secondly, Welsh is a completely phonetic language as I learned many years ago trying to catch buses up and down the South Wales valleys running writers groups. Learning the basics of pronunciation made catching buses easier and me seem less of an amusing floor show! So how do you pronounce Mynydd Rhiw? Try Munith (with the u as in pun rather than mule) and then rheeoo – like the sound of a buzzard but lower. so

Couldn’t resist a last stroll up Mynydd Rhiw for this year.  It’s been such a beautiful spell of warm weather and the flowering gorse and heather had brought out a few late butterflies not to mention all the other insects.  As we left the road we watched a kestrel hovering over the fields below us.  For many years I’d only ever seen kestrel from a distance or from below, sillhouetted aganst the sky. The key identifying feature came to be its unique fluttering style of hovering – head down, maybe thirty feet above its prey. Then in Cornwall last year we saw one very close up on a cliff path and saw for the first time its stunning chestnut colour – so surprising that I had to go and double check that it was, in fact, a kestrel and not some other bird of prey. Today we were able to watch for some minutes from above and again, in the bright sunshine, the chestnut colour glowed once more. The kestrel never looked more beautiful than it did today. As for buzzards, they’ve become so common these days that seeing three flying together on the other side of the hill seemed unexceptional.

With the hills taking on their autumn colours, we looked across and could see Snowdon more clearly than we’ve ever seen it before.  The last time we were here in April it was still capped with snow but today the great rills below the summit ridge stood out in the hard light. My camera, missing a UV filter hardly managed to capture the scene, but I suspect this would have been one of the rare days when, from the summit, you could see both Cardigan Bay and the Irish Sea._1080865

As befits this day of protest about climate change, we could see an oil platform out at sea and as we arrived at the trig point we found one of those enormous pickup trucks at the top with its occupants and their dog eating a picnic and taking in the view, having presumably driven up the access track to the radar and communications mast. It’s full of paradox, this place, with the peace regularly shattered by military jets flying low overhead. RS Thomas, who fought so hard with the Keating sisters, against nuclear power stations and the industrial development of campsites on the coast, lived just below here and I can just imagine that he – as an inveterate walker and birdwatcher – must have shaken his fist at more than a few of them.

I imagine too that local beekeepers must take advantage of the heather to produce its distinctive honey – so thick and gel-like that it’s almost impossible to extract in a spinner, but makes superb comb honey: however we saw no hives today on our walk.

Several of the local farms have bought into government schemes that subsidise environmental outcomes rather than being paid by acreage or subsidised crops. This scheme is scheduled in Wales to replace all farm subsidies in a couple of years but in these uncertain times it’s not clear what’s going to happen.  Instinctively I’ve always felt most sympathy for the small farmers, and there’s no doubt that many of them will go out of business without subsidies.  But the real subsidy junkies are on the other side of the country.  The system is so rigged that the biggest and wealthiest landowners collect the vast majority of the cash, but if you’ve read Isabella Tree’s book “Wilding: the return of nature to a British farm” you’ll know that intensive extractive agriculture can hardly survive with subsidy let alone without it. Dieter Helm’s book “Green and prosperous Land” explores the unintended consequences of subsidy for the environment and is well worth a read.

But too much reflection can turn a walk into a lament and today, ‘though it may well be the last but one day before the tail end of an expired hurricane rattles through, is all the more beautiful for its fugitive nature. Autumn has its own rewards and I can’t wait to get back to the allotment to carry on with some winter projects.

On our way down the track I stopped to photograph this Soft Puffball – Lycoperdon umbrinium. There were three or four lying on the ground having been uprooted or kicked aside by some mycophobic walker – I had to type that last word twice, Freudian slip!

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So big you can’t see it

1080827Sometimes the hardest things to spot are invisible because they’re everywhere.  Like the air we breathe, or as the sea appears to a fish, the all encompassing embrace of the big ideas have insinuated themselves into our inner and outer landscapes and become the framework itself. We know this is the case  but it takes a film like The Matrix to spell it out. Today’s Guardian publishes a report on farm subsidies that makes scary reading in the precarious real world we inhabit. $1 million dollars a minute to pay farmers to do the wrong thing is such a preposterous idea that you might wonder whether it could possibly be true, but the reason it slips past us is because we never stand in a bank watching a man in a green overall withdrawing millions in cash.

The best place to see the madness of subsidy is locally – we’re in Lleyn, for instance, and we’re staying right next door to a typical small mixed farm.  There are a few cattle and sheep, the adjoining field has a mixture of tups, and some Jacobs sheep graze the clifftops.  There are all the usual features of the small farm here, hens, a couple of noisy ducks and some mangy looking cats eyeing us up. As we arrived here the farmer, whose knees are shot from handling sheep, was moving multiple trailer loads of nitrate fertiliser on to the farm. I reckon about 30 tons of the stuff passed by us. He’s not rich for sure, and he’s struggling to keep going in a market that’s rigged against him; impoverishing his own land in order to stay in the game. Ironically we saw him yesterday carrying a heavy bag of seaweed up from the shore, over his shoulder. He knows what he needs to do but he can’t do it.

A mile away we found another dairy farm while we were out searching for a source of freshly caught fish. You’d hardly know it was a dairy farm, it looked more like an industrial estate with its huge barns, silos and tanks.  Everywhere there were warning signs that this was a bio-secure area and we were not welcome.  Little bucolic charm there, then, but another sign of a broken farm economy.

The government last week announced a huge extension of the badger cull.  With tuberculosis becoming endemic in dairy herds, the cost of compensating farmers is enormous and yet almost all the scientific evidence suggests that badgers are not the main source of the disease.  TB is a disease that spreads most quickly in highly stressed environments – such as when you force cows to produce far more milk than they are properly capable of. The principal feed crop grown on intensive dairy farms is maize, which is deficient as food without supplementation – rather like living on Big Macs! Badgers absolutely love eating maize and so the farmers are the most likely cause of the explosion in the badger population by providing thousands of acres of their favourite food.  Add to that the constant movement of cattle around the country and it doesn’t need a degree in agriculture to see that the problem is probably another example of agricultural self-harm.

And yet, I read an intriguing article in the same newspaper last week that reported how many industries are quietly greening their approach because it makes more economic sense.  Ironically they’re not publicising this because public perception is that ‘doing the right thing’ results in more cost and less quality in the product.  Some Portuguese wine producers have gone organic without announcing the fact, because they get bigger yields and better quality and they can sell at the same price.

The only way to tackle this desperately urgent challenge is to take on the stakeholders, the industrial farm corporations, the supermarkets, the manufacturers of damaging fertilizers and lethal farm chemicals, but most challenging of all, ourselves. I remember one tired old management cliché that might fit here – culture eats strategy for breakfast. The answer always comes back “we’re only giving the public what it wants!” and it’s true. The situation won’t really change until we see through the ideological fog that sustains intensive, destructive, subsidised farming and demand something better.