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!

 

How to survive the storm

00000portrait_00000_burst202002061251069241773228647307606034.jpgI get all sorts of odd news stories chosen for me by the Google algorithm, alongside invitations to join dating sites. I always pass on the ‘looking for love’ ones because I made it a rule of life never to inflame an appetite I’m not in a position to gratify.  It probably sounds glum but it’s kept me out of all sorts of trouble. 

The news selections that most often catch my eye are the ones that involve farming. I suppose the all-seeing-eye has noticed my occasional forays into the trade press – as I try to find out what farmers think.  Having spent 25 years working in rural parishes I think I know that they’re feeling very put-upon, depressed and aggrieved at they way they’re being treated. Yesterday there was a report on a farming conference in Tipperary where a speaker (a professor of public health) claimed that Irish farmers were not being given due credit for the amount of carbon being stored in hedges.  Hedges, he claimed, are more effective carbon sinks than trees. 

The farmers, unsurprisingly fell on this tasty morsel of good news with glee.  “Look”, they said, “you can hardly move for hedges on our farms, we’re saving the earth already – go and blame someone else”.  It didn’t take long before another speaker popped the bubble and pointed out that farmers are in any case still grubbing out hedges by the mile, and that there is no evidence – scientific evidence that is – that has established whether hedges do or don’t store more carbon. The audience promptly turned a bit sour on him and told him they’d had enough of experts and so they’d continue to believe that this is the best of all possible worlds.  

Hedges are a brilliant idea for all sorts of reasons – not least for wildlife – so I’m all in favour of them, but there’s really no way out of this crisis that will allow farming to carry on exactly as it has done since the last war. 

So I was reading this story and – for no obvious reason – Elizabeth Kubler Ross popped into my mind. I was once a devoted fan of Kubler Ross – to be honest, anything that offers any real help in dealing with the awful pain of bereavement feels worth a try when you’re working with grieving people.  My problem with it was that real people didn’t seem to progress through the stages in quite the orderly way the original training suggested. All my experience (I wasn’t alone by the way) suggested that the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance certainly all certainly happened during the process but had to be treated more as modes of grieving that could occur singly or simultaneously, and which could be returned to in any order, sometimes many times. There was rarely a lasting moment of acceptance first time around; for most people grief came in waves and flashbacks, and healing was slow and painful.

What’s this got to do with a farming conference in Tipperary? Well, I think that farmers are suffering from real grief. Yes I know that environmental protestors are suffering from grief as well, but grieving isn’t helped by favouring one groups’ suffering over another. Farmers across the UK have been feted for decades for producing cheaper and more plentiful food and now they find themselves treated as villains.  They’ve done exactly what was asked of them, sometimes against their better instincts. There’s only been one show in town, and that was intensive, chemically driven, labour reduced farming. Many thousands have gone to the wall but some have become wealthy on subsidies. Then suddenly it’s all over. The climate crisis is everywhere in the news, the farmers are being blamed although they’re only one part of the problem and with the changes in the subsidy system many marginal farms may collapse. A whole way of life is dying in front of us and all too often we environmentalists harden our hearts and instead of offering a hand of friendship we shout that the means are justified by the end, and imply that they deserve nothing better. 

Which takes me on to the protesters who are also grieving for a dying world and in consequence are also displaying symptoms of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance- and again, although not in that tidy order. 

I always found that Kubler Ross was most useful when I was able to say to people that all five stages were normal. What most people expect when they’re grieving is that they will be depressed – maybe for a long time – but that gradually things will get better. What they don’t expect is that one minute they’ll swear they misheard and actually the doctor said there was nothing to worry about, and in the next minute be angry and then paralysed with depression for days, or promise faithfully that they’ll give up smoking or whatever – this is all normal grieving behaviour.

img_20200206_130312272523812806147141.jpgSo appealing to the science, to the evidence, is logical but not necessarily sufficient to change things for the better. Presenting farmers with the evidence that their methods are damaging and expecting them to say “very well, I take your point and I’ll stop today” is way short of a viable solution. We must realize that many farmers are facing more than just the loss of income but also the complete loss of culture, the reversal of a lifetime’s history and memories not to mention hopes for the future. We were in Mevagissey yesterday and exactly the same crisis faces the fishermen in Cornwall – not simply the loss of their jobs but the death of their culture – it’s real grief, not stick-in-the-mud nimbyism. 

Which brings me to another two factors.  Firstly, for decades we’ve allowed the market to decide.  We’ve worshipped the market, made it the sole arbiter of worth and now we’re paying the price of our idolatry – because by definition the market has no morals; the market doesn’t care what happens to farmers and fishermen, and it doesn’t care about the environmental crisis or environmentalists either – unless they eat into corporate profits. Secondly farmers and fishermen sell food just like oil companies sell oil, so consumers have to accept some of the blame for continuing to spend dangerously in spite of all the evidence. 

And so playing the blame game when there’s so much grief about is heartless, selfish and pointless. Farmers and fishermen can only change the way they work if we consumers – not just a few token ones – all change the way we live, the way we eat and the way we get about. We all have a vested interest in working together towards that end. Shoving the blame on to one group is just another symptom of arrested grieving.  We can do so much better than this, but only if we realize that there is only one habitat for all life on earth.  Farmers, fishermen, environmental campaigners and  consumers alike.  Everybody gets their say but no everybody gets their way. 

But I’ve left out what should be the most important participant in the whole process, and that’s the earth itself.  The earth doesn’t speak human, and as Wittgenstein once said – “if a lion could speak we wouldn’t be able to understand it”  but that doesn’t mean the earth can’t have a voice because although the earth may not speak in our rather simple way of understanding language, the earth is expressive to a degree that leaves our puny languages far behind. The understanding of what the earth is saying doesn’t just concern scientists, although it is scientific research that uncovered the problem and was also the cause of the problem. What the earth expresses is the concern of artists, writers and poets and ancient cultures that have mastered some of the earth’s languages, and some aspects of the most ancient spiritualities that have evolved in conversation with it (her?). But the earth does have one very direct way of speaking to us, and that is in the consequences of our actions. Perhaps it’s time for humans to take a back seat for a while and listen while the earth shows us what must be done. And of course it will be radical.

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Dawn over Mevagissey bay

 

After the celebrations, back to the vines

IMG_4742It’s been a week of celebrations at the Potwell Inn with a fortieth and a ninetieth birhday and a lot of catching up with old friends. Our oldest son’s fortieth has spread itself over two weekends of reciprocal trips between Birmingham, Bristol and Bath with a good deal of modestly riotous fun. The ninetieth birthday belonged to an old friend and parishioner whose anniversaries and birthdays along with those of her ninety one year old husband are celebrated by friends and family from all over the world at gatherings that are filled with what can only be described as grace. When I said in a recent posting that we inherit more than genes from our grandparents, I can think of no more powerful instance of it in these gatherings of brothers, sisters, nephew nieces and a multitude of cousins and so many friends brought together by love and affection and generosity. We came away from it with a couple of brace of pheasants and a frozen partridge (another ethical dilmma to ponder) given to us by a friend who carries on alone on her small farm. We drove back with the setting sun in our faces and it was truly glorious, and then we turned towards the East and there was a three quarter moon to light the last miles home.

And so Monday began with a bit of game preparation and the meat is now in the freezer until it’s incorporated into a Christmas terrine.  Later we went up to the allotment and while Madame weeded and cleared away the dead leaves among the cabbages, I made a start on restoring the posts and wires supporting one of the two grape vines. When we took the plot on it had been neglected for years and I’ve replaced a couple of posts piecemeal, but it’s time it’s replaced in its entirety especially after such a generous crop this last season. So after a good deal of pondering and measuring I set the first, and largest post and drove it two feet into the ground with a huge rammer, that weighs about 20 kilos. Tiring work, followed by four more subsidiary posts that took me almost until it was dark.  Then we packed up and carried two of the newly planted spring window boxes up to the car.

It was another superb sunset, and just as we were leaving I spotted another fox about twenty feet away regarding us coolly.  He was a big , thickset dog fox with the same white tip to his tail as the younger one we saw on our plot recently.  But here was an older, wiser animal who stood his ground with no fear of us at all. We see their leavings all over the site and it’s clear by the darker colour that these animals are living largely on what they can find around the allotments rather than going off into town after discarded human food. At this time of the year there’s a preponderance of berries, but it looks as if they’re finding plenty of small mammals.  The chickens on the site are all well protected by high fences buried into the ground. Leave a door open or any vulnerablity in the defences for even one night and the foxes will take the lot.  We’ve seen the results when well -meaning beginners forget that basic fact, and over the years we’ve lost enough birds to wonder if we were running a takeaway service!

So an ‘everyday’ day and a celebration of the ordinary that even the news of our continued descent into political and economic chaos couldn’t quite dent.

Ever seen a cow smile?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI think these must be the happiest cows I’ve ever seen.  I took the photo in May 2010 when I walked 200 miles of the Camino between Le Puy en Velay and Cahors with my son Andrew. Purely by chance we were crossing the Aubrac hills just as the transhumance was going on.  Cattle were being walked back up to the high pastures with real ceremony and all the surounding villages were decked out for a party that seemed to go on for days.  This was “La France profonde” and we were pitching our tiny tent wherever we could because we couldn’t afford even the hostels. But these cattle had just arrived and they were so happy I swear they were smiling. We were too. The local cheese was wonderful and made a change from our terrible diet – we had no means of cooking with us and so we plumbed the depths of cold cassoulet eaten straight out of the tin. Most character forming.

They came to mind today when the (British) government released yet another report on bovine TB suggesting that lax bio-security, inadequate fencing, poor diagnostic tests and excessive movement of cattle between farms was at least as responsible for the spread of the disease as the badger which has taken most of the blame so far. The debate – if you can call it that – has become very polarized between the advocates of culling and those who put the welfare of the badgers at the forefront.

You can’t blame the farmers for wanting to do something about this hideously expensive disease, but they’re between a rock and a hard place. The consumers, the supermarkets and the government have pursued a ruthless policy of “cheap food at any price” and now we see the results. We have an ecological crisis in which we’re losing species at an unprecedented rate.  We have a crisis of obesity caused by junk food.  We have an environmental crisis which is being stoked by our overconsumption of meat. Farmers are stuck in the middle, with pretty well everyone blaming them, rather than the rest of us who made it happen.

Badgers love maize. For us at the Potwell Inn, that means they love our sweetcorn. Every year they drop in once a day during July and August to check how ripe it is and then they calculate when we’re likely to pick it and eat the lot the night before. This season we saved half of ours by netting it, but the badgers had the rest. So that’s why I feel competent to discuss this issue at all. I’ve lived and worked in farming areas for decades and I can see the problem from both sides.  TB isn’t just ’caused’ by a bacteria. We’re surrounded by bacteria and without them life on earth would cease, but the bacteria become a problem when they invade a host that’s stressed and unable to fight them off; and cattle on many farms are really stressed. Intensive farming on the scale we’re seeing it now, produces highly stressed animals that are vulnerable to all manner of diseases including TB. Bio-security is a hopeless attempt to carry on the way we are by locking the stressed animals in sterile prisons. We get the same problem on the allotment.  Plants that are stressed by drought, heat or over/under feeding are the first ones to get attacked by diseases and predators.

One of the contributory factors in this mess is almost certainly the increase in fodder maize.  It’s a very high value food but it’s not the same as grass – especially the old kind of pasture in which ‘weeds’ add to the value rather than having to give supplements.  Badgers love fodder maize and wherever it’s grown the badger populations seem to rise. Isn’t it just posible that the link between badgers and TB isn’t a causal link at all but nothing more than an association.

So if I were a farmer I’d be screaming at the government – “Well want do you want us to do, then?!!” Culling badgers – forgive the pun – isn’t a magic bullet. Vaccination could help, and it would be cheaper and less impacting on an ancient species, but if the underlying engine driving this is government/public encouraged overproduction, then by moving towards a more sustainable regime farmers could make a contribution to ecology, environment change and the national diet all at once. But they do need to make a living.

IMG_0112So back then to Aubrac and those wonderful smiling cows. We didn’t see any rich farmers on the whole walk, but we saw a lot of farms and villages doing their best to preserve a way of life that hasn’t changed in centuries. and so it seems we can have happy cattle and wonderful cheeses, and we can have wonderful meadows too, decked in spring with every kind of orchid and alive with insects.  But if we get rid of the farmers we won’t have any of those things, and if we want them badly enough the change we shall have to embrace will be to live more simply. If we really insist on eating Big Macs and smoked ribs every day for next to nothing, then we can’t expect to have anything except a degraded environment and a legacy of debt to the land that our grandchildren will have to pay.