guy’s newsletter: steam sterilisation – an ethical dilemma

I am reluctantly concluding in France, as we have done in Devon, that it would be wiser to get our neighbours to grow the crops we are less competent at. There are local organic farmers so skilled in growing baby leaf salad that they can charge a little over half our production costs, but we face an ethical dilemma. In order to control weeds to facilitate mechanical harvesting, their standard practice is to steam-sterilise the top 6cm of soil once a year; better than the now banned methyl bromide once used by conventional growers for the same purpose, but many would argue that, since caring for the soil is an integral part of organic farming, to indiscriminately kill the good micro-organisms as well as the pathogenic is an anathema. Yet what I find far more worrying is the 5000l/hectare of oil burned in the process, meaning that each kilo of salad produced has involved the burning of an astounding 1l of oil. This happens to be about the same amount as it takes to fly produce from Kenya.

As we have undertaken not to sell airfreighted produce on environmental grounds, should we sell salads produced using steam sterilisation, even if they carry the organic stamp? I am inclined to say no but it is a hard and commercially punitive decision when our competitors do. Of course humans did survive pre-the baby leaf salad bag, so perhaps we should only grow them when and where we can do a reasonable job without sterilisation, as we do in Devon. It is reassuring that the Soil Association standards go beyond those in Europe and do not allow steam sterilisation for weed control in the open field; an impressive bit of sanity. While we ponder all of this, we are experimenting with using mustard, grown as a green manure, as a weed suppressant.

Guy Watson

a chilli Christmas?
We’ve a huge crop of chillies this year and have just finished drying several tonnes of habanero, cayenne and scotch bonnet for you to hang from your tree (they look great). Come Twelfth Night follow our recipe to make chilli oil to enliven your cooking in the coming winter months, all for £3.80 for 20 chillies.

9 responses to “guy’s newsletter: steam sterilisation – an ethical dilemma

  1. I’m happy to wait most of the year for other items…especially if I’m growing them myself, I end up wanting to give up fresh tomatoes! why not add baby leaf salad to the mix. It makes it all the more special when I have spring greens in spring and corn salad and peas shoots two months later.

  2. I don’t think we need baby leaf salads – let’s have some proper, tasty, seasonal lettuce instead. Please don’t go against your principles – steer clear of the steam sterilising.

  3. that’s a dilemma Guy, don’t know the answer but did want to ask a question and not sure what category, so here goes! Do you keep pigs on the farm[s]? The reason I ask is now that I am turning veggie and am using fresh I create a lot of veggie waste i.e. peel! Don’t have a garden or allotment, used to get the pigman coming round when i was a kid, probably not allowed to feed them this now EU regs. etc. Any ideas?

  4. Dear Guy
    After sampling your beautiful lettuce in my salad bag a couple of weeks ago. All I can say is, who wants baby leaves when this tastes really good and lasts for over a week!
    Keep shining

  5. I am certainly with you in the NO side of the equation. Organic is not about nuking with pesticides, nor obliterating with hot steam. Where will the madness search for out of season produce end?

  6. I don’t know how it’s possible to square the circle, but I would not buy any salad that I knew had such a high environmental cost.

  7. With the wonderful variety of lettuce available to us in this country, do we need baby leaf salad? I don’t.

  8. From what you say Guy, steam sterilising would undermine Riverfords’ ethical values and could put R on thin ice for the sceptics among us in the future. Without wanting to be at all negative, I would say no and I won’t buy it! It’s great that you keep us up to date with this sort of ‘stuff’ and only right that we know what we are buying, Thank You. Best, Su.

  9. I think you should go with your inclination Guy. This is definitely a step in the wrong direction in my opinion.

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