Guy’s news: Too clever for organic?

I spent last week with my team in the French Vendée, attempting to learn from this year’s mistakes, plan crops for next year, and form some sort of plan to mitigate Brexit risk (29th March happens to be the date our first truck of lettuce will head north to Plymouth via Roscoff). After a wet and cold spring, we had a scorching five-month drought; the old gravel pit that fills with water every winter, which looked huge and unfathomable when I bought the farm, was down to the last few inches when the rain finally arrived last week. We have plans to build a new 50,000m3 reservoir, but €20,000 and four months later the authorities are still deliberating. It will be a miracle if we get enough dry weather to build it (followed by enough wet weather to fill it) before next season.

I am full of admiration for our French workers but, as in the UK, each year it is harder to find people who can ‘cut the mustard’ in the field. Like everywhere else, this is increasing the pressure to mechanise, specialise and simplify cropping to reduce hand work, and to look to Eastern Europe for staff more familiar with working on the land. I must restrain my restless urge to try new crops and new ways of growing them; we need to focus more on how to grow what we are best at, better and with less labour.

When I bought the farm, France’s fledgling organic market was about half the size of the UK’s. Ten years later it is four times the size, and growing at 18% per year. The trend is similar throughout Europe, and indeed most of the developed world, as the UK sinks from being a leader to a laggard. I would never claim that organic farming is the only or a complete solution to the challenges facing food and farming, but its benefits to the soil, wider environment, human health and animal welfare seem unquestioned elsewhere, while viewed with scepticism here. Perhaps it is that largely male, peculiarly British group who consider themselves independent thinkers, too clever to be taken in by the mysticism of it all; “What’s wrong with glyphosate in your bread, anyway?” Or perhaps, having been the first nation to industrialise and need to feed poorly paid urban populations, we are culturally more wedded to cheap food – and more estranged from its production.

Guy Singh-Watson

15 responses to “Guy’s news: Too clever for organic?

  1. “We have plans to build a new 50,000m3 reservoir, but €20,000 and four months later the authorities are still deliberating.” Welcome to France and French bureaucracy . That’s one reason for Brexit. The many levels of administration, the time it takes to get anything done etc. Any initiative slowly dies under the weight of it, but every official is paid handsomely for doing very little , very slowly.

    • Just think what you could do by NOT handing over £39 billion to the EU (for no return): Pay 26000 nurses for 40 years. need I say more…?

  2. One of the problems with the size of the organic market in the UK is purely economic. I spend at least £150 per week on food for a family of 4 adults – as much of it organic as I can source. I am one of the lucky people with a decent pension and no mortgage. But many (?most) people in the UK cannot possibly afford to do this – it’s often not their fault they have to buy cheap food, and that there are supermarkets that service that need.

    • Barbara I agree with you. Despite it frequently being claimed that the UK is a rich country, the majority of our people are no even comfortably off. There are so many expenses; mortgage or rent payments, escalating energy prices (especially electricity), internet, mobile contracts, water, Council Tax, TV Tax (i.e. licence fee), motoring costs, (train fares and/or bus fares for some), clothes. If there are children then a whole lot more is needed. Of course a spouse/partner may also be working, but then there may be eye watering childcare costs. The GBP exchange rate means family package holidays in Southern Europe may just about be afforded. That does not include ‘white goods’ computers etc, needed sometimes and interest on credit cards and loans.
      There are plenty of taxes too, so someone earning £34,000 p.a. will actually receive perhaps £25,000 p.a., depending on their circumstances, before paying any of the above expenses.
      Real organic food, such as Riverford sells, is expensive compared to what most people buy in supermarkets. Aldi, Iceland etc, in particular always look very busy and Aldi open for long hours.
      Yes Barbara we normally buy form Riverford every week because we can, but most people do not, because they can feed themselves and their families more cheaply and are on very tight budgets.

  3. UK shoppers are obsessed with supermarket bargains and are still not aware that most foods have glyphosate in them. EWG recently tested for it in breakfast cereals and found it in higher levels than some of the added vitamins. I think maybe organic needs a new name to re market it. Maybe ‘natural food’ would be better. Organic has a lot of old connotations with hippies and worthy lentil eaters.

  4. Organic is called ‘BIO’ in France

  5. Sadly, most people couldn’t care less what they stuff into their bodies and do not see a link between nutrition and health/illness. I certainly don’t think it’s a matter of affordability, they are just oblivious to the needs of their own bodies.

    The sooner this Brexit nonsense is over the better. We got along perfectly well before we entered the thing and we’ll do just fine once we are out of it. Completely out of it with no back door back-sliding.

    • Agree. As an example one of my children lived on toast and noodles at uni in order to go out drinking and buy shoes! She had constant coughs and colds and lots of spots. Thankfully that has now all changed!

      • Hello Sandra,
        I am a bit perplexed about your statement “The sooner this Brexit nonsense is over the better. We got along perfectly well before we entered the thing and we’ll do just fine once we are out of it. Completely out of it with no back door back-sliding.”

        I guess the above statement was related to the previous paragraph about nutrition and health/illness? We are Swiss and run a permaculture farm in France. You know, French people are very careful about nutrition and food. I don’t think you can blame Europe (or the French) for the fact that British people tend to eat badly.

        It chagrins me so much when I read such unfortunate statements around Brexit. Why can’t we just rub along and leave our prejudices at home?

    • Hello Louise,
      I am a bit perplexed about your statement “The sooner this Brexit nonsense is over the better. We got along perfectly well before we entered the thing and we’ll do just fine once we are out of it. Completely out of it with no back door back-sliding.”

      I guess the above statement was related to the previous paragraph about nutrition and health/illness? We are Swiss and run a permaculture farm in France. You know, French people are very careful about nutrition and food. I don’t think you can blame Europe (or the French) for the fact that British people tend to eat badly.

      It chagrins me so much when I read such unfortunate statements around Brexit. Why can’t we just rub along and leave our prejudices at home?

      • @Doris being in the EU brings a lot more issues that “just rubbing along”. Its about the right for your own country to make its own rules and that was was a big reason for the vote to leave. Also the money we’ve pumped into it and the massive influx of foreigners into this country.
        I dont see how its prejudice to want to leave the EU and I think that’s just a silly statement.
        There are frequently posts on here about Brexit and my comment was in response to the mention of it yet again.

        • It is never questioned: “Why does there have to be any “deal” at all anyway? Can we not just trade with each other on the basis that if one supplier has what another customer would like to buy? The correct price is paid. Of course not – it is all about the control of goods and services by the dark forces of power in this world. Not least the Junckers…
          New housing developments in Mevagissey, for instance, are not being built for agri-workers or badly paid locals. Those second homes are “investments” by those townies who should be investing directly in sustainable food and helping our own farmers to produce quality organic food and pay the proper price for it all.
          Whether it is cheap Soya destroying our forests, or 24 hour slaughtering of livestock by the lorry load – STOP MOANING everyone and pay the proper price to the smaller, more caring farmers and producers. Kick out the fat cat controllers.

          • “STOP MOANING everyone and pay the proper price to the smaller, more caring farmers and producers. Kick out the fat cat controllers.”

            So true Andrew. There is a lot of patient but continuing education of the consumer in store for us (in Europe and dare I say world-wide). Never give up on education! It will take time, but I do see a slight shift with (some) consumers. It usually starts with “early adopters”. In Switzerland/France there is a film made called “Demain”. It poses all the right questions and has had a huge impact.
            Change management has always been one of the biggest challenges: take the example of the women’s vote. How many brave women had to go to jail before society finally accepted it as normal?

          • Totally agree Andrew Meek.
            We got along quite nicely before we went into the EU when there was such a thing as freedom. And we’ll get along quite nicely afterwards too. That is is they ever truly cut the strings.

            If organic veg which is grown in a way that protects the Earth costs more then that’s just how it is. And if, for the moment, that means that some people cant afford it then that’s also just the way it is. I cant afford a new car, holiday or private jet but I’m not bleating.

  6. ‘Perhaps it is that largely male, peculiarly British group who consider themselves independent thinkers, too clever to be taken in by the mysticism of it all; “What’s wrong with glyphosate in your bread, anyway?”’
    Spot on Guy. I guarantee that whenever one of the above is involved in any sort of discussion about climate change, organic food, animal welfare, recycling (in fact anything that they obviously regard as dangerous lefty talk) they will come out with the usual utterly predictable answers. The most common one, and the one that makes me want to punch them the most, though, is “I’m a meat and two veg man myself”.

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