Category Archives: News

Monbiot-backed group takes direct action to highlight climate emergency

Environment journalist and activist George Monbiot addressed the new Extinction Rebellion group in London. Photo credit Michael Kay

A new direct action group demanding action on climate change is currently obstructing access to key government buildings as part of a week of non-violent uprising.

Extinction Rebellion, which is backed by prominent environment journalist George Monbiot, is protesting against what it calls the government’s “criminal inaction” on the climate emergency and ecological crisis.

Seven people have been arrested so far for being glued to the fence outside Downing Street, while another team are blocking vehicle access. Activists have also dropped banners from Westminster bridge.

The week is due to culminate this Saturday (17 November), dubbed Rebellion Day, when the group will block five bridges across the capital.

The group wants the government to reverse all policies inconsistent with addressing climate change; introduce legally binding targets to greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2025; and create a citizen’s assembly to oversee these changes.

Those joining the action and who said they are prepared to be arrested include labour councillor Skeena Rathor and her daughter, who said: “We believe in miracles and human genius but the reality is we are on the threshold of social and climate collapse. We are about to lose all our present freedoms and so we offer ourselves for arrest with hope and courage in our hearts – to ask for leadership and truth – for our children.”

The group is encouraging people to rebel against the government’s inaction on climate

Another protester, Joseph Mishan, a father and healthcare professional, said he joined the group after seeing the recent IPCC report, which warned the temperature rises must be limited to 1.5 degrees if climate collapse is to be averted.

He said: “I am putting myself forward for arrest because I was shocked by the IPPC report and the silence that followed. It was like being given a terminal diagnosis but without a treatment plan. I wondered if I was the only person who heard it. Or if I had dreamt it.”

The Extinction Rebellion action began this week with a march address by Monbiot and other activists, and occupation of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

Speaking on a podcast episode by news outlet Novara Media, Monbiot said radical action such as that taken by Extinction Rebellion could help other members of public, as well as politicians, wake up to the severity of climate breakdown, and inspire a more wide-ranging and effective response.

‘Circularity is the new sustainability’

A growing interest in the entire farm-to-bin journey of a product including how it is recycled is leading to a new era of ‘holistic’ sustainability, according to a new report.

The definition of what people understand by sustainability is expanding, according to leading consumer research company Mintel, noting that “circularity is the new sustainability”.

“The definition of sustainability is extending to encompass the entire product lifecycle. From farm to retailer to fork to bin and, ideally, to rebirth as a new plant, ingredient, product or package, this 360-degree approach will ensure resources are kept in use for as long as possible,” the company said.

A “seismic shift” in how people think about plastic is already underway, Mintel said, and from 2019 onwards the focus will increasingly turn towards access to recycling, incentivising people to recycle and offering more ‘upcycled’ products.

There will also be a move to a more “holistic” approach to sustainability with key aspects that will become more important to people including restoring soil health, embracing regenerative agriculture and improving air pollution, as well as waste.

“In 2019, demand for more corporate sustainability programmes will grow as consumers better understand what’s required to get closer to achieving a truly circular food and drink economy,” said Mintel’s associate director for food and drink, Jenny Zegler. “These sustainability efforts will include not only improving access to recycling, but creating products with ingredients that are grown in accordance to regenerative agriculture practices.”

As well as the interest in circularity, Mintel identified two other trends that will shape the future of food innovation as the impact of food on wellness and healthy ageing, and ‘elevated convenience’ that could see meal kits and recipe boxes with restaurant-quality meals expand into other meals during the day, such as breakfast.

Small farmers feed the world

Small-scale farmers produce over 70 per cent of the world’s food on a quarter of the world’s farmland. That was one of the central messages of the We Feed the World exhibition, a pioneering global photography initiative that celebrated the diversity and expertise in small farming communities around the world.

Organic revolution feeds Cuba’s capital

Can you feed an entire city through organic urban farms? Yes, if necessity calls, and that’s exactly what happened in Havana, capital of Cuba. Overnight, the city was faced with the challenge of growing enough food to feed itself after imports were banned following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent US sanctions. But it wasn’t just food that was banned, agrochemicals and fertilisers, as well as oil, were also on the list, meaning Cuba’s new food system had to be primarily organic. Urban farms called ‘organaponicos’ appeared across the city and offered training and jobs to those who were now out of work. One of the largest, Vivero Alamar, was set up in 1997 and now harvests 300 tonnes of vegetables, including lettuces, herbs, beans, tomatoes, mangoes, bananas and guavas, produced using agroecological methods. Most of this is eaten within the Alamar district, an area that previously had no fresh produce. Among its 150 workers are former sailor Jose Manuel, Fradel Martinez, an ex-tobacco worker, Juan Portal, worked in the petrol industry, and Juan Ramon, who used to be a fisherman. Today, almost 90 per cent of Havana, a city of two million people, is fed on organic food produced by 4,000 or so organoponicos within the city limits.

Michel Pou is a Cuban photographer from Havana.

Sourdough links mountain communities in Asia and Europe

Bhutan and Austria may not be the obvious countries to forge a connection but a pioneering partnership between an artisan sourdough baker and an organic farming community has done exactly that. Roswitha Huber makes her own sourdough bread from alpine rye, grown by her husband and his family, high up in the Austrian alps where it has a long tradition, and is passionate about passing on her skills. “I am convinced that for the self-confidence of a child, it is essential they have the feeling I can feed myself,” she says. News of Roswitha’s ‘school in the mountains’ spread as far as Asia, and it has now become part of a far-reaching exchange programme with Bhutanese farmers. Despite living seven thousand miles away, these farmers work on similarly small-scale farms in a similar mountain landscape. Tshering Wangmo wanted to learn how she could make use of buckwheat for bread baking, but after spending two weeks with Roswitha she learnt many other skills relevant for a profitable small-scale mountain farm, such as milk processing to make cottage cheese, herb cultivation and jam making.

Zalmaï works as a freelance photographer and has been published in the New York Times Magazine, Time Magazine, The New Yorker Magazine and Harper’s Magazine.

Tackling climate change one grain of rice at a time

Climate change and food security can seem overwhelming, but for one man in India they have become his life’s work. On a small farm in the eastern state of Odisha, Dr Debal Deb is singlehandedly preserving some of the most resilient rice varieties in the world, a process he sees as vital to the future of food and farming in an increasingly unstable climate. Incredibly, he receives no financial support and stands alone in trying to protect India’s genetic diversity in rice. It is estimated that the country has lost up to 110,000 local varieties since farmers started using commercial hybrid varieties, sold by seed companies with promises of higher yields and disease resistance. To date, Debal has cultivated 1,420 rice varieties on just two acres of forested land, some of which have the ability to grow for months under 12 feet of water, whilst others can tolerate high salinity. He says: “After 60 years and billions spent on gene mining, the GM industry still doesn’t have a single variety which can withstand a drought or seasonal flood or sea water incursion. But all of these characteristics are available in many of our farmers’ varieties.”

Jason Taylor is a photographer and filmmaker who met and became friends with Debal while he was living in India.

Haymaking preserves ecosystem and family traditions

The Borca family’s 40 haystacks high up in the Carpathian Mountains of northern Romania will feed their animals during the hard winter months to come, but that is not their only benefit. The ancient haymaking ritual, which is celebrated as an annual event that brings the whole family together, also preserves a rich ecosystem with more than 50 species of flowers and grass attracting huge numbers of pollinators. It’s a little-known fact that Romania has the highest levels of self-sufficiency in Europe, and its millions of small-scale farms are some of the last remaining areas practising traditional agriculture in the continent. Over 60 per cent of the countries’ milk is produced by families with just two or three cows and used by local people within the same village. But this traditional way of life is under threat as multinational corporations, agribusiness groups and banks see it as a good investment. Small farmers in Romania face having their homes, culture and livelihoods taken away as common land is sold off to foreign companies, left with the option of becoming landless labourers for big agribusiness companies. It is estimated that already around one million hectares (ten per cent of Romanian farmland) is controlled by foreign capital. Anuța Borca sums up the close connection that her family feels to their land: “It is our land. We have to take care of it. We have to teach the children the traditions,” she says. “It’s important because the tradition is a treasure. If they learn it, they will be richer.”

Rena Effendi is a social documentary photographer, whose early work focused on people’s lives in Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey. She has worked with the National Geographic, The New Yorker, Marie Claire and more.

Beating the cold with bitter leaves

Bitter leaves offer a welcome break from winter veg

Colder temperatures might get you reaching for the soups, stews and roast dinners, but sometimes you need a fresh taste alongside all that veg. Step forward winter salad, and more specifically, the bitter leaves such as dandelion, mustard, rocket and cress, whose peppery flavours warm you up in a very different way.

Farm manager Ed Scott is a veteran salad grower and polytunnel expert

Walking through the polytunnels, farm manager Ed Scott says even he was initially sceptical about growing salad in winter. “Everyone gets a lot of winter veg at this time of year, and actually a bag of salad once a month is really nice,” he says, crouching by the neat rows of dandelion leaves inside one of the big arched tunnels. The dandelion variety in question, Italiko, is different to the one found in most gardens, although they are also edible, as it grows vertically making it easier to pick and leaves are cleaner as this variety grows away from the soil.

The winter salad leaves are known as ‘cut and come again’, explains Scott, as they will be harvested around every four weeks, depending on the leaf, from November until March or April. A side-effect of this technique is that the more peppery leaves, such as cress or mustard, tend to get spicier on every pick – believed to be an evolutionary trait as the plant tries harder to deter predators.

“You can also cook with these types of leaves, every now and then we might leave the dandelions to grow a bit longer and put out a recipe to cook with them, or you can do things like a risotto with rocket,” Scott continues, walking through the rows of tunnels which in summer are bursting with the heady smell of tomatoes, chillies and basil, and tropical-looking vines of cucumbers.

Under a cosy-looking layer of fleece are the green shoots of baby ruby chard, covered in the early stages to encourage it to grow. Then there’s the bright green frilly mustard leaves with their distinctive taste, and land cress, a cousin of water cress but grown in soil so it is safe from any risk of water-borne bacteria that water cress growers have to be so careful about.

Salanova is a red variety of Butterhead lettuce

And it’s not just bitter leaves that are selected for winter cropping – Butterhead lettuces are also a popular choice, explains Scott, holding up a beautiful dark red variety called Salanova, with its bi-coloured leaves bright green at the base and dark red at the head.

“They have a longer shelf-life and thick velvety leaves that are more cold resistant than something like a Cos lettuce, which is more watery so it doesn’t do too well in the frost because all the cells freeze and then burst,” he says.

Cut by hand, the bitter leaves and winter lettuces are harvested by teams of pickers through the day before being whisked off to the packhouse at Riverford HQ, less than a mile away. When it comes to food miles, there’s certainly nothing bitter in these tunnels, and as Scott says: “Every bag of salad we can produce here is one less lettuce that we have to import from Spain.”

How much meat?

We’ve known for a long time that many of us eat more meat than is good for us and the planet, but the recent IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report has emphasised the urgency to collectively change our diet before it is too late.

At Riverford, we’ve always made vegetables the star of the dish, with a little bit of good (organic) meat as a treat; less and better is our guide. But when scientists claim this warning is the ‘final call to save the world’, it prompts us to question: should we all turn vegetarian or vegan? Unfortunately, the answer isn’t straightforward.

Pigs, poultry and intensively-produced (grain fed) cows compete with the world’s poor for grain produced on fertile arable land. In turn this increases the pressure for deforestation and intensification of production on existing land.

For forage-eating ruminants (grass-fed cows, sheep, goats) the argument is much more complex for several reasons:

They can graze on land that is unsuitable for growing crops for human consumption; as such it could be argued that they produce some food where there would have been none. With a growing population to feed, this is important to consider.

By eating grass and clover they are an important part of a balanced rotation, allowing fertility to be maintained without using energy-consuming fertilizers. On our land it would be very difficult to farm organically without growing forage legumes and using the manure from the livestock that eat them.

Ruminants belch and fart, releasing large quantities of methane (about 20%) of the world total. As methane is 21 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide it has been argued that ruminants contribute substantially to global warming. Indeed it has been calculated that around 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions are the result of farm livestock, compared to around 13% for transport, so this is obviously a huge issue. Furthermore it also seems to be true that extensive, grass-fed animals (such as we like to promote, for reasons of health, animal welfare and flavour) cause higher emissions per litre of milk or kg of meat than intensive ones, though we think some of the calculations used to argue this are flawed.

The calculation is made even more complex by the fact that the cultivations (e.g ploughing) needed to grow arable crops promote the breakdown of organic matter in the soil, releasing CO2. Under grassland, carbon is normally sequestrated, locking up CO2 from the atmosphere as soil organic matter. It could therefore be argued that maintaining grassland for animals to graze has the effect of reducing global warming.

Confused? There are no simple or authoritative answers to this question. We certainly do not feel qualified to give a definitive answer but there seem to be a lot of reasons for eating significantly fewer animal products. If we’re going to eat meat and dairy, let it be better quality, eaten less often, in smaller quantities and with complete confidence that the animal has been treated respectfully. And above all, let the veg be the star of the show.

Riverford hosts first-ever plastic debate

The anti-plastic movement is a milestone gateway that could prompt both businesses and consumers to start thinking on a larger scale about their environmental impact.

That was one of the key messages that came out of the first-ever plastic debate hosted by Riverford at its farm headquarters near to Totnes. The event took place last weekend as part of the company’s legendary Pumpkin Day festival, which this year was a sell-out attended by almost 2,000 visitors from across Devon.

Panellists on the debate included founder Guy Singh-Watson, Sian Sutherland, co-founder of campaign group A Plastic Planet, Jackie Young, head of the campaign to turn Plymouth plastic free, and Robyn Copley-Wilkins, packaging technologist at Riverford, who has spearheaded the company’s upcoming move to home compostable packaging materials.

Sutherland, who runs a campaign to try and get supermarkets to turn one aisle plastic-free, said: “What has been very interesting on the plastic pollution front is that it’s almost a gateway for people to start thinking, well hang on, if we’re doing this, what else are we doing that is harming the planet?”

Speaking about her work in Plymouth aiming to reduce plastic use, Young said: “Small businesses are quite risk averse, so if they make one small change that gets a good response, that then encourages them to look a bit further ahead. So it might be that they then look at their energy supplier, or their carbon footprint, and they start to realise that the potentially small action they took on plastic is part of a bigger programme.”

Riverford packaging technologist, Robyn Copley-Wilkins, has spent the last eight months researching sustainable packaging materials as part of the company’s move to home compostable. The company will be switching to cellulose-based packaging to replace plastic, and it has already replaced its plastic netting for citrus and onions to beech wood.

“By the end of 2020, Riverford is going to move to home compostable. It’s actually a real alternative to plastic so there’s no falsified materials or oil in there – what it will be made from is cellulose from trees,” she said. “When a tree is made into paper you can keep stripping it down, and what you end up with is molecules that you can join together into something that has a very plastic-like feel, but is more breathable, so it has properties we can use on our fruit and vegetables but we can also use it with our usual packing machinery.

“One of the really great things that has come out of this movement against plastic is the funding and opportunity for universities and research organisations to really get involved in packaging alternatives,” she added.

Paper will be the next material to come under scrutiny, according to Copley-Wilkins, as people start to ask how far paper has travelled, and whether forestry systems are sustainable.

Speaking at the debate, Guy Singh-Watson, who was interviewed on Radio 4’s Costing the Earth programme on the subject of plastic recently, said he believes home compostable packaging is the right way to go.

“I don’t think it’s a perfect solution, but I think it’s the best we can do seeing that only nine per cent of plastics are actually recycled. There is no point producing recyclable plastic and saying we’ve done our job, if 91 per cent of them aren’t recycled anyway, it’s useless.

“Treating our environment as a receptacle for waste is just unacceptable, and I do really welcome the campaign around plastic as a signal that it’s becoming less acceptable,” he said. “But I will continue to say that the single biggest challenge facing our planet by a long, long way is climate change, and I do have some concerns that the campaign around plastic is a distraction.”

Calls for local MPs to support organics

People are being urged to ask their local MP to back an amendment to the upcoming Agriculture Bill that would help fund organic and other environmentally-friendly farming systems post-Brexit.

Amendment 41 was proposed by three MPs, including Labour MP Kerry McCarthy, Zac Goldsmith of the Conservatives, and former leader of the Green Party Caroline Lucas.

The Agriculture Bill is a major policy that will determine the future of food production once Britain leaves the European Union. It is currently making its way through parliament with the next report on progress expected on 20 November.

The proposed amendment would ensure that environmentally-friendly farming systems, including organics and other agroecological processes, receive financial assistance to continue and expand their activities following Brexit. This would help deliver what is described as “public goods” in the Agriculture Bill, the amendment states.

A statement said: “Agroecology is recognised by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation as the basis for evolving food systems that are equally strong in environmental, economic, social and agronomic dimensions.”

A full list of local MPs plus details on how to contact them can be found here.

New study calls for ban of entire pesticide category

An entire group of pesticides used in agriculture and in public places should be banned due to their harmful effect on pregnant women and children, according to a new study.

The report, published today in the peer-reviewed Plos Medicine journal, said there is “compelling” evidence that prenatal exposure to low levels of organophosphate (OP) pesticides puts children at risk of cognitive and behavioural deficits, as well as neurodevelopmental disorders.

Organophosphate pesticides, such as chlorpyrifos, are widely used to control insect damage on agricultural land, as well as public areas such as parks, golf courses and green areas in towns.

Scientists mapped OP usage data across 71 countries from five regions and found that high exposures are is responsible for poisonings and deaths, particularly in developing countries. Low level exposure has become ubiquitous, scientists said, resulting in neurodevelopmental problems in children and foetuses.

Among the recommendations put forward, the study said governments should phase out the entire range of OP pesticides, as well as monitor watersheds and other sources of human exposures.

Governments should also help farmers move away from toxic substances, the study said, by offering incentives and training on agroecology and integrated pest management, farming systems that work more closely with the environment.

Organic farmers already avoid toxic chemicals, and the study said that the fact most crops that are produced with OP pesticides are also produced organically proves that they are not essential.

Lead author Irva Hertz-Picciotto said: “We have compelling evidence from dozens of human studies that exposures of pregnant women to very low levels of organophosphate pesticides put children and foetuses at risk for developmental problems that may last a lifetime. By law, the EPA cannot ignore such clear findings: It’s time for a ban not just on chlorpyrifos, but all organophosphate pesticides.”

The news is the latest in a growing line of studies to link agrichemicals to negative effects on human health and comes as the debate continues around the UK will retain or adjust its regulations once it leaves the EU.

The Soil Association said there is a need to move the debate on and pointed to the greater number of OP pesticides that are allowed in the US compared to the EU, raising concerns around any trade deal with the US once Britain leaves the EU.

Farming unions for the non-organic sector have continued to argue for science-based decisions on pesticide regulations, and highlight the fact that farmers rely on multiple tools to protect crops from pests and disease.