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.

There’s no such thing as cheap food

By Dan Crossley, executive director The Food Ethics Council

From price wars to round pound deals and special offers, we are surrounded by the notion of cheap food. But what we pay for food at the checkout rarely reflects its real, or ‘true cost’. Our cheap food system is currently being propped up by environmental damage, low wage workers, farm animal suffering and the costs of diet-related ill health to the National Health Service.

Take an avocado, flown from Peru to the UK, refrigerated in a distribution centre, then packaged and driven to your local supermarket. The price tag may reflect what it cost the supermarket to purchase it but how about the greenhouse gas emissions that result from air freighting it, or the long-term impacts of irrigating this (very) thirsty crop? For every £1 we pay for food and drink at the checkout, it’s been suggested that there is (at least) £1 of hidden costs – externalities that the taxpayer picks up. So, should we move towards ‘true cost’ food?

Reluctantly I think the answer has to be yes. I say reluctantly because it’s sad that we have to put a financial value on things like the health of our environment, when we should value it for its own intrinsic sake. But I say yes, because genuinely ‘true cost’ food would, with one fell swoop, mean that healthy, sustainable, fair, humane food becomes (relatively) ‘less expensive’ than unhealthy, unsustainable food. Organic food and farming would be one of the winners in this scenario. If we rely on price signals, then that’s surely a sensible way to go. Arguably the government has made a baby step in that direction already via the sugary drinks levy (internalising a fraction of the diet-related ill health costs currently picked up by the NHS). With ideas such as a meat tax being banded around, will we see further moves towards paying a true cost?

Even more fundamentally perhaps, we need to get beyond the notion that ever cheaper food is somehow a good thing. The reason so many people can’t afford to eat in this country is not because prices aren’t cheap enough – it’s because there are too many gaps in the social security net, because people aren’t paid a real living wage and because we are slipping into a two-tier food system. Rather than being stuck in ‘let’s make it affordable’, let’s reframe the debate to be about how we can help everyone shape a food system that works for all.

Crucially, one of the main benefits of a true cost approach would be that the environment and social costs are no longer hidden, and there is therefore a ready-made incentive to drive negative impacts down. So, in the long-run, moving to true cost food could benefit people, animals and the planet.

It will take time, public support and political backing to move away from the cheap food narrative. Taxing those who pollute more, or who use damaging farming or employment practices, could go some way to open up and address the issue. But for people to favour foods with lower ‘true costs’ we need truthful answers about where our food comes from and how it’s produced. This transparency test could be the catalyst for much needed change.

Dan Crossley is the executive director of the Food Ethics Council. He has worked on food sustainability issues for over a decade, leading projects on food and farming, sustainable diets, animal welfare, carbon labelling and household food insecurity. The ‘true cost of food’ is a growing movement to account for the social and environmental impact of food production and consumption when thinking about prices.

News from the farm

Andy Hayllor, Riverford veg grower & co-op member of 27 years, writes…

Of all the issues caused by this summer’s drought, the one we didn’t expect was seagulls. We had a huge problem with them pulling plants out of rows, looking for moisture or food. We lost 25 per cent of the Calabrese crop this year through seagulls; I’ve never seen anything like it. Summer was extremely difficult all round, soils were like talcum powder and we could barely get the weeding machines through. We’ve now got more weeds than we would normally have, and the crops have had more competition. That said, it’s incredible how well everything has come through the drought… It was looking like it was going to be a total loss, but plants are very clever and they will adapt to the circumstances. They shut down and then start up again when the conditions are right; ours have really come back to life, good and healthy.

I run two farms, with help from my nephew and son, and we grow a range of organic veg for Riverford including potatoes, broad beans, carrots, peas, caulis and black kale, or cavolo nero. We’ve run it on a shoestring this year because last year our Bulgarian field team left; the weather was so bad the year before that they couldn’t face another winter. We have really struggled with finding pickers. We can’t get any British people to do those jobs, so we rely on workers from Eastern Europe. The weather is the biggest challenge but it’s getting harder to find workers since Brexit and the weaker pound. It’s a big worry.

I’ve been with Riverford since the start, so around 27 years now. We’re always trying to find different crops to fill the gaps, like the new Buttonhole kale variety that we planted in June and are harvesting a limited amount of this week. My thinking is you can’t stand still, or you’ll get left behind; people’s tastes change all the time, and we need to grow new crops to reflect that. We have such a different population base now to what we used to, and if we can grow things like pak choi in our climate instead of importing, then we should try and do that. You’ve got to be adventurous or people get bored. And I like trialling new crops – it keeps the job interesting!

Guy will be back writing his regular newsletter next week.

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.

Bees, and ethical veganism

Should vegans avoid avocados and almonds? That’s the question at the heart of a new online debate sparked by an Oxford academic, who has encouraged vegans to consider the fact huge shipments of bees are transported to help pollinate superfood crops, such as almonds and avocados.

The traditional definition of veganism is avoiding food produced by animals, including honey as a product of bees. But Dominic Wilkinson, director of medical ethics at Oxford University, says that, under this definition, perhaps vegans should consider other roles required by bees in modern farming practice.

Almonds are not self-pollinating, and while avocados technically can self-pollinate, they require ‘help’ from pollinators as the male and female parts of the flower aren’t open at the same time. As a result, bees are imported in huge numbers to help pollinate these crops.

The large majority (around 80 per cent) of the world’s almonds are produced in California, where sunny weather and mild winters provide perfect conditions, and has led to a monoculture-type crop cultivation to satisfy the huge demand for almonds in anything from confectionary, cosmetics and dairy alternatives.

According to Wilkinson, speaking to The Times, 31 billion bees are transported to Californian almond farms each year and research showed that the journeys affected their health and shortened their lives, and this strain on bees is what has prompted the debate around ethical vegan choices.

Avocados are another crop that has seen an unprecedented rise in popularity across the world, fuelled by a millennial generation, Instagram and healthy eating, with farmers across the world racing to switch land into avocado production. The huge demand is leading to a monoculture crop system in some countries, leading to a need for ever-greater numbers of pollinators.

Shifting bees around to pollinate crops is not a new practice in farming, and it’s something even organic farmers benefit from, but it may well become more common as bee populations continue to decline.

This year, a landmark decision saw the EU expand a ban on neonicotinoid pesticides in all fields, citing evidence that the chemicals pose a “high risk” to wild and honeybees. Last year, a major study done in Germany found that 75 per cent of all flying insects have been lost. The evidence is stacking up, and it’s clear that the problem is much bigger than how to pollinate our orchards of monocultures.

Meanwhile, a recent study by a Dutch university looked at how robot bees could help fill the gap when their real-life counterparts eventually die out. A chillingly pragmatic response to what is already becoming a huge threat to global food production.

On a more positive note, there is clearly an appetite for a more ecological approach to food production, both from farmers and consumers. Organic farmers have long known the benefits of farming without chemicals, with organic land shown to have up to 50 per cent more wildlife and biodiversity, according to the Soil Association. A petition to ban neonicotinoid pesticides, run by campaign group Avaaz, received over five million signatures from across Europe, while an opposing campaign from the agriculture industry fought to maintain access to one of their most-used tools.

As always, any issue around food and farming is multifaceted, and will only become more so as the question of what it means to live ethically continues to gain momentum. And as the recent climate change report by the IPCC highlighted reducing meat and dairy intake as one of the best actions someone can take, the impact of any dairy alternative, including almonds, is a discussion well worth having.

Prioritising one ethical debate over another shouldn’t require a trade-off, but ultimately the vital role of pollinators and bees should always remind us of the need for better farming systems, using fewer chemicals and more diversity to mutually benefit both crops and insect life.

Guy’s news: Size; does it matter?

Last week London’s Bargehouse Gallery hosted We Feed The World, an international photography exhibition focusing on the smallholder farmers who still produce 70% of the world’s food. I braced myself for patronising peasant-porn, but my prejudices were quickly allayed by the intimacy and truth of the images. They gave a window into a world in which we all have ancestral roots; one that is fast being replaced by large-scale brutality and destruction. It moved me, as art should, to ask questions: of our world, and of Riverford’s part in it.

Technology and globalism have transformed many industries, often at huge human cost. It would be hard to say to an ex-coal or steel worker that small farmers should be the exception. But how we farm has environmental, social, landscape and health impacts that provide strong arguments against sacrificing it on the altar of global, neo-liberal economics. Big doesn’t have to be bad, but in farming, it usually is: for wildlife, for food quality, for animal welfare, and for the communities which lose the infrastructure of integrated small family businesses. Big cannot cope with the intricacies of mixed farms and varied landscapes, so it uses all its power to make things the same: in neighbouring fields, then on neighbouring farms; in Cornwall and Cambridgeshire, then in Cambridgeshire, Kansas. The same varieties sold by the same three global seed companies. The same commodities sold to the same four global grain traders, and retailed through the same few supermarkets under the same global brands.

The reality of small-scale farming in the UK is hard: we expect to spend only 10% of our income on food, with just 0.6% going to farmers. A dogmatic battle with scale would sink Riverford, but, with your help, we can apply the brakes: by our preference for small growers, by supporting the co-op I founded twenty years ago, and by being a fair and reliable customer to all. Indeed, this is perhaps the side of Riverford that is most exceptional and gives me the most pride. With this in mind, once a month over the winter we will profile one of our growers in place of this newsletter – hopefully without patronising anybody.

Price changes – As explained last week, there will be a small price rise on our boxes and some individual items from 29th October. You can find out more at riverford.co.uk/box-price-rise.

Guy Singh-Watson

Venison recipes

It’s venison season, and on health, welfare and sustainability grounds it can’t be beat. About as natural and unadulterated as meat gets, its breeding and life cycle has hardly changed in the last thousand years resulting in a tender, healthy meat that’s lower in fat than skinned chicken breast, higher in iron than any other red meat, low in cholesterol and brimming with Omega-3s.

All our venison comes from small organic herds reared on Westcountry family farms in Looe and Exmoor. They graze a natural diet of clover-rich grass and wild flowers, roaming the land in natural rutting groups. The meat has a deep colour and rich flavour which is less gamey than wild venison and therefore more versatile.

So well suited to autumn eating, our venison has a short season (only available throughout the next month or so) and works well with the earthy seasonal flavours of the root veg and greens in your veg box.

Venison Cottage Pie

Venison Cottage Pie

Traditional winter comfort food, this version of cottage pie works beautifully with venison. There’s no need to be too exact about quantities; this is a good way of using up odds and ends from your veg box. The nutty strength of celeriac in this mash pairs well with venison, but you could use other root veg with the potato – parsnip, swede or carrots. Serve with buttery Savoy cabbage or kale.

See the full venison cottage pie recipe here.

Venison Toad in the Hole

Venison Toad in the Hole

Before everyone settled on pork sausages, toad in the hole used to be made with any meat that was to hand – it works beautifully with the richer taste of venison sausages. Eat with rich, sticky onion gravy, roasted carrots and seasonal greens.

See the full Venison toad in the hole recipe here.

Venison Chilli with Chocolate

Venison Chilli with Chocolate

This chilli might seem a little heavy on the beans, but that’s the way we like it. Chocolate gives it extra richness and the extra spices make the whole dish a lot more balanced and interesting. If you have an army to feed, you can double the quantities by using more venison or adding in other diced or minced meat – the diced will give a bit of added texture.

See the full venison chilli with chocolate recipe here.

Venison, Kale & Mushroom Stroganoff

Venison, Kale & Mushroom Stroganoff

This is a twist on a classic stroganoff, swapping beef for quick cook venison stir-fry strips and adding some kale for extra greens. Chestnut or portobello mushrooms make a great addition too.

See the full venison, kale & mushroom stroganoff recipe here.

Venison & Root Veg with Boulangere

Venison & Root Veg with Boulangere

A boulangère is like a gratin or a dauphinoise, where slices of potato are layered and baked in stock rather than cream. This provides excellent flavour without the extra calories, and a comforting accompaniment to venison cutlets.

See the full venison & root veg with boulangere recipe here.

Public and small farmers join forces for Good Food March

Photo – The Gaia Foundation/Twitter

Hundreds of people took the streets of London yesterday (14 October) to call for a better food and farming system in the UK and give small farmers a voice in the new Agriculture Bill.

The Good Food March began at Parliament Square in Westminster and proceeded through the city to Southbank. It was organised by leading food campaign groups and unions, including The Landworkers’ Alliance, The Soil Association and The Gaia Foundation, and had an emphasis on inclusivity in the future of food, stating that “anyone who grows, distributes, prepares, or eats food has a stake in the food system.”

“As the UK prepares to leave the EU and the Agriculture Bill is being finalised we need to ensure farmers are able to produce nutritious, ecological and healthy food and that everybody has access to it,” the group said.

Despite the poor weather, a colourful procession followed a tractor through the streets, with marchers holding slogans such as ‘Resistance is Fertile’ and ‘Hoes before GMOs’.

The march was addressed by Jyoti Fernandez of The Landworkers’ Alliance, who also spoke at a launch event for We Feed the World photography exhibition on the future of food systems after Brexit. She said: “We’re pulling out of the EU and the Common Agricultural Policy, what happens now will affect agriculture for at least the next 50 years. We need to let them know that the public does know and it does care about the future of food.”

Taking place just ahead of World Food Day on 16 October, the march was part of a 10-day series of events to celebrate small farmers across the world and discuss possibilities around the future of food and farming in the UK once it leaves the EU.

The We Feed the World photography exhibition is currently on show at the Oxo Tower in London, featuring 50 small farming communities from around the world, with simultaneous exhibitions taking place globally making it the largest global photography initiative ever attempted.

Guy’s news: Redressing the balance

Despite the recent kind weather, it has been a hard year for growers – and possibly an even harder one for purveyors of veg boxes. Come snow, rain or shine, we must fill those boxes and get them delivered for a fixed price. After losing four delivery days to snow late last winter, we were already financially stretched; a wet spring then delayed planting, forcing us to rely on additional imports made expensive by a weak pound. This was closely followed by a sweltering three-month drought that led to widespread crop failures. Some sun and heat-loving crops have exceeded expectations, but to nothing like the degree that the failures fell short of them.

You are probably getting the gist of this; we are putting our prices up next month by somewhere between 1.5% and 5% (or 20p-£1) – less for the smaller boxes, more for the larger. We are not alone; under pressure from a weak pound, rising employment costs, scarcity of labour, and weather anomalies, fruit and veg prices across the UK are rising at this rate and more. It is tempting to hang on and hope that the pound will rise against the euro before the UK’s critical Hungry Gap (the late-winter time when fields are bare, before spring crops arrive); that we can claw back summer losses through our winter crops, or that we can press more out of our staff and growers by delaying pay rises and squeezing prices. But none of these options would provide a sustainable and ethically acceptable future.

We completed the elections for our first staff council last week with a 95% turnout. As an employee-owned company, we have some hard decisions to make to balance the needs of staff, suppliers, customers and the environment, while striving to make the right choices on ethical issues like packaging. We hope this modest rise will feel fair to customers, staff and growers alike.

Pumpkin Day is on the way – book your tickets now!
Pull on your wellies and join us on our farms in Hampshire (20th October), Cambridgeshire and Devon (27th October) for our annual family-friendly pumpkin celebration. To find out more and book your tickets now, head to riverford.co.uk/pumpkinday.