Tag Archives: carbon footprint

Guy’s Newsletter: tomatoes, badgers & bees

Last week we picked our first tomatoes of the year; all being well, each of the 15,000 plants will produce 3kg of fruit between now and September. These tomatoes are actually later than we planned; with so much sunshine recently it’s easy to forget that it was quite a cold spring. The only way to harvest any earlier would be by heating our polytunnels through burning fossil fuels on a huge scale. However much we’d like to support year-round local tomato growing, our environmental study with Exeter University (see http://www.riverfordenvironment.co.uk) suggests that in terms of carbon footprint, it’s many times better to truck (not fly) out of season peppers or tomatoes in from Spain where they do not require heat, than grow them here under heat, as the data below suggests. This was always my instinct and since completing the research, it remains our policy. It makes marketing tricky as simple messages are the most effective; but in reality, buying British tomatoes year-round is not as green as it sounds.

CO2-emissionsTo aid tomato pollination, we introduce bee hives into our polytunnels every summer. Last week, when the tunnel team started work at 5am they found the hives moved around, upturned and eventually destroyed. Paranoid theories about vandals proliferated until we realised that, as with our occasionally trashed sweetcorn and pumpkins, the omnivorous badger is to blame. It astounds me that they can eat live bees without ill effect but a quick internet search shows that it is not uncommon. We have now suspended our hives from the roof and set up a motion activated camera; keep an eye on our Facebook page for a video of the culprits.

Guy Watson

the plastic crates debate

A few weeks back we asked you what you would think if we moved to a returnable plastic box. Thanks to everyone who responded – we had over 200 comments. The original blog post is here and to remind you:

  1. We get about four trips out of a box.
  2. Around half of the boxes are used for other things and the other half get too damaged or dirty.
  3. Although they’re made from 98% recycled materials, being reused four times and being recycled at the end of their lives, the boxes still make up 10% of our carbon footprint.
  4. Our research suggests that a re-usable plastic box would result in a reduction in emissions of about 70%.


  • 33% say it sounds like to right thing to do.
  • 28% would leave it up to us to do what is best.
  • 24% really don’t like the idea but would accept it.
  • 13% were not convinced by the CO2 argument and are against the idea of plastic boxes.

A lot of you mentioned that the boxes need to fold down to save on space, which would be a bit more expensive but would be worth it. Some of you worried about what would happen to the plastic crates at the end of their lives. We could get them made from most if not all recycled material and if they were returned to us at the end of their lives they would be 100% recycled.

One more question

We would need to charge a deposit of between £5 and £10 which would be added to your account when we deliver and removed when you return a box. How would you feel about this?

Farming in the snow

The ground is hard as iron, the cabbage leaves as stiff as boards under the snow and the ice on our reservoirs thick enough for a light skater. At least the mud is frozen, making it easy to get about the fields; more than can be said for the roads. I hope that your orders have arrived more or less as expected over the last three weeks and, if not, that we have at least communicated satisfactorily with you. With people struggling to get to work we have often not had enough people to man the phones, let alone pick the veg. It’s pretty when the sun is out and my boys are loving it, but what started as a valiant struggle is descending into a trying fiasco.

Most days have seen a mini thaw in the afternoon when we rush out and pick what we can for the next day while the leaves are pliable enough to handle without shattering. The daily grab is then stashed in the banana room (kept at a steady 14C) overnight to thaw out ready for packing the next day. I hope it is holding up when it gets to you; it is always a bit unpredictable how things will last after such enforced thawing.

As I write I have no idea what will be in next week’s boxes but I suspect there will be plenty of roots from our stores, limited greenery from the fields and a lot of last minute substitutions according to what we can get out of the ground on the day. The last un harvested carrots will certainly be ruined but most crops survive this sort of dry cold far better than when frost gets in to waterlogged plants so I am confident that our losses will be small when things finally thaw out.

Last week saw the annual Oxford farming conference grabbing the headlines as never before. Just two years ago, with commodity prices on the floor and share prices on the ceiling, our government could not see much importance for agriculture and this bunch of tweed clad, conservative voting dinosaurs; “rich countries like us will always be able to buy our food (normally more cheaply) on the open market”.

This year Hillary Benn (secretary of state for the environment) chose the conference to unveil a raft of initiatives addressing food security while the reducing environmental impact of agriculture and connecting us with how our food is produced. It all sounds great if a little too overtly vote-grabbing in places; the problem lies in his suggestion that these changes would be led by pressure from informed consumers. One might ask where that information will come from when even the experts in his own department are unsure about how to measure a carbon footprint or balance the importance to water footprints with carbon footprints or all the other factors (Professor Lang thinks we should measure 18) that might make one food better for the world than another.

In 2008, for a period, we worked out the weekly carbon footprint of each veg box with Exeter University and printed it on the newsletter and website. We explained the tortuous calculations on a dedicated website (www.riverfordenvironment.co.uk) in the absurdly naive assumption that caring consumers would choose a lower carbon box and hence incentivise us to be a lower carbon business.

Two million vegetable boxes later I have yet to hear from a customer who fully understood what we were up to and changed their buying as a result. Many respected the effort we had made (and the exercise did teach us a lot and helped us reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and reduce our carbon foot print so it was not wasted) but at the end of the day the process is too ambiguous and complex to practically guide consumer choice. I am convinced that carbon labelling as the tool that will enable consumers to exert pressure for lower carbon products is a waste of time; it is just too complex and hence open to abuse. We need leadership from our government not continued and irresponsible abdication of responsibility to market forces. When will we grow out of our simplistic faith in market forces to resolve complex social and environement problems? The cynic in me suspects that big business’s enthusiasm for carbon labelling and carbon trading is just a delaying tactic to deflect attention from the need effective legislation. What value is consumer choice when even an experts cannot decide what a good choice is? Must we go to hell in a hand cart in the name of market forces or will our governments show some leadership.

I hope you approve of the new form newsletter complete with more recipes and that you have received a binder for filing them in as the year progresses. If, due to the currently pervading chaos, you have not received a folder let us know and we will deliver on next week.

leaves vs. plastic – no contest when it comes to packaging

Did any of you see Guy Watson on last week’s Money Programme Special: How Green is Your High Street?

Less eye catching than presenter Fiona Bruce’s eyebrows, we admit, but Guy had a good chunk in the programme and talked about Riverford’s approach to reducing packaging. We liked the bit about the outer leaves of a lettuce being “nature’s packaging”.

Packaging is at the heart of the carbon footprinting study we are conducting at the moment and we will be publishing the preliminary results in the next couple of weeks.

Government launches CO2 counter

Credit where credit’s due to the Government for launching its CO2 calculator*. It’s too early to judge how good it is, but we hope it helps people understand how the way they live impacts the environment.

Here at Riverford Organic Vegetables we are 7 months into our own carbon footprinting exercise where we have secured the help of Exeter University to look at every aspect of our veg boxes and it is already resulting in good changes.

Follow this blog from time to time to hear how we are getting on. Guy Watson has already written a great piece explaining what the project is about and what we hope to achieve here.*

We can’t promise not to rant occasionally – particularly when our greenwash-ometer goes mad. So watch out some of you supermarkets, smokescreen if you will – you won’t fool us.

*please note: as this is an older blog post, some of the original links in this article have been changed or removed