Tag Archives: insecticides

Guy’s Newsletter: gagging, bees & bad farming

In 2013, after years of campaigning from both sides of the divide, the EU finally voted to ban neonicotinoid insecticides on crops attractive to bees. Numerous studies suggest it is linked to collapsing bee numbers, and for once it seemed that environmental concerns had been put ahead of commercial interests, albeit reluctantly in the UK, where our government fought the ban to the end.

Last week, caving into pressure from the NFU and pesticide manufacturers, Defra temporarily overturned the ban in Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire. The justification was the NFU’s claim that growing oilseed rape was “becoming impossible” due to attacks by flea beetle. It turns out that related losses amounted to just 3.5% of the crop last year; not quite my definition of “impossible”, but deemed to be more important than bees by our government. It would seem that the decision was not even supported by their own pesticide advisers who have been gagged, with minutes of meetings kept secret.

We have lost crops to flea beetle at Riverford but the severity of attack declines later in the summer, and by the time that oilseed rape is being sown in August and September I am surprised they are deemed such a problem. In our experience, rain falling as seedlings emerge is normally enough to suppress flea beetle activity and get a crop away, and it is soon strong enough to outgrow any damage. In the case of rape, the wide potential sowing window leaves plenty of time to re-sow in September if you are unlucky. Looking at rape crops from train windows I would suggest that waterlogging and poor soil structure (normally the result of bad farming) are much more serious causes of crop loss.

I can’t help noticing that the four counties judged to be worst affected by flea beetle happen to be the ones with the fewest hedges and trees, the largest fields, the least grass and species diversity and the greatest prevalence of combinable annual monocultures. Like all insects, flea beetles have natural predators in a diverse countryside but very few in the ecological desert of most intensive arable farms. Could this be a problem farmers have brought on themselves by their own bad farming? Now bees and the rest of us are paying the price.

Guy Watson

Guy’s Newsletter: an aphid’s view

If things are this good why grow wings, why even move? Why have sex and risk producing variable babies that may not be as good as me? Sexual reproduction is so full of uncertainty. Why not just stay put, plug in, suck that sweet, sweet sap and pour out a stream of babies identical to me through parthenogenesis; they need only shake free of my abdomen, plug in and enjoy the same good life. Within five days the young’uns will be squeezing out their own; it’s perfect.

Two weeks ago, looking around the peppers on our farm in France I calculated that about 20 million wingless aphids were sucking the life out of my crop; each leaf had up to ten mothers with a stream of look-a-likes plugging in within millimetres of their mother. Marco, my ever-calm agronomist, told me not to worry; “I’m on top of it,” he said. The temptation for the macho and inexperienced would be to wade in with some soap spray (restricted but permissible under organic regulations) which effectively suffocates the aphids it touches by invading their spiracles, but this would also risk killing the predators already feasting on the aphids and destroy our chances of reaching the holy grail of organic pest control; balance. Marco’s policy was to wash off the worst colonies with water and introduce more ladybirds to mop up the rest. I was nervous; a ladybird can eat 5000 aphids in its life but can’t compete with their reproduction rate. Who would eat their way to the top? As well as ladybirds we often seek help from my favourite aphid predator, Aphidius colemani. This tiny parasitic wasp oviposits a single egg in each aphid which slowly digests them from within before emerging two weeks later, alien style, as an adult wasp ready to lay another 200 eggs; we introduced some of them for good measure.

Two weeks later, Marco was proved right; the ladybirds won and it looks like we will have a good, if slightly delayed, crop of peppers. Having seen the scenario played out so many times since we gave up spraying soap on aphids 15 years ago, I should have had more faith in the under-promoted virtue of using less and understanding more. If a fraction of the money spent on pesticides and GM went into studying agro-ecology, most insecticide use could be avoided.

Guy Watson

Guy’s newsletter: eating & wearing your way to a better world

You may be surprised to find a People Tree clothing catalogue in your box this week. We once put a copy of the Ecologist Magazine in, which precipitated a barrage of chastening comments along the lines of, “we like the veg, but don’t make assumptions about our beliefs and allegiances.” As a result we have kept bumph, however righteous, out of your boxes ever since. So I thought I better explain why I have broken the rule.

Non-organic cotton is an extraordinarily dirty crop, accounting for almost 25% of insecticides used worldwide. In India, where cotton accounts for 5% of cropped land, it accounts for a staggering 54% of all pesticides applied, and what’s worse is that they are among the most persistent, toxic and environmentally damaging, including organophosphates and organochlorines.

90% of People Tree cotton is organically grown (it would take more words than I have to explain the 10%) and its founder Safia Minney has spent 24 years developing a supply chain where she knows each step of the production process from sowing the seed through to garment manufacture. This is in contrast to most of the textile and fashion industry, which has an appalling record of exploitation, dangerous employment practices and environmental damage.

Safia is a force to be reckoned with and would expend her last breath fighting for ethical business practices, and that makes me want to support her efforts. In this world of corporate greenwash, I trust People Tree completely; like our Fair Trade pineapples from Togo they are the real thing, the gold standard in ethical business that others can be judged against. I love their fabrics and it feels good to wear something that represents the world I want to live in. I reckon they are fairly priced anyway but with the 20% discount for Riverford customers, they are a bargain. You really will be wearing your way to a better world.

For those of you near London we will be holding a sample sale and panel discussion on Saturday 9th May to mark World Fair Trade Day at our pub in Islington, Riverford at the Duke of Cambridge. Half the proceeds will go to charity; find out more at www.dukeorganic.co.uk.

Guy Watson

Roundup: maybe not so safe after all

Back in the early ’80s, before Riverford was organic, it was my job to spray the barley. The chemical cocktail was vile and I regularly suffered headaches, but the government’s directorate assured me the herbicides, insecticides and fungicides were safe for me, the environment and consumers. Over the last 40 years most of those chemicals have been withdrawn, often due to concerns over safety. Should this have led to a more cautious approach? Should we still rely on short-term studies funded by the agrochemical companies?

The systemic, broad spectrum herbicide glyphosate will kill virtually any plant down to the end of its roots. It was developed, patented and brought to market as Roundup by Monsanto in 1970 and has since become the world’s most ubiquitous agrochemical. About 75% of all GM crops have a gene inserted which makes them “Roundup ready”, ie. resistant to glyphosate, which can then be sprayed on the crop to control other weeds; commercial genius.

For decades we were told glyphosate had very low mammalian toxicity, degraded rapidly in the soil and was largely benign in the environment. Over the last ten years there have been rumblings suggesting Roundup can disrupt the endocrine (hormone) system in mammals and questioning environmental safety. Last month a peer-reviewed study was published showing rats fed diets of GM, Roundup ready maize had a massively increased incidence of cancer. Even more disturbingly, those fed Roundup itself suffered the same effects. It has taken 42 years to unearth the evidence that seriously questions the continuing use of one of the world’s most widely used agrochemicals. How long might it take before we uncover similar evidence for many of the hundreds of chemicals that are still used widely in the production of the food we eat today? Back to veg next week.

Guy Watson

pumpkin day – free family day out

  • Saturday 27th October Upper Norton Farm, Hampshire
  • Saturday 27th October Sacrewell Farm, Cambridgeshire
  • Saturday 27th October Wash Farm, Devon
  • Sunday 28th October Home Farm, Yorkshire

We will also be holding Autumn Day at Mole End Farm, Kent on Saturday 20th October.