Tag Archives: politics

Guy’s news: The proof is in the Rt Honourable’s pudding

It is hard to understand the inhumanity or moral blindness that made 19th century slavery acceptable, but it makes the courage and mental fortitude of those who spoke out all the more admirable. Future generations will surely place our abuse of the environment they will inherit top of their own list of retrospective shame. The generous might cite our inability to find the mechanisms to act collectively in the face of pervasive global capitalism; the angry might say we were just too selfish and busy feeding our appetites to consider those who share our planet now and in years to come.

After an inexplicable two-year delay, our government published its 25 Year Environment Plan last week. I read most of its 150 pages expecting, perhaps even trying, to be cynical, but I reckon it covers most of what it should and reaches most of the right conclusions. It is surprisingly broad thinking in appreciating the hard-to-measure contributions of the environment (eg. to mental health and community) and includes as many firm commitments and as few crowd pleasers as one could hope. Of course, the challenge will be financing all that tree planting, actually getting the packaging industry to rationalise its use of plastic, and standing up to lobbying from wealthy landowners and the agro-chemical industry. The plan falls down in that it includes little meaningful commitment to reducing pesticide use and no mention of the environmental contributions of organic farming (though it advocates much of what we do). And will we support our farmers with their higher standards when faced with US trade negotiations? I do worry about the ability of liberal, market-orientated democracy to turn these aspirations into long-term legislation, rather than short-term vote-winning publicity stunts. However, it feels like an honest appreciation of the magnitude and importance of the problems we face, and is a significant step towards addressing them.

Closer to home, you can add a free sunflower birdfeeder (grown on our French farm) to your order this week. As the Defra report says, farming is about more than just feeding ourselves; I enjoy growing them, a few more birds may make it through winter, and watching their colourful acrobatics may even contribute to our mental health.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: Anger, hope & Oprah

Every January, two sides of agriculture gather in Oxford; the 82-year-old, mostly male and suit-clad ‘conventional’ Oxford Farming Conference, and the nine-year-old challenger, the Oxford Real Farming Conference, with no suits, fewer landowners, and a broader spread of age, gender and ethnicity. The former is sponsored by banks, chemical manufacturers and accountants and is bashful about anything not justified by profit, while the latter is sponsored by charities, a not-for-profit bank, individuals and, this year, Riverford. It also challenges the dominance of capital over labour, specialisation over diversity, and champions labourers and the landless. The former, with its defence of the privilege of the most privileged, makes me ashamed of my profession. The latter fills me with hope and inspiration that a more equitable way of farming is within grasp; that, to echo Oprah Winfrey, “a new day is on the horizon”.

Despite driving a Land Rover and liking tweed, I have never identified with my more landed farming peers. Too often they are united by a sense of entitlement without acknowledgement of their (often inherited) privilege or the taxpayer’s money that perpetuates it, or the responsibilities that should come with those advantages. I thought I had mellowed in my middle years but the baying
bigotry of this sector of farming makes my blood boil at times. Secretary of State for Defra Michael Gove addressed both conferences and, to my surprise, stated unequivocally that the current £2.5bn payments that are essentially government subsidies for owning land are “unjust” and will stop by 2024. Perhaps more importantly the sold-out ‘real’ conference had twice as many delegates and a long waiting list, with doers outnumbering talkers. There were impassioned, deeply practical talks on everything from soil structure to weeding by laser-armed robot swarms. Inevitably a lot of time was devoted to Brexit, but the prevailing feeling was that this is the chance for a food and farming policy that represents the many over the few, the wildlife we share our countryside with, and future generations. Mercifully my anger seemed to be an anomaly drowned in a sea of hope.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s newsletter: unruly cabbages; the last stand

I hope you are enjoying the spring greens that have started to appear in the veg boxes. They may look a little pale and unruly, with the occasional weatherbeaten leaf, but please don’t let them linger in the back of your fridge; they are a delight simply cooked for two mins in plenty of salted, vigorously boiling water. A small knob of butter might help, but I’d implore you to do nothing more.

You may notice that the individual spring green plants vary from 50-200g; this is partly from fighting off weeds and pests, but also a result of genetic variation as they are among the few remaining open pollinated crops which are not grown from ‘F1’ hybrid seeds. For thousands of years, farmers have saved seeds from the best of their crops, thus exerting a selective pressure which led to incremental genetic improvement. In the 1930s, American maize researchers found that if you created two intensively inbred, and therefore relatively uniform strains, and then crossed them, the first (‘F1’) generation could combine the best of both strains while maintaining uniformity and adding hybrid vigour. Hybrid plant breeding helped boost yields and reduce production costs through the late 20th century, and has contributed to the low food prices we have today.

When I started growing vegetables in the ‘80s, my crops were perhaps 20% hybrids; now it’s 90% plus. Mostly it’s a change for the best as we have benefited from better disease resistance, more vigour and increased yield. On the downside I suspect that we have lost some flavour in a few crops. Bigger issues are that hybrids often need near-perfect growing conditions to thrive (hence our open-pollinated spring greens still win out in the tough depths of winter) and most significantly, hybrids do not breed true; this means that farmers cannot harvest their own seed but must buy new seed in every year. Over the last 20 years the GM companies Monsanto, Syngenta and DuPont have bought up seed companies so they now control almost half the global seed trade; I would argue that this monopoly is a bigger issue than GM. Everything around food starts with the seed, so do we really want its future controlled by companies that have risen on the backs of manufacturing PCBs, Agent Orange, bovine growth hormone and glyphosate tolerant GM crops? Long live the unruly greens I say.

Guy Watson

Guy’s newsletter: Fairtrade; not perfect, but worth supporting

Our pineapples are grown by small scale, organic, Fairtrade farmers in Togo, West Africa. It’s an insanely idealistic and ambitious project co-ordinated by the NGO ProNatura who must win trust, co-ordinate production and provide technical support to hundreds of widely dispersed farmers on tennis-court sized fields cut out of the bush. Once the farmers have carried the fruit in baskets to a dirt road, containers must be packed, loaded and transported on decrepit trucks to Tema in Ghana, ready for the 10-20 day journey to Southampton. Overall it’s a huge credit to everyone’s determination to make Fairtrade work. It is also a testimony to the commitment of our staff and forgiveness and support of our customers, because inevitably the first few containers were a disaster; it would be much easier to buy airfreighted fruit from larger scale suppliers.

I visited the project in 2010 with its backer Henri de Pazzis (see the video), partly to see for myself whether Fairtrade really works for producers. From this in addition to meeting our banana growers in the Dominican Republic, coffee growers in Brazil and cocoa growers in Ghana, my conclusion is that though there are persistent problems in rewarding quality and guaranteeing a niche market for the produce, on balance Fairtrade is improving the lives of small scale farmers. Like organic farming it may not be a perfect or whole answer, but as an alternative to the brutal exploitation of world commodity markets, it is doing a pretty good job and deserves our support.

That said, after 20 years of growth, last year UK Fairtrade sales fell by 4%. Some blame the rise of discounters and the recession, but I suspect that cynical and often bogus claims of alternative products being “better than Fairtrade” have eroded support and given us an excuse to be selfish. Traders the world over hate anything that gets in the way of them cutting a good deal. More irritatingly is the rise of the bearded food trendy who has come to lament Fairtrade as an obstacle to rewarding consistent crop quality. They have a point, but I could introduce them to many a farmer whose children would not have gone to school or had medical care without Fairtrade; perhaps they might muse on that as they lament the lack of complexity in their Hoxton brew.

Guy Watson

Guy’s newsletter: the restraint of greed

A few of you have warned me over the years that while you like the veg, you can do without my “commie rants”. I try to confine my weekly musings to the farm but trying to run a business responsibly is itself a political act, so here’s another.

When, five years ago, I realised the business had grown beyond my management skills, I was fortunate to find my managing director Rob Haward; a man who shares my beliefs. Along with setting up a staff profit-share scheme, Rob and I agreed that no-one in the company, including us, would ever earn more than nine times the lowest wage. This may not seem radical but it was as far as we could go without making recruitment and retention of senior and specialist staff impossible; a typical ratio for a UK company of our size is between 15 and 25:1.

Since the recession began and despite Cameron’s cries of “we are in it together”, the rich-poor pay gap has spiralled out of control; executive pay was 60 times the national average salary in the 1990s, but 180 times that today. Indeed in the USA, since the recession the top 1% have taken a staggering 93% of income growth, and the picture is similar here. Not even the most rabid freemarket advocate could argue that is fair. I found myself musing on all this as a result of listening to Robert Peston’s excellent BBC Radio 4 series The Price of Inequality, but my blood reached boiling point last week with news that HSBC appears to have colluded in tax evasion by the super-rich. Worst of all was the extraordinarily complacent response of Cameron, HMRC and HSBC. Have we really sunk into such collective lethargy where we accept such moral bankruptcy as inevitable? Yet, as Robert Peston asserted to an incredulous billionaire; there are powerful rewards other than money. Given half a chance most of us want to do a good job and contribute to something worthwhile, but those potentially very strong motivations are eroded in the face of greed of the rich and powerful.

Despite all of this and to my immense pride (and my MD’s credit) there is a feeling at Riverford that we really are in it together, and we have never had better or more motivated staff, despite being increasingly out of step with executive pay. The restraint of greed can only start at the top.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter: TTIP my personal tipping point

Since retiring 25 years ago, my father has reinvented himself as a living example of low carbon existence with attempts at anaerobic digesters, solar panels, composting loos and a permaculture garden. In his spare time he audits the moral and ethical performance of his progeny and their businesses. It was he who dumped a mountain of genetic modification papers on my desk in 1998, and encouraged me to mount a challenge on the legality of a local GM trial that went all the way to the High Court.

Now he is hassling me about his latest bugbear; the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). After an evening of researching it myself my blood is up too so, at the risk of causing irritation by straying from vegetables into politics, here goes. The TTIP is being negotiated in secret between the EU and USA with the aim of removing barriers to trade, and thus promoting growth. Sounds positive in theory, but in reality any government action deemed restricting to trade in goods or services (and thus impacting on corporate profits) will be open to challenge. Disputes will be settled in secret by three ‘trade experts’ whose guiding rationale will be that anything interfering with free trade is illegal, whatever the views of a country’s electorate or government.

The TTIP would restrict our or any EU member government’s ability to set a minimum wage, legislate on human rights or even operate nationalised industries like the NHS. Under the TTIP we would be unable to fight the introduction of GM crops (or even insist on them being labelled), prevent hormone use in beef and milk production, or restrict the use of neonicotinoid insecticides to protect our bees, or indeed to enforce many laws protecting our health, the environment or animal welfare. To accept the TTIP would be to sacrifice democracy and any semblance of personal or national autonomy at the altar of growth and corporate profit. There must come a point where the human and environmental cost of marginal increases in GDP is too high; for me this is it. If you feel similarly concerned, please visit 38 Degrees to find out more and sign the petition, or write to your MP.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter: GM jostling, hyperbole & inedible bananas

Last week our Prime Minister’s office issued an “independent report” calling for the UK to override EU regulations and start growing GM crops in the UK. What we were not told was that all of its authors had close links with the GM industry, as seen in the national press since the report’s release.

Even though I took the government to the High Court in the 1990s to challenge the legality of GM crop trials bordering our farm, I am not a Luddite. We have made such a mess of our planet that we need to harness science in the search for sustainable co-existence, but we must acknowledge how much we don’t know and that the most important science is the least understood; namely ecology.

Were Monsanto or Syngenta to come up with a perennial, nitrogen-fixing wheat, maize or rice, I would find it hard to argue against it. Yet after 30 years the GM industry has failed to deliver any substantial benefit. The debate doesn’t seem to have moved on and this report isn’t going to help, whatever its true motivations.

I remain marginally anti-GM, though mainly for sociopolitical reasons. Firstly I don’t like the world’s food supply being controlled by a small number of global corporations (Syngenta, Monsanto and DuPont already control 47% of the global seed market); I also lament the continued loss of nutrition, food culture, and the autonomy of small scale farmers that accompanies the drive towards globally traded monocultures.

In Uganda, where 30% of calories are consumed as bananas, a wilt resistant GM variety was widely promoted as an example of how GM could feed the world. According to the farmers I spoke to it was inedible; another case of hyperbole before reality. In the meantime simply better agricultural practices could increase output many-fold and farmers have found other means of living with wilt. Watch our film on my recent Uganda trip here to see how giving farmers independence rather than introducing dependence on GM and agri-chemicals is what is driving positive change.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter: floods, sacrificed soil & scapegoats

I’m writing this in the Budongo Forest Reserve, central Uganda. Until now we’ve been travelling through a parched landscape, scarred by fires and deforestation. It’s been three months of drought, yet last night I fell asleep to the sound of rain on the tin roof, as it is green and lush here even at this driest time of year. The forest canopy and leaf litter protect the soil and provide the organic matter that enables it to absorb even the most intense rain, providing water to the trees above. The microclimate this creates seeds the rain that fell on my roof, while the drought continues in the surrounding land where farmers and hunters have, to a considerable extent, created the drought by their bush burning and bad farming.

Checking the news back home I see the debate starting on how we live with the weather we’ve created. Our farmers have not made the rain but we’ve caused some of the run-off and erosion that has contributed to the floods, mainly through poor agricultural practice. While many British farmers respect and indeed treasure their soil, the recent trend towards autumn sown cereals leaves it exposed to run-off at the wettest time of the year. Meanwhile the general degradation of soil structure that accompanies intensive cultivation of maize (up 24% in 2013, boosted by a relaxation in government regulations) and the widespread abandonment of traditional rotations also reduce percolation of rain.

So how do we improve agricultural practice? In war-torn Uganda I have more sympathy with the farmers, especially those working with the charity Send a Cow, who, armed only with a mattock and machete, are turning their back on burning to plant trees, mulch, control run-off and improve soils through composting and livestock management. The areas are small but the techniques are so evidently successful that neighbours are copying them, no thanks to their government.

Back in the UK one could blame the farmers but the real culprit is our government and their ideology of scrapping environmental regulations in the absurd belief that a free market will hold back the waters. Whether through corruption, ideological dogma or an obsession with self-serving headlines rather than finding lasting solutions, both governments fail their people.

Guy Watson