Tag Archives: seeds

Guy’s Newsletter: GM, PR & the BBC

In 1998 some GM maize trials were planned on a neighbour’s farm across the river from Riverford, which threatened to cross-pollinate with my organic sweetcorn. I wasn’t overly bothered but my father, recently retired and reinvented as an eco-warrior, was getting agitated. He dumped a pile of papers on my desk and, reluctantly at first, I got reading.

At university, ten years earlier, I had been intrigued by the neatly simple, powerful genetic coding that controlled the synthesis of proteins and hence heredity and all life. Wow; who wouldn’t be excited? The discovery won Watson, Crick and Wilkins a well-deserved Nobel Prize in 1962 and, as the tools developed to apply and exploit the discovery, a science, an industry and then a political lobby was born.

After a month of reading I was alarmed by the potential food safety and environmental implications of the emerging technology, and with encouragement from the Soil Association and Friends of the Earth, I challenged the legality of the maize trials and the case went all the way to the High Court; but the real battle turned out to be in the media.

Despite being a vocal campaigner I was never fundamentally opposed to the technology, rather the rush to commercialise it at any cost. With cries of ‘Frankenstein food’ from the anti-GM movement and spurious claims of solving world hunger from the pro lobby, the smokescreen of misleading, emotive information from both sides has made it almost impossible to form a non-partisan, informed opinion. I got fed up, declined invitations to speak and backed out of the fight. Money talks in PR, if only because it can buy the persistence that few causes can maintain, and over the last 15 years the GM industry has won the battle, in England and Wales at least. Is this down to the strength of their arguments or the depth of their pockets? Either way, the culmination was seen last week with the BBC’s blatantly pro-GM edition of Panorama, entitled ‘Cultivating Fear’.

What most took me aback was how the programme justified the use of GM aubergine in Bangladesh as a means of preventing pesticide poisoning among farming families. The scale of the poisoning was truly horrific and is repeated across the developing world where many farmers are illiterate and use pesticides with no protective clothing. One of the most disturbing things I have ever seen is a Ugandan farmer smoking a soggy cigarette while spraying tomatoes; it was soggy with the toxic liquid leaking from his back pack sprayer. In the Punjab, according to doctors quoted in the excellent film The True Cost, it is common for villages to have 70 or more children suffering from birth defects, cancers and mental illness resulting from pesticide exposure. As such I found it almost surreal to hear these horrific consequences of the last round of agritech progress being used as a justification for the next, especially when the products in question are supplied by the same western companies. This was PR spin at its worst, yet I wondered if I had become a hopelessly romantic Luddite, part of former Secretary of State Owen Paterson’s “green blob” resisting progress from a position of privilege. I needed the facts, so 15 years on from that courtroom battle I sat down again to read. This is what I found out:

  • GM crops have not reduced pesticide use; according to the US Department of Agriculture (normally pro GM), over 15 years GM crops have resulted in a 7% increase in pesticide use due to weeds and insects developing resistance.
  • It turns out that even the Bangladesh GM aubergine is far from an unbridled success, and that Panorama painted a very flattering picture of it. According to a local scientist, many of the farmers who took part in the experiment are demanding compensation.
  • The USDA states there is no evidence of GM increasing yield potential. It turns out conventional breeding has been much better at boosting yields at a fraction of the cost.
  • None of the claims for nutritionally enhanced food, drought-tolerant or more nitrogen-efficient crops have been successful to date. Owen Paterson labelled the anti-GM lobby “wicked” for resisting vitamin A enhanced GM ‘golden rice’. The reality is that it has proved difficult to make the technology work and the developers at the International Rice Research Institute say they are years from being ready to grow a successful commercial crop. How and why could a politician with research assistants make such a provocative and poorly informed statement?
  • After 18 years of Americans eating GM food it is claimed that there are no obvious health impacts, but the same was said after much longer periods for smoking, trans fats, asbestos, excessive salt etc. There have been peer reviewed animal studies which have raised concern but I find it worrying that in the case of any questioning of GM the response is always a near hysterical hounding of the scientists from their post.

These are just some of the issues that should concern all of us. For all but the most ardent laissez faire capitalist I would suggest there are two more worth considering:

  • In the last 20 years the biotech companies have been buying up the global seed trade; the top three (Monsanto, Dupont and Syngenta) own a staggering 47%. With the loss of smaller companies go local varieties suited to local conditions and requirements. As a grower myself, I have seen a very noticeable decline in choice.
  • Even more extreme: 87% of the global surface of GM crops is controlled by Monsanto, either directly through the sale of seeds or indirectly through the licence of traits for which they own the patents.

I am reluctant to be branded a communist (again) but I was taught that the efficiency of capitalism required free markets and that a key part of a free market was the avoidance of monopolies. Monsanto and the other so called ‘big ag’ multinationals clearly have a vision for our future and are rapidly getting in a position to impose it; Owen Paterson and the Panorama presenter Tom Heap may be comfortable with that, but I am uneasy with a global food supply being controlled by the same people who brought us DDT, Agent Orange and PCBs.

I think it is highly likely that GM will have a role in shaping sustainable agriculture at some point; no one can predict where science can take us. But in debating how to feed the world, bombarding us with emotive and misleading messages driven more by a PR agenda than by fact is unforgivable. We need, rather, a cool headed evaluation of the scientific evidence, tempered by transparency around the commercial interests at play.

Guy Watson

SOURCES:

Main scientific content: http://earthopensource.org/earth-open-source-reports/gmo-myths-and-truths-2nd-edition/, itself fully referenced with many scientific citations.

A different view of Bt. Brinjal in Bangladesh – not scientific (but neither was Panorama): http://ubinig.org/index.php/home/showAerticle/76/english”

The status of the Golden Rice project: International Rice Research Institute

guy’s newsletter: websites, seeds & petition fatigue!

As we continue to struggle with our new website, I have run off to France to bury my head in chilli plants and pretend it is not happening. It’s getting pretty tedious for all concerned: you, our customers, our local vegmen and ladies who deliver your boxes, our customer service team, and our IT department who are working 24/7 to keep the show afloat while trying to fix it. I have never felt so inadequate in the face of a challenge. I did offer my help, but the last thing they need is the ineffectual flapping of the technically illiterate. We know how frustrating it is for you all and we are working on getting it fixed as quickly as humanly possible. Sorry, sorry and sorry again.

Here in the French Vendée, we are cutting the last of the lettuce, prior to the Devon crop next week. The courgettes are flowering and the sweetcorn and beans are emerging. We are trying to save the carrots before they are submerged by weeds, but with other jobs stacking up I suspect some will be lost. The worst weeds are the tomatillos that self-seeded last year and have emerged with impressive vigour; note to self, never to follow them with a weed-sensitive crop again.

Do you suffer from petition fatigue? How many things can you muster outrage about each month? In a bout of bureaucratic excess that almost beggars belief, the EU commission are contemplating forbidding us from growing anything that is not registered, approved and licence paid for. Effectively it would be illegal to save, exchange or sell seed that is not on their list. It’s enough to make you join UKIP; almost. It is particularly bad news for organic farmers, small independent gardeners, seed banks and general diversity. It is good news for global seed companies and industrial farming. After much campaigning, some of the worst absurdities have been modified, but it still seems like a bad and unnecessary piece of legislation. If, like me, this makes you mad, please sign the petition at www.seed-sovereignty.org.

And lastly, today (Friday 10th May), is the last chance to vote for us in the esteemed Observer Ethical Awards.

Guy Watson

Penny’s Gardening Blog – Growing from Seed

In My Gardening Blog This Week

I am going to suggest some easy seed varieties to try and explain how to go about germinating them. I am sure many of you are experienced at growing plants from seeds already so bear with me if you are finding this blog simplistic but I am approaching it from the angle of teaching a novice. There is nothing more rewarding than raising plants from seeds. It feels rather miraculous and magical not unlike the feeling of having a baby, but a lot quicker and without pain! (I suppose it is creation of sorts. It’s so exciting when you first notice some movement under the soil in your seed tray and then slowly the first seed leaves appear.)

Equipment you need

Growing Space   A green house is ideal place to grow your seedlings. A polytunnel is a close runner up. A light conservatory, porch or window sill will do.

Seed trays, pots or containers. Plastic seed trays, modules and pots are widely available in garden centres but you can improvise recycling plastic containers you may have at home that have held food etc. It is important that there are drainage holes in them though. One of my friends uses the Riverford milk cartons, cut down in size and makes drainage holes in the bottom. These are waxed so hold up to being watered.

Growing media.  There are a lot of different composts out there on the market. Get one that states it is seed compost as it will be finer in texture( and therefore more suitable). Basically you need a light loose medium that retains moisture and doesn’t develop a crust.  Oxygen and water are essential for germination.

Labels.   Plant labels are crucial( as unless you’re pretty experienced,)or  you will get into rather a muddle and not know what is what when your seedlings germinate. You can buy plastic labels or recycle plastic pots and cut them into labels. I use a pencil to log the variety and date sown.

Seeds.   The following seeds (I have suggested) are pretty easy to grow ( if you give them the correct treatment). There are billions to choose from so this is literally a drop in the dark! Many of my Gardening blog readers have probably ordered one of Riverfords boxes to grow- veg, herb or flower or maybe all three. If this is the case, try and grow different varieties from the ones to be delivered to your door. The flower box to grow delivery date is later in the season than usual so maybe try and bring on some seedlings to produce some earlier flowers for yourself.

Helianthus-Sunflowers. There are many different varieties, some grown for their height (great fun for family competition) and smaller headed with a more bushy branching habit that are good for cutting.

Tropaeolum –Nasturtium.  This herb is said to attract black fly keeping them away from your veg plants such as broad beans and cabbages. It is also a favourite with hoverflies which are great to have around as their larvae eat aphids. The leaves and flowers can be added to salads although it is said you should not consume more than 30gms a day.

Borago officianalis-Borage.  This herb is a fantastic companion plant, the blue flower being attractive to bees hence aiding pollination. It is equally attractive in the flower or vegetable garden. The flowers can be pinched off and used to add to a gin and tonic or a summer Pimms. They also look great added to a salad along with nasturtium and calendula flowers.

Lathyrus odoratus-Sweet Peas.  These are a must in any garden and are really pretty fool proof. They will provide you with flowers right through to the first frosts as long as you keep cutting them so stopping them from going to seed. I prefer the old fashioned varieties, although they have smaller flowers, they are daintier and are far more scented.

Sowing seeds in seed trays or pots or modules.

I really wanted to do a little video of sowing seeds to run alongside this blog but have been struck down with the lurgy and unable to get out there.

Put some compost into your chosen container and gentle tap to settle the compost, not quite filling to the top. You can sow in rows, individually or broadcast over the surface. Now cover with a layer of compost. The depth to which your seed should be covered is dependent on its size. Generally speaking it should be covered by about the same depth of compost as the seed size itself, so for very small seed, covered with an equally small depth of compost and for larger seeds with a deeper layer. Now gently firm down the compost with your hand and label the container with the variety and date sown. Water in, using a watering can with fine rose attached. For very fine seed use  a mister so as not to dislodge the seeds.

Place your containers in a light warm situation and keep your containers moist at all times but not drenched. You may need to water once a day.

Some people like to cover their seed trays etc with a pane of glass or a clear plastic bag to give extra warmth. This is fine but be careful as the seedlings emerge that they don’t get scorched by direct sunlight.

Check for unwanted intruders such as slugs and snails on a daily basis, being careful to look at the underside of the containers as this is where they often hide.

In My Next Gardening Blog

I will be look at gardening tasks for March and how to grow on germinated seedlings

Ed’s Farm Blog – loo roll in the polytunnels

Ed's Farm Blog - Organic SaladI’m Ed Scott, and I work on the Riverford Organic’s founding farm in Devon. The plan is that I’ll be writing a regular farm blog, showing you what we’re growing and how we’re growing it.

It’s now the beginning of February, and we are busy picking leeks and the last of our curly kale from the fields. We have also just laid the last of our winter salad pack in the polytunnels. The majority of our salads are block-planted through a plastic mulch, and treated as ‘cut-and-come-again’ crops; these can be picked between three and five times, dependant on type and variety.

As well as the blocks, a proportion of our salad leaf plants come in seed matting; a large spool of seeds sandwiched between plastic and a blotting-paper like material. Much like cress grown on loo roll at home, upon germination the roots reach through the paper into the soil below, while the leaf pushes up through tiny slits pre-cut in the plastic. This system has the advantage of lower plant and planting costs whilst ensuring the crop is not swamped with weeds; and although we have mixed feelings about the volume of plastic used, it’s actually no more than that used in our traditional block planted system.

TEd's Organic Farm Bloghe disadvantage of this system is that the seed matting doesn’t work with all plants and can only be cropped once; our first planting went in during October and was harvested in the run-up to Christmas. The rolls laid this week should be ready for harvesting in late March. Keep an eye out for further pictures showing progress through the growing stages.

Ed Scott
Assistant Harvest Manager