Monday, 25 February 2008

Fresh Fruit and Veg Fears

Last week I was involved in a radio 4 discussion in celebration of 100 years of the NFU, look here to read more. Whilst I was searching BBC archive for their 'listen again' to add to the blog I stumbled across an interview I did in 2006. Although the piece is a little old it is still very relevant. As we are discussing the depletion of minerals from our current fruit and vegetables, due to the change to intensive farming. The discussion that takes place between myself and Peter Kendall, the then Deputy President, now President of the NFU. If you would like to hear the discussion please click here. You'll find the link to the radio piece on the RHS of the page.

My book We Want Real Food has just been re-released. To grab a copy visit Amazon or visit your nearest bookshop.

Thursday, 21 February 2008

Our duty to the land

Those of us who produce and market local food – or, like me, simply enjoy consuming it – don’t need reminding that it’s often a healthier way to eat. Now at last it seems the government is finally catching up with the benefits.

Health minister Ben Bradshaw has told the Commons that patients in west country hospitals showed faster recovery rates when offered locally-produced meat, dairy products, fish and vegetables than those given the usual anonymous hospital food. The comments are based on findings in Cornwall where health trusts have made big efforts to cut food miles and support local farmers and growers.

According to Ben Bradshaw no less than 80 per cent of the food served in Cornwall’s hospitals now comes from local farmers, butchers, milk producers and fishermen. Not only was local food proving popular with patients, he told the Commons, but it had actually hastened recovery rates.

Let’s hope other government departments take note of the findings. If fresh, local produce can improve the health of people in hospital, it can bring benefits to the wider community too. Institutions like hospitals, schools and prisons are only the starting point. What this obese and sickly nation needs is a totally new food system based on well-grown, nutrient-rich produce.

Sad to see that National Farmers’ Union president Peter Kendall is still pushing for an expansion of large-scale, commodity food. At the union’s AGM he spoke of Britain’s “moral duty” to make “our optimum contribution to global supplies of food and bio-energy”. What this means is that big arable farmers should be free to profit from ever higher production of low-grade industrial crops for global markets. The main beneficiaries of such a policy would be chemical companies and commodity traders. The victims would include the people of Britain, small farmers, the world’s poor and the global environment.

I agree with the NFU president that Britain has a moral duty to use its farmland wisely. But as I see it the wisest thing Britain’s farmers could do for the world is concentrate on growing healthy foods for the 60 million or so people of these islands. And they need to do it using methods that safeguard soil fertility and the global environment for future generations. This way farmers will once again become national heroes. And, like the hospital patients of Cornwall, we’ll all be a lot fitter.

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Down to Earth

I was pleased to see my investigation of soil so skilfully set out in the March issue of Ecologist magazine. The material is mostly taken from my chapter on soil in We Want Real Food. The magazine has used it as part of an extended feature on how climate change and peak oil will impact on our food supply.

It’s good to know the importance of healthy soils to our lives and health is getting the recognition it deserves. In this age of record crop yields it’s easy to get the impression that it’s the chemists, plant breeders and GM technologists who feed us.

The truth is that, however smart our technologies, it’s the living community below ground that enables plants to grow. They supply plants with the nutrients they need, provide them with water and protect them against toxins and disease. Without the activity of soil life – from microscopic bacteria to earthworms – life above ground would quickly grind to a halt.

Sadly chemical farming subjects these living communities to a non-stop toxic barrage, wiping out whole species and disrupting the intricate subterranean network that keeps plants healthy. With their natural support systems weakened, crop plants become more dependent on pesticides to keep them growing – which is great for the chemical industry but bad news for the rest of us.

For the full story of why we owe so much to the life of the soil, take a look at Ecologist magazine. Alternatively, of course, you can read the book, We Want Real Food!

Saturday, 16 February 2008

100 years of the NFU. Do we want 100 more?

This weekend the NFU celebrated its centenary year. The Farming Today This Week programme on BBC Radio Four marked this occasion this morning with a whistle-stop tour of a hundred years of farming. Followed by a discussion between myself, Antony Gibson of the NFU, Dr. Mark Avery of RSPB and the former Chief NFU economist Sean Rickard. The conversation gets a little heated in places but it definitely makes interesting listening. Sean Rickard accused me of talking 'green claptrap' for calling for better quality food. Does today's NFU still take the view that its products are beyond improvement, we wonder?

To hear the full programme click The Farming Today This week. If you only want to hear the discussion then skip forward to approximately 11 minutes.

Thursday, 14 February 2008

GM Scare Stories

Producers of GM seed have found a new way of sneaking out propaganda about their unpopular technology – they’re targeting business editors who aren’t normally too clued up on farming. How else can you explain a full page report in the world business section of The Times today warning of the possible collapse of Europe’s livestock industry because of delays in approving new GM varieties?[1]

We’re told that shortages of grain for animal feed – together with high prices – are “wreaking havoc” on livestock production, causing pig and poultry farmers to cut back their output. According to the report the EU imports 80 per cent of its protein feeds mostly as GM soya and “corn”. It seems the main producing countries – the USA, Argentina and Brazil – are constantly switching to new GM varieties. EU approval policies for new GM grains are apparently so slow that Europe could run out of sources of supply, leading to run-away feed prices and a big cut in pig and poultry production.

To me the article looks like a classic piece of scare-mongering on behalf of the GM companies and global commodity traders. I checked with a couple of farming friends. They agreed that soya supplies were tight but said it had “naff-all” to do with GM approvals. It’s simply that rocketing Chinese demand for protein grains is putting a strain on supplies. While this may be disruptive, it’s hardly likely to lead to the destruction of civilisation as we know it.

For decades now the EU has produced vast surpluses of feed grains. It could easily substitute home-grown protein grains for the cheap American soya the livestock industry has now become addicted to. The UK alone produces an annual grain surplus of 4 million tonnes. For decades British taxpayers have been forced to pick up the tab for dumping it all on global markets, so destroying the livelihoods of farmers in poor countries.

What’s wrong with turning over some of the land to producing our own protein feeds – traditional crops like beans and peas? These were the proteins British farmers put in their animal feeds before they acquired their US soya habit. Both are legumes – they “fix” atmospheric nitrogen, building up the fertility of the soil. They’d help counter climate change, they’d make our farm animals healthier, they’d probably make our foods healthier, too. What’s more these “home-grown “ foods would become genuinely British instead of being dependent on imported grains and energy.

Maybe business editors should talk to farmers more often and rely less heavily on briefings from the GM industry.

[1]Europe faces meat crisis as wrangle over GM animal feeds intensifies’, The Times, Thursday February 14 2008

Monday, 11 February 2008

Climate change and agriculture.

As I discussed in an earlier post (7.2.08) 'The answer is blowing in the wind', farming is considered to be a factor in global warming. But climate change in turn is impacting on agriculture.

I talked about this topic last July in the Comment is Free website - Reaping what we've sown. Here is an extract from the article.

"It would be comforting to think that, in the brave new world of microprocessors and nano-technology, food production would be less vulnerable to such natural disasters. Unfortunately, the reverse is the case. If the recent floods and rainstorms prove anything, it's that at the start of the 21st century our food supplies remain worryingly insecure and precarious.

As far as the countryside is concerned the main accomplishment of the European Union - and its poisonous offspring, the common agricultural policy (CAP) - has been to increase massively the grain-growing area at the expense of grassland. Since we joined the EU in the early 1970s, Britain's wheat-growing area has doubled. Instead of grazing livestock on pasture, many cattle farmers concentrated their animals in sheds and fed them on the cheap, subsidised grain.

Compared with traditional pastoral farming systems, wheat-growing is highly unstable. It relies on energy-rich inputs of chemical fertilisers and sprays, many of them imported. It demands a decent spell of weather at harvest time if the crop is to be got in. And, even under favourable conditions, it depends on squadrons of diesel-burning monster machines to do the job."

Friday, 8 February 2008

Health or wealth?

After Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's and Jamie Oliver's spirited campaign on behalf of intensively-farmed chicken, Tesco's decision to sell a bird at less than £2 looks insensitive to say the least. Sadly it's all part of the supermarket culture that puts takings at the check-out ahead of respect for its customers.

Today science is revealing that milk produced from cows on fast-growing spring pastures is high in fat-soluble vitamins, omega-3s and the cancer-fighting CLA, all the things that protect people from disease.

If you want to read more on this topic I wrote an article for the Guardian UK, Comment is Free website today. Click here to read more - A cheap trick.

"Supermarkets stock 50 different brands of instant coffee so there is something - so they claim - to suit all requirements. Tesco's £1.99 chicken sits alongside free range, organic and a host of other birds. It's called market fragmentation, or some such thing, and it allows the company to maximise its take at the checkout. It's also supposed to give consumers a greater choice.

In reality there's no choice at all. While the strategy may work for washing-up liquid or torch batteries - where the consumer can pretty well estimate what they're getting for their money - it's a nonsense when applied to food. Until science comes up with a way of measuring the total nutrient content of a food, there's no way the consumer can make a sensible choice.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

The answer to Global Warming is blowing in the wind.

In July, Defra commissioned scientists at the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research at Aberystwyth to find ways of reducing the damaging side-effect of bovine flatulence. The scientists are to look principally at changes in the cows' diet.

Methane - a greenhouse gas - is said by scientists to be 20 times more powerful than carbon dioxide as a driver of global warming. Every cow produces up to 200 litres of the stuff a day - equivalent in its climate change effect to a 33-mile Land Rover Freelander journey.

Most methane produced by cows actually comes from their mouths not their bottoms!

We look forward to letting you know the findings of this research but in the meantime why not read my article on the subject from the Comment is Free website in July 2007. Click here to read the full article - Pastures new.

"Alongside our house on Exmoor we have a small, steeply-sloping pasture field known locally as The Cliff. The gradient is so lethal that no one's ever dared venture on it with a tractor. This means that - unlike most grass fields in Britain - it has never been dosed with weedkillers or nitrate fertilisers.

As I look out on the field it's currently bathed in a rare burst of summer sunshine. In the unaccustomed brightness the green sward looks a real picture. From hedgerow to hedgerow it's flecked with wild flowers - mostly white clover, rough hawkbite and the low-growing birdsfoot trefoil, known to the locals as bacon-and-egg.

A commercial farmer glancing over the hedge would shake his head in pity. The field looks more like the subject of a Constable painting than a serious place to produce food. Yet our small flock of Exmoor sheep seem to thrive on it. And in summer - when we get one - the sward comes alive with grasshoppers, bees and flickering butterflies.

Before the days of chemical agriculture, pasture fields across Britain were full of wild flowers and herbs. Old-style livestock farmers believed it was these everyday plants that kept their animals healthy. Pasture plants were thought to be rich in essential minerals and vitamins from which grazing animals could select the diets that suited them - and, presumably, which aided digestion."

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Set the animals free!

Let’s hear it for our favourite retailer (this week) – the Co-op. The management team of the grocery chain commissioned a large-scale survey to find out their customers attitudes to issues such as animal welfare, climate change and fair trade.

They discovered that shoppers were far more concerned with animal welfare and fair trade than they were with climate change. According to the Co-op’s head of ethics, Paul Monaghan, this reflected shoppers’ view that they could improve animal welfare and trade justice through the choices they made in-store. On the question of climate change they felt powerless and thought this was more a matter for corporations and governments.

On the basis of their findings the Co-op has already stopped selling eggs from hens kept in cages. And the 2,700-strong supermarket chain is planning more changes to its trading practises to reflect the concerns of consumers.

Well done the Co-op we say. And here’s some good news for their customers. Buy choosing to buy poultry meat and eggs from hens raised on pasture rather than in cages you’re doing more to combat climate change than you realise.

There was a time not so long ago when most of our food animals were raised on fresh green pasture. The great thing about producing food naturally from clover-rich grassland is that the soil beneath the turf slowly takes up carbon from the air and locks it away safely as organic matter. So the more livestock that run on the pasture – dairy cows, beef cattle, sheep, poultry and pigs – the more fertile the soil becomes.

Sadly in the past few years we’ve been duped by the fertilizer companies, the energy corporations and the politicians who are supposed to be in charge of farming to raise livestock on industrially-grown grain crops. These require massive inputs of pesticides and energy-rich chemical fertilizers, and the animal foods they produce are less healthy than those raised naturally on grass. What’s more these industrial crops rob the soil of fertility and shove carbon back into the atmosphere where it hastens climate change.

Whatever the vegans say, the scandal is – not that many of us enjoy animal foods – but that two-thirds of the world’s grain is squandered on producing them.

So the message for the Co-op and its ethical customers is when you buy pasture-raised poultry you’re not just being kind to the birds, you’re also doing plenty for the planet. Now having set the chicken free, the next thing is to put cattle and pigs back on pasture too. That way we’ll not just get better food and healthier animals. We’ll turn our farming from being an environmental polluter to the friend of the environment it ought to be.

Monday, 4 February 2008

Hunter-gatherers in a natural world.

Welcome to our site! We are here to champion truly healthy food. I believe the best guarantee of robust health comes from foods rich in the vitamins, minerals, anti-oxidants and protective fats our bodies need – in short, real foods. Sadly they’re not the kinds of foods you’ll find in the local supermarket. Because of the way today’s foods are grown and processed, most have been stripped of the nutrients we need for good health. The labels may describe them as “healthy” but the chances are they’ll have been dumbed down. Far from protecting your family they’re more likely to set them on the slow track to chronic illness.

In my view human beings are programmed to stay healthy – it’s the default position. Humans evolved as hunter-gatherers in a natural world well stocked with nutrient-rich foods. They were the everyday foods that promoted peak fitness. Since then our bodies have scarcely changed. We still need these naturally-grown, nutrient-dense foods to stay healthy. We need meat and dairy products from animals grazing uncontaminated, herb-rich pastures; fruits, vegetables and whole-grains from soils that are biologically-active and balanced for minerals. We’re not simply talking organic - foods grown without pesticides or sprays. We’re talking “organic plus” – foods grown in ways that enhance their nutrient content and boost human immunity.

It’s hard to believe such foods could still exist in a country dominated by chemically-dependent, industrial forms of agriculture. Yet they’re out there if you know where to look. There’s no denying that finding them may require some effort. It will mean taking over responsibility for the health of yourself and your family, not leaving the job to those who have let us down – the food giants, the supermarkets and the politicians. But you can start out in the sure knowledge that once you’ve found sources for health-protecting foods you can relax. You’ll never need to look at a diet book again.

So welcome to the world of the new hunter-gatherer. It’s going to be a great adventure. And we’ll be with you every step of the way.

Saturday, 2 February 2008

Convenience food - The way to go?

Almost all of us live near a supermarket these days. In towns they seem to be on almost every corner, and they're multiplying at a bewildering rate. Is this a good thing? In November 2007, the Competition Commission released a report on supermarkets. It followed 17 months of investigations. At the end of it they came up with a conclusion I still find inexplicable.

Here is an extract from that article. Click here to read more - Corporate Feed

"With a little courage, it (the competition commission) could have taken a far more creative view of the nature of competition. There's no reason why an oligopoly of giant supermarkets should be the only show in town. Why not set up the superstore culture against a thriving high street of small specialist shops? Instead of changing the planning laws to encourage more supermarkets, as it recommends, the commission could equally have proposed measures to revive the town-centre shopping and put it on a more equable trading footing with the edge of town superstore.

Britain's moribund grocery market desperately needs this kind of innovation - not just to pare down prices, but to drive up food standards, something the supermarkets have largely failed to do."

Friday, 1 February 2008

Milk Fest

Being a bit of a farming geek I thought I’d try out the one-day Dairy Show – a sort of “Glastonbury” for dairy farmers just a stone’s throw from the Pilton site. OK, so it’s not really like Glastonbury. For a start there’s no mud. And a most of the stands are inside in the warm.

Even so, for a bunch of guys who spend most of their lives milking cows and shifting the brown stuff, there’s something of a festival atmosphere about the event. Farmers go there for a good gossip with their mates and to catch up on the latest technical developments – everything from
automatic teat dips to the latest line in dairy disinfectants.

There are plenty of market gurus on hand to speculate about the prospects for world milk prices – on the up at the moment, so everyone’s pretty cheerful. And for the tired and weary, the dairy companies’ plush stands are somewhere to sit and have a cup of tea while they tell you about their latest products and how they’re grabbing an ever bigger share of the market.

What you don’t hear at shows like this is anything about health. This is might seem surprising when you consider that milk – properly produced from cows grazing fresh, clover-rich pasture – is one of the healthiest foods you can buy. On the other hand, milk from cows fed unhealthy foods such as cereal grains and soya is best left well alone.

As I walked around the dairy fest I looked in vain for something on the health benefits of pasture feeding. There were plenty of stands promoting feeds like palm kernel expeller, soya hulls and distillers barley. But nothing to tell you that a field of good spring grass will fill your milk with CLA, one of the most powerful cancer-fighters known in nature. I doubt these farmers would have been interested.

The sad fact is that dairy farmers have been cut off from their real customers – you and me – since 1933 when the government set up the monopolistic Milk Marketing Board with powers to buy up every single drop of milk produced in the UK. Ever since then the chief aim of farmers has been to produce as much as they can as cheaply as they can, then send it off in the tanker to some faceless official of the Board/government/EU/dairy company.

It’s all about churning out the white stuff at a decent margin. It’s the chief reason why the standard of 90 per cent of the milk on sale in our supermarkets is so appallingly low.

Back before the days of government meddling, 50,000 British dairy farmers sold milk direct to the public. What mattered to them was, not the latest gizmo for automatic teat dipping, but how to deliver rich, fresh-tasting milk that would keep their customers happy and secure the future of their businesses. It was a different basic psychology.

If we’re going to get back to truly healthy milk in Britain we’re going to have to restore those direct links between producer and consumer. Grass-fed, local milk will give us a healthier population, a healthier planet and a better future for family farms.

Stay with us and help make it happen!