EU withdraws soil framework proposal

Farming Online – Thursday 22nd May

The withdrawal of the Soil Framework directive is a big step backwards for sustainable agriculture and environmental protection more generally. It is deeply disappointing. The directive would have made soil a non-renewable resource, regulating and protecting it as such. The NFU, which lobbied hard for the withdrawal, has said that ‘Farmers have an inherent interest in maintaining their land in good condition and in assuring its long-term fertility and productivity,’ The problem is, many farmers haven’t been doing this. Soil depletion and degradation is a huge problem in conventional agriculture. To dismiss the directive as ‘outmoded’, replacing it with a ‘fit for growth’ package seems remarkably short-sighted. You can’t grow anything in poor quality soil, and our current model for farming has been based around raiding the soil for whatever it can give and leaving it for dead (quite literally, when you consider the impact of nitrogen fertilizers on the microbial life that good soil is dependent on.)

The only way to ensure that our precious European soil is kept healthy and productive in the coming years, is to monitor its health and regulate how it is used. Soil can be regenerated, but the process takes time and can only be achieved through real care to build-up organic mater and soil-life. Given the current status-quo, building soil health can only be guaranteed through regulation and an understanding of how to look after it, so that it remains productive for future generations and not just our own.

Antibiotic resistance in farm animals ‘threatened by UK cuts’

The Guardian – Monday 19th May

We must have rigorous regulation of antibiotic use in farming and start to track the development of antimicrobial resistance in farm animals. This should be a priority for government, because the disappearance of antibiotics is a terrifying prospect. The misuse of antibiotics in farm animals is one of the key contributors to the increase of antimicrobial resistance, and though some regulation is beginning to be put into place, we are a long way off turning the boat around on this. Government cuts to Defra are among the steepest in this round. The cuts might well affect the ability of government to effectively monitor antibiotic use and growing resistance. This seems mad at best. At worst, it might make one wonder if the government is actually interested in the public’s health? As the Responsible Use of Antibiotics in Agriculture Alliance has pointed out, ‘With the Defra cuts, ministers have to choose what it is most important to spend on. The question of antibiotic use should be one of their top ten risk assessments.’

Antibiotic use in agriculture and its impacts must be considered as seriously as in their use in humans – one can’t be separated from the other. Salmonella, e-coli, campylobacter and other bacteria can transfer from animals to humans and antibiotic use in many parts of the world is still completely unregulated. We need to be throwing a lot more money at this issue, not a lot less.

Oregon county bans GMO crops

Grist – Wednesday 21st May

The issue of GMO crops and crop contamination is a critical one. Because of the potential for non-GM crop contamination, the growing of GMO varieties without regulation could mean the disappearance of non-GMO and organic food. Farmers in Jackson County, Oregon have successfully campaigned for a measure to outlaw the growing of GMO crops. Farmers there don’t want contamination from the Syngenta GMO ‘Round-up ready’ sugar beets that the company started growing two-years ago. The farmers want to be able to save their own seeds, and possible contamination from GMOs makes this impossible. It is remarkable that the farmers have managed to outlaw the seed, but it is a very small step in a much larger battle – one that is not looking good for the longer term. Farmers in the county next to Jackson are trying to pass a similar bill there, but the state legislate has just passed a bill preventing local government from regulating GM crops. More and more, the agri-tech business is turning to legislation for a mandate on GMOs, to allow them to do just as they please. It’s insidious and does not have the public interest in mind.

The food system we choose affects biodiversity: do we want monocultures?

The Guardian – Thursday 22nd May

Greenpeaces’s Kumi Naidoo aptly sums up all that is wrong with our industrial food system and how it is killing the planet. Biodiversity is everything in maintaining the delicate ecosystems that make our world go round. The rise of monocultural farming is an essential feature of cheap, supermarket food – and it’s doing us no good at all – as Naidoo points out, it forms part of a trinity of bad agricultural practice, alongside heavy pesticide use and genetic engineering. It is also a system wholly dependent on fossil fuels, which is generating the climate change set to have a devastating impact in the coming century on how we eat. We will spend $50 billion more on food each year because of the impact of climate change on crops.

The inevitable solution is to move towards ecologically sustainable agriculture, and this is what Naidoo calls for. Sustainable agricultural practices are increasingly being taken up again in conventional farming, because they make sense as a means of negotiating the impacts of climate change. Caring for the soil will make it easier to combat extreme changes in the weather, making farms more resilient, and it can also be key in improving yields.

But it needs to go much further than just the adoption of some sustainable farming practices. In relation to biodiversity, pesticide use is devastating and studies across the globe have mapped again and again, how they impact important species. The plight of the Monarch butterfly provides just one emblematic example of this. Naidoo asserts that we are at a ‘crossroads’ in food production, opting either for a ‘dead-end road’ system of industrial farming or choosing instead, ‘…a food system that celebrates biodiversity and is healthy for people and the planet.’ The choice should be easy.

Supermarket bosses admit they don’t pay attention to ‘ridiculous’ labels on their own food

The Daily Mail – Saturday 24th May

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If the comments of supermarket CEOs don’t make you reconsider the inane array of dates – best before, sell-by and use-by – we don’t know what will. They have little bearing on the safety of the food and are causing a vast amount of waste by those of us that think they are an actual indicator of food safety. They aren’t. Your nose, your eyes and your tongue will tell you far more about whether something is safe to eat. If that soup that’s been in the fridge for 5 days is effervescent, it might be time to dump it, but if it still smells and tastes delicious, finish it up! Over the millenia, humans have developed an acute sensibility about what food is good to eat – that’s why we don’t like bitter tastes (it might poison us) and also why we develop our tastes for food slowly, tasting a little bit and then trying more of something over time (to make sure we don’t get sick from it.) So we are much better placed to determine what we should and should not be eating, than what is effectively a guess on how long something will last. All those dates are doing is contributing to this country’s huge food waste problem.

Natural foods retailer to farmers: Let cows graze

The Huffington Post – Saturday 24th May

The Natural Grocers chain has announced that it is only going to carry dairy products from pastured cows. In many ways, this is a good thing. We want retailers to be thinking about the animal welfare and environmental benefits of grass-fed cows and taking a stance on it. However, this has kicked off something of a debate about what defines pastured cows. In many parts of the US, cows can’t be pastured at certain times of the year because the weather is inclement – too hot or too cold. So how long should cows be outside to be able to be called pastured?

Organic standards in the US require livestock to be pastured a minimum of 120 days a year. It opens up a bit of a murky area – without clear standards for non-organic livestock as to what constitutes ‘pastured’ dairy, consumers can’t be certain about what they’re buying. As with ‘free-range’ chickens, just how much free range they are given can vary widely to the point of, arguably, not being free-range anymore. Natural Grocers has set its own standard for the dairy it sells – it has adopted the 120 days a year of the organic standard. So at least it’s clear there. But what about all the other retailers carrying non-organic ‘pastured’ meat and dairy?

Natural Grocers has been accused of using their pastured dairy stance as a marketing gimmick, which is more than a little unfair. Having the more natural life of pastured cows is far and away a better choice – for the cows, for the land, and for everyone eating dairy and beef.

Feature image by Distant Hill Gardens, strawberries by Fruitnet

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