Farmers using food banks after government payment delay

BBC – Tuesday 20th December

It seems impossible that farmers, who spend their lives producing food, can’t afford to eat. Sadly, this is the case for some hill farmers in the UK following the government’s failure to pay EU subsidies on time. These farmers are living on the poverty line – and relying on subsidies for as much as 90% of their income – because of a distorted economic system that utterly fails to account for the true value of what they produce, not only in terms of food but also in wider environmental and societal benefits.

Hill farms are the linchpin of upland rural economies, with a range of associated businesses and jobs dependent on local agriculture. Without this, upland communities face decline, with ‘quaint’ villages gradually taken over by wealthy commuters, and farms bought for development and holiday homes.

This not only threatens the survival of indigenous British farming knowledge and culture, it also jeopardises our food security by taking more and more farms out of production, undermining the ability to produce food sustainably from upland landscapes. With Brexit throwing the future of farm subsidies into question, policymakers must ensure that the most vulnerable families and businesses are protected, and that payments reflect the full range of benefits that farmers generate.

Pesticides responsible for a health scandal ‘bigger than asbestos’

FGInsight – Monday 19th December

The Greens-European Free Alliance, a group of the European Parliament, are calling for more rigorous regulation of pesticides by the European Union and ultimately, a move to ‘100 per cent organic’ farming. One member of the group has called pervasive pesticide use, a “Europe-wide public health scandal bigger than asbestos.”

Concern for the environmental and public health impacts of pesticides has been growing for decades, with the dangers of a wide array of these chemicals being increasingly evidenced. Glyphosate has been recognised as a probable carcinogen by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and evidence is now approaching consensus on the damage to pollinators of neonicotinoids. Atrazine, a widely used endocrine disrupting chemical, has been shown by UC Berkeley biologist Tyrone Hayes to change the reproductive system of frogs. (Syngenta, who commissioned the research, has subsequently gone to great lengths to discredit Hayes’ work.) The US Environmental Protection Agency is currently reviewing an array of chemicals including the pesticides atrazine and paraquat (linked to Parkinson’s disease) with a view to banning them – though President-elect Trump’s plan to dismantle the agency may stop this in its tracks.

The demands of the Greens-European Free Alliance are yet another push to negotiate the dangerous impacts of widespread pesticide use. Despite the resistance of many regulatory bodies – the EFSA notably among them – who maintain close ties with companies like Syngenta and Monsanto that produce these chemicals, there is some hope that we may be crawling to a tipping point in pesticide regulation.

Lidl gravy granules found to contain paint thinner chemical

BBC – Saturday 17th December

A headline like this will – hopefully – make people think harder about the true cost of cheap food. What’s remarkable here is the amount of the paint thinner in the gravy granules is at an ‘unsafe’ level – implying that there is a legal level at which paint thinner in food would be safe.

Lidl is as yet unable to explain how paint thinner got into the gravy granules (an investigation has been launched), but this story serves to highlight the ever-increasing array of chemicals that make their way into food products. These include chemicals which improve shelf-life and ‘mouthfeel’, and ones that intensify flavour well-beyond the ubiquitous monosodium glutamate; there are also a wide range of colouring additives that make food look bright and fresh when it most certainly isn’t; and many chemicals used in food also appear in things like paint and glue – so no surprise really about that paint thinner in the gravy granules

Journalist Joanna Blythman, who has written extensively on processed foods, comments that, “Processed food contains known poisons. There is a lazy assumption that if these substances are in small quantities, then they are not doing any damage, but this is complacent and likely to be wrong.” The lesson here is ‘buyer beware’.

Neonics are a buzz-kill for bumblebees

Farming Online – Tuesday 13th December

Yet another new study on the impact of neonicotinoids on bumblebees testifies to the myriad impacts these pesticides have on pollinators. This study looks at how bumblebees who pollinate through ‘buzz pollination’ are negatively affected by neonics.

‘Buzz pollination’ is an altogether more delicate process than normal pollination where bees collect and spread pollen among plants. Certain plants – like potatoes – hang on to their pollen and bees can only obtain it by stimulating small pores on the plant’s anthers through vibrations. Neonics seem to impair how bees learn the delicate technique of vibration; those that have been exposed don’t appear to get any better at it and collect less pollen as a result.

An extensive amount of evidence has been produced, particularly in the last few years since the EU ban came into affect, which shows that neonics are harmful in varying and important ways to the health of bees and other pollinators. Neonics may be much loved by farmers and chemical companies but if we want to preserve the vast number of crops dependent on pollination, it’s time for a permanent ban this family of pesticides.

Farmers are abandoning traditional ploughing

BBC –  Friday 16th December

Farmers have been ploughing their fields for millennia, but in recent decades there’s been a movement towards ‘no-till’ practices in arable production. ‘No-till’ farming – a way of growing crops or pasture without ploughing – is becoming increasingly popular. Farmers sow directly into soil, over whatever’s left from the previous crop (stubble, roots, stalks), thus avoiding bare soil. This means less soil erosion and compaction. It also means increased organic matter in soil and better water retention. Increased soil health, leads to increased crop yields, which combined with fuel savings, means increased profits.

Not all farmers are convinced. There are large up-front costs for new ‘direct seeding’ machinery, and conventional no-till agriculture can actually lead to increased herbicide use with chemicals like glyphosate used to kill cover crops and weeds before farmers sow a new cash crop. This further contributes to the spread of herbicide-resistant ‘superweeds’ and generates other significant long term costs to farmers, the environment and human health. However, there are sustainable versions of ‘no-till’ agriculture. When combined with techniques developed by sustainable farming research (for example, the Rodale Institute’s ‘No-till Roller Crimper’), there is little doubt that no-till can offer significant advantages to farmers and support soil health and fertility.

Photograph: that.alastair

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