Soil damage could make parts of East Anglia ‘unprofitable’

Farmers Guardian Insight – Wednesday 1st July

The degradation of soil is a major crisis across the globe that has little attention paid to it. Now, a new UK government report indicates that the crisis could be hitting home. The report by the Committee on Climate Change highlights the declining productivity of the east of England where soil has been degraded by intensive farming practices. It states that “deep ploughing, short rotation periods and exposed ground leading to soil erosion from wind and heavy rain” are significant problems. The poor soil in some parts of the east could put the viability of farming at risk. It’s a serious issue that threatens Britain’s food security and could leave the country more dependent on food imports, just when global demand for food is on the rise.

Restoring the health of soil is not a quick and easy job, but the impact of caring for soils through good agricultural practice can be seen fairly fast. It does, however, mean that change must happen now and that change must be big. The greening measures required by the new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reforms are but a small step in the right direction. What is really needed is a radical transformation – a move away from arable mono-cropping towards mixed farming, with fertility building by grass balancing exploitation from combinable crops, reduced reliance on nitrogen and water-soluble phosphate fertilisers that harm the soil’s microbial life, increasing instead of decreasing organic matter levels and greater diversity all round. Whether the longstanding bad habits of industrial farming can be changed is a looming question. There have been some initial steps in the right direction but the CAP and Countryside Stewardship schemes need to go much further and become the vehicles for radical change to bring integration and balance back into food production. If that does not happen, the future for soils will be very poor.

China building a 100,000-cow dairy unit to supply Russian market

Farmers Weekly – Monday 6th July

This is a bleak picture of the future of agriculture if there ever was one. Big just gets bigger in the dreams of industrial agriculture and with China establishing a major dairy industry, it will be hard for anything else to compete. In a move that one commentator has termed “agricultural geo-politics”, the Russians have partnered with the Chinese to build a 100,000-cow dairy unit to produce milk and cheese for the Russian market. Russia has banned imports of milk and cheese from Europe because of economic sanctions imposed by the European Union over its involvement in the war in Ukraine. Russia used to import some 25% of Europe’s cheese production alone, but Mansel Raymond, chairman of Milk Working Party Copa-Cogeca, which works for European milk producers, fears that Europe has now lost the Russian dairy market altogether.

The 100,000 cows will be housed indoors and the animal welfare and environmental implications of this are disturbing. The development will build on the 40,000-cow unit that China has already erected; a video of that site shows a sea of vast blue sheds as far as the eye can see. Will China’s new facility be the Armageddon of European milk production?

Farm Safety Week kicks off as HSE figures highlight poor safety record

Farmers Guardian Insight – Monday 6th July

Farming is the most dangerous profession in Britain and Ireland. In our bucolic vision of the farm – sheep grazing peacefully on green pastures, chickens pecking at worms, fields full of produce – it’s easy to forget just how often people and children get hurt. Farm machinery is dangerous. The most recent incident testifies to this: a six-year-old girl died after being hit by a tractor that her father was driving.

Most concerning is that farm injuries and deaths have not abated over the years. Rob Jones of the Farm Safety Foundation, comments that “Farms remain the only workplace where children still continue to die”. Farm Safety Week provides a range of advice on farm safety from working with machinery to keeping children out of harm. It aims to raise awareness of the dangers and help farmers develop safety plans and implement them.

Big food is trying to dupe you into loving industrial agriculture

Take Part – Wednesday 1st July

This isn’t exactly new news – the PR machine of ‘big food’ has been confusing the issues for consumers for a long time. But a new report authored by a coalition of NGOs, including Friends of the Earth, takes aim at one of the newer tactics: independent organisations are being set-up as mouthpieces for corporations, providing consumer-facing information designed to make industrial agriculture sound a whole lot better than it is.

The organisations have innocuous names such as Protect the Harvest, Alliance for Food and Farming, and Center for Consumer Freedom. They masquerade as charities and non-profits with websites full of information, research pamphlets and commentaries from scientists and other ‘experts’ offering a seemingly independent perspective. It’s often very hard to work out who is actually funding them, but dig around a bit and you will start to come across some big names. For example, the Center for Food Integrity’s membership includes Tyson, McDonalds, Dupont, Nestlé, Smithfield, Monsanto and a long line of others… with the World Wildlife Fund tacked on at the end for good measure.

The messages of these organisations are targeted at things that consumers are concerned about, such as processed foods. In a film clip on the Center for Food Integrity’s website, Dr Connie Weaver tells us that while ‘junk food’ is bad for you, processed foods “give us food all year round, reduce waste, improve nutrition [and] extend shelf life”. What’s so bad about that? She tells us that staples like bread and cheese are processed foods and it’s the recipe that’s bad not the process. It’s eminently sensible advice and nothing she says is inaccurate. However, she doesn’t point out that while not all processed food is bad for you, the vast majority of it is filled with chemicals and fillers like monosodium glutamate and maltodextrine. Have a read of Joanna Blythman’s newest book, Swallow This, if you are in doubt. What Weaver doesn’t tell us is to read the label, look at nutrition tables and pay attention to what’s in the ‘recipe’. The devil is in the details – and she wants you to miss them.

Is your grass-fed beef for real? Here’s how to tell and why it matters

Civil Eats – Wednesday 1st July

Grass-fed beef has grown immensely popular in the United States as more and more consumers move away from mass-produced feedlot beef. Concerns about animal welfare and antibiotic use in industrial production have led more people to the grass-fed choice. But what exactly constitutes ‘grass-fed’ beef? It turns out that its labelling is anything but clear and straightforward.

Civil Eats gives a good rundown of the issues and helps you navigate the vagaries of labelling in the US market. Grass-fed is only one of numerous descriptions you might find on beef – it might also be labelled ‘all-natural’, ‘free-range’ or ‘certified organic’ among other things. What exactly do these terms define?

The regulation of food labels is part of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) “marketing claim standards”, which aren’t particularly rigorous or robust. There’s a fair amount of wiggle room for producers around the term grass-fed, and the agency’s enforcement is weak. The expectation of the consumer is that grass-fed beef will be just that, when actually the term allows for some consumption of grain when grass isn’t available, instead of just hay or silage – such as during winter months in snowy areas or during drought. But without strict enforcement, what actually happens in practice can vary widely. Marilyn Noble of the American Grassfed Association argues that producers effectively “self-certify” their beef with little oversight from government bodies.

The American Grassfed Association has its own standards, enforced by independent inspectors, and the USDA organic certification also audits producer practices. But beyond these labels the terms get murkier still. ‘All-natural’ or ‘naturally raised’ are especially ones to be wary of, as they are virtually unregulated in both the United States and Britain. And with companies like Whole Foods introducing further designations such as ‘pasture-centered’ – a term implying that cows spend some time on pasture while still being fed grain – the definitions of ‘grass-fed’ beef become a minefield. It’s not difficult to see why the Pasture Fed Livestock Association in the UK has taken a clear stand, the meat it certifies comes from animals which receive no grain at all at any point in their lives.

Farmers’ hope for free-range solution to UK’s dairy crisis

Western Daily Press – Wednesday 1st July

A new ‘free-range dairy’ label is being introduced into the UK milk market. With the dairy industry in a precipitous decline, it is hoped the new label, which can be used on milk produced by herds that spend at least six months a year on grass, will help boost sales and give farmers a better margin. They also believe the label will benefit consumers, allowing them to distinguish the milk of grass-fed dairy cows from that of cows in an industrial system. Dairy farmer Nick Darwent, who is behind the label, claims that the free-range label is easily understood by consumers. But if the problems with defining grass-fed beef in the United States (see the story above) are anything to go by, it’s unlikely to be that straightforward.

The free-range label for chicken in Britain is a wide and arguably dubious denomination. It includes everything from small flocks of birds that genuinely spend their days grazing green pastures to enormous flocks that may only have access to a small, enclosed plot of grass that they never actually use. So, free range is not, in fact, always what consumers think it is.

Will the new free-range dairy label be defined only by the amount of time animals spend on pasture? Will free-range dairy cattle still be given prophylactic antibiotics? Is there a limit to their stocking levels? Consumers often assume, as with chickens, that free-range ensures higher welfare standards for the birds, when really all it ensures is adherence to the minimum EU animal welfare standards. While most UK dairy cattle still graze at pasture, intensive indoor systems where cows are kept on concrete for the whole of their lactation are on the rise. So, maybe this is a timely initiative. But consumers need to make their voices heard to ensure the concept does not become corrupted by the inclusion of highly intensive dairy systems where the cows are put under pressure to produce more milk than their metabolisms can comfortably stand.

Photograph: Jessica Kennedy

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