Greater balance needed between EU habitats policy and food production

Farmers Guardian Insight – Saturday 25th July

Looking at the NFU’s infographic ‘Farming in our Countryside’ – which illustrates this article – one might be tempted to think that farmers were the saviours of Britain’s wildlife. The graphic states that “Farmers and land managers look after 93% of protected wildlife habitats under Environmental Stewardship Initiatives”. But the reality is that the NFU’s preferred policy option of conserving wildlife on small islands of habitat – while allowing unbridled use of agrochemicals and unsustainable rotations everywhere else – has led to a halving of farmland bird numbers over recent decades and worrying declines in pollinating insects, small mammals and invertebrates.

The fact that the NFU’s voice on the EU Birds and Habitats Directive may carry weight should therefore be a cause for concern by all those committed to environmental and biodiversity protection.

The strength of the NFU lobby in British government was clearly evidenced by last week’s move to allow farmers to use neonicotinoid-treated oilseed rape seeds in violation of the EU ban on these pesticides. This makes it difficult to believe that any contribution the NFU makes to EU habitats policy will have the environment’s best interests at heart. The NFU has proved time and again that its allegiances lie with the industrial farming industry, and environmental stewardship plays a definite second fiddle to this.

Angry British farmers stage rolling tractor protest

Farmers Weekly – Friday 24th July

British livestock farmers have taken their cue from French farmers in drawing attention to their dire plight, as detailed last week. Dairy and sheep farmers in Staffordshire and Derbyshire staged a peaceful protest this week by driving a procession of tractors across the two counties.

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They were protesting about the fall of milk and lamb prices. The plight of dairy farmers has been more widely publicised, but the large fall in the price of lamb this year means that most sheep farmers will also struggle to break even. Despite this, the British government has taken no meaningful action. In contrast, the French government has come up with a substantial aid package for French farmers, albeit one they feel is still insufficient.

This week, several leading UK dairies further reduced the price they pay farmers for milk. Arla cut its farmgate price to 23.01p per litre, while Dairy Crest reduced its price to just 21.69p per litre. As a result, dairy farmers are now making a net loss.

The smaller number of farmers in Britain compared with those in France makes it difficult for them to have the same impact as their French counterparts. However, the seriousness of the situation in Britain can be gauged from the fact that farmers from Shropshire and mid-Wales are planning a “no lamb protest” next week – refusing to sell lamb from Monday.

The NFU has not been as attentive to this issue as it might have been, leading one farmer involved in the protest to complain:

It has been 12 months and we have had four meetings. We have hardly heard anything. It is all going on behind closed doors… What do we pay a subscription to the NFU for? They are supposed to help us when times are bad. Where are they?

It’s a fair question to ask. The NFU appears to be happy to let large numbers of traditional livestock producers go to the wall while those with greater financial resources can hang on. When shortages eventually cause prices to go up much higher than originally necessary, these large-scale producers will reap significant rewards.

Share-farming ‘matching service’ to inspire new entrants

Farmers Weekly – Sunday 26th July

With land prices soaring and farms continuing to get larger in size but fewer in number, farm ownership requires either family inheritance or a significant chunk of cash. For young people interested in farming, how to secure or gain access to farmland is a critical question. Share-farming provides one answer, and can work well if the right partners are brought together in an equitable relationship. Share-farms work by bringing together two farmers: typically one will have land, and the other will be looking for a way into farming.

The specifics of the relationship can vary, and it generally requires a good dose of trust. But when it works well, it can be a valuable way to ensure that we have new farmers for the future. A new ‘matching-service’ instigated by Fresh Start Land Enterprise Centre is working to promote this business model more widely and help pair up farmers in a way that is beneficial to both. It works particularly well with livestock farming – see our profile on John Agostinho, who worked with an older farmer wanting to retire. Starting with no capital, Agostinho began by managing his partner’s land and stock, then progressively purchased her herd of sheep over time. A similar relationship is described in this same article for farmer James Small – his family owns land and a flock of 1,400 sheep that are now managed by a young farmer. Profits are shared fairly between the two parties after expenses have been paid and management decisions are jointly agreed.

Share-farming does come with some caveats for success: the farm business must be profitable. A new young farmer with fresh ideas can significantly improve business, though with livestock prices on the floor at the moment this is clearly a challenge. Some kind of guaranteed security is also important – such as an agreed process for moving towards ownership of at least some of the farm’s capital or stock by the new farmer, or an eventual tenancy. This can often be a sticking point if the end game for the retiring farmer is to pass the farm on to his/her own family or relatives. If this happens, the younger farmer may face the challenge of access to land all over again, even if he or she has ownership over stock and equipment. But what this model can offer is a big leg up to ownership and a chance to grow and establish a business without the immediate pressure of a land purchase.

These popular fruit and veggie brands may be grown with oil wastewater

Mother Jones – Friday 24th July

Recycling water sounds like it should always be a good thing, but it’s important to pay attention to what the water was being used for before and what might remain in it. The use of wastewater from the oil industry recycled into irrigation water for agriculture is a good case in point. In California, where water is becoming ever more precious, parts of Kern County in the state’s Central Valley are being irrigated with oil wastewater as part of a 20-year-old water recycling programme. The problem is that no one has really looked into whether this water is safe to use on crops destined for human consumption.

9287573677_b112214e58_zThe state checks irrigation water for naturally occurring chemicals such as arsenic, but it doesn’t check it for chemicals that may have been added as a by-product of past use. However, new fracking ‘disclosure’ requirements may now make clear exactly what is in the wastewater. Independent tests carried out previously on oil wastewater by the activist organisation Water Defense suggest there is much to be concerned about – it was not only contaminated with oil, but also with industrial solvents such as acetone and other compounds dangerous to humans.

Mother Jones has acquired the contact information of the companies buying wastewater from the Cawelo Water District, which is serving Kern County. It has started listing a range of companies and producers buying the water to put them in the spotlight and raise awareness about the issue.

Why everyone who is sure about their food philosophy is wrong

Washington Post – Sunday 26th July

Tamar Haspel takes polemics to a new level with this provocative blog on the food system, telling us that whatever our view, we’ve got it wrong! Readers with the most radical approach to food production may shake their heads and snort as they read what Haspel has to say. But while we might find things in this blog with which we disagree, we will probably also find something here with which we strongly agree.

The piece appears to have been inspired by a presentation by Professor Rattan Lal from Ohio State University, who has consistently warned about the damage to soils caused by intensive agriculture.

Haspal sees farming as a grey area, where methods and techniques should be place and situation specific. For her, there is room for GMO, chemical fertilisers and pesticides, though she recognises that on an industrial scale these come with significant impacts. All in all, there is little mention of sustainability. Her one recommendation in negotiating food production is to “think small” and this means specific, contextualising agricultural practices within specific locales.

Where we most strongly agree with her is the need to break down the rigid divide between organic and intensive agriculture. Many, if not most, farmers want to farm more sustainably, but they are locked into high-input, high-output mono-cropping systems and a direct transition to organic production is simply not an option. At one level this divide has been necessary: the only way in which organic farmers have been able to survive financially – in a food system that hides the true costs of unsustainable agriculture – is by selling organic food as a premium product. This is the barrier that the SFT is trying to remove with its research into the true cost of food – calculating the negative costs as well the investments in production.

We also strongly agree with Haspel that the USDA organic standards – which don’t allow organic farmers to use antibiotics on sick animals – are both ill informed and counter productive. Most people don’t know that organic farmers in the United States are allowed to spray antibiotics (even important medical antibiotics such as streptomycin and gentamycin) on apple trees while they are not allowed to keep a cow as organic if she needs treating with antibiotics to save her life.

This is an interesting and stimulating piece that has got us thinking. However, it lacks an understanding of the seriousness of the environmental and public health impact of our food production, or any real insights into what might work better. Ultimately, sustainability must be a driving concern, even if it’s a spectrum instead of an end point, since a food system that is not sustainable will fail to feed the world population into the future. That’s a detail that gets lost in Haspel’s grey middle ground.

Australian farmers fight huge mine in Liverpool Plains, NSW

BBC News – Sunday 26th July

Mining coal on prime agricultural land is madness in a world where irreversible climate change is an emerging reality. But Australia is about to serve up its richest soil to the Chinese mining company Shenhua, so it can destroy it in pursuit of fossil fuel. If the deal goes ahead, it will be a clear win for capitalism in its challenge to climate change.

Local farmers, indigenous landowners and conservationists, who are now fighting the project with everything they can muster, are calling the Shenhua Watermark mine ‘agricultural genocide’. Its physical footprint will be larger than the City of Sydney’s local council area, and it will be situated in one of the most fertile growing regions in the country – the Liverpool Plains, New South Wales (NSW). This is a place where a mild climate, abundant rainfall and fertile soil make for excellent growing conditions. The region’s destruction for the sake of open-cast coal mining could be a devastating decision for Australia’s long-term food security. As one NSW member of parliament commented: “Our capacity to feed ourselves is obviously fundamental to the national interest.”

Photograph: Mark Robinson, Steph French and Tim Evanson

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