English farmland prices double in five years

The Guardian – Tuesday 22nd September

The rising price of agricultural land in England could lead to a crisis in the country’s food security. With ‘investment grade’ land selling above £12,500 per acre, it provides a return that currently can’t be beaten – it tops the investment value of gold, the FTSE 100 and prime London property. With land being snapped up by the very wealthy, there’s the possibility that valuable agricultural land will be going out of production.

The increase in the cost of land combines with falling prices on the global commodities market that have pushed many farms to the brink of bankruptcy and closure. Farmers are also ageing and with land prices soaring, securing land to farm is a significant challenge to new farmers. So, in the big picture of things, we are losing both land and farmers. If we care about our future food security as a nation, we need to start taking action.

There is much that we could do to make agricultural land accessible to those who want to farm. Placing covenants or agricultural ties on it to ensure that only those who will farm the land can purchase it would prevent its acquisition for ‘lifestyle’ purposes. Limiting those who could purchase the land would also keep its price down by making the market for it smaller. Public acquisition of land could also offer some control over its use and provide new farmers a way in. What we need is the political will to protect agricultural land for agriculture.

Dairy farmers in England and Wales to receive aid worth £1,800 on average

Farmers Guardian Insight – Tuesday 24th September

It’s good to see the UK government doing something to help dairy farmers when the bottom is falling out of their market, but £1,800 per farm is not going to go far. The aid – from an EU fund – aims to ease cash flow, but it will do little to turn around the larger problem: the economic viability of the dairy farm business is failing as the price of milk slips ever downwards.

Liz Truss, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, comments that it is “equally important that we help [dairy farmers] build for the long term” indicating other EU measures to help support the industry. This no doubt fits with the government’s wider plan to boost British exports and develop a future market for milk abroad as well as at home, which Truss claims “will help farmers manage volatility”. But is this really the answer to a better market for milk? One effective measure could be to introduce a fair trade label for milk so consumers buying these products would know that the farmer has been paid a fair price for them.

Lithuania follows Scotland’s lead in GM crops ban

Farmers Guardian Insight – Wednesday 23rd September

In recent weeks a number of European countries have rejected GM crops outright and opted to ban them, as EU rules now allow. Lithuania joins Scotland, Northern Ireland, Germany, France and Austria in the ban, and more may follow. Could we be seeing the start of a trend in Europe? The jury may still be out on this, but it’s certainly good to see governments taking a stance on the issue. As the Scottish MEP Alyn Smith points out, the more EU members that opt for the ban, “the greater a chance we have of preventing cross-border contamination of conventional and organic crops by their GM counterparts”. It’s an important point because if GM crops are widely cultivated across Europe, the choice of whether or not to eat foods containing GM could become much more limited, especially if protocols for planting are weak or non-existent.

McDonald’s now offering a 100% organic burger in Germany

Reuters – Friday 25th September

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For some years now McDonald’s sales have been in a long downward slide. The company has been doing its best to reinvent itself, offering ‘healthy’ options, serving fair trade coffee, moving to antibiotic-free chicken and, now, introducing a 100% organic beef burger (but only in Germany). Despite its efforts, nothing seems to have helped so far. Is the problem that McDonald’s is just trying too hard – trying too hard to be something it’s not and never will be?

Grist’s short but very funny piece on McDonald’s new beef burger pinpoints the problem in its Venn diagram, in which two circles designate “People who want organic and GMO-free fed meat” and “People who eat at McDonald’s”. Nathanael Johnson’s tag line “By God, McDonald’s is going to push those damn circles together” pretty much encapsulates it – never the twain shall meet.

It’s good news that McDonald’s is trying to be healthier and more ethically conscientious, but, still, the core of what it does feels very far from this. It makes you wonder if the company has an underlying motive… Ah, those Millennials.

Bad year for superweeds rekindles concern in US Midwest

Farming Online – Wednesday 23rd September

The legacy of our extensive glyphosate herbicide use is causing an intractable problem with resistant weeds in the grain belt of US agriculture. Pigweed (Palmer amaranth) in particular is harder to control than most weeds and is spreading its reach. Farmers have been asked to keep a close eye on it lest it infests places still free of its stranglehold. This year, pigweed has hit soya beans hard and it’s feared that the weed’s seed bank in the soil will mean it can only get worse in years to come.

Is this the turning point for glyphosate, starting a downward trajectory towards obsolescence? The world’s most widely used herbicide is, perhaps, causing more harm than good across a number of fronts (note that the Word Health Organization designates it ‘probably carcinogenic’). Farmers’ heavy use of the herbicide over the past two decades has significantly contributed to the problem of resistant weeds. New products are now adding a second herbicide to go with glyphosate as it becomes increasingly ineffective, so the claim that ‘Round-up ready’ GM crops reduce the need for pesticides and herbicides is less and less true. Further, this doubling up of weedkillers may buy only short relief for farmers as it could exacerbate the problem by creating ‘superweeds’ resistant to all or most of these chemicals.

The spread of resistant weeds calls into question larger issues with the use of ‘Round-up ready’ crops. Do GM crops have a critical Achilles heel that nature has now found? Is it time for a rethink on how weeds are controlled?

Photograph: Seán O Domhnaill and Skynet

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