Guy’s Newsletter: perfect patios & tainted bread

As combine harvesters rumble across Britain through fields of rape, then barley, then wheat over the coming weeks, around a third of these crops will have been treated with the herbicide glyphosate to speed harvest and aid weed control. It’s no surprise that, according to Defra, this chemical is found in 30% of UK bread. When I grew my first field of veg back in the 1980s and was still arguing with myself about whether to go organic, I spent a lot of time pulling out docks, couch grass and creeping buttercup; they would regenerate from the smallest piece of root and it seemed a never-ending battle. The traditional method of weed control was deep cultivation and surface dragging to dry them out; time and energy consuming, impossible once a crop was planted, and damaging to the soil.

In 1970 Monsanto patented glyphosate, the active ingredient of Roundup. It is absorbed through the leaves to every part of a growing plant, so it kills even the roots. At university I was taught it had virtually zero mammalian toxicity and was environmentally benign, but this was too good to be true; the World Health Organisation has recently classified glyphosate as a “probable carcinogen”.

Glyphosate has grown to be the world’s favourite herbicide for farmers and gardeners alike, with sales growing 400% in the last 20 years alone. The patent lapsed in 2000 but by then Monsanto had moved onto GM crops, most of which were modified to withstand glyphosate, which is sold in combination with the seed. At Riverford we learned to control most weeds through crop rotation but
I have always found the argument that glyphosate reduces soil cultivation and therefore protects soil flora and fauna, and reduces erosion and fuel use, at least potentially persuasive. Set these benefits against its implication as a carcinogen, endocrine disrupter and cause of birth defects, and it rather loses its edge.

Monsanto and the agrochemical lobby is furious and are accusing the WHO of being selective in the choice of studies it has based its conclusions on; a bit rich considering the agrochemical industry’s history in selective use of data. Given the money involved this will be a long and dirty fight reminiscent of the battle the tobacco industry put up, but my bet is that glyphosate will be banned within ten years. Tell your friends and family, they will probably thank you for it.

Guy Watson

Guy’s Newsletter: the three rules of flavour

A few years ago we scientifically tested every willing Riverford staff member for the sensitivity of their palate. The best formed a taste panel to assess the flavour of everything we grew; a good idea but, like so much science, it failed to deal with subjectivity and was excessively reductionist, tending to favour ubiquitous sweetness over anything challenging or complex. If we followed the panel’s guidance we would never have sold a radicchio, endive or cardoon. More recently we’ve put together a group of in-house chefs and food enthusiasts to assess our carrots, cheese, wine and olive oil. Last week we sat down to taste the tomatoes from our tunnels; as always, our cherry tomato Sakura won, along with some new trial orange and yellow baby plum tomatoes.

For all fruit and veg, great flavour comes from a combination of three things:

Variety: The more you intensively select for yield or early maturity, the more you lose less easily quantified traits like complex flavours and nutritional value. Over 30 years I have seen many of the varieties we selected for flavour dropped from breeders’ lists. Consolidation in the seed trade just adds to this; after a global buying spree Monsanto now owns a staggering 23% of the global seed trade and is negotiating to buy Syngenta who own a further 9%.

Growing conditions: Up to a point, slow, steady growth from a healthy, well balanced soil creates the best flavour. Excessive water and soluble nitrogen gives the luxuriant growth and high yields which look great in the field but disappoint in the kitchen. Too much stress can result in excessive bitterness, toughness and ‘off’ flavours, particularly in the brassica family, though in carrots and some herbs drought can result in incredible flavour, so it is hard to be dogmatic.

Harvest freshness and post harvest storage: Ideally fruit should be harvested fully ripe and never see a cold room, while green veg should be picked with the dew on them and eaten as soon as possible. Refrigeration can greatly extend life with variable impact on flavour; fine for salads, not great for courgettes.

Subjectivity can come close to snobbery and exclusivity but, without some trust in personal sensitivities, life would be very dull; a bit like supermarket veg.

Guy Watson

Guy’s Newsletter: gagging, bees & bad farming

In 2013, after years of campaigning from both sides of the divide, the EU finally voted to ban neonicotinoid insecticides on crops attractive to bees. Numerous studies suggest it is linked to collapsing bee numbers, and for once it seemed that environmental concerns had been put ahead of commercial interests, albeit reluctantly in the UK, where our government fought the ban to the end.

Last week, caving into pressure from the NFU and pesticide manufacturers, Defra temporarily overturned the ban in Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire. The justification was the NFU’s claim that growing oilseed rape was “becoming impossible” due to attacks by flea beetle. It turns out that related losses amounted to just 3.5% of the crop last year; not quite my definition of “impossible”, but deemed to be more important than bees by our government. It would seem that the decision was not even supported by their own pesticide advisers who have been gagged, with minutes of meetings kept secret.

We have lost crops to flea beetle at Riverford but the severity of attack declines later in the summer, and by the time that oilseed rape is being sown in August and September I am surprised they are deemed such a problem. In our experience, rain falling as seedlings emerge is normally enough to suppress flea beetle activity and get a crop away, and it is soon strong enough to outgrow any damage. In the case of rape, the wide potential sowing window leaves plenty of time to re-sow in September if you are unlucky. Looking at rape crops from train windows I would suggest that waterlogging and poor soil structure (normally the result of bad farming) are much more serious causes of crop loss.

I can’t help noticing that the four counties judged to be worst affected by flea beetle happen to be the ones with the fewest hedges and trees, the largest fields, the least grass and species diversity and the greatest prevalence of combinable annual monocultures. Like all insects, flea beetles have natural predators in a diverse countryside but very few in the ecological desert of most intensive arable farms. Could this be a problem farmers have brought on themselves by their own bad farming? Now bees and the rest of us are paying the price.

Guy Watson

Guy’s Newsletter: has cooking become a spectator activity?

The best conversations I can remember having with my mother were while shelling peas and beans. Keeping the hands busy, and having a reason not to make eye contact, is a great way of taking conversation into areas that you would normally skirt around. If you need to have a potentially difficult chat with adolescent children, a pile of beans is a great way to bridge the silences.

When Riverford delivered its first veg box in 1993, before the current media frenzy around local and seasonal, our typical customer ordered a weekly box of seasonal vegetables and cooked them with little fuss, probably much as their parents had, perhaps with the addition of the occasional curry or stir-fry. For generations, we learned from our parents how to make the best use of local ingredients, and cooking from scratch continues to be the norm for most veg box customers. They appear to be in the minority however; changes in home cooking have been historically slow, but in the last 40 years it has rapidly moved in the wrong direction, aided by the advertising budgets of food manufacturers and supermarkets. We’re now raising a generation many of whom will rarely see their parents cooking and even more rarely with local, unprocessed ingredients.

I am convinced that a lack of skills, time and confidence in the kitchen is the main issue. Cookery programmes are a poor substitute for assimilating skills over years of growing up in an active kitchen, and in some circumstances have made cooking seem unattainably distant. I know what a struggle it can be to cook a stress-free meal among the chaos that is real family life, especially when both parents are working. Though there are signs of change that should be credited to those food writers, bloggers and celebrity chefs who champion accessible home cooking, there is a real danger that, as the gap widens between what is on television and the reality in our kitchens, cooking will become a spectator activity. The nation will slump back with a takeaway and watch it on TV instead.

Guy Watson

Join our generational cooking campaign!
to encourage the sharing of cooking skills between the generations, we’ve created a ‘Cook Together’ hub. Visit www.riverford.co.uk/cooktogether.

Guy’s Newsletter: bumper crops, caterpillars & gleaners

We are picking the first of a fine crop of sweetcorn on our farm in France; six weeks ahead of the main UK crop and in time for your BBQs. Annoyingly you are in competition with the European corn borer, a moth which particularly favours maize and sweetcorn for nursing its young; the eggs hatch into a voracious caterpillar which feeds on the ripening cobs. The agri-tech solution would be to regularly spray insecticides, or to grow a GM variety where every cell of every plant continuously generates its own insecticide. Instead we use a minute wasp called Trichogramma which lays an egg inside the eggs of the corn borer, devouring the pest from within once it hatches. This is a well-proven system of biological control used for over 100 years, but it does rely on breeding and releasing enough wasps at just the right time; I suspect we were a little late. Where damage is not severe we will trim in the field; however the occasional cob is bound to slip through so please accept our apologies. One could say it is the price of insecticide-free food, but we’re happy to replace if you feel hard done by.

Nearby we have good crops of padron peppers and tomatillos, which will appear in most boxes over the summer. The padrons make a great snack when quickly pan-fried and salted; about one in five are mildly hot but it varies according to the plant, weather, maturity and where they are grown. Meanwhile tomatillos form the basis of many Mexican dishes, most particularly salsa verde; great with just about anything grilled or fried. There are some good recipe here.

At home we are coming to the end of a record breaking crop of broad beans; lots of spring sunshine helped the bees thoroughly pollinate the flowers which, coupled with just enough rain, has resulted in well-filled pods. We have upped the portions in your boxes (on us), and our veg men and ladies will carry some complimentary bags to give to those of you who are not beaned out, but even this will not shift the colossal harvest. According to the Old Testament’s Deuteronomic Code, we should leave part of the crop for widows, orphans and strangers; even after six years of austerity we don’t find many of them wandering the parish, so we have called in Gleaning Network UK to come and pick the remains for distribution to food banks and other charities.

Guy Watson

Guy’s Newsletter: feeling good about ourselves

Our veg boxes have just been voted Ethical Product of the Decade at the Observer Ethical Awards; wow, quite an accolade. I am still smiling. Thanks to those of you who voted and to all of you who have supported us over the decade, and in many cases, longer. I like to think that we offer a positive alternative to mainstream food production, but without your trust and occasional forgiveness it would have been hard to resist the calls for compromise, especially during the recession. Turning ethical intentions into ethical business is often simply down to taking the long view and having faith that you (or someone else) will be around long enough to see the benefit. Investing in our collective long-term future, whether in staff conditions and development, supplier relationships, energy efficiency or building soil fertility normally makes sense commercially (as well as ethically and environmentally), but you also need patience and the comfort of not having shareholders and bankers clamouring for short-term returns.

We’ve had a great start to the summer with some very good quality bumper crops. Some of that is down to good fortune (mainly good weather), but there’s a large element of making your own luck in farming, by making the right decisions through experience, good planning, being on top of the work and therefore being able to do things at the right time. In the next three weeks we will plant most of the winter crops; timing is critical and we are bang on schedule and no-one (with the possible exception of the irrigation team) even seems to be stressed; a long way from the chaos of old. How did we learn so much, collect so much skill and organise it so well, so seemingly effortlessly? I reckon doing things ethically has a lot to do with it; our staff like it and are proud to work here.

In 30 years we’ve grown into a big-ish company and at times I’ve worried that this would make us less human, less caring and a bit boring. Last Saturday, witnessing our summer staff party (possibly the best yet) being enjoyed by so many convinced me that big often is, but doesn’t have to be, bad. Scale can help you do things better; whether organising a party, logistics, or managing pest/predator balance in tomatoes. Yes, I’m feeling a little pleased with myself but enough of that. I’m a farmer and better go find something to be miserable about.

Guy Watson

Riverford veg boxes – Ethical Product of the Decade

We are all beyond thrilled to have been given this title by the Observer Ethical Awards 2015. We were up against some truly deserving competition such as the Fairtrade banana, whom we support and respect and who would have been a very worthy winner, along with Divine chocolate which I have long admired for their unerring commitment to their producers. But we can’t help being delighted that it was us.

For almost 30 years, I have aimed to use the business to make the world a slightly better place, one veg box at a time. Put simply we want to give people good, fresh, flavoursome, ethically-produced food that they can trust, produced and delivered in a way that gives a fair deal to farmers, animals, customers, staff and the environment. This means not going for easy answers (which are nearly always the ones that would be better from a marketing point of view), but looking for an informed and balanced solution to the many dilemmas we face in farming, business and food production. This often challenges our customers’ intuitive judgements and our success as a business would have been impossible without the trust and commitment of our many longstanding customers; they enable us to farm and trade with others for the long-term, as we would really like.

Vegetables are at the heart of what we do, and we are happy to be called veg nerds. As well as our four organic UK farms and one in France, we work with South Devon Organic Producers, the cooperative of local family farms I set up, sharing machinery and expertise to show that it is absolutely possible to grow good food at scale, without using environmentally harmful chemical pesticides and herbicides. Everything that we grow is selected for flavour; our carrots taste so good because they are selected and grown to be so, rather than to grow fast or to withstand bulk handling or to be cosmetically perfect. Our meat also comes from small-scale organic farmers with some of the highest animal welfare standards around. We aim for the shortest possible journey from the farm to the abattoir, with all meat handled in a totally transparent operation, with minimum processing and zero abusive practice at any stages. We encourage a ‘meat and ten veg’ attitude to meat consumption: let’s eat less of it, less often, and of better quality.

I really believe that you don’t have to be a bastard to be successful in business. Good business practice is almost as important to me as good farming. People management is not a skill that comes naturally to many farmers (and possibly not many entrepreneurs), me included, but I am very proud of having created a business that staff believe in and increasingly say is a very special place to work.

In summary, I want Riverford to be all about good food, good farming and good business; and about family farms, not factory farms. We hope to encourage people to ask questions about where their food comes from (without being preachy), and to treat food not as something anonymous, but as something to respect, enjoy with friends and family but in the clear and transparent knowledge of the journey it has made to the plate.

As far as we are concerned, the best things in life are shared, and food, good food, is the greatest example of this, and we want it to be available to everyone. It is very rewarding to have had this accolade from the Observer.

Guy Watson

Riverford Sourcing Policy

  • All produce/goods must be organically certified, where possible with the Soil Association, which we see as the gold standard in the UK.
  • We source as locally as is sensible, observing the principle of ‘right plant, right place’, so not growing veg where it does not belong. Each of the four regional Riverford farms grows locally as much of what they sell themselves as possible, using veg grown on our farm in France to fill the ‘hungry gap’.
  • We do not use produce from heated glasshouses, as the carbon footprint of such veg is greater by a factor of between 3 and 10, compared with growing, for example tomatoes and peppers, in the closest place (Spain) with the right climate and transporting them. More details on this at www.riverfordenvironment.co.uk.
  • Each farm has a cooperative or grower group of local farmers who we work with in the long term. Prices and volumes are set in advance, and we stick with our growers, providing a level of income security that is far from how many of the supermarkets operate. We work in exactly the same way with our small group of Spanish growers.
  • We never, ever air-freight anything, due to the enormous carbon footprint of this method of transportation. Anything we import comes by container ship or truck only.
  • We buy direct from the growers. This makes the produce more affordable by cutting out layers of middle men, helps family farms remain profitable, and helps make our farm to plate chain as transparent for our customers as possible.

Guy’s Newsletter: tomatoes, badgers & bees

Last week we picked our first tomatoes of the year; all being well, each of the 15,000 plants will produce 3kg of fruit between now and September. These tomatoes are actually later than we planned; with so much sunshine recently it’s easy to forget that it was quite a cold spring. The only way to harvest any earlier would be by heating our polytunnels through burning fossil fuels on a huge scale. However much we’d like to support year-round local tomato growing, our environmental study with Exeter University (see http://www.riverfordenvironment.co.uk) suggests that in terms of carbon footprint, it’s many times better to truck (not fly) out of season peppers or tomatoes in from Spain where they do not require heat, than grow them here under heat, as the data below suggests. This was always my instinct and since completing the research, it remains our policy. It makes marketing tricky as simple messages are the most effective; but in reality, buying British tomatoes year-round is not as green as it sounds.

CO2-emissionsTo aid tomato pollination, we introduce bee hives into our polytunnels every summer. Last week, when the tunnel team started work at 5am they found the hives moved around, upturned and eventually destroyed. Paranoid theories about vandals proliferated until we realised that, as with our occasionally trashed sweetcorn and pumpkins, the omnivorous badger is to blame. It astounds me that they can eat live bees without ill effect but a quick internet search shows that it is not uncommon. We have now suspended our hives from the roof and set up a motion activated camera; keep an eye on our Facebook page for a video of the culprits.

Guy Watson

Guy’s Newsletter:economy=ecology

Last week I explained, I hope in a reasoned way, why I am still opposed to GM crops in their current form. It’s not about the technology itself, but rather that it represents another step on a path forged by the needs of agrichemical and biotech companies rather than farmers, people and the environment. There is no doubt that those companies are winning, but when it comes to solving how we feed the world, there is an alternative direction we could put our energy into.

This morning I cut some artichokes from a bed I planted eight years ago; there has been no weeding, pest control or manuring for six years but they are still producing a good crop as part of a maturing ecosystem. It would take a lifetime of study to understand that ecosystem and why those artichokes have thrived while others crops are overcome by weeds. The best farming uses skill instead of diesel and chemicals to do less to get more; nearby is one of the very few remaining traditional cider orchards where we collected apples for pocket money as children. Instead of the mowing and spraying seen in most modern orchards, sheep control the weeds and provide some fertility with their manure. It remains as prolific as it was 45 years ago, and is also a beautiful wildlife haven.

The best farmer I ever have seen worked two acres in Uganda; his system involved crops grown in multiple canopies alongside many types of livestock. He saved his own seed, made his own compost and, on the rare occasions when he resorted to sprays, made them himself from local plants. The subtle interactions seen in nature were reflected in the synergy between the different crops and animals; economy=ecology. His inputs each year could have been carried in a wheelbarrow and paid for with a day’s wages yet I calculated his output to be 10-20 times that of the neighbouring monocultures. He was highly skilled, self-reliant and smiled more than any farmer I’ve met since. Such agricultural systems are based on complexity, knowledge and skill. Yet perhaps their greatest vulnerability in a capitalist world is that they need little that is not generated on the farm; no one is making money by selling diesel, agrichemicals or big tractors so no-one has an interest in developing or protecting the vital skill base. I reckon that might be why we hear so much about GM.

Guy’s Newsletter: GM, PR & the BBC

In 1998 some GM maize trials were planned on a neighbour’s farm across the river from Riverford, which threatened to cross-pollinate with my organic sweetcorn. I wasn’t overly bothered but my father, recently retired and reinvented as an eco-warrior, was getting agitated. He dumped a pile of papers on my desk and, reluctantly at first, I got reading.

At university, ten years earlier, I had been intrigued by the neatly simple, powerful genetic coding that controlled the synthesis of proteins and hence heredity and all life. Wow; who wouldn’t be excited? The discovery won Watson, Crick and Wilkins a well-deserved Nobel Prize in 1962 and, as the tools developed to apply and exploit the discovery, a science, an industry and then a political lobby was born.

After a month of reading I was alarmed by the potential food safety and environmental implications of the emerging technology, and with encouragement from the Soil Association and Friends of the Earth, I challenged the legality of the maize trials and the case went all the way to the High Court; but the real battle turned out to be in the media.

Despite being a vocal campaigner I was never fundamentally opposed to the technology, rather the rush to commercialise it at any cost. With cries of ‘Frankenstein food’ from the anti-GM movement and spurious claims of solving world hunger from the pro lobby, the smokescreen of misleading, emotive information from both sides has made it almost impossible to form a non-partisan, informed opinion. I got fed up, declined invitations to speak and backed out of the fight. Money talks in PR, if only because it can buy the persistence that few causes can maintain, and over the last 15 years the GM industry has won the battle, in England and Wales at least. Is this down to the strength of their arguments or the depth of their pockets? Either way, the culmination was seen last week with the BBC’s blatantly pro-GM edition of Panorama, entitled ‘Cultivating Fear’.

What most took me aback was how the programme justified the use of GM aubergine in Bangladesh as a means of preventing pesticide poisoning among farming families. The scale of the poisoning was truly horrific and is repeated across the developing world where many farmers are illiterate and use pesticides with no protective clothing. One of the most disturbing things I have ever seen is a Ugandan farmer smoking a soggy cigarette while spraying tomatoes; it was soggy with the toxic liquid leaking from his back pack sprayer. In the Punjab, according to doctors quoted in the excellent film The True Cost, it is common for villages to have 70 or more children suffering from birth defects, cancers and mental illness resulting from pesticide exposure. As such I found it almost surreal to hear these horrific consequences of the last round of agritech progress being used as a justification for the next, especially when the products in question are supplied by the same western companies. This was PR spin at its worst, yet I wondered if I had become a hopelessly romantic Luddite, part of former Secretary of State Owen Paterson’s “green blob” resisting progress from a position of privilege. I needed the facts, so 15 years on from that courtroom battle I sat down again to read. This is what I found out:

  • GM crops have not reduced pesticide use; according to the US Department of Agriculture (normally pro GM), over 15 years GM crops have resulted in a 7% increase in pesticide use due to weeds and insects developing resistance.
  • It turns out that even the Bangladesh GM aubergine is far from an unbridled success, and that Panorama painted a very flattering picture of it. According to a local scientist, many of the farmers who took part in the experiment are demanding compensation.
  • The USDA states there is no evidence of GM increasing yield potential. It turns out conventional breeding has been much better at boosting yields at a fraction of the cost.
  • None of the claims for nutritionally enhanced food, drought-tolerant or more nitrogen-efficient crops have been successful to date. Owen Paterson labelled the anti-GM lobby “wicked” for resisting vitamin A enhanced GM ‘golden rice’. The reality is that it has proved difficult to make the technology work and the developers at the International Rice Research Institute say they are years from being ready to grow a successful commercial crop. How and why could a politician with research assistants make such a provocative and poorly informed statement?
  • After 18 years of Americans eating GM food it is claimed that there are no obvious health impacts, but the same was said after much longer periods for smoking, trans fats, asbestos, excessive salt etc. There have been peer reviewed animal studies which have raised concern but I find it worrying that in the case of any questioning of GM the response is always a near hysterical hounding of the scientists from their post.

These are just some of the issues that should concern all of us. For all but the most ardent laissez faire capitalist I would suggest there are two more worth considering:

  • In the last 20 years the biotech companies have been buying up the global seed trade; the top three (Monsanto, Dupont and Syngenta) own a staggering 47%. With the loss of smaller companies go local varieties suited to local conditions and requirements. As a grower myself, I have seen a very noticeable decline in choice.
  • Even more extreme: 87% of the global surface of GM crops is controlled by Monsanto, either directly through the sale of seeds or indirectly through the licence of traits for which they own the patents.

I am reluctant to be branded a communist (again) but I was taught that the efficiency of capitalism required free markets and that a key part of a free market was the avoidance of monopolies. Monsanto and the other so called ‘big ag’ multinationals clearly have a vision for our future and are rapidly getting in a position to impose it; Owen Paterson and the Panorama presenter Tom Heap may be comfortable with that, but I am uneasy with a global food supply being controlled by the same people who brought us DDT, Agent Orange and PCBs.

I think it is highly likely that GM will have a role in shaping sustainable agriculture at some point; no one can predict where science can take us. But in debating how to feed the world, bombarding us with emotive and misleading messages driven more by a PR agenda than by fact is unforgivable. We need, rather, a cool headed evaluation of the scientific evidence, tempered by transparency around the commercial interests at play.

Guy Watson

SOURCES:

Main scientific content: http://earthopensource.org/earth-open-source-reports/gmo-myths-and-truths-2nd-edition/, itself fully referenced with many scientific citations.

A different view of Bt. Brinjal in Bangladesh – not scientific (but neither was Panorama): http://ubinig.org/index.php/home/showAerticle/76/english”

The status of the Golden Rice project: International Rice Research Institute