Category Archives: Guy’s newsletter

Guy’s news: Why I don’t trust the regulation of pesticides

According to the gov.uk website “On the best science available, no harm will come to people who consume an amount of pesticide that is below the safety limits for that pesticide”. Yet 147 pesticides I was assured were safe in the 1970s, based on the “best science available” at the time, have subsequently been banned, as risks to users, the environment or the public have emerged. Why has the regulatory approach repeatedly underestimated risk from pesticides?

The “cocktail effect” might explain some of the failures. Assessments almost always look at toxins in isolation, despite the fact that synergistic or “cocktail effects” (whereby two toxins can create effects together greater than the sum of their individual toxicities), were first proven in the 1960s and are now well established. With two thirds of fruit and veg containing detectable pesticide residues, and with so many chemical toxins in our environment, the possible combinations are almost infinite, making realistic assessment impractical.

A second possible reason for science getting it wrong is the assumption that the dose determines the poison. Hormones don’t work in this way; their action, through time and site specificity, is much more subtle. Many pesticides are known endocrine (hormone system) disruptors, so we shouldn’t be surprised to find unexpected effects at minute doses, often below those considered “safe”.

It’s easy to design an experiment to determine whether a chemical kills or damages a rat (and by extrapolation poses danger to humans) if the effect is quick, short-lived and in isolation. If the effect is slow, things get harder. If it is complicated by interactions with other chemicals, environmental factors or disease, things get progressively more complex until convincing results become
practically impossible to obtain. Absence of convincing results has too often been taken as evidence of safety.

Based on the evidence of history and on common sense, I believe there can be no absolutely “safe” level for pesticides (especially endocrine disruptors); only degrees of risk which you may or may not deem acceptable. For those with the time and interest please see riverford.co.uk/pesticides-you-decide for an extended version with references.

Guy’s news: Musing on misery & contentment in farming

My current state of contentment is unusual for a farmer; we have a reputation for misery. Could a dour anticipation of calamity be a prerequisite of farming success? Thomas Hardy’s Gabriel Oak didn’t save the harvest by revelling at the harvest festival; he was out virtuously sheeting the ricks against the gathering storm while everyone else was getting legless in the barn. Joe Grundy, David Archer and Brian Aldridge maintain the tradition across the class divide with their variations on rural self-pity in Radio 4’s The Archers. Folklore would have it that there is always some form of deluge, drought or pestilence waiting to wipe rare smiles off a farmer’s face before they settle.

The challenges facing farmers may be tangible and dramatic, but I suspect they are no more onerous than those suffered by many professions, and we do have many compensations. What greater privilege could there be than to be working amongst the rising birdsong, part of the annual renewal that is spring, ploughing and sowing as returning life erupts around you? Even my ageing bones feel a hint of youth returning.

As the years pass and experience gathers, the calamities seem less personal; as I remember collapsing exhausted to my knees and weeping by a broken-down tractor as potatoes died of blight around me, I am grateful for the serenity and perspective that comes with age. As in all businesses one must be mindful of the risks and prepared to react quickly to minimise their impacts. Experience helps, but, longer term, humility and feeling part of nature rather than personally embattled is key to contentment and effective management. Misery is a waste of emotional effort; it just gets in the way.

It has been a glorious spring; my dairy farming brother says he can’t remember an easier farming year than the one past. Could this contentment be the start of a complacency that will be our downfall, or could it be maturity arriving? A really good farmer should feel cradled by nature; its ally and friend rather than its adversary. This perfect spring, that aspiration feels within reach. Hence the contentment.

Guy’s news: Waste, empowerment & the wealthy

25 years ago, I lost it with Tilly, one of our best carrot pickers. She refused not to put the bent, twisted and forked carrots in the sack. Like Tilly, most of us hate waste but seem powerless to prevent it. Supermarkets have their campaigns for wonky veg, invariably abandoned as quickly as the headlines they generate. The explanation lies in simplicity and, arguably, laziness; trade works best when products can be well defined, and it is easier to define perfection (straightness etc.) than levels of deviation from it. The brutal truth is that farmers get so little for a carrot that the hassle of defining acceptable imperfection, grading to the definition, and finding a customer willing to accept that grade is just not worth it. So the wonky ones get left in the field, and the waste goes on.

It was with some reluctance that we recently got involved with Dan Barber and his team of chefs from New York, who ran a month-long pop-up restaurant (WastED London) in Selfridges, cooking almost entirely what would otherwise have been thrown away. The cynic in me got a whiff of more marketing hype. The best dish was one of our kale stalks, flash-fired in the oven, impaled on a spike and theatrically brought to the table with a pair of scissors and a delicious ash mayonnaise. It was showy and very New York, but I managed to suppress my dour Devon farmer’s cynicism. The lettuce butts and fish cheeks were also excellent, as was at least 70% of the meal; the gastronomy, style and service were fantastic. My consciousness was raised and I left determined to look again at what we can do to further reduce waste at Riverford. It is already very low – if we don’t think it is good enough for you, there is a hierarchy whereby it goes to our restaurants, staff, local charities, then the cows – but we can do better.

As I made my way out onto Oxford street, walking between the jewels of Cartier, YSL and Channel, I found myself musing that most food waste is ultimately the result of consumer empowerment: the ‘need’ for customers to have exactly what they want, when they want it. Those with the most money have the most choice, and almost invariably cause the most waste. There was an irony in eating a meal devoted to reducing waste in Selfridges; at £100/ head, it was not exactly skip diving. I wonder what Tilly would have made of it.

Guy’s News: Systemic pesticides & dubious progress

Systemic pesticides are absorbed through the leaves or roots and translocated to every part of the plant. Unlike contact pesticides, which need to touch pests to kill them, systemic pesticides don’t need direct contact; so long as the pest eats or sucks enough of the crop, death is assured. The downside is that the pesticide is in the edible parts of the plant too, giving you no chance of washing or peeling it off.

When I studied agriculture in the early ‘80s, I became an advocate of integrated pest management (IPM) whereby intelligent and minimal interventions are based on the ecological interactions (assumed to be well-studied and understood) of crop, pest, predator and the wider environment. An ‘intervention’ could be a pesticide (ideally well-targeted and short-lived), or (in theory at least) introducing a parasitic wasp, planting a hedge to encourage lacewings, or timing sowing to avoid peak pest egg-laying.

If things had progressed as my lecturer anticipated, we would now see non-organic farmers using minimal, highly targeted, low persistence sprays with a full understanding of their ecological impacts. But we were wrong. Farming didn’t get that smart, it just found more sophisticated, powerful ways of
being stupid. We failed to invest in ecology or to acknowledge the dangers of pesticides; the chemicals were too cheap, their use too simple and the sales patter too alluring. Threatening bees and other pollinators with systemic neonicotinoids is the latest example of the dangers of power without ecological understanding. Despite being systemic, 95% of neonicotinoid seed treatments end up in the soil, disrupting soil life or getting dispersed in dust to nearby crops. They are fairly persistent in the environment (half-lives typically between 200-1000 days), toxic to all insects, and harmful to most other animals. In trials bees didn’t die fast enough, so we didn’t anticipate neonicotinoids would reduce their ability to find their way back to the hive; that was just too subtle for the methodology. Intelligent regulation must accept there is no safe level for a nerve toxin or endocrine disrupter, only degrees of risk and levels of benefit. The job of legislation is to balance the two, not to fob us off with reassurance of long-lost safety.

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Guy’s news: Don’t blame the big man

Three weeks after a gale swept through the Vendée, the staff at our French farm have finally finished disentangling the disheartening remains of crop covers from the hedgerows. Although they were well weighted with bags of sand, the wind took the lot. Some can be re-used but most were shredded beyond repair. By the time we got new covers down, our chilled and buffeted crops had been set back a week. We have lost ten thousand of the more vulnerable cos lettuce and many hours of work. Such is farming; every year there will be a calamity, be it wind, rain, drought or pestilence. The important thing is not to take it as a personal slight from above. Without moving to a lab or a factory to produce our food, risk in farming can only be managed, never banished, however big your tractor or powerful your sprays.

The hedgerow oaks have yet to come into leaf. Not so different from home, yet lettuce harvesting will start here this week, just a few days after planting began in Devon. I still can’t really understand why they grow so well here in France. It is often much warmer by day, but there can be frosts at night into May. The answer lies in the quality of the Vendéen light; lettuces can take a lot of cold so long as they get the light.

After eight years, we are finding our feet here. Partly it is choosing the right crops for the land and the climate, partly investment in the right machinery. But mostly it is down to observation, questioning, and a restless determination to find a better way, leading to incremental improvement in skill, knowledge, and results. A little bit is also getting the arrogance kicked out of me and learning from neighbours. The beds are straighter, higher, and better drained; the crops more even; our staff have become multi-skilled and competent; and my accountant tells me that we made our first profit in 2016. The right plan gives you the chance of success, but it is attention to detail in the field that makes it a reality. That and undying hope. My father spent fifty years driving my mother nuts with his ‘Darling, I really think we are getting there.’ If you stop believing that, the gales have won.

Guy’s news: Pesticides; redressing the balance

As a young man spraying crops, I frequently suffered headaches and nausea, while my brother was hospitalised with Paraquat poisoning. My decision to farm organically was initially driven simply by a desire not to handle those chemicals. Despite assurances of safety by manufacturers and regulators, most of the pesticides we used in the ‘70s and ‘80s have since been banned as evidence of damage to the environment or human health accumulated; a total of 147 previously “safe” chemicals. Every time we were told the replacements were safer, but history suggests there is no safe pesticide; as their power comes from disrupting fundamental life processes, there are only degrees of risk.

Organic farming isn’t perfect; a reasonable criticism is that without herbicides to control weeds, we end up overcultivating the soil. 30 years ago, as I planted my first organic crops and struggled to control docks I longed for glyphosate, the systemic herbicide that kills every bit of the plant, including the roots. We were told it had very low mammalian and environmental toxicity but over 40 years, as we have used an estimated ten million tonnes globally, evidence accumulated until it was classed a ‘probable carcinogen’ by the WHO in 2015.

Alongside this and similar U-turns, I have been spurred to write by frustration at the outrageous distortion of evidence put forward by the unholy alliance of the NFU and pesticide manufacturers. Initially it was suggested that restricting the use of bee-threatening neonicotinoids was unnecessary and would lead to major yield declines in wheat and oilseed rape; average yields actually rose in the UK in the years following the 2013 ban. More recently their claims that banning glyphosate will lead to a reduction in lapwing and skylark nests, and that 49% more farm labour would be required per hectare, are just too much to take. I sometimes get frustrated with the organic/environmental lobby selecting evidence to support their beliefs, but the NFU have surpassed all with their ludicrous claims. My blood is up and over the year we will be doing our best to redress the balance (hopefully in a calm and well-referenced way), starting with glyphosate, systemic pesticides and the ‘cocktail effect’. I think it’s long overdue and Big Ag won’t like it, but they’ve been shouting too loud for too long.

Guy Watson

Guy’s news: Wild garlic, pigeon poo & aficionados

I had my first wild garlic omelette last week, and will be eating it tossed through pasta, in risottos, sandwiches and soups, and on pizzas until my family begs for relief. Every spring in old deciduous woods, the bulbs and seeds of ramsons (the local name for wild garlic) awake and push their shoots up through last year’s leaf litter with the vigour typical of those with a purpose and little time. They have about six weeks to develop leaves and photosynthesise enough energy to allow them to create a slightly larger bulb for next year, or to flower and set seed. As the leaves open in the canopy above, stealing their light, the ramsons
senesce, leaving only their seeds and bulbs to renew the cycle next year.

Foraging satisfies primeval urges, but is generally too slow to make a living. Wild garlic is an exception; due to its short season and incredible vigour, it often covers the forest floor in a thick uniform mat, making picking relatively fast. The only problems are that garlic shares its shady ecological niche with lords-and-ladies (Arum italicum and maculatum) and dog’s mercury (Murcurialis perennis), both poisonous, plus good areas are sometimes rendered unpickable by pigeon poo, and the best woods are often steep and inaccessible.

Ramsons are not only delicious, but highly sustainable; they can yield as much as a field of spinach without the energy-consuming and habitat-destroying plough, whilst the same area simultaneously produces wood, nuts, and valuable wildlife habitat. For many years my children, nephews and their friends have spent the Easter holidays foraging for wild garlic in our woods; rest assured, they are expert at spotting and avoiding those fellow but toxic woodland plants. Later in the season we will gather, dry and thresh the ripe seeds before spreading them in some of the young woodlands planted by my brother. It will probably take at least five years, but my hope is that the wild garlic will establish itself before its toxic competitors, so that one day you will all be eating wild garlic omelettes. In the meantime, there is occasionally enough to put in some of the veg boxes at the peak of the season in April, but mostly it will be available for aficionados to order as an extra on your order.

Guy Watson

Guy’s news: Factories, farming & feedlots

After three months spent eating five tonnes of silage (pickled grass) each, the cows were turned out to pasture last week, putting a spring and the occasional buck into the step of even the most aged. Cows are invariably healthier and happier outside, eating the fresh grass their giant rumen (a kind of onboard anaerobic digester) evolved to make digestible. Taking them to the food, where
they can return the fertility via urine and faeces, makes more sense than burning fuel hauling the food to them and then the muck back out again.

However, energy is cheap and around the world beef and dairy cows are being moved from pasture to confined ‘feedlots’ at an alarming rate (though the practice is forbidden in organic farming). The commercial drivers are the benefits of scale, labour-saving and the predictability that comes with removing the influence of seasons and weather, but all at a cost. The system produces less
healthy meat and dairy (now proven to have the wrong balance of fats) and the increased environmental risks that arise when you move away from traditional, self-reliant farm systems to commercially driven agribusiness, propped up by globally traded grain and fertilisers. Feeding ruminants grain and soya is environmental insanity; if feedlot farming bore all the externalised costs (currently paid for by the rest of us), they would be out of business.

But dogmatism either way seldom makes for good farming. Compromise, ducking and diving and managing risk works better; something family farms are much better at than big business. A few days after turnout we had a downpour and the cows had to come in again as wet pasture is quickly damaged by 1200 heavy hooves. Factory managers love standard operating procedures (SOPs); once you have standardised you can de-skill, up-scale, mechanise, drive out cost and offer the standard product a supermarket wants. But an SOP is no use if it leaves you driving cows through a quagmire in the rain. Attempts to standardise farming have generally not been successful due to its inherent interaction with an unstandardised nature. By excluding nature, feedlots can allow this profit-making standardisation and scale; I suspect we will all be the poorer for it, especially the cows.

Guy’s News: Can free trade ever be fair?

This week marks the beginning of Fairtrade Fortnight. The principle of fairness is central to how we run Riverford, though the practice it is not always straightforward. Close to home, when we are able to manage relationships ourselves, we come very close to making principle a reality. Profits are shared with staff, we will become employee-owned next year, we have uniquely longterm, secure contracts with our fellow farmers and an honest pricing policy whereby all customers, new and old, pay the same. When trading further from home with more people in the supply chain things get harder; outside Europe we rely on Fairtrade certification, for bananas and pineapples in particular.

The combination of global free trade, innovation and capitalism has driven down the cost of almost everything, especially food, generating wealth and unprecedented consumption in the process. That there are benefits for most is unquestionable, but how these are shared has never been at all fair. Are brutal exploitation and inequality an intrinsic part of wealth creation? However much we want something to be fairer and are even willing to pay more for it, the power of capitalism stems from its simplistic measurement of value. This makes it good at delivering cheaply what can be objectively quantified and traded, but poor at integrating subjective concepts like fairness and human dignity.

Can free trade ever be fair? Can capitalism be harnessed to deliver more than wealth? I confess to occasional scepticism and sometimes feel it is futile to even try, yet, to quote Noam Chomsky, “If you assume that there is no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, that there are opportunities to change things, then there is a possibility that you can contribute to making a better world.” Like all success stories Fairtrade has its critics and some participant growers are frustrated, yet all the ones I have met have told me it has benefitted their communities, bringing empowerment and encouraging co-operation and social cohesion. It is hard to put a value on fairness and hope, but life is worth little without them so we support Fairtrade and the contribution it makes to creating a better world.

Guy Watson

Guy’s news: Getting a bit impatient

The first daffodils are out and wild garlic is sprouting in the woods. With the sun edging higher and the days lengthening, a grower’s urge to plant escalates with each bright morning. Yet despite this sap rising from our boots, the soil is still cold and wet, and with memories of early plantings that struggled in cold seed beds being overtaken by those planted later in better conditions, we will temper the urge to sow and catch up on holidays instead. Early plantings have to spend longer fighting off weeds and disease and contending with gales and rain, often producing lower quality crops than those planted a month later.

So, apart from early potatoes in favoured coastal areas, the ever-hardy broad beans and perhaps some hopeful sowings of carrots, we will wait until mid or late March to start planting in earnest. Perhaps we have become too risk averse; Brexit and a 20% devaluation in the pound does renew the pressure to save a week of imports by starting our season early, but perhaps that is the sap talking.

We may not be planting but it is time to start getting our warmer, well-drained south facing slopes ready. On heavy, hard-to-cultivate clay soil it is traditional to plough in the autumn, leaving the furrows standing as high and exposed to frost as possible. The progressive action of freezing and thawing breaks clods into a fine seedbed with little need for cultivation in the spring; particularly useful if your horsepower comes from a horse, as was the case when the practice originated. While this time-honoured technique works well in the east of England where rainfall and soil temperatures are lower, it is disastrous under the 30 to 40 inches of winter rain typical in Devon. Here it can reduce bare soil to the foul smelling mess you might dredge from the bottom of a pond. Anaerobic, full of toxins and intrinsically sick, it’s certainly no place to plant a vulnerable seed. 30 years of trial and error have taught us to let our soils rest over the winter covered with grass, a green manure or even weeds until late January at the earliest; the root channels and earthworms help drainage and aeration, while the foliage cushions the impact of raindrops and prevents soil erosion. The next break in the weather will herald our soil’s rude awakening; first with muck and then with the plough, and the new farming season will begin in earnest.

Guy Watson