Tag Archives: ecology

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: an unholy alliance

Last week a report was released suggesting that the EU’s proposed ban of a range of pesticides would have devastating consequences for farming and food prices. A little scratching reveals that the report was co-commissioned by the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), alongside manufacturers and suppliers of chemical pesticides and herbicides.

I may be a white, male farmer, fairly well off and getting on a bit, but I don’t feel represented by the NFU. In fact I find myself increasingly alienated by their self-righteous lobbying for the short term interests of a small number of largescale farmers. This especially applies to their resistance to any representation of the interests of the tax payers who prop up their industry; to even the tamest environmental regulation; to public access to land; and to any redirection of farming subsidies to encourage younger, smaller scale entrants to the industry.

For 60 years, farming policy in the developed world has been led by the agrochemical industry; whatever the problem, the solution is to be found in a chemical container. No-one could question that food has become cheaper as a result, but the costs in terms of a devastating loss of biodiversity, where bees and songbirds now thrive better in cities than the countryside, cannot be denied. I wonder where we might be if a fraction of the agrochemical research funds had gone into understanding the ecology of our soils, crops, pests and countryside. In glass houses, where insect pressure is at its highest, insecticide resistance and increased regulation has forced growers to develop alternative methods with huge success. It’s not easy but with patience, observation and learning, a more ecological approach to pest management is possible.

I believe that a countryside where highly skilled farmers who embrace GPS technology, mechanisation and ecology to facilitate mixed farming is possible. Our industry should be learning from nature, employing only subtle and minimal intervention with chemicals. I suspect that will remain a dream for now and I don’t expect the NFU or their unholy alliance with pesticide manufacturers to help us get closer to it. Meanwhile, we are doing well enough without chemicals that many of you will get extra leeks in your box this week.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter: GM jostling, hyperbole & inedible bananas

Last week our Prime Minister’s office issued an “independent report” calling for the UK to override EU regulations and start growing GM crops in the UK. What we were not told was that all of its authors had close links with the GM industry, as seen in the national press since the report’s release.

Even though I took the government to the High Court in the 1990s to challenge the legality of GM crop trials bordering our farm, I am not a Luddite. We have made such a mess of our planet that we need to harness science in the search for sustainable co-existence, but we must acknowledge how much we don’t know and that the most important science is the least understood; namely ecology.

Were Monsanto or Syngenta to come up with a perennial, nitrogen-fixing wheat, maize or rice, I would find it hard to argue against it. Yet after 30 years the GM industry has failed to deliver any substantial benefit. The debate doesn’t seem to have moved on and this report isn’t going to help, whatever its true motivations.

I remain marginally anti-GM, though mainly for sociopolitical reasons. Firstly I don’t like the world’s food supply being controlled by a small number of global corporations (Syngenta, Monsanto and DuPont already control 47% of the global seed market); I also lament the continued loss of nutrition, food culture, and the autonomy of small scale farmers that accompanies the drive towards globally traded monocultures.

In Uganda, where 30% of calories are consumed as bananas, a wilt resistant GM variety was widely promoted as an example of how GM could feed the world. According to the farmers I spoke to it was inedible; another case of hyperbole before reality. In the meantime simply better agricultural practices could increase output many-fold and farmers have found other means of living with wilt. Watch our film on my recent Uganda trip here to see how giving farmers independence rather than introducing dependence on GM and agri-chemicals is what is driving positive change.

Guy Watson

ecology and gaffer tape

Will a hard winter mean fewer pests this year? I’m not holding out much hope. It all depends whether you believe the path to redemption lies in ordered hygiene or dynamic balance. In favour of hygiene, the cold will have cleaned things up; a lot of aphids will have perished and leaves and roots harbouring disease will have been killed, thus breaking the disease-carrying bridge between seasons.

Unfortunately my experience of cold winters past is that any benefit will be short lived. Taking an ecological “balance” perspective, this is easily explained. Most pests that make a meal of our crops are also a meal for someone else: aphids are eaten by ladybirds, lacewing and hover fly larvae and parasitized by certain wasps, slugs are eaten by carabid beetles and toads and predated by nematodes. Red spider mites are controlled by the predatory mite phytoseiulus. Unfortunately these farmer friendly “beneficial” organisms will have also suffered in the cold; in fact they tend to be more affected by the cold than the pests (not only do many die, the survivors get dopey and less hungry).

Some pests always survive and, after a cold winter, there are fewer predators to keep them in check. As pests tend to get going sooner and breed faster, a cold winter might be expected to result in a higher population peak before the predators catch up. Hence cold winters may help the hygiene approach to pest management (as propounded by pesticide salesmen) but are not much help to those looking for balance.


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