Tag Archives: environment

Guy’s Newsletter: ruminating on protein

“Dad, how can you call yourself an environmentalist, and still sell meat?”. First one daughter, then the other, then even my previously carnivorous sons joined in. Their epiphany was brought on by the documentary Cowspiracy; it is smug, irritating and outrageously one-sided in its selection of evidence and ends with an unjustified and ill-considered swipe at Greenpeace. However, despite my irritation, I would agree (uncomfortably for someone selling meat) that no thinking person can reasonably claim to be an environmentalist, or even a humanist, while continuing to eat more than very small amounts of animal protein; most forms of animal agriculture are simply wrecking our planet.

Climate change-wise the arguments are complex, involving ruminant methane emissions, deforestation for grazing and soya production, methane and nitrous oxide emitting manure heaps and soil, intensive versus extensive farming methods and more. As our planet is so diverse in soils, topography, ecology, diet and agricultural methods, it’s unwise to be dogmatic anyway. However, after weeks scouring scientific papers, we have reached the following initial conclusions:

  • Livestock agriculture contributes 10-12% of manmade climate change; arguably as much as every car, plane, truck and ship on the planet.
  • Livestock agriculture is grossly inefficient and requires 5-10 times more land to feed ourselves than a vegan diet; there just isn’t enough land to go round. OK it’s not that simple; there may well be a credible argument for animals grazing permanent pastures on land unsuited for growing crops for humans, to produce high quality, high welfare meat and dairy, as with most organic farming, but we will have to eat much less of it.

Alongside this are all the health, animal welfare, pollution and antibiotic resistance arguments against eating meat; hard to quantify, but very real. There will be exceptions, but the general conclusion is inescapable; for the good of us and our planet, we must collectively eat much less animal protein. Over the coming weeks we’ll be exploring the issue and suggesting ways to nudge any committed carnivores away from some of their meat. I hope you’ll feel compelled to join us.

Guy Watson

Visit www.riverford.co.uk/how-much-meat to join the debate, take our ‘drop a day’ pledge, browse meat-minimising recipes and do our survey.

Guy’s Newsletter: average – the new good?

In much of the UK we are blessed with a moist, temperate climate and good soils, making farming relatively easy compared to the more extreme climates of the world. Farming evolves with decades of experimentation and observation, based on assumptions about the weather and its implications for crops, varieties, soil types and topographies. Some scientists have suggested that higher average temperatures and atmospheric CO2 levels (a key limit to plant growth) could benefit farmers in temperate climates. This may be true under average conditions, but experience suggests that extremes may be more critical in determining the fate of a particular crop, and ultimately our food security. And all climatologists seem to agree that we should expect more extremes.

In Devon, November brought temperatures 3˚C above average, half the average sunshine and about 50% extra rain. December saw temperatures a staggering 4˚C up, with sunshine about 30% down. Warm, dull wet weather is what we expect in a Devon winter but this is extreme; plants need the sun, if not to grow, to maintain themselves and to give the strength to fight off pathogens. Until recently most crops held up well, including cabbages, kale and swede and a fair crop of slightly weather-beaten leeks. Harvesting is slower in the mud, especially with the extra trimming of damaged leaves, but generally morale in the teams has held up well. Into the New Year the inevitable problems started to surface: fungal disease in the spring greens outside and salad greens in our tunnels, head rot hitting early purple sprouting broccoli and aphids and an (as yet) unidentified stem rot in tunnel-grown lettuce. All problems that would disappear with some bright, cold, or even average, weather.

What better way to while away a grim January day than making Seville orange marmalade? According to Paddington Bear, every family needs a marmalade day. If you can’t be bothered with our marmalade kits, just try this year’s excellent blood oranges. Both are at their best over the next few weeks.

Guy Watson

Guy’s newsletter: where are the guardians of our soil?

April is a hectic month of change as planting gets underway in earnest all over the farm. Where last year’s crops are finished and the fields need a rest, we are sowing ‘leys’ to build fertility, and restore soil structure. After years of experimentation, my brother Oliver uses a mixture of triticale (a cross between rye and wheat), lupins, clovers (all nitrogen-fixing legumes), grasses and, more unusually, chicory. This bitter herb does well on our soils and seems to be favoured by the grazing dairy herd, but more importantly Oliver reckons it opens the soil structure and brings up nutrients from deeper in the soil profile. By July, as the lupins and triticale fill their seed heads, he takes a cut of silage to feed the cows in winter; the understory of clover and grass are then free of competition to form a dense sward for the cows to graze. After three or four years of such restorative activity, the soil is ready for vegetables again.

The complexity of our farm with its mixture of annual and perennial crops and livestock is unquestionably good for the soil and wildlife, but it’s rapidly becoming an anomaly in modern agriculture. The norm is for soil to be subjected to repetitive monocropping on large farms which specialise in one enterprise, generally propped up by chemical herbicides, pesticides and fertilisers. After 30 years, with plenty of mistakes along the way, I feel confident that with each turn of the rotation our fields are improving and, while the commercial pressure is always towards simplicity and specialisation, we are getting better at managing the complexity. This is in stark contrast to most agriculture where the UN predicts that on average the world has just 60 years of crop growing capacity left, due to soil degradation.

Our system is far from perfect; the abiding weakness is the need to create a weed free seedbed for new crops to establish. The two poles of thinking are that you either spray or you plough; both are environmental catastrophes for soil flora and fauna, but ploughing is just a bit less flawed than the chemical alternative. As farmers we must learn to produce food while being better guardians of the fragile, much neglected soil that supports us all.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter: steam sterilisation – an ethical dilemma

I am reluctantly concluding in France, as we have done in Devon, that it would be wiser to get our neighbours to grow the crops we are less competent at. There are local organic farmers so skilled in growing baby leaf salad that they can charge a little over half our production costs, but we face an ethical dilemma. In order to control weeds to facilitate mechanical harvesting, their standard practice is to steam-sterilise the top 6cm of soil once a year; better than the now banned methyl bromide once used by conventional growers for the same purpose, but many would argue that, since caring for the soil is an integral part of organic farming, to indiscriminately kill the good micro-organisms as well as the pathogenic is an anathema. Yet what I find far more worrying is the 5000l/hectare of oil burned in the process, meaning that each kilo of salad produced has involved the burning of an astounding 1l of oil. This happens to be about the same amount as it takes to fly produce from Kenya.

As we have undertaken not to sell airfreighted produce on environmental grounds, should we sell salads produced using steam sterilisation, even if they carry the organic stamp? I am inclined to say no but it is a hard and commercially punitive decision when our competitors do. Of course humans did survive pre-the baby leaf salad bag, so perhaps we should only grow them when and where we can do a reasonable job without sterilisation, as we do in Devon. It is reassuring that the Soil Association standards go beyond those in Europe and do not allow steam sterilisation for weed control in the open field; an impressive bit of sanity. While we ponder all of this, we are experimenting with using mustard, grown as a green manure, as a weed suppressant.

Guy Watson

a chilli Christmas?
We’ve a huge crop of chillies this year and have just finished drying several tonnes of habanero, cayenne and scotch bonnet for you to hang from your tree (they look great). Come Twelfth Night follow our recipe to make chilli oil to enliven your cooking in the coming winter months, all for £3.80 for 20 chillies.