A Monday morning Round-up

Round- up.  It’s a clever name, isn’t it.

Combine two alternative, but complimentary, meanings – first, the “rounding-up” of weeds, like cattle. Just round-’em up and dispose of them. So simple.

A second more subtle meaning might also seep into our sub-conscious. Rounding up, as in getting a bit more (for our money.).

Round-up – Not only simple, effective, but also money-saving.

I first came across Round-up when I was still living at home as a teenager. My dad bought some to control some weed or other (there were quite a few) in the garden. I still have a pot (of Tumbleweed) in the greenhouse, though I haven’t used any in probably 10 years. I had a bit of a bindweed problem in the veg patch. I gave up using round-up on it, because it didn’t work. It just killed the leaves and a bit of the rhizome. I realised the only answer was digging down deep to find the long-established roots – and keep digging and removing every last bit. It’s more or less gone now, certainly contained.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s about 9 months now since I last wrote about glyphosate (the chemical name for Round-up). Wow I got a lot of stick for that article. There were a few errors in it, for sure. But then there was a lot of fact in it too.

Since then things have moved on. The EU came within a whisker of banning glyphosate – and it turns out the only reason they didn’t is because the German agriculture minister ignored his Government’s own policy. Schmidt is no longer farm minister. It’s pure coincidence I’m sure that, at the time Schmidt made his fateful decision, German agrochemical giant Bayer were in the process of taking over the US company Monsanto, maker of Round-up and the GM-crops which depend on it.

Despite the EU’s collective decision to give glyphosate just another five years of licenced use, many member states have decided to act unilaterally and phase its use out. Obviously that doesn’t include the UK. This is partly because of Brexit, but mainly because there is such a strong lobby (from within the agricultural industry) working here to protect it. Its main use in UK agriculture is to prepare standing arable crops for harvesting, by desiccating them and killing any weeds that might be in there.

A much more minor, but more interesting use, is by zero- and min-till farmers who use it to kill cover crops (and weeds) when preparing to direct drill their crops. Killing the cover crop at the right time releases things like Nitrogen from the cover crop, enabling the growing crop to make use of it, rather than applying artificial fertiliser. The over-wintering cover crop also reduces the risk of soil erosion, or loss of nitrogen and phosphate into rivers.

Then there was last week’s historic judgement by a US court. The jury concluded that glyphosate had caused a rare type of cancer in a groundsman who had regularly used the chemical. He’d been spraying it in school grounds. Imagine your children had been at that school. Now imagine that the school your children attend here in the UK, uses glyphosate. Because they do.

Can farmers and the agrochemicals industry continue with their “glyphosate is vital” and “glyphosate is safe” media campaigns, now that the jury is no longer out on this question?

Probably yes.

Monsanto (which as a company no longer exists – very conveniently) has repeatedly turned to the Tobacco Industry playbook of lies, smears, character assassination, buying “friendly” scientists, and astro-turfing (setting up fake civil society groups to provide “independent” support) to prevent regulatory action on glyphosate. No doubt they will appeal the California verdict. But the flood gates have opened and thousands of others, who believe their cancers or other illnesses have been caused by glyphosate, are now going to launch their own legal actions. Perhaps some even in the UK.

It’s true that when glyphosate was first introduced as a new herbicide, it replaced earlier chemicals which were more dangerous – Paraquat for example. Paraquat is still manufactured in the UK, for export to countries which have not yet banned it. But just because something is safer than the thing it replaces, doesn’t mean it’s safe, does it. It just means that work needs to be done to find a safer alternative. That’s really part of what we might call civilisation. Why stop at glyphosate?

For me, there’s a bigger issue, which is why farmers are using so many agrochemicals (like glyphosate) to produce our food. As bee expert Dave Goulson noted recently, while the weight of pesticide use in the UK has declined over recent decades, the capacity to kill wildlife (specifically bees) increased six-fold. And that wasn’t even taking into account the impact of widespread, almost ubiquitous use of glyphosate in the countryside. That use has one over-riding impact – to remove wild flowers, which provide pollen and nectar for bees and other insects.

Would it cost more for UK farmers to produce food without using glyphosate, neonicotinoids, or the myriad other agro-chemicals currently being used? Yes it would. But it wouldn’t cost much more. And, more importantly, the cost of producing food is only a small component of the total cost of food we buy on the supermarkets shelves. So – if the UK Government decided to ban glyphosate (and to be honest there should be an immediate ban on its use in gardens and parks – and its use preparing crops for harvest) in agriculture, and food prices went up a smidgen, would anyone notice? I doubt it, given all the other factors which influence how much our food costs.

What about the use of glyphosate in zero- and min-till farming? I would suggest a three year phase out for this use. This would give time for alternative methods to be developed – and the Government should put up some funding to help develop these techniques.

But while Defra and its leader Michael Gove continue to stand in support of glyphosate (and his Biodiversity minister enthusiastically endorsing it immediately after the court finding), it will take concerted public action to shift that position.

 

 

 

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Looking after farmers as well as the land : Guest blog by Heidi Saxby

I recently read a fascinating paper exploring how farmers gain personal benefits to their wellbeing, from taking part in projects which help wildlife on farms – in this case a project to help conserve rare cornfield wildflowers in North Yorkshire. I contacted the author Heidi Saxby, and this is a blog she has written on her research. This article was first published on Sociology Lens.

Examining flowers in North Yorkshire Cornfield Flowers Project (CFP) margin. Image courtesy of CFP.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Do farmers derive any personal benefit and well-being from their Agricultural Environmental Schemes (AES) work?

Being a volunteer grower and seed guardian for North Yorkshire’s Cornfield Flowers Project (CFP) made me aware of how this project functioned differently from other, mainstream AES. The CFP capitalises upon farmers’ personal interest in arable flowers [1] Participating farmers are not paid for the work, do not sign contracts, and are not obliged to adhere to prescriptive cultivations methods imposed by an external agency. Unlike most AES, the project is also restricted to a relatively small geographical area of North East England.

Research shows that most AES are considered by farmers to be bureaucratic, time consuming and onerous. They are organised so that they can be applied generically across the whole country and prioritise process over outcome. Central administration is easier, but farmers cannot easily modify the schemes to local conditions such as land type and weather patterns. Farmers’ own skills, motivations and interests are not optimised, and AES work can become a chore rather than a satisfaction.

For my dissertation for a Food and Rural Development Research MSc in Newcastle University’s Centre for Rural Economy, CFP became my case study. I found that this drew my attention to social processes within the project which I had largely overlooked within my role as a volunteer. These included the ways that alliances were formed amongst farmers because of their interest and expertise in arable flowers, differentiating them from other, local arable farmers with no interest in or even a disdain for what they saw as weeds. CFP farmers’ social networks provide opportunities to consult, advise and receive advice about cultivating arable flowers, share seed and plant material otherwise difficult to obtain, and indulge in competitive banter about growing the most extensive range of, or the best examples of flowers. On a local and individual level this appears to contribute to their sense of belonging and identity, but it also performs a practical function in that the farmers have become a unique community of expertise now sought out by agricultural and environmental professionals wanting to know how to manage arable land for biodiversity. The farmers relish this role reversal; outsider experts seek their advice instead of telling them how to manage an AES.

Garden growing CFP plants for seed production and saving. Photo by Heidi Saxby.

My own volunteer status and capital within the project benefited me whilst I was planning and doing my research fieldwork. Being a seed guardian may have reassured farmers of my genuine interest in the project and their work, so that they were sanguine about the time my visits took up and receptive to my endless questions. And perhaps my (limited) knowledge of arable flowers gave me a head start when discussing propagation methods. The farmers took great pride in showing me around their farms, carefully diarising my visit according to the forecasted weather and crop maturity, in order that I would enjoy a ‘good show’ of flowers.

When visiting their flowering field margins I was especially struck by farmers’ pride in ‘their’ flowers, and the meanings they attributed to them. One farmer speculated about his grandfather seeing these beautiful weeds when ploughing with horses; slow work giving farmers closer proximity to arable flowers than is afforded by modern farming methods and mused about his current conservation efforts enhancing the chances of his grandson and potential great grandchildren seeing them on the same land in the future. For this farmer, as for others, the arable flowers represented permeance, place attachment and his family’s history on that land, with the flowers elevated to a status more complex and personal than that of being ‘just’ a pretty weed.

Each flower had a story associating it with its particular farm or farmer’s family. Abundant Cornflowers create a blue haze on the headlands of one farm, yet refuse to grow on another nearby CFP farm. Gowland Lane, near to a different CFP farm bears the local name for Corn Marigold, indicating it once grew profusely there. Venus’s-Looking Glass thrives on yet another farm at the extreme north of its geographical range.  All the Corn Buttercups now flourishing on CFP farms were originally propagated from the tattered, post-harvest remains of one solitary plant located by chance. Such stories and the manner of their telling suggest that the farmers become emotionally invested in the flowers and the process of caring for them, and demonstrate the flowers’ symbolic and well as their material value. Farmers spent considerable time hunting for, ‘good examples’ of elusive, especially rare or beautiful flowers to show to me, with some visiting their flowering margins shortly before my planned visit to stake out particular plants for my appraisal. I spent hours walking around field margins where farmers grow their flowers, listening to their gleeful stories about other CFP farmers and photographed the flowers that they carefully displayed. I was shown to places regarded with especial affection because of their flora, fauna and tranquillity, and heard explanations about the meanings these things had for them. It would be intrusive to relate those here, but they illustrate how farmers’ efforts to look after the natural environment brought satisfaction, and motivated ongoing CFP (and AES more generally) work.

Blue-flowered form of the Scarlet Pimpernel. Photo by Heidi Saxby.

My research contact with CFP farmers has ended, but my ongoing seed guardian role gives a legitimate reason to revisit them. These visits are opportunities to share stories, seeds and updates about developments in both the CFP and in research outcomes. On one visit I informed them about recent publication of our co-authored academic paper [2] from the research. They were interested to hear how their conservation efforts are perceived by outsiders and proud that the research was being positively received. This led me to recall our fieldwork conversations, and the remark of one farmer, who said: ‘well, as I say people like yourself who come; it pleases them that there’s something, something special to them so, you get a satisfaction out of knowing that you’ve helped’

References

[1] ‘Arable plants are the most critically threatened group of wild plants in the UK. Identifying sites where these rare species remain is essential to ensuring their conservation through sustainable management’ (Plantlife. Threatened arable plants. Identification guide. Sailsbury, Wiltshire.)

[2] Saxby, H., Gkartzios, M. and Scott, K. (2017) ‘‘Farming on the edge’: Wellbeing and participation in agri-environmental schemes’, Sociologia Ruralis.

Heidi Saxby is a Doctoral Researcher in the School of Natural and Environmental Sciences, Newcastle University, UK

 

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Will the New Environment Bill be Michael Gove’s golden opportunity, poisoned chalice or a dead duck

the parched landscape of Dorset, from Blackdown. ©Miles King

Let’s face it, it’s been a pretty disastrous couple of weeks for our Prime Minister Theresa May. After the apparent success of the Chequers Brexit agreement, May has lost two of her most outspoken pro-Brexit ministers, whose departure triggered a further wave of resignations.

 

No sooner was the ink dry on the Chequers deal when it was unceremoniously ripped to shreds by Jacob Rees-Mogg and his band of extreme Brexiteers, in the European Research Group (ERG). The Government had to cave in to the ERG’s demands to destroy the heart of the Chequers proposals, making them completely unacceptable to the European Union (though they were almost certainly going to be rejected anyway.)

 

To add insult to injury, May last Friday announced that she was abandoning her commitments, made last December, to the Northern Ireland border “backstop” agreement. This will be seen as a betrayal by both the EU negotiators, and by our neighbour across that particular border, the Republic of Ireland. The backstop was put in place to ensure that the terms of the Good Friday Agreement were not broken, and to ensure that a hard border between the Republic and Northern Ireland did not return, with all the many problems that hard border brings with it.

 

What all this manoeuvring points to, is that we are headed for a no-deal crash-out Brexit. So it is in this context that we should consider whether to celebrate the announcement, by Theresa May, that her Government will bring forward an Environment Bill.

 

May made the surprising announcement in her regular appearance in front of the House of Commons Liaison Committee – formed from all the chairs of all the Select Committees from the Commons. In normal times, this sort of thing would either have been written down in a Queen’s Speech, or announced by the relevant Secretary of State (Michael Gove) to the House of Commons. Presumably May thought this would be a good opportunity to pull a political rabbit out of the hat, to wrong foot her opponents. On this occasion the person who was questioning her was Tory MP and chair of the Environment Food and Rural Affairs select committee Neil Parish. Parish was pressing her on the Government’s failure to do anything about our appalling air quality in the UK. Air quality which continues to fail to meet standards set by the EU and air quality which has seen the EU taking repeated legal action against the UK.

 

May seemed quite pleased with herself with this particular rabbit-pulling trick. Perhaps it helped her to forget, for a second, just what a disaster Brexit has been, and continues to be, for her, for her party, and for the country. May bragged that it would be the first Environment Act since 1995, as if no laws on the Environment had been created in the past 23 years. In fact, the ‘95 Act made relatively few changes – it enabled the creation of the Environment Agencies and National Park Authorities. Somewhat ironically, it also created a duty to prepare a National Air Quality Strategy. May then conveniently forgot about the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000; the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006; the Climate Change Act 2008 and the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009. There have been no significant new pieces of legislation on the Environment since 2009, other than where the EU has created new environmental law which the UK has adopted. (For an excellent review of May’s stumbling responses to her environment questions, read this by James Murray on the Business Green website.)

 

Michael Gove, who is keen to make his mark during his tenure at Defra, must be wondering whether this is a golden opportunity, a poisoned chalice, or a dead duck? On the one hand, a new Environment Act could introduce laws which help Gove move towards his stated aim of leaving the Environment in a better state than he found it. But even just to maintain the current situation (the latest set of environmental indicators show a steady decline), he would need to ensure that all the elements of environmental law which currently flow from the EU, were enshrined in this new Environment Act.

 

As I have already related, the Government’s latest proposals to replace the “watchdog” or legal enforcer role the EU has played, are insufficient to meet this test (though better than the original proposals). Gove also has to counter moves from Trade Secretary Liam Fox who, following the latest Brextremist victories, is filled with renewed fundamentalist zeal as he goes about his business of ripping up environmental protections, food safety, workers rights and other hard-won victories. Then there is the distinct possibility that this Parliament will be in a state of permanent paralysis, or indeed will have collapsed, long before the Environment Bill makes its way through to becoming law.

 

Having said all that, I have been wondering what might be put into such a Bill? May has specifically mentioned action on clean air. I would add in a few other things. I would introduce a duty on the Government to designate all remaining areas of wildlife which meet the standard for a Site of Special Scientific Interest as such. This would probably double the area of best wildlife sites under legal protection. I would also create a very strong duty to protect wildlife outside these special sites – some have suggested picking a few iconic species to which this duty would apply (e.g. the Hedgehog.) I would throw the net widely to encompass a wide range of species and habitats. I would also introduce a law which required 40% of all new housing developments to be green space, to be specifically maintained for wildlife.

 

And I would place a legal duty on the Government to make 10% of the UK into new wild land. Wild land could include places like the Knepp Estate, as well as areas of the uplands which were restored to healthy blanket bog, and naturally regenerating woodland. In the marine environment 10% of our seas would become no-take zones, effectively rewilding them.

 

New laws are a great way to help change people’s actions which affect the Environment. They can also help change attitudes towards environmental change. I’ll update you, as we get more details of what might go into this forthcoming Environment Bill – and what you can do to help make it as good as it can be.

This article first appeared on Lush Times.

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Where has all our wildlife gone?

riotous nature on Chesil Beach, Dorset ©Miles King

What is really, truly happening to wildlife across the UK? Is wildlife disappearing, or are the reports of disappearing insects, road-verge dwelling wildflowers being mown to destruction, and swifts vanishing from our skies, merely agenda-driven doom-mongering by extreme environmentalists, hell bent on taking us all back to the Stone Age?

Some in the farming community are deeply sceptical that Nature is in trouble, let alone in trouble on their land. There are undoubtedly many farmers who care deeply about the wildlife on their land, are fiercely protective of it, proud of the way that they farm, and reject claims that their farms, which may be rich in wildlife, are in any way unusual. But the evidence, gathered across the country, over a period of many decades, by professionals and amateur naturalists alike, tells us an incontrovertible truth: while a small group of species are doing well, many are doing very badly indeed.

Butterflies associated with particular types of land (known as habitat specialists) are down by 77% since 1976, while those which live in the countryside are down by half. Farmland birds numbers continue to decline, with some species, such as the Turtle Dove down by as much as 95% over the past 50 years. Formerly common plants like Ragged Robin or Harebell are now classed as “near threatened” because they have disappeared from large parts of the UK. There is just 2% left, of the wildlife-rich grasslands that once clothed these islands with a riot of colour and fragrance – as highlighted by the charity Plantlife just last Saturday on National Meadows day. And cornfield weeds that were once regarded as the  bane of farmers’ lives, like Corncockle and Cornflower, are now extinct or surviving in the wild, in just a handful of places.

We know these things to be true, because people go out and collect data. They monitor butterflies with a well-established method called the butterfly transect. Volunteers working for the British Trust for Ornithology use a variety of approaches to measure which birds are breeding where (the Breeding Bird Census), and which birds are over-wintering in our coastal wetlands (WEBS). Volunteers from the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI), as well as other learned societies covering everything from seaweeds to millipedes, record the presence (and absence) of species – often using a standardised grid of squares created by the Ordnance Survey. This allows the distribution of species to be monitored over a long time period, showing how they are disappearing, or indeed spreading into new territory, in response to things like climate change.

Another approach to finding out what is happening to Nature is to focus effort into one small area and attempt to identify as many species as possible on one day, or over a few days. This is known as a Bioblitz and has become increasingly popular over the last few years. Bioblitzing a site enables a snapshot to be taken of the wildlife on that site. It’s great for getting everyone involved, and includes experts on different aspects of Nature on hand during the day to help people who want to come along and help.

And it’s in this context that Chris Packham will be touring the country over a 10-day period this month, starting in the north of Scotland and finishing here in Poole Harbour (on a boat.) He’ll be visiting a wide range of different sites, many, but not all, of which are nature reserves. Having gathered together a group of experts to identify species and habitats on each of the sites being visited, Chris will be able to create a snapshot assessment of the state of Nature on each site, comparing what is found this year with what had been recorded in the past.

I would fully expect new species for the site to be discovered – who knows, there may even  be species previously unknown to the UK being recorded. Equally, it would not be surprising if species and habitats which used to occur at these sites are shown to be no longer be present. Where species or habitats have disappeared from a site, it’s always worth exploring why this has happened, and hopefully there will be an assessment of the reasons why the biodiversity in a place has changed, declined, or even increased. If you’re interested in going along to a bioblitz near you, check the list of locations Chris is visiting, on his website. Many are open for the public to join in the bioblitz on the day.

It occurred to me that it might be salutary for Chris and his experts to visit some typical farmland to explore its biodiversity – or indeed lack of it. Arable farmland- where artificial fertiliser and pesticides are used regularly – is often devoid of anything other than a few species of wildlife, which is also the case with intensively managed pastures where a single species of grass is sown, fertilised and sprayed with herbicides. But then which farmer would enthusiastically invite Chris Packham and a group of wildlife experts along to their farm, to confirm that no wildlife remains there? Probably very few.

One reason behind the Bioblitz campaign is to raise funds for the conservation projects that Chris is visiting on his journey across the UK. If you would like to help Chris raise funds for these projects (and the National Autistic Society) then please do via his JustGiving page.

this column first appeared on Lush Times

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Farm based inspiration out of the Westminster Bubble: guest blog by Vicki Hird

too hot in London ©Vicki Hird

Policy work these days can be stifling; keeping you stuck to a desk, locked in meetings and shuffling around Westminster. It is only a matter of time before we hear news of Brexit fatigue or even burn out. The sheer volume of news and Bills and lobbying requirements makes it hard to go out and see what is happening in the field and talk to ‘real people’.

Quite understandably too, we get accused of being in a London bubble… often by farmers (in their farming bubble I could add) and not really understanding the realities of the food system.

With this stricture in mind, I happily accepted three farm based invitations recently: to a meeting and farm walk on a wholly pasture fed livestock farm; an organic farm and garden meeting organised by the Sustainable Food Trust; and to attend and moderate sessions at a conservation, no-till farm-based and farmer-led conference called Groundswell. Collectively, they filled my brain with new understanding and my senses with great food and visions of farm loveliness.

To distil the learning down would be impossible but I can outline three key thoughts which are top of my mind after these visits and which will inform our lobbying (apart from the pleasure of visiting such great farms and talking to the farmers):

Issue 1. The role of farmers in delivering food is utterly poorly recognised and it is not clear how that will change unless something radical happens. Greater social media activity, Open farm Sundays and facetime a farmer and so on are all great but they are no counter to consumers’ confusing dilemma of seeing quality, environment or animal friendly food costing far more than cheap, filler-filled junk. Marketing and costing and valuing of food are badly misaligned and as Tony Allen put it at the Politics of Food session I moderated at Groundswell we are producing “underpriced food for underpaid people“. And often those underpaid people are the food workers… We need farmers work valued more and that means new, better routes to market (supported by public as well as private investment) with local infrastructure (abattoirs, processing, storage) to support it as well as more and better PR. And trade negotiations must put farming and food standards first.

Issue 2. The new Gove-inspired farm policy is feared. This is a tipping point as one speaker put it – a new agriculture policy designed by us and new trade deals – so it’s a shame that farmers have low expectations. I was surprised when questioning farmers on whether they want outcomes or prescription based approaches to farm support – that most preferred prescriptions – being told what to do when (as long as it is ‘simple). They felt being paid for outcomes were too risky – e.g. a bad bit of weather and you’ve screwed your water catchment outcomes and so may not get paid. Most were happy with a whole farm approach which was positive – this favours systems-based thinking and considering in-field and cultivation issues not just edge of field and separate areas for nature. It feels like the land sharing vs land sparing arguments don’t work so well in this crowded isle and we need a bit of both.

Issue 3. The farm community is changing by networking which maybe bodes well for a new farm support and wider system based on delivering public goods especially at landscape or catchment scale. The industry is sadly still averse to cooperating, with farm coop numbers dropping for the fifth consecutive year* and it still loves big machinery but farmer-led learning is around and growing. I’ve seen more exciting ideas, schemes, sharing and networking approaches than ever before working on farm policy. Soil health is a big driver. and the organic movement have been collaborating on this for years. I also hear much talk about new metrics and (simple always simple) on-farm measurements needed to help both drive innovation and monitor delivery of public goods. Mistakes will be made but I hope seen as developmental not disastrous (RPA aside). But we must keep faith.

If change is happening, will the new farm policies being developed be fit for purpose? The hugely enlarged Defra team delivering the new Agriculture Bill have had a major consultation response to trawl through but still suggest that the Bill will be published any day now. It will be very top line but we very much hope it supports the genuine culture change I’ve witnessed, good health outcomes and deals with supply chain and trade issues.

A recent report by MPs on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee – the result of a rapid inquiry into the Defra Health and Harmony consultation on future farm policy – came out in June. The MPs had valuable overall conclusions including the need for the government to:

  • provide thorough sectoral assessment of impacts to identify support for small and medium-sized farms and ring fencing funds to fund the rural economy and environment;
  • address the barriers to productivity and so will not support the Government’s ambitions for farming in England;
  • consider wider food policy with public impact such as reducing diet-related diseases, support healthy food in payment models to farming, and bring forward changes to Government buying standards and ensure use of healthy, affordable and British food in Government procurement;
  • assess which public bodies can coordinate the environmental land management system; and
  • ensure that trade agreements always prevent agri-food products that do not meet our environmental, animal welfare and food standards from entering the country.

Sustain welcomed that report as it reflected the multifaceted and multifunctional roles of farming. Sustain’s wide membership reflects that complexity too and works to ensure that policy delivers for all issues of public interest and not merely a single issue. Our response to the Defra consultation reflected that. Meanwhile Westminster and devolved administrations remain crazily busy with the eight other Brexit Bills being rushed through…

Finally, a warm and profound thank you to the farmers allowing folk like me to prod inexpertly at your soil and ask silly questions. I salute your perseverance, flexibility and forward thinking. We will need it.

Vicki Hird, Food and Farming Campaign Co-ordinator.

Sign up for updates on our work here.

*this is in marked contrast to the rest of Europe where cooperatives dominate (UK’s farming co-operatives have 6% of market share, Germany 45% and France 55%). Could this be why they show far higher growth in total factor productivity?

 

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Saddleworth Moor: the burning issues

Grouse moor burning at Saddleworth Moor. ©Vanessa Whitfield

In this – the most glorious hot, dry summer we’ve been enjoying in the UK – it might be timely to recall that 10 years ago, we saw the most significant piece of environmental law enacted in the UK for many years. The Climate Change Act was made law in 2008, led through Parliament by the former Labour leader Ed Miliband, when he was Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change.

Yes, back then we had a Cabinet minister tasked with leading action on Climate Change. How things change.

The Act required that administration and all subsequent Governments to take the necessary actions to achieve an 80% reduction in climate change emissions, from 1990 levels, by 2050.

Ten years later, the Committee on Climate Change – that lean but effective organisation created to keep the Government’s feet to the fire on climate action – is not happy. It has  just released a report warning the Government that is it falling behind in its actions. Although overall emissions are down 43% since 1990, the Committee, chaired by former Conservative Environment Secretary John Gummer (now Lord Deben) notes that actions have stalled, especially over the last five years. Perhaps this is not so surprising, given his successors included Owen Paterson, who was not convinced climate change was even happening, or – if it was, it wasn’t a problem. Since leaving the Government, Paterson has been involved with a post-Brexit project called Clexit, which aims to get the UK to withdraw from taking action on Climate Change, including revoking the Climate Change Act.

One action the Committee has identified as needing urgent action, is to first identify emissions of greenhouse gases from UK peatlands; and then decide what actions that need to be taken to reduce these emissions.

There is a lot of peatland in the UK – mainly in the form of blanket bog which covers the upland landscapes of all four UK countries. Peat forms our largest Carbon resource – far bigger than carbon stored in forests, for example. Our peatlands need to be protected, otherwise they degrade and, as they slowly decompose, release carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane.

Degraded blanket bogs are found across much of our uplands, which have been damaged by centuries of industrial pollution, acid rain, as well as overgrazing and drainage for agriculture. It is, to me, astonishing that we still do not know the extent of greenhouse-gas emissions from UK peatlands, though the Government has committed to completing this analysis by 2022.

Probably the single most effective way of reducing emissions from peatlands is to restore their hydrology, that is the way water flows through the peat. Peat forms when Sphagnum moss (or less often certain grasses and sedges) grows and dies. The dead plant material does not break down (because oxygen is not available), but rather is converted into peat. This peat is then covered by a new layer of plants, and the cycle continues. The peat underneath the live vegetation is protected by its ‘skin’ of plants, and retains water like a sponge. And over centuries, or even millennia, peat can develop to a depth of many metres. But when it is damaged by pollution or agriculture, the vegetation dies. The peat is exposed, starts to dry out and then breaks down, once in contact with air.

A damaged, dried out peatland is vulnerable to fire. And this is exactly what happened on Saddleworth Moor (historically in Yorkshire, but now part of Greater Manchester) last week. It’s not entirely clear what caused the fire to start, though there have been suggestions that it was caused by some trespassers, either deliberately or by accident. Either way, the exceptionally hot and dry weather, and a vast area of damaged dried-out peat, created the ideal conditions for a large moorland fire which,  at the time of writing, has already covered around 1000ha of moorland. Some have claimed that the Saddleworth fire started on RSPB-managed land nearby, owned by United Utilities. The RSPB have studiously avoided using fire to manage this particular upland site, where they have been working to restore the blanket bog, and point out in this blog that the fire started elsewhere but spread on to their site.

What has also been noted is that the area where the fire spread was an area of moorland being “restored” to Grouse Moor. Grouse Moor management involves deliberately setting fire to areas of moorland to encourage the growth of new heather, which Red Grouse, (whose numbers are artificially boosted for shooting), like to feed on. Many thousands of hectares of Moorland are burned for Grouse Moor management every year. In a 2015 report the Climate Change Committee noted “the damaging practice of burning peat to increase Grouse yields continues.”

I don’t think it’s too surprising that the Saddleworth Moor fire has become a microcosm for a wider debate about the future of our uplands. While such a large area is still managed for Grouse shooting – Moor burning is also used more widely to encourage grass growth for sheep farming. Those in the shooting community claim they have evidence on their side that controlled burning is environmentally beneficial – even “natural”. A few academics support this position, notably Prof Rob Marrs. But Marrs is also President of the Heather Trust, a charity which is closely aligned with and run by the Grouse Shooting industry. Then there’s the Countryside Alliance, who never miss the opportunity to capitalise on a story and attack their opponents  – this is no exception, though we were treated to CA’s head Tim Bonner claiming that there had never been trees on the upland peaks, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

Perhaps one of the more interesting suggestions coming forward as a solution is the reintroduction of  Beavers to upland sites, to speed up re-wetting of damaged, dried out blanket bog. Beavers do not necessarily need trees to survive, and there is plentiful vegetation on a blanket bog (especially one that hasn’t been burnt.) It’s definitely worth someone doing a trial, given the great expense of mechanically filling in peat drains.

As the impacts of climate change become more severe in the UK, we can expect to see more hot, dry summers which will make our peatlands ever more vulnerable to fire yet, as  the Climate Change Committee notes, we are already lagging behind on our actions to tackle climate change by reducing emissions.

The Saddleworth Moor fire shows that we also urgently need to take action to restore the hydrology of our degraded peatlands, both for their wildlife (and archaeology), their bleak beauty, and because they are our biggest Carbon store.

And we need to ask ourselves whether managing Moorlands intensively to create Grouse for shooting, can possibly be compatible with this? Protecting the Carbon resource must come above every other priority.

this is an updated version of an article which first appeared on the Lush Times.

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Hollow Promises: A Brexit impact assessment

Can it really be two years since the Earthquake struck and the UK voted to leave the EU? It seems both much longer, and no time at all. So, on this anniversary, I thought it would be timely to explore what has happened, and what might yet happen, with a particular focus on the impacts on the environment.

Back in 2014 I was looking at what a vote to leave the EU might mean for things like environmental protections, our wildlife; and the future of our farming system. I was pretty sceptical in the run up to the Referendum, about whether things would improve at all for Nature or the Environment as a result of the vote, whichever way it went. This didn’t seem likely, when Defra minister George Eustice talked about the  “spirit crushing” EU directives for nature protection, (he was clearly proposing that the protections afforded by the EU would disappear, were we to leave the EU.)

So what do we know so far? Well, thanks to last week’s clowning around in Parliament, and the Remainer Rebels failing to push through with their rebellion, we know that the EU Withdrawal Bill has now, after some major wobbles, passed through Parliament and will very soon become law. This includes a very modest improvement to the proposals for a new Green Watchdog. As I wrote recently, the original proposals were utterly toothless and an embarrassment. They had completely failed to deliver on the Government’s promise that the environmental protections afforded by being in the EU would be maintained, or even strengthened, once we had left. Thanks to the House of Lords amending the original proposals, this forced an amendment, which has improved on the original proposal, but it is still a very weak affair.

Environmental law expert Ruth Chambers, who is lobbying for stronger environmental laws as part of the Brexit process, commented: “The withdrawal bill missed out crucial elements of the EU environmental law framework and did not address the need to carry across provisions from EU directives that are not transposed into UK law.”

Thus far then, on the protection of sites for Nature, The Government scored nul points.

What about farming? The notorious Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) of the European Union has done untold damage to the UK environment – the latest figures on Butterflies show farmland populations have declined by three quarters since 1976. Brexit supporters have always said that, were we to leave the EU, we would be able to design a new farming support policy which would be much more environmentally friendly. I was deeply sceptical about this, knowing how powerful vested interests like the National Farmers Union and National Sheep Association can wield extraordinary influence over our politicians. So you can imagine my surprise when Environment Secretary Michael Gove stated that he wanted to take on these vested interests!

Could we really see a new approach to farm support, where farmers and other landowners are paid to provide public benefits, such as managing farmland with wildlife in mind; helping to clean up our rivers and seas; reducing the amount of fertiliser and pesticides used on farmland; helping to reduce the climate change impact of farming, and other benefits? Because this is what is being proposed.

The Health and Harmony public consultation has asked these questions, and over 40,000 people responded. Now we understand that an Agriculture Bill will be tabled before Parliamentary recess  – that is within the next month. So it remains to be seen what will be proposed, but I get the feeling, from my friends who are much closer to the politics of this than I am, that some form of system to pay farmers to produce food and provide public benefits, will be put forward. So, tentatively, the Government gets a small hooray, on reforms to farm payments.

Naturally the National Farmers Union is working behind the scenes as much as it can to try and persuade Mr Gove that what we really need is for lots of money to be ploughed into helping farmers grow more food, which doesn’t do any environmental damage anyway.

But, what is interesting about this current debate, is that they are not being joined by the other big farm lobbying organisations, that is the Country Landowners Association (CLA) and the Tenant Farmers Association. The CLA really does seem to have got the message that the public will not stand for £3 billion a year being handed over from the ever dwindling public coffers, without anything being returned. And the Tenant Farmers have long bemoaned the fact that under the old scheme, the subsidy was paid to the landowner not the tenant, either directly, or indirectly through increased rent.

Of course all the good ideas being considered for a new farm support system could easily be torpedoed. If Trade Secretary Liam Fox succeeds in persuading the Cabinet that we have to sign trade deals which allow cheap, poor-quality (and potentially unsafe) food imports from elsewhere in the world, especially the USA, that will signal the end for large parts of the UK farming industry. Even the current proposals, which mean the UK leaves the EU single market and customs union, will be disastrous for some sectors – the sheep industry in particular.

A final thought on Climate Change. Will the UK move forward more quickly on Climate Change action outside the EU, than we would have inside it? Progress has already slowed dramatically under the Coalition and then subsequent Conservative Governments. Those on the extreme fringe of Brexit (UKIP, Farage, Arron Banks) have always denied the existence of Climate Change. They would love to see us align with the odious neo-Fascist President Trump, not just on trade, but on climate denial too. Meanwhile the EU continues to push for more action on climate change, recently committing to even tougher targets.  Perhaps the European Union will be able to forge ahead now, without the UK dragging them back.

In conclusion then, two years on from the Referendum vote, it’s a mixed scorecard. Promises to maintain or strengthen protections for the environment have proved hollow. But plans for radical reform of farm support, to create more environmentally friendly farming, may just happen.

this post first appeared on the Lush Times website.

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Brexit – Two Years On.

Brexit – the Big Lie

Two years ago today – that fateful day when the UK voted, by the slimmest of margins, to leave the EU. I’d loved to have gone on the People’s Vote march in London, even though I’m ambivalent about whether there should be another vote. But domestic circumstances, which I won’t go into, mean I’m here in Dorset instead – beautiful sunny Dorset.

I just re-read the piece I wrote a day after the vote result was announced, an angry piece called Turkeys have voted for Christmas. It was far and away the most widely piece I’ve written on here – a fact which does, on reflection, provide no solace to me. I talk about the older “working class” voter and how they wanted to leave the EU in order to rekindle some notion of past British glory. I haven’t changed my views in the intervening 2 years.

Sociologists have looked in detail at who voted to leave and why – yes, fears of immigration played a part, as did “taking back control” from supposedly unelected Brussels bureaucrats. Vote leavers were also older and less-well educated than the average. But aside from these (which are easily influenced by the media and propagandists) the strongest correlate with voting leave was supporting the reintroduction of the death penalty. and to a lesser extent corporal punishment. According to one sociological theory, this desire to beat and kill people who transgress the law identifies the Right Wing Authoritarians among us. Not much a surprise there.

What I hadn’t appreciated at the time of writing (no-one had) was the extent to which both the official Vote Leave campaign; and the unofficial Leave.EU campaign, cheated. Vote Leave, led by the execrable Dominic Cummings, deliberately flouted the rules on funding by creating a fake campaign called BeLeave, then channelling over £600,000 through it to an obscure Canadian company called AggregateIQ, who used it to help target social media ads towards voters, to sway them to vote Leave. This was illegal and the Electoral Commission will publicly confirm this in the next couple of weeks. In fact there is plenty of evidence that Vote Leave broke electoral law, presumably knowing that even if they were eventually caught, the Referendum vote would not be overturned. There’s also the small matter of another £435,000, which was channelled to AggregateIQ via the party in power, the DUP. It is still a mystery where this DUP dark money originally came from and both the DUP and the Government have moved mountains to keep this a secret. Why?

And then there’s Leave.EU – the rival campaign set up by UKIP donor Arron Banks, with Nigel Farage. The stories swirling around Banks and Farage have darkened with each passing month since the referendum. Leave.EU has already been heavily fined by the Electoral Commission for cheating. It now seems pretty clear that Banks and Farage were working both with the far and libertarian-right in the US – think Steve Bannon, Robert Mercer; and also with the Russians. And of course it’s perfectly possible that those are in fact one group working together (who helped install the deranged puppet Donald Trump in power.) It’s still unclear exactly how much influence the Banks/Farage campaign had over the poll result, but does that really matter? That both external malign influences from the US and Russia deliberately worked to sway the poll, using methods Goebbels would have been proud of (and indeed Banks’ wingman Andy Wigmore specifically referenced the “very clever” Nazi propaganda machine). I could go on, but one thing which is still a mystery about leave.EU is where the money came from. Banks poured millions into it, but has never given a straight answer as to where that came from. And his claims to be a multi-millionaire also face some very serious questions.

UPDATE: this morning (monday 25th), Bloomberg is running a story claiming that the EU Referendum results were used by Hedge Funds, some close to Nigel Farage, to make millions by “shorting the market,” and in particular Farage’s bizarre concessions that the vote had been lost, on the night.

What of all those promises made by the various leave campaigns? We now know the £350M a week for the NHS on the side of the bus was a fiction. There is no Brexit Dividend and the NHS has been starved of cash since 2010, for ideological reasons. Now the tap will be turned on a bit, though it won’t make up the big shortfall of underfunding. And taxes will rise to pay for it.

What about “taking back control” from the hated EU and giving it to the Mother of Parliaments? well that hasn’t worked out so well either. Far from taking back control and giving it to Parliament, this Government has taken control away from Parliament in Westminster, as well as grabbing powers that had previously been devolved to Edinburgh and Cardiff. As for the devolved Parliament of Northern Ireland – conveniently, that collapsed thanks to the DUP running a renewable heating scam for their members. As the ongoing car crash formerly known as the EU withdrawal bill crawled through the Houses of Parliament, it became increasingly clear that Parliament would be prevented from having any meaningful say on the Brexit negotiations outcome. Parliamentary conventions have been thrown away, debating time has been curtailed and rebels bought off with hollow promises. Thanks to Brexit, our Parliamentary democracy has been badly wounded, while the devolved administrations are seething with anger at the betrayal.

The big concern of many leave voters was immigration. And how that has played out – stoking the flames of anti-immigrant sentiment has also fuelled the return of the far-right, only this time they are adopting the tactics of terrorism. EU nationals are now afraid to speak their mother tongues in public lest they be verbally or physically attacked. It is no surprise really that they are leaving in droves, leaving holes in our society and economy. Farmers (a significant chunk of whom voted leave remember) are now crying out because key workers in the food industry, from fruit pickers, to meat packers, to vets, are leaving. Who can blame them? Being offered “settled status” ie second class citizens – at best (assuming a deal can be done with the EU)  – what would you do?

Interestingly, with Sajid Javid, the son of an immigrant now in charge at the Home Office, the tone is changing. And that’s hardly surprising after the Windrush scandal. But of course it’s too late. Anti-immigrant sentiment was whipped up by the leave campaigns (especially the hateful quasi-fascist Nigel Farage) and once that Pandora’s Box has been opened, it’s very difficult to close again. The truth is we need people to come to the UK to contribute to creating a thriving society and economy.

Quite apart from any ideas about being an open outward-looking society, it’s simple demographics. The post war baby boomers are retiring, and by 2030 around a quarter of the population will be over 65. Meanwhile the birth rate for white British people is declining. Ergo, if we reduce immigration (from wherever) to the “tens of thousands a year” which Theresa May continues to cling to, presumably to appease the Right Wing Authoritarians in her own party, then who will look after the elderly? Perhaps Mr Farage will propose a scheme to forcibly pair up suitably white young people, to produce copiously large families. It’s been done before; and there are plenty of eugenics advocates around.

Finally, let’s look at the Economy. Brexit was going to free us from the chains of the Single Market and the Customs Union. We were assured that The Good Ship Britannia was going to sail away onto the Oceans of Free Trade; we could do new deals that were far better than the ones we had within the powerful EU bloc. The USA for example. Just one problem – Trump the protectionist. Trump isn’t interested in free trade. He wants America First. This means we have to buy chlorine-washed chicken and whatever else the US decides we need, if we want the City to carry on making money from arranging mergers between US-based multinationals. Suddenly the idea of getting a great Trade Deal with the USA doesn’t seem quite so alluring, unless you’re the Atlanticist and disgraced former Defence Secretary Liam Fox, who’s leading our charge on Trade. Actually there’s a much bigger problem in the way of these great new trade deals – the Northern Irish Border. What no-one seemed to realise at the time was that a Free Trade Brexit would mean breaking the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

Meanwhile, as we lurch from one Brexit-crisis to the next, with no clear end point in sight, the Economy is struggling. Brexit caused a big devaluation in the pound, boosting exports. That boost has now gone. Now we just have uncertainty. And, as we move ever closer to  Brexit day, that uncertainty will magnify and multinational businesses that need to be in the EU, will leave. Airbus might stay, but plenty of others will go. Brexit also creates domestic uncertainties. It’s no surprise that High Street, Britain is in trouble. Who wouldn’t put off those big purchases, or think twice about going out for a meal, if you don’t know if you will have a job, or reduced hours/pay in a few months time.

I won’t dwell on things like Brexit’s impact on the Environment -as I have a piece on that particular aspect on Lush Times today.

Where does this leave us? Yes Brexit was a con trick. David Cameron sealed our fate, I guess in the hope that he could go down in history as the Tory leader who lanced the Europe Boil that had festered in his party for the past 50 years. Others then stepped in to exploit the situation, the Vulture Capitalists like Jacob Rees-Mogg. Neo-Libertarians from the shadowy world of Think Tanks – the IEA, Tax Payers Alliance, Legatum Foundation and the rest. They saw, and see, Brexit as a great opportunity to deregulate Britain – effectively creating a “free-market paradise” otherwise known as an Offshore Tax-Haven/dark money laundromat, on Europe’s doorstep. Sell off what’s left in public ownership; turn us into a small version of the states. A new version of Airstrip One, as Orwell called it.

I applaud all efforts to try and reverse Brexit, but I think it’s going to happen. And I think we all need to prepare for it. Without wishing to be alarmist, I am worried. I am thinking about getting solar panels and a generator. We will definitely be stocking up on food staples (and firewood) well ahead of Brexit day. I wouldn’t be surprised if, given Theresa May’s authoritarian streak, there is some sort of martial law imposed, or Parliament and elections suspended.

Bloggers such as myself may find we are not able to publish what we want any more. What do we do then?

 

 

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Quoth the Raven: Never More.

On Friday last week Defra announced that Natural England chair Andrew Sells would be standing down in January 2019, a year earlier than had originally been planned. Sells joined the Natural England board in 2014 on his first 3 year stint and I wrote about him back then.

During his time at Natural England, the total number of staff working at NE has declined dramatically, as has its operational budget. So while he may have felt he had influence (as an influential Tory) over Natural England’s Defra overlords,  he did little to prevent its shrinkage. Would things have been worse under another chair, without the political links Sells has? We will never know.

Under Sells Natural England has presided over the Badger cull, which has seen a native mammal slaughtered under the dubious justification of reducing TB in Cattle. While few of us knew Natural England’s role was to protect domestic cattle from disease, we might have expected them to protect wild species and habitats. But the continuing programme to protect our finest wildlife sites, as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) has slumbered under Sells’ watch. At least he was there to support the protection of a few sites, including Rampisham Down, which I was involved with.

The fate of Lodge Hill, on the other hand, still lies in the balance, and Natural England have not been able to influence Defra, let alone the Ministry of Housing, to abandon their efforts to destroy this amazing place.

And, as Mark Avery has written about exhaustively, Natural England, under Sells, has been craven in its refusal to challenge the damage by Intensive Grouse Shooting in England’s uplands.

I wonder whether it is a coincidence that on the same weekend that Sells’ retirement was announced, an article in the Sunday Times revealed that Natural England has issued licences for the culling of Ravens in England. There is already a judicial review underway in Scotland, to challenge Scottish Natural Heritage’s decision to introduce Raven culling. The justification, in as much as there is one, is that Ravens kill or injure newborn lambs.

I remember seeing a story a couple of years ago, about sheep farmers in Dorset complaining that Ravens were attacking their lambs and something must be done. Well now, apparently, something is going to be done. Looking a bit more closer, the Sunday Times article quotes a National Sheep Association committee man, Martyn Fletcher, who looks after a sheep flock for a local estate, owned by the aristrocratic Dineley family – who apparently owe their good fortunes (in part) to the manufacturing of weapons for use in the Film industry. Not surprisingly, they support the local Wilton hunt. They also receive £127,000 a year in public subsidies. Some of this is to fund agri-environment schemes, totalling £247,000 over ten years. They also sold off some land to the owners of the Daily Mail, Lord Rothermere, who is, presumably, their neighbour.

Ravens were persecuted for centuries, and their numbers are slowly starting to increase. Being very long-lived birds this recovery will take a long time. It is always exciting to hear them, when they occasionally fly over the house, or in the countryside. They are inextricably linked to people, and there is a deep-rooted emotional relationship between us – perhaps love/hate is not quite the right phrase, but they both evoke excitement and fear, and always have. For those who don’t know it, here is Poe’s Poem.

Once again the question arises – who decides which wild animals are allowed to live alongside ourselves and our farmed animals. There are an estimated 7400 pairs of Ravens in the UK. This compares with 16 million sheep in England alone last year. Farmers receive financial support from the taxpayer, including people like the Dineleys, who I imagine are not short of a bob or two.

Is there really no quid pro quo – that in return for that money, some wildlife is allowed to return to the land? Michael Gove has stated time and again that in future farmers and landowners will only receive funding in return for “public goods”. Do those public goods include animals like the Raven (the Beaver, the Otter etc etc), or not?

 

Photo by Andreas Eichler, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64187377

Posted in Andrew Sells, National Sheep Association, Natural England, Ravens, Sheep | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Green Alliance brief on the EU withdrawal bill Green Watchdog amendment

Since I wrote the earlier piece on moves to strengthen environmental protection via the EU withdrawal bill, Green Alliance has produced this very useful briefing note. MPs vote tomorrow, so I am posting this now so you can draw your MPs attention to it via twitter, facebook or any other route.

In summary the amendment which Sir Oliver Letwin has put forward is considerably weaker than Lord Krebs’ amendment which the Lords voted for. Here is brief, produced by the excellent Ruth Chambers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alternatively you can download the brief here

Labour environment audit committee chair Mary Creagh has put forward a much stronger amendment which better reflects the Krebs amendment.

Please do get in touch with your MP either this evening or tomorrow morning & ask them to support either the Krebs amendment or Mary Creagh’s amendment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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