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1st February 2015

Sam and  CarolineSeedy Sunday festival is the UK's biggest and longest-running community seed swap event [1]. This year as many as 3000 people came along and about 10,000 packs of seed crossed the seed swap tables. Given the boom in growing your own, it’s understandable that so many people are expressing concerns about a proposed new EU law that threatens swapping seed, growing heritage varieties and even saving your own seed from year to year.

Caroline Lucas MP for Brighton Pavilion and Britain’s first Green MP, has raised this threat to civil liberties with the Environment, Food and Farming Minister several months ago. She asked George Eustice to oppose the obligatory registration of seed varieties and to support voluntary rather than compulsory registration and testing for all seeds that are not GM, patented or hybrid. Since then the EU’s proposals have been amended, but not for the better. In fact they now represent an even greater threat to sustainable biodiverse agriculture and consumer choice [2].

In particular the plans further concentrate the EU’s seed market into the hands of just a few corporations, whilst exemptions from the regulations for small scale seed swaps wouldn’t protect Brighton’s Seedy Sunday. Caroline Lucas has written to DEFRA to stand up for gardeners and farmers that want to grow heritage varieties and exchange seeds.


Read more: Beware the Corporate Seed Monopoly

10th January 2015

As it entered its 6th year this week, the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) brought together 650 farmers, growers, scientists and economists from across the globe for two days of talks, debates and hands on workshops, demonstrating a growing demand to challenge the status quo in agriculture.

Over recent years, the conference has steadily been gaining a reputation amongst the farming community for its strong practical, grassroots focus, but this year represented a real “coming of age” for the event. With science playing such a key role in every aspect of today’s food production, each of the major farming themes was underpinned by the presentations of research experts from both the UK and abroad.

Dr. Elaine Ingham, world renowned microbiologist and soil scientist, opened the conference by highlighting the vital importance of the life of the soil. She demonstrated how, through paying careful attention to key factors that influence “good” soil biology, farmers can reap the benefits of healthy plants by reducing their fertilizer and crop protection bills.

She made explicit the distinction between farming soil and farming dirt. The difference being that soil is a complex web of micro-organisms that protect plants from disease by maintaining aerobic bacteria and alkaline pH. The presence of living organisms keeps nutrients in the soil and builds structure. Farming dirt means that the chemicals are doing all the work; the pesticides are killing all the beneficial bacteria, and the soil quickly becomes compacted.  “It’s about getting the biology back into the soil,” she said.

Livestock took centre stage on the second day of the conference, with Mark Eisler (Professor of Global Farm Animal Health at Bristol University) presenting a fascinating analysis of key reports such as “Foresight” and the UN’s “Livestock’s Long Shadow” which have strongly influenced the Government’s Sustainable Intensification policy. Eisler highlighted the role that pasture plays in sequestering carbon concluding that there is a good case for supporting extensive livestock systems such as pasture-based ruminant production as one of the foundations of sustainable land and resource use.

A lively debate between George Monbiot, journalist and author, and The Sustainable Food Trust’s began with its Director Patrick Holden asking humanity’s ultimate question, “What is our higher purpose on this planet?” He answered from an organic farmers’ perspective by saying we must replace chemical farming and preserve biodiversity by producing food through mixed farming, crop rotation and ruminants to build the soil, which he described as “a vast organ of digestion.”

Patrick Holden recommended reducing the amount of grain fed to cattle for red meat production and asserted their essential role is digesting cellulose in the grass phase of crop rotation. Beef and lamb are the most sustainable livestock using the Alan Savory method, he said and mooted putting the cow at the fulcrum of farming, a suggestion suited to the city of Oxford, which has the Ox at the centre of its’ coat of arms.

Next up was Richard Young, policy director of the Sustainable Food Trust who went further with his soil analogy by calling it “the stomach of humanity,” and tying it to collapse of civilizations. He said that soils are degraded everywhere and in 160 countries 52% of all soils have moderate to severe degradation and one third of topsoil is already washed away. Every minute 23 hectares of soil are lost to crop production, much of it taken by large corporations for short term profit.

Richard Young warned that we may only have enough soil for between 60-100 harvests in the UK unless we radically re-think our use of oilseed rape (the spuriously sunny looking yellow fields at the side of the motorway) which is eroding soil and insect populations. In a proper crop rotation there should be grass instead of oilseed rape. He prescribed two fields of wheat and one of grass, not two fields of wheat and one of oilseed rape.

Scientists have overestimated the carbon in our top soil. Only grass can put carbon back into the soil and only compost and deep root systems can stabilize it, Young explained. We rely on ancient humus for healthy soils: one gram of humus can hold twenty grams of water. Therefore, a no-till system dependent on genetically modified crops and herbicides that depletes soil humus is a false hope for production.

George Monbiot, campaigner and author, brought up the rear with an eloquent attack on the multiple crises in agriculture exacerbated he said by the ridiculous number of livestock. He cited the uplands of Wales as an area being shagged to within an inch of its life by the white plague of sheep, and supported by Government subsidies. I do not believe that our entire uplands should be reduced to a monoculture of sheep especially when Wales imports seven times more meat than is exported, he said.  

Referencing radical re-wilding ideas from his latest book Feral, the former Oxford Zoology student suggested that there are places where farming is not appropriate. For example, in the Cameron Mountains and Snowdonia, where the sound of insects and birds is no longer heard. It is in empty ecosystems like these that wolves, lynx, wolverine, bison, brown bears and beavers could be re-introduced.  Monbiot rightly bemoans our poor animal conservation record in comparison to our ambitious European neighbours and even suggested the return of the elephant to these shores!

Read more: The Oxford Real Farming Conference

23rd October 2014

Britain is a nation of bird lovers, or so it claims. However, a report authored by ten top NGO’s has recently revealed that we have lost 44 million breeding pairs over the last fifty years. In relation to the relatively new understanding of ecological webs; species interdependence, and ever expanding diversity, our plummeting bird numbers have highlighted Britain’s broken and unsustainable agricultural system.

According to the Square Meal report (1), the fracture in food production and supply is manifesting itself in several other key areas:

1.    Health - 33% of under 18’s in the UK are overweight or obese. The NHS predicts a £50 billion bill for diet related illnesses by 2050.
2.    Food poverty - 913,138 people in crisis across the UK were provided with three days emergency food at the the end of March 2014. Rising food prices are set to continue.
3.    Reliance on imported feed - 75% of the protein fed to our livestock in the EU is imported.  (The US is actively pushing GM feed through the new Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP)).
4.    Farmer inequality - 25% of all UK farmers live in poverty. 

Who gets the money from farming?

The most striking inequality of the food system is the profit made by the small farmers and the share-holders investing in big corporations. Of the £196 billion generated annually by farmers, who provide the most important service for sustaining life, only £5.4 billion or 4.6 % goes to farmers.  One of the biggest challenges for mending the food and farming system is reassessing our values. 

Change is never easy. And in regard to the vested interests within the broad economic picture of food production, there is going to be resistance.  So, it is down to the people to enact a movement of food change and to put pressure on our politicians to provide a clear strategy and policy towards promoting living wages for farmers, more diversity, and to prioritise healthy, equitable, local and affordable short chain diets instead of fat corporate profits.  

Steps to reconnect people with nature and to the land must include a return to horticulture. Currently, the UK produces only 5% of its fruit and 50% of vegetables. We also need to stop wasting so much food – in the fields, in the supermarkets and in our fridges. The upside is that the UK has had a bumper harvest this year, but more safeguards need to be put into place to ensure long term food security.  

There is widespread agreement that there is enough food on the planet to feed the projected 2 billion people if we can just get our heads around sustainable and equitable food production.

Hope for a healthy food system

So there is much that is positive to be gleaned from the Square Meal report despite the looming additional problem of climate change.  The combined efforts of the RSPB, Friends of the Earth, the National Trust, the Food Ethics Council, Sustain, the Wildlife Trusts, the Soil Association, Eating Better and Compassion in World Farming in the Research Collaboration’s has provided a healthy starting point for the much needed conversation about how our food is produced and how public money is used to support farmers. 


29th April 2013

Sam Burcher reviews a spate of meetings at Westminster that she attended calling for action to protect the bees

bees 2 for SB website

Campaigners are celebrating the EU’s decision at the end of April to ban neonicotinoids on flowering crops for two years, starting this year.  The decision comes on the back of some vigorous campaigns and protesting by various UK groups concerned about protecting bees from this type of pesticide. 

Several meetings about the detrimental effects of neonicotinoids on bees have taken place at Westminster over the past few months. Most recently the March of the Beekeepers swarmed on Parliament Square in late April to protest the UK Government abstaining to vote for the EU ban.

Dame Vivienne Westwood and Katherine Hamnett CBE, pioneers of British fashion, marched with angry beekeepers to Downing Street to deliver the Save the Bee petition of 2.6 million signatures calling for the UK government to take action. Three days later, a second vote in Brussels banned neonicotinoids with the support of 15 EU countries. The ban will not apply to winter cereals and crops not attractive to bees.

Owen Paterson, the UK’s Environment Secretary, abstained from the EU vote both times in favour of supporting the makers of neonicotinoids, Bayer and Syngenta. In defence of the Government’s abstention, DEFRA has said they await results of their own further studies. Consequently, it’s view that the risk to bee populations from neonicotinoids, as currently used is low, ignores the Precautionary Principle, the scientific research that demonstrates that neonicotinoids harm bees and the fundamental flaws in the pesticides regulatory system.

Read more: First Victory to Halt Silent Spring Killers

October 20th 2008

The paradigm of food security has shifted back to self-sufficiency and local food production; celebrated organic gardener Monty Don says we must grow our own food to save us from the global economic and food crisis that no governments can fix.

A back garden food revolution

monty donMonty Don is the new president of the Soil Association. In a recent lecture in London, he said he was appointed because of his passionate belief that everyone can reconnect to nature through gardening and growing [1].  The skills, knowledge and resources of British gardeners can transform, rebuild and stabilize our food systems and our society, he insisted. It's about food security, an entire cultural approach to food that can harness horticultural skills as a serious part of our national food supply and integrate into our whole approach to life.  In that way we can feed ourselves healthier food in the face of social and economic crisis, and if we do not, we will suffer as a nation.

Monty understands that nowadays gardens are smaller, fewer people are growing, and the production of food has gone increasingly into the hands of bigger growers and industry. He blames governments for the most part of the problem and for the crisis of trust that has spread and undermined community relationships.  He sees the food industry as a greedy giant in league with the oil and chemical industries against the garden potterer whose skills and relationship to food production have been relegated to a hobby. And, in response to the multiple global crises that apparently no government can fix, there is more that we can do as small groups and individuals to mobilize small scale food production in gardens, allotments and common land to reclaim our power.

Read more: The Full Monty Don on Food

Amid a rising epidemic of farmers’ suicides in India, an organic farmer appeals to the father of the Green Revolution to embrace organic agriculture

UN slams India for farmer suicides

India has enough food to feed her population of one billion, yet hunger and food insecurity at household level increased at the end of the 20th century. A new UN report casts doubt on the government’s claim that poverty declined from 36 to 26 percent between 1993-2000. It criticizes the shift to cash crops that reduced the cultivation of grains, pulses and millets for household consumption. The report slams the rise of farmer suicides in India and links them to the unremitting growth of a market economy that does not benefit all Indians equally.

Impassioned plea to India’s government

great-agricultural-challengeBhaskar Save is an 84-year-old farmer from Gujarat who has petitioned the Indian Government to save India’s farmers from exploitation and worse. In an open letter to Prof M.S. Swaminathan (chairperson of the National Commission on Farmers in the Ministry of Agriculture) he puts the blame squarely on his shoulders as the ‘father’ of the ‘Green Revolution’ that has destroyed India’s natural abundance, farming communities, and soil. He writes: “Where there is a lack of knowledge, ignorance masquerades as science! Such is the ‘science’ you have espoused, leading our farmers astray – down the pits of misery.”

The Green Revolution defines the forty years after India’s independence in 1947 when technology was widely introduced into agriculture. Farmers came under intense pressure to provide marketable surpluses of the relatively few non-perishable cereals to feed the ever-expanding cities. Since then, India’s integration into the global economy has served transnational corporate interests championed by the World Bank, the IMF, and the WTO, but not her farmers. Fifteen years of market reforms guided by the international financial superstates have unleashed a second wave of agrochemicals, biotechnological seed and pesticides into the Indian countryside with devastating effect.

A silent revolution of suicide

Mumbai and Bangalore have benefited from the boom in the information technology sector that contributes an eight percent growth to India’s economy each year. The two cities are now poised to take advantage of the boom in the biotech industry. The picture of “India Shining” touted by an expensive government backed media campaign is considerably clouded by the rural areas being torn apart at the roots by biotechnology. The countryside is home to 70 percent of India’s population.

Read more: Stem Farmers' Suicides with Organic Farming

The world's biggest genetically engineered seed owner destroys time-honoured traditions of seed saving and drives American farmers to destitution and bankruptcy.

Odds stacked against farmers

Monsanto vs FarmersFeudalism has returned to farming in the US and Canada, according to the US Center for Food Safety's report detailing the domination over American staple crops by the corporations and their ruthless prosecution of farmers.

Once the ink is dried on the "technology agreements" signed by the farmers buying genetically modified (GM) seed, they enter into contracts that effectively relinquish to Monsanto their right to plant, harvest and sell the GM seed. From that moment on, they are also vulnerable to harassment such as having their property investigated, litigations and out of court settlements that are part and parcel of licensing a Monsanto patented product.

No grower is safe from this onslaught as third generation Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser discovered when he lost to Monsanto in court for failing to pay royalties on GM canola seed that had contaminated his non-GM canola crop. "The corporations are becoming the barons and lords, which are what my grandparents thought they had escaped." Schmeiser said.

To-date, Monsanto has filed 90 lawsuits against American farmers; and 147 farmers and 39 small businesses or farm companies have had to fight for their lives to avoid paying additional court costs, attorneys' fees, and in some cases, costs incurred by Monsanto while investigating them.

Read more: Monsanto versus Farmers