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Question 8 – Make a suggestion

What have we not covered here that you would like the Green Food Project to consider? You can either post comments here or send us an email at greenfoodproject@defra.gsi.gov.uk.

Comments

  1. Dr Darren Smart says:

    The subjects of organic farming practices, the stranglehold the big 4 supermarkets have on the british food market and how their agendas are not aligned to the Green Food approach, food preservation & storage, EU farming subsidies & the benefits of local seasonal food are not covered at all/adequately

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  2. Jeremy Chamberlayne says:

    FWAG was set up 40 years ago to advise farmers on the joint optimisation of production and environmental care. It was dependent on charity, mostly by farmers and was always seriously underfunded. The national organisation failed at the end of 2011, but there is now a strong endeavour to rebuild it in the SW. It has a fundamental role to play in the delivery of Govt. and EU schemes on farm, especially the Green Food Project. It should be a prerequisite to the development of any new schemes and the delivery of existing ones – with all their bureaucratic complexity.

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  3. David Mackie says:

    1. What I say for all environmental consultations is needed is a clear statement of risks and opportunities (evidence based), clear cost/benefit analysis and a costed action plan with things happening in the last three years of the administration.

    2. The Prime Minister needs to give his support for the integration agenda – that economic, social and environmental actions will be mainstreamed across government. I think he would do this, because this is very similar to the happiness agenda. Not much will happen otherwise. This support would be saying “I want to see progress on this, and I want you to report back”.

    3. Connection between use of countryside for tourism and health – remember foot and mouth.

    4. The precautionary principle.

    And 5. Whatever you do, don’t forget the bees!!! We don’t want to have to try pollinating things with flies or cockroaches! (or by hand) :-)

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  4. David Mackie says:

    One more thing. A problem in the last administrations was that a fuel duty escalator was introduced, but it had to be quickly abandoned which I think was connected with the blockades by lorry drivers.

    One way around this issue that is being suggested (for instance by a presenter at Davos) is if taxes shift from taxing labour to taxing resources. So for a waged worker, they would see on their wage slip that environmental taxes had gone up, but taxes on their labour had gone down exactly the same amount to compensate.

    There would still be winners and losers in this scenario, however.

    I wonder:

    1. How would large increases in fuel prices affect the agricultural sector?

    2. If resource prices were to rise, and labour prices to fall at the same time, what would this mean for the agricultural sector?

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  5. Dr David Gibbon says:

    I agree with Darren and would add that another group that are alligned to the Green Food approach are the National Farmers Union who, in my view, are also not in tune with sustainable futures in food and farming but they are defending a particularly narrow self interest of the large, commercial , lard land owning farmer.
    I do not deny that such people must have a role, but not at the expense of the, many, much more numerous, smaller farmers and growers. We will surely all have to compromise and try to work for the common good.
    Unregulated capitalism only “works” for the strongest and the most powerful. I do not see this as a major tenet of the Green Food project

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  6. Living on a working farm and running an ecological consultancy I have an appreciation for both the environment and farming practices. The balance needs to be redressed- we expect British farmers to meet with high environmental standards of practice, i.e. for sustainability, stewardship programmes, water resource awareness, but expect no such standards from the cheap foreign imports which undermine the British market. ‘Fair trade’ for British farmers is needed, or are we past the point of no return having already brought our production sector to its knees?

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    • David Mackie says:

      Hi Cyrise,

      Your point about fair trade is interesting. Fair trade was introduced to help farmers in developing countries, and it pays for a level of income that mean that farmers can afford to put their children through school and for the family not go hungry. It works through co-operatives, and there is also money that is invested in local community projects, for instance related to proper sanitation, basic healthcare or sanitation. This is my understanding.

      I think that fairness in the UK for farmers is very important, even if the situation is not comparable to that in the developing world. I wonder if there could be a “Fairer British” mark, that would guarantee that everyone who produced a good had a decent living wage. Fairer may mean that the animals had high standards of welfare as well.

      Note however that any standard would mean more paperwork, and also responsibilities for farmers, such as demonstrating that workers who did not own land, but were working off land, were getting a genuinely fair deal.

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  7. David Mackie says:

    I think that the suggestion of piping in water from Scotland down the high speed rail line was controversial because we don’t know if HS2 will get to Scotland.

    What I’d suggest is that the rail line is “future-ready” – so that a water pipeline or fibre optic cables etc can activitated as needed at a later date. It would cost relatively little to be “future-ready”.

    It would also be good if we could have a proper biodiversity plan around the rail line, so all of the trees don’t get completely felled when they don’t need to be. I think that rail lines can be important corridors for some wildlife as well.

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    • David Mackie says:

      By the way, is it possible that the UK would become an exporter of water in the future? Does anyone know?

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  8. Neil Auchterlonie says:

    Integrated production systems could have great potential to improve efficiencies for food production. Aquaculture systems that also incorporate aquaponic systems, as well as anaerobic digestion (or other energy systems) provide the possibility for improving resource management for the UK. Marine aquaculture, integrated with macro- and micro-algal cultivation, or offshore wind and wave and tidal energy devices, can also integrate food production with the energy sector.

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  9. David Mackie says:

    Scenarios:

    Scenarios can sometimes be useful in guiding planning. Then as certain scenarios become “not what has actually happened” over time, then responses can be made more or less intensive as necessary.

    The different types of variables that you should probably consider over 40 years would be different scenarios for climate change, water availability, fuel price (including as fertilizer input), political instability, changing demographics and population levels etc.

    For energy scenarios, I think that the Shell ones are quite good – boiling everything down to whether we will either see a planned transition, or little planning at all – just reaction to events. See: http://www.shell.com/home/content/aboutshell/our_strategy/shell_global_scenarios/shell_energy_scenarios_2050/

    I think to answer your question, about whether you can improve farming productivity whilst safeguarding the environment, you would probably want three scenarios – a business as usual scenario, in which the government stays on similar lines to broadly what it’s been doing since the nineteen seventies, and with small incremental improvements etc.

    Then you’d have a bad case scenario – climate change impacts worse than predicted, fuel costs spiking etc. And another scenario where we all become four times richer in the next fifty years, and technological improvements are able to produce 50 fold increases in productivity.

    I presume that they must have standard, research and science-based scenarios like this somewhere in government, but I’ve not seen them yet.

    You’d then be able to make judgements like – “it would always be worth encouraging these types of actions, in any scenario”, and perhaps political judgements like – “if food prices rise a lot, then people will respond naturally to eating less meat. So at the moment, this should stay at the level of information, campaigns and control of government catering”. I don’t actually agree with the last statement, because I think some form of tax on the very worst dietary items would be helpful given how out of control diabetes and obesity is – but the point I’m making is that the scenarios could help see what it would be critical for the government to intervene in, and what would be less critical.

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  10. David Mackie says:

    Perhaps from Defra’s point of view, one of the scenarios should be “maintain or improve environmental carrying capacity of the UK to support X million population”?

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  11. Realistically most of the sustainable intensification can not come from arable or livestock farming.

    The former because yield levels are already near their physical optimum given limitations in water supply (Even more breeding, pesticides or herbicides can’t change this fact). What can be done is lower yields with a lot less inputs or in other words improve input/output efficiency. Organic is one example for this.

    Livestock is even more problematic with its terrible feed conversion rate e.g. 7 grain input for 1 output for poultry. It would be better to go vegetarian on 6 day and use the saved grain to heat the house and drive the car.

    Horticulture, perennial bushes, tree crops and protected cropping is much more likely to deliver more healthy food. Nutrients input for this have to come from green manure but also bio-waste and, yes, human waste. I am sure future generations will look back on us with disgust peeing in perfect drinking water and not properly reusing the nutrients of 8 bn people.

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  12. Any definition of green food should include a clear statement that this includes a low carbon commitment – committing to ongoing progressive carbon reductions as part of a more sustainable food sector.

    Self sufficiency and resilience are very important, such as growing more proteins, and a whole supply chain approach must be taken to food based carbon emissions, focussing on consumption as well as production.

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  13. Nigel Baker says:

    The importance of food in terms of human kind’s overall sustainability cannot be underestimated. Not just because it is the most important resource alongside water but because the trajectory for meat and dairy consumption is very steeply upward which is potentially catastrophic in terms of climate change and if unchecked will ensure all Co2 cutting policies are pointless. see: Livestock’s long shadow – UN Food and Agriculture report: ftp://ftp.fao.org/docrep/fao/010/a0701e/a0701e00.pdf
    to understand this fully.
    whatever else we do we must is to significantly reduce meat and dairy consumption – by eating less, wasting nothing and finding alternatives such as combining soya milk with cow’s milk in dairy products.
    And for a guiding set of principles they are encompassed in the principles of food sovereignty:www.nyeleni.org/spip.php?article334
    Wake up and smell the methane!

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  14. Tess Green says:

    Allotments are more productive than many other types of farming due to greater biodiversity, more use of human rather than machine power and less use of damaging and expensive chemicals.
    There could be much more encouragement for local authorities and individuals to cultivate allotments and make more land available for this.
    In Cuba, allotment gardening within cities has transformed the diet of city dwellers and we could benefit from this experience, which is fully documented.

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  15. Huw Jones says:

    The problem with schemes to let consumers know that a particular producer has kept within approved Carbon/methane/NO2 etc approved emission levels is that the farmer has to pay the cost of keeping within the limits, AND pay a fixed charge for inspection. These schemes rarely bring any extra income to the farmer. The charge is usually the same whether you have a 10,000 ha farm or a 10ha farm. This obviously gives the biggest farms the advantage and they benefit from economies of scale in all the extra expensive inputs needed to keep to the approved emission levels as well.
    The problem is that it is often the smaller farms who devote the attention to detail to produce very high yields and maintain the field ecosystems.
    Whereas a small farmer walks every part of his fields every day and reacts (perhaps by asking a scientist) to any change from the expected. Very large farms have to rely on remote sensing technology based on 4 or 5 year old research. If the problem has not arisen in the previous machine buying cycle then the big farmers will not even see the problem until it has become serious.
    With climate change bringing winter heat waves and summer frosts and floods and with novel diseases (like the Schmallenberg virus) moving towards the poles farmers need to be able to react instantly, or whatever the politicians do, we will all be hungry.

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  16. huw Jones says:

    In section 5 of Foresight when talking about volatility in the markets the affect on producers is all but ignored. We are simply told that volatility might affect “investment decisions” and that paying premiums to insurance companies might be a good idea. (If only there was spare cash to pay more premiums. Remember, most farmers in Wales were earning about £8,000 a year on £M farms a couple of years ago.)
    The trouble is that in a normal year farms get moderate yields and the income generated plus government support just about covers costs. In a poor year yields fall, the price goes up, but farmers have less to sell and once again with government support they just about cover their costs. In a very good year there is a bumper harvest, and farm barns are rapidly filled. The price falls, but surplus grain has to be sold (if transport and off farm storage is available) “off the combine” at low prices as it has the produce has not been dressed or dried. If the merchant cannot take the corn much of it may be lost in the field or in temporary farm storage. The extra costs involved soak up all the extra income.
    Farmers only make money if external factors cause large price increases. At these times they can invest in extra storage or technology that can be used to increase yields.
    A perfectly functioning market would depress investment on farms, so long as present “cheap food” policies continue to be accompanied by policies that suggest that “farming is a business just like any other”.
    Even having lost 60% of farms since 1970 farmers still do not control the farm gate price. 100,000 farms have to sell to 5 supermarkets. THis is the opposite situation to most other businesses.
    Commodity market prices and farm gate prices are totally diferent things, but supermarkets (by virtue of their position in the food chain )are able to use the commodity price to exploit the farmers. Farmers are encouraged to cooperate, but if a coop is big enough to be effective Government considers it to be distorting the market and ban it (Look up the history of the Milk Marketing Board.)

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  17. David Mackie says:

    Your team might be interested in reading:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/sustainable-business/live-discussion-scaling-up-sustainability-consumption-transformation

    I think that there’s a sustainable consumption team in defra – there also used to be a team looking at sustainability standards in what was the dti. Would be worth meeting with them, and also the people mainstreaming sustainable development in defra if you can.

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  18. Caroline Corsie says:

    We have just had some Soil Foodweb Analyses done on both our organic and inorganic ground. All the adult nematodes taken from a second winter wheat (conventional) were dead and covered in green crystals. An adjacent experimental strip of first winter wheat growing after a green manure had living nematodes though low numbers (this hadn’t had any ammonium nitrate). In general the low numbers of nematodes throughout the farm are probably associated with ‘slumping’/tight ground due to poor soil organic matter. Levels of soil fungi were low on some of the organic samples as well as inorganic and we are looking at adding composts. Its clear that soil improvements for both crops, soil structure and soil biodiversity are going to quite a bit of time and swotting up. As the drought progresses im wondering how to increase our organic matter from 1 to 3% since this could double the available water holding capacity. Where we tried to cut corners and overdosed on household compost the moisture was there but the rye grass grew so well it smothered the clover. I think we need to pay farmers to deliver soil benefits through rotation/green manures/compost etc as well as looking at rainwater harvesting etc.

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  19. Huw Jones says:

    Not quite sure why ALL the nematodes in a soil sample (Caroline Corsie)should have died. With possibly 100 species likely to be present in a 0.5kg sample, I can’t imagine that this is an agricultural problem. It may be that the sample was stale (or perhaps)subject to extreme conditions by the time it was analysed.
    The Strutt Report (Modern Farming and the Soil) in 1970 recommended that farmers should aim at keeping their soil at 4%Organic Matter (OM). ALmost before the ink was dry, there were reports of several local soil types where it was impossible to keep OM at anything like those levels. It could be that Caroline’s soil is one of these types, so it is worth taking advice before spending too much money on raising OM.
    Soil slumping can be associated with low organic matter, but some soils are prone to slumping even at quite respectable OMs. What ever the soil type (or OM level), over cultivation also contributes to slumping. THis is often a problem when fallows are repeatedly cultivated to contol weeds, or when mechanical weeding is used between the rows of a crop. As a rule of thumb avoid cultivation when the soil is wet or very dry. Do not cultivate if soil particles (when spread on your hand) are finer then bread crumbs.
    In most soil types the best way to raise OM is growing grass for several years.
    Household compost often has fertilizer added to it by the manufacturer, and this would certainly cause ryegrass to dominate the sward. Using household compost would invalidate your organic registration for this reason.

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  20. David Mackie says:

    Interesting article on slate about “How to Feed the World after Climate Change”

    Excerpt:

    “The currently dominant system of industrial agriculture is a loser [...] It emits enormous amounts of greenhouse gases, partly because it consumes huge quantities of oil—to power farm equipment, manufacture fertilizer, and ship food through global networks. Meanwhile, its preference for monoculture rather than diversity makes it extremely vulnerable to hot and volatile weather, as well as to the uptick in pests and diseases such weather will bring.”

    http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2012/04/heat_resistant_seeds_ecological_agriculture_growing_food_after_climate_change_.single.html?utm_medium=referral&utm_source=pulsenews

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  21. David Mackie says:

    The shift to one person households might be worth thinking about. The place where I live has a gym and allotments onsite – I wonder whether, if it had a community cafe or a kitchen where people could cook and eat together, that would make a positive difference. Young graduates are often isolated, moving from job to job in a different area of the country every couple of years, and the debts they bear will be increasing to a much larger level in the future, and they’re likely to be unable to get onto the housing ladder until much later. It would be good if we could make the high density housing in cities as attractive as possible by planning to put in extra services in buildings.

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  22. huw Jones says:

    David, one of the reasons for using bigger farm machines is that they are more fuel (and labour) efficient then smaller ones. For the last 40 years or so machines have been getting bigger and that is one of the reasons that food prices have in real terms been getting cheaper. Its how farmers have to react to the dominance of the food chain by the supermarkets. However there is a limit to how big tractors can get. That has nothing to do with the width of roads etc, it is to do with the transmission of power through a wheel or track to the ground. According to “the laws of physics” (all right, that is a cop out, but there is not space here to explain), you cannot transmit more then 600HP through a wheel or track to the soil, and that limit is fast being approached. 600HP tractors have been built, but they have all (so far) failed. More powerful machines are used to run stationary barn machinery or run on prepared tracks. (You could put a 700hp engine in a combine harvester, but in that case the power would be used to run the machinery, NOT to pull a plough or harrow.)
    One implication of the approaching limit to tractor power is that food prices will start to rise with inflation very soon.
    Pesticide manufacture may or may not use vast ammounts of energy. Most pesticides (at least while they still have patent protection) are made in one or two factories to supply the world. So you could say that while pesticide manufacture in the UK uses vast ammounts of energy, you would have to acknowledge that the pesticide industry in much of the world uses none at all, even though pesticides may be used in those countries. As in many of these arguments you have to think very carefully about what information you are using. Pesticides that use biologcally active compounds would be destroyed by high temperatures.
    The Haber process for fixing nitrogen does use enormous ammounts of energy. But it is a sad fact that whereas photosynthesis is a very efficient way of producing sugar, there is no equivalently efficient way of fixing nitrogen in nature. (Rhizobia fix nitrogen in the roots of legumes, but at the expense of a significant proportion of the sugars that the host plant produces by photosynthesis) THis means that all life forms in the world are deficient in Nitrogen or protein. That is why nitrogen is recycled all the way up the natural food chain. (At the top of every ecosystem is a carnivore. )
    Honeydew is a byproduct of the fact that aphids have to process enormous ammounts of plant sap in order to extract enough nitrogen to live. The unwanted sugar solution from the sap that has passed through the aphid’s bodies is allowed to fall from trees and cover your car!
    In order to reduce the cost of fertiliser use, you could do without, in which case crop yields would fall by about 50% food prices would rise by perhaps 500%. (For economists this is because of the price elasticity of demand for food products.) Reducing fertiliser use would be less drastic, but reduced yields would still mean that you would need much more land to grow the same ammount of food, or again face very steep price rises. Or you could find some other industrial process for fixing nitrogen to make fertilizer. Genetically endineering crops to fix nitrogen would help in some circumstances, such as in poor soils where leaching of caemical fertilizers was extreme, or in normal soils adjoining particularly vulnerable areas, but the cost to the crop of fuelling the nitrogen fixing process would almost certainly result in lower yields.

    I would agree that shipping food round the world is incredibly polluting and wasteful. It also damages local farming industries. When beans are imported from Africa “because there is more sun there and the production process is more efficient”, farms in the countries where beans used to be grown lose a market for their crop, and they have to grow fewer crops with shorter rotations. As the same crops are grown more often, and there is a greater area of each crop on each farm, pests and diseases build up and more pesticides have to be used. If pest and disease control is not very good then more fertiliser has to be used to help the crop to outgrow the pest or disease.
    It is also disgusting that we grow irrigated cut flowers in countries in Africa where, within a few miles of the flower farms, people are dying of thirst. When we import salads from drout prone countries 85% of the cargo is water. This trade is at best theft of valuable resources from vulnerbale people and at worst cold blooded murder.
    And if we didn’t grow such frivolities in Africa then the local African farmers could develop their own industries growing the food that that continent needs so badly.
    I loved your idea about the “hostel kitchens”. I am not sure that community gardens would fit in with the the young professional lifestyle. My son runs the computer network for a national charity and seems to be on call 24 hours a day 7 days a week throughout the year. In your example the community gardens would probably need some professional supervision. A lovely idea for more settled families though.

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  23. Huw Jones says:

    David, on your point about monocultures and extreme weather. I agree entirely. Politicians, and even DEFRA!, seem to have an obsession with the plant physiologists correct assertion that (all things being equal)higher temperatures and higher CO2 will result in higher crop yields. However they ignore the view of Plant Pathologists, Ecologists and Agronomists, that the variable weather to be expected due to climate change makes predicting crop yields almost impossible. Above all they ignore the evidence of their own eyes and ears that plant and animal diseases are moving northward and threatenning our crops, farm animals and wildlife. The emergency is NOW
    In face of what has been predicted the huge areas of wheat, barley oilseed rape and potatoes with very few other crops, means that much of our food supply is extremely vulnerable to predictable weather events, and maintaining the staus quo is stupid.
    While, personally, I would prefer that Mega Dairies were not necessary, but professionally understand why agribusiness has to set them up, and am very excited to see how well the staff manage to cope with the obvious challenges, the idea of putting thousands of cows in one building when you can be almost certain that within the next decade a hurricane will take the roof off , seems to be totally mad.
    If I was in charge, I would be encouraging smaller units to grow a greater variety of crops and livestock, and perhaps either breaking up the supermarkets, or supporting(/nationalising ?) them to ensure that they can cope with smaller suppliers.
    Having been working in a field when a natural little whorlwind flattened the crop, and then helped in the long battle to harvest it, I dread to think about the damage that a freak storm would do just before harvest in East Anglia.
    If farmers were allowed to grow a greater variety of crops, then you would not get huge areas at vulnerable growth stages at the same time.

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  24. Donna McLuskie says:

    Thank you very much for inviting comments at this early stage in your policy-making. Much appreciated!

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  25. I have suggested in the Waste section that regulations affecting the feeding of food waste to animals, pigs in particular, should be revised in order to encourage the use of pigs as the first phase of a digestion process aimed at converting food waste into fresh meat, energy and fertiliser in the most efficient way possible.

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  26. Pauline Clarke says:

    There is no need to talk about increasing GMO or eating insects for protein, a suggestion I read on the BBC website today. It would be much easier to feed the world if land was used to grow crops for humans to eat, instead of feed for livestock and for keeping livestock.

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