Measuring progress

On Your Farm presenter Charlotte Smith and Archers’ actor Lucy Speed open the programme from the middle of Devon by explaining that they are looking for a farm but are surrounded by large sheds and outwardly industrial structures. Somewhere in this seemingly inappropriate setting, they are expecting to meet Andy Gray, a possible finalist for one of the programme’s annual awards.

Andy’s business bridges the gap between livestock farmers and end users of meat. He operates the large food grade cutting and packing lines that they saw on arrival. As well as selling dog food, he also farms 150 hectares of arable crops, as well as keeping a herd of deer and a herd of cattle. Other business activities in his eclectic business include a quarry for heritage building stone.

During the visit, the conversation turns to remedial best practice for soil and the new funding schemes for English farming, based on the provision of a public good such as healthy soil. Rothamstead soil scientist Andy Neil is on hand to discuss some of the vital detail. Charlotte Smith is impressed that Andy should have engaged a Rothamstead professional to measure the recovery of former arable fields. Andy, on the other hand is pragmatic: if he can’t quantify the improvements he is making on his land, he won’t get any government cash. Gotcha.

Going underground

After centuries of agriculture, scientists are finally admitting that they are in the dark about the role of earth worms. Today’s Guardian carries a piece in which earth worms are estimated to add 140 million tonnes of wheat to the world’s wheat harvest, without a fully-argued reasoning of how they might do this.

There is more than “nice to know” involved. Crop scientists have been happy to spray crops without a full understanding of what makes them grow well. Shouldn’t we change this?

Sharing the Earth

The final episode of Chris Packham’s series Earth was the cue to wrap up a long awaited prognosis for the planet. Pulling no punches, Packham expressed his belief that humanity would either resolve the many threats the planet faces or disappear into planetary oblivion. Packham’s uncompromising position is completely logical: what we refer to as “the natural world” or “the industrial world” or even “the industrial world” is in reality a single space that is shared by competing interest groups. The problems we face arise from the planet’s collective inability to find ways of sharing one space. For instance society’s habit of staying up after dark created an economic demand for lighting: the routine use of oil lamps to light houses in the 18th and 19th centuries drove whales to the brink of extinction.

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It is easy to talk about nature as though it exists in nooks and crannies that are somehow unsuitable for human economic activity. Humanity’s industrial intakes come from space that could just as easily be supporting other life forms. Industrial farming generates mile after mile of unvarying monoculture. There is no sustenance for wildlife such as orang utans in palm oil plantations. Yet the apes are ruthlessly hunted and killed for being a “problem” when they search for food among the serried ranks of trees that offer no suitable food for their species.

By making nature, industry, urban and rural environments aggressively mutually exclusive, the scene is set for all-out war. It is not difficult to see that if industry is allowed to declare war on nature, for instance, or for rural resources to be diverted into urban areas, the result will do more harm than good. The challenge of Chris Packham’s outlook is to identify and rationalise shared interests in such a way that life can evolve productively. The BBC Earth series is currently on iPlayer: click the screen dump to access the BBC website.

Value or price?

Today’s On Your Farm came from Yew Tree Farm, Bristol’s last city farm. Third generation farmer Catherine Withers faces existential challenges to a business that has adapted to extensive and rapid change, but is on the point of losing access to land that is vital to its survival. Part of a site of Scientific and Conservation Interest, the farm should have been spared the predatory attention of a local property developer.

Click the screengrab to access the programme on the BBC.

Instead, acres of hay and winter feed once intended for Catherine’s dairy herd is under lock and key. The tenancy on the field concerned was terminated in favour of a planning proposal for 200 homes that has yet to be agreed. When the BBC visited, the hay in the field was ready to be cut and the livestock would have been sure of winter sustenance. However, Catherine is kept away from her crop by a heavy padlock on the gate. Being able to see the crop but not gather it in just adds injury to insult.

Elsewhere on the farm, another tenancy on a field adjacent to a local council crematorium is set to end, as the town hall plans to extend the amenities for its residents. Again, it is the dairy cattle that will lose out. Catherine has a small dairy herd, as well as outdoor pigs: she also grows vegetables, which she can sell to local residents within walking distance of her farmhouse. Bristol used to have more than 30 farms within its boundaries: as the city’s only remaining farmer, Catherine is something of a local hero, not just to her customers.

Yew Tree has a high proportion of ancient meadow in its grazing, an irreplaceable asset that has been quietly sheltering threatened flora and fauna for centuries. Its value to Bristol is incalculable, but depends on being an integrated space, across which wildlife can roam. The shift from viable and productive to long term decline is an ever-present threat and determined by factors that neither Catherine nor her many supporters can control.

Listen to the programme while it is available on the BBC Sounds website. It raises questions for all of us, regardless of whether we live in a city or a rural area.

Cumulative cereal crises (1)

Climate change can be expected to set off multiple simultaneous food crises around the world. The following post started with a story about rice, then collected a footnote about wheat from war-torn Ukraine and another from southern Europe in the grip of a drought. It could have had a snippet from north America’s struggling maize crop, but that will have to wait.


India is curbing its rice exports in the face of predicted shortages. The country is the world’s biggest exporter of rice, selling 22,000 tonnes abroad in the crop year 2023. An estimated 10% of the world’s rice production is exported and traded internationally, according to data curated by the All India Rice Exporters Association . The tonnages traded internationally are less than one might have expected for one of the world’s most important cereal crops: global production tops 50 million tonnes.

In all its diverse forms, rice supplies about a fifth of the human calorie intake. As a labour intensive crop with very specific irrigation needs, rice does not travel as far or as readily as other mainstream cereals like wheat or barley. Rice is a complex commodity, with many specialist varieties and qualities. Indian rice growers produce premium grades of scented basmati rice for export sales, in addition to more basic varieties. The guiding principle is that all basmati rice is scented, but not all scented rice is basmati.

The first two months of the new growing season (2023-2024) have seen growth of just over 6% in volumes traded internationally, even though India imposed an export duty of 20% on rice part way through the 2022 crop year. The additional duty has not damped down demand, which remains strong. The current season has been hit by more rain and flooding than usual. “We are still keeping our fingers crossed over the likely impact of El Nino” AIREA president Nathi Ram Gupta told his members.

Rice export figures from India and all the significant growing areas across the world for the 2022-23 crop year have not moved dramatically against previous years. But past performance is a notoriously unreliable indicator of future shortages in any sector of the world economy.

This week there are reports of Russian military action destroying a grain silo in Odessa. First reports suggest that 40,000 tonnes of wheat were destroyed in the attack: more significantly the action removes storage capacity for 120,000 tonnes of grain in the middle of the harvest. One single incident casts a shadow over both dockside facilities and the safety of shipping that up until now had been able to deliver wheat to east Africa.

With southern Europe in the grip of a persistent heat wave, there are signs of firmer prices for durum wheat, which is grown across Spain and Italy. Since July 1, prices for European durum wheat price have bottomed out from a pre-harvest low point of around 330 Euros/tonne and moved up to almost 400 by late July. Southern European shoppers are high volume consumers of pasta, which is likely to push up prices of durum wheat in the coming weeks.

Wake up and smell the coffee…

A major sector of the food industry is at risk. Wild populations of Arabica coffee trees have been devastated by deforestation and climate change, leaving domesticated stock at risk of disease and disasters. Arabica coffee trees are native to Ethiopia and Sudan.

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Of the 124 species of coffee listed by botanists, Arabica accounts for two thirds of the coffee traded around the world. For centuries, wild Arabica coffee stock has been shipped around the world and grown on in plantations all around the tropics. The now-domesticated trees are concentrated on plantations where plant diseases can take hold and spread like wildfire. Without access to wild plant material, there will be no way of restoring traits or resistance lost during domestication.

Growing up to eight metres tall, Arabica coffee trees grow on high ground in the lower layers of rain forests, taking advantage of the moderate temperature ranges and sheltered locations. Rising temperatures have added to the pressure on any wild trees that have not been cut down.

The other mainstream coffee variety is Robusta, which is grown in east Africa. It is odd that out of the dozens of coffee species known to botanists, only two varieties have been developed commercially. There is more information about coffee on the Kew Garden website.

Squeezing money from geography

Travel often brings with it a taste for foods that consumers encounter while they are away from home. This broader view of food and drink gained momentum in the latter half of the 20th century, as shoppers started asking for avocado pears, a wider range of pizza and pasta products, not to mention a tidal wave of Asian foods that have been greeted with open arms and either adopted or adapted to British tastes. Many Indian foods have found their way to Britain over the centuries and some, like tea, became national institutions.

It is time to look at the historical context of moving food around the world and look at the topics of food security and self sufficiency. During the latter years of the twentieth century, Britain was about 50% self sufficient: the official headline figure was closer to 65%, but since UK food manufacturers import a variable proportion of their ingredients, these shipments should be taken into account. The impact of two world wars on the domestic economy of Britain leaves a residual malaise and feeling that the UK “…ought to do better…” at producing its own food, notably among older generations.

There is an array of variables that define the economic environment in which food is produced, some of which can be covered now. The first is the colonial plantation paradigm in which overseas territories are ruled and exploited solely to produce commodity crops for colonial powers. Britain, Holland, Spain and Portugal come to mind as historic colonisers, shipping plant material and slave labour in to strategic locations, usually between the tropics. Feeding the work force was a low priority, but was usually a part of the operational model.

Down the intervening centuries this practice continued, developing into what is now referred to as landgrabbing. The topic is extensively documented by Fred Pearce, author of The Land Grabber. The 2012 book can be bought as a paperback or a download here. As the name suggests, land is bought or leased and fenced off. This has been practiced by countries such as China and a number of Arab states. The enclosed land is brought into cultivation usually by nationals from the states concerned and the crops are shipped to these countries as they are harvested. Local populations are excluded from these holdings, which are often of the highest quality available locally.

While this is a modern, pernicious practice, it is not without historical precedent. Irish Quaker and philanthropist Joseph Fisher was a poor law commissioner during the Irish potato famines of the 1840s. From his family home, overlooking the approach to Cork harbour, Fisher recalled seeing ships setting sail bound for English ports. These vessels were laden with grain grown and harvested by starving labourers in the surrounding counties. Fisher went on to write the 1865 book Where Shall We Get Meat? As it happened, shiploads of cheap grain started crossing the Atlantic, as the American railroad system reached the eastern seaboard and started a sea change in European livestock sectors. The entire history of North America to that point is itself dominated by a high profile land grab in which indigenous American peoples were marginalised by settlers and farmers.

The buying power of remote markets can have an immediate impact on the food security of rural populations. This is a measure not of aggregate harvests, but their availability for local communities.

City life 2.1

Is the writing on the wall for hydroponics? Vertical Farming Daily reports on trials for aeroponics in an adapted hydroponics line. The new technology has to fit in with existing installations to stand a cat in hell’s chance of being considered, but rises to the challenge of producing crops faster using less water. The plug and play modification showed increased yields of just over 20% in trials organised by aeroponics developer Lettus Grow, using the firm’s Aeroponics Rolling Beds (ARB).

These replacement growing trays keep seedlings suspended in the air, receiving nutrients in a carefully controlled fine mist at fixed intervals. To eliminate any risk of blocked nozzles, the Lettus system uses ultrasonic technology to shake droplets of growing solution into the roots of the crop, generating a fine mist.

The application of the nutrient mist can be very closely controlled, keeping the growing medium dry and making the crop easier to manage. The technology is being trialled in widely varying situations. Farming family business GH Dean & Co Ltd in Kent is partnering with grower Ro-Gro in a bid to speed up the development of a new revenue stream, redefining the rate at which a return can be earned on a new agricultural activity.

HM Prison Hewell is using aeroponics to train inmates in the new techniques. As well as growing fresh food for inmates there is enough to sell outside the establishment, too. Local action group Cultivate is creating a local food network to feed communities around Newtown, Powys, while Grow It York is looking to develop food strategy with aeroponics.

Vertical farming has much to commend it. By focussing on one stage of plant development it is easy to miss one important detail, though. Since it does not complete the plants’ life cycle, it does not generate seed stock for further crops. This remains as an input in the sector’s otherwise admirable environmental credentials.

Looking ahead

Gaps in supply chains are set to become a regular feature of the UK economy. In April, supermarket chain Morrisons started limiting customers to two sweet peppers per shopping trip because of procurement difficulties for salad ingredients. Cold weather in southern Europe has led to shortages across the continent, while high energy costs have deterred UK growers from planting early greenhouse salad crops. Supplies of early season tomatoes and cucumbers have also been affected.

Traditional sources for these crops are Spain, Morocco and neighbouring north African countries. The combination of higher fuel costs for imported salad crops and the cold snap has wreaked havoc.

In March, the UK recorded headline Consumer Price Index (CPI) inflation of 10% But take a closer look at the Office of National Statistics data and consumers will learn that food inflation is running at around 19% (CPIH 12-month rate for March 2023). Climate disruption is just one of many factors that will have a generalised effect on future developments in many sectors. Animal products of all kinds have already been heavily impacted in recent months and the sector can be expected to see further upward pressure on prices if producers are going to stay in business.

From Sir Albert Howard to Richard Higgins

It is time to unpack Sir Albert Howard’s legacy and what he learned in Indore. Howard was writing extensively about his composting system in the 1930s and on into the early years of the second world war. He died in 1944, at a time when when mixed arable and livestock farming was still the norm for European agriculture.

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