organic farming

For peat's sake

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2500 years ago Plato wrote about ancient Greece many years before: “... the earth has fallen away all round and sunk out of sight. The consequence is, that in comparison of what then was, there are remaining only the bones of the wasted body, as they may be called, all the richer and softer parts of the soil having fallen away, and the mere skeleton of the land being left.”

At a remarkable mid-June gathering at Morvern in the West Highlands I read the above excerpt from Plato, who was describing Greece before farmers totally screwed it up.  The theme of the conference was ‘Soil Matters’ and it brought together leading soil scientists, artists, musicians, government and NFU officials, land managers and others with an interest in soil and sustainability. It was hosted by the Andrew Raven Trust, a trust established in memory of his profound influence on Scottish land management and environmental issues.  Because we were in the Highlands the role of peat in climate change and sustainability was a topic.  Peat has a deep resonance with the spirit of Scotland - I’m not talking about whisky here but about peat bogs. 

The Scottish landscape has seen some hard times - the Clearances led to populated areas seeing the longstanding human residents sent off to Glasgow or America or Australia, to be replaced by deer and sheep.  Now the Scots are recreating the marvellous environment that reflects the levels of rainfall that typify the region and rebuilding rural populations living in harmony with this unique environment.  A surprising number of the new migrants are from England.

Misguided post-war policy gave indiscriminate tax incentives to forestry. Trees were inappropriately planted on peatlands, the bogs dried out, the ecosystem collapsed.  Now there are active peat bog restoration projects all over Scotland and the benefits to environment and climate are inestimable.  A peat bog can compete with a woodland in the amount of carbon dioxide it takes out of the air and stores permanently in the depths of the earth.  Scotland’s peat bogs are making a huge contribution to mitigating climate change and we still don’t pay them a penny for doing it.  With carbon pricing on the horizon that could change.  If the carbon price is £50/tonne CO2 then an undisturbed peat bog could earn its owner £2-300 per hectare per year.  That’s more than you could make by cutting the peat for fuel or compost.

Peter Melchett, the late Policy Director of the Soil Association, dreamed of the day when peat use was phased out completely from organic farming.  A 2010 Government deadline for removing peat from horticulture was quietly extended to 2020 and now neither Defra nor the EU have any concrete plans to phase out peat use - the pressure from horticulture is too strong - tomato and vegetable growers are a powerful lobby.

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So, while the Scots are diligently restoring peat bogs the rest of the world is still digging it up to save microscopic amounts of money.  We deserve to die if we can’t do anything about this insanity.  Vast peat bog areas of Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania and Canada are being mined on an industrial scale to supply vegetable growers. There have been attempts to phase peat out of organic and conventional production. ‘Peatless peat’: compost blends of coir, composted shredded bark, biochar and green waste perform just as effectively but cost a tiny bit more. They have a vastly lower carbon footprint.  The organic movement sees itself as superior to other growers and farmers but the use of peat is one area where we must hang our heads in shame.  Every principle of sustainability is contradicted by the use of peat;: it takes tens of centuries to replace; it turns into carbon dioxide within a year or two of being used; and it destroys biodiverse habitats. Growers feel under tremendous pressure from supermarkets to cut costs in any way possible and peat is cheap.

Alternatives that don’t devastate the environment can do the job just as well, they just cost 1/2 a penny more than peat for a seedling plant.  A tomato plant can produce 50 tomatoes, so that’s 1/100 of a penny that is saved by using peat to grow tomatoes.  Screw the planet, let’s save a penny per 100 organic tomatoes.

It is time for the organic movement to revisit its founding principles, look to the Scottish example and drive a worldwide movement to restore peat wetlands and make peat use extinct before peat use makes us extinct.

Agribusiness

xorganic-farming-640x426-jpg-pagespeed-ic-thzrqz2irqWhen a business sector sees a rash of mergers and acquisitions, it's for one of two reasons, growth or decay. The organic food industry has seen a lot of acquisitions by companies anxious to get in on the ground floor of the 5% annual growth rate in organic food and regenerative farming. Meanwhile, on the dark side, Monsanto is facing takeover by Bayer, not for any positive reasons, but because they are both looking into the abyss. Merger is one way to survive when the farmers they are competing for are spending less. Farmers aren't stupid - they can do the maths. When they see diminishing returns on their investment in seeds and agrichemicals, they reduce their spending. Normally in a situation like this the agribusiness operators would go to the EU or Washington and just wheedle more subsidies out of the national purse, bleating about food security while encouraging biofuels to prop up soy, rapeseed and corn prices. Who cares if you're destroying the earth's precious farmland at 30 football fields a minute? If you were a big landowner, you'd feel entitled to being paid to do this. That's what us mugs are here for. Now that the EU even subsidises grouse moors you'd think the gates were wide open. But the money is running out. Half the EU budget goes to farmers, much of it British money going via Brussels to France. The US spends $350 billion a year propping up agriculture in the US, channeling money through farmers to agribiz.

Let's take a look at who's eating whom. The potash fertiliser price has halved in the past 3 years, from $450 a tonne to $219. So in Canada, Agrium and Potash, two of the world's biggest potash producers, are merging in a desperate attempt to keep afloat while they wait for a bounce in price that may never happen. Bayer and Monsanto are both facing plunging sales and profits. Monsanto have the seed and Bayer have the pesticides to go with them. But again it's desperation. They hope that innovation will save them, but innovation is not something you find in mega corporations.   GMOs are losing support - US farmers never wanted them but were denied choice after Monsanto bought up all the seed companies and forced GMOs down their throats.

The whole ethanol biofuels scam is blowing up, too. It was never even vaguely 'carbon neutral' - it takes more energy to produce a litre of ethanol than the energy you get by burning it. It's more energy efficient to just mix corn with coal and shovel it into a power station, but that would be too obvious and repulsive.

Chem China has taken over Syngenta. They make the herbicides that Syngenta's GM seed can resist. Nobody in China will eat GMO rice but they'll tolerate pork or chicken fed on GM maize. But the real prize for Chem China is Syngenta's strong presence in US market: they're after Bayer/Monsanto's piece of the diminishing pie. Their US competitors are suddenly bleating about food security.   Two other agrichemical giants, Dow and DuPont, also merged recently. They're all like a bunch of drunks spilling out of the pub after a good night out, trying to keep each other from falling down.

If you're a farmer, what do you do? You used to be able to play off one agrichemical giant against the other, but soon you'll just take what you're given. Or look for an alternative and boy, what an alternative is on the horizon!

When the French '4 per 1000 initiative' succeeds at the Marrakech COP22 climate conference in November every hectare of organic farmland will be set to get over €150 a year in carbon credits. A hectare of chemical-dependent farmland will have to pay for its carbon footprint and that could cost close to €100 per hectare.   It won't happen overnight but the French have fixed a price of €56 per tonne for carbon, to take effect by 2020. The world will probably follow, even the US.   If you were a government that was facing huge annual costs to subsidise farmers with money that flows through their bank accounts to Dow/DuPont, Bayer/Monsanto and Chem China/Syngenta and you could instead just let the carbon markets transfer the money from fossil fuel power stations direct to organic farmers, what would you do? Keep on propping up a dying industry or finally recognise that organic food, when the carbon is priced in, is actually cheaper than the degenerative kind that is destroying our available soil at the rate of 30 football fields per minute? (I can't repeat this often enough)

Governments have been holding back for quite a long time because of the immense political power of the agrichemicals industry and of the landowning fraternity. They passionately hate socialism in all its forms, until it comes to their welfare payments.

It's time for a change. We need to bring freedom to farming. Carbon pricing that encourages regenerative farming instead of degenerative farming is the way forward. Organic is good for you and the climate, too.

War of the world

After a century of destructive conflict a new battle is about the begin – the one to save Planet Earth. It’s the war we really can’t afford to lose, writes Craig Sams.

“I’m the King of the castle – and you’re a dirty rascal”

Every since my playground days I’ve been aware of who holds the high ground and who is a serf. In the olden days it was the legacy of your birth that determined your future chances. In our corporate world ‘legacy industries’ cling to their power in the face of change.

Economists bat on about ‘creative destruction’ in capitalism, but there are still way too many gigantic corporations that are dinosaurs; fat and obsolete but refusing to just lie down and be creatively destroyed. They’re the ‘kings of the castle’ and they’re not about to let any perceived ‘dirty rascals’ impinge on their power.  Sometimes creative destruction does work. A disruptive technology like a smartphone can instantly make obsolete regular cell phones, PDAs, MP3 players, cameras, wrist watches, calculators, voice recorders and game boxes. Apple nearly destroyed IBM.

In Victorian times Britain and France went on a colony-building binge, demolishing the Ottoman Empire and the Austro Hungarian Empire in order to take over their territory.  This led in 1914 to the ‘War to end all Wars’ that we commemorate.  Hindsight shows it was the start of a 100 Years War…WWI was followed by a lot of mini wars, then WWII, then the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Lebanon invasion, the Iraq war, Afghanistan, to name a few.  NATO is at the heart of most of these wars

The NATO conference agenda recently called for increased military expenditure now that the EU economy seems to be finally.  Where would the money go?  To arms manufacturers in the US and Britain and to terrorists who we train and arm before they go over to the other side, creating new conflicts.

War of course isn’t the only legacy industry that made all its money out of a situation and can’t move on. .

Adam Smith nailed it in The Wealth of Nations when he wrote:  “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”

Who are the other dinosaurs that have sunk their fangs into the taxpayer’s neck and are sucking out our hard earned money to pay their salaries and remunerate their shareholders?

The pharmaceutical industry depends on widespread disease.  Many diseases arise from environmental reasons: lead in petrol, hormones in meat, pesticide residues in food and water, side effects of drugs, additives in food and toiletries and poor quality food grown in depleted soils. Prevention is the best cure, but where’s the profit in that?  If everyone was healthy Pharma would be in a very bad place.

Agribusiness depends on depleted soils.  Once you’ve knocked the life out of soil with nitrates, fungicides, insecticides, nematicides and other toxic material the only way a farmer can get a crop is by buying in ever more chemicals.  Farmers have to do what the government pays them to do, so Big Ag leans on government to make sure that the subsidy system encourages farmers to grow biofuels instead of food and to farm for production rather than sustainable productivity. They spend a lot of money fighting off real progress.

The ‘disruptive technology’ in agriculture is organic farming – like the smartphone it delivers a number of products in one package: sustainable yields, healthier soils, lower pollution, healthier people, reduced global warming, more biodiversity and far less expenditure on subsidies for expensive poisons and chemical fertilisers.

The oil industry get massive subsidies masked as exploration grants to make them seem more competitive than they really are. Private energy generation is discouraged, but it’s more resilient and cheaper.

But the biggest legacy industry of all is government – not only does it collaborate with the other legacy industries to protect their obsolete positions, the legacy industries collaborate with government to keep them dishing out the dosh and keeping their upstart competitors at bay.

Silicon Valley blew a hole in a number of legacy industries: big computers, expensive telephony, monopolised media and communications, to name a few. Now the Silicon Valley investors are investing big time in what they call ‘AgriTech.’ These investors don’t care for heavy-handed government regulation and can see an opportunity to cash in on food production in a world where daft ideas like biofuels, GMOs, subsidies and chemicals are making less and less sense. Organic farming and agroecological systems are where the smart investment money is heading. Backed by technology, organic farming can wipe the floor with the dinosaurs like Monsanto – they’ll fight back but there is a tidal wave of smart money that is betting against them

World War Three will be the war to save planet Earth. This is one we can’t afford to lose.

By Craig Sams

Organic food pioneer and polemicist Craig Sams is Britain’s best known natural food pioneer. He is the founder of Green & Blacks, a former Soil Association chairman and the author of The Little Food Book.