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‘No Deal Brexit will devastate our food, farming and landscape’: farmer & MEP Phil Bennion

Arable farmer and West Midlands Lib Dem MEP Phil Bennion spoke out at a ‘Brexitime’ question and answer session with local farmers in Stratford-upon-Avon on August 6th. 

He said that a particular threat to farming came from the Agriculture Bill which plans to abandon the Single Farm Payment system as used under the CAP, with nothing to replace it. “There are no ifs and buts, the basic payments scheme will be phased out. Michael Gove’s idea was to replace it with extra environmental schemes but he clearly had not read WTO rules. It is very clear that under WTO rules environmental schemes need to compensate for direct costs only, they cannot provide any income.

“If we have no income support. which this draft bill says. while the Americans are getting it, the Europeans are getting it, pretty well all our competitors are getting it, there is absolutely no way we can make farming pay. 

“Emergency funding is within WTO rules – but under the rules you can’t carry on giving emergency funding forever. The Americans are doing this at the moment. Our (Lib Dem) policy keeps a basic payment scheme whether we leave the EU or not. A basic payment scheme is one of the only ways of supporting farm incomes within WTO rules.”

“There is likely to be a lot of land abandonment. Most of the farmland round here, the field sizes are not suitable for agribusiness arable farming and unless the regulations on clearing hedges and cutting trees down are scrapped, I can’t see that changing.”

Former NFU chief economist Sean Rickards, also a panellist at the event, gave a bleak assessment of the effect of the post Brexit trading environment on UK farming: “The government has already made it clear that (after Brexit) they are going to let the rest of the world in without tariffs and large sections of British agriculture couldn’t compete. Beef and sheep sectors will shrink quite severely, horticulture will struggle with labour issues and therefore the only sectors that will continue will be arable farms on an increasing scale to compete.

“The character will change, the size will change and the structure will change. It will be a smaller industry operating on an industrial scale and the remoter parts of the country will see farming almost wiped out.”

The panellists predicted that No Deal due to happen on October 31st would lead to the collapse of the sheep and beef sectors in particular, with prairie style arable agribusiness likely to be the only sector to survive, providing fields were huge without hedgerows. Phil Bennion said: “We export nearly 40% of the lamb we produce, and up to 96% of that goes to the EU. The tariffs under no deal would render this trade non-viable.

“Our lamb, Welsh lamb and English lamb is a premium product eaten fresh over a season, so there has not been a need to cold store it. It is eaten not just here but in France and all over Europe. New Zealand lamb fills our close season. With our lambs coming to market in the autumn it is inevitable that prices will crash if the EU market is closed off. There is nowhere to cold store it to stop this from happening. I believe the trade will collapse, yes, to a fraction of its current size. There will be a lot of mutton around and domestic prices will slump. Farmers won’t be able to get rid of enough of it to stop a price crash.”

After the meeting Phil said it was important to debunk the claims made by the Brexit Party and many Tory MPs that under GATT Article 24 we could just carry on trading with the EU as before.

“This myth keeps being repeated without being challenged. The fact is that the EU cannot choose under WTO rules whether or not to impose tariffs on our exports to ‘punish’ the UK, it has to impose them. It would also be illegal under WTO rules for the UK government to pay the tariffs to bail the farmers out.

“It is a disaster. If Boris does what he is threatening and refuses to go if he loses a vote of no confidence then I think we should walk into Parliament and tell him to go.”

A streamed recording of the whole meeting can be found (temporarily 90 degrees on its side!) here:  https://www.facebook.com/stratford4europe/videos/1054525424743135?s=644926487&v=e&sfns=xmo





Protect the soil the way we protect tigers: Devinder Sharma


Responding to earlier articles on soil, Diana Schumacher writes:

Agreed! I have a small garden, a large compost bin and the worm population is gradually building. E.F.Schumacher was at one time president of the Soil Association and became a champion of worms in the family. 

EFS took over the Soil Association presidency from its founder, Lady Eve Balfour (right), who was a farmer and also a scientist. She was conducting soil experiments on her farm in East Anglia somewhere when she asked to see him ( I have vivid recollections of his description of that first meeting).I believe that EFS left the royalties of the first edition of Small is Beautiful to the struggling Soil Association and this helped to put the charity on its feet and get established.

Devinder Sharma sends us his 2017 paper, Protect the soil the way we protect tigers.

The alarm bells have been ringing for quite some time now. Reports after reports warning of a continuing degradation of India’s soils – the foundation of assiduously built food security and more importantly the healthy well-being of the country — have been conveniently swept under the carpet.

Added to this monumental blunder of allowing the wilful devastation of land resources in the name of economic growth lies the threat awaiting in the form of climate change. The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) — the global body which governs the international agricultural research centres — has conclusively established that agriculture, livestock and deforestation together account for 41% of the greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs).

Intensive cropping patterns, unbalanced nutrient application, injudicious use of pesticides and mining of groundwater has turned the soils sick. What is not being understood is that a sick soil cannot produce a healthy generation.

In August 2016, a report of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), estimated that nearly 30% of the country’s land – more than 4 times the size of UK – is faced with desertification. That desertification continues to prevail in semi-arid regions of Rajasthan and in some parts of Haryana was quite well-known but the fact that desertification had encroached on more than 50% of the land in states like Jharkhand, Gujarat, Goa, Delhi and Rajasthan is more worrying. Even the hilly states of Jammu & Kashmir, Arunachal Pradesh and other states of northeast India as well as Orissa are now fast getting into a desertification spiral.

This report comes two years after the 5th National Report on Desertification, Land Degradation and Drought in 2014 had warned of nearly 45% of country’s total land, 146.82 million hectares of the total 329 million hectares, suffering from various degrees of land degradation, including water erosion (93.68 million hectares), wind erosion (9.48 million hectares), waterlogging (14.30 million hectares), salinity or alkalinity (5.94 million hectares), soil acidity and other complex reasons . . .

Studies point to some 5.3 billion tonnes of soil getting eroded every year, much of it from water and wind erosion. Of this, 29% was permanently lost to the sea, 10% was deposited in reservoirs, reducing their storage capacity and 61% got shifted from one place to another. While this results in tremendous loss in productive capacity of soil, it also helps in expanding the area under deserts. The more the green cover is lost to deforestation and urbanisation, the more is the barren land exposed to soil erosion. In Haryana, for instance, accompanied by strong winds shifting of sand dunes have often resulted in cultivated lands being encroached upon.

The priorities of successive governments have been in complete contrast to what has been spelled out in the numerous environment documents since the 1st Plan

Beginning with the 1st Five Year Plan, the thrust has been on ‘land rehabilitation’ thereby showing that the planners were seized of the crisis that was expected to build up in the years to come. Numerous Ministries and departments, including the Department of Land Resources, Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change; Ministry of Agriculture; Ministry of Water Resources; Ministry of Rural Development had framed a number of policies wherein the effort was to contain soil degradation . . . (but) over the years the Ministry for Environment, Forests and Climate Change has been on the forefront of bringing in policy directives that actually have undermined the protection, conservation and rehabilitation of land resources. Recent changes introduced silently by the environment ministry, tribal affairs ministry and the mines ministry to redefine forests in a bid to bypass the forest and environment clearances required for mining companies, needing several thousand hectares of mineable area, is one such example . . .

If the soil is unhealthy, you may be sure your food is also unhealthy

It has often been said that you are what you eat. And what you eat depends on how healthy and nutritious the soil is. After all the plants derive their nutrition from the soil, and if the soils are unhealthy be sure your food too is unhealthy. Ask any farmer the difference between an organically-rich healthy soil and a chemically farmed soil, and he will tell you how enriching it is to work with nature. Healthy soil not only supports biodiversity – more bees, more earthworms, more birds – restricts run-off and erosion, and is also is also a storehouse for soil nutrients and carbon.

Soils are predominantly rich in three major nutrients – nitrogen, phosphorous and potash. In addition, it also provides 16 micro-nutrients, including iron, molybedenum, calcium and zinc. But because of intensive farming practices, like having a continuous cropping pattern of wheat and rice, interspersed with potato and vegetables, like we see in Punjab, the organic content in the soils have been exhausted. In Punjab and for that matter in other Green Revolution areas, the organic matter in the soil has almost come down to 0.1 %. This means farmers are left with no option but to apply more of chemical fertilizers to produce the same harvest they used to produce five years back.

Excessive use of chemical fertilizers, especially nitrogen in the form of urea fertilizer has led to nutrient imbalance in the soils

Moreover, the effective uptake of nitrogen by plants from the urea that is applied does not exceed 30%. Rest of the chemically applied nitrogen seeps underground causing contamination of groundwater. The problem got compounded with agricultural universities recommending more application of chemical fertilizers as the way forward to meet the nutrient deficiency arising from intensive farming. At no stage did the universities and the extension officials of the State Department of Agriculture advise farmers to take up integrated farming practices that include the application of organic manures and green compost in adequate proportions.

Continuous application of chemical fertilizers along with mechanized farming has compacted the soils. In many places, a solid layer has been formed almost a foot below the surface thereby restricting the spread of plant roots. Organic cultivation practices on the other hand turn the soil porous, which allows for an enabling environment for soil microbes. One indicator of a healthy soil is the percentage of earthworms visible in the soil. The more the number of earthworms, the healthier is the soil.

A soil health card for every farmer

The thrust on making available a soil health card for every farmer suffers from the same deficiency in approach. It is designed primarily to ensure that farmers apply balanced doses of chemical fertilizers. I would have preferred a soil health card that measures the organic content in the soils and accordingly makes suggestion on how to improve the strength and structure of soils. At a time when chemical fertilizers, especially nitrogen fertilizers, have been found to be acerbating greenhouse gas emissions leading to climate changes, the emphasis should be on reducing its application.

I have always advocated subsidizing organic manure, bio-pesticides and working out a separate price policy for organic produce which incentivizes organic farming

It is important to understand the political economy that promotes chemical fertilizers and pesticides. It has been generally accepted that fertiliser subsidy is the major determinant of land degradation. Although there have been efforts to reduce subsidies on chemical fertilizers, especially phosphorous and potash, but still due to political reasons and lobbying by farmers groups, it has not been possible to cut down subsidies on fertilizers in a desirable manner. This makes organic farming systems unattractive to farmers. Numerous studies, both nationally and at the international levels, have conclusively shown that business as usual is not the right approach. To provide healthy food, protect environment and ensure proper soil management, the time is ripe to radically overhaul the crop cultivation practices. An international study – backed by World Bank and United Nations and involving more than 400 scientists globally – called IAASTD in short – has shown that crop production by non-chemical practices goes up steadily and is the only sustainable path ahead.

Studies have shown that 1% reduction in fertilizer subsidy reduces land degradation by 3%.

This is a startling analysis and should be driving the national agricultural policies, including the research priorities. While population density and poverty ratio, the coefficients of both are statistically significant, are normally also thought to be responsible for land degradation, a study done by Mythili Gurumurthy (2015) show that these two variables cannot be held as reasons for land degradation. The results of poverty ratio-land degradation link also corroborate the results of other studies that poor are victims rather than cause of land degradation.

Feeding the soils with organic manure, and laying out a well-working drainage system, which increases water use efficiency are required to protect soil erosion as well as to maintain soil fertility. But more importantly, policy makers have to understand that rebuilding the soil health is a precursor to meeting the food requirements for a growing population in the future, and at the same time a healthy soil is a determinant for a healthy population.

Take the case of China. Hit by a significant drop in food production this year in the wake of rapid urbanization, it has now vowed to protect arable lands. China aims to retain at least 124.33 million hectares of arable land in 2020, with no less than 53.3 million hectares of high-quality farmlands, news agency Reuters reported. In India, nearly 45 % of the cultivable land is faced with degradation and the country has still to wake up to the looming threat.

“Farmland should be protected the way we protect pandas,” stated a spokesperson for the Chinese government. India too should launch a nation-wide programme to save and protect soils the way it protects tigers. #





The future of food, post Brexit


New Food interviewed Professor Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at City University London, to discuss the implications of Brexit on the food industry and ascertain his opinion on the future of food for the UK

Edited extracts

How could Brexit impact food security for the UK?

It’s uncertain, and could go in multiple directions, but the capacity for disruption to a just-in-time food system is considerable and recognised throughout the industry.

What more should MPs and the wider industry be doing to prepare for life outside the EU (if that happens)?

The priority is to push not just the English Cabinet but leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to face food. Food has barely featured in Brexit discussions so far. This is remiss, indeed astonishing.

Earlier this year, United States Under Secretary of Agriculture for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs, Ted McKinney, rather passionately refuted the notion that chlorine-washing chicken is a common practice. His office had set up a Google alert to be triggered if Michael Gove or DEFRA mentioned food safety and trade in the same context. There seems to be a question not simply over whether the practice is safe but whether it takes place at all. What would you have liked to say to Mr McKinney on the subject, given your stance?

Either he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, doesn’t read his own Government’s documents, or doesn’t understand public health. Certainly, hawks in the US food system have long wanted to dismantle the EU’s approach to chemicals, risks, health protection and food standards. They cannot bully the EU – one of the only global bodies that can stand up to USDA and the US Department of Commerce – so the UK leaving the EU is an opportunity to get into another market. Hence statements from Wilbur Ross, US Secretary for Commerce, making it clear he/they will not accept EU-type standards.


“There is an ongoing fight within the Tory Party (and to a lesser but important extent a parallel one in Labour) over different visions for the future of the food system. I am writing about this at present (more will be known by Food Brexit 2018) as a choice of visions: Atlanticists vs neo-colonial (e.g. Commonwealth as Empire 2.0) vs arms-length European vs globalist vs little England vs bioregionalist vs green landscape.

“It’s too early to see which vision will triumph or if there will be a crossover. I suspect the latter, with strong forces for green farming plus cheaper food from abroad. These represent battles over what land is for, food security, price and affordability; i.e. whether a harder version of cheap food policy triumphs alongside other interests”.

To read the article go to https://d6prv7be4nrvy.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/April-2018-Tim-Lang-Press-Release.pdf





Sustainable farming requires nutrient-rich soil with a complex organic structure

Receiving news of the extensive research undertaken by Mark Measures and the forthcoming workshop led the writer to remember Winin Pereira and Rashneh Pardiwala who recognised the importance of good soil structure.  

Winin Pereira’s paper Energy & Lifestyles was originally prepared for the Traditional Science Congress, held at Varanasi in October 1998 (updated November 1998).It noted some causes of soil acidification adding that sustainable farming requires that all crop ‘wastes’ be returned to the soil. If this is not done, soil erosion will increase, the soil’s nutrients will be mined and the land will require additional synthetic fertilizer. However, the soil organic matter, soil biota, and water-holding capacity cannot be replaced by applying fertilizers. This may result in serious degradation of fertile farm land which will ultimately make the land barren. soil erosion and water runoff, which would ultimately reduce the overall productivity of the land forest clearing erosion flooding (water runoff)

From Western Science to Liberation Technology he notes that Warli farmers tried synthetic fertilizers.out but soon abandoned them. They said that the fertilizers damaged the soil and that larger amounts were required each year. In consequence, they use very little, and then not every year. use of Sesbania bispinosa, and later ref to rui (Calotropis gigantea) leaves as a green manure. The leaves have very small percentages of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus they use it widely and it is evidently effective in improving crop productivity.

A couple of years later another colleague, Rashneh Pardiwala, completed her doctoral research with distinction at Edinburgh. Professor Grace wrote: “She has worked on the loss of carbon dioxide from heather-moorland soils, using a site near Edinburgh which is fairly typical of the peaty spoils which are widespread in northern Britain. The context of her work is the impact of climate warning on the flux of CO2 from the soil to the atmosphere (11.10.00).

And today soil-related references in an article from the Shenzhen Daily caught my eye

When landscape designer Wang Xin, with a degree in landscape botany, realized he could no longer stand being an office drone, he left his job, rented two plantation sheds in the suburbs and started farming from scratch. After a rough start he has learned valuable lessons going back to his university and visiting colleagues in Tochigi Prefecture, Japan, to study the most modern organic farming techniques. In July he prepared all-natural organic matter to enrich the soil. his fertilizing formula has been perfected through years of research in collaboration with Beijing University of Agriculture to simulate the formation of the fertile dark forest soil in Northeast China, known for its high crop productivity.

Logically, the true foundation of organic farming lies in soil content: if the soil is right — if it is a living organism with a complex organic structure — the outcome is safe and tasty food farmed without the need for fertilizing chemicals, according to Wang. But that is not the only objective. Wang hopes to build a production model that rehabilitates the soil itself. On regular plantations, the soil can degrade within a matter of years after being over-exploited. “For organic farming to become truly sustainable, revitalizing the soil is key. I am certain that in three to four years, the soil that I have been reviving will only be healthier,” he said.

The strawberries from his organic plantation in the southern outskirts of Beijing are believed by his clients to be “the best in China.”

As part of Mark Measures’ Churchill Study Fellowship (Soil Management for Sustainable Production and Environmental Protection), he travelled to the US and Europe in 2017-18, visiting researchers, advisers and farmers. His final report (January 2019):”Soil Management for Sustainable Food Production and Environmental Protection” can be downloaded here (pdf).

In the next post, farmers, growers and advisers are invited to his one day workshop

A workshop on soil nutrient and fertility management

Mark Measures has found over 30 years of being at the forefront of organic farming in the UK that it really does work, is commercially viable and provides effective solutions to many of the problems facing food, farming, the environment and society.

He recognises that though organic farming does not have all the answers, it goes further than any other farming system to address the problems that face agriculture and society in a finite world and  provides the best basis for the future.

Organic farming is rooted in principles that put the concept of a holistic view of the world (linking the health of the soil, plant, animal and humankind), into practice through soil management, crop rotation, recycling and minimising inputs. Organic farming causes less pollution, enhances wildlife, reduces the use of finite resources and produces quality food.

Mark Measures Associates is a consultancy business that provides information, advice and support to farmers and landowners, commercial businesses, research projects and policy groups wishing to manage, develop or support organic farms.

As part of his Churchill Study Fellowship Mark travelled to the US and Europe in 2017-18,  visiting researchers, advisers and farmers.

His final report (January 2019): “Soil Management for Sustainable Food Production and Environmental Protection” can be downloaded here (pdf)






Donald Trump unwittingly encourages local food production in China



The Times reports that President Xi is attempting to move China away from dependence on US soya beans and increase domestic production.

Soya beans, rich in protein, are essential to China’s national diet, steamed and salted as summer snacks, turned into bean curd and fermented for soy sauce. Soya beans are also crushed to produce soy meal, which is fed to its livestock herds.

Beijing has decreed that farm workers contribute to a “soya bean revival”. Xinhua, the official news agency, reported. “. “We must steadily restore the soya bean fields . . . accelerate in cultivating premium, high-producing bean varieties.”

Experts in Beijing, who had not been authorised to speak to foreign media, said that subsidies have been introduced to ensure food security. “Soy products are an indispensable part of the Chinese daily diet,” one said. “We must think of food security.”

Readers commented: “It must be good news if transportation of soya is considerably reduced. The same can apply to almost all exports” and, ironically in view of recent measures: “So Trump is an environmentalist – after all he is encouraging everything to be produced locally” and:

“Maybe a Brexit lesson here – the UK becoming more productive and less dependent!”