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Environmental Impact

Why is the Precautionary Principle so vital?

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Why is the Precautionary Principle so vital?

By Robert Reed, A Team Foundation

Sustainable food production is the apex between human and environmental health. Being good custodians of our planet gives the inherent benefit to one’s self also. Clean soil, air, and water should create clean food, diets, and overall wellbeing. This is true even if you reverse the chain; wholesome nutrition requires eating healthy and cooking with clean ingredients.

However, this interconnected perspective is still lost amongst the conditioning from the past. Throughout the world, industries and people, work with a silo mentality; a perspective that sees and works within the parameters of only one self-defined area, and everything external of that is considered void. This is an outdated ‘reductionist’ thinking method, ill-suited for the challenges of the 21st century. 

We, as a species, are at a point in our evolution where holistic thinking is the only way forward. Necessity is the mother of all innovation, and from which, new systems are emerging.

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The natural environment works in a multidimensional continuum (it all arises simultaneously at once, everywhere), and this patchwork of beings all relate to one another – ourselves included (A wonderful video about interconnectivity in nature: How the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park changed the rivers).

Imagine a wing of an aeroplane, there are many rivets holding it together. If the wing lost one or two rivets during a flight, it will be more-or-less secure and its function in-tact. However, there is a threshold, if enough rivets are removed, the wing (and the plane) loses its functionality. This is the basic premise of environmental collapse. The environment we are a part of.

The environment is a network of innumerable species. This network, the ecosystem, is resilient to all the shocks that we humans place upon it. There are many scientists who claim our actions have brought us to the tipping point of the planetary boundaries; potentially driving Earth into a new state of existence.

  Rén - The Chinese symbol for Man

Rén - The Chinese symbol for Man

The Chinese symbol for Man has many entertaining interpretations with unity and interconnectedness as a common theme. Created by two lines, the first is propped up by the latter. I see it as Man being propped upwards by the Earth. Others found meaning in how we as humans should treat each other. Either way, it’s a symbol, but for me, it is one that shows the underlining connection to all.

What we do is what happens to us. If we disregard another (be it the environment or another human), the effects return to the source (dressed in a different form).

Thinking in this manner (holism) is one thing, applying it, however, is most definitely a challenge. The reasons why holistic systems are so beneficial is that they are diverse and complex; ironically, the same reasons why there is such resistance to adopt them.

We cannot say that we know with absolute accuracy, what consequences occur from our individual actions. Impacts go beyond our field of vision and our feedback loops, they are external, eternally rippling outwards.

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Imagine, therefore, a new product - for ease, let’s say a pesticide - is developed and about to be released, one that has a “successful” potency against certain crop-munching insects. As users, neighbours or customers, we cannot personally guarantee its safety and thus, we place our trust in organisations, certifying bodies and national law so that this product doesn’t cause detrimental harm.

Let’s say those institutions didn’t exist, negative consequences could manifest in many forms. Perhaps when the pesticide is mixed with a different ‘on farm’ chemical it becomes a poisonous substance, or, it may obliterate a specific native population of invertebrates (with larger consequences in the ecosystem and food chain). One stat has been playing on my mind recently; we – Europe as a land mass – have lost 33% of our farmland birds. Why? -  Simply, habitat and food; a loss of hedgerows, wooded areas, insects, worms. What if the bird population falls so far that the decline goes beyond a sustainable threshold? What does that mean to the native plants dependent on seed dispersal through avian digestion? What does it mean for predators? What does it mean for other bird life? For our own pleasure in the morning, how sweet will that dawn chorus be? And in time, what does this mean for our own culture? Ad. Infinitum.

This line of thought is exactly why there is a piece of policy legislation in place called The Precautionary Principle. Where there is insufficient scientific evidence available to make an authoritative decision, the Principle suggests to not go ahead as the risk is either unknown or too high – common sense right?

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There is a chance that this piece of policy (along with other environmental protections) may be scrapped during Brexit; opening the doors for the silo thinking. The PP is a preventative against harm when we do not know the extent of the outcome.

In March, the APPG for Agroecology and Dr Rupert Read (University of East Anglia) created briefing papers that highlighted the importance of the Precautionary Principle in Government policy. The briefings inform the ongoing environmental protection debates at the House of Lords, where they are reporting on the amendments to the Government’s EU Withdrawal Bill. There are two papers, one is specific to the House of Lords and the EU Withdrawal Bill, the other focus on the role that the Precautionary Principle has in the context of Climate Change and Animal Welfare.     

The Bill itself omits many environmental safeguards. Debates are already occurring in the House as the overarching dialogue continues until the deadline for reporting; May 8th. There has been an update this week that provides some sense of clarity. On Monday, the Lords defeated the Government. The proposal to make amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill (that would maintain the environmental protections and human rights) was passed. If enough MPs agree with the amendments, the consequence will mean that the Government must revise the initial EU Withdrawal Bill. 

However, there still remains a gaping hole. When the Secretary of State, Michael Gove, proposed his visions for a ‘Green Brexit’. Mr Gove and his team acknowledged a problem, the current regulator, the European Court of Justice, will not be in effect after Brexit and so, Mr Gove proposed a new watchdog to take its duties. The Government maintain the status that environmental protection will be the role of the watchdog, but what is the use of a watchdog that has no teeth?  

The issue is that the watchdog hasn't materialised due to the opposition from other members of the cabinet. They want to be free to arrange international trade deals as they please, in the name of the economy and industry. And this has the potential to leave the environment wide open to negligent practice.

While these debates are ongoing, the APPG still supplies evidence, while also working on the consultation for the Agriculture Bill; another critical piece of policy work. Meanwhile, Greener UK, (a united front by organisations such as Client Earth, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Woodland Trust to name only a few) are still spearheading the efforts to safeguard the existing environmental protections.

Earlier this month, GreenerUK released this blog post; Green Brexit? Not unless the prime minister stands up to her grey ministers, which acutely sums up that current state of play.

The need for enlightenment continues… well, at least Spring has arrived.

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A Matter of Scale

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A Matter of Scale

by Rebecca Laughton and Csilla Kiss, 
The Landworkers' Alliance and The
Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience (CAWR), Coventry University.

Why study small farms?

Small scale (20ha and less) farms and market gardens have long fallen below the radar in UK agricultural policy, despite attracting increasing numbers of new entrants who bring youth and innovation to the agricultural sector.  A culture of disbelief exists that such farms can be economically viable in an age when family farms of 50-200 hectares are being amalgamated into ever larger units. Despite an “inverse relationship” between farm size and productivity being proven in the Global South, little data exists about the productivity of small farms in the UK. The “A Matter of Scale” (AMOS) study set out to challenge the assumption that bigger automatically means “more productive” and “more viable”, by collecting and analysing data about the yields, financial performance and multifunctional benefits of agroecological farms of 20ha and less. The A-Team Foundation provided funding for a two year study to be undertaken by the Landworkers’ Alliance under the supervision of the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience (CAWR) at Coventry University, combining an online survey of small farmers with the creation of five short films, based on interviews with the most productive farms in the survey.

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What did the research show?

The survey and interviews revealed a number of striking findings about this little studied sector.  The most notable include:

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  • The average yields (kg per square metre) of crops such as beans, salad leaves and kale, requiring high labour inputs were two to three times higher than yield data for standard non-organic systems.
     
  • Small farms provide employment, both for self-employed growers/farmers and paid employees, to the tune of 3.2 full time equivalents (FTE) per hectare.  This is significantly higher than the UK average for agriculture of 0.028 annual work units (AWU) per hectare[1] and even the average for horticulture of 0.23 AWU/ha[2].  Furthermore, employees were motivated to choose small scale agroecological farms due to the variety of work, its meaningful nature and the convivial working environment.
     
  • 78% of the sample was receiving no farm subsidies, and of those who were, for most respondents, subsidies represented a minor proportion of their income.  Although net farm incomes were low, produce sales were generating more than 60% of total income for 33% of the AMOS sample, 40-60% of income for 33% of the sample.   This contrasts with annual farm business income data for the UK, in which all farm types are obtaining more income from Pillar 1 payments and agri-environment schemes than from sales of agricultural produce[3] .

The methodology for measuring productivity on diverse, highly integrated farms, proved challenging. Apart from the horticultural data, it was difficult to calculate yield figures per area of land due to practices such as rotation, poly-cropping and the use of bought in feeds.  A detailed understanding of the full productive capacity of small farms, especially those with livestock, would require in depth quantitative case studies.  As is so often the case, the attempt to answer one question, only throws up many more!

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Outcomes from the AMOS study

Even before the AMOS report was published in July 2017, figures from the study were in demand.  The 2017 edition of the “Organic Farm Management  Handbook”, used AMOS horticultural yield data in a new section focussing on the performance of small organic production holdings, making it more useful for business planning for such enterprises.  Figures from the report have also been used in the Landworkers’ Alliance’s own campaign publications “Making Food Sovereignty a Reality: Recommendations for Post-Brexit Agricultural Policy”[4] and “Why We Need Small Farms[5]

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Following publication, the report achieved some media coverage, including interviews with the author on Farming Today, BBC Points West (Link) and BBC Radio Somerset.  At the Via Campesina global gathering in July, great excitement was expressed about the AMOS report as a valuable campaigning tool.  In September, a delegation of Defra officers from the Organic Team took part in a two day study tour of small, agroecological farms in the Midlands, including three visits to holdings which took part in the study.  Being able to show efficient and viable small farms in action, backed up by a detailed report about their productivity, was powerful in challenging the preconceptions held by some of the delegates.  Already the report is contributing to broader dialogue about the future of agriculture and was also featured in a CPRE Food and Farming Foresight Paper, “Uncertain Harvest: does the loss of farms matter[6]?”

The scope of the project stretched far beyond the delivery of a report, however.  Encouraged by the team at the CAWR, respondents for the survey were recruited in part by a series of six regional Landworkers’ Alliance meetings across England.  These meetings, held in early 2015, formed the foundation for an evolving regionalisation process which is enabling far flung members of the LWA to benefit from training events, farm tours and the solidarity of regional meetings.  In October 2016, people who took part in the survey and other LWA members were invited to a Skill Share day to hear about the results of the research, and take part in enterprise themed workshops to explore how they could increase productivity using agroecological ideas.  The five films were premiered at the Skill Share day, which gave an opportunity for feedback and discussion and contributed to the final report.  The films will now make the findings of the report accessible to a wider audience and will, we hope, encourage more people to read the report.

At a time when the future of UK agriculture hangs in the balance, the AMOS report will continue to be a valuable piece of the LWA’s campaign toolkit as we argue the case for better support for small farmers post Brexit. 

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You can read the full AMOS report here

 

[1] Defra (2015) Agriculture in the UK, p8

[2] Devlin, S. (2016) Agricultural Labour in the UK. New Economics Foundation and Food Research Collaboration. 

[3] Defra (2015/16) Farm business income by type of farm, p8

[4] LWA (2017) Making Food Sovereignty a Reality: Recommendations for Post-Brexit Agricultural Policy.  

[5] LWA (2017) Why we need small farms: Farming in Post-Brexit Britain.

[6] Willis, G. (2017). Uncertain Harvest: Does the loss of small farms matter? Food and Farming Foresight Paper 2, the Campaign to Protect Rural England.

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Food Issues Census 2017

Food Issues Census 2017

Written by Robert Reed, A Team Foundation

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The 2017 Food Issues Census is an account of the changing trends of issues within the food and farming sector. Issues such as food poverty, animal welfare and environmental concerns are reviewed by popularity and by how much financial support they are receiving. 

The first Food Issues Census was launched in 2011, since, there have been numerous and major changes in the food and farming sector, some obvious and some subtle. The 2017 census provides an updated overview, a wider picture, that can be used as a tool for funders and those seeking funding.

By highlighting the breadth and scope of current issues, the census notes the importance of a sector that is under pressure. In general, food and farming is underfunded yet its impact affects each individual person and the Earth on which we live.

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You can read the full census here (via www.foodissuescensus.org).

The Food Issues Census was written and published by the Food Ethics Council and funded in part by the A Team Foundation (in collaboration with the Esmee Foundation, Environmental Funders Network, Big Lottery Fund, JMG Foundation and Sustain).


Land and Deliver : Erasmus

Land and Deliver : Erasmus

Written by Tom Carman and Ruth West, Real Farming Trust.

Land is what we use to grow the food we eat. For years in the UK many new entrants to farming, as in the rest of Europe, have been facing increasing difficulties accessing affordable and secure land.  There were and still are a mixture of reasons contributing to these difficulties, which have been identified as part of an Erasmus partnership and learning programme working across Europe called Access to Land.  This project is pooling knowledge and experience from organisations in France, Romania, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Germany and the UK.

The starting point for this work was looking at the barriers and hurdles facing new entrants to farming. The demand for land is high as there are competing interests for its use – farming, housing, woodland enterprise, industrial developments etc.  Planning systems across Europe are regulated to different degrees, and whilst planning systems can help to bring different stakeholders together to discuss land use, they don’t align with the timing needs for farmers to make a living. In addition to this, there is scepticism amongst the status quo in UK farming about the viability of alternative approaches to food production and land management such as agro-ecology, organic and bio-dynamic farming or permaculture.  This is despite increasing evidence that these approaches can provide a living and the increasingly obvious need for land to be managed in a way that is good for the planet.  There is also competition amongst entrant farmers, as when scare land does become available there are many people who apply to use it.

Difficult land access has had strategic, structural and operational effects on countries.  For instance the UK is not producing enough food: around 60% is imported, with many horticultural products coming from Spain.  The effect of this has been to decrease the pool of entrant farmers in the UK leaving an increasingly aging farming population. The result has been a loss of farming skills and a lack of innovation – new entrant farmers bring with them the desire and knowledge to practice agro-ecologial farming, but without the ability to access land, they cannot build experience or share agro-ecological credibility.

The exciting part to this work though, is learning about innovative approaches that are helping agro-ecologial farmers to access land better. For example, Terre de Liens in France has successfully brought together key stakeholders across France including local authorities, conventional farming regulators, citizens and new entrants to open up 3,000 hectares of French farmland to organic food production.  In Germany, a network of land access co-operatives has started to emerge that work from a national to local level, opening up land for agro-ecological farmers. And in the UK, the Community Supported Agriculture network is supporting the growth of local communities wanting to share the risks of food production with the farmer. 

As part of the Erasmus programme, The A-Team Foundation sponsored a film exploring the shared challenges facing new entrants from the participating countries in their search for land.