Talk by Rob Yorke at Bristol Food Connections Food festival 4 May 2015

Low-value baked beans – can we have our beans without baking out bees?
My talk is less about what beans are required for a can of beans, the thousands of species of bees but more about turning
the can upside down, peeling off the label, opening the wrong end the can - to look at issues around affordable food and the
environment.
I’m Rob from the Black Mountains – rural surveyor and commentator on environmental issues – today aim to provoke
you to think - not about the right and the wrong // but to explore challenges and trade offs that bring us our daily food and
wildlife to eat and see every day
(*we mustn’t forget that exploring means we might discover uncomfortable stuff)
I’m lucky to work from home requires a walk before the office. Two contrasting farms surround my house – with neat
grass fields, tidy fences, fat lambs and evidence of hewing a living from the stark hillside post the WW2 govt push for food
production on all marginal land. The other farm- a shambles of bracken, hungry sheep, green woodpeckers on anthills and
fallen trees – the Welsh govt relaxed on his poor farming techniques in view of the biodiversity benefits. (I would’ve been
surprised if there was a weasel riding a woodpecker most days)
The tale of two farmers both producing different public goods – a story of where our countryside is today and where we
may have to go in the future….I once had an altercation with a room of ecologists when they questioning why we should
funding farmers to help repair the environment that they had wrecked)
Shifting baseline syndrome
Any discussion on food today is more complex than we dare admit. Any debate on environment today is more
complicated than ever before the two are inextricably linked and no debate on either can afford to ignore the impact on the
other. Oh, the other thing. Much as I would like to keep this to the UK – it’s a global scenario whether we like it or not. If
Russia stops its export of grain due to poor harvest – we feel it. If Holland floods markets with cheaper tomato – we buy it.
If China wants our 5th quarter (ears and brains) because its middle class demands it – we respond to that market. We import
the food; export the environmental tradeoff
The market. Yes, we are the market. Us consumers in the room. Who likes baked beans? Who buys own brand? Who
buys organic? Who makes their own? We all make our own choices as to what we afford or at least prioritise what we can
afford. You probably heard the oft quoted - 50 years ago we spent around 30% of our income on food – now it’s around 1011% on average. But those on lower incomes spend up to 20% on food. Now we get into a nuanced touchy area of what we
wish to spend our money on, how much we have to spend and informed/educated choices of ready meals versus fresh
produce. Can we learn, not be taught our new diet
I’m sure in August we spend less on groceries but more on holidays.
It was fascinating to learn that the trigger, the catalyst for the Arab Spring was the price of bread shooting up in Tunisia
– in Egypt, close to the birth of agric and now the world’s largest importer of grain - the ‘bread helmet’ became a symbol in
the unrest. Politicians here also keep a weather eye open on food prices – the debacle in recent BBC Question Time ‘why so
many depending on food banks’ - and its probably why politicians don’t hammer supermarkets too hard as they deliver food
rather efficiently.
We are, remember, allegedly only nine meals from anarchy aka food riots.
So is food cheap here in the UK? We certainly pay for it in many ways. As we are part of the EU and thus the Common
Agricultural Policy, we discover that food prices, after Norway, Switzerland and Japan, are one of most expensive globally
due to WTO trade, farm support, regulation and tariffs – all to ensuring as best possible ‘reliable access to enough nutritious
food at affordable prices’ to 500 million people. That’s the true definition of food security.
Thus to secure that security of supply, the cost to the environment of producing our food is further externalised. And we
all know what that means – diffuse water pollution, habitat destruction, impact of pesticides, ploughing up flower rich
meadows etc. If we were talking about self sufficiency in the UK, these matters could become even more pertinent/apply
more pressure on the environment when growing more food in the UK. Another debate
You can pay more for your food to avoid these externalised costs – organic, conservation grade groceries means that less
wildlife in theory dies in the preparation of your beans on toast.
As Mark Avery (environmental campaigner) said when he left the RSPB as it head of conservation – “our overconsumption drives species' declines much more certainly than could a man with a gun."

I once mused with the fanciful notion of putting dead skylarks or hedgehogs on food labels – the more you paid, the less
dead wildlife and visa versa. Bring it home – connect to food and that’ll make you connect to nature! But how punishing
would that be for those on lower incomes? Like cigarette packets showing lung cancer on the side – the Pret healthy drink I
had the other day was great but//was I aware of exactly what pesticides the ‘Rainforest Alliance certified’ allowed on
bananas in far off countries
After ‘horsegate’ we demanded more transparency in our food chain – how much we want to see slurry covered dairy
farms producing pure white milk is another matter. A top local restaurant near Abergavenny served NOT local wild rabbit
but, due to traceability requirements, farmed French rabbit
So while we may not have cheap food, we certainly have undervalued food. That’s why we waste so much. Tons and
tons – along with production of harmful CO methane (more noxious than CO2) as it decays in landfill. we would save £600
million/.year if we extended sell by dates by one day – prevent 250,000 tonnes of food waste
I aim to explore some of these issues at the Hay Festival on 21st May with Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at
City University London and George Freeman, Chairman of the All-Party Group on Science and
Technology in Agriculture.
Science has a role in improving the efficiency of how we produce food, waste less and husband the resources that we
require for food. Whether organics, biotechnology, soil, – we must get smarter. Professional farmers are required. EU
subsidies may keep our food supply reasonably stable but they also stymie innovation by farmers. We potter on doing what
we do best knowing that the subsidy cheque is coming.
In New Zealand they removed subsidies overnight that saw 1/3 of the farmers go to the wall. The rest adapted to farming
for the open market – no brake of regulation or conditional subsidy - they went hell for leather into super efficient farming.
New Zealand dairy cows 6.2 million cows. UK 1.8 million.
But, that lovely looking Middle Earth, in Lord of the Rings is not all that its cracked up to be – sheep ranching,
alongside dairy farming have had severe environmental impacts - esp water pollution - as New Zealand exports 20 million
tons of milk products to serve the expanding Asia market.
Keep it in the celluloid – the media here isn’t that interested in diffuse pollution, or invasive species – not sexy and
doesn’t to sell newspapers.
What papers do find sexy are pollinators – or indeed the bees. The 38˚ petition calling to –
Immediately halt the use of Nerve-agent pesticides (neonicotinoids – let’s call them, neo-nics) which are being blamed
around the world for the sharp decline in bee numbers.
Take measures to reduce the use of all pesticides on bee pollinated crops.?
Do you think that Rachel Carson in Silent Spring wanted to ban pesticides? She didn’t - as she realised that they were
required for food production but railed quite rightly against their indiscriminate use by first generation users of new agro
chemicals.
If you Google bees, you get a deluge of information and research about neo-nics. It’s impossible to find out anything else
in the argument over their use for crop production. Its hard to find out why the British Beekeepers Association didn’t join in
for the call for their ban – was it their concern that alternatives were possibly worse (pyrethroids sprays wipe out every
insect – incl those predator insects – parasitoid wasps- eating the pest insects), miticides are used in managed honeybees
hives, commercial bumblebees pass disease to wild bees and much of pollination of fruits trees, strawberries and runner
beans in our countryside is undertaken by unsung flies, hoverflies moths.
When the RSPB brought out its Give Nature a Home TV campaign, the little girl made a hut for hedgehogs, bird nesting
box but forgot to remove the bee-harming insecticides from her kitchen cupboards that kept their mum’s roses aphid free,
leatherjackets out of dad’s lawn and ants out of their house. It’s just too close to home. RHS still back neo-nics insecticides,
peat still for sale…goddamit we have to change our lifestyle..
We don’t need tidy gardens – say no to the mow (lawns) - // but we do require affordable food (silage). Fine to go for
pesticide-free Riverford organic (well, the spuds might have had copper sulphate on it to prevent blight) and let’s promote
integrated pest management to reduce injections, release a biocide of mites to eat aphids – but let us not forget that
agriculture is a primary industry, not a vocation, required to feed an increasingly urban based world. As such, industries
require factories and we must be wary of semantics.

At my Hay festival debate last year with Compassion In World Farming and NFU, a free-range chicken farmer called
himself a ‘factory’ - resenting the overarching definition that all factory farmed livestock was ‘bad news’. Perhaps better to
have free range hens in air con houses than let then tearing up the countryside - # remember there’s no animal welfare in
nature - especially if you are a slow worm being eaten by a chicken…..
The clever, judicious use of herbicides to create wildflower margins for pollinators is part of our requirement to intensify
conservation – or our effects. Note the use of the word ‘intensity’ – how it stirs us up? Climate change impacts will
intensify - pests will come and we must adapt to those changes even when we perceive threats to our traditional views of
how we think we should produce our food
Yes, we must husband our soils but it’s easier said than done when a wetter climate prevents tractors getting onto the land
to farm at the right time of year. Mark Twain was wrong – we can create new land – look at the Netherlands reclaiming land
and some of the Arab states creating whole peninsulars – though for different purposes…. Do we need to use soil –
hydroponics, lab meat, vertical farming, LED photosynthesis, insects livestock feed …..are all new areas to go, .
We can’t expect to continue with a rose tinted vision of Poldark countryside with bucolic food riots looming on the
horizon…
How we use our land in the UK – the balance between self sufficiency and importing food is another discussion. Do we
import the food to export the environmental problems elsewhere? How wonderful it would be if we could "decouple rising
demand for natural resources from environmental harm"
Big brave concepts of land share and spare are to be explored. Spare land for best efficient high yielding production //
while sharing less productive land aka organic with wildlife.
How many of you came to Monbiot on rewilding? . When I interviewed him for Countryfile mag and the B&R Express
Farming page – you can imagine how the latter piece went down – by wanting to de-stock the unproductive areas of our
75% farmed countryside – especially the uplands, turn sheep farmers into tourist guides for lynx watching – he was
focussing food production in the lowlands. He’s talking about share and spare by default //The UK with 64 million of us
shoved into intense urban areas - we are one of the highest urban populated countries (NZ and Norway have mere 5 million
in larger areas) - is no human-devoid Yellowstone park.
Yes, let us be ambitious but more realistic in how we consume today. I ask - do we birdwatch before we breakfast?
Let’s take a cuckoo’s overview as it arrives on migration from Africa. To the west an advanced country stuck in poor first
generation ‘factory’ farming while handing out food stamps to 44 million (USA), to the south, a continent eking out a living
from under utilised soils, hungry for innovation (Africa)- to the east, a huge population seeking a meat/dairy Western diet
(Asia) and to the north, here, a population become fatter, living in a bubble of para-facts and propaganda
It’s not my way or the highway. Yes, it’s an overused hackneyed phrase – use all the tools in the toolkit. Or to go all
biblical ‘and the bio-technologists will lie down with the permaculturists’ , the multi-corporations Greenpeace and
Syngenta will work together – especially they create new habitat for bees, invest in biotech research into bacteria, fed on
methane, to be the new fish food for salmon farming. Both biod/renew 2020 targets…are objectives to strive for but
contradict/tradeoff against each other – i.e. Swansea lagoon, MCZ….wind turbines, raptor reintroductions
We must be more nuanced, less fixed, smarter in exploring new ways to work this food/enviro tradeoff. In India the govt
gave free electricity to farmers but it only enabled farmers to sink boreholes deeper to deplete the water table - whereas in
China a private firm subsidised brilliant new water efficient irrigation technology.
There are two Oxford Farming Conferences….on opposite sides of the road at the same time. Why don’t they meet in the
middle to share ideas, shelve ideals.
We can have our beans and our bees but only if// we don’t let tribal instincts trump the careful weighing of facts presented
from those we haven’t perhaps always trusted before - //put a lid on our partisan following – don’t just trot out the line
without examination – // question, take responsibility for our own minds and actions in how we want to eat and hold
onto wildlife into the future
Ends © Rob Yorke May 2015