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Saturday, 9 May 2009

Impressions from Cambridge

I returned yesterday from my annual agricultural industry study tour in Cambridgeshire and East Anglia. It often clashes with elections at the begining of May but this year there is nothing to report. No evidence at all of the European Elections on 4th June.

Farmers were generally happier, market prices for beef and pig were higher, cereals had a good year in 2007 and there were no real supply side concerns. There are three over-riding impressions. No rain, crop waste and reduced organic production.

Adequate rain had not fallen during the last 8 weeks, peaty Fenland soils were powder dry and needed irrigation before crops were planted, sandy Breckland soils had dust storms in the breezy weather, and crops in chalky soils were showing signs of stress unless irrigated. One farm on chalky soils were constructing a 35 acre resevoir to cater for their irrigation needs over the next 20 years and farmers openly compared the husbandry of their vegetable crops to agricultural practices in Israel. Climate change is already upon us and action is urgently required.

Recently supermarkets have recorded reduced organic sales and this is being confirmed on farms with serious thought being given to reducing organic crop areas. A moral dilema tied to climate change exists as well, one pass with a tractor using pesticides for weed control equates in fossil fuel terms to seven passes with a tractor on an organic system to achieve the same control. Debating the use of pesticides vs the use of fossil fuels has to be addressed, I need to look for the CO2 emissions per hectare of organic vs conventional crops for some guidance.

Finally, we saw significant food waste. Approximately 25-33% of a lettuce plant is packed for human consumption, the rest is ploughed back in and there is likely to fe further waste befor the plant is eaten. Most of what is discarded is edible. Some beef systems make use of vegetables deemed to be too big, too small, wrong length or the wrong shape. Again they were perfectly edible carrots, parsnips, potatoes and beetroots. Humans are too fussy by far, or have we been conditioned by the supermatkets to think like that. I think we have. Should the UK ever find itself subject to food shortages then reducing what is being thrown away as waste is a first step.

Lettuce before harvesting (see cracks in soil due to dry weather as well)

Size of lettuce being packed

Lettuce waste after harvest

Potatoes delivered for feeding to beef animals

Dust on a pig farm

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