The case of the radioactive wheat field

It’s been an interesting time on Twitter recently, after a tweet from The Soil Association appeared a couple of days ago. Here it is,

Screen Shot 2017-02-14 at 15.29.08

I’m going to ignore here the overall message the SA is trying to promote, about glyphosate being horrible and trying to get it banned. What I saw when I looked at the photo was something that jumped out and slapped me around the face – why are the colours so totally out of line with reality? I replied to this with a tweet saying that it was not fair to use a doctored photo to try and make a point, and it all went from there. If you’re interested, the whole thread is here. Frankly it could have probably been left at that, except that first the SA’s own Twitter account, and then that of the SA’s Policy Director, Peter Melchett, insisted that the photo was not altered, and that there was nothing wrong with it. Personally I can’t stand that sort of myopic view of something so obviously wrong. So here we are.

Why I’m not entirely untrustworthy

I think I need to spend a bit of time establishing my bona fides for this particular article, as it’s such an emotive subject in the farming world. Firstly, before I was a farmer I was a professional photographer. I ran a small business and we had several other photographers who worked for us. I used to edit all the photos that come through the company, which was over 100 weddings each year, so around 120,000 to 150,000 photos in a year, and getting towards a million in my ‘career’. I’m far more skilled as a photo editor than as a farmer – which won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has seen me farming. The company still exists, although the name changed after I left. This is what our wedding website looked like back in 2008.

Next up, I don’t think I’m anti-Organic. I spoke at the ORFC this year, and whilst I was there I went to a talk chaired by Peter Melchett, where my head was turned about the increased levels of Omega 3 fatty acids in Organic whole milk. Ever since then I’ve bought it for my kids. We also get our veg from Riverford, who are Organic. As it happens I don’t buy because it’s Organic, but I don’t have a problem with it at all.

Photos from my house, how exciting

Photos from my house, how glamorous

I also don’t just do this pedantic photo picking with the SA, or with people I don’t like. See here for an example of where someone on the opposite side of the fence from the SA, Agrovista, used some equally absurd photos to make a point.

Finally, I’m not just picking on the SA because I don’t agree with their position on glyphosate. I think this is pretty well illustrated here where I am arguing against a journalist from the Farmers’ Guardian who thinks Chris Packham should not be able to voice his (negative) opinion of glyphosate in public. And although I am not an Organic farmer, I do not believe the ‘conventional’ system is right, either for us as farmers or the environment. I’ve gone on record saying this many times, and frequently give talks about it as well.

So, with that out the way, let’s get on to the photo.

The photo

First of all, it needs to be pointed out that this picture is a stock photo, which was not adjusted in any meaningful way by the SA themselves (they have adjusted the saturation and brightness, but it’s minor). The picture is available for sale here, and I have bought a license so that I can legally use it in this blog post. Here’s a copy of it, straight from the iStockPhoto download.

crop spayin wheat field

It would be interesting to have access to the original, un-editied, version of this picture to show the differences, but in a nut shell, the colours have been changed on most of the wheat by adjusting the hue, and the contrast has been heavily increased in all areas apart from the middle quarter, running horizontally (i.e. the sprayer itself). If I had to guess, I would say the clouds and right hand side of the photo have been selectively burnt as well.

What makes this so obvious, is both the psychedelic colours, and the fact that they change across the picture so abruptly, as shown here:

A: Right in front of the sprayer here, the wheat is a normal colour B: Here is is bright yellow/verging towards green C: Getting close to red in this bit D: Now in to bright orange

A: Right in front of the sprayer here, the wheat is a normal colour B: Here it is bright yellow/verging towards green C: Getting close to red in this bit D: Now in to bright orange

Let’s put these colour changes into perspective now, by comparing the correct colours directly with the incorrect:

Even Stevie Wonder can tell something is up here

Even Stevie Wonder can tell something is up here

And here’s the last photo I’m going to put up. It’s one I took of our combine at harvest, getting near to finishing a field (of oats as it happens) off. There are two sections of crop left to cut. One I have left in the correct colours, the other I have changed (using hue, saturation and contrast only) to match what is shown in the photo used by SA, which they claim to be perfectly natural. See if you can tell which is which.

I'd say it's 50/50

I’d say it’s 50/50

So there we have it. To finish off, I would like to make the point that the photographer has done nothing wrong by processing his picture in this way, that’s just how he wanted it to look. That’s fine, and I’m sure it’s a coincidence that it happens to look as if they sprayer has caused the discolouration, especially in the cropped version used by the SA.

What is not Ok is to use the picture to illustrate a serious point, and then try and pretend there is nothing wrong it with. Out of interest, I put the picture into Google Image Search and it seems to be used exclusively by web pages illustrating how nasty glyphosate or GMO crops are. So although it was probably not made intentionally to look bad, clearly it is being used for that reason by these guys – claiming it was the only photo out there is not a valid excuse here I’m afraid.

Please Soil Association, do yourself a favour and change it for something that isn’t a cartoon.

2 thoughts on “The case of the radioactive wheat field

  1. Re organic milk–reading your link to NHS choices, the omega 3 benefit only applies to full fat milk and even there its relatively small (16% v 11% of the recommended daily intake of omega3 , if you drink quite a lot of milk). Even if you are a bit sceptical about the dangers of saturated fat you are prob better off drinking skimmed non-organic milk. Having said that we have been in the (emotion rather than data!) habit of using organic milk since the BSE crisis 20 years ago

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