The Hypocrisy Economy

Here’s a column I wrote recently, which I’m too impatient to wait and see in the Farmers Guardian:

We’ve all (hopefully) read the new agriculture bill. We’ve all (probably) heard Michael Gove talking about how great UK agriculture is going to be, and what high standards we will continue to have. And we have all definitely thought about what will happen to our businesses after Brexit, as the threat of unlimited imports in our own sector looms large. The hot topic this month seems to be whether we should allow imports of food made using techniques that are outlawed for UK producers. Several months ago that centred on hormone fed beef, and chlorinated chickens. More recently, perhaps due to farmers thinking about flea beetles and aphids, we are talking about neonicotinoid seed dressings. Personally, I’ve never used these on cereals, but did on oilseed rape until a few years ago, and always have on our sugar beet, but many people rely (or at least think they do) on this chemistry to protect their crops. It’s now fairly clear – for better or worse – we’ve seen the back of this particular technology in Europe.

So now, when we think how we would like UK agriculture to look in a few years, the very obvious point has been made that having decided that neonicotinoids are not safe for use here, isn’t it morally wrong to import food from other countries that is produced using them? The logic is so strong that even the RSPB and NFU are singing from the same song sheet. Even more bizarrely, I too agree with both of them, and would strongly support imports to be required to meet our own standards. There’s really just one problem with the whole thing though:

It’s never, ever going to happen.

How can I say this with such certainty? Easy – just look at any one of a thousand examples of asymmetrical regulations to be found happening right this second. How about labour laws? It’s not difficult to find cheap clothes on the high street, and why are they cheap – because they are made by kids in the far east, something that would never be permitted here. It’s not just poor countries though, look at anything imported from the US. They have zero days mandatory annual leave, and zero days maternity leave – neither of which is legal in the UK. OK, I can hear you thinking – but isn’t that different to polluting the environment, as neonicotinoids are supposed to do? Anyone who owns a smartphone can’t really complain about this; they full of rare earth minerals that are often mined with terrible pollution effects. Just Google ‘yttrium mining pollution” and see what comes up. Or how about the graphite used in all our rechargeable batteries? Same story. Perhaps most damning of all, is that we already import thousands of tonnes of food produced with pesticides that we are not allowed to use. Paraquat would be a good example – and we haven’t even touched on the GM soya that is fed to so many of our pigs and chickens. Somewhat amusingly, many of the farmers who voted a few years back to leave a huge trading bloc with aligned standards are the same ones who now complain that we may have deal with countries using different standards. What a shock!

At the end of the day we don’t really need to look abroad, or on the internet, we need to look at our own lives: I’ve just written the above on an American computer, made in China. The clothes I’m wearing come from God-knows-where, but certainly not the UK. My car is German, and my supper will be Japanese. With the possible exception of the last point, I’m no different to so many farmers in the UK. Wouldn’t it be great if we could have this choice, whilst compelling everyone else in the country to buy our produce (or something else made to the same standards), and to probably pay a premium for it? Too right it would! But can we do that without being massive hypocrites? I’m not so sure.

#isglyphosatevital

Here’s a column I wrote recently, which is being published in the Farmers Guardian today:

It’s impossible to go onto Twitter at the moment if you’re a farmer without having your screen melt down with one of the most extreme examples of preaching to the converted that I’ve ever seen; the campaign to save glyphosate from being banned by the EU, and the hashtag #glyphosateisvital. All of us farmers are loving spending hours telling each other what a disaster we’re facing – and for good reason. We use plenty of of the stuff, it’s a key part of the way we work, and losing it in the future would be a massive shock to the system; I personally believe it would be worse not just for my pocket, but the environment as well.

However, I can’t help but feel very uneasy with the way my farming comrades are getting more and more shrill and hysterical by the day. Firstly, I’m going to have to go all literal. The definition of vital is ‘absolutely necessary or essential’, and clearly this is not actually true for glyphosate. It was invented only a few decades ago, and I’m told on good authority people managed to farm before then. Even today, rumour has it that there are successful farming systems that work without glyphosate, some even say they produce better quality food as well. So really, it is fairly clear cut that glyphosate is not actually vital at all. Trying to pretend otherwise is no better than someone else claiming it is highly toxic and gives puppies cancer. Staking out the ‘scientific evidence’ high ground is a great idea, but please let’s not undo the good work by letting the hyperbole get out of control.

Secondly, I’ve got to take issue with the message of “we can’t keep on farming like we do without glyphosate”. Twitter is full of the Conservation Agriculture Brigade showing us how the ground nesting birds love not being disturbed by cultivating their nests every year, or how their cover crops are putting carbon back into the soil, and that’s great. I love it. But this type of farming is a real minority in the UK, and let’s face facts here; there are some really bad farming practices going on as well – not that anyone will admit to it – and most of these will also be making heavy use of glyphosate. An example of this might be the countless times I have seen someone complain that their farm would be over run with black grass if they couldn’t use glyphosate. When I hear this, I can’t help but think of the old Einstein chestnut, “Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results”. Well perhaps it is time to think about how a farming system can be made better to get around around our problems, rather than hammering the same pesticide buttons over and over again each year? No matter how benign this chemical is, our total reliance on it is not a place we should be aiming for, and publicly using this addiction as a justification is a circular, unproductive, and slightly embarrassing argument.

So next time the blood begins to boil as another celebrity calls for signatures to ban your favourite pesticide, don’t be tempted to crank up the hyperbole generator, and don’t start shouting how you need your drug fix like you’ve always had before. Behave like a grown up, and stick to the facts. Is glyphosate safe? Probably. Can it allow us to farm better? Yes. Is it vital? No.