'Little Bit of Bread and No Cheese’ - A Call for Change
Our best crops of bread-making wheat are usually grown in deep, clay-rich soils.
In a small, well-populated nation like the UK, these are a precious resource.
About 85% of the UK's total wheat crop is grown on this good land to feed livestock.
The remaining 15% of our total wheat crop are 'milling' or bread-making varieties.
From that 15%, an astonishing 75% of all our bread and biscuits are produced.
This means that we still import grain for 25% of our bread and biscuit flour.
These figures are taken from the ‘UK Flour Millers’ website and the recorded sales of the UK's conventional and organic wheat seed. Fascinating though they are, the high yields upon which these figures rely are very dependent on oil-derived fertilisers and the use of pesticides: the manufacture, distribution and repeated use of these inputs creates a large carbon foot-print. This is both unsustainable and bad for wildlife.
Today, all our farmers should be looking ahead to farming without any artificial fertilisers or pesticides. We have a knowledge of soils, plants and fertility-building rotations that is way ahead of anything understood in the 1950's, and for example, we now know that if plants are fed with too easily accessed artificial fertilisers, they do not develop strong, nutrient-seeking or drought resistant root systems.
Bread and nature are two of the most vital ingredients in our lives. If we really incentivised our farmers to adopt cyclical, organically certified or 'regenerative' farming, the UK could be caring for its wildlife and still grow an ample sufficiency of milling grain. If we reduced the amount of good land given to crops for feeding animals and increased the ground area sown with milling varieties (from 15% of our wheat crops to around 35%), this is a perfectly possible scenario. Yes, a big change, but perfectly possible.
Today, nobody can justifiably say that fully-regenerative, organic systems are not the way forward. We have already transformed the efficiency with which we grow grain, thanks to the development of precision drills and other new cultivating and weeding machines. We also know so much more about fertility-building break crops and how to look after our soils. Now is surely time for government ministers to introduce generous incentives to remove our dependence on oil-based fertilisers and pesticides.
[See also notes on 'Grain Pricing' and Pesticides below]
In the long term, sustainability is about the reduction of carbon we put into the atmosphere, and David Fleming’s idea of Tradable Energy Quotas seems to be one of the fairest, if not the only way forward. The necessity of applying carbon quotas to farming, transport and all other aspects of our daily lives, seems obvious. Finding a fair system of administration will present us with one of the most significant and interesting challenges of all time. We need to prioritise that work immediately.
At Yorkshire Organic Millers, we are determined to find ways to ensure organic farmers are paid a proper price for their milling grain; that has to be a price which reflects the risks and true costs of growing it. In other words our farmers need to be rewarded with a far greater degree of reassurance and protection.
Today, UK prices can rise or fall dramatically in a market which is subject to competition from all parts of the globe; a few ship loads of grain from say, Kazakhstan, Russia or Canada, and prices drop £20 - £30 a ton.
Meanwhile our specialist growers, manufacturers and retailers compete for positions of dominance in a bid to supply the whole of the UK. We live in a country in which small numbers of large and specialist farms provide most of the grown goods to increasingly few supermarket outlets. For example, around 90% of the UK's cauliflowers, leeks, peas and carrots, will be grown by a few farms which have invested heavily in specialist machinery. The vegetables they produce are then sold to supermarkets at prices which do little more than service their debts. This is a repeated pattern of events, during which multiple opportunities to build more circular, local and sustainable economies, get ignored. It is as though the lesser scaled activities of smaller producers, communities and towns, didn’t matter. We live in an era when 'efficiency of production' is mistakenly considered to be the only certain sign of progress.
Currently the average price of the UK's organically grown milling grain has been lowered by the availability of imported grains from Russia and elsewhere. Nevertheless, at Yorkshire Organic Millers we are offering the UK's organic farmers a price that is £140 per ton higher than that of 'conventionally produced' grain. That is quite some premium and a reflection of a wide section of our public choosing to buy bread without any traces of weed-killer in it. Now is surely the time to encourage a new set of values, pioneered by our organic farmers, millers and bakers. It is also time for our government (and the Competition Marketing Authority) to look for useful changes to the way we grow, buy and sell our precious crops of milling wheat.
In the future, producers and retailers who have expanded to dominate every corner of the UK, are unlikely to be remembered as useful leaders of either agriculture or industry, although it is just possible those companies will be remembered for being locked into a cruel and unsustainable form of capitalism. We need to include local communities in the development of much fairer, less polluting ways of living and working. Reference back to the 1947 Agricultural Act, would be a useful start.
The Assizes of Bread and Ale
One hundred and seventy years ago the UK had measures in place to promote fairness and sustainability in our local economies. The protective procedures of the Assizes of Bread & Ale were in operation from the middle ages until 1846, when the Corn Laws were repealed and quantities of tariff-free wheat were imported. This huge change obscured the principle aim of the Assizes of Bread, which was to manage prices at a local level, so that farmers, millers, bakers and consumers all got a fair 'crack of the whip' (to eat, work and live). To achieve this, local mayors were entrusted with the task of naming the price that was to be paid to farmers for any milling grain grown within or imported into, their districts. After receiving reports of the latest grain harvest, mayors would obtain information from local market traders and arrive at an average price being offered. Using this information, they would then decide on a fair exchange price for grain, which was often just above the average price of a good grain sample. This system directly linked the price of grain paid to farmers with the weight and value of bread sold in that district. It is interesting to note that the Assizes continued to operate in Oxford, twenty years after the repeal of the corn laws (until 1865). Could there have been something mutually beneficial about the Assize laws?
Without the 21st century communications that are available to us now, it was not an easy process to administer and many of the millers and bakers objected to being controlled by the mayor's men from 'weights and measures'. On the other hand, why would anyone question the importance of work that ensured the good value and quality of vital products that fed society ? Didn’t the Assize laws enable mayors to keep an eye on the functioning of their local economies in a way that was both socially responsible and democratic in its origins ? If we compare those laws to the free-for-all of our free-market in which the inequalities of landscape, climate, culture and development get little or no consideration, they were definitely allied to a better sense of direction and purpose.
Such is our current faith in the market being the only way to manage our food economies, any thought of re-introducing the Assizes of Bread and Ale in its original form, is likely to be met by political blockade. On the other hand, now that the urgency of sustainability and climate matters are foremost in our minds, there is surely something to be learned from the fair minded aims at the heart of the Assize laws ?
What might the best parts of the ‘Assizes of Bread’ teach us ? Isn't this the moment for fairer, minimum pricing to be re-considered ? Fairer to our countless communities and trades... and above all, fairer to the planet. There seems to be a lot of research-space here for someone with a good mind, computer skills and an interest in the resilience of our national food supply.
The Wildlife Tragedy needs to be Reversed
Back in the 1950's, hedgerow birds were so numerous that they consumed a considerable quantity of grain from the boundary edges of a farmer’s crop; that is why in the 1960's, farmers removed so many of our hedges and trees near arable fields. Today the numbers of small and large birds have been pitifully reduced and several species are on the brink of being lost in the UK. Some would say that the farmer has finally got his revenge by applying his insecticides and other chemicals, but in reality, the true cause is the small value that consumers give to their food. It is the competitive pricing on our supermarket shelves that does the killing. Minimal prices not only remove wildlife (by committing us to short-term farming) but many of our farmers who are tragically committing suicide at a rate of one death each week. It is time for us to face these facts and at the very least, reconsider minimum pricing of essential food products both nationally and internationally.
The term 'pesticides' includes fungicides, insecticides, rodenticides, molluscicides and herbicides; these are poisons which not only kill their targets directly, but also kill indirectly when other wildlife consume the poisoned slug, snail, insect or rodent. Slug pellets, which are often spread on newly sown crops of winter wheat (following oilseed rape), are a good example. They are not only toxic to the targeted snails and slugs, but to the small rodents who eat them, which in turn, are eaten by owls and hawks.
Glyphosate (the main constituent of 'Round-up') is another secondary killer currently used by most farmers to eliminate all green growth before and after crops have been harvested. This annually repeated spraying turns huge areas of farmland into grey, lifeless zones during the winter months. Post-harvest fields once provided a green environment for beetles and small rodents, who in their turn were consumed by our small birds and raptors. Now that such a huge and harmless source of wild-life food is constantly removed, is it any wonder that our birds are disappearing ?