Tuesday, 15 February 2011


Sorry - there's virtually no gardening in this post.  More, I promise, next time.  Meanwhile, the Muscari azureum seeds that I scattered two years ago are coming into flower.  Huzzah!  But now, down to business. . .

Oilseed rape growing on the fens near my village. Heavy inputs of nitrogen fertiliser and pesticides are needed to produce good crops, but it is highly productive.  A well grown rape crop can produce nearly 1.5 tonnes of vegetable oil per hectare.

Back to that ewe. . .

It was a little girl.

I know!  I could hardly believe it either but I was listening to BBC Radio 4's Farming Today when, to my astonishment, a woman shepherd (she sounded too bossy to be a shepherdess) announced, amid much grunting and other agricultural sound effects, that the ewe – I believe it was a Norfolk Horn – had just 'had a little girl.'

Now I know Norfolk has a reputation for, shall we say, eccentric couplings but even the simplest grasp of biology will tell you that when sexual liaisons between genera occasionally happen, however satisfactory the consummation might be to the participants, no progeny can result.  The DNAs wouldn't mesh.

And then it dawned on me that this was not a fleshly abomination at all.  It was worse!  This was an example of anthropomorphism – a fashionable tendency which I find extremely worrying.

If you call a lamb a lamb, nasty minds like mine turn quickly from cuddly little woolies, gambolling in daffodil-strewn paddocks, to thoughts of Barnsley chops, Lancashire hotpot, Kleftiko or mutton Shashlik.  And if I were a livestock farmer – which I once was – I'd be totting up potential profits on the carcasses and wondering how I could maximise them.

But if you call a lamb a 'little girl,' that gives a skewed picture.  It gets you closer to cuddly toys or to characters like Larry the Lamb – bet none of you remembers him! – or to LambChop.  Nice, comforting imagery?  Certainly! But it's removed from the reality of livestock farming.  And the more removed consumers are, from the truth about origins of their food, the more unrealistic the whole thing becomes.  Or is that balderdash?

Anyway, if you could just keep the foregoing rubbish at the back of your mind, while I bombard you with a couple more thoughts, I'd be deeply grateful.

Some thoughts:

1.  According to the United Nations, world food production needs to double by 2050, if everyone is to be fed. It's here.

Achieving high yields already consumes profligate levels of resources, many of them irreplaceable.  Doubling production will have to be achieved, therefore, not with the same resources, but with fewer.  Have a look at this New York Times piece which outlines the need to change production methods.

Traditional vegetable gardening can be incredibly efficient as a means of raising food. As gardeners, we can care for our environment, enhance biodiversity and can be highly productive.  Food gardens, to me, have greater beauty than the over-topiarised pretentiousness of some 'great' gardens.

2.  If we are to feed the 9 billion – expected population in 2050 – we need to box clever.  A lot cleverer, I suggest, than we've done so far.  There isn't the luxury available, of fostering bat-brained ideas based on emotion or worse, inaccurate pseudo-science.   We've got to learn how to have two birds in the hand while leaving another two constantly in the bush.

3.  Environmental damage, as witnessed in the past half century cannot be repeated.  It is obscene and intolerable.  Such reckless destruction is also dangerous to the whole of humanity and is therefore stupid. Yet we persist. Can't stop. Have to carry on wrecking.

Answers to our most desperate needs could be out there, in the wild.  But if the loss of biodiversity continues at its current rate, there'll be nothing left.  Then what?  Will we live in a degraded earth, continually hammered by destructive climates, cowed by political instability and enduring constant, nagging wars over resources.

4. The power fulcrum is shifting eastwards. The world's second largest economy, China – and with it, the rest of Asia – will be calling the big shots pretty soon. And if the populations of India and China want the levels of self-indulgence we enjoy in Europe and the United States, where will the resources come from?

Virgin rainforest was removed to plant tea, in the Cameron Highlands region of Malaysia. Can production of such commodities be increased without further destruction of rich, natural resources?

Meanwhile, here in Britain we are about 65% self-sufficient in food.  But with predicted population growth, that will drop to about 50%.  We should be aiming higher.

Livestock production, butchery and our Western diets have become difficult and emotive subjects. In the face of dwindling resources and changing values, many of us are increasingly troubled about what we eat, and how much.  But it is also becoming clear, that we must be ready to embrace technological advances that will benefit productivity, provided safeguards such as animal welfare are firmly in place.

After the traumatising experience of BSE, and subsequent food scares, consumers have become suspicious of anything new.  That has to change: not the suspicion - that's healthy - but the willingness to keep an open and curious mind, rather than following the mob.

Genetically modified crops were roundly - and in my view, unwisely - condemned.  The chorus of disapproval, led by Prince Charles and orchestrated by the Soil Association has been deeply destructive, closing people's minds to reasoned argument and shutting doors not only to efficient food production, but to a vast range of potential benefits including better wildlife conservation, reduced dependency on fertilisers and chemical-free plant health.

In a challenging future, I think we must be ready to look judiciously at all new technologies. And we should embrace any that will help to fill bellies without causing collateral damage.  

Tapioca, manioc, cassava, Manihot esculenta - call it what you will, the roots are a source of dietary starch and the plants can grow in cereal-hostile conditions, even rainforest.  Therefore a valuable world feeder with huge potential, even though we Brits remember it mainly for the gloopy 'frogspawn' milk puddings.  It'll be better still if the toxins can be bred out of the sap. (This is a curious red-stemmed variety I photographed on the island of Sulawesi.)

I'm listening to Haydn's The Creation or rather Die Schöpfung. Neville Marriner is conducting.

This week's film was Bunny Lake is Missing.  A British thriller, directed by Otto Preminger, screenplay by John and Penelope Mortimer, starring Larry Olivier, for once rather under-playing his role as an educated policeman. (You could tell he was educated 'cos he wore a Cambridge University tie all the time.)  For all those big names, it's a bit of a disappointment for two reasons: first, the long suspense scene at the climax is milked so dry that one is beginning to yawn before the denouement arrives.  But the big reason is that it's one of the few British films of its day without an appearance by Sam Kydd.  We felt bereaved, having scoured every frame for him.

This day, roughly, in 1956 I was in the worlds coldest and most inhospitable spot – the corridor between classrooms at my Norfolk prep school. Icicles developed on the insides of the windows. The Suez Crisis and Budapest Uprising were to follow that year.

Bye bye


  1. Are you feeling less grumpy now!!
    I think there is a failure by some to realise that we have to change if we are to feed everyone. I went to an interesting talk by Professor Beddington a couple of years back, although I know many deride him. The statistics are worrying. We need to find ways of producing food with less energy and water. I think we need to be reconsidering our diets - the amount of meat we consume in this country is ridiculous, as well as the waste from food we throw away. I think we need to return to the days when meat on the table was a treat. We need to reduce the number of fast food places and change people's attitudes so they appreciate where their food comes from and what went into producing it.

    As for the topiaried gardens - cant stand topiary or garden rooms with hedges.

  2. Nigel, I do agree with you. Very soon we will be seeing signs to Abbotsbury Swannery - the writing on the signs 'Baby Swans'! Many acres of trees have been planted along the A35, great for the environment or is it? These fields used to grow wheat and other crops. And don't get me started on the amount of new housing built on good farm land!

    Best wishes Sylvia

  3. I don't know the exact stats, but I understand that the proportion of average UK incomes spent on food is much lower than it was 20 years ago. And, on average we are getting fatter and throwing more food away. If food was more expensive, especially meat, we would eat less, throw away less, and farmers would be able to afford better welfare/environmental standards. It sounds perverse, but if we put VAT on food, then raise pensions, benefits and the minimum wage to compensate the poorest, we might all be better off?

  4. Can't think of anything intelligent to add to this debate. It's too early in the morning and you guys are doing very well as it is. Just wanted to say: hope you're feeling better, Nigel; sorry not to meet you yesterday; and I'm singing in Rossini's Petite Messe Solennelle tonight, so thought you might like to have a listen.

  5. I've often wondered at this push-button reaction to anything genetically modified these days. Seems to me that most plants we have now have in some ways been genetically modified, maybe not in laboratories but through selective breeding. And if people are so hysterical about not wanting anything GM'ed, why are they happy to eat bacon from Danish pigs that have been bred to have one more pair of ribs than God fitted them with, in order to be able to produce more bacon per pig?

  6. I'm torn between anger at the way we waste food and the probability that, as you say, countries like China and India will understandably want to live as we do and not as we say, and despair at the idea that we can actually get off our collective arses as a race and stop destroying the bio diversity that might hold so many of the answers and stop being so recklessly self indulgent in the way we live. We do our small part, wasting hardly any food nowadays, and even that goes on the compost heap, using UK rapeseed oil in cooking, dropping the proportion of meat in our diet. But it won't be enough.

    Strangely the thing that got me most riled in your post was the anthropomorphism. I used to work in robotics. We built small very thick robots that collectively exhibited complex behaviour, mimicking e.g. ant food foraging. People always insisted on saying things like "oh look, it's trying to make the pile bigger". It wasn't, it was just bumping in to something and dropping what it was holding because that was what it had been told to do. I wish people could see what was there and objectively assess it rather than going all woolly and sentimental. Then perhaps we could work out which GM crops are actually beneficial and which we shouldn't touch with a barge pole.

  7. Thanks everyone, for such interesting reactions.

    Plantaliscious - You're eating habits set a fine example. I must revise ours- we could do a lot better!

    Helle - With you on the pigs. Also Danish welfare laws are not nearly so stringent as in UK, giving Denmark an unfair advantage.

    Victoria - hope the Rossini went well. I so love that work, and the Stabat Mater. Listening to it now, as I write. That harmonium - incongruous but charming.

    Sue - You're spot on. But food inflation and stagnant wage structure will probably reverse some of those trends.

    Sylvia - Perhaps Abbotsbury thinks people won't know that cygnet are!

    Patient G. - I think the polarisation of 'conventional science' versus 'green campaigning' has been disastrous. All interested parties must learn to have a proper dialogue. And meat consumption, in UK, US and Australasia is, I agree, grossly excessive.

  8. Or Lor - I wrote you're instead of your. Sorry - it's the Rossini distracted me!

  9. Well if you are going to use Rossini as an excuse I suppose you have to be forgiven!

  10. Why have I only just found your blog?- brilliant and I particularly enjoyed your comment about 'food gardens having greater beauty'. I've added you to my own humble blog roll so I can keep an eye on your posts. Well done.


  11. You MUST be mistaken. Sam Kydd was legally bound to be in every Britsih film from 1946 to 1974. It was the law* for goodness sake.

    I would respectfully suggest that you scoured without due diligence.

    *repealed 1975