TRANSITION: Nearly 100 local retailers, farmers and residents packed the Red Lion pub’s function room in Wirksworth ofor a talk by Christine Tacon on the encroaching dangers of global food shortages.
Tacon, who has just been appointed national supermarket watchdog, after running the Cooperative Group’s farming business for 11 years, reeled off a long list of reality checks, including the impact of population growth, climate change, water and energy shortages, improved diets in the third world and volatile world markets.
One solution is to stop throwing away so much food. Christine pointed out that this is 40% between the field and what we eat. In developed countries, it happens mainly at home. In developing countries, it is through inefficient farming and processing techniques.
Another is “sustainable intensification” through advanced technology. Christine’s examples included computer-guided tractors and small robots providing individualized plant feeding and monitoring. She mentioned the damage caused by tractors compacting soil and the time and energy needed every year to undo it. Focused information could ensure the tractor re-uses limited sets of tracks over and over, minimizing compaction.
Tacon also explained her new job as Adjudicator for the Groceries Supply Code of Practice (GSCOP). She listed 8 issues the code addresses, such as ‘no variation of supply agreements without notice’ and ‘goods must be paid for on time’ and said she will concentrate initially on finding out examples of where the code is being broken and using negotiation to put things right if possible.
Many questioners asked her what she thought local farmers, who tend to raise livestock and are small scale, could do. She answered that it wasn’t her area of expertise but suggested that they should develop different ways to compete with economies of scale, such as successfully branding Derbyshire lamb as special and worth seeking out.
Helen Cunningham, an organizer of DE4 Food, a cooperative which sells for local producers, said it was hard to see how any of the high tech features could be used by local farmers. She added, “Her suggestion about satellites being used to target control measures for sheep made me laugh. Organic farmers personalise the treatment of their sheep already.”
On being asked whether it is possible to assess different growing methods, such as organic, to measure the nutrients, Tacon replied that it is possible, but the difference pales in comparison to the effect of the time between picking and plate, since food nutrients from any method deteriorate quickly. “Eating fresh -icked from your garden provides the highest nutrients,” she added.
She was also asked whether she thinks there is a role for genetically modified crops. She said that so much valuable information has been gained which allows us to increase crop yields that we don’t even need to go so far as actually modifying seeds genetically.
She was also asked why in her job managing Cooperative farms, she had given up on dairy farms and she said that despite lots of effort, it had not been possible to make them pay. “Dairy farmers are competing against very efficient international markets. It is only the family farms who survive - by not paying themselves properly and never going on holiday. I couldn’t run our farms like that.”
She greeted skepticism about the Groceries Supply Code of Practice by saying the code is surprisingly strong and that changes are already happening because supermarkets don’t want to be seen as not complying.
The talk was organised by Wirksworth Transition Initiative, which promotes local sustainable food production.