From pesticides and ploughing, to peat, price and water, we round up some of the barriers to positive change in fruit and veg production. While it may not produce the direct, or indirect emissions, of intensively-farmed meat, growing food in soil still has an impact. And with a changing climate and nature losses, any shift towards more ecological growing is a step in the right direction.
Due to unpredictable weather and the fact we’re used to eating perfect fruit and veg, pesticides are widely used in the (non organic) fruit and veg sector. Meanwhile declines in insect numbers, which are vital in pollinating food crops and supporting wider ecosystems, are accelerating, due to intensive farming, agrichemicals, as well as loss of habitats and climate change. According to the Pesticide Action Network (PAN UK), claims that pesticide use in the UK is reducing are incorrect as they are based solely on the weight of what is used. Instead, the group say pesticide use is rising because toxicity has increased (for example, some neonicotinoid insecticides are 10,000 times more toxic than DDT); the area of land being treated with pesticides has risen, and the number of times crops are treated with pesticides has gone up. There are also concerns that new trade deals with countries that permit a much wider range of pesticides means we are exposed to these chemicals despite British farmers not using them, as well as the risks to workers in fields overseas who are exposed in production. “Weight is a meaningless metric for measuring the use of pesticides as our research clearly shows,” says PAN UK. Instead, the group wants a better system of monitoring pesticide use, a quantitative target for their reduction, and more transparency from supermarkets in how they are supporting their farmers to cut down. Organic farmers have long pioneered growing food without chemicals and thanks to farmer-to-farmer schemes like Innovative Farmers, some of their techniques, like hot water seed treatments, can replace chemicals. Others are using wildflowers to provide almost year-round pollen and establish an abundant natural system of pest control.
Cultivating, or ploughing, the soil is mostly acknowledged to be a harmful, albeit vital, practice these days – disturbing microscopic but integral bacterial life, earth worms and releasing carbon. In arable farming, there is a move towards so-call ‘min till’, where crops like clover can be sown underneath wheat or other grains and the two crops can be harvested at different times. Others are looking at ‘strip tilling’, leaving strips of the field untouched, while using a shallow ploughing technique to plant crops in rows. This is harder to achieve in veg, where ploughing helps remove weeds and planting is done more regularly. But some growers are starting to experiment. South West cauliflower grower and supermarket supplier, Riviera Produce, led a successful trial that they have now scaled up, while members of the South Devon Organic Producers (SDOP), and suppliers to organic veg box company Riverford, Jake and Leah Harris, and Cathy Case, have invested in the machinery to help them do the same. The incentive is to keep carbon within the soil, but the recent drought has also proved that reducing ploughing helps soils retain moisture as a potentially vital climate mitigation tool.
The vast majority of commercial fruit and veg seedlings are still grown in peat compost, as one of the most nutritious growing mixes, despite the fact that peat bog extraction is a vast greenhouse gas emitter. But there are alternatives. Family-run plant breeder Delfland has been at the forefront of transitioning to peat-free growing and has run many of its own trials using a combination of coir (coconut fibre), wood fibre and composted green manure. The problems lie in the cost (peat is by far the cheapest), and the fact that it has the perfect consistency to hold plants together, making it easier and more efficient for growers to plant. “As of this year, all our plants are grown in peat-free growing media, apart from those in blocks,” says owner Jill Vaughn. “What really needs solving is a peat-free substitute for blocking compost (used for leafy salads) that can be planted using currently available machinery. There are no problems with growing leafy salads in modules, but it is difficult to plant them mechanically without damaging the plants.” Delfland has a mix that is 80 per cent peat, but if this is further reduced the blocks become crumbly and don’t hold together sufficiently for mechanical planting. “The volume of compost used to make a block is much greater than for a module, so solving this problem would make a much bigger reduction in peat use,” she says.
Water is one of the biggest climate risks of the future, with severe drought and heavy rainfall both having huge impacts on food and farming. While investing in reservoirs and storage is one solution, collection and reuse of water are also important. Recognising the risk in water, which is worse in countries like Spain that are already facing desertification, could also change the value of growing indoors in the UK. For example, heating a tomato glasshouse in the UK is hugely energy intensive – but if that same tomato glasshouse is self -sufficient in water, by collecting and storing rainwater from the roof, and displaces tomato imports from Spain that are watered with desalinated water from the sea (another energy intensive process), then the picture changes. More data is required to weigh up the environmental impacts, but it’s clear water is going to be one of the deciding factors in food production within a climate crisis.
Plastic, made from fossil fuels, remains the scourge of much of agriculture, but particularly fruit and veg, where plastic is used to ‘mulch’ and suppress weeds in fields, wrap pallets in transit, and wrap the finished products on supermarket shelves. Home compostable packaging made from maize, as pioneered by organic veg box company Riverford, can help reduce shelf-side plastic, while a farmer-led research trial run by Innovative Farmers has begun comparing different materials to use in fields, such as biodegradable film, cardboard or grass cuttings.
Most medium to large fruit and veg producers are supplying supermarkets, and as such they are closely tied to the plans, priorities, and importantly, prices, offered by that model. Because fruit and veg is often on the frontline of supermarket price wars, there is very little left for higher prices to growers, meaning they are unlikely to be able to transform, or even tweak, how they farm in a more sustainable system. A poll by sustainable food alliance Sustain of 500 farmers found 86 per cent were currently supplying a supermarket but only five per cent would ‘prefer’ to continue doing so. Instead, most farmers said they see better opportunities for their own livelihoods, protecting nature, and connecting with their local communities elsewhere. “In a general sense, the results reveal that farmers want to shift away from the dominance of supplying supermarkets and large manufacturers, and instead, have a much greater diversity of market outlets like food hubs, box schemes, and independent retailers which they can access,” Sustain said. “The data also provides insight into why farmers want to make those changes. This includes fairer pay and more direct relationships with customers, as well as being rewarded for environmentally friendly farming, and building more resilient businesses.” So there are alternatives out there. But for most, price is still a sensitive subject and ultimately control how much investment in sustainable practices fruit and veg growers either want, or can, afford to invest in.