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Guy's news: steam sterilisation – an ethical dilemma

I am reluctantly concluding in France, as we have done in Devon, that it would be wiser to get our neighbours to grow the crops we are less competent at. There are local organic farmers so skilled in growing baby leaf salad that they can charge a little over half our production costs, but we face an ethical dilemma. In order to control weeds to facilitate mechanical harvesting, their standard practice is to steam-sterilise the top 6cm of soil once a year; better than the now banned methyl bromide once used by conventional growers for the same purpose, but many would argue that, since caring for the soil is an integral part of organic farming, to indiscriminately kill the good micro-organisms as well as the pathogenic is an anathema. Yet what I find far more worrying is the 5000l/hectare of oil burned in the process, meaning that each kilo of salad produced has involved the burning of an astounding 1l of oil. This happens to be about the same amount as it takes to fly produce from Kenya.

As we have undertaken not to sell airfreighted produce on environmental grounds, should we sell salads produced using steam sterilisation, even if they carry the organic stamp? I am inclined to say no but it is a hard and commercially punitive decision when our competitors do. Of course humans did survive pre-the baby leaf salad bag, so perhaps we should only grow them when and where we can do a reasonable job without sterilisation, as we do in Devon. It is reassuring that the Soil Association standards go beyond those in Europe and do not allow steam sterilisation for weed control in the open field; an impressive bit of sanity. While we ponder all of this, we are experimenting with using mustard, grown as a green manure, as a weed suppressant.

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    Guy Singh-Watson

    Self-confessed veg nerd, Guy Singh-Watson has over the last 30 years taken Riverford from one man and a wheelbarrow delivering homegrown organic veg to friends, to a national veg box scheme delivering to around 50,000 customers a week. Guy is an inspirational, passionate, opinionated and admired figure in the world of organic farming, who still spends more time in the fields than in the boardroom. Twice awarded BBC Radio 4 Farmer of the Year, Guy is passionate about sharing with others the organic farming and business knowledge he has accumulated over the last three decades. His video rants have provided a powerful platform to do this, with a video on pesticides going viral on Facebook to reach 5.6 million views and 91,000 shares. His weekly veg box newsletters connect customers to the farm with refreshingly honest accounts of the trials and tribulations of producing organic food, and the occasional rant about farming, ethical and business issues he feels strongly about.  

    Can business be a force for good?

    Guy Singh-Watson on why he chose employee ownership to protect the future of Riverford.

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