Nut tree update; planting is the easy bit

'If you are not prepared to weed and look after a tree for the first three years of its life, you might as well not plant it,' writes Guy Singh-Watson.

If you are not prepared to weed and look after a tree for the first three years of its life, you might as well not plant it. Almost all commercial tree plantings are weeded with an annual dose of glyphosate (the active ingredient in Round-up). It’s a broad spectrum, systemic herbicide, killing everything it touches right down to the roots. In the 1980s, we were told that glyphosate had low mammalian toxicity, and was quickly broken down by soil bacteria into harmless residues. 40 years later, we have used over six billion kilograms of the stuff globally, but it has proved to be anything but harmless.

For decades, shareholders of Monsanto (the original patent holder) made huge profits from ‘the world’s most popular herbicide’, before Monsanto was bought by fellow agrichemical giant Bayer for $63 billion in 2018. Bayer now faces lawsuits for tens of billions from glyphosate’s causal link to blood and liver cancers. I almost feel sorry for them. Tragically, there is a 10-15 year lag between exposure and symptoms, exposing the inadequacy of our (largely unchanged) testing regime for pesticides – and indeed novel chemicals in general.

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Planting the tree is just the first step of the journey. 

To weed our trees, we use damaged veg boxes and sheep’s wool insulation, covered with about 15kg of compost around each tree. A team of three can mulch around 40 trees per hour – making it ten times as expensive as glyphosate. Set against that, the wool and compost will slowly break down to feed the trees over the critical first three years, the mulch conserves moisture in a dry summer, our team might live longer, and the soil and stream below will not be polluted. From last year’s planting of 2,500 hazel and walnut trees, over 98 per cent are bursting to life.

Nut agroforestry, or more specifically silvopasture (animals grazing under widely spaced trees), is still too risky commercially for all but the most die-hard enthusiast farmers. It brings substantial benefits in terms of biodiversity, reduced soil loss, and sequestering carbon, but needs a helping hand to make the economics stack up until we can prove viability at scale. We are planting many trees independently – and to help us do more, in the absence of any support from Defra, we are encouraging Riverford customers to ‘Refer a Friend’. For every new customer, we will plant a tree on organic farmland; the money that we would have spent on marketing can instead go to farmers, to cover the cost of the trees and the first year or two of weeding. Visit riverford.co.uk/refer to get involved.

9 Comments

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  1. Cancers are just one of the health problems caused by glyphosate. Read Stephanie Seneff’s ( a MIT scientist) Toxic Legacy to learn about its links to autism, parkinsonism and othe neurological conditions.

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  2. Hello Guy
    I congratulate you on your nut tree agroforestry project..
    We have a farm not far from you on the edge of Dartmoor with an abundance of hazel bushes in ourovergrown non flailed hedges which try to poduce a massive crop of nuts each September. Unfortunately the immature nuts seem to attract all the squirrels from miles around and 99% of the nuts are eaten before they have a chance to ripen.
    The only exceptions were two bushes growing in the middle of a grass field that the squirrels didnt find and yielded over 1000 nuts for local tree nurseries.
    I wonder how you will prevent these pretty fluffy beasts from ravaging your plantation when it starts bearing nuts?

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  3. I do not support the use of glyphosate on an industrial scale, and I certainly don’t want it in my food. However for large scale rhododendron ponticum removal there are no perfect methods, you have to choose which is the lesser evil, and glyphosate is one of the most commonly used options. As a result of this, I spent a lot of time looking at the health implications of glyphosate. So far I haven’t been able to find any independent scientific evidence that it is linked to diseases. Personally, I wouldn’t want to take the successes (or failures) of the litigation in the US courts as evidence of scientific facts, but so often this is the fact that is quoted.

    If anyone is interested in learning more about glyphosate, it’s worth looking it up on Wikipedia. (The information does change regularly, as behind the scenes the contributors and editors are considering the evidence based facts!)

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    1. It’s not easy is it? I just went down a glyphosate rabbit hole, looking at wikipedia, academic papers on the toxicity, reviews of the links to cancer etc. It’s clear that you could spend weeks looking at the evidence and not come up with a clear conclusion about the dangers.

      But what you can surmise that the vested interests are rife and that complicates matters hugely. On the one hand, Monsanto claim that the data must speak for itself and champion science against myths. But on the other, they attack papers and academics that express concern for the safety of their products, ghostwrite papers and fund academic research to support their position.

      Not exactly the actions of a company who are confident that their products are safe.

      You know how you say you don’t want to eat food that has glyphosate, do you think it should be banned in food production, but not otherwise?

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  4. Glad to know that we are mulching at the same rate and cost. Managed to plant 400 trees over 3 seasons with volunteers. The sheep’s wool has been an amazing weed suppressant.

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  5. We are often encouraged to support growers in various African countries to plant food trees and others. The thought occurs to me that although the Woodland Trust and others are doing a great job, we should also be supporting other growers in this country. What do you think?

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