A 150-year-old farm in Faversham, Kent has been scrambling to get berry pickers from as far as over 7,000 kms away in Nepal so fruits do not get rotten on plants.
Shortage of labour is just one of many challenges Edward Vinson Ltd has been facing to stay in business. So, to the farm, sustainability has got a very distant meaning from what it means by environmental sustainability.
It is about being able to trade profitably, said Peter Vinson, one of the farm owners, because “despite what consumers think, food is relatively cheap compared to what it was many years ago and the cost of labour has gone up out of all proportion to the value of the food”.
At a time when food inflation has peaked in the UK, such a remark may raise eyebrows. But Mr Vinson, who has seen farming practices evolve up close since his childhood and has held the rein of the business for six decades, offers an explanation.
He said a household in 1950 would have to work until Thursday, during a working week, to earn a sufficient amount of money to feed the family members. Today, that money can be earned by Monday lunch time, with spending priorities diverted to other consumer items, such as electronic goods.
Back then, Mr Vinson said, “A box of apples paid for a man’s wage for a week. And when I stopped growing apples 22 years ago, the value of the same box of apples did not pay a man’s wage for half an hour”.
Adding to the scenario is depopulation of British countryside. People have moved to cities and towns and jobs of fruit picking have been replaced by income opportunities like those at checkout points at shops and supermarkets.
In the 1950s, 60s and 70s, harvesters – mostly women -- from nearby areas went to the farm sites, often with pre-school children, to pick fruits. Buses and lorries picked them up from major East Kent towns.
In the 80s and 90s, local seasonal labour became a rare thing to find for alternative jobs made available. Like most other farming enterprises, the Faversham fruit farm began recruiting labour from overseas through the Student Agricultural Worker Scheme of the Home Office.
As the world stepped into the new millennium, British farms started hiring from new member states of the European Union. Edward Vinson Ltd got fruit pickers from Poland in the 80s, then from Romania and Bulgaria because people from those countries could earn “significantly more” in the UK.
Then Brexit came, putting visa restrictions on recruitment from abroad. The plan for this year was to hire from Ukraine or Russia for the harvesting season, but the war has sealed that scope.
So, the employer is now looking as far away in Nepal or Kazakhstan for people to collect berries from the gardens so those can be delivered to supermarkets in time.
The farm stretching over more than a hundred hectares in three sites is currently facing the situation that they may have to leave fields of strawberries, blackcurrants, blueberries and raspberries to perish.
“Having workers flown from the other side of the world is itself not sustainable,” said Mr Vinson, let alone farming methods adopted to maximize yields so the produce can be sold at the cheapest price.
In the age of globalization, the UK farm competes with other countries that can grow same varieties of fruits at much less labour costs and can export them to the UK. Supermarket chains buy fresh produce – fruits and vegetables -- at the lowest price they can.
“If they can source blueberries from Poland in July rather than in the UK, that’s where they will source it from.
“We [the UK] therefore import products that we can grow because it is cheaper [elsewhere]. Instead of growing sugar snap peas or fine beans and selling them locally, we fly those from Kenya,” said Mr Vinson.
According to the 2020 agriculture report by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, more than half of the food consumed in the UK comes from across the world. The trend has been almost consistent since 2005, and food imports are much higher than exports.
The transportation of food by air or through the sea has climate impacts with huge carbon footprints. Also, to expand the capacity of food production, trees are felled to make way for crop lands and grassland for livestock.
Agricultural expansion is responsible for nearly 90% of deforestation worldwide, according to a survey by the FAO.
In two years to 2020, forests were cut down in the Cerrado savannah, Brazil at an increased rate of 61% for soybean plantations, as opposed to promises by multinationals, finds Harvest and Rainforest Foundation Norway.
“The more we eat soya, the more rainforests will go down in Brazil,” said Stuart Worsley, Countries Programme Director of Green Economy Coalition, a London-based global movement for green and fair economy.
Apart from deforestation, the use of inorganic fertilisers, chemicals and pesticides for maximum yields is increasingly damaging soil, water and air.
To stop these agricultural impacts on climate, food has to be produced locally and sustainably, said Mr Worsley.
“Agriculture has simply become an economic activity. And we have started to lose some of our natural assets. Soil depletion has become a very, very serious issue.
“Soil has organic matters that slowly release nutrients [to plants]. Organic matter has been allowed to fall. And that didn’t seem to matter in the eyes of an economist because you could put nutrients back in through inorganic fertilisers.
“So, you didn’t need to worry about your soil as being the nutritional basis for your plants. All you worry is for the soil to hold the plant and you would supply the nutrients exotically. Over a long time, soil loses its condition to do even that.”
Over the last four decades, the UK has been heavily reliant on mechanized, industrial agriculture to intensify productivity with minimum labour. As a result, monoculture and the use of fertilizers and pesticides have taken roots in growing crops and vegetables, Mr Worsley added.
Multi-cropping can reduce loss from attacks of pests, without the use of pesticides, because the disease of one single crop does not affect the entire production across the field. It can also ensure higher yields but at a much higher labour cost.
“Your productivity per acre goes down with intensification but it goes up in terms of return on investments,” Mr Worsley said, only when the loss of climate is not priced.
The UK government has sketched out a plan for agricultural transition between 2021 and 2024 towards sustainable farming to “build resilience against climate change across agriculture, land use and food systems”.
In the Path to Sustainable Farming, it promises to address concerns surrounding markets that weaken the position of farmers in the supply chain. The underlying understanding is that the sector can produce more food for the rising population and make profit, without causing harm to the environment.
In the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties, FAO Director-General QU Dongyu also said feeding a growing population and halting deforestation “are not mutually exclusive objectives.”
To stop environmental damage elsewhere, the UK has to rely on locally-grown food more than the ones that can cause deforestation, for example in Brazil, and farming practices inside the country must be changed keeping in mind impacts on climate.
Some parts of the world are coming forward with domestic solutions to fight back consequences of industrial farming.
Gitika Goswami, who works for a non-government organisation, Development Alternatives, shares her experience facilitating sustainable farming in 13 districts in Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh of India.
The areas endure the worst kind of fallouts of climate change. Less frequent but intense rainfall leads to water shortage and washing away of top soil. Gitika and her team used water retention technologies and supported farmers as they shifted from export-oriented high-yield crops to domestic crops that can grow with limited inputs such as water and fertilizers.
Instead of one crop per year, farmers can grow multiple crops and vegetables throughout the year. “In this, we are not focusing only on crops, we are focusing on entire land use and water system,” Gitika said.
Fixing the domestic supply system is imperative if food has to be equally distributed. Corporate control over food production and supply has caused overproduction in poorer countries but their populations still suffer from nutritional deficits. Because large-scale productions are fixated on cash crops replacing local crops suitable for the soil.
Decades of deprivation infuriated local farmers in India. The culmination of which was a nationwide strike participated by over 250 million people in September 2020 against new policies that would give more controlling power to corporations.
The UK’s agricultural shift to sustainable farming can be a reality if, Mr Vinson said, there is a big shift in consumer demands.
People expect products all the year round. “Seasonality that we used to have years ago is a thing of the past.
“We [the UK] could have become self-sufficient; we could be self-sufficient today. But it means people buying winter vegetables, root vegetable and green vegetables rather than the exotic produce which we fly from all over the world.”
Edward Vinson Ltd in Faversham was a mixed-farming enterprise, growing orchard fruits, such as apples, berries and vegetables, and sold everything to the wholesale markets in London.
Gradually, it has moved to growing only berries at the risk of losing business unless they could move to large-scale production. The farm now delivers around 250 tonnes of raspberries and 3,000 tonnes of strawberries each year to major supermarkets in the UK.
Strawberries are grown out of soil, in poly bags using coconut husks, from Sri Lanka, as a medium. Inorganic minerals mixed in water are given to plants in drips during irrigation.
The farm has reservoirs filled with water during the winter season when water flows out to sea to use it in the summer months.
Plucking strawberries from a metre high from the ground makes harvesting 20 percent quicker. Large sheets of polythene are used as umbrellas over the plants to avoid any fungal disease from rains. The cover is necessary as the season has been extended from six weeks to six months in case of strawberries.
The “economy of scale”, as the farm owner witnessed in his career, was ushered in by two big factors -- globalization and development of supermarkets.
The old-fashioned organic farming based on ecological principles so not to cause any harm to nature and wildlife accounts for only 2.8 percent of total farmed area in the United Kingdom, according to the 2020 agriculture report. There is a niche market for the produce.
Mr Vinson thinks that a return to sustainable farming is unrealistic.
Fifty years back the farm did not water plants because crops were short-seasoned. Now all crops are irrigated.
“When we grew fruits in soil without water, crops would fail in some years. In today’s high-cost production we can’t afford a crop to fail.”
Going forward, the farm owner said, there will be major water shortages because the growing population will exert pressure on limited natural resources.
However, thanks to technological innovation, the farm is using less water now than it used to when it began irrigating crops.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its latest report says all sectors of the global economy, including food, must take dramatic and rapid actions to reverse the tide of climate change by 2030 if the global temperature rise is to be kept within 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
Regarding the government’s pledge on supporting good practices in farming, Mr Vinson said, “There is often no follow-up actions and incentives. We have to grow crops economically and profitably, and with the crops we grow that’s not necessarily going to change.”
He portrays a picture of the future of agriculture. In that, fruits and vegetables will be grown in fully-controlled environment in large buildings. Inputs will be minimum in terms of energy because there will be insulation and a constant temperature. The water used could be recycled.
Then agricultural lands can be given away to hedgerows and trees. In London, salad crops are grown in disused tunnels or underground railways that are not in use anymore.
But crops will need inorganic fertilisers as a source of nutrition. If the fertilisers are imported, the source countries will see the direct impacts on environment.
Eventually, it will end up harming everyone.
“We are possibly solving one problem by creating another…I don’t know if what we are doing is sustainable long term but I don’t see any other way to stay in business,” said Mr Vinson.