Guest blog – Food for Thought by Miles King

Lately I have been eating porridge for breakfast. I had forgotten how much I liked it, but there is another reason for having taken it up again. Oats are very good, apparently, at helping to restore gut flora and as I have been recovering from an infection which meant taking an awful lot of antibiotics (read part of the story here) I have been eating them to help my gut ecology recover.  “We are what we eat” may be a tired cliché, but it also holds some fundamental truths.

Stating the obvious, food is something we all consume every day. And how that food is produced has a profound effect on us and on nature.  Each spoonful of delicious porridge (with a dash of full fat milk) I eat, has embedded in it, an impact on nature. How many of us think about that impact when we are eating?

More and more apparently.  A recent survey indicated that 49% of the British population had changed their food preferences to increase consumption of food produced ethically.  Organic food sales have increased by nearly 5% in 2016, while RSPCA Freedom Food sales have soared, up 28.6%.  People care more and more about how their food is produced, and that includes the impact its production has on nature.

Brexit is happening and with it brings many risks, but also opportunities. One of the biggest opportunities is to change the way that society supports farmers and landowners, support that drives the way that they produce food for us. The Common Agricultural Policy of the European Union has been an Albatross around the neck of nature here for the past 43 years. That Albatross may have morphed over the years, but it’s still an Albatross.  Most payments are still made to farmers/landowners with a minimal requirement to provide for nature, or provide any other “public goods” that land provides, such as flood prevention, carbon storage, and so on. Equally, the sanctions designed to prevent environmentally damaging activities by farmers are weak and ineffectually enforced – sediment loss from Maize stubbles after cultivation is in theory sanctionable, but I’m not aware of any prosecution or even a warning being given.  Perhaps it’s time to apply the Polluter Pays Principle widely across farming.

People Need Nature was established in 2015 to promote the value of nature for things like inspiration and enriching people’s spiritual lives. We also work to promote the value of nature in the “public realm” – for example the future of publicly owned land and the way that public policies affect nature. Food production could not be a more significant policy for affecting the future of nature, so with this in mind we have produced a report “A Pebble in the Pond”, which explores the impact of farm subsidies on nature, and how a new approach could help to rebalance the use of land in England (yes just England) so nature can recover some of the ground lost over the last 40-odd years of  the CAP, and the even more damaging period of intensification after the war.

The report can be downloaded from the People Need Nature website here.  The report includes case studies and contributions from individuals and organisations (including one from this blog’s esteemed author) and a series of proposals, which we hope will help to promote a public debate about our relationship with food, and its relationship with nature.

Miles King, People Need Nature.


Miles King is Chief Executive of People Need Nature a new charity working to highlight the sensory, emotional and spiritual values of nature. He has worked in nature conservation for 30 years, leading the conservation work at Plantlife, The Grasslands Trust and Buglife. He has also worked for English Nature, Natural England and as a consultant. He is co-author of Arable Plants: A Field Guide (2003), and The Nature of God’s Acre (2014).




16 Replies to “Guest blog – Food for Thought by Miles King”

  1. It would also be interesting to know, what impact on nature, where its produced, the food we put for the birds in our gardens has.

    1. In an ideal world we should all be planting plants in our gardens that benefit nature. I live in the middle of a high intensity agricultural desert. I do feed the birds with great success. I try to only eat organically and buy ethically. This extends to bird food. The best I have found after much research is (without advertising) a farm that produces bird food and also maintains huge tracts if land specifically for nature. They have had great success with house sparrows (if that helps identity the farm). If anyone knows anything different then let me know. I have often purchased ethically but found the product us far from ethical (like a certain smelly high street shop).

  2. Oats was also the main stay of our Black Grouse population. One game keeper watched Black Grouse die in front of him as the pheasants ate the barley provided for them! It was the oat fields where the guns game to shoot the Black Grouse off the stooks as they could not be driven like the Reds and habitat management sadly moved towards creating the mono culture of heather moorland. It was the oat fields that kept the Corn Bunting and many more finches and buntings alive in winter now extinct in Cumbria. 2017 should be – eat more organic oats year and save the birds.

    1. Miles, thank you for this blog, your new PNN charity and the report; it’s all interesting and exciting stuff.
      My 2.5 p query (it may do you a disservice because you have probably already covered the subject) is, what about the value of land? — I couldn’t see anything about it under Tax and Regulation. Surely a Land Value Tax is fundamental to slashing iniquitous land prices and getting young people back out there in the countryside doing innovative and small scale stuff? (Sorry, not had time to read it all and I see there’s A Small is Beautiful heading)
      If you’ve left it out I don’t blame you – LVT is after all, one of the last great taboos. We mustn’t frighten the horses and alpacas in all those green, oh-so-green, paddocks — let alone their second-home owning owners.
      As for oats – nice one. An all-round food. Used to be grown up the hills during the Medieval Warm Period and on into the 19th century (even 20th C). Perhaps we will get back to that patchwork landscape one day in places like the Lakes – with far fewer sheep, spontaneous rewilding, cattle munching high value oat straw in a landscape with affordable accommodation.
      We all need nature. PNN, you bet: it’s a fundamental human right. Unfortunately most people most of the time just don’t have the time or energy to think about conservation, farming and biodiversity etc. They are worrying instead about the next wage packet, their zero-hours contract and when they might move out of their parents’ house or some grotty, shite rip-off rented flat.
      Nothing much is going to change until such people (there are a heck of a lot of them) begin to perceive all those excellent wildlife and conservation NGO’s starting to champion at the very least, the idea – the dream – of a fairer countryside and society.
      Will such a comment remain a never ending platitude? Hope not. Very good wishes for PNN.
      PS: Here’s to more oats. Eat raw or cooked — low glycaemic, cholesterol busting, appetite reducing, 2cwt-rock-lifting and stone-wall-building superfood.

  3. Thanks for your comments.

    Asides from Porridge (and Oats as a crop) being fantastic, I did think about including a section on Land Value Tax Murray. In the end, it wasn’t included partly due to needing to keep the report down to a shortish length. It’s also more of an issue I think for developable land than for farmland.

    1. Great. The more people thinking about LVT and throwing the idea around the better.
      No, all land needs to be included. For example where are today’s young agricultural students (well trained and conservation savvy) going to rent land — let alone buy it?

      Re kidney stones (oxalate type). Avoidance diet is of course crucial but nobody puts that wonder health spice turmeric on the list. It’s very high in oxalates; parts of India have very high rates of kidney stones. I succumbed to one during a foolish health fad phase.

      1. Thanks Murray. I have been toying with the idea of doing something on LVT. Who knows 2017 might be the year for it.

        Thanks for the warning about Turmeric. I will try and minimise my intake. We don’t eat a huge number of curries.

        1. The best of luck and courage for that, Miles.
          And thanks for your guest blog on Ben Eagle’s Thinking Country blog:

          As I said on that blog re Nature and LVT, ‘there’s a fabulously sexy liaison’ that could happen here. But there’s a great need for good story writers on this.
          Talking bedtime activities, you of course know the best preventative for k-stone recurrence:
          — drink a large glass of water before turning in and take one to bed with you for good measure. Apparently, the main time for stone growth is while we are asleep. So, the idea is to keep the kidneys flushing through the night. (?correct/check) Trade-off: up x1 or 2 in the night.

  4. It’s actually worse than that, Miles – the requirement for basic CAP payments of ‘good agricultural condition’ is ma real killer. To be fair to CAP, it is only a simple extension of the 1947 agriculture act. There has never been much chance of change, and what there was went with the accession countries of the eastern bloc who not surprisingly wanted belatedly to get their feet in the trough.

    ‘Polluter pays’ sounds good (suitably sneery) and hardly ever works. In the case of farming, you can’t get blood out of a stone – despite c 30% public money, at current grain prices even grain barons are struggling. The key is in what we are paying for – why would farmers do anything for water when at best they’ve been paid Government money to rush it off their land ? And, as a land manager I’ve often wondered how it is that all I get is regulation – but a little downstream the water that falls on my land suddenly becomes so valuable lots of it is now owned by foreign multi-nationals. The answer is to pay the countryside for what we want, direct, not having to buy out production subsidies, and, in contrast to current sectoral approaches look for multiple benefits – wildlife as well as flood protection, and places for people to enjoy the countryside.

  5. With public money making up c 30% of total farming share of GDP, and far more than the profit margin on any farm, that public money should give a lot of control – limited up till now by the CAP’ good agricultural condition’ which straightjackets the farmers who would like to change. To be fair, CAP is a straight continuation of the 1947 agriculture act and we taxpayers paid out millions for rushing the water off the land and into our cities. Over 10 years ago I asked a Vice President of NFU ‘would farmers farm water if they were paid for it ? Without hesitation he answered ‘Yes’. ‘Polluter pays’ won’t work – there’s no money there to pay, but the prospects for actually saving £ billions, restoring wildlife and improving quality of life are spectacular – the two missing elements are imagination and leadership.

    1. Thanks Rod. I have seen an alternative phrase since I wrote the report “polluter pays: provider gets” which I probably would have used in the report had I heard of it.

      I believe there is plenty of evidence that the polluter pays principle does work, perhaps more as a deterrent than as a tax raising instrument.

      There is clearly a balance to be drawn between what goods the public pays for, and what is protected by regulation/taxation. Under successive Governments the balance has moved towards the landowner and away from the public. Now will be a good time to debate where that balance should lie.

      Natural Capitalists clearly see more of the market as providing the answer to this conundrum, but has a market ever successfully resolved market failure?

  6. That porridge looks a bit thin to me, but then my gran always made it so thick it was almost like a cake. Here is the big controversy? Did you put sugar and sweetener in it or good decent proper salt like a strong and honest person? Hint: There is a right answer here.

    1. ha it was unrolled organic oats, so tends to be a bit lumpier than the processed stuff. I used to add salt but since I had my kidney stone I am not allowed to add salt to anything (except chips).

      1. No salt on anything? I think for me that would be like living through a nuclear attack, the living would envy the dead, and that would just be the folks around me putting up with my constant moaning about it 🙂

        I am joking around, of course. Kidney stones are nasty things to have to suffer through, and I think even I (with my would you a couple of chips with your salt style of cuisine) would manage to stay away from it if it meant dodging one.

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