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Down on the Organic Farm

November’s landmark ruling in the High Court in the Georgina Downs v DEFRA case* highlighted the UK Government’s failure to adequately protect rural residents from the adverse health effects associated with exposure to pesticide spraying. Organic farmer Peter Kindersley has long been a proponent of pesticide-free farming. Adam Baggs visited him on his organic farm in Berkshire.

Peter and Juliet KindersleyPeter and Juliet Kindersley

Upon first meeting Peter Kindersley at his Sheepdrove Organic Farm near Lambourn, it is hard to believe that this calm, mild-mannered gentleman ran the publishing house Dorling Kindersley for more than 20 years and launched a High Court battle against the Government’s slaughtering policy during the 2001 Foot and Mouth crisis.  However, spend just a short amount of time in the company of this former publisher and environmental campaigner, turned organic cereal and livestock farmer and you quickly come to realise that you are dealing with a man of fierce principles.

Peter’s philosophy is based around providing good quality, healthy, chemical-free food. “We believe that not only does organic food taste better, but we also have extensive evidence to show that chemical-free food is so much better for our bodies and minds. Unfortunately, modern industrial farming is about quantity and lowest cost, with barely a thought for quality or taste.

Organic mutton“Our research with the Pesticide Action Network shows that 31,000 tonnes of pesticide are sprayed on UK land every year and that the risks of contamination range from sore throats and runny noses to blood disorders and cancer. No one knows how many chemicals they ingest as part of their daily diet, particularly as there are no legal limits on the amount of pesticides you can ingest.  Yes there are maximum residue levels (MRLs), but these only say how much of each chemical can be present – they don’t acknowledge the fact that there can be a hundred such chemicals spread across our dinner plates.”

Caterers, Peter believes, are ideally placed to disseminate information about organic produce. As suppliers in the food chain, Peter argues, caterers have a responsibility to educate consumers while providing safe, tasty produce.  Too many people fail to consider that it is not just the food they consume that counts but also the nutrients used to grow that crop or, in the case of meat, what the animals are fed and the veterinary treatments they receive.

Ewe and lamb“Corn-fed chicken sounds great doesn’t it?  But how many chemicals were used to grow the corn?” asks Peter. “And what was the last meal fed to your fillet mignon or lamb chops? Again organic farming provides a natural and safe alternative – it also happens to be better for the animals.”

Peter follows this up with a simple question: “Have you ever considered the processes used to pluck chickens?” He goes on to explain that it includes a huge tank of very hot water, which loosens the feathers. Up to 200 birds can go through a tank each minute, but the water can only be changed once a day. Consequently it ends up as a murky, faeces-filled environment, perfect for bacteria. In fact, according to Peter, the last time the Food Standards Agency checked (2003), nearly half the birds on sale in the UK were infected with campylobacter – a bacterium that causes food poisoning.

He explains the alternative: “We have worked with C&C Systems to create what we are calling ‘the hot box’, a sealed metal chamber where steam loosens the feathers and viable bacteria are reduced to just 8000 compared to an astounding 50 million at the end of each day in a scald tank.”

The team at Sheepdrove believes that balance is key to a healthy meal. “Our bodies and metabolisms have developed over generations to live on healthy, natural foods. We are at our most alert and productive when fed with the right balance of certain food types. Can the last 50 years of scientific development in the food industry really compete with thousands of years of evolution?”

Organic turkeyBalance is achieved through a variety of techniques, including seasonal variation. “If caterers use local suppliers to source their produce they will have to change their menus. Despite the beliefs of many, strawberries should not be available in December! Such changes will decrease food miles, support the local economy and ensure better quality food that is genuinely fresh.”

Peter concludes by challenging the catering industry and corporate hospitality venues in particular: “Our industry’s desire to become green must be more than a self-serving means of making money. It is not just about helping clients meet CSR goals and reducing our carbon footprint. Catering is experienced by thousands and our industry is the perfect vehicle to educate the masses.

“Above all, caterers should be firmer with clients and say no. If something is unavailable locally it is off the menu. Non-organic, unsustainable menus should be binned and clients educated in the benefits of natural, organic, seasonal, local produce.”

To find out more about Sheepdrove Farm, visit www.sheepdrove.com

*Georgina Downs v DEFRA – For the last seven years Ms Downs, who runs the UK Pesticides Campaign, has been campaigning to highlight the Government’s fundamental failure to protect rural residents and communities from exposure to toxic pesticides sprayed near homes, schools, children’s playgrounds and other public areas. On 14.11.08 the High Court ruled that Government policy on pesticides is unlawful.

What the future holds – As we go to press, the use of pesticides in Europe is about to be debated by the EU Parliament. Up for discussion are two pieces of legislation: a Regulation on which pesticides can be used and a Directive on how pesticides can be used. The legislation, if passed in its current form, will result in some of the most hazardous pesticides being withdrawn from use, including those deemed to be carcinogenic, mutagenic or repro-toxic. Due to current legislation regarding the approval of pesticides, it will not be until 2016 at the earliest that any pesticides will be taken out of use.

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