This article was first published in Spectator Scoff summer 2011, a foodie supplement to The Spectator.
the National Trust launched a radical social experiment.
Under the title ‘MyFarm’
(my-farm.org.uk), they invited up to 10,000 web users to actively manage
Wimpole Home Farm in Cambridgeshire, entirely over the internet.
month Richard Morris, the farm’s manager, will ask for instructions on a
particular farming decision.
the next three years, every farming dilemma will be posed, from whether to sow
clover in the hope of rain to how to make rare breed pigs more profitable.
Morris will set the parameters of
choice and offer further sources of information.
A panel of experts from the RSPB, National Farmers Union,
LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming), the Soil Association and Savills Agribusiness
will then post their views on the consequences of the different choices.
Registered members can then further discuss the issues online, before the
decision is put to the vote.
that, whatever the registered members of MyFarm decide, goes, even if the farm
was the brainchild of Jon Alexander, developed in the course of taking a part
time MSc in Responsibility and Business Practice while working at the
advertising agency Fallon London.
Influenced by the ideas in James Surowiecki’s book
The Wisdom of
felt that one of the best ways to engage a predominantly urban population in
the current issues facing British farmers, was to set up a real life equivalent
of Farmville, Facebook’s second most popular game in which 47 million players
are running virtual farms for fun.
He approached the National Trust with his idea.
After much discussion they decided that
the project was a good way to reconnect people with farming and the land.They appointed him project manager and
within 48 hours of launching 1,300 people had signed up, each paying an annual
subscription of Ł30.
of trying to link the virtual world and games with reality is fascinating. A
webcam view of Wimpole Home Farm’s pigs snuffling around while considering
whether to turn them into sausages is a million miles away from the cartoons of
Farmville. Yet, in everyday life there is often a discrepancy between how
people would like to see themselves in relation to their environment, and how
they act. Many townies want to ensure that the countryside is filled with
dappled orchards, honey bees and happy free-ranging animals, but barely give it
a second thought when shopping.
Thus, if they buy imported apples in April, instead of stored British
apples, they’re unwittingly forcing British farmers into grubbing up their
shoppers blame their supermarket for lack of choice or forcing agricultural
policies on them, but the reality is that supermarkets just want to make money,
and they do so by supplying our demands. If it’s cheap food we want, cheap food
we’ll get, just as if we demand certain standards or farming practices we’ll
get those too.
mistake, we shoppers have real power and influence. Consider the demise of
battery hen eggs, or the restriction of genetically modified products in our
question is, how do we exercise it?
Naturally, it depends on what each of us considers important. There are
many different areas to consider.
The NFU, for example, wants us to support home production and has
created the Red Tractor scheme to highlight British produce; while the Soil
Association wants to ensure that we protect our environment and encourage
biodiversity by buying organic.
LEAF wants us to buy food that is farmed by combining sustainability
with modern farming methods; and Freedom Foods (set up by the RSPCA) wants us
to support high welfare standards for farm animals.
Hudson, Head of Food and Farming at the NFU, believes that there has never been
a greater interest in food production in Britain.
‘We’re at a really interesting crossroad right now, and I
think that it’s vitally important to have a debate about how our food is
produced, based on fact, rather than myth’ he says.
One of the key issues is how much we’re prepared to spend on
food. According to the Office of National Statistics, in 2009 a mere 9% of our
total domestic expenditure was spent on food and drink, compared with nearly
18% in 1964.
if you feel cut off from the natural world, eating more home-produced seasonal
food is one way to gain a sense of the changing seasons. Why do we need to eat
imported strawberries in January when we’ve got British rhubarb, apples, pears
and frozen berries? The more UK products we buy, the more the supermarkets will
turn to British farmers.
notice whether we buy Spanish or British grown broad beans in June, even if we
issue is environmental.
the balance between productivity and sustainability is never easy.
According to the Soil Association,
organic farming helps to address many of the issues around food security,
climate change, resource depletion and biodiversity.
In 2005, a scientific literature review by English Nature
and the RSPB on comparative studies concluded that on average wildlife is 50
per cent more abundant on organic farms and that there are 30 per cent more
species than on non-organic farms.
However, only 4 per cent of Britain’s agricultural land is currently
organic. There is no doubt that if we chose to buy more British organic food,
we would have a strong impact on the countryside by creating reservoirs of wild
life, including, most importantly, bug life.
if you like, a compromise between organic and conventional farming. It’s based
on an idea called Integrated Farm Management.
If products show the LEAF Marque, it means that they come
from LEAF-audited farms that, among other things, practice energy efficiency,
water management, and landscape and nature conservation.
In other words, they encourage a
lighter use of pesticides and fertilisers, along with providing wildlife
habitats such as ponds, including strips of land between hedgerows and crops,
for insects and nesting birds.
organic farms, there is a lot more to the scheme.
Jeremy Boxall, LEAF’s Commercial Manager, explains: ‘We’re
designed to fit alongside other environmental labels such as Freedom
We’re still quite new.
The Marque was launched in 2003 and
we’re still developing new tools to help farmers make their businesses more
sustainable, but we’ve found that many farmers have actually reduced their
LEAF-registered farmers, and Marks & Spencer encourage its fresh produce
farmers to become active members as part of their code of practice.
Interestingly, you can find the LEAF
Marque on other products such as certain cheeses and Burt’s crisps.
supermarkets adopt different farm assurance style schemes.
Tesco, for example, has Nurture. The
more you support such schemes, the more farmers will adopt them. It’s difficult
for the average consumer to gauge how they compare with one another, but aside
from the Soil Association, LEAF appears to come out as being one of the most
In a perfect world,
Jeremy Boxall would like us all to demand that we see such labeling on all products.
The LEAF Marque, like the Soil
Association logo, is being adopted in many countries around the world that
export to Britain.
Freedom Food scheme has also gone from strength to strength. There are more
than a 1000 Freedom Food products, which cover creatures as disparate as salmon
accreditation, farmers have to conform to the RSPCA’s strict welfare standards
for animals farmed for food, which cover everything from creating a stimulating
environment to how they’re handled, transported and slaughtered.
and the countryside are under enormous pressure, but we, as consumers, have as
much a role to play in deciding how it changes as the farmers and
You don’t need to be a
campaigning radical to create a rural world that both country-dwellers and
urbanites can enjoy.
You have the
power – now use it.