Thinking Inside the Box
(This article first appeared in the January 2013 edition of ‘Birdwatching’)
I grew up in the Garden of England in the 1950s.
Autumn days were spent riding our bikes to out of the way orchards where we thought the farmer wouldn’t catch us scrumping. Summer Cherries were best if you could avoid being terrified by ‘cherry cartridges’ going off and deafening you. By August the apples were edible but left you with cheeks pulled in and tummy ache… by mid-September apples and pears dripped with juice when you bit into them, and the only danger was being stung by late and lazy wasps, who were scrumping too.
I moved away from home as a late teenager and, after university worked in Scotland and Lancashire. My family emigrated and my in-laws moved to Norfolk, so I had no reason to go back to my childhood haunts.
When I first came back ‘home’ in the mid-nineteen nineties I was, of course, shocked to see how small my old schoolyard was. That’s normal I suppose. I was shocked too, to find that the village I spent most of my childhood in, had gone ‘upmarket’. The High Street had been newly cobbled and that was not the end of its gentrification. The old newspaper shop around which we hunted as five year olds for old bus tickets (why on earth we collected the stiff cardboard tickets I have no idea), was now called ‘Guns ‘n Saddles’. The colonnade general store, where mum bought broken biscuits for cheapness, had become ‘The Bridal Shower’. Most saddening of all was that ‘Dolly’s Café’ was now ‘Baguettes & Brioche’! Sadly Dolly was no more… she may have succumbed to her liberal smoking (we never saw Dolly without a fag hanging from the corner of her mouth threatening to shed the long grey ash onto the scones), or she may have fallen fowl of her own interpretation of ‘Health & Safety’, which consisted of daily dusting of any unsold cakes and a minor price reduction, making them more attractive to us young lay-a-bouts.
These changes are an age old truism – as you grow up the world around you seems to shrink.
But the one thing you can surely rely upon is that the saplings seen in youth grow into towering trees?
Not a bit of it, the biggest shock of all was finding that all the apple trees had shrunk whilst I was away! They were no longer 20-foot high feeding grounds for Lesser-spotted Woodpeckers all set about with lush grass for the sheep to graze, then dug over in the Autumn by pigs getting drunk on fermenting fruit. Nothing now dared grow above the reach of the apple-picker.
When I was at school you would be set problems such as…
A six-foot tall farmer has an orchard where all the trees are 20 feet high. His ladders extend to 20 feet… at what angle should he lean his ladder for stability and still reach the tops of the trees?
The answer to this poser was decidedly not ‘make the trees smaller’.
How about this one…
The farmer’s wife has six children, every day she bakes a 1lb loaf… she eats twice as much as the children and her husband eats half as much again. How much does each child eat?
Encouraged to ‘think outside the box’ the solution is obvious. The farmer should grow GM wheat designed to resist all disease, and able to survive chemical assault. He should then spray his fields with pesticides and herbicides, so that his yields are higher. At the end of each year he should scour the land with acid to kill everything and plant the same crop year after year. This will mean he can have four more children and their daily bread will be enough to feed them all twice as much as before, so that they can become obese! If, at any stage, the wheat price rises to a level that actually pays the farmer to grow it, cheaper wheat will be imported, thus ensuring its ‘carbon footprint’ is larger than the world can sustain.
Now, as I sniff the spiced early Autumn air, I can see that, at Thanet Earth, the largest area of greenhouses in the country, it is the season of mellow fruitfulness. The vines hang with tomatoes grown without the nuisance of soil; they are big and red and uniformly round – as appetizing to the eye as can be.
Us old farts can, of course, remember trotting off to the local nursery to buy a ‘bag of blues’ (those non-conformist tomatoes that were over large, dwarfed or misshapen with amusing appendages) – and boy did they taste good. It is no co-incident that the most popular tomato grown is called ‘money-maker’ – and it is, to my mind, as tasty as over-boiled rice!
‘Thinking outside the box’ and ‘pushing the envelope’ into ‘blue-sky thinking’, has led us down a literal dead end!
GM crops are, of course, completely safe. The government says so, and all the research sponsored by GM companies confirm it. It has been proven beyond doubt that rape seeds cannot disperse more than a field or two from their source. Noone has told the bees, who may cross-pollinate as much as 12 kilometers away! Not to worry ‘though… we are doing a great job of killing off the honeybees!
The death of bees, from the mite-carried virus, seems to be linked to stress that lowers their natural resistance. How do you stress out bees? Are they easy to tease? No, instead of hives permanently being placed at intervals in food-producing areas, we now move the hives around to order, taking their pollinating proclivities from field to field, over several months, and across many miles, each time disorienting the bees and reducing the size of the swarm.
Its time to stop moving the boxes and think inside them again.
You do not solve out-of-control population growth by increasing yields, any more than you solve traffic problems by building more roads. Anyway, several studies show that GM crop yields are, on average a few percent lower than existing varieties!
You do not lower food prices by bankrupting farmers. Keeping finance in the first world, manufacturing in the second and food production in the third world is just colonialism by the backdoor.
Why did people use crop rotation for centuries? Because it worked! It is a low tech, low cost way of ensuring that pests and disease do not take hold.
When Britain was struggling to stem the tide of Nazis from engulfing us we ‘dug for victory’ – using far less of the land than we do now to grow crops, yet with sustainable production that sustained a more boring, but better, diet.
Back in the box we may have tried to tame nature around us, but we did not try to destroy it as if it were an enemy, and we left the wild corners to themselves.
Back in the day we understood simple arithmetic:
You reap what you sow – one for the rook, one for the crow, one to rot and one to grow.
Great oaks from little acorns grow.
Where the bee sucks there suck I.
You cannot thrive in trade if you expect to sell something for less than it costs.
You cannot force a quart into a pint pot.
10 billion people into one earth doesn’t go, and they cost the earth, and I really do mean that literally!
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