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Quakers: Agriculture needs you!

This report was first published in The Friend (14th November 2014).

Judy Kirby asks: What would a food chain that reflected Quaker values look like?

It was with some apprehension that I, a Quaker foodie, went to the annual conference of the Quakers and Business Group (Q&B Group) held at Friends House in London last week. This year the business Friends were highlighting our diets and the commercial reality of production. Did this mean ever more scrutiny of supermarket items and even fewer ingredients available for cooking favourite dishes if we were not to wreck the planet?

The Q&B Group had anticipated this. We were greeted by John Meadley, who assured us at once that judgement was not on the agenda. I took that to mean cooks as well as farmers and relaxed. Q&B had invited two hard-hitting campaigners. These are people who do not mince their words. Philip Lymbery, chief executive of Compassion in World Farming, looks like a suited corporate man, which might have disturbed some Friends in the audience. He explained that he has to mix with the corporate sector in order to persuade them to change their ways. But he wants nothing less than a food and farming revolution.

Fearing that he was exaggerating conditions in agriculture, Philip took a Fleet Street political journalist with him to see the monocultures of the United States. They went to vast almond groves in California where ‘no birds sang, there were no bees and we heard nothing but helicopters spraying’. Beehives were bussed in by lorries to provide pollination and then bussed to the next location, where farming methods had denuded the land of natural pollinators.

Philip realised he had been under-emphasising the global situation. ‘We have taken a major wrong turning,’ he said. ‘We are living in a world of illusion. We pay three times over for so-called “cheap food” – at the check-out, by subsidy and in clean-up costs.’

Colin Tudge can be credited with the term ‘real farming’. He and his wife Ruth established The Campaign for Real Farming, so we expected some common sense talk about food production.

Monoculture prairies are high on his list of agricultural mistakes. ‘They are encouraged to do this,’ Colin lamented. ‘Farmers are being invited to wreck the world. We need an economy which allows people to farm well, and a government to create such an economy and make it profitable to do good things.’

Growing up in south London after the war the Tudge family had plenty of food. Vegetables were grown locally, and in counties near London. What Colin wants is a renaissance rather than a revolution. He said: ‘The government won’t do it. Corporations won’t change. People must do it.’

Investment in and support for community-owned farms and particularly consumer-producer cooperatives is the future, says Colin, ‘and we can achieve it. Quakers could do much to encourage better farming.’

Sally Bagenal, who is a Quaker and a dairy farmer, pointed out that only four per cent of the population is committed to buying organic produce. There are well-documented problems of organic farmers negotiating with supermarkets over pricing. Sally recounted some of her experiences. A stark fact was that ‘only eleven per cent of income goes on food. Things like TV take more’. She learned from a focus group that, while most people were not interested in the countryside, ‘they were interested in their health’.

The challenge for farming is to produce a superior product that is affordable, so that people on low incomes can afford better food, says John Meadley.

So, what must we Quaker cooks do now? I shall be doing a lot less label checking (quite a relief) and getting out of the kitchen more to engage with those community-owned farms and consumer-producer cooperatives that Colin told us about. I will also be supporting the sustainable restaurant business and all the other truly organic enterprises that are trying to bring about this renaissance. And cooking more.

Judy is a member of Northumbria Area Meeting.

Conference hears plea to cut wasteful use of cereals

John Turner of the PFLAPhoto: Sara Gregson, PFLA

Quaker farmer John Turner (right) is dismayed at the lack of good news about farming. Every week there are stories of denuded soils and damaged ecosystems, he says. ‘There’s rarely a good news story,’ he told the conference at Friends House.

John farms 250 acres in Lincolnshire. He and his family converted to organic production in 1999. With John Meadley, of the Quakers and Business Group, and others he founded the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association (PFLA). Feeding animals with grains and medicating them liberally with antibiotics has appalled many small farmers. On John Turner's farm, cattle form part of a rotational system using grass and clover, with wheat, barley and oats being grown for human consumption.

‘A mixed farm is a symbiosis between livestock and crops. We feel this system is inherently right,’ John explained. His animals are raised exclusively on pasture. He is feeding ruminants with ruminant food.

The Pasture-Fed Livestock Association is one of the best examples of transition farming, a movement that is addressing a pressing problem in farming – the wasteful use of cereal grains to feed livestock and to produce biofuels.

The problems facing agriculture should be faced together with all groups working for a better environment, John says. ‘NGOs have campaigned successfully on single issues but often we need a more holistic approach where farmers and NGOs work more closely together.’

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The road from farm to fork is a jigsaw stretching from farmers and fishermen, through traders, bankers, manufacturers and to retailers – each one a risk-taking business and employer. Today’s Quakers may prefer the caring professions but the food chain demonstrates that we need to re-engage with the world of business, as did our forbears, and help to rebuild faith in food.John Meadley, Quakers and Business Group
The idea that we need more meat to feed the world is wrong. We don’t. The great cuisines of the world use meat sparingly. The reason really is to remove the ceiling on production.Colin Tudge, author and campaigner