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The buck stops here

It’s time we as consumers realise our own power to change things, and reconnect with our farms, says Sybil Kapoor

30 June 2011

12:00 AM

30 June 2011

12:00 AM

It’s time we as consumers realise our own power to change things, and reconnect with our farms, says Sybil Kapoor

This May, the National Trust launched a radical social experiment. Under the title ‘MyFarm’ (, they invited up to 10,000 web users to actively manage Wimpole Home Farm in Cambridgeshire, entirely over the internet.

Once a month Richard Morris, the farm’s manager, will ask for instructions on a particular farming decision. Over 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 each 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. After that, whatever the registered members of MyFarm decide, goes, even if the farm loses money as a result.

The idea 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 Crowds, Alexander 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 fee of £30.

The idea 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 orchards.

Many 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.

Make no mistake, we shoppers have real power and influence. Consider the demise of battery hen eggs, or the restriction of genetically modified products in our food.

The 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 Food (set up by the RSPCA) wants us to support high welfare standards for farm animals.

Philip 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 crossroads 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 per cent of our total domestic expenditure was spent on food and drink, compared with nearly 18 per cent in 1964.

Certainly, 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. They notice whether we buy Spanish or British-grown broad beans in June, even if we don’t.

The next issue is environmental. Getting 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.

LEAF is, 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.

As with 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 Foods. 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 costs.’ Waitrose uses LEAF-registered farmers, and Marks & Spencer encourage its fresh produce farmers to become active members as part of its code of practice. Interestingly, you can find the LEAF Marque on manufactured products such as certain cheeses and Burts crisps.

Different 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 rigorous. In a perfect world, Jeremy Boxall would like us all to demand that we see such labelling on all products. The LEAF Marque, like the Soil Association logo, is being adopted in many countries around the world that export to Britain.

The Freedom Food scheme has also gone from strength to strength. There are more than 1,000 Freedom Food products, which cover creatures as disparate as salmon and turkeys. To gain 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.

Farming 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 landowners. 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.

Sybil finds shopping the perfect way to campaign.

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