Ah, the long stretches of yellow fields that have come to seem normal in springtime in the British countryside. When I posted this picture on Instagram, I got lots of likes that I sensed might be approving of beauty, and an idea of pastoral, productive bloom. Me, I see monoculture and pesticides and the economic restructuring of landscape and our relationship to it. I think about the battles between farmers (as represented by the NFU) and environmentalists about many issues, and neonicotinoids in particular, and just how complicated everything is.
To be fair, I also see Oil Seed Rape (OSR) for Rapeseed Oil as a rural, agricultural industry that has marketed its product very appealingly as local, gourmet, and of a terroir– as British “olive oil” in a foodscape in which most dietary fats are problematic in some (social, environmental, nutritional) way, and in which “British” and “local” represent virtues. The farms identify themselves and their farmers by name (making themselves accountable), they form collectives based on local identities like “Welsh” and “Scottish” (check out the brands in your nearby shop!) and they’ve managed to get into a variety of venues beyond just supermarkets as small and medium-scale businesses farming and producing in regional hubs. This model is so central to food security and food sovereignty and much of what we as a food movement purport to care about.
So what do we do, with the knowledge from a new, definitive study showing how bad neonicotinoid pesticides are for wild bees? This article and this one offer a little history and context to the study. Dave Goulson, in the video below, gives a good lecture on the subject. We know as well that this class of chemicals ramifies up the food chain to bird, sea and soil life as well, such that George Monbiot compares the effects to Another Silent Spring. This is clearly a moment of ecological urgency, and I’m wondering if we as consumers actually might in this instance have a small point of leverage.
A while back I asked around various Rapeseed Oil brands about their practices, and I was struck by how many farmers were concerned to be responsible land stewards, and try to reduce neonicotinoid use through integrated pest management, and other pest-control chemicals and methods. Several reported no reduction in crop yields during the time of the EU ban since 2013 (despite the public assertions by opponents of the ban that pest damage was universally bad). An Irish organic rapeseed oil producer seemed to be doing absolutely fine without pesticides. (Of course the larger and denser an area of monoculture, the more vulnerable to pests it is.) As an inexperienced journalist, I didn’t know what to do with these contradictions.
We need to take action at all levels now including continued focus on a global neonicotinoid ban, as seed covering, soil treatments and as sprays. Given Brexit and the current government’s resentment of EU regulation and limitation on business, it’s not likely that a national ban will happen, if the EU ban is not extended.
As a cook with a few specific uses for Rapeseed Oil, would I buy it, produced locally in Wales or in England? I would if it were organic. I would buy it if the producers declared that they shun neonicotinoid use regardless of which way the wind of government policy doth blow. I would buy it under conditions where the whole debate is acknowledged and transparent and part of the marketing. The farmers have their names of the websites, they have Twitter accounts, they are available. That’s part of the sales pitch.
I intend to ask. Can you do the same? Can we make it clear that the public cares about bees and birds, and that we can taste life or death in our cooking oils.
Let’s hold accountable the local farmers, the collectives , the shops that sell the products, in the best way. Let’s talk to them, in emails and on social media, about their pest regulation practices. Let’s discover their experience with neonicotinoids use, and if they’ve chosen to eschew this class of pesticides, can they please be vocal about this to show other growers what is possible? Let’s help them listen to the farmers who are doing well without neonicotinoids. Let’s support the ones who are not willing to jeopardise the living world for our agriculture, but see the two as interdependent. Let’s see if consumer pressure can get these producers talking to customers and other producers, and create a chain of positive change.