Thursday, April 19, 2007

Britain Turning Yellow

And no, I don't mean to suggest that Britain's impending withdrawal from Iraq makes them "yellow." It's this story for the agriculturally minded:
On the second leg of my south-north train journey, another 400 miles or thereabouts from London to Edinburgh, once again there was no missing the proliferation of Day-Glo yellow plantations. Lincolnshire, Yorkshire, Northumbria and the Scottish borders whizzed by, revealing vast swathes of land, all carpeted by bobbing yellow flowerheads of rape.

In the 1970s, oilseed rape was barely known in Britain. Many people were suspicious of this alien seed which announces itself with its all-pervasive perfume, reminiscent of honey to some, cloyingly sweet and as sickly as regurgitated baby milk to others. Now it is our third largest arable crop. The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) says that in the past year alone production has gone up by an impressive 17%. Next year, it is tipped to top 2m tonnes. In terms of acreage, oilseed rape now accounts for 11% of the crops cultivated in the UK.

The economics of rapeseed cultivation have never looked more attractive to farmers because there is no problem finding a buyer. These days it is not just the old markets - cheap cooking oil, margarine, cattle feed, candles, soaps, plastics, polymers and lubricants. Oilseed rape has hit the big time as a biofuel. Currently, most of the UK's production is snapped up by Germany for bio-diesel.

And the latest silky-smooth ambassador for the crop is "extra virgin rapeseed oil", currently being touted as Britain's answer to extra virgin olive oil. For a relatively modest expenditure (compared with the serious investment needed to go into biofuels), growers from Suffolk up to Yorkshire and the Scottish Borders are installing screw presses on their farms and cold-pressing the seed. Northumbrian cereal grower Colin McGregor, who produces golden extra virgin rapeseed oil under the Olifeira brand, sells it at £6 for a 500ml bottle - the same sort of price tag you might expect on a classy bottle of Tuscan extra virgin olive oil. "That retail price is adding around 2,000% to the commodity value of my crop," he says. By any measure, an eye-popping profit hike.
I'd been wondering what those yellow flowers were.

Sounds good for the farmer, right? But wait:
It took the highest level of plant breeding after the second world war to make what was a toxic substance fit for human consumption. Greedy for nutrients and notoriously dependent on nitrogen-rich fertilisers, oilseed rape is among the worst arable crops for leaching nitrates into waterways and polluting aquifers. It is one of the crops that led to the setting up of nitrate sensitive areas and nitrate vulnerable zones across the EU.

Oilseed rape is also plagued by a long list of pests and diseases - everything from cabbage stem flea beetle and peach potato aphid to black leg fungus and white stem rot - all of which require chemicals to keep them under control. A 2004 report from the Office of National Statistics states that oilseed rape crops receive on average three herbicides, two fungicides and two insecticides during the course of a growing season.

As a consequence of the intensive way in which they are grown on vast swathes of land, oilseed rape varieties are developing resistance to many of the pesticides routinely used. "For all these reasons, it is almost never grown or recommended as a crop on organic farms. It is a classic example of a crop designed for intensive agriculture," says Richard Sanders, policy and communications director at Elm Farm Research Centre, which develops and supports sustainable land use.
Let's see: Once toxic, now I'm supposed to use it in my cooking; very bad for the environment ....

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