Linklog entries in October 2022

Monday, 31 October 2022

BBC Farming Today  

I was invited to speak on BBC Farming Today (27 October) to discuss the Environment Agency report which revealed that two-thirds of cattle farms in North Devon were polluting on the day of inspection. You can read my Guardian report here.

I was delighted that reporter Charlotte Smith continued to follow the story the next day, focussing on the fact that most of the farms were ‘Red Tractor Assured’. On the 28 October on BBC Farming Today, Charles Watson from River Action described the Red Tractor logo as a farce. What’s the point of an Assurance scheme that offers no assurance?

Tuesday, 25 October 2022

Two-thirds of cattle farms in North Devon found to be polluting at time of inspection 

I have an exclusive story in the Guardian today which reveals that an Environment Agency officer inspected 101 cattle farms in North Devon between 2016 and 2020 and found 87% were not compliant with environmental regulations and 65% were polluting at the time of inspection.

When I was working on Rivercide, I spent a lot of time talking to people about a report which covered the Axe catchment in East Devon. Yet I never knew that there was another report with similar findings.

I have no idea why the North Devon Focus Area Report remained under the radar while the Axe report was published. Were the two reports taken together too embarrassing for the government, the dairy industry and the Red Tractor label? If any insider knows the rationale, I’d love to hear it.

Both reports tell the same story – under intense commercial pressure, dairy farms have expanded their herd sizes and pushed cows to produce more milk. More cows producing more milk produce more slurry, and yet farmers generally haven’t invested in increasing their storage capacity to safely hold the extra waste.

This raises serious questions for the large milk buyers and supermarkets. Why aren’t they insisting on basic environmental standards being met and paying farmers a fair price to deliver them?

The Red Tractor logo is meant to assure consumers that their products are ‘farmed with care’ and yet every farm visited in the Axe report and “nearly every farm” visited in the North Devon report was Red Tractor Assured. In other words, the Red Tractor logo doesn’t seem to offer any protection against river pollution.

I obtained the North Devon report through a Freedom of Information request to the Environment Agency and it was edited before release. I don’t know all the edits that were made, but I know one. They removed the line: ‘Red Tractor is not effective at assuring farms are meeting environmental regulations’.

Why did the EA or DEFRA take this line out? To protect Red Tractor by avoiding overtly criticising the scheme? The same line appears in the published Axe report, so it’s an odd omission. I asked the DEFRA press office why they made the edit and they told me:

The report was reviewed and checked alongside FOI guidance before release.

The Red Tractor scheme is not a scheme that Defra or the Environment Agency have a duty to regulate. As such, comments on the scheme fall outside the scope of the report.

Monday, 17 October 2022

Have we forgotten the child in the childcare debate? 

I have been thinking about this piece for a really long time and am so pleased that Prospect commissioned me to write it.

Whilst there has been lots of coverage of the childcare crisis in the UK, little of it asks: what’s best for the child?

I consulted a range of child development experts whilst researching this piece and one – Dona Matthews – wrote her own extensive response to my question and turned it into a piece for Psychology Today which is well worth reading. She acknowledges the complexity of the subject, saying:

I’m an ardent feminist, believing in women’s right to choose how to proceed with their own pregnancies, and in their career development opportunities, including the need to close the gender pay gap. It’s tricky, though, because I am also an advocate for children’s optimal development, and know that children do best with consistent, attentive, curious, and loving caregivers, especially in the early years.

I want us to be honest about the fact that there’s a tension between freeing parents to work and giving babies and toddlers the best start in life.

I’ve been increasingly frustrated by media coverage which frames universal childcare as good for parents, good for the economy and good for children. Sorry, where’s the evidence that group childcare is developmentally beneficial for babies and toddlers? The needs of babies, toddlers and pre-school children are each quite distinct and shouldn’t be bundled together.

Penelope Leach says we have a ‘baby blindspot’ in policy-making and I think she’s dead right. I loved reading Penelope’s books and her introduction to ‘Who Cares?’ is a masterpiece. I could weep that she said all this in the 1970s and yet we still woefully undervalue the care of small children.