“I wanted to try and create a world less dominated by greed”
As part of the Ethical Agenda podcast series, Safia Minney talks to Guy Singh-Watson, founder of Riverford Organics and changemaker about nature, organic farming and eating sustainably.
Guy Singh-Watson is the founder of Riverford, the hugely successful organic vegetable producer and vegetable box delivery company that is trying to change the system of food production and consumption.
He says he was brought up with a deep connection to the land, but it wasn’t until he left the family farm and lived in London and New York that he realised how important that connection was to him.
“That’s what motivated me to farm organically because I wanted to be part of nature, not outside it or above it and certainly not to control it.”
Guy and Safia discuss George Monbiot’s recent documentary “Apocalypse Cow”. Guy explains that he is resistant to the idea of laboratory food, saying that culturally it “fills me with horror” although intellectually it would release land for re-wilding and improved biodiversity.
He suggests the way forward is a mix of embracing the ways of nature, improving soil fertility and including livestock farming with “ideally no factory farmed animals and little feeding of soya to animals… a luxury as a planet we cannot afford”.
Guy points out that many farmers are trying to do the right thing and the climate catastrophe is not the result of agriculture but the fossil fuel industry and our insatiable demand for energy. To be demonising farmers is, he says, grossly unfair.
Guy gives his ideas for creating a sustainable diet.
- Reduce waste in the food chain, particularly from our kitchens which has the biggest environmental impact.
- Eat less animal protein. We eat 1600gms meat a week in UK. This should be reduced to 600gms and encourage a vegan diet of unprocessed food.
- Stop growing produce in heated glasshouses.
- Stop airfreighting products.
- Eat seasonal, local fruit and vegetables.
- Question an economic model built on instant gratification.
“The enemy of sustainability is choice,” Guy points out. “We’ve been sold the message that you can have whatever you want whenever you want.”
Consumers should eat seasonally. Out of restrictive choice is born creativity, which should equally apply in our kitchens he argues.
Contact with nature engenders a greater appreciation and desire to protect it, he says. People should be encouraged into nature and onto farms to understand food production today.
“If people realised it wasn’t like “Old MacDonald” they would be more discerning about what they buy. In addition, clearer information and tougher trading standards would help to differentiate the genuine from the false claims about food quality. This should be illegal. Some parts of the food industry mislabel products as ‘organic’ and we should challenge them more often, asking “Who certified it? Where is the label?”
Riverford not only communicate directly with customers about the issues farmers face but also have great relationships with their suppliers supported by long term contracts.
Unfortunately, most producers are obliged to play by the rules of a broken system he says as they have only short term contracts; the antithesis of sustainability.
Riverford have 70-80,000 customers and make 55,000 deliveries a week. Food comes from the Riverford farm, a co-operative in Devon, other farms s around the UK and a farm in France that is important for the May-June, the months of less UK produce. They are mostly medium-sized family farms and Guy prioritises long term sustainability and mutually beneficial trading relationships with them.
About 18 months ago Guy decided to sell 74% of the business to the staff, making Riverford employee owned.
“I wanted to try and create a world less dominated by greed. The accumulation of ridiculous amounts of personal wealth for our exclusive use which contributes nothing to our happiness, but is massively detrimental to the planet and the people who should be sharing in that wealth.”
The change was made slowly and thoughtfully and he doesn’t regret any of it. The company is doing fantastically well and has never done better than since it became employee owned.
He says Riverford is also trying to reduce plastic packaging which is important in helping food stay fresh. They have started to use compostable plastic which degrades after 12 weeks in a domestic composter. Or he plans to collect it if you have no compost and compost it at Riverford. Guy admits it’s not the perfect answer but the “least bad option”.
A better way would be a recycling system where more of the value of the plastic can be recovered. He is clearly frustrated with the government’s lack of a unified kerbside collection policy for recycling, despite many years of lobbying and widespread agreement among industry and DEFRA that it needs to happen.
“I find it jaw droppingly irresponsible and it just makes me despair of democracy, that we can have such piss-poor decision making.”
Guy finishes the interview by advocating the introduction of a carbon tax. “It seems so obvious. If you want less carbon used, tax it.”