Farming and landuse

What the reviewers said about ‘Land of Plenty’

London , 6 December 2017


“Charlie Pye-Smith’s Land of Plenty… captures the spirit of the English countryside. This is no sentimental journey, but a real reflection of rural life by a formidably well-informed commentator, yet it’s the easiest of reads, with memorable characters, surprising statistics and incisive reflections. Even those of us steeped in agriculture will find new insights in every chapter.”John Deben, Country Life 

“A brilliantly well observed story of the British countryside, its history and its future … a Rural Rides for the 21st century”Western Morning News

“We need to take where our food comes from seriously. Pye-Smith’s investigation is thorough and at times remarkable”Clive Aslet, The Times

“Thoughtful … the story he tells is both full of hope and trepidation”Tom Fort, Literary Review

“It’s not just recommended reading for all those who have a special affinity with rural Britain, warts and all, but it should be top of the summer reading list for every Cabinet minister”Yorkshire Evening Post

“Personal and passionate … Its great strength is that it is neither a manifesto or a jeremiad”The National

“Pye-Smith’s writing… will be enjoyed just as much by someone who has been farming all their life as somebody who knows little about agriculture but is looking for an enjoyable non-fiction read”Ben Eagle,

Land of Plenty is a must-read… a nuanced account of the countryside that is neither romantic or damning but refreshingly balanced”  Farmdrop, the ethical grocers

The Caribbean Food Revolution: Taking Back Control

Wageningen, Netherlands, 28 November 2017

In 2016, the Netherlands-based Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) invited me to visit the Caribbean to explore how the region was tackling two distinct – but unrelated – crises. On one hand, the failure of governments and the private sector to invest more heavily in the agri-food sector had meant that the region’s food import bill had become dangerously high. On the other, levels of obesity and non-communicable diseases had steadily risen, largely because many people were eating too much of the wrong sort of things: processed products and calorie-dense foods high in fats and sugar, much of which was imported.

Joanna is supplying several chefs with free-range eggs and a range of vegetables and will soon have lambs for sale from her Barbados blackbelly ewes.

Joanna Waterman is supplying several chefs in Barbados with free-range eggs and a range of vegetables. She also sells lamb from her Barbados blackbelly sheep.

After attending the 14th Caribbean Week of Agriculture in the Cayman Islands  (a great opportunity to meet politicians and policy-maker) I spent time with CTA’s partners in Jamaica, Trinidad and Barbados. I talked to farmers and chefs, to agricultural extension agents and food processors, as well as others involved in the food business. The result was Strengthening Local Food Production and Trade in the Caribbean, which you can download here, free of charge, from CTA’s website.

Just to give you a taste, here are some excerpts from the introductory chapter.

Although the 15 countries belonging to the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) have made some progress in reducing undernourishment, levels of obesity have risen dramatically. A 2014 study by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) found that 30% of children between the ages of 11 and 13 years in four Caribbean countries were overweight. In Barbados, the number of overweight or obese children doubled during the last decade.

The situation among adults is just as depressing. Take, for example, Jamaica. Just 9% of the population between the ages of 15 and 75 years were obese in 2000; this figure had risen to 25.3% by 2008. Non-communicable diseases, including type 2 diabetes, cancers, heart attacks and strokes, now account for over half of all deaths in the Caribbean, and most can be attributed to poor diet and lack of exercise.

Talk to older people in the Caribbean and they will tell you that when they were young they had a relatively healthy diet, based on fresh local produce. Those days are long past, with most countries becoming progressively less self-sufficient in fresh food and more reliant on imports of processed food. The food import bill in 1990 was US$1.4 billion. It had risen to US$4 billion by 2010 and if present trends continue it will exceed US$8 billion by 2020.

Richard Archer's aquaponic business produces 16,000 heads of high-quality, organic lettuce each week for the high-end restaurant market in Barbados.

Richard Archer’s aquaponic business produces 16,000 heads of high-quality, organic lettuce each week for the high-end restaurant market in Barbados.

The food import bill and growing health crisis were a major preoccupation of the 14th Caribbean Week of Agriculture. “We must invest in agriculture if we are going to tackle hunger and ill health and reduce non-communicable diseases,” said Barton Clarke, the executive director of the Caribbean Agricultural Research and Development Institute (CARDI). “We need to reduce red tape, accelerate government reforms and encourage greater collaboration between the public and private sectors.”

There is nothing controversial about these views; they are widely held in the agricultural sector. As a response to rising import costs, volatile food prices, environmental challenges and the health crisis, CARICOM countries have agreed to focus on developing and promoting specific sectors: roots and tubers, small ruminants, fruits and vegetables, herbs and spices and crops like breadfruit and plantain. The aim is to increase domestic production and reduce imports.

This presents a great opportunity for Caribbean farmers. According to the Caribbean Farmers Network (CaFAN), small-scale family farmers – the vast majority of farmers in the Caribbean have less than 2 ha of land – currently produce 60% of the region’s home-grown food. They could play a major role in increasing local food production and creating greater prosperity in the countryside, where almost half the population live.

The first story in the booklet illustrates how governments can play a significant role in increasing home-grown food production. At the time of the 2008 financial crisis, when global food prices peaked, Jamaica’s import food bill was US$800 million a year. The government decided to focus on increasing the production of certain commodities, one being the Irish potato. In 2008, Jamaican farmers were meeting just 30% of local demand. The country is now well on its way to being self-sufficient in potatoes.

Fresh fish for sale in Bridgetown.

Fresh fish for sale in Bridgetown.

The second story focuses on import substitution in Trinidad and Tobago. In 2007, the Trinidad and Tobago Agri-Business Association (TTABA) was given the task of managing the government’s National Agri-Business Development Programme. The programme had a major influence on food production and TTABA significantly increased the sale of locally produced, and processed, crops such as cassava, sweet potato, plantain and pumpkin. The story told here looks at the efforts to encourage bakeries to use cassava as a substitute for imported wheat flour.

The final story, set in Barbados, focuses on agritourism: on linking farmers and agribusinesses to the tourist market. Traditionally, tourist establishments have employed expatriate chefs and served menus based on Western culinary ideas, using mostly imported food. During recent years, a growing number of establishments have begun to source their food, including indigenous crops, locally. This is creating new markets for farmers and injecting money into rural areas. It is also helping to reduce the food import bill. A similar story could be told for many other Caribbean islands.

CTA is a joint international institution of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) group of states in the European Union (EU).

Tackling the Pacific health crisis

Pacific Islands, 3 October 2017

Towards the end of last year, the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) invited me to attend a forum in Apia, Samoa, which focused on ways to link the food sector to local markets, with the aim of enhancing economic growth and improving food and nutritional security in the Pacific. The forum was attended by politicians, civil servants, chefs, farmers’ representatives, academics and others involved in the food industry. Besides interviewing many of those attending the agribusiness forum, I visited chefs, restaurant owners and farmers on the island of Samoa.

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New book: Land of Plenty: A Journey through the Fields & Foods of Modern Britain

London, 27 July 2017

The idea for this book came to me in Africa several years ago. Whenever taxi drivers in cities like Nairobi or Accra or Kigali asked me what I was doing I would explain that I was in their country to write about issues related to farming and land use. I was always struck by how knowledgeable most were. Some would tell me about the best ways of feeding dairy cows; others would discuss ways of tackling pests and diseases. Perhaps this is not surprising. Many city-dwellers in Africa were brought up on farms and most have relatives in the countryside who still make a living from the land. [read full article]

Book launch: The Facts of Rural Life

London, 29 June 2015

The Facts of Rural Life was launched last week at the Farmers Club in London. Among those attending were Members of Parliament and Peers, including five former ministers, as well as scientists, journalists, country vets and representatives of a range of organisations involved in nature conservation, land management, animal welfare and field sports. [read full article]

Is this the future of conservation?

London, 22 May 2015

In the harsh environment of northern Kenya, communities struggle with frequent droughts, poor health care, sparse or irregular government services and the threats posed by cattle rustling and ivory poaching. Ethnic rivalries dating back many centuries continue to disturb peace and undermine development. However, all this is beginning to change, thanks to a new movement based on community conservation. [read full article]

Lessons from Brazil

London, 24 December 2014

I frequently visit projects which are transforming the lives of hundreds and sometimes thousands of people – by increasing crop yields, reducing malnutrition, restoring degraded lands, providing better access to education and healthcare. However, all too often these projects are confined to small areas and the question remains: how can they be scaled up to benefit hundreds of thousands or even millions of people? [read full article]

A conservation conundrum on the Marlborough Downs

Marlborough Downs, 27 October 2014

“When I came here as an assistant shepherd 32 years ago, this was a vast arable prairie, totally devoid of wildlife,” says Chris Musgrave, indicating with a sweep of his arm a great swathe of rolling countryside at the heart of the Marlborough Downs. “But just look how it’s changed!” [read full article]

Transforming rural livelihoods in Nigeria

Nigeria, 21 October 2014

When they think of foreign aid, or development assistance, I imagine most people think of money flowing from the wealthy North to the poorer South; from countries like the United Kingdom, the United States, Norway and France to the least developed countries in Africa and the Far East. But there is another story that deserves to be told, about the growing importance of South-South cooperation. [read full article]

I remember, I remember

Almondbury, Huddersfield, 5 October 2014

If you listened to the Today programme on Radio 4 last Thursday, which was National Poetry Day, you might have heard Alan Bennett talking about Philip Larkin. Larkin’s childhood, he said, was characterised as ‘a forgotten boredom’. To illustrate the point, Bennett read the poem I Remember, I Remember, in which Larkin describes his thoughts as his train passes through Coventry, the town where he was brought up. [read full article]

So what’s the problem?

London, 17 April 2014

There is scarcely an acre of Britain which is truly wild. Farming, forestry, hunting, water extraction and urbanisation have all had a profound effect on our flora and fauna. Some of our top predators, such as lynx, wolf and brown bear, have been lost; many other species have been introduced, frequently with disastrous consequences for livestock, crops and indigenous wildlife. [read full article]

If I were a pig…

London, 24 February 2014

Last week, the Danish government introduced a ban on the religious slaughter of animals. “Animal rights come before religion,” said the Minister for Agriculture and Food, Dan Jørgensen. The ban has upset Jews and Muslims as it proscribes their traditional methods of killing animals. Instead of having their throats slit while fully conscious, Danish livestock must now be stunned before they are killed. [read full article]

Moving with the tide

London, 24 January 2014

On Wednesday, during a hearing of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on the winter floods, Paul Leinster of the Environment Agency told MPs that vulnerable stretches of coast could be abandoned to the sea. The process, which goes under the dreary name of managed realignment, would change the shape of Britain – with thrilling consequences. [read full article]

On the naming of crops

Accra, Ghana, 6 October 2013

“How many wives do you have?” This, loosely translated, is what Apagbaala means. This is the name that farmers belonging to the Dagomba tribe in northern Ghana have given to a variety of cowpea that produces tremendous crops.  It’s their way of saying that they need many hands – if not many wives – to harvest their cowpeas. [read full article]

Miraa, Meru and Mrs May

Meru, Kenya, 13 July 2013

“We are very angry with you British,” said the man I’d come to see at the Ministry of Agriculture in Nairobi. “We’re trying to work out how we can retaliate.” [read full article]

Import-export: the dream shattered

Iquitos, Peru, and London, 1 April 2013

I used to think I’d like to have another occupation besides writing. Ideally, it would be farming, perhaps rearing sheep or pigs. But that wouldn’t work, not least because I live in London and spend much of my time travelling. Another possibility would be to find some exotic plant of great potential – for example, as a health food or aphrodisiac – import it to London, and make some serious money. In short: import-export. [read full article]