November 1st, 2023 Wise Farmers

Wise Farmers: Richard Young

Richard Young was an organic farmer and brilliant ecologist. Born into a farming family in the Cotswolds. Richard divided his working life between farming, researching and campaigning for better lives for farm animals alongside organisations such as the Soil Association and the Sustainable Food Trust. Please give his video a like and a share. You can also watch the full 15min interview here.

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Richard was born in 1950 into a farming family in the Cotswolds, where he lived all his life. By the age of 11 he was already driving tractors, milking cows and helping to look after native-breed pigs. On leaving school he was accepted to study veterinary medicine at Liverpool University, but just as he was about to start his great uncle offered him a farming tenancy on the 130 acres Swell Hill Farm near Stow-on-the-Wold. From then until his passing last September Richard divided his working life between farming, researching and campaigning for better lives for farm animals and for a reduction in the use of antibiotics, which unbelievably were still being used to make pigs put on weight more quickly. In 1980, he and his sister Rosamund took on their parents’ farm Kite’s Nest near Broadway on the edge of the Cotswolds.

‘We make a modest profit from raising our own animals organically. Every single animal on the farm, all the females have been born here for generations. We haven’t bought in an animal since 1976, and we’ve not used any fertiliser at all or any pesticides in that time. We’ve got some weeds, but we think they’re actually beneficial. They bring minerals up from greater depths, they break up damaged soil and they provide seed for wildlife during the winter.

‘We’ve got a very significant range of different species of wild flowers and herbs that grow, one field has got 50 different species of grass in it. We try to farm our animals in the most natural way possible, so they have a happy life while we are looking after them.’

When Tracy Worcester was filming her acclaimed documentary Pig Business in 2006 she interviewed Richard about the alarming overuse of antibiotics in factory pig farms. During the interview Richard held up a copy of a farming newspaper that had large colourful ads for antibiotics, which, as he put it, were being ‘sold like sweets’. As more and more people began to suffer from antibiotic-resistant diseases, Richard stepped up his campaign and founded the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics, a partnership between the Soil Association, Compassion in World Farming and Sustain, which campaigns to reduce antibiotic use on farms through improvements to animal husbandry. Animals treated humanely and given plenty of space and fresh air are healthy and rarely, if ever, need antibiotics.

The news in 2010 that Midland Pig Producers, which operated several large scale, intensive factory pig farms in Derbyshire, had filed a planning application for a 2,500-sow animal factory, 150 metres upwind from a women’s prison and several neighbouring houses, sent shockwaves among the local community and among all those campaigning or wishing for a humane life for farm animals and for a reduction in the staggering amount of antibiotics routinely given to pigs in factory farms to keep them alive in the dreadful, overcrowded conditions. Farms Not Factories and the Soil Association joined local residents to campaign against the monstrous development which would have made the nearby women’s prison virtually uninhabitable, poisoning inmates and staff with the toxic stench and causing diseases from ammonia, antibiotic-resistant bacteria and allergenic particles drifting downwind onto the prison from the proposed animal factory.

At the time Richard was Policy Advisor at the Soil Association and was campaigning for an end to the overuse of antibiotics factory farms which was causing diseases in pigs such as Salmonella, Campylobacter and MRSA to become resistant to antibiotics and to pass from pigs to humans. The Soil Association objections to the Foston planning application focused on the overuse of antibiotics as well as the potentially illegal conditions in which the pigs were to be kept, confined in small pens on bare slatted floors without access to manipulable bedding such as straw that the law says they must have. Richard duly wrote the Soil Association objection letter and sent it as an email attachment to Tim Dening in the South Derby Planning Department. About a month later the Soil Association received a bombshell letter from the notorious libel solicitors Carter Ruck claiming that the objection letter was ‘false and defamatory’ to their client Midland Pig Producers, demanding that the objection be withdrawn, and threatening to sue the Soil Association for damage to their client’s reputation.

This was a sign that MPP was prepared to go nuclear in its fight to develop the factory farm. No-one had ever heard of, or even imagined a case where someone objecting to a planning application could be sued for libel. Although MPP later apologised, this was an existential attack on the Soil Association which certifies almost all the Organic food sold in the UK as well as certifying farms and market gardens for compliance with Organic standards. In response to Carter Ruck, Richard researched and wrote a formidable paper addressing Carter Ruck’s questions and backing up the Soil Association’s objections. The letter drew on the latest scientific research on antibiotic resistance and the likely vectors for the spread of diseases from factory pig farms to local residents. The letter, which extended to 16 pages and was supported by over 60 references, became a benchmark authority for the environmental, animal welfare and human health impacts of factory farming, and is still used today as a source of peer-reviewed science to back up objections to further applications for similar animal factory developments.

Because of Richard’s letter, Carter Ruck backed down and the Soil Association was spared a ruinous libel lawsuit that could have deprived us of a national asset that not only certifies, but protects and nurtures Organic food and farming in the UK, a treasure whose loss would have disastrously impoverished and diminished our lives.

Like many people whose hearing is impaired, Richard’s voice became louder when his hearing aid was not working well. I was with him once in a Bristol hotel for a conference on antibiotic use in factory farms, and he was recounting, loudly, at breakfast how the demolition of the twin towers was an inside job, a false flag that would enable the US to justify two decades of NATO-led geopolitical wars. His detailed explanation boomed out across the shocked, silent tables in the breakfast room where people usually talk in hushed voices and where the loudest sounds are spoons tinkling on cereal bowls.

Richard was Policy Director of the Sustainable Food Trust which had been set up by his friend Patrick Holden with whom he had been working in various organic food and farming NGOs for the past 26 years. One of their projects, True Cost Accounting, was close to Richard’s heart as it reflected his long-held belief that we do not pay the real cost of food at the till, and that there are icebergs of hidden costs of chemical intensive monoculture and animal factory farming such as species loss, toxic chemicals that harm pollinators, damage to soils from chemicals and compaction by heavy machinery, and human health impacts from toxic herbicides and pesticides and from antibiotic resistant diseases. In contrast, Organic farming has none of these hidden costs, but restores and nurtures soil, treats animals humanely allowing unlimited access to the outdoors, and as a result uses minimal, if any, antibiotics.

‘The Hidden Cost of UK Food was published in 2017 and revised in 2019. It found that for every £1 we spend at the checkout, we spend another £1 in hidden ways.

‘UK consumers spend £120 billion on food each year yet there are serious environmental and health-related costs that generate a further £116 billion. These costs are not paid for by the food and farming businesses that cause them, nor are they included in the retail price of food. Instead, they are being passed on to the public through taxation, lost income due to ill health, and the price of mitigating and adapting to climate change and environmental degradation.

‘The report advocates a change in policy where the polluter must pay and where agricultural subsidies are used to encourage a shift to more sustainable forms of production which bring benefits to both the environment and human health.’

Sustainable Food Trust.

But perhaps closest to Richard’s heart was the vast, interconnected, species-rich wildlife at Kite’s Nest. He was justly proud of the diversity, saw nothing wrong with weeds, but only with the chemicals other farmers use to control them. The farm under his and Rosamund’s management became a naturally vibrant ecosystem without the biodiversity destruction that conventional farming inflicts on overcropped, overworked fields with degraded soil and incomplete cycling of waste. For example, there was a time when dung beetles would make a cowpat disappear in a few days, recycling its nutrients straight back into the ground. Now, on conventional farms that use powerful dewormers, cowpats stay intact for months as the dung beetles stay away.

‘What I think is overlooked is that with a herd of cattle like ours and natural grazing systems, there’s a huge interrelationship between biodiversity and that herd of cattle. And we’re in September now, and it won’t be very long before swallows and martins are building up their strength to fly back to Africa, and on cool days they will fly low over herds of cattle because that’s the only place they can get insects.

‘Microbes, which are the corner block of wildlife and when you really work it out, they’re the corner block of our human civilization as well. And we are playing with a situation whereby we are undermining our own survival, by the way which we are doing now. People are worried about biodiversity, but they think that you can do that by getting rid of all grazing livestock systems.

‘The ones we need to get rid of are the very intensive ones where overgrazing is taking place, where the crops are cut far too frequently and ground nesting birds can’t survive, where there’s only one species of ryegrass and a lot of nitrogen fertiliser is used. Those are the problem ones. And I accept that it’s going to mean a lower productivity, but why not all of us eat just a lot less beef and lamb, but eat good quality beef and lamb.

And I think there’s even evidence to suggest that it’s got a better range of micro-nutrients in it, so we don’t even need so much to keep healthy if we choose good quality meat.’

Richard Young 1950-2023

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