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You too can run through fields of wheat this weekend – no, really

Open Farm Sunday is a good way to encourage transparency and awareness. So why don't all farms take part?

Running through a field of wheat is clearly now not the naughtiest thing done by Theresa May. But it is still kinda naughty.

In terms of respecting the private property of scary farmers (think Boggis, Bunce and Bean) it is plain naughty. And in terms of challenging the ethos of intensive, monoculture agriculture it is radically naughtier still: around the world, pesticides are excluding wildlife from fields and decimating our soils - though I doubt this was what May had in mind.

The UK farming industry, however, has found clever a way to answer these fears. This weekend, farms will open their gates to the public as part of a nationwide event called Open Farm Sunday. You really can now run through more wheat fields than you can manage (just maybe ask permission first).

The event is co-ordinated by the team at Linking Environment and Farming (LEAF). 358 farms are invovled this year, aided by over 2,000 volunteers, and you can search for your nearest on LEAF's website.

In a society where 41 per cent of kids don’t know eggs come from, such experiences are a vital for both the public and the producers alike. For farmers in particular, the events offer an opportunity to allay fears surrounding food production, show off their welfare standards, and promote buying-British. All at a time when Brexit could see global competitors beat them on price.

Abi Reader, a third generation dairy farmer in south Wales, says the open days are a chance to show people the things they’ve achieved with EU subsidies, from an improved slurry system to a new community orchard. “It’s very important that people understand that we’re not just pocketing this money and heading off to the Caribbean for a couple of months.”

The open days also provide motivation for an industry in decline. Reader tells me of a time she was on a train to London when some kids started screaming: “It’s the cow lady!” Their mum explained that they'd been to one of her Open Farm events, and from that day on she had always brought British produce. “It’s things like that make you realise how worthwhile it is,” says Reader.

But if these days really are so great at fostering greater transparency and awareness, should they be mandatory for all UK farms? And what if this self-selecting system gives visitors a misleading vision – by skewing towards the best and most conscientious?

Guy Smith, the Vice-President of the National Farmers Union, is not sure about the idea of making the events mandatory. The best way to rile farmers is telling them they have to do something, he says, pointing out the time and expense the events take, and the effort of arranging proper health and safety.

Like any industry there’s people out there who don’t perform as well as we’d like,” he adds.  “But we do encourage people to get involved." He believes the scheme does give people the opportunity to visit many “average” farms. And that farms, ultimately, are places of industry, “not nature reserves or museums”.

Annabel Shackleton of LEAF would like the number participating to rise further, perhaps to one event within a 20 mile radius of every home. The RSPCA is also encouraging more of their "assured" farms to take part. What might help is a guarantee replacement for the small amounts of CAP funding offered to events provided for schoolchildren.

The good news is that the scheme is not short on public support. As Smith says “If accountants announced tomorrow they were having an open day you can be sure they wouldn’t get that response.”  Last year saw over a quarter of a million visitors and the number of farms involved is rising: 24 per cent of those opening this Sunday are doing so for the first time.

One of those first-timers is Peter of North Farm in North East Dorset. For him the day is a chance to involve the whole local community – from a local beekeeper, to a microbrewery to a farming photographer. In his words: “we just want to show people what we get up to in the countryside.” Let the wheat-field running commence.

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.