How to grow a better class of carrot

Organic food costs too much. Leanda de Lisle proposes a return to the rotating crops of our ancestor

Farmers aren't very popular. Those who are rich are assumed to have succeeded at the expense of the rest of us. They have cheated us, poisoned us, destroyed the very earth we live on, so they can lord it over us from their horses and Range Rovers. Those who are poor are considered too backward and stupid to succeed at anything. The best place for the lot of them is in the stocks of TV comedy. Except, that is, for organic farmers. Fashionable opinion has it that farming should be as it was depicted by the German Romantic movement of the 1930s: full of big, pink people cutting wheat by hand. We are told that the past is the future and it's organic.

But the truth is that this is neither feasible nor desirable. The way forward lies in a new kind of farming that's good for the earth and good for people. One that's already being practised all over the country.

A mere 0.3 per cent of land in Britain is farmed organically. This is due, in part, to the innate conservatism of farmers. Farming is a highly geared industry that offers a low return on capital. Few can afford to take big risks. It could cost them their jobs, their home, their heritage and their children's future. Knowing this, farmers think long and hard before they go into something like organic farming from which there is no short route back. Until recently those who farmed organically have tended to be early, fervent followers of the green movement or the trust-fund babes of the farming community - people like Prince Charles. However, the BSE tragedy, public disquiet about industrial farming methods and the high, positive profile of organic farming have led farmers to look again at the organic option. In the past year, the number of those farming organically, or applying to the Soil Association to do so, has increased by 40 per cent.

There is no doubt that we could and should have more organic farms. EU subsidies have been paid per acre rather than per ton produced since 1993. This has put organic farms on a level playing field with conventional farms. In addition, an aid scheme subsidises the costs of converting to the organic system, and the much derided set-aside scheme pays organic (but not ordinary) farmers to grow clover to improve productivity. However, being few and scattered, organic farms have crippling distribution costs and offer an unreliable supply of goods.

So demand for organic produce is not being satisfied. But once they have reached a critical mass, organic farmers will find it easier to meet the demand which will then, in turn, increase. But by how much? Telling farmers that the organic system is the way forward is like telling grocers that Fauchon's is the Sainsbury's of the future.

CWS Agriculture (the farming wing of the Co-op) set up an organic farm in Leicestershire in order to look critically at the issues surrounding organic farming. The first concern of most farmers is whether they can grow organic crops successfully. At CWS they could, and without great difficulty. Yields were down, as expected; wheat by 56 per cent. Inevitably, organic food has to be premium priced. But people pay premium prices for glossy packaging at Marks and Spencer, so perhaps that wouldn't matter. It did. The real problem with organic produce was not growing it, but marketing it, according to the project manager, Alastair Leake. "All the surveys we've done show that people think organic farming is wonderful and, if they were faced with the choice of buying organic food, then they would buy it. But when you face them with the reality, which is that the product is sometimes inferior to look at and always more expensive, then people start to shift."

The middle-class people who order boxed organic produce may get depressed after weeks of finding nothing but potatoes and cabbages in their food parcels. But at least they are happy for food to look as if it once grew in the ground or walked upon it. Many people aren't. The supermarkets put meat in absorbent packaging so that you can't see the free blood; fruit and vegetables are washed and waxed so they look bright and clean. The aim is to make food look as if it arrived on earth as a ready-made meal. The public is more than happy to pay extra for a hamburger that's already in its bun, ready for the microwave. They are not so keen to pay extra for a perfectly dull, organic turnip.

People are more worried about dying from a heart attack than getting BSE, salmonella or some as yet undiscovered disease spread by cheap sprouts. White meat such as chicken has grown in popularity over the years at the expense of red meat such as lamb - yet it's lamb that's invariably free range. The public demands lean pork, but the leaner the meat, the more likely it has come from a crated pig. Organic pigs, in addition to being fatty, often have hair and the follicles can start right down in the meat. It would be nice if people could be persuaded to eat greener, kinder food, but the evidence suggests that only a minority will pay more for a clean conscience and a dirty spud.

In the long term, the Soil Association would like to see the world farmed 100 per cent organically. But would this really be a triumph? It's far more difficult to control pests in tropical climates than temperate ones. Last year, the green pioneer Dr Norman Borlaug said that environmentalists had paralysed attempts to prevent starvation in the developing world by denying farmers access to disease-resistant seeds and crop-protection chemicals. This is imperialism of the worst kind. The only "natural" way to compensate for lower yields is to plough up more land, much of which may be unsuitable for cultivation. We are already seeing the environmental consequences of this in Brazil, where the rainforest is being slashed and burnt to make way for new farmland.

In Britain, we'd be unlikely to starve if all our farmland was managed organically. However, we'd be more dependent on imports and people would have to get used to spending far more on food. It's common for journalists to say that farm subsidies place a terrible financial burden on British families, though they now spend a lower percentage of their income on basic food than ever before. But surely it would be better if foodies and animal lovers persuaded people to spend more on their food and eat organic produce than have politicians force them to; not least because people deserve a choice, and organic food is not the only animal and environmentally friendly produce out there.

Organic farming is more a religion than a science. Farmers will use copper sulphate and sulphur on their crops because they are natural, yet their toxicological profiles show that they are considerably more harmful than some of the man-made chemicals used on conventional crops.

On the other hand, there is a new method of farming known as integrated crop management (ICM) which is based on science and also rooted in a respect for the environment. ICM takes the natural system of crop rotation and many other of our ancestors' farming practices and integrates them with the latest technology. Hedges are encouraged rather than ripped out because they are the natural habitat of creatures that feed on destructive pests. Those pesticides that are used are to DDT what electricity is to the wood fire. They have excellent environmental profiles and are targeted rather than used prophetically.

At CWS they have found that, where ICM has been practised, yields have been slightly down (8 per cent for wheat), but as so little pesticide is used costs have also declined. As a result, performance is equivalent to or better than the conventional system. ICM removes many concerns about modern farming methods. It allows the farmer to make a profit and the customer to get affordable, quality produce. For Bob Hilborn, head of primary agriculture at Sainsbury's, "it's a clear win-win for farmers and customers alike".

Customers have not yet heard much about ICM, but farmers are already enthusiastic about this "third way" and it is being promoted nationally by a charitable organisation called Leaf (Linking the Environment and Farming).

Founded six years ago, Leaf has about 1,200 farming members whose subscriptions help to support it. Most of them hail from eastern counties like Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire, the supposed home of demonic grain barons who like nothing better than to rip up a hedge before breakfast. But 6,000 of these farmers have signed up to the Farm Assured Schemes, which include strict environmental (plus, where relevant, animal-welfare) and quality guarantees.

A scheme for fruit and veg was followed by one for beef and lamb and then, more recently, by one for pigs. Six months ago, the Combined Crop Assured Scheme was launched and it has already attracted 5,000 out of 30,000 grain farmers. The rapidity and apparent ease with which these schemes are being taken up suggest that the average farmer is not the animal and vegetable torturer of popular myth.

However, the proliferation of assured schemes is confusing and both Leaf and the National Farmers' Union are now considering having a single, whole farm scheme that will go further in answering customer concerns.

There is a saying that "the man who has food has many worries, but the man who is hungry has one". To a large extent, British farmers have been the victims of their own success. During the second world war and its aftermath they were asked to increase food production and they did so. By the 1970s they discovered they could completely control pest diseases in wheat and grow it year in, year out, without rotation. We now know that the consequence was environmental degradation. But we cannot throw away everything that has been achieved in the past 50 years.

Insisting that organic farming is the only right way to farm damns the people who will be producing the bulk of our food for the foreseeable future, or damns us to a time when food will again be expensive and scarce. It is a flat-earth entreaty, as helpful as Marie Antoinette's suggestion that the poor eat cake. Like the rest of us, farmers need to learn from the past and build on it. A system that integrates natural and scientific methods of food production does just that. It will help everyone do the right thing.

The writer is married to a Leicestershire farmer

This article first appeared in the 18 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A time for unadulterated tradition

Martin O’Neil for New Statesman
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Why the British addiction to period drama is driving away our best black and Asian actors

There is a diversity crisis in British TV and film as, increasingly, stars are decamping to America to make their career there.

Back in April, a six-part drama called Undercover premiered on BBC1. Perhaps you were one of the five million people who watched it: the story was audacious and continent-hopping, enfolding a narrative about a man on death row in the United States with an all-too-believable tale of a Metropolitan Police officer who marries a woman he is meant to be keeping under surveillance.

The reason the programme attracted so much attention, however, was not what it was about, but whom. Starring Sophie Okonedo and Adrian Lester, Undercover was widely reported as the first mainstream British television drama with black actors in the lead roles. This wasn’t true: as James Cooray Smith wrote on the New Statesman website, that milestone was passed in June 1956 by Mrs Patterson, a BBC adaptation of a Broadway play starring Eartha Kitt.

Yet Undercover was still a breakthrough. Smith, casting his mind back over more than six decades of British television, could not think of more than a handful of other examples. Writing in the Observer, Chitra Ramaswamy expressed her feelings with quiet devastation: “In 2016, it is an outrage that it’s a big deal to see a successful, affluent, complicated black family sit at a ­dinner table eating pasta.” Think about that. In 2016 in Britain, a country where more than nine million people describe themselves as non-white, it is news that a black, middle-class family should not only feature in a prime-time BBC drama but be at its heart. Undercover exposed how white most British television is.

Actors of colour have appeared on British film and TV screens for decades, and they have been visible on British stages for centuries – yet they have been shunted into the margins with depressing regularity. In January the actor Idris Elba urged British MPs to take the matter seriously. “Although there’s a lot of reality TV,” he argued, “TV hasn’t caught up with reality.”

In February, there was renewed uproar over the lack of racial diversity in Hollywood at the 88th Academy Awards, and the infuriated hashtag #OscarsSoWhite blossomed again on social media. A month later, Lenny Henry argued that black and minority ethnic (BAME) talent was being “ghettoised”. The term could hardly be more charged. Speaking at the London premiere of Mira Nair’s film Queen of Katwe, the actor David Oyelowo said: “What we need now is for a change to come. I think the talk is done.”

There has been some change. In March, the Royal Shakespeare Company opened a production of Hamlet starring Paapa Essiedu, an actor of Ghanaian heritage raised in London. It was the first time that a black performer had taken the role for the company. A new set of BBC diversity targets both on- and off-screen was unveiled in April. Noma Dumezweni is playing Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in the West End, and in October the BFI launched Black Star, a nationwide season celebrating black talent in film and TV. But what does the picture really look like, in late 2016? And what, if anything, needs to change?

The first challenge is that many in the film and TV industry find it difficult to talk about the subject. Researching this article, I lost count of the number of people who demurred to go on the record, or of actors who seemed eager to speak but were then dissuaded. Fatigue might be partly to blame – it’s exhausting to be asked repeatedly about diversity because you didn’t go to Harrow and your skin isn’t white – but I got the sense that there’s more going on.

One man who passionately believes this is the screenwriter Trix Worrell, the creator of the pioneering Channel 4 sitcom Desmond’s, which brought an African-Caribbean barbershop in south-east ­London to Middle England’s living rooms in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“TV is very difficult to break into. There’s a protectionism there,” he says with a shrug, when we meet for coffee on the seafront in Hastings, where he now lives. “People are nervous about rocking the boat.”

Though cheerful about most of the things we discuss, Worrell admits to feeling a roiling anger when it comes to this particular matter. Does he think that diversity has improved since he was pitching Desmond’s, three decades ago? “No. I say that with absolute certainty and surety.”

It is hard to underestimate the influence that Desmond’s had. The series ran for 71 episodes and at its peak it had five million viewers, remarkable for a sitcom. Starring the veteran actor Norman Beaton alongside a largely British-Guyanese cast, it made that community visible in a way that has not been rivalled in Britain in the 22 years since it came off air. It did so with the deftest of touches, addressing problems of interracial relationships and tensions within the black community through warm comedy.

“Up to that point, black people were ­never seen on TV,” Worrell recalls. “The only time we appeared in any media was in the red tops – muggings, vice. The idea was to show a black family who were just like any other.” Yet it seems that, apart from the spin-off comedy series Porkpie, occasioned by Beaton’s sudden death in 1994, Channel 4 has regarded the idea of portraying a normal black family in a sitcom as too great a gamble in the years since, despite an increase in the number of non-white roles in its other drama output.

Worrell smiles, but it is clear that the ­matter isn’t a joke. “The thing that’s said among black people is that there’ll only be one black sitcom every ten years.”

***

When I phone Paapa Essiedu while he’s on a lunch break from Hamlet, I am prepared to get a more positive perspective. Just 26, Essiedu has had a spectacular and seemingly unimpeded rise. A graduate of the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, he joined the RSC in 2012 and then hopped to the National Theatre in Sam Mendes’s King Lear, before returning to Stratford. The Telegraph greeted his debut as Hamlet with the notice that every actor dreams of: “A new star is born”.

But Essiedu seems ready to implode with frustration. “It’s ridiculous,” he says. “This stuff has been here for decades and decades: we’re lying to ourselves if we think there’s been a lack of awareness until now. Lots of people are talking and talking, but we need action.” Has he experienced racism directly? “Put it this way: quite often, I’ve been in a room where everyone else is white.”

A major issue, he says, is the apparently unshakeable addiction of British TV and film to corsets-and-cleavage period drama, which has left many BAME actors locked out of the audition room. The BBC is in the middle of a run of literary spin-offs, from War and Peace to The Moonstone. Over on ITV, we have had Victoria and the invincible Downton Abbey.

It still feels as though much of British drama is stuck in an airbrushed version of the country’s past. Though partly set in contemporary Egypt, BBC1’s adaptation of The Night Manager by John le Carré had only a handful of non-white actors in significant roles. Allowing for exceptions such as the BBC’s version of Andrea Levy’s Windrush-era novel Small Island, broadcast in 2009, you could be forgiven for thinking, had you never visited Britain, that people of only one skin colour live in this country. That the largely white drama series are successful on the export market only helps to extend the cycle.

“Producers say, ‘Oh, we commission stuff that people want to watch,’” Essiedu tells me. “But it’s such a narrow version of history – middle-to-upper-class Caucasian men, generally. Period drama can be from anywhere in the world: Africa, Asia. Where are those stories?”

Drama is just a sliver of broadcasting output, but other genres aren’t much better. Journalists from ethnic-minority backgrounds have made steady progress in television newsrooms – but not fast enough, Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy has ­argued; there is a glaring absence, however, when it comes to lifestyle and entertainment TV. The recent success of the intrepid youth TV star Reggie Yates notwithstanding, it is difficult to ignore or account for the dearth of BAME presenters in documentaries and “serious” factual programming; and no major current British chat show has a permanent anchor who isn’t white.

Adil Ray’s BBC1 comedy Citizen Khan, which focuses on the escapades of the overbearing Muslim patriarch Mr Khan and his family in the Sparkhill area of Birmingham, is a rare exception. It has just returned for a fifth season. A worthy successor to Desmond’s in its tongue-in-cheek approach to potentially inflammatory issues (the 2014 Christmas special featured the birth of Mr Khan’s grandson, Mohammad, on Christmas Day) the programme also resembles its forebear in a more depressing way: it appears to be one of a kind.

When I ask Ray why he thinks this is, he selects his words carefully. “It’s not prejudice exactly,” he says, “but in the TV business, there are a lot of formulas. If you’re doing curry, get an Asian person. If it’s hip-hop, someone who’s black. If you’re doing a walk in the countryside, or drinking tea in the Cotswolds . . .” He leaves the sentence hanging.

What appears on screen is only the visible part of the problem. Actors get cast in roles only if writers write them; projects get made only if commissioners commission them. TV and film are notoriously incestuous and competitive industries. Careers are unstable. Knowing someone who knows someone is often – too often – the only way of getting work.

According to figures produced this year by Creative Skillset, many media companies fail dismally when it comes to representation. Just 24 per cent of those in senior roles in cable or satellite firms are female; 4 per cent of employees in positions in senior terrestrial broadcast are BAME; and, if the numbers are to be believed, there are no BAME people at all working on the senior production side of independent film companies. The figures aren’t entirely robust – they rely on organisations filling in forms and returning them – but if they’re anywhere near the truth they make for grim reading.

The BBC’s statistics are more encouraging (according to the latest figures, BAME people make up 13.4 per cent of staff overall and hold 9.2 per cent of leadership roles) but don’t include freelancers, an area in which it is reasonable to suppose that, without quotas to fill, representation will be worse. In September, the media regulator Ofcom put broadcasters on notice that they could face “harder-edged” regulation if they did not improve diversity.

Chi Onwurah, the MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, who has been vocal about these matters in parliament, says that the BBC has a special duty to up its game. “It’s not doing enough,” she tells me. “If it was, there wouldn’t be a problem. It was very interesting watching the [European Union] referendum; all the efforts broadcasters have gone to to make sure there was balance. If they went to half that effort for BAME, gender and disability, it would be a different world.”

The BBC is keen to show that it is paying attention. Last year, it appointed Tunde Ogungbesan as its new head of “diversity, inclusion and succession”, and in April his team announced eye-catching targets: gender parity across every part of the corporation; 8 per cent of staff disabled; 8 per cent of staff lesbian, gay or trans; 15 per cent of staff from BAME backgrounds. Those numbers will be replicated on screen, lead roles included, and are roughly equivalent to averages for the overall population of Britain.

Yet the idea that established BBC presenters will go quietly seems optimistic. Take the ruckus that the comedian Jon Holmes recently raised when his contract with The Now Show (Radio 4) wasn’t renewed. Holmes asked in the Mail on Sunday: “Should I, as a white man . . . be fired from my job because I am a white man?”

Ogungbesan – a former head of diversity for Shell – has a businesslike attitude to the challenges he faces, which are, he concedes, considerable. “We’ve got four years to do this, and we know there’s a hell of a lot of work to do.” That is why his team has given itself a deadline. “Hopefully, when we hit those targets in 2020, we’ll be the most diverse broadcaster in the UK.”

How does he respond to Onwurah’s suggestion that the BBC is skilled at announcing targets but less good at making change happen? “We’re publishing our results,” he says. “You’ll be able to hold us to it.”

And what if the targets aren’t met? Ogun­gbesan laughs, for perhaps a touch too long. He will not consider the possibility. “I’m like a boxer. I refuse to look at it.”

***

If British TV and film don’t get their act together soon, there may be no one left to cast. Increasingly, black and Asian stars are decamping to America to make their career there. Among those who have joined the brain drain are Archie Panjabi and Cush Jumbo (The Good Wife), David Oyelowo (Selma) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave). Idris Elba, who brooded brilliantly in BBC1’s crime procedural Luther, would likely never have been cast in a big British series if he hadn’t already made a name in the United States with The Wire. Before she appeared in Undercover, Sophie Okonedo said in an interview that the scripts she was offered from the US far outnumbered those from the UK.

Visiting Los Angeles recently, I tracked down Parminder Nagra, who made her name in Bend It Like Beckham before being spotted by a producer for the long-running medical drama ER. In 2003 she was offered the role of the Anglo-American doctor Neela Rasgotra, which she played until the series ended in 2009. A big part in the NBC crime drama The Blacklist followed, along with other film and TV work.

She never intended to move, she says, laughing ruefully, when we meet at a café in a well-to-do suburb of LA populated by movie folk. She has worked occasionally elsewhere but, 13 years on, she is still on the west coast. “The jobs I’ve got, like most actors, haven’t come about in a conventional way. It’s generally because someone is open-minded enough to look at you.”

Although she is careful to make it clear that the US is far from a utopia in terms of how it portrays race, sexuality or gender on screen – she tells a gruesome tale of a white writer who sent her his attempt at an “Asian” character – Nagra senses that things are more open in the US. “It’s a bigger pond here, because of the sheer size of the country,” she says. “There are writers of colour in the UK, but what happens is that you’ve only got one or two people at the top who are making decisions about the taste of the country . . . Those people are white.”

The landscape is certainly more open in the US. Leaving aside the allegations about Bill Cosby, NBC’s Cosby Show (1984-92) was a force for good, with its focus on a middle-class African-American family and with the numerous ethnically diverse shows it made possible: A Different World, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, In Living Color, Scandal (the last was commissioned by the influential black writer-producer Shonda Rhimes). Back in the early 1980s, the gentle NBC sitcom Gimme a Break! – starring Nell Carter – explored issues of racism, too.

US cable and online subscription ­services are even more courageous. Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black has an ethnically kaleidoscopic cast and plotlines that vault across almost every conceivable question of gender, sexuality, body image and politics. Where it has apparently taken the BBC until 2016 to realise that families can be both black and upper middle class, ABC in the US was years ahead: in 2014 it commissioned Black-ish, which offers a subtle portrait of an advertising executive who frets that he is losing touch with both his Obama-era kids and his inner-city origins.

Nagra nods. “There still are a lot of issues here, but if you’re an actor of colour, there is more work. All those British period dramas are really well done, but there’s a yearning there: ‘Can I please just see somebody like me on TV?’”

The reason all this matters is that TV, theatre and film have a duty to show us not merely who we are, but who we can become. In Undercover, Okonedo becomes Britain’s first black, female director of public prosecutions: this may seem unlikely, given the state of the UK’s judiciary, yet seeing it on TV helps to shift perceptions. No one would argue that Okonedo’s co-star Dennis Haysbert got Barack Obama into the White House by playing a black president of the United States in 24, but perhaps it made such a world marginally more imaginable.

The time is overdue for British TV to abandon its fetish for bodices and show us what our nation actually looks like, in all its variety – and to be more imaginative about the kind of history it presents. Colour-blind casting is mainstream in theatre. Actors of various heritages appear in Pinter or Chekhov and no one raises an eyebrow.

Anthropologists argue that race and gender are forms of performance, sets of shared codes, rather than something intrinsic to who we are. Is it so difficult to imagine a Jane Austen production with performers of black or Asian heritage? Is that any harder to believe than the thousand impossibilities we witness every day in TV drama?

I ask Essiedu if he is optimistic. Yes, he says forcefully. “I have to be. Optimism is the only way we initiate change.”

When I put the same question to Nagra, she pauses to think. “I remember being asked about this when I started ER, and I was a bit tired of the issue even then. Yet here we still are.” Her expression is wry. “So ask me in ten years’ time.”

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile