Opinion: Nature can’t provide what agriculture can

I know I should grow up a bit, but I smirked like an amused schoolboy when I read that the TV programme Countryfile had been criticised for promoting a scheme distributing free packs of wild flower seed that contained Corncockles.

The problem being Corncockles are poisonous, containing the toxin saponin. Obviously the risk to humans is probably not that significant, but that didn’t stop the popular press drumming up a bit of hysteria over the Corncockle danger that now lurked in our parks, gardens and hedgerows thanks to the BBC.

The Corncockle is an interesting flower species for farmers in that it used to be common in cereal crops, but it has now been largely eradicated through the use of herbicides.

The irony is that the eradication of this poisonous plant in food crops, far from being welcomed, is widely regretted by many in the green lobby who tend to see all changes brought about by modern agriculture as in some way regrettable.

Rather than applaud the demise of the toxic Corncockle from our milling wheat, we hear loud complaints that the farmers have killed off a much-loved wild flower with wicked chemicals.

No doubt devotees of the Corncockle would laugh off any idea of danger by pointing out that the levels of poison involved were not that dangerous. But again, this stinks of double standards as the same defenders of naturally occurring poisons would be up in arms if food could be found to contain microscopic traces of pesticides, even if these pesticides had a toxicity profile far more benign than that of the Corncockle.

All this is rather reminiscent of a culinary faux pas made a few years ago when celebrity chef, Antony Worrall Thompson, was writing in Healthy and Organic Living magazine about the natural wonders of plants that could be foraged in the wild.

The chef went on to recommend a list of species to be put in salads, including Henbane. Henbane was the highly toxic plant that Dr Crippen used to dispatch his wife. Healthy and Organic Living magazine had to hastily issue a warning to its readers not to touch Henbane with a barge pole even if it was “organic and natural”.

This notion that Mother Nature is our friend and would never do us any harm with the plants she gives us is one you tend to hear a lot about this time of year when “foraging for free food” becomes all the rage for the chattering classes.

Today we seem to encourage children to eat wild plants on the off chance they might be good for you. As a child, I was told not to eat wild plants on the off chance they might be poisonous.

I like a pot of blackberry jam and a bottle of sloe gin, but the idea that the hedge is some sort of significant larder is nothing short of fanciful when it comes to my daily food needs. The idea that if something occurs naturally in nature then it should be assumed to be benign, whereas if its man-made then it should be viewed with suspicion, is a prejudice that farmers would do well to challenge.

Mother Nature does not provide humans with a significant source of nutrition – and that’s why you need farmers and agricultural science.

When you hear starry-eyed policy makers and opinion formers spouting nonsense about farmers needing to move back to “natural regimes” you realise a lot of people have swallowed a lot of half-baked tripe that could restrict the farmer from having the tools he needs to produce a bountiful supply of wholesome, affordable food.

Anyone unlucky enough to be left in a wilderness to forage for their calorie needs will quickly find that life without farmers and science is nasty, brutish and short.

Guy Smith comes from a mixed family farm on the north-east Essex coast. Situated on the coast close to Clacton-on-Sea, the business is well diversified with a golf course, shop, fishing lakes and airstrip. He is vice-president of the NFU

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