Episode 17: Guy Singh-Watson

Guy Singh-Watson is Founder of Riverford, the hugely successful organic vegetable producer and vegetable box delivery company. The discussion begins with the importance of farming in our society and Guy’s personal discovers of a “deep connection” to nature and desire to be “part of nature, rather than outside or above it.”

They discuss George Monbiot’s recent documentary “Apocalypse Cow”. Guy explains that he is resistant to the idea of laboratory food, saying that culturally it “fills me with horror” although intellectually it would release land for re-wilding and return to biodiversity. He suggests the way forward is a mix of embracing the ways of nature, improving soil fertility and including livestock farming with “ideally no factory farmed animals and little feeding of soya to animals… a luxury as a planet we cannot afford.”

Guy points out that many farmers are trying to do the right thing and don’t want to be marked out as the bad guys. He says that the climate catastrophe is not the result of agriculture but the fossil fuel industry and our insatiable demand for energy. To be demonising farmers is grossly unfair.

Guy gives his ideas for creating a sustainable diet.

  • Reducing waste in the food chain. Waste in fields has little environmental impact, but radically cutting waste from our kitchens.
  • Eating less animal protein. We eat 1600gms meat a week in UK, We should reduce this to 600gms and encourage a vegan diet of unprocessed food.
  • Stopping growing produce in heated glasshouses.
  • Stopping air-freighting products.
  • Eating seasonal, local fruit and veg.
  • Questioning the nonsense of our economic model built on instant gratification.

“The enemy of sustainability is choice”, says Guy. “We’ve been sold the message that you can have whatever you want whenever you want and retailers need to have the courage to stand up and say no. Consumers should eat seasonally,” He believes that “out of a restrictive choice is born creativity and that applies in the kitchen as well.”

Guy believes that contact with nature engenders a greater appreciation and desire to protect it and change our thinking. He says we should also encourage people onto farms to understand food production today. If people realised it wasn’t like ‘Old MacDonald’ they would be more discerning about what they buy. In addition, clearer information and tougher trading standards would help to differentiate the genuine from the false claims about food quality. This should be illegal. Some parts of the food industry mislabel products as ‘organic’ and we should challenge them more often, asking ”Who certified it? Where is the label?”

Riverford communicate directly with their customers and talk about issues their farmers face in the way most farmers can’t. Guy says they are unique in that they have the privilege of being able to be honest. They also have great relationships with their suppliers supported by long term contracts. He points out that most producers are “obliged to play by the rules of a broken system” as they have only short term contracts which is the antithesis of sustainability.

Riverford have 70- 80,000 customers and make 55,000 deliveries a week. Food comes from the Riverford farm, a co-operative in Devon and others around the UK and a farm in France that is important for the May-June, the months of less UK produce. They are mostly medium size family farms with which Guy prioritises long term sustainability and mutually beneficial trading relationships.

18 months ago Guy decided to sell 74% of the business to the staff, making Riverford employee owned. He explains why: “I wanted to try and create a world less dominated by greed, by the accumulation of ridiculous amounts of personal wealth for our exclusive use which contribute nothing to our happiness, but massively to the detriment of the planet and the people who should be sharing in that wealth.”

The change was made slowly and thoughtfully and he doesn’t regret any of it. The company is doing fantastically well and has never done better than since it became employee owned.

Safia and Guy move on to talk about the measures Riverford is taking to reduce plastic packaging. Important for keeping leafy greens fresh, they have started to use compostable plastic which degrades after 12 weeks in a domestic composter. Or he plans to collect it if you have no compost and compost it at Riverford. Guy admits it’s not the perfect answer but the “least bad option.” A better way would be a recycling system where more of the value of the plastic can be recovered. He is clearly frustrated with the government’s lack of a unified kerbside collection policy for recycling, despite many years of lobbying and widespread agreement among industry and DEFRA that it needs to happen.

I find it jaw droppingly irresponsible and it just makes me despair of democracy, that we can have such piss poor decision making.”

Guy finishes the interview by advocating the introduction of a carbon tax. “It seems so obvious. If you want less carbon used, tax it!”




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Apocolypse Cow George Monbiot

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