Sunday, 10 November 2013

The Russell Brand Phenomenon

The other day Russell Brand got himself a prestigious slot with Jeremy Paxman, presumably on the back of being a guest editor on the New Statesman, with a theme of revolution.

His somewhat wild rant to Paxman ‘went viral’, with a massive amount of support in the social media, but I found myself deeply critical of what he said – or more precisely what he didn’t say. I briefly expressed my concerns a couple of times in said social media, and found myself strongly challenged.

I decided to defend my position (which by the way I share with a few people a good deal more distinguished than I will ever be!).

One point that has been made to me was that at least he started a debate. True, but it was the wrong debate. The debate that Brand started, and which has become so popular, became all about what is wrong with the system, the crookedness and deceit of MPs, the pointlessness of voting and how the system looks after big business at the expense of us poor mortals.

My difficulty lies in what might be considered to be Mr Brand’s lack of ambition. Although he is claiming to be looking for a revolution, he is actually talking about protest, which is a much less powerful beast. In my mind, Brand’s protestations are a bit like the wailing of a child in a cot – he is unhappy, even distressed, but he doesn’t know why, he just wants someone else to come along and fix it!

He is right in one respect at least, which is that we do indeed need a revolution. But the point he misses is that a revolution always has a specific goal in mind. I am no historian, but there have been revolutions in Russia, Cuba, several South American countries, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, and even South Africa, and in every case the revolutionaries, whether successful or not, knew what they wanted to achieve, unlike Mr Brand, who only knows what he wants to destroy.

People who complain that their vote doesn’t count have it wrong – it always counts. To start with a candidate can gauge his level of support and plan for the next occasion. But in truth, a single voter cannot expect to see his or her personal wishes reflected in the National Parliament unless those wishes are shared by a majority of voters, because we have a representative democracy which doesn’t work like that.

Russell Brand has never voted and doesn’t see the point in doing so because he doesn’t like the system – and this view seems to be shared by millions of people. But where were all those people, Mr Brand included, when we were given a referendum on changing the voting system? I presume he didn’t vote then either!

I would like Mr Brand to know that he is not the first to despair of our current system. He is not the first to find fault with our financial services, or the support by Government for large and powerful organisations, or our broken agricultural and food supply chain models and much more. But if Mr Brand wants to use his celebrity status to change things, there are many organisations he could lend his support to with good effect. Here are some:

New Economic Foundation
Positive Money
Campaign for Real Farming
GM Freeze
Good Energy
The Green Party
Friends of the Earth

And of course there are many more out there – you only have to look.

So wake up Mr Brand. The revolution has already started, and all these organisations are making it happen. I’m sorry if it isn’t happening quickly enough for you, but unlike protests, revolutions take time.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

I Dined At Fifteen Cornwall Last Night…

I was being treated. It was my first time. I was collected at 7pm and driven (at nerve wracking speed!) through a pitch black gale-riven rain-drenched night; weather which would not allow me to experience the much praised view from the huge length of glass panelling overlooking the bay.

I had little idea what to expect, and my first impression was one of bright space. Lots of tables, but not crammed together; large tear-drop pendant lights, with, I am sure, energy efficient bulbs; and welcoming smiles. The atmosphere was one of friendly cheerfulness, without any of that pseudo-subservience found in so many ‘posh’ restaurants. There is mutual respect between staff and customers. And my goodness, those guys know their stuff!

James, the young man taking our orders, who had been working there for a couple of months, talked us through an extensive menu, explaining in fine detail how each dish was put together and how the components worked with each other to achieve an effect. His command of it was stunningly impressive, and someone soon will need to pay him very good money indeed to employ him!

Gordon is a world-class sommelier. I was not going to be asked to choose the wine I would drink – I was going to be told, not only what wine would be served with each course, but why, with an explanation of how the grape was grown, where it was grown, why it was different from wines from neighbouring vineyards, and something about the people who make the wine. Pretentious? Not on your life. Gordon knows his stuff to a daunting degree (I have never been that expert at anything) and wanted to impart as much of that knowledge as possible in the short time available. None of that ‘A suspicion of gorse in the breeze’ crap but pure unadulterated expertise in a language anyone could feel comfortable with. He even suggested to me that after experiencing the Soave he produced, I should keep the taste in mind and try a supermarket Soave the next day to see the difference! My response – I would rather not, as the next Soave I would drink would almost certainly come from a Supermarket, because of budgetary constraints.

As the food was served, discreetly without fuss, there was none of that ‘OK, who’s having the crab?’! Everyone, including Gordon, knew which of us had ordered what. Each course turned up exactly when we were ready, together with fresh glasses for the next wine. Used plates and cutlery were cleared equally discreetly. And all the while there were cheerful smiles.

Without wishing to get too sugary, I am bound to say that in a very literal sense the whole thing worked like a symphony. The food, the wine, the service, the cheerful respect, nothing either overdone or underdone (I don’t mean just the food) contrived to produce a dining experience you would need to go a long way to match.

And consider where this experience comes from. Jamie Oliver set up a charity called Cornwall Food Foundation, which is funded largely from the restaurant, and whose purpose in a nutshell is to give young men and women from less than ideal backgrounds the chance to learn to become top class chefs. With expert teaching and support these young people, working side by side with skilled professionals, produce meals such as the one that I enjoyed.

Is it worth the money? That question cannot be answered. The menu prices are by my standards eye-watering.

Is a £500,000 house worth the money? Or a £50,000 car? Not to me! I don’t need it and wouldn’t be interested even if I could afford it. But to other people with different standards and priorities? Presumably yes.

Is it worth spending that kind of money to support this extremely effective charity? Without question, if you can afford it.

If I had to pay next time, would I go again? If the credit card would stand it, if the occasion or the company called for it, then absolutely without question!

Friday, 4 October 2013

Just What Is It With The BBC?

Last May in the USA a brave lady called Tami Canal started a movement called March Against Monsanto, because it had proved impossible to have food containing genetically modified ingredients labelled as such in California. Initially she hoped for support from perhaps 3000 people. In the event, on the Saturday in question it was estimated that two million people in 436 cities in 52 countries turned out with banners to express their support, first of all for the principle that GM food should be so labelled, but also for the campaign against the use of GMOs in our food chain.

I would have thought that was a pretty major event! But try as I might, I was unable to find any reference to it in any of the BBC’s news coverage anywhere!

The event is being planned again for October 12th. I wonder if it will make the news this time.

Like most disappointments, I allowed this one to fade from my thoughts.

In June Owen Paterson, Environment Secretary, (an avowed climate change sceptic, by the way) gave a memorable speech to Rothamsted Research Centre in which he expressed enthusiastic support for GM crops, basing his enthusiasm on a selection of ‘facts’ which even his most loyal supporters would have had difficulty swallowing. This speech, however, received copious BBC coverage; as did the Prime Minister’s endorsement of the process.

In August, Dara O Briain’s Science Club programme went out with a ‘fun’ piece about using genetic modification to combat malaria. Now whatever you may think about the principle, this particular process is not without pitfalls and is far, far from fool-proof. And yet the programme was screened in such a way as to leave the viewer with the impression that genetic modification was ‘it’, ‘the answer’, problem solved. No room for doubt!

On September 18th, the BBC ran the first episode of Science Britannica with Professor Brian Cox, who is a particle physicist (O Briain studied maths and physics) as well as being a rather ubiquitous media star. I was watching it idly with half an eye, it not being on my list of things I must not miss, when Prof. Cox started talking about GM crops. By the time I was fully awake, the 5 minute section was long gone. I was away from home at the time, so my feeling of unease at the spin being put on GMOs by Cox was put on hold until I got home.

Then I was trawling through iPlayer and decided to run the programme again. This time the spin made me not just uneasy but angry!

Here is the letter I have written to the BBC.

BBC Complaints
PO Box 1922

Dear Sirs

Science Britannica episode 1
Broadcast on 18th September at 9 pm

I have recently watched, for the second time, the first episode of Science Britannica, and was very concerned at the evident bias of the programme regarding GM crops, about 40 minutes in to the programme. It was probably the most prejudicial five minutes of television I have seen in many years. This bias has appeared before in a previous program, Dara O Briain’s Science Club. It is becoming clear that the BBC, along with certain politicians, is keen to portray the anti GMO lobby as either nonexistent, or ignorant, fearful, and anti-science.

It is certainly the case that on the subject of climate change, the BBC have been criticised for giving disproportionate air time and credibility to climate change ‘deniers’ and I would echo that criticism, because there is no longer a scientific rationale for their position. But to imply, as Brian Cox does, that there is no scientific rationale for the position of the anti GMO lobby is to misunderstand the situation completely, and I would expect a more balanced approach from him and from a BBC science-based programme.

As with the ‘Science Club’ programme before it, the case for GM crops was made in a way which suggested that no credible opposing view exists. Professor Cox appeared to regret that scientists ‘have not always been able to control the debate’, but these programmes make it clear that they are trying to do just that. Cox suggests that ‘public opinion has been led by a vigorous anti GM campaign that started in the 1990s, which left many people dead set against GM crops’. This statement was accompanied by a film of white-suited figures jumping up and down in a field. That was as close as we have come to hearing a view from anyone who is against GM food, although today’s concerns arise not from those 1990s protests but from substantial research into the effects of GM food on both agriculture and animals, not just in a laboratory, but also in the field.

Cox continues, ’There are fears that the crops may contaminate the environment or that they may be unsafe to eat, and underlying it all is a feeling that there is something fundamentally wrong about meddling with life at such a basic level.’ It is clear that Cox has not taken the time to listen to any of the premises which give rise to the opposition to GMOs. In the Americas the environment has already been irretrievably contaminated. Many ill patients in the USA have been prescribed an organic diet by their doctors, to escape the effect of the GM ingredients in almost all American food; this prescription proving successful.

Professor Cox’s interview with Professor Jones starts with an inane question about the label ‘Frankenfood’, inane because this was a journalist’s term, not one espoused by those concerned about the process, and Jones’ response was as predictable as it was banal. Cox raises the spectre of the ‘unnatural’ process, again prompting a predictable response from Jones – a response I might have used myself!

Jones rhetorically asks the obvious question, ‘What is the least bad way of protecting our crops from disease and pests, or reducing the losses caused by weeds?’ and the viewer is left to conclude that GMOs must be that least bad way.

Then Cox baldly states that Professor Jones’ view ‘is also backed up by a vast body of research that shows it to be safe and effective.’

I challenge Professor Cox to find any of that vast body of evidence. (Substantial Equivalence testing doesn’t prove anything!) I used to share Brian Cox’s willing acceptance of the GMO philosophy, until I discovered that there is no substantial research which shows that GM food is safe, and that there are many reputable and peer-reviewed scientists who say that it is not, with the evidence from tests on animals to substantiate their view. As to the effectiveness of the process, there is overwhelming evidence throughout the Americas and India which shows that the emerging disadvantages of GM crops outweigh the advantages, and that alternative less invasive science-based agricultural methods are more productive.

Professor Cox expresses himself baffled as he feels that simply presenting the evidence should be sufficient to convince us laymen. A more productive dialogue might emerge if he was to present all the evidence. He calls for effective public engagement. Does he mean that? There are plenty of scientists with credentials as worthy as his who would be happy to ‘engage’ with him and with Professor Jones.

I hope that you will be able to investigate the one-sided approach to this matter exemplified in this programme, with a view to re-establishing the reputation for fairness which used to be the hallmark of BBC programming.

I look forward to your early reply

In the past I have ignored suggestions that the BBC’s impartiality is a myth. But now I am beginning to wonder. It is crystal clear that the unscientific Mr Paterson has formed his views based on the scientific opinions he is given by his establishment advisers. It is certainly the case that those opinions are coloured by the GM industry, or at least their extremely well funded propaganda machine. It can be proved that as soon as a study emerges that finds fault with any aspect of GM crops, that propaganda machine will take steps to discredit it. The same tactics were used by the tobacco industry for years, and are still being used by the oil industry in respect of global warming. Happily both the politicians and the BBC have realised that the positions taken by those industries have been discredited some time ago.

All the same, when it is increasingly clear that the policies of this Government are guided by the demands of Big Business (just listen to David Cameron’s conference speech!) it is disconcerting to think that the policies of the BBC are increasingly influenced by the Government.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Cornwall Pride

I went into Truro today because it is the day of Cornwall Pride, and there is traditionally a parade through Truro followed by a party in the park. The event brought home to me how much in the world has changed since I walked with the first Truro Pride, at the invitation of friends, in 2008. Those friends were able subsequently to get married in Holland, where same-sex marriages were allowed from 2001, and now live on the other side of the world. But now, each time I check on the internet, the number of countries allowing such unions has increased. Scotland is likely to be the next. At that first Pride event in Truro, there were protests from members of the religious right, who tried unsuccessfully to disrupt the parade; although it should be said that there was very visible support from Christians who do not share that antipathy. Today, I saw no sign of any hostility – absolutely the reverse.
During those five years, so much has changed around the world: one of my favourite moments was that great speech in support of same sex marriage in the New Zealand Parliament. However the plight of LGBT people in some other countries is a good deal less comfortable. In Uganda, there is still a proposal on the table to pass a bill making homosexual acts punishable by prison, and even the death penalty. The situation there has been publicised by a prize-winning documentary, ‘Call Me Kuchu’, which relates the story of David Kato who was an outspoken campaigner in Uganda for LGBT rights, and was murdered for his trouble. Now there has been plenty of media coverage and discussions around the new laws in Russia. There are however up to 80 countries where laws on homosexuality are at least as intolerant as those in Russia, and in many others LGBT people are victimised, and such crimes as ‘corrective rape’ are condoned by the authorities.

But events like Cornwall Pride, along with the publicity they are given, must, in the end, have an effect. Throw a pebble in a pond and watch the ripples! By world standards our Pride parade is small, but it would be wrong to suggest that the global effect is too small to matter.

Until 1967, homosexual acts between men were illegal. When the bill was passed, homosexuals were invited to ‘show their thanks’ by ‘ comporting themselves quietly and with dignity… any form of ostentatious behaviour now or in the future or any form of public flaunting would be utterly distasteful… [And] make the sponsors of this bill regret that they had done what they had done’.
I don’t know what the sponsors of that 1967 bill would have thought in Truro today, but I hope they would have been proud!

Saturday, 17 August 2013

The Staff of Life

I Googled ‘The Staff of Life’. I used Google, although it isn’t my default search engine (which is Ecosia), because I wanted to get an idea about how many entries there were. I got 1.4 billion. I didn’t check them all! Most of the entries seemed to relate to pubs and hotels; a few were about churches, and a few were about food, mostly bread.

About five years ago I read an article in Resurgence Magazine about ‘Slow Sunday’, which put forward the idea of using a leisurely Sunday to bake bread, good bread being produced slowly. There was a recipe in the magazine contributed by Andrew Whitley which I used, and that whetted my appetite. I bought Andrew Whitley’s book, Bread Matters, and read it from cover to cover, and I must admit that it put me off factory bread for life, as well as getting me started on a journey which even now becomes more interesting month by month.

I suppose that now, five years on from that first Slow Sunday, and there have been many since, if someone asked me what my hobbies were, I would have to include bread making. The only time I have bought bread during those five years was when I was refurbishing my kitchen and had to disconnect the cooker. Unfortunately I can’t eat the bread quickly enough to allow me to bake as often as I would like to, particularly as I am trying to lose weight! Bread has become more to me than just something to support the marmalade. Making bread is therapeutic. Taking it hot out of the oven is intensely satisfying. Eating a chunk of carefully baked bread is an infinitely more pleasurable experience than popping a piece of factory sliced white out of the toaster. And if you are making sourdough bread – well, you can double all of the above.

And that’s why I was Googling ‘the staff of life’; because that’s how I think of my bread!

I believe that with the prospect of a changing climate as a result of, amongst other things, a destructive system of agriculture and food preparation; and with the rising cost of fossil fuel (which in my opinion continues to be inevitable) we should all be reviewing what we eat and how we prepare our own food. Holding that belief, I continue to adjust what food I buy, and what food I grow in my own garden. The result, which should not surprise me, is that I am healthier than I have been for years, and my food bills are very much lower. Certainly I am now in the position of being able to spend more time on all this than someone in full employment, and so people with full time jobs who want to follow the same path would need to compromise to some degree. But that should not alter the basic premise.

So if you do nothing else, think about the staff of life.

Fracking 2013

What does ‘fracking’ mean?

The other day I read a Guardian article on line in which a fracking protagonist stated that fracking has been used for years in UK land-based oil wells when water is pumped into the well to force oil out. It’s true that that practice has been common in the oil industry for many years, particularly in wells which have passed their peak production. But that has never been called ‘fracking’ before, that I am aware of.

I listened to another protagonist on the Today programme, who said that fracking was an integral part of drilling for geothermal energy, although geothermal drilling is an entirely different process, which recycles the water. In all the time since I first assisted in a geothermal test drill in the Rosemanowes Quarry in Cornwall in the early ‘80s, I have never heard the word ‘fracking’ in this context.

I have a sense that the ‘fracking’ enthusiasts are subtly widening the meaning of the word, to include processes which are, or have been, in common use without controversy, thereby gaining a kind of 'borrowed respectability'. It’s a neat trick!

So when I read the Telegraph article by David Cameron, I admit to looking at it with an analytical eye, because, like Tony Blair, he is good with words!

It has to be said that although the protests at Balcombe have turned into a national event, many of those protesters are there because they perceive a potential effect on their own lives from copious heavy road transport and the likely effect on the water supply, both through over use and through pollution, both of which have been experienced in the USA. These are entirely reasonable and valid motives for the protests, but in global terms they are probably amongst the less important reasons for objecting.

There are many lessons to be learned from the American experience, but it seems that our political leaders are surrounded by people who tell them what they want to hear, rather than the facts. On the other hand it has been suggested to me that the present Government attitude is simply designed to fend off UKIP and keep the Tory Right in check, and that after the next election many obstacles to planning permission may be discovered! But they are politicians – how can we possibly know what they really think!

In his article, Mr Cameron said, ‘If we don’t back this technology, we will miss a massive opportunity to help families with their bills and make our country more competitive. Without it, we could lose ground in the tough global race.’

It is difficult to understand exactly what he means, aside from the bit about bills. How will it make us more competitive? How will it affect our position in the ‘tough global race’? As for that bit about bills, that probably won't happen, because fracking is a very expensive process, and importing gas from Norway and Qatar is actually likely to be cheaper, even with George Osborne's generous tax concessions.

As Mr Cameron says, ’Just look at the United States: they’ve got more than 10,000 fracking wells opening up each year and their gas prices are three-and-a-half times lower than here’.

10,000 wells a year! Imagine that!

Well, exactly! Mr Cameron, this is how it works:

The banks, always on the lookout for an opportunity, have smothered the industry in the US with loans, secured against the assets of the companies, who are making hay while the sun shines. But a shale gas well produces about 80% of its capacity in the first two years. So in order to maintain the flow (and it is the flow rate which is important) they have to keep drilling new wells as the old ones die (hence Mr Cameron’s 10,000). And as we have said, drilling wells is expensive. So why are gas prices in the US so low? Because they have been over producing, running fast to try to keep up with themselves! Then they have been exporting gas to countries like ours where gas prices are higher than at home, to try and recoup some of that money. In 2012, the expenditure on shale gas drilling in the United States was $42 billion. But receipts from sales of that gas were less than that by about $10 billion. As our American cousins would say, ‘Do the math!’ To me (but I am no expert) it has the smell of subprime about it!

Meanwhile, in the US the green-washers have been triumphantly extolling their reduction in CO2 emissions, forgetting that the coal which they haven’t been using has been exported to someone else, whose emissions have gone up.

Mr Cameron is undoubtedly right in claiming that a thriving shale-gas industry in this country would support plenty of jobs (although not for a while yet), but not nearly as many as would be supported by a thriving renewable and energy conservation industry.

Mr Cameron claims that a well-regulated shale-gas industry would be safe, by which I presume he means no water pollution, no loss of domestic water supplies and no leakage of methane into the atmosphere. Good luck with that! But I can afford to take an objective view because there will be no fracking where I live (unless it is for geothermal energy).

My objections to this industry are twofold. The first is that it merely prolongs our dependency on fossil fuel, with all that that implies for the decarbonisation of our energy supply. The second is that for a relatively short term benefit it is far, far too expensive (and will do nothing to reduce our energy bills).

I do have a third objection, which is more general and relates to the whole approach to Government by this coalition. In his article, Mr Cameron once more suggests that we are all in this together. He wants us all to share the benefits. He says, ‘Local people will not be cut out and ignored’.

But that is just what is happening at Balcombe.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

An Open Letter to David Cameron

Dear Mr Cameron

I believe that some Conservative politicians simply do not understand why the old ‘We’re all in this together’ routine is regarded with a degree of scepticism by so many of us voters. Perhaps I can help with that understanding by suggesting to you that politicians should give a little more thought than they do to those they are supposed to represent.

I can’t speak for everyone of course, but I can compare my experiences now with those of a few years ago. In those days, my MP was a Liberal Democrat. I went to him with a problem, and to my surprise and delight he obtained a worthwhile solution by putting in some work and communicating. And that was before communicating became as easy as it is today.

Recently I wanted to raise some concerns with my elected representatives in both the British and the European Parliaments. For context, I should say that my concerns were aggravated by a speech made by Mr Owen Paterson, (whose record on understanding and believing science has recently lost some credibility). I have grave concerns about the use of genetic engineering in food production and I wanted my representatives to hear them, and respond constructively.

I certainly don’t expect that my views will be shared universally. I do expect them to be treated with respect, particularly because my views are widely held across national and European boundaries. I spent some time composing what I thought was a comprehensive summary of my doubts and fears in the letter I sent to my MP, asking her to pass them on to Mr Paterson.

I posted my letter to my MP, Mrs Sarah Newton, by Royal Mail on 21st June. I also emailed a copy of the letter, with covering messages, to all my MEPs. As yet, after six weeks I have not had the courtesy of an acknowledgement from Mrs Newton, let alone a comment.

The most constructive and helpful response (in relative terms) came from Mr Ashley Fox MEP. I followed up with another email to him, giving further evidence to substantiate my concerns.

I received a letter from Mr Giles Chichester. It was polite, but dismissive, stating that he had ‘seen studies and heard presentations from respectable research organisations in the UK which give a more positive interpretation’. I replied inviting him to give me the opportunity to read those positive interpretations, as I wished to keep an open mind. As yet I have had no further communication from Mr Chichester.

I received an acknowledgement from the PA to Ms Girling, promising a reply in due course, but nothing further.

I have exchanged communications with Mrs Newton on other occasions, and have found her helpful where we have common ground, but otherwise she seems to prefer not to communicate. From this and the experiences detailed above, I am forced to conclude that Conservative politicians are only prepared to engage constructively with those who clearly agree with them (whereas an opposite approach might win you more converts!). Mr Fox evidently found some points of agreement between us, responding courteously and helpfully. Mr Chichester appears uninterested in explaining his position to someone with whom he disagrees. Ms Girling is as yet an unknown quantity – I can only assume she is too busy to respond (although not to tweet!).

Most newly elected politicians (including you, Mr Cameron, I venture to suggest!) are inclined to claim that they represent all their electorate, not just those who voted for them. Would that this was true! In general, MEPs seem to have no contact or engagement with their constituents. I doubt that anyone in my community would be able to name their European representatives. And while I would never suggest that communicating at that level in such a large constituency is easy, I would certainly claim that here lies one reason for so much disillusionment with the European project.

I must tell you that with the exception of Mr Fox, I found the lack of helpful response from Conservative politicians offensive. There seems to be an arrogance not only in the lack of response from some but particularly by the dismissive attitude taken by Mr Chichester. MEPs are well enough paid (although not excessively). However the expenses they are able to claim can be very high. Those expenses should at least enable them to communicate constructively with their constituents, even if through a well qualified assistant.

And by the way, on the subject of my original concerns regarding GM crops, I would like to say this; new evidence, much of it peer reviewed and most of it credible, is emerging almost daily, which militates against the use of GM techniques in food. To hitch your party and its policies to this particular science before all the evidence is in may turn out to have been a grave mistake, not just for politicians, but for all of us. There is a widely accepted opinion that the Government’s association with the pro-GM lobby is manifested for two reasons. The first reason is that it is pivotal to trade negotiations with the USA, and the second is that big international corporations have more influence on Government policy (on this matter, via Rothamsted Research) than the population at large. Whether or not that opinion is justified, it should be a matter of concern for you. The widely held views amongst most European countries are contrary to that of your Government, and those views are not held on the basis of a whim!

As for Europe, I think we would all be more enthusiastic about the project if our elected representatives could be seen to offer a two-way channel for significant and sensible communication. On the one hand, their lack of engagement seems like a good reason for Britain to make an exit from the project. On the other, the European Union seems to be all that stands between us and your Government's negative policies on the environment (including GM crops), climate change and a somewhat overbearing relationship with the USA.

I live in hope that the General and European elections, when they arrive, will bring us representatives who are able to engage fully with their constituents, and who will help us to feel that we are, genuinely, represented. Those are the criteria which will influence my votes.

Yours sincerely

Tim Thomson

Sunday, 4 August 2013

An Open Letter to Ed Milliband

Dear Mr Milliband

Old Labour, New Labour, One Nation Labour…What does it all mean exactly?

I am old enough to remember when the political parties put forward their principles, ideals and aims, together with the policies they believed would achieve those aims. The electorate would then have the opportunity to choose the party which most conformed to their own beliefs. And I think that the last party leader to do that was Margaret Thatcher. (She wasn’t my choice, but it worked for her!)

Since then there has been a not too subtle change in approach, so that at best, the parties try to dress up (or dilute) their policies in a way which will appeal to as many different sectors of the voting public as possible; or at worst, try to discover what policies would most appeal, and then shoe those policies in to their own manifestos regardless of principle. (The immigration debate is a case in point.)

For some reason the policy makers believe that the general public don’t sense this; and tragically, these days, they are often right, not because voters are not intelligent, but because we have become bored with the institutional cynicism thus displayed.

What happens in other countries?
It is fascinating to compare our situation with that in other Western countries. For example, take infant mortality. The highest level (per thousand live births) is USA, and the lowest is Sweden. Child poverty: highest in USA (by a long way) and lowest in Denmark. Gender inequality: worst in USA, best in Sweden. Environmental sustainability: worst in USA, best in Nordic countries (and Switzerland). Income share of the top 1%: USA over 18%, Denmark 4%. And the point of all this? Where these figures are represented on a graph, UK come up roughly in the middle of the countries represented. But there is one more graph, which, significantly, shows that in all respects, the best performing countries are those where tax is highest as a percentage of GDP.

In the UK it appears that the two main parties are competing to achieve the lowest taxes per capita, and the result is the present misery and inequality. But the labour party have a very strong advantage in their ‘battle for hearts and minds’. It would not be against party dogma to increase taxes, and it would lose almost none of their core votes. Imagine how popular it would be, for example, if all those earning, say, half a million or more were to pay 90% on anything above that threshold. And how many of those will ever vote Labour?

The current tax regime in this country is one which favours the very rich. Thus the very rich have an enhanced influence on the direction of Government, which in turn has an adverse effect on democracy. It can be shown (in addition to the statistics shown above) that the greater the gap between rich and poor, the less notice Government takes of the opinions of the general population. This is evident at the moment, for example, in the ‘fracking’ debate, the GM food debate, the HS2 debate and many other areas. MPs, and MEPs, seem increasingly reluctant to engage with their constituents (although that is only my own experience rather than a statistical fact, and particular to some Conservatives and UKIP!)

Something to recognise is that people earning a very high income are generally uninterested in their pay packet, except as a measure of their success when compared to their colleagues or competitors. The level of tax is irrelevant to them when applied across the board. After all, they certainly have adequate spending money!

History shows that a regime which taxes high earners heavily does not drive a significant number of them to move away. They are generally motivated by love of their job and a competitive spirit, not a desire for another Ferrari! And when a few footballers or pop stars or even the occasional banker do depart, there are plenty more good people waiting in the wings. But the additional tax revenue can fund improved services, and very importantly, many new council houses (not available for sale to tenants). Employment would rise. Families would afford child-care, and mothers could go back to work. Benefit budgets would reduce. A cycle of increased prosperity could begin. SMEs would begin to prosper, and they are much more important to the average man or woman than the huge transnationals, who are only trying to please international shareholders, not British customers.

An enlightened approach, along the lines adopted by the prosperous and high taxed economies in the Nordic countries, could begin a steady climb to the sort of living standards which we all crave.

Our collective minds have been deadened by the oft-repeated mantra from both main parties that low tax is good for business and the economy – but the facts indicate this to be totally false. Back in the last century, when my father, a confirmed Tory voter, was paying ‘supertax’ at a rate of 19s 6d in the pound, the country was arguably in a worse state than we are now, but the welfare state and the NHS had been put into place after the war and the gap between the rich and the poor was at a completely reasonable level. Democracy was working.

Now look across the Atlantic, at the richest economy in the world, where infant mortality is the highest in the developed world, as is obesity, and the rich/poor divide; and tax revenue as a percentage of GDP is amongst the very lowest. This is not a situation we should wish to emulate.

My point is this, Mr Milliband. Go back to first principles. Stop trying to compete with the Conservatives, whose dogma-driven agenda will undoubtedly continue to fail. Austerity didn’t work in the great depression in the USA, and it was not what saved us after the Second World War. It is doing us untold damage now. Please, let us hear something new and challenging, not just more of the same! As things stand, I wouldn’t vote for any of the three mainstream parties (and UKIP are a joke!) and I am begging you to give us all a credible alternative!

Yours sincerely

A disillusioned voter

Tim Thomson

PS Much of the information I have referred to above has been stolen from a brilliant book by the Canadian journalist Linda McQuaig, with Neil Brooks, called ‘The Trouble With Billionaires’.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Why Not Wheelie Bins in Cornwall?

Because of Cornwall Council’s dysfunctional approach to waste collection and disposal over the last ten years, which was further confused by the move to a Unitary Authority, this subject is still a source of heated debate and dissatisfaction. Residents who live in houses where it would be appropriate often say that they would like wheelie bins. On the other hand, people who live in terraced houses, for example, which front directly onto a narrow pavement, say quite rightly that wheelie bins would not work for them, because they would have to bring them through the house and have them blocking the pavement on collection day.

But from a cost aspect, it makes sense to operate a single system throughout the area, particularly in view of the Chancellors recent decisions around local government.

Some years ago, Carrick District Council wanted to start a separate food waste collection. The idea was that with a separate food waste collection, residual waste (black bag waste) would be significantly reduced, and would no longer attract vermin. This would allow a considerable saving by collecting residual waste fortnightly instead of weekly. That move in itself would encourage a better uptake of the recycling collection. There would be an overall saving, with money being made from both recycling, and composting of the food waste. Additionally, when a resident saw how much food waste he produced, he would adjust his shopping habits to waste less and save himself money on his shopping.

The research which underpinned this proposal showed that in other areas, schemes designed along these lines had been highly successful, achieving all the benefits listed above. However, the then Cornwall County Council were quick to stop the proposal, for the simple and misguided reason that it would deprive the proposed St Dennis incinerator of feedstock.

Since that time Cornwall has moved from being one of the leading recycling counties to being very near the bottom of the recycling league table.

A relatively small food waste container being collected weekly would be cheaper and easier to manage than the standard wheelie bin and would not need specialised vehicles (depending on the design). The residual waste would be cleaner and odour free, eliminating the very prevalent vermin problem. Once the system was bedded in, residual waste, significanty reduced by the removal of food waste, could be collected fortnightly, with a consequential massive saving. Recycling, collected weekly, would increase, providing additional income to offset some of the waste collection costs.

The likelihood of any of this happening in Cornwall is minimal, for political reasons rather than practical ones. The last administration have already shown that political expediency was more important than financial, and so far this administration appears to row the same boat in the same direction!

Friday, 21 June 2013

GM crops - I am not in favour!

A few days ago I listened to Owen Paterson, Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, being interviewed on the Today programme. Subsequently I read a transcript of his speech in which he sought to both open and close the debate on GM food.

It’s safe! We just need to reassure the public that it is completely safe. Job done!

This from the man who is from the Nigel Lawson school of thought on climate change! (Last I heard, Nigel Lawson’s anti-climate change think tank was being investigated for peddling misleading information to the public!)

I have been keeping an eye on the GM debate for some time now and I must say that in this context I find Owen Paterson really scary! Some of his facts are just plain wrong, and others are based on very questionable research. And now the EU President’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Prof. Anne Glover, has declared that there is no substantiated case of adverse impact etc etc. David Cameron has also decided he is in favour of introducing us all to GM farming.

The difficulty is that no one has even attempted to substantiate any one of the numerous cases of adverse impact!

Poor old Professor Seralini got into really hot water by finding that a particular GM maize produced massive tumours in rats. Monsanto declared that the research was invalid because he used the wrong species of rat, with too few of them to provide a meaningful statistical sample. With Monsanto money behind the anti Seralini campaign, it isn’t surprising that his research was widely regarded as discredited. So most people didn’t get to hear that Prof. Seralini used the same type and number of rats that Monsanto used in their original tests on the same maize, but he did it for longer (hence the tumours). But it is the same Monsanto test results which the US Food and Drug Agency use when authorising the product for human consumption.

There is a lot of material out there on the internet which would cause the average person to think twice before welcoming GM food into his home. Some of it strongly suggests that the actual GM process itself can cause serious health problems. Some of it indicates the harmful effects of the weed killer used. A lot of it documents the contamination of normal crops by GM crops even at a considerable distance. None of it, of course, is substantiated to the satisfaction of Prof. Anne Glover!

Personally I cannot prove that GM food is bad for you. I haven’t yet heard from anyone who can prove it is not; they would need another decade of tests at least to do that. Meanwhile – watch what you eat! Most supermarkets will no longer guarantee that their poultry products (including eggs) have not been fed on GM feed. They claim that the problem is that non GM feed is too difficult to source! In Europe, something labelled as GM free may have a little bit of GM stuff in it (I can’t remember the permissible threshold). Happily most European countries are saying ‘non’, which I consider to be the first good reason I have heard recently for staying in Europe!

Here is the letter I have sent to my MP Sarah Newton, a devout Tory, Deputy Party Chair, who will toe the party line and do nothing to rock the boat:

21 June 2013

Mrs Sarah Newton MP
House of Commons
London SW1A 0AA

Dear Sarah

GM Food
During the past few weeks, culminating in Mr. Owen Paterson’s speech, there has clearly been an orchestrated move towards ‘reassuring’ the public about GM food. I find this deeply worrying and I would be grateful if you could pass my concerns to Mr. Paterson, so that we can be reassured that Mr. Paterson has acquainted himself with all the scientific opinion on the subject, as well as where it is lacking, and not just that promulgated by the industry and the US Food and Drug Agency.

My concerns rest on the following facts.

First; the assumption appears to be that the GM crops being grown in the USA have been adequately tested. But the FDA bases its approval of GM products on tests carried out by the manufacturers of the product, with no independent verification. (There is evidence that these tests are sometimes inadequate and sometimes misrepresented.)

Second; while Prof. Anne Glover, Chief Scientific Adviser to the EU President, has said that there is ‘no substantiated case of adverse impact’ on health (clearly discounting all the numerous health issues which have arisen in the USA during the last ten to fifteen years or so), it is equally true that there is no evidence to show that GM food does NOT do harm. Since GM food does not require to be labelled as such in the US, evidence in either direction would be hard to substantiate.

Third; despite Mr. Paterson’s assurances, I have not been able to discover any evidence that crop yields have been significantly improved over time by the use of GM seed, indeed in some cases rather the opposite. As against that, agroecology, as suggested in 2010 by Olivier de Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, has been shown to be capable of improving yields significantly in many different contexts.

Fourth; Mr. Paterson believes that growing GM crops would be good for the environment. Up until now this has been shown to be not the case in several different situations from the US to South America to India. One purpose of GM crops is that they can be grown in large areas of monocrop cultivation. This method of agriculture requires that quantities of weed control chemicals need to be used. Experience in the US has shown that after a few years, in order to control poison-resistant weeds, on Monsanto’s recommendation, extra chemicals need to be mixed in to make a more poisonous cocktail. Thus the land, which has already been stripped of nutrients, is drenched in ever increasing amounts of chemicals. Tests already show that in 18 European countries there is significant Glyphosate in the population’s urine, and there is plenty of evidence that Glyphosate is harmful to humans. This can only have come from food which has been sprayed with the chemical, and growing poison-resistant GM crops in Europe can only aggravate that situation.

In the US it is now clear that contamination of a crop in one area from GM crops in another area can be carried hundreds of miles by wild life or wind, which makes a nonsense of buffer zones. (See farmer interviews in the video clip linked below.)

I was greatly relieved to hear that Mr. Paterson is against the patenting of seed. The possibility that we in Europe might fall into the traps set by Monsanto and their like in the US and India is frightening. I would also hope that should we be in the position of allowing GM produce into our food chain, it would be adequately and prominently labelled as such, so that unlike our American cousins we would be able to choose whether or not to buy.

I know that a significant number of farmers polled in the UK by the Farmers’ Guardian said that they would like to grow GM crops. I hope that they, as well as Mr. Paterson, will watch the video clip (link below) of Michael Hart, a Cornish farmer who went to North America specifically to get first hand advice on GMOs from American farmers. It is interesting that the poll of UK farmers also discovered that only 15% would be prepared to eat the product themselves! It is interesting also that there is a growing movement in the US for food producers, where they can, to label their food ‘Certified Non-GMO’ as a result of pressure from the general public. Unfortunately many of those producers have difficulty in sourcing non-GMO ingredients. Furthermore, it is reported that many patients are being prescribed an organic diet by their doctors, specifically to avoid GMOs.

There are a number of studies which indicate adverse effects both from the process of genetic modification and from the chemicals which go with it. Even if we believe that these publications are not conclusive, they should not be dismissed without further study.

Although I am concerned about the effects of GM food on the nation’s health I am far more concerned, given adequate labelling of food products, about the potential harm to our environment, our biodiversity, our wild life and our pollinating insects. It is already evident in this country that large areas of monocrop farming are having a serious effect. (Ironically, the bee population in conurbations such as London is flourishing away from our chemical based agriculture.) The introduction of GM farming, with its sophisticated chemical controls, would inevitably mean an increased assault on our environment.

Mr. Paterson has suggested that he wishes to reassure the public that GM crops are safe and beneficial. But stating it does not make it so, nor will it reassure us. There needs to be proper independent, substantial and robust peer reviewed research, on the crops, and the chemicals that go with them including the degree of their continued use. This research should include the effect on human health, and particularly on the beneficial gut flora which is within all of us.

You will recall the efforts made by the tobacco industry to discredit the evidence that smoking is harmful to health. Equally I am sure you have been aware of similar tactics (often using the very same 'experts'), used by the oil industry to discredit the proponents of the encroaching climate crisis. It has become clear to me in my reading that the GM industry in America has been taking a similar approach. We need to be more certain than we can be at this time that the introduction of GM crops would be beneficial and safe before allowing it or encouraging it to be grown in our fields, because this is a genie which cannot be put back in the bottle.

Yours faithfully

Tim Thomson

Cc Shadow Environment Secretary

Below are details of only a small selection of the available published material, much of it from neutral and peer reviewed sources.

Link to video by a Cornish farmer, Michael Hart, who went to America to find out farmers’ views on GM farming - ‘GM crops Farmer to Farmer’

Link to UN report on ‘Right to Food’

Influence of soy with the gene EPSPS CP4 on the physiological state and reproductive functions of rats in the first two generations
New Ermakova peer-reviewed paper (2009)
Russian Academy of Natural Sciences "Modern problems of science and education" № 5, 2009 UDC: 612.82, 57.02

The Lancet, Volume 354, Issue 9187, Pages 1353 - 1354, 16 October 1999
Effect of diets containing genetically modified potatoes expressing Galanthus nivalis lectin on rat small intestine
Dr Stanley WB Ewen FRCPath, Arpad Pusztai PhD

Eur J Histochem. 2004 Oct-Dec;48(4):448-54.
Ultrastructural analysis of testes from mice fed on genetically modified soybean.
Vecchio L, Cisterna B, Malatesta M, Martin TE, Biggiogera M.

Holes in the Biotech Safety Net by Doug Gurian-Sherman Ph.D

A month has now gone by and I have not yet had the courtesy of a reply!

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Do We Miss The Empire?

Are we still imperialistic meddlers? We (UK, our politicians, our Government) do so often come across as having tunnel vision – and furthermore the tunnel appears to have a bend in it a short distance ahead, cutting off any extended vision! We just don’t seem to be able to see the consequences of our actions.

Forget our interference in the Middle East from early in the last century, brought about by our desire for oil and our belief in our own racial superiority. But we invaded Iraq on the say-so of probably the worst President the US has ever had, and when Bush declared to the world that the mission had been accomplished, he clearly didn’t understand what he had started. And to this day Blair claims that Iraq is a better place now than it was under Saddam Hussein: there are many who disagree!

Afghanistan has been a more complex problem in many ways – certainly some reaction to the 9/11 attack was necessary. However when the US starts something it seldom knows how to finish it, and it seems likely that when we all pull out of Iraq, the nation building will go into reverse.

Syria: now that is a real mess. It seems that Assad was responsible for the start of the uprising, in conjunction with climate change. He failed to support farmers during extreme drought conditions and to survive, the farmers were forced to move to the cities, where work was scarce, accommodation limited and discontent was rife.

Meanwhile we went in to Libya with all guns blazing, to claim our bit of the Arab Spring. I don’t suggest that that particular action was not justified – many lives were saved. But in the aftermath, our rhetoric was not constructive, with the result that the Syrian ‘rebels’ assumed that we (the West) would do for them what we had done for the Libyans. We did very little to discourage that view, whittering on as we did about Assad’s time being up etc. etc. Because we made it very clear which side we were on, the rebels thought they were onto a winner, in the mistaken belief that the West had their back; and of course that drew in a few outside interests like Al Qaeda, and other wannabe jihadists – until gradually the rebels (or ‘opposition’) became an increasingly fragmented collection of groups, mostly with differing agendas.

What next? Oh, yes! We and the French vetoed the continuation of the European arms embargo on Syria! I don’t know who we think we are but a superpower we are not. All other European countries opposed this veto, but we knew bestand that veto certainly fired up the rebels. It also had a few other rather serious consequences. First, Russia indicated that it would consider it permissible to send arms to Assad’s forces. Then Lebanon became involved and Hezbollah sent in the troops to support Assad, which put the rebels in retreat. All this has increased the mass of refugees to neighbouring countries, who are scarcely equipped to cope. Another interesting consequence is that Austria has withdrawn her troops from the UN Peacekeeping force in the Golan Heights, making the border between Syria and Israel more vulnerable and sending out all the wrong signals. Israel of course is, as usual, a little paranoid as well as being well armed!

But why did we insist that the arms embargo be lifted? Oh yes, to send a signal which was supposed to make Assad come to the negotiating table! Yeah, right…As if he needs to! He has no scruples about wiping out anyone in his way – and if we do send in arms, who do we send them to? We just don’t know who is in charge or who will be in a week’s time. But by our grand gesture we have opened the floodgates, provoking an escalation in hostilities, and increasing the potential for neighbouring countries, with their sponsors, to be drawn in. Each side of the conflict is being brutal, and probably each side is using chemical weapons – why wouldn’t they? Assad is rightly confident that Obama’s ‘red line’ on that subject was meaningless.

If we had used different rhetoric after Libya, proclaimed our neutrality regarding Syria from the start, and worked to broker a deal from that neutral position instead of saying ‘Assad must go!’, thousands of lives could have been saved, thousands of refugees might still have a home, and neighbouring countries might have stayed at home.

But Assad’s approach to human rights is unacceptable! Of course it is, as was Saddam Hussein’s and Gaddafi’s, both erstwhile Western allies, loosely speaking, (remember the Blair embrace?) but so is Saudi Arabia’s, so is Bahrain’s. And consider the consequence of a rebel victory in Syria! I know what it would not be – peace!

We cannot remodel the world’s nations in the way some would like. It is presumptuous in the extreme to try, particularly in the light of a strong groundswell of opinion in England against letting anyone enter, or interfere with, the UK!

Our ‘special relationship’ with the USA has dragged us into no end of scrapes – why do we think it is so valuable? It is after all a two way street, isn’t it? Maybe we should just acknowledge the fact that the USA is on the way down and China is on the way up, and that we are a little peripheral country who ought to mind its own business! The only reason we are occasionally invited to the top table is because we are a nuclear power – and there seems to be a diminishing justification for that! It draws in the terrorists like moths round a flame, but if a terrorist went nuclear, who would we fire ours at? We would be like a blind man in a crowded room with a machine gun.

I try to live by this maxim; ‘Happiness lies in being content with what you’ve got.’ It works for me; perhaps it would work for Britain.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Walking The Dogs

I was walking my son’s dogs today. I am not a dog lover, but I like a walk, and he is working all day. I strolled, in sunshine, along the defunct railway track outside Truro, listening to woodpeckers calling and rat-tat-tatting, and admiring the first of the bluebells, while the two dogs did what dogs do, seeking out badger droppings to roll in and so on.

The walk is about twenty minutes out and twenty-five back (on slightly weary legs). The peace is welcome and the occasional bit of wildlife lifts the spirit; and I recall the rural environment of my youth. At that time I used to cycle along a farm track to the village, and as likely as not startle a covey of partridges, a wheatear or a yellow hammer, and I would usually hear a sky lark. The estuary bank would be lively with numerous waders, shelduck and little terns (which I believe are quite rare now). I am well acquainted with the propensity of the old to reminisce and am aware how easy it is to bore the listener, so I try to give nostalgia a miss – but I got to wondering what the next generation of pensioners would look back on with fond memory.

There is a point on the walk when the track crosses a bridge over the main Truro Falmouth road, and the noise of the traffic permeates the air from some distance off. The road is busy with commerce and commuters, often with a tailback from the junction. Even twenty years ago there was not a quarter of the traffic there is now, and although I can’t resist the temptation to lean on the parapet to watch (and smell) the flow, I still feel irritation at the crude intrusion into the quiet day.

But perhaps in 30 years time, a walker like me will be thinking back to these times, with a nostalgic tug, remembering the busy roar of diesel traffic, and wondering where it all went! When the oil industry is effectively dead, when most of the traffic is electric, and when long-distance road traffic is as rare as the little tern, and people no longer commute because they work from home by phone and internet, will this walker regret the passing of all this way of life, as I do the tranquillity of my youth? And will he welcome back the butterflies and the bees which are struggling to survive? Will he curse as a newly invigorated dawn chorus wakes him, when our wild birds find habitats returning under the new environmentally appropriate farming methods?

Or will he simply curse the destruction wrought by the generations before his?

Saturday, 9 March 2013

My Tortuous Route to the OU

About ten years ago I realised that climate change was a real and looming problem. I started reading, and occasionally writing, on the subject, linking global warming with peak oil as two sides of the same problematic coin. Our dependence on fossil fuels was and is clearly the overarching problem, and that dependence stems from our addiction to an unsustainable way of life. The unsustainability arises from our love of all things material and luxurious and our complete disregard for either seasonality or geography when it comes to shopping for food.

And it is an unfortunate fact that despite the continuing decline in oil production worldwide, it will be possible to continue to find and use fossil fuel for a long time to come, albeit at incalculable cost both environmentally and financially – until we finally poison our planet with a surfeit of CO2.

No matter how we address these issues, no solution to the greenhouse gas problem can work unless our consumption of fossil fuel is very substantially reduced. We can produce bio fuels and burn wood in our power stations, but we are still adding to the CO2 in our atmosphere, even while persuading ourselves that it is in a more sustainable way. We can invest in true renewable energy sources like solar, wind and tidal power, but without an unswerving determination to dramatically reduce our energy consumption, we will not stop the rise in our global temperature with many resultant disasters.

One of the most significant sources of greenhouse gas emissions is the fossil-fuel-intense way in which our food is produced and distributed. We could be talking about developing countries where vast tracts of land are rendered unproductive by unsophisticated subsistence farming methods, leading to the burning of forest or the draining of precious wetlands to liberate new land for agriculture. Equally we could be talking about major agribusinesses which destroy the soil (releasing CO2) by using heavily mechanised monoculture methods with the over-use of carbon-based fertilisers and pesticides, and the inherent fuel use associated with both farm machinery and crop transport and distribution.

Over the years I have continued to read and learn, and have come to understand that globally our means of food production and distribution are in a very bad way indeed. Recently the fact that horsemeat has been found in cheap ready meals where it was not supposed to be, has only served to reinforce my concerns regarding food production.

The more I learned, the greater was the effect on my own life. I dispensed with prepared meals some years ago. I started to make my own bread (having read about the ‘baking aids’ which are added to factory bread in the interests of a quick bake), I dramatically reduced my consumption of meat and am still edging towards vegetarianism! I started to incorporate different types of beans and pulses into my cooking. And recently, in the interests of saving CO2 emissions, I discovered a source of UK produced dried peas and beans, which should enable me to stop buying imported produce altogether.

A few years ago I stripped my garden of ornamental plants, bought a greenhouse and started to pay serious attention to growing my own food. I watched on-line video clips on all aspects of domestic food production, forest gardens, no-dig gardening, organic food and so on. In the course of conversations with like-minded friends, I discovered the concept of aquaponics as an efficient means of food production. I had finally arrived at a point in my life when I decided to rethink my entire future.

I proceeded to use up my limited savings to renovate my cottage before putting it on the market. I anticipate a time, not many years hence, when food becomes very much more expensive than it is now, through escalating production and transport costs, and I intend to use some of the released equity from the sale of my house to set up an aquaponics greenhouse, with the hope that I can keep my family supplied with the majority of their vegetable requirements, as well as some home-grown fish.

As yet my house has not sold, and I am getting frustrated with the wait! But it has occurred to me that there is a lack of balance in my search for answers. For all my reading about food production and distribution, I have realised that my knowledge on food consumption is pretty sparse. What should we eat? What shouldn’t we eat? How do vegetarians and vegans give themselves a rich, varied and tasty diet? And can they do it without relying on imported staples like soya (which is almost all genetically modified)? I know someone who remains very fit and healthy despite not only being vegan, but not eating any cooked food at all!

I decided I should try to correct these gaps in my knowledge, and so trawled through the Open University website for an appropriate course. Thus I discovered a short 21 week course on nutrition which is about to be conducted for the very last time, due to funding cuts! I spent some weeks thinking about it, taking into account my age at over 70; considering whether I was still up to the studying; whether my noticeably deteriorating memory is an insurmountable problem; whether my two-finger keyboard skills are equal to the task; wondering what happens if I have to move house part way through the course; and wondering if I could justify the expenditure.

Given a very positive level of encouragement from my family, I decided to register for the course and now eagerly await the arrival of the material. And, to occupy my mind in the interim, I have just taken delivery of Andrew Simms’ new book ‘Cancel the Apocalypse’, so that I can continue to search for reasons for optimism about the future of our planet!

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Full of Sound and Fury, signifying what exactly?!

The Eurozone is worried! Beppe Grillo has certainly stirred the pot. In the Italian election his ‘movement’ grabbed a quarter of the votes, propelling 160 or so non-politicians into politics. I believe the most pertinent question we should all be asking (and it is relevant to all of us) is why did the voters vote this way? Perhaps after the antics of Berlusconi (including passing laws specifically designed to exempt him from prosecution) and then coping with his rather grey successor who they never voted for, and who subjected them to austerity and mass unemployment, they took the view that to go through all that for the sake of some European intangible ideal was not what they wanted. Perhaps their frustration with the day-to-day political merry-go-round finally got the better of them. Perhaps they want to try something different!

Could this be the glimmer of the beginning of a shift away from the conventional growth-obsessed thinking of ‘the usual suspects’, and towards a carefully controlled steady state economy?

There has been plenty of corruption in Italy’s politics for years – but take a look at the politics of the rest of the world. We in the UK are always so smug about our ‘mother of parliaments’ image, but really we are no better than the others. Although ‘corruption’ is a word generally applied to the dishonest use of money or power in government, I would apply it more widely; to include, for example, politicians who misrepresent their motives and ambitions. We have had the Iraq war, clearly fought on a false premise, ‘cash for questions’, the expenses scandals, Chris Huhne’s ill-judged antics, all of which have caused us to question the integrity of our politicians. And now the accusations against Lord Rennard – concerning which we are still being ‘spun’ a dilution of the facts.

In the USA, the public are continuously misled on a grand scale – their Iraq war (again on false premises), the subjugation of their politics to Big Oil, Big Agriculture, Big Pharma, the NRA and other groupings (including religious ones) who continue to mislead on food safety, energy, sustainability, climate change, environmental issues and the manipulation of their tax dollars to favour those who least need help but who chase power and wealth.

The level of corruption in the African countries, Spain, Greece, South American nations and most others is a phenomenon we are frequently alerted to by the media – and certainly the media themselves are not above scrutiny.

Some more fanciful commentators have drawn a parallel between Grillo’s Five Star movement and the so-called Arab spring, suggesting that Beppe Grillo’s arrival on the political scene heralds the start of a Europe-wide anti-political movement. But in fact this trend became internationally visible a while back with the Occupy movement, although the anti-globalisation protests predated that. Because the Governments in Europe and the USA are in favour of free speech (at least superficially), the Occupy movement has a harder row to till; such movements thrive on opposition.

But consider for a moment the bye-election in Eastleigh, Hampshire, the seat vacated by the disgraced former Minister Huhne. More than a quarter of the vote went to UKIP. Why? I presume some people voted for UKIP for their stand on European membership and immigration. But that is a less convincing suggestion since David Cameron announced his intention to hold a referendum on Europe, which could potentially address both those issues. Very few people, I would suggest, are in sympathy with most of the other UKIP policies, such as their antipathy towards any kind of green agenda, so we must assume that it is another example of ‘a plague on both your houses’. (Interestingly, in a post-election poll in Eastleigh, most of the ex-Tory voters admitted that at a general election they would return to the Tory fold.)

However our UK parliamentary system does not readily lend itself to a ‘Grillo’ situation, especially since the complete mismanagement of the referendum on our voting system. (A good example of a question constructed to achieve the desired result!)

Perhaps our politics need some kind of purge. To many, our political systems in Europe are not fit for purpose any more. There are too many laws and restrictions, a proportion of them increasingly unenforceable and seemingly pointless, and many of them apparently designed to protect us from ourselves! Taxes take an increasing proportion of earnings to pay for top-heavy administrations and projects which most individuals see as irrelevant to their lives.

So what does Mister Average Voter want? Disillusionment with the well trodden political path taken by every party when in power, notwithstanding election promises or political colour, leaves him bewildered, bored and disinterested. Despite the rose-tinted publicity material spread through constituencies at election time, politicians just don’t have the charisma, imagination or will to do anything new. No matter what they say, we know that there will be no substantive change to the way our Country is governed, only, perhaps, a new and more polished way of presenting it.

We could do with a Grillo to break the mould. Beppe Grillo has stated that his movement will not support any political grouping, but will act as an opposition party. To avoid instability and political break-down, the right and the left will be forced to work together. The potential ramifications of failure are huge throughout Europe, and particularly the Eurozone. After all Italy is not Iceland. The Icelandic Government takes credit for turning its back on its own banks (in response to a referendum vote on the matter), and allowing them to fail, despite protestations from Europe. The new prosperity in Iceland shows the virtue of that course of action. If Italy did the same (and exited the Euro) that would really give us all a good shaking. Perhaps that is just what we all need! There would certainly be plenty of misery, but perhaps it would be relatively short lived, and might free us from the chains of our present form of democracy, allowing us as individuals to relearn how to rely more on ourselves and our communities, and less on the State. Then we could start voting for what we want, instead of voting against what we perceive to be the marginally worse option!

Friday, 22 February 2013

The Grand US Energy Bubble

How did the human race progress from cave dwelling to space station in such a relatively short time? Is it through our ability to learn, to build on what we have learned and then to learn from what we have built? But in this modern world, many of us have allowed that ability to become dormant, in favour of a desire for power, wealth and acquisition. And so we perhaps should not be surprised that many wealthy bankers seem to have lost the ability to learn from previous experience. Back to this later!

There has been some publicity over the last couple of years on the immense gas and oil reserves discovered in the USA, to be accessed by miraculous modern technology such as ‘fracking’ and horizontal drilling. It is proposed that the tar sands being mined in Canada will further supplement the USA’s insatiable need for fuel via the Keystone XL pipeline. We are told (by bankers?) that the USA has become self sufficient in fossil fuel for the foreseeable future. Yeah right!

The Americans (by which, of course, I mean the North Americans!) are desperate. They do not want to remain dependent on external supplies of fossil fuel. So they (including President Obama) are pulling out all the stops to avoid that dependency, with the willing help of the banks, naturally.

Let us consider the tar sands in Canada; this is actually a fascinating subject on its own. The Canadians say to the Americans, ‘if you want the crude from tar sands you have to build a pipeline (the Keystone XL pipeline) to take the crude to your refineries, otherwise we can find plenty of other customers for the crude!’ The pipeline is going to cost around $7 billion, which in the scheme of things is small change.

But to process the tar sands to produce the crude, they need copious quantities of natural gas (about a fifth of Canada’s entire production). They also need a lot of water, and a lot of diluent. Diluent? OK – to allow the stuff to flow through a pipeline it has to be diluted with some kind of light oil, which at present they are importing at a rate of up to 200,000 barrels a day. They could produce it themselves, from the bitumen they are digging up, but that is very expensive too. And by the way, there is a limit to the amount of gas they can use, because they have domestic users, as well as a binding agreement to export a proportion of the gas they produce to America! So we can deduce that production of crude from these tar sands is incredibly expensive, hardly cost effective, and about as efficient as you can get at producing greenhouse gases! Unsurprising therefore, that Canada pulled out of the Kyoto protocol!

The President long ago expressed his support for the pipeline – the only reason for a delay has been the choice of route. But the Americans are grasping at straws – the product will barely supply 10% of their daily needs, and at a massive production cost and a very small net energy gain. Globally Canadian tar sands are a drop in the ocean at massive environmental costs, and because of the restrictions on production in terms of energy, water and transport, it is hard to see a long term future for the process.

But don’t worry, the USA has its own stock of tar sands (not much), shale oil and shale gas.

It seems that this ‘revitalisation’ of the American energy industry attracted the attention of the investment bankers. I don’t pretend to have the slightest idea how investment finance works; but evidently money was poured in to the extent that production amounted to four times demand – resulting in a catastrophic drop in price, and a desperate drive to export to where prices were higher. The result has been that production costs have exceeded prices by a significant amount, resulting in a phenomenal amount of business in the mergers and acquisitions market, and thus huge profits for the banks.

Let us switch for a moment to considering the traditional and diminishing oil industry. You may remember that a gentleman called M King Hubbert produced the famous Hubberts curve in 1956, a graph which he used to predict that American oil production would peak somewhere about the late sixties or early seventies. There was much criticism and disbelief, but he was proven correct in his thinking as American oil production peaked in 1970. Hubbert was able to apply his mathematics to individual oil fields, oil producing countries and by extension to the planet, predicting that world oil production would peak in the early 21st century. Nothing yet, not even this latest alleged US bonanza, has shown him to be wrong.

You can apply Hubbert’s curve to almost any non-renewable resource; but it seems that the curve, which indicates a rise, a peak and then a decline in a roughly symmetrical format, doesn’t readily lend itself to these modern production methods. And the reason is this: the depletion rate of these wells is extremely fast, so instead of a gentle decline after the peak we have a cliff. To maintain production levels new wells need to be brought on stream all the time, at a cost of many billions of dollars. Required input annually to maintain current shale gas production in the States is around $42 billion. (Lucky we have those bankers!) Value of shale gas produced in 2012 was $32.5 billion! Shale oil is also horrendously expensive to produce and a well’s production rate will decline by in excess of 80% in the first 24 months. Tar sands produce oil at a cost of about $100 dollars per barrel, which leaves little room for profit! Many of the production sites of all these fossil fuel elements are already in decline. It seems unlikely that this 'foreseeable future' could last more than another five years or so!

The reason that Hubbert’s prognosis has proven so accurate time and time again is because, self evidently, the oil companies go for the easiest first. Thus the oil becomes progressively more difficult and more expensive to access, until you get to a point where it is no longer viable. Tar sands are not that far from that point of diminishing returns, and the great oil and gas bonanza so enthusiastically promoted by the bankers cannot possibly be other than a great big bubble!

The good news? Although carbon emissions from the USA continue to cause immense damage to our atmosphere in the short term, in the longer term that cannot continue because the bubble has to burst, and carbon emissions from the USA is certain to decrease!

And the bad news? Well… remember all that sub-prime nonsense when the house mortgage market collapsed? It is going to happen all over again with American oil reserves! I said we would come back to the bankers!

So what about our own UK shale gas reserves? I would steer clear of investment there if I were you! It will be better for us all if we just reduce our energy needs.

Data has been lifted from reports by Deborah Rogers of the Energy Policy Forum and J David Hughes of the Post Carbon Institute

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Thoughts Arising from 'Horsegate'

I suppose there are millions of people who think as I do, that the latest bit of food-related drama, or something like it, was bound to happen sooner or later. Both governments and large commercial organisations have been colluding over time to make the simple business of growing and selling food more and more complicated, with this inevitable consequence.

The now largely discredited trend towards globalisation of our food markets has disadvantaged, and often destroyed, local community food production in favour of monocrop agribusinesses, often foreign-owned, determined to export because that way they can make more money, and satisfy their competitive desire for economic growth. They grow food in relatively poor countries where labour is cheap, and sell to rich countries where people are too busy making money to worry about down to earth matters like where their food comes from or how it is prepared!

The profit motive, having replaced the survival motive, encourages those businesses to try to increase the crop yield by any means possible using oil-based fertilisers, and often genetically modified seed. Mass production at the growing end of the chain means that the soil is merely a growing medium (supplemented with chemicals just like in hydroponics) for a monocrop where pests are drawn to the feast by the sheer area of their favourite food, to be slaughtered with chemicals which then find their way into the food chain. Mass production at the processing and packaging end means that the consumer can never be absolutely sure that they are getting what they think they are. Different countries have differing standards for their labelling, and controls of pesticide also vary from country to country. In the US, food labels are not even required to show whether the food is genetically modified.

The globalisation of our food brings about two significant effects; the distancing of the consumer from the producer, and a loss of control by the consumer over what he is eating.

Most consumers don’t know where what they eat comes from, and many of them really don’t care! If they want a French bean in February, they can buy it at the supermarket; and they have to buy it packaged, because the packaging protects the food during its long journey from Kenya. The production of that bean, like so many other products, is drenched in oil, contributing disproportionally to global warming, through its planting, its harvesting, its packaging and its air transport.

The modern way of growing food is for the most part inefficient, destructive and anti-communal. Large areas of land are ploughed, sown, fertilised and sprayed without any regard to the contours of the land, the flow of the run-off water, the underlying structure of the soil or the health and biodiversity of the surrounding environment. Productivity depends on chemical input and control of the wild life. A relatively recent addition to this ‘mess’ is genetic modification; and we are starting to see the negative side of that particular set of techniques.

Soil has been denuded of its natural health and essential minerals. The earth itself is being washed down hill when it rains, and carried down to the rivers, damaging the aquatic environment. The habitats of much of our wild life have been lost. The bird and insect populations have been drastically and noticeably reduced, even in the last decade.

Genetic modification of crops is losing credibility day by day. There is a widely held view that GM crops are carcinogenic (a view recently supported by a French scientific study). A recent report by the European Food Safety Authority states that most commonly found GM foods contain a rogue viral gene called Gene VI, which is potentially extremely damaging (check it out!). But the main reason why GM is losing credibility is because the promised increase in yield has simply failed to materialise. Additionally the claim that crops modified to be resistant to weed killers would enable a reduced use of chemicals has proven unfounded, and the amount of chemicals being used, and being absorbed by us through our food, is increasing. The patenting of GM seeds is putting small farmers out of business (although not yet in the UK).

In 2010 a report submitted to the UN by their Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food made it clear that the way forward for agriculture was to move away from large agribusinesses and genetic modification, and towards small production units using organic methods. Incorporating the lessons being taught by permaculturists into our food production would save water, preserve and enhance our soil and significantly increase yield per hectare. Small farmers already produce more per hectare than large scale producers, and are more likely to supply their local communities, thus reducing transport cost and pollution, as well as increasing our awareness of seasonality. Biodiversity would be increased. The nutritional value of our food would start to improve (although we have a long way to go before it will equal its value in the 1940s).

There is no question but that the UK could again be self sufficient in food production for the foreseeable future if these lessons were learned. It would also increase our resilience to climate change, because as the changes to our weather patterns occur, we would be in a position to adapt both our crops and our growing methods to these changes. It is completely inevitable that we will learn to eat less meat, as awareness grows that mass production of beef and lamb is an inefficient way of using the land to give us our main source of protein. And of course we should stop building over agricultural land!

Now consider how are food is dealt with once it has been grown. It is processed, packaged, transported, distributed to retailers and put on the shelf for us to collect. Returning to our French bean from Kenya, the grower may get less than 12% of the final price. (The retailer makes about double that.) It has to be packaged to protect it during its passage to our shelves. The transport has to be by air because of the bean’s limited shelf life, and in common with much fruit and vegetables it may have been treated in some way to extend the shelf life: there are treatments involving calcium chloride, and irradiation, for example. And after all that it is beyond doubt that much of this imported produce has to be thrown away because it didn’t sell.

The recent and emerging ‘crisis’ surrounding certain prepared meals, burgers and the like, labelled as beef but containing horse meat, has brought a few points to public attention. One is that from high end to bottom end brands, the brand name means little – they all get their products from the same small number of suppliers. In the mass market, that will never change. The retailers pressurise their suppliers to keep the price low, and those suppliers go to whoever will give them the lowest price. The latest revelation is that the French processer supplying Findus was getting its meat from Eastern European sources. Thus a Findus lasagne may contain meat from more than one country, and now we learn, from more than one species. Cheap burgers are bulked out with such supplements as chicken skin. One thing is clear – make a ruling specifying the required meat content and you open the door for that rule to be manipulated both legitimately and illegally. And when the product is labelled, who can possibly know what is written between the lines? And who can possibly know how old the meat is and how far it has travelled? And in spite of European legislation, how can we possibly know whether we are buying produce which has been genetically modified? After all imported soya bean is frequently used as a bulking agent or protein supplement, and most soya today is genetically modified.

The source of wonder is that there is so much surprise at these revelations!

A result of all this globalised food production is that prices are driven down at the expense of the farmer, in order to provide substantial profits to all the middle men. Costs arising are broadly as follows: producer, exporter, packaging, air freight and handling, importer charges and commission, supermarket costs, supermarket mark-up.

Think how much better for everyone if the exporting countries were able to grow food for themselves, and we were sensible enough to buy local! In that immense and convoluted food chain, we can never really know what we are eating. And what aggravates the situation further is that there is so much regulation of one kind or another that we have stopped thinking for ourselves. Who reads the label or even knows what half the terms mean? Watch your fellow shoppers and see if you can spot anyone doing that! We foolishly trust the retailers and the food producers to do our thinking for us.

In this society of ours, blanketed with traffic signs telling us where to walk, how to drive, what to eat, when we should throw food away, we have forgotten that when an apple goes off it goes brown and squishy and when milk goes sour it stinks!

So please – think for yourself, buy local and see if you can eat a little less meat!