Organic news

Food needs ‘fundamental rethink’

A sustainable global food system in the 21st Century needs to be built on a series of “new fundamentals”, according to a leading food expert. Professor Tim Lang, a member of the UK government’s newly formed Food Council, warned that the current system, designed in the 1940s, was showing “structural failures”, such as “astronomic” environmental costs. The new approach needed to address key fundamentals like biodiversity, energy, water and urbanisation, he added.

“Essentially, what we are dealing with at the moment is a food system that was laid down in the 1940s,” he told BBC News. “It followed on from the dust bowl in the US, the collapse of food production in Europe and starvation in Asia. At the time, there was clear evidence showing that there was a mismatch between producers and the need of consumers.”

Professor Lang, from City University, London, added that during the post-war period, food scientists and policymakers also thought increasing production would reduce the cost of food, while improving people’s diets and public health.

“But by the 1970s, evidence was beginning to emerge that the public health outcomes were not quite as expected,” he explained.

“Secondly, there were a whole new set of problems associated with the environment.”

Thirty years on and the world was now facing an even more complex situation, he added.

“The level of growth in food production per capita is dropping off, even dropping, and we have got huge problems ahead with an explosion in human population.”

Professor Lang lists a series of “new fundamentals”, which he outlined during a speech he made as the president-elect of charity Garden Organic, which will shape future food production, including:

* Oil and energy: “We have an entirely oil-based food economy, and yet oil is running out. The impact of that on agriculture is one of the drivers of the volatility in the world food commodity markets.”
* Water scarcity: “One of the key things that I have been pushing is to get the UK government to start auditing food by water,” Professor Lang said, adding that 50% of the UK’s vegetables are imported, many from water-stressed nations.
* Biodiversity: “Biodiversity must not just be protected, it must be replaced and enhanced; but that is going to require a very different way growing food and using the land.”
* Urbanisation: “Probably the most important thing within the social sphere. More people now live in towns than in the countryside. In which case, where do they get their food?”

Professor Lang said that in order to feed a projected nine billion people by 2050, policymakers and scientists face a fundamental challenge: how can food systems work with the planet and biodiversity, rather than raiding and pillaging it?

The UK’s Environment Secretary, Hilary Benn, recently set up a Council of Food Policy Advisers in order to address the growing concern of food security and rising prices.

Mr Benn, speaking at the council’s launch, warned: “Global food production will need to double just to meet demand. We have the knowledge and the technology to do this, as things stand, but the perfect storm of climate change, environmental degradation and water and oil scarcity, threatens our ability to succeed.”

Professor Lang, who is a member of the council, offered a suggestion: “We are going to have to get biodiversity into gardens and fields, and then eat it. We have to do this rather than saying that biodiversity is what is on the edge of the field or just outside my garden.”

Michelin-starred chef and long-time food campaigner Raymond Blanc agrees with Professor Lang, adding that there is a need for people, especially in the UK, to reconnect with their food.

He is heading a campaign called Dig for Your Dinner, which he hopes will help people reconnect with their food and how, where and when it is grown.

“Food culture is a whole series of steps,” he told BBC News.

“Whatever amount of space you have in your backyard, it is possible to create a fantastic little garden that will allow you to reconnect with the real value of gardening, which is knowing how to grow food.

“And once you know how to grow food, it would be very nice to be able to cook it. If you are growing food, then it only makes sense that you know how to cook it as well.

“And cooking food will introduce you to the basic knowledge of nutrition. So you can see how this can slowly reintroduce food back into our culture.”

Mr Blanc warned that food prices were likely to continue to rise in the future, which was likely to prompt more people to start growing their own food. He was also hopeful that the food sector would become less wasteful.

“We all know that waste is everywhere; it is immoral what is happening in the world of food. In Europe, 30% of the food grown did not appear on the shelves of the retailers because it was a funny shape or odd colour. At least the amendment to European rules means that we can now have some odd-shaped carrots on our shelves. This is fantastic news, but why was it not done before?”

He suggested that the problem was down to people choosing food based on sight alone, not smell and touch.

“The way that seeds are selected is about immunity to any known disease; they have also got to grow big and fast, and have a fantastic shelf life. Never mind taste, texture or nutrition, it is all about how it looks. The consumer today has got to understand that when they make a choice, let’s say an apple - either Chinese, French or English one - they are making a political choice, a socio-economic choice, as well as an environmental one. They are making a statement about what sort of society and farming they are supporting.”

The latest estimates from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) show that another 40 million people have been pushed into hunger in 2008 as a result of higher food prices.

This brings the overall number of undernourished people in the world to 963 million, compared to 923 million in 2007.

The FAO warned that the ongoing financial and economic crisis could tip even more people into hunger and poverty.

“World food prices have dropped since early 2008, but lower prices have not ended the food crisis in many poor countries,” said FAO assistant director-general Hafez Ghanem at the launch of the agency’s State of Food Insecurity in the World 2008 report.

“The structural problems of hunger, like the lack of access to land, credit and employment, combined with high food prices remain a dire reality,” he added.

Professor Lang outlined the challenges facing the global food supply system: “The 21st Century is going to have to produce a new diet for people, more sustainably, and in a way that feeds more people more equitably using less land.”

By Mark Kinver for BBC News

The rise of the green granny

Last summer, for reasons that needn’t bother us here, I had to make a shirt the old-fashioned way , with fabric and a pattern and a sewing machine. The only person I knew who could help was my wife’s 97-year-old great-aunt, Peggy Parker.

Peggy is a brilliant and witty woman, but in the past few years her clothes-making know-how has been completely neglected. What a waste! Because from the moment she scented the fabric and the needles, Peggy was a woman possessed. She barked instructions and capered about snipping this, threading that and knotting the other, till I felt slightly dizzy.

And it suddenly dawned on me, dull-brained oaf that I am, that Britain’s elders have a lot to offer. With Christmas upon us, and the generations being thrown together for days on end, I daresay that many other people my age will shortly come to the same conclusion, if they haven’t already.

Because it seems that the combination of credit crunch and environmental concern is driving us to seek out the wisdom of other ages — wisdom that for too many years has been brushed off shamefully as the chuntering of old codgers too eager to talk about the privations of war and rationing.

One of the most remarkable exemplars of this new cross-generational trend is British charity Oxfam’s “Green Granny” service. The charity has recruited a crack team from a less wasteful generation to offer advice on things such as fixing a button on a shirt, darning socks and making delicious food from leftovers.

One green granny is Barbara Walmsley, a 71-year-old from Cookham in Berkshire, UK, who provides advice on YouTube and also answers queries submitted to “Ask a Granny” on the charity’s website.

“Every granny has her own tricks for saving money,” says Walmsley, “and I’m really glad to have the chance to share them with younger people.”

Oxfam’s Rose Marsh, who is younger than the grannies themselves, came up with the idea. “The main thrust of our campaign was to make people be greener but we thought: how do you do that in the credit crunch? And then we realised that the two things are the same — because if you live more cheaply it’s more green. And that’s when we thought about talking to our grandparents’ generation.”

The older generation have all the answers, she concluded, but for years we’ve ignored that: “There are all these skills that people are discovering today and treating them as if they’re miracles — like how to get rid of a stain. If I see that on YouTube I think it’s magic, but if I ask my grandma she knows all about it. This is knowledge that we’ve all lost.”

For Walmsley, the new-found status of guru is both welcome and unexpected. Her generation drew the short straw, she believes: “When we were young we were daunted by our elders and now we have to avoid saying the wrong thing with younger people. A few years ago, for instance, you would not have had any compunction about asking your children when they were going to start a family. Today you wouldn’t dream of doing that.

“I’m very fortunate. I don’t think I’ve ever been treated disrespectfully by family and friends. But in society generally the respect given to elders has slipped away. In the past, younger people would go to older people for advice. I don’t think that happens now. They talk to their contemporaries instead.”

What caused that to change? “I don’t know. Perhaps it’s something to do with families being so dispersed. They’re not popping into each other’s houses all the time.”

The environmentalist Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition Town movement, is, like Marsh, convinced that the elderly have much to teach about living sustainably and he has actively harvested their wisdom for some time.

“To go to the elders and ask for their input is something that in many cultures would be instinctive,” Hopkins says. “But in ours it has been sidelined. One interesting thing when you do an interview with the elderly is that they always start by saying, ‘I don’t know why you want to talk to me; I’m sure I have nothing interesting to say to you . . .’ and then go on to tell you all this fascinating stuff.”

All the same, he recommends interviewing them one at a time. “I went to do one with a lady who had fascinating stories to tell about being a Land Girl on Devon farms during the war, but she said, ‘My dear, I have nothing interesting to tell you at all, so I invited my friend to come along as well’. A few minutes later he arrives and I start talking with the two of them.

“The problem is that one will say, ‘And down by the quay there was that shop, what was it called?’ The other will reply ‘Jameson’s’, to which the first will say, ‘Oh yes, Jameson’s . . . now they had three sons didn’t they?’ ‘Oh yes, Jason, he’s in Australia now. . .’ and so on. It was very hard to get any useful information.”

Alas, not everybody is quite so avid to share the insights of the elderly. They will do it, but only if they are paid first.

In April, a British pensioner named Jack Hammond hit the headlines after his son Michael placed an advertisement in the local post office offering £7 (about US$10.50) an hour for someone to keep Jack company in the pub.

The 88-year-old from Hampshire, UK, a retired electrical engineer, used to drink with a neighbour four times a week, but had recently moved into a nursing home to be closer to his family; his son, a chef, was concerned that he was isolated.

Hammond Jr had previously sought volunteers to accompany his father, but to no avail; the offer of cash made all the difference. He said he was “absolutely staggered” by the warm response to his advertisement.

A similar social need, and incentive structure, is addressed by Eldertainment, set up by brothers William and Heneage Stevenson, aimed at bringing students from top universities together with older people and, according to the promotional material, “encourage knowledge transfer and interaction between the generations”.

Meetings are relaxed and informal and the participants decide whether to make idle conversation, conduct fearsome political debate or tackle household tasks such as shopping and gardening. Each meeting is different. Many of the older generation have enjoyed being read to out loud. One insists on a highly competitive weekly game of Scrabble.

Everything comes at a price, of course. For the high-class companionship of students from top universities, the elderly — or their guilt-ridden relatives — must pay rather more for Eldertainment than Jack Hammond’s son pays for trips to the pub: individual meetings cost £30 (about US$45) an hour, although there is a special introductory offer of four one-hour meetings for £100 (about US$150).

Such intergenerational enterprise doesn’t always have to be one way, however. One thing the elderly have to offer — space — is brilliantly harnessed by Homeshare, a charitable scheme operating in several areas across the country.

A homeshare involves putting two people with different needs together. They also have something to offer one another: on the one hand somebody with a home who could do with help and a watchful eye, and on the other, a person who needs accommodation and is willing to give support in return.

Both the householder and the homesharer gain from the arrangement and feel valued and respected for their own contribution, allowing them both to enter into it with dignity and enthusiasm. Additionally, the costs to families and the wider community are low. But what’s it like in practice?

One couple who have benefited from this are Ruby Martin, 92, and Rita Northcote, a medical student from New Zealand who shares Martin’s home in northwest London, where the homeshare scheme is run by Vitalise.

Martin’s daughter set up the arrangement some years ago. “She didn’t want me to be on my own,” says Martin. “I have heart problems and if I had an attack and there was no one here . . .”

Did she have reservations about sharing her home with a stranger? “Not at all. I looked on it more as an adventure. I thought, ah, a new opening. What’s going to happen now?”

Northcote is Martin’s sixth homesharer. She’s had people from all round the world, including one man.

“Charles was a very interesting person from South Africa,” says Martin. “But they’ve all been very good. We have conversations and I ask about their country and where they live and I can explain to them what it was like in my day and the countries I’ve been to and what I’ve seen. Modesty aside, I think they do learn a lot from me.”

Northcote knows the scheme’s restrictions would be off-putting for many, especially people of her generation: homesharers are allowed just one weekend away from the home each month and must do at least 10 hours of companionship and help a week. Indeed, she wouldn’t put up with it herself — she says when I meet them together — if Martin were less congenial: “But we get on so well, despite the difference in our ages. We eat similar food and notice similar things and laugh at the same jokes. And Ruby is so positive.”

It’s a testament to their closeness that, by way of shorthand, Northcote calls Martin “granny” when talking about her with friends.

As a result of her homeshare, Martin has had much greater exposure to younger people than most of her contemporaries: “I couldn’t do without it. People of my age who don’t have that, I feel for them. It’s important to keep the generations talking to each other. It makes the world go round.”

Like Walmsley, Martin is unsure why that has fizzled out in recent years: “It was a different world when everybody in the street knew everyone else. You looked out for everyone else. In the war, the first thing you did in the morning was ask your neighbour if everybody was all right. I wish that kind of thing could come back without a war, but it has to be something very big to bring people together like that.”

Or does it? Since my shirt-making session with great-aunt Peggy, I have started to wonder if there might be some way to harness the skills and free time of other elderly people — for my own purposes and theirs.

With that in mind, I popped into the neighboring care home to ask if any of the residents would be prepared to teach knitting and crochet to me and my five-year-old daughter. Several hands shot up. Lessons start in January: perhaps we will film them and post them on YouTube.

by John-Paul Flintoff for The London Times, December 21 2008

Ban pesticides which kill bees

Eurpoean Union proposals which will potentially ban the use of carcinogenic, mutagenic, neurotoxic and reprotoxic substances will be voted on by members of the European Parliament’s Environment Committee on Wednesday November 5th.

As neurotoxins, the group of substances known as neonicotinoids could be banned in the European Union. These substances have been shown to have a devastating impact on honey bees across the world, and a number of European countries have subsequently banned their use. We are urging the UK to do the same by supporting the new legislation.

As Hiltrud Breyer, the MEP overseeing the legislation explains, the new rules ‘will create a win-win situation for all – for consumers’ health, for the protection of the environment, but also for Europe’s farming industry’. The UK government is almost alone in opposing adequate safeguards.

The chemical industry has been making very misleading claims about loss of production from non-organic farming in the UK if these additional, and we think modest, safeguards are agreed by the EU.

Some of the claims are ridiculous; for example, an article in the UK farming press claimed that the UK would lose 100% of our carrot crop! Organic farmers grow carrots, along with many other crops, successfully in the UK, and yields are not much below, or are similar to non-organic farms. We hope that MEPs on the Committee will treat some of the claims they are being presented with from the UK with a healthy scepticism.

Peter Melchett, policy director of the UK’s largest organic food charity the Soil Association said:
“Other European Countries have recognized the devastating impact which these chemicals have had on the British honey bee population. The UK government should follow suit and support the EU proposals to ban these dangerous chemicals. The government should be acting to protect public safety and wildlife, not merely a small sector of the chemical industry”.

Cloned farm animals

The vast majority of consumers believe cloned animals and their offspring should not be farmed for food, according to an EU study. Currently, there is no law to stop meat and milk from these animals getting into the food chain. Nor is there any requirement to label food from clone offspring. The EU and Britain’s Food Standards Agency are in the throes of deciding how clone farming should be policed. A survey of 25,000 European consumers yesterday made clear that families are unhappy at ‘Frankenstein Food’ farming.

Sean Poulter, Daily Mail, UK

Yes, We Will Have No Bananas

ONCE you become accustomed to gas at $4 a gallon, brace yourself for the next shocking retail threshold: bananas reaching $1 a pound. At that price, Americans may stop thinking of bananas as a cheap staple, and then a strategy that has served the big banana companies for more than a century — enabling them to turn an exotic, tropical fruit into an everyday favorite — will begin to unravel.

The immediate reasons for the price increase are the rising cost of oil and reduced supply caused by floods in Ecuador, the world’s biggest banana exporter. But something larger is going on that will affect prices for years to come.

That bananas have long been the cheapest fruit at the grocery store is astonishing. They’re grown thousands of miles away, they must be transported in cooled containers and even then they survive no more than two weeks after they’re cut off the tree. Apples, in contrast, are typically grown within a few hundred miles of the store and keep for months in a basket out in the garage. Yet apples traditionally have cost at least twice as much per pound as bananas.

Americans eat as many bananas as apples and oranges combined, which is especially amazing when you consider that not so long ago, bananas were virtually unknown here. They became a staple only after the men who in the late 19th century founded the United Fruit Company (today’s Chiquita) figured out how to get bananas to American tables quickly — by clearing rainforest in Latin America, building railroads and communication networks and inventing refrigeration techniques to control ripening. The banana barons also marketed their product in ways that had never occurred to farmers or grocers before, by offering discount coupons, writing jingles and placing bananas in schoolbooks and on picture postcards. They even hired doctors to convince mothers that bananas were good for children.

Once bananas had become widely popular, the companies kept costs low by exercising iron-fisted control over the Latin American countries where the fruit was grown. Workers could not be allowed such basic rights as health care, decent wages or the right to congregate. (In 1929, Colombian troops shot down banana workers and their families who were gathered in a town square after church.) Governments could not be anything but utterly pliable. Over and over, banana companies, aided by the American military, intervened whenever there was a chance that any “banana republic” might end its cooperation. (In 1954, United Fruit helped arrange the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Guatemala.) Labor is still cheap in these countries, and growers still resort to heavy-handed tactics.

The final piece of the banana pricing equation is genetics. Unlike apple and orange growers, banana importers sell only a single variety of their fruit, the Cavendish. There are more than 1,000 varieties of bananas — most of them in Africa and Asia — but except for an occasional exotic, the Cavendish is the only banana we see in our markets. It is the only kind that is shipped and eaten everywhere from Beijing to Berlin, Moscow to Minneapolis.

By sticking to this single variety, the banana industry ensures that all the bananas in a shipment ripen at the same rate, creating huge economies of scale. The Cavendish is the fruit equivalent of a fast-food hamburger: efficient to produce, uniform in quality and universally affordable.

But there’s a difference between a banana and a Big Mac: The banana is a living organism. It can get sick, and since bananas all come from the same gene pool, a virulent enough malady could wipe out the world’s commercial banana crop in a matter of years.

This has happened before. Our great-grandparents grew up eating not the Cavendish but the Gros Michel banana, a variety that everyone agreed was tastier. But starting in the early 1900s, banana plantations were invaded by a fungus called Panama disease and vanished one by one. Forest would be cleared for new banana fields, and healthy fruit would grow there for a while, but eventually succumb.

By 1960, the Gros Michel was essentially extinct and the banana industry nearly bankrupt. It was saved at the last minute by the Cavendish, a Chinese variety that had been considered something close to junk: inferior in taste, easy to bruise (and therefore hard to ship) and too small to appeal to consumers. But it did resist the blight.

Over the past decade, however, a new, more virulent strain of Panama disease has begun to spread across the world, and this time the Cavendish is not immune. The fungus is expected to reach Latin America in 5 to 10 years, maybe 20. The big banana companies have been slow to finance efforts to find either a cure for the fungus or a banana that resists it. Nor has enough been done to aid efforts to diversify the world’s banana crop by preserving little-known varieties of the fruit that grow in Africa and Asia.

In recent years, American consumers have begun seeing the benefits — to health, to the economy and to the environment — of buying foods that are grown close to our homes. Getting used to life without bananas will take some adjustment. What other fruit can you slice onto your breakfast cereal?

But bananas have always been an emblem of a long-distance food chain. Perhaps it’s time we recognize bananas for what they are: an exotic fruit that, some day soon, may slip beyond our reach.

June 18, 2008, NY Times

Dan Koeppel is the author of “Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World.”

Alice Waters in The London Times

This is an extract of an interview with Californian organic restauranteur Alice Waters, published April 29, 2008.

What’s in your kitchen?

A fireplace that I can cook in and big windows that look out to my garden. There is no equipment, as such; certainly not machines. I have lots of pestles and mortars, a rather small stove, a big table to eat at and a big table to cook on.

I mostly buy food at the market and use it pretty much right away. My refrigerator has a lot of condiments, jams and jellies. I also keep pasta, grains and couscous.

I grow mostly herbs in my garden, as well as some salad and radishes and citrus fruits. There’s also lots of mint and lemon verbena. I love making fresh mint tea. We serve it after meals at the restaurant.

Local produce pioneers

California has set a lot of trends among foodies in the western world, and buying from home is just one of them

How would you sum up your food philosophy?

Pretty simply that I want to buy food that’s locally grown, sustainably farmed, seasonably ripe, and then I want to cook pretty simply. I really love having the fireplace going. I cook eggs and toast in the fire; that’s my specialty, if you can call it one.

How have our attitudes to food changed?

I think there has been a reaction to the manipulation of our food system and I think we’re finally coming back to our senses. We’re just realising that we need to eat real food, food that’s grown for our good health, and we need to eat a variety of foods.

I think the most exciting thing is the biodiversity that’s coming back to gardens. We’re not just getting five kinds of lettuce now, we’re getting 25.

What is Britain’s best-kept food secret?

After mad cow, I think you had a kind of wake-up call and people just started paying attention in a way that they hadn’t before. There’s an awareness in England about where food comes from that doesn’t really exist anywhere else I know about. You have the horticultural roots that will make it possible to really change the food system. And you have an enlightened Prince of Wales who is aware of the food system.

Do you prefer eating in or eating out?

I always like to eat at home, but being the restaurantrice that I am, I also like to eat out. I go to the places where I know the owner because I like to get their advice. I love salads and pasta. I’m less of a dessert person and like savoury foods.

What is the next big (real) food trend?

I don’t like to think of it (food) as a trend, but around the world there is more focus on food. If you can call seasonal food in the garden a trend, then I think it’s coming back.

The way that we’re ultimately going to save ourselves and this planet is if we educate ourselves and our children about where our food comes from. I think the work that Jamie Oliver and the Soil Association are doing in England is radical and vital.

Cloned meat cleared for the US

US farmers have been given the green light to produce cloned meat for the human food chain. In a report billed as a “final risk assessment” of the technology, the US Food and Drug Administration has concluded that healthy cloned animals and products from them such as milk are safe for consumers.

The announcement follows the launch of a public consultation on the issue by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). Its “draft opinion” on the technology gave provisional backing on the grounds that there was no evidence for food safety or environmental concerns.

Joyce D’Silva, of Compassion in World Farming describes it as “…a technology that has arisen out of a huge burden of animal suffering and that is still going on.” She said even if the embryo loss rates were brought down to acceptable levels, the technology would be detrimental to animal welfare. “It looks like i