Tag Archives: Food

‘Ultra-processed’ products now half of all UK family food purchases

An article in the Guardian today reports on research on the nutritional quality of heavily processed food. The print version shows a map of Europe with the UK being the highest consuming nation of processed food (as % of household purchases) in Europe. UK – 50.7%, Ireland – 45.9%, Germany 46.2% The lowest being Portugal – 10.2%, Italy – 13.4%, Greece 13.7%

Researchers refute the often-heard mantra of the food industry and  government:

Their research shows that the adage repeated constantly by the food industry and adopted by politicians – that “there is no such thing as bad food, just too much food” – is wrong, …

The links to be obesity are also mentioned. Then are the effects of a poor diet on health and the corresponding use of resources to treat conditions which could likely be avoided.

Eating good food need not be expensive especially if you grow your own organic fruit and veg. Habits need to change, diets need to change and we need a massive education programme to reverse obesity rates and help people move to a better diet.

Should you go vegan?

That is the headline on the front page of 27 January edition of New Scientist magazine. The article by Chelsea White describes how she was vegan then changed back to eating meat and why she has now decided to return to a vegan diet.

There are many good reasons for not eating meat like amount of land used for farm animals, plus the land needed to grow food for livestock, the water used and the CO2 produced. All are drastically reduced by eating a plant based diet.

The big concern that always comes up is whether we can get enough of the essentials for a healthy life from plants alone. It is more difficult and needs care and thought when choosing what to eat. That goes against the grain for many people who live normal ‘busy lives’. But do we need to think more about what we eat? Does eating a standard diet of junk food and ready meals provide optimum nutrition? My guess is a resounding no.

White goes through all the pros and cons and end up stating that she has returned to being vegan. It really is not that hard especially if you grow your own fruit and veg!

 

Using old tyres (tires) in the garden

Many people suggest using tyres (tires in the US) as cheap contains in which to grow food. It is bad idea as rubber breaks down to a fine toxic dust. Also: “Although tyres remain substantially intact for decades, some of their components can break down and leach. Environmental conern centres on the highly toxic additives used in their manufacture, such as zinc, chromium, lead, copper, cadmium and sulphur.”  See the full aticle here

Personally, I would never have them in my garden and would never want to grow food near where they have broken down.

The other big issue is foam backed carpet is used a weed suppressant. Again, find particle of rubber can be left in the soil. Don’t use it!

Scientists link weather to Arctic sea ice loss

An article in The Guardian has linked the loss of sea ice in the Arctic to changes in weather patterns. Many climate scientists have been saying that the effect of ice melt is much more severe than first thought but the comments have been played down by governments who are preoccupied with the economy. Why do they find it so hard to accept that climate change will have a far bigger impact than any of their supposed election winning strategies to improve economic growth?

We have got to the stage where climate change is affecting the whole world and yet nothing is happening to mitigate the effects. Consider just the weather in the UK for a moment; here, in the Peak District, the local council is still battling to clear 6.5m  (20ft) snow drifts. many roads not normally affected by winter snow were blocked for several days and towns and village were cut off. Many other areas of the UK affected yet it soon ceases to be news and attention shifts to the perennial short termism that afflicts UK politics.

Maybe climate change is just not a vote winner? maybe the issue is just too big and potentially too destructive for the government and the population to comprehend? Or are we still in denial, still have our collective heads in the sand? I know there are still climate change skeptics out there and they seem to be fulled by the ‘red top’ news papers who seem intent of following the line that it is all a myth or a plot dreamed up by the left.

So far individuals have taken steps to make changes to their life to reduce CO2 but we need all governments to take this issue very seriously and to do that NOW. And we need the help of all of the scietific community to work together. I have suggested this before but is it not time to look at research budgets and divert money into climate change mitigation? Dare I suggest that some large, prestige projets should be put on hold as what is the use of understanding what happened immediately after the big bang if we have messed up the very World we are trying to understand? maybe funding the the LHC and the Square killometre array should be diverted to climate change mitigation research so that we can understand and reduce the impact that we human beings have on the world we so cherish.

 

GM food or die?

A major new report on the impending world food crisis was published today. While it is good to see the problems are being faced the author of the report, John Beddington, repeats the same old rhetoric that GM is the only way to solve the problem.

In an article in The Observer yesterday he is reported to have said that any objection to the use of GM is no longer valid on ethical and moral grounds. So, if we object the use of unproven and potentially dangerous products we are now unethical and immoral?

The argument is that by objecting to GM people will starve and the objectors will be responsible. Agrochemical companies, and their supporters, will use any way they can to further their cause and moral blackmail is their latest ploy.

The facts are clear; GM has never been used to ‘feed the world’ but is there to increase the profits of a very small number of multinational agrochemical companies. GM locks us into the unsustainable agrochemical industry which is part of the problem and not the solution. GM side effects are drastically played down and any opposition to the companies peddling GM products is ruthlessly eliminated.

Beddington was on UK TV today saying that we have to act now and cannot wait 20 years for a solution. On that we agree and, as I have said many times before, the answer is political. We have the means to grow huge amounts of food sustainably, now, but politicians refuse to act. We have the ability to make the UK far more self-sufficient in food but politicians choose to follow the free market model where countries grow what makes the best profit.

The same applies to the developing world. Does it make sense to import green beans from Africa rather than encourage countries to be self-sufficient? The argument is that with the money earned from exports they can buy food. How does that work when a lot of the growing is controlled by companies from the West?

The other major political step to take is to end financial speculation of food. Governments around the world cannot agree to curb banks excessive profits and bonusues so it is unlikely that they would even suggest ending profiteering from speculaion on food.

GM is not the answer and will only serve to prop up the strangle hold that the agrochemical companies have on the world food supply. Is it right that we should force a rotten system on developing countries under a smoke screen of ‘feeding the world’ when the main intent is further exploitation to make higher profits?

World food prices rise again

There have been several items on UK TV news about the increase in world food prices. The reports follow the usual pattern by referring the Australian floods, the Russian drought and in increase in demand from India and China. The idea that all of the problems are external, and out of our control, will be repeated in other wealthy countries.

While extreme weather events do have a profound effect there is little or no mention of the major cause of price increases – speculation. Basic food commodities are traded on the futures market like gold, silver and other precious metals. If speculators see a profit in buying next years harvest before it has even been sown they will. The idea is to grab enough of a basic foodstuff like wheat or soya so as to restrict demand on the open market. That forces up the world price enabling a profit to be made.

Some see this as ‘good business’. Being able to manipulate the markets is said to be part of a free economy but one person’s profit is misery to millions of others who cannot afford to eat.

Then there is the increasing amount of grain diverted from food production to biofuels. In the US this was hailed as a way to help avoid reliance on oil from other countries. The unintended consequence is to place staple foodstuffs out of reach of millions of poorer people.

Have we lost all sense of justice? Have we, as a society, degenerated to such a low level that we happily let a few make huge profits at the expense of the most vulnerable people in the world?  I fear the answer to all those questions is a resounding YES!

Spend more on food rather than holidays

Patrick Holden, director of the Soil Association, has caused a stir by saying that we should spend more money on food than on holidays, according to The Telegraph. That is bound to be a headline grabber and bound to get a strong reaction but is he right?

Some years ago there was a statistic floating around which said that in the UK we spend 9% of income on food whereas in France it was nearer 19%. That says a lot about how food is valued. Some would argue that cheap food is almost a right but I would counter that by saying nutritious food is a right and not the useless pap that many companies sell as ‘food’.

How much we are willing to pay for meal also says a lot about what food means to us and generally we don’t value it all. In supermarkets food is sold on price and price alone, the cheapest being seen as the best. Low prices have to come from somewhere and it is the continual screwing down of farm gate prices which keeps the shop price artificially low. That benefits nobody in the long term as it leads to a precarious supply situation which easily creaks and breaks at the slightest problem.

Then there is organic food. For a long time organic has been branded by the opposition as a niche market and as high priced food for tuffs. The perception is that, at best organic is much more expensive and at worst a con which is no different to the chemical soaked alternative. Organisations like the NFU have vigorously defended conventionally produced food and have been quick to reinforce the niche market claims. What this has done if to create confusion and an air of suspicion in the minds of consumers.

The recent debates about food security have also jumped on the organic knocking bandwagon and made wild claims about links to starvation and organic farming. The argument is that we need even more intensive chemical farming combined with unproven technologies like GM. Government has joined that camp because it gives them an easy way out of a difficult and frightening problem.

What we really need is to increase food production in the UK and diversify the way food is grown. That does not mean super farms in the East of England supplying 98% of English carrots, cabbage or anything else. That is not resilient agriculture it is sheer lunacy. The prolonged drought in the East Anglia last year and the recent disruption to supplies during the cold spell have shown just how precarious our food supply really is.

Farmers need to be seen as a crucial part of society and valued for the work they do and not constantly knocked or seen as scapegoats for the bad practices of the retail sector.  Agriculture and horticulture need to be sold to young people as worthwhile and engaging careers. There should be incentives for young people take on small holdings of land to grow food sustainably without chemicals. Land should be seen for what it is, an absolutely crucial part of keeping us alive and not as an investment opportunity.

What about organics? A large scale move to organic agriculture is not just desirable it is essential to produce a sustainable production system that is not totally reliant on oil. It is no use tinkering with the existing system in way that increase or perpetuates reliance on fossil fuels all that will do is delay the inevitable crisis. We must begin to move to a post oil agricultural system with more local production and distribution.

The days of cheap food have gone. We will have to pay more for food and I sincerely hope that we recover our respect for what we eat. A more nutritious diet could make a huge difference to public health of this country. The best thing is that people might even begin to enjoy good food again instead of scoffing plastic meals out of plastic trays while walking around our cities.

In the end it is not about whether organic food is just for rich toffs it is about the facing the realities of declining oil supplies, climate change and population growth. Food production has to become sustainable and just has to be less dependent on oil.

Making Urban Farming Scalable With Fish

There seems to be a growing idea that zero input, zero carbon footprint food systems are possible. The latest incarnation is a revamp of old technology that raises fish in tanks and then circulates the nutrient rich water (fish poo) around containers used to grow fruit and veg. It is generally known as aquaponics.

The claimed advantages range from less use of water to a magical zero input food system input based on the premise that no fertilizers are needed. What is often ignored, or glossed over, is that fish need food and that the system needs a constant supply of energy.

Energy can come from renewable sources so that is not a huge problem for small systems but the capital investment and embedded energy used to create large renewable electricity generation plants for large scale aquaponics systems is often  totally over looked by enthusiasts.

One of the latest ideas that is generating some publicity and getting support from those who see it as a quick techno fix is detailed in an article with the strap line “Why aquaponics may be the future of urban farming, and one solution to our local food problem.”

The idea looks relatively simple; raise fish in tanks, circulate the faces laden water around other tanks which are used to grow food. If only it were that simple. The experiences of fish farming are that confining fish to tanks and cages in sea water drastically increases problems from pests and diseases which leads to the reliance of pesticides. Are the aquaponic enthusiasts saying there are no such problems with their systems or do they just ignore the potential problems?

The authors are very enthusiastic and use eco speak to support their arguments.

According to Food & Water Watch, 80 percent of that energy is spent on “processing, packaging, selling, and storing food after it leaves the farm.” Some estimates “predict that 120 million tons of CO2 emissions are directly attributable to domestic food transport each year.” The U.S. food system is so inefficient that it “uses 10 nonrenewable fossil fuel calories to produce only one food calorie.”

There is no disputing any that and it shows just how dependent we have become on converting oil calories to food calories.

What bothers me is that there is a growing rush to find a techno fix for every problem we now face. Maybe it is because we do not want to give up our comfortable life styles. Maybe it is because we have become accustomed to leaving the tricky stuff to others. Maybe we rely on the centralised power of government and big companies too much. Who knows what drives people to find the seemingly easiest solution to everything without looking further than their dinner fork.

One thing is certain, we do need a change in the food is produced and distributed and I am equally sure that sustainable urban farms have a crucial part to play. To be really sustainable they need the absolute minimum of inputs and to make the maximum use of space, the overall design guidelines: should be keep it simple, use what we have, use the least possible amount of energy for creating and running the farm.

Maybe there is a hybrid media based growing system out there that uses manure or compost to produce plant food and uses a renewably sourced growing media. I would dearly love to hear about it as that really would be revolution. Until then lets make the best use of the biggest resource we have i.e. soil by growing intensively and organically.

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Who will grow your food?

This is the first in a series about food and farming by Sharon Astyk, the original article can found here.

Astyk asks the crucial question; with aging farmers, pressure on land and farming seen as only fit for the village idiots who will grow your food?

The critics, and there are lots of them, say that farmers are responsible for many of the problems in the countryside. They are accused of the systematic destruction of hedgerows, polluting water and ignoring wildlife. While there might be an element of truth in such jibes what is ignored is that the countryside is still the place where food is grown.

Farming has undergone enormous changes in the last 70 years. Food was politicised after the shortages of the 1940s and successive governments wanted to show that things were better under the post-war regimes. That meant continuing the modernisation which started with increasing mechanisation and the greater use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. The result was the move to modern factory farming.

Traditionalists lamented the loss of the old agriculture with horse drawn ploughs and hay making on long summer days. The image of a rural idyll is engrained in the collective consciousness and is exploited by many companies especially to sell food.

With increasing urbanisation the vast majority of people have little or no contact with farms or farmers apart from a day out in ‘the country’. People have lost track of where food comes from and who grows it. The role of farmer as food producer has also been obscured by the seemingly endless supplies on over stocked supermarket shelves.

The biggest issue that is being totally ignored is that the average of farmers in the UK is near 60 and few young people want to take up agriculture as a career. Why should they when farmers are at best ignored and at worst reviled? Why should anybody go into a job that can often involve long hours outside in all weathers for so little financial return and even less recognition?

As farmers retire skills are lost and our ability to feed ourselves is diminished. Sharon Astyk says that it will take time to train new farmers and far from being low status manual work it is a skilled profession that deserves a higher status.

The article goes on to calculate how many people will be needed to continue farming America. What bothers me is that the whole situation is not taken seriously enough in the US or the UK. We still rely on farmers to feed us whatever we think of current agricultural practices and however we see the countryside. It is no use looking to mythical scientific fixes to magic food out of nowhere. Neither will all the urban food growing projects feed the population. I am not arguing against any sort of sustainable initiative to increase food production but I am saying that agriculture has to be the main source of food.

What we need is the maximum utilisation of the land we have and the farmers to produce the food. Farming needs to be taken seriously and the job made more attractive, that is, we have to value farmers as crucial to our wellbeing.

In an election year farming and food security should be central issues in any political manifesto. My bet is they will hardly feature and when they do there will be just more of the same old rhetoric of the past; lots of words but no real action.

Wasting away?

An article in The Times today (Opinion p. 26) by Tristram Stuart once again draws attention the huge waste of food in the UK. The figures are large, up to 20 million tonnes a year. While we all might protest about the amount supermarkets discard what is even worse is the amount wasted by consumers:

And then there’s the waste in our own homes, where consumers discard £12 billion of groceries annually, including £280 million of milk and nearly 100,000 tonnes of poultry meat.

The food packing and processing industry is also responsible for throwing away perfectly edible food such as misshapen or wrong sized fruit and veg. That is clearly ridiculous yet we have only ourselves to blame. Over the years supermarkets have got consumers hooked on the idea that aesthetics equals quality, i.e. if it looks good then it is good. The quality of fresh fruit and veg should be about nutrient density and freshness and not unblemished skin and perfect size but these qualities matter little in the high turnover industrial food system we now have.

Food security is also much in the news these days and crop scientists are desperately trying to convince us that some new technological fix will solve all the problems. But will it? Perhaps there should first be a drive to discard less as it is plainly idiotic to grow perfectly good food and then throw it away before it reaches the shops. Not only is that an almost criminal waste of food it is also a waste of the energy used in production, transport and processing.

Clearly this situation cannot continue but who will stop it? Can we rely on the food chain to be sensible or is a high level of waste just an inevitable consequence of an ever more industrialised food system? Will consumers be prepared to eat ugly veg or misshapen fruit?

I do not know than answers but there is one thing that I am sure of, when you turn soil, plant seeds, weed crops and then harvest what you have grown your attitude to food changes. In other words it is surprising what you will eat when you have worked to get it! Misshapen veg, ugly fruit – delicious! Waste – nonexistent.