Friday, 24 February 2012

Going into the ruf

Before our Relu project "Managing Environmental Change at the Rural-Urban Fringe" began I had never given much thought to the meeting point of town and country. But it really came home to me when I went out to take some photos of countryside for a Relu document one weekend. Living on Tyneside, I didn't want to have to drive too far to take my pictures, so ended up at the borders of North Tyneside and Northumberland: classic rural-urban fringe. "Fringe" seems to be the right word for this rather ragged landscape. If my local "ruf" has a defining characteristic it is probably the number of fields being grazed by horses. This is riding school country, where middle-class urban children come to ride ponies. Is that a function we should value? You might argue that any activity that gets young people away from their computer screens should be encouraged. Others feel it is a waste of land that could be used for growing food. There are also areas of apparent abandonment, with decaying buildings and old mineworkings: the legacy of North East England's more industrial past. Some of this unkempt panorama would probably benefit from development, or so it seems. Affordable housing is certainly needed. But am I missing some subtle habitats used by wildlife? I suspect that the planning decisions are not simple as they appear, and next week I shall probably find this out at the "Managing Environmental Change at the Rural-Urban Fringe" event in Birmingham. I'm particularly looking forward to having an opportunity to play the team's Rufopoly board game. When it was launched at our Relu conference in November I had other things on my mind. But this innovative development has really taken off, with planners keen to use it in discussions on strategy. As in Monopoly, players each have a little plastic object to move around the board. I wonder whether these include a horse?

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Is rhubarb and pineapple a winning combination?

Will eating rhubarb and pineapple together kill you? I have been thinking recently about the myths I grew up with, particularly those involving food. It's not the bizarre ones that are problematic and I suspect they were confined to my slightly eccentric family anyway. The rhubarb and pineapple combination always seemed an unlikely culinary choice, even if it is harmless. However, I also remember being told to add bicarbonate of soda to green vegetables "to keep them green". Unfortunately this is a practice that destroys the Vitamin C. It also seems pointless, as I have never noticed that vegetables do lose their colour, except when seriously overcooked. Fortunately that once-common advice does seem to have died out, but other damaging food practices persist. A good (and intelligent) friend insists that she always cooks vegetables without a lid on the pan "to get rid of the poisons" and tells me that she has read advice on this in several womens' magazines. Googling the topic does indeed bring up recipes that specify cooking vegetables in this way to "release volatile acids". I'm more inclined to believe the food scientist colleague who assures me that although some vegetables do indeed contain natural compounds that are potentially poisonous in large doses, they are not present in large enough quantities to cause harm (if they were they would make the vegetables too bitter to eat), and in small quantities may actually benefit our health. Moreover, it will make no difference to the levels whether there is a lid on the pan or not. So do our cooking habits matter? They might, when we consider that Relu research into the relative merits of importing vegetables or eating locally grown produce noted that the cooking process is a significant contributor to the greenhouse gas emissions of food. For example, 48% of all energy used during a potato's life cycle is expended in the kitchen. Simple actions to reduce fuel consumption - like putting a lid on the pan - can actually make a difference. But knowing this at an academic level isn't going to help, if there is a different message prevailing in the kitchen. How can we bridge the gap? Interdisciplinary research can be useful because it brings social science into the picture and helps us to understand human behaviour and how we use knowledge. But we also need better sources of information and better ways of telling people about research findings.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Do Ambridge residents watch Countryfile?

Catching up with some of our Relu researchers' and stakeholders' appearances on the BBC's "Countryfile" this week I found myself wondering whether the inhabitants of Ambridge might be watching. One of the topics under investigation was organic produce and its apparent decline in popularity. Consumers seem to be prioritising animal welfare over the use of pesticides, which is interesting in the current economic climate. Free-range eggs do certainly seem to be maintaining their sales. Meantime, over on Radio 4, Borchester Land's mega-dairy seems poised to undercut small-scale producers and it's crunch-time for Brookfield Farm's herd if David and Ruth can't pay for a new slurry tank, the old one having been sabotaged by malevolent badgers. The farming press has praised the even-handed coverage of the proposed new enterprise. I have to agree that it has been well done, showing the care that will go into ensuring the cows' well-being. From a purely personal (and possibly townie-sentimental) point of view, however, I can't help reflecting on the sheer joy displayed by a herd of dairy cows rushing out into a field after a winter spent inside. So I wonder whether David and Ruth Archer couldn't be capitalising on such townie consumer sentiment and going for an animal welfare label, built upon small-scale, grass-fed herds? Perhaps Pip has time to watch television occasionally and could give them a few marketing tips.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

There's only one rural economy

Rural Economy AND Land Use? Someone recently asked me why we need both in the title when land use is so integral to how the rural economy - in fact the economy both rural and urban - works? It's a good question and I couldn't possibly comment on the name of the Relu Programme, particularly as it was decided long before I came on board. But I couldn't deny that there really is only one rural economy. And in their evidence to the recent Government Growth Review Relu and the Centre for Rural Economy where we are based did try to make that point, bringing the work that has been done within the programme into a wider perspective. Professor Mark Shucksmith will be revisiting the evidence to kick off a "Questions of Enterprise" day organised by the Northern Rural Network Newcastle University on 10 February.