Friday, 23 March 2012

Can we improve on nature?

Google "improve on nature" and you find some weird entries and quite a few arguments: that's the nature of the world wide web. So maybe the new "Nature Improvement Areas" recently announced by the government could have been called something different, though less snappy: people giving nature more of a chance? Getting our act together on nature? These new designations are certainly more about addressing human behaviour than they are about changing animals or plants, though the outcomes will, one hopes, be of benefit to the natural world. The criteria for success in an application for an NIA have been heavily weighted towards "partnerships", "shared visions" and "joined up local action". These aspirations chime very closely with findings, not just from Relu, but from research across the Living With Environmental Change initiative. Increasingly, we are having to think of our land as a resource that brings multiple benefits upon which we all depend, including food, water, carbon storage, ecology and leisure facilities - all those essentials that the latest jargon dubs "ecosystem services". But land is only going to produce all that we need if our management of it is efficient, is carried out at an appropriate scale and incorporates the latest research. That's why Relu is working with Nature Improvement Areas from this very early stage. We have been very fortunate that the South Downs NIA has been particularly helpful and enthusiastic about involving us, from when they were drafting their application, and we are now in touch with all the successful partnerships. The next development for Relu will be drawing out relevant science and producing a policy and practice note in our regular series that can be of practical help. We are consulting with the NIAs about what they want to see included in this at the moment. More links with researchers will, we hope, follow. Maybe we can't improve on nature per se, but we can improve the communications and knowledge exchange between people. Then, perhaps, nature will have a better chance of flourishing.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

One person's meat

Recent studies at Harvard School of Public Health have reignited the arguments about eating red meat. Of course, there are serious implications associated with eating a lot of meat, and they aren't all about the health of the individual. Environmentalists say it's bad for the planet and groups concerned about animal welfare would like us all to stick to a vegetarian or vegan diet. However, farmers and others involved in the livestock industry are hitting back and challenging the validity of the research. Eblex, the organisation that promotes English beef and lamb, argues that red meat provides essential nutrients as part of a healthy, balanced diet. I wonder what they think about producing meat artificially. Writing a short article for last week's Farmers' Weekly got me thinking about the implications of this. Artificial meat might appeal to those vegetarians who have forgotten what real meat tastes like. The sceptical foodie in me can't quite believe it would taste like "proper" meat. I suspect it would be on a par with turkey twizzlers and pink, pasty-tasting sausage rolls. There are also implications for our landscapes. We know from Relu research that there could be serious consequences, particularly for the uplands, if we managed to persuade everyone to make radical changes to their diet. Personally, I enjoy meat, but I don't eat it every day. I prefer to enjoy it a couple of times a week, and stick to meat raised to high welfare standards. For me, that feels like a more useful step on the road to sustainable living, and maybe it is healthier too.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Never mind the ingredients feel the convenience

In the university building where I work we are often asked to help the marketing students by taking part in focus groups. Every time I weaken and agree to do this I end up regretting my decision, because I am invariably the awkward element in the group. Never again, I resolve. But then, a few weeks later, there will be a desperate appeal from another student who needs someone to make up the numbers. They obviously haven't heard about me and my opinions about the kinds of products they want people to test. These invariably come in packets and are "convenience foods" that a pompous foodie like me would never dream of buying. So it was much against my better judgement that I agreed to taste some new vegetarian products this week. The students produced "sausage rolls" and "Scotch eggs" and we all had to give our opinions. Unfortunately the manufacturers, who were obviously very proud of these innovative delicacies, were also present and keen to trumpet their virtues. My resolutions about keeping quiet crumbled, and I questioned why they wanted to make these vegetarian products taste and look like meat by imitating meat-based snacks. That's what manufacterers do, they told me so it's obviously what people want. Hmm... I thought that was what a focus group was there to tell them? The other group members, all students seeking a free lunch, looked bemused. The manufacturers then told us that the advantage of these kinds of products was that schools liked them because obviously it is a well known fact that children will only eat junkfood but these products were much healthier than their meat equivalents. I suggested that by pandering to this view they were actually encouraging the consumption of sausage rolls and other unhealthy, fatty foods and implying that junk foods are ok. Wouldn't it be better to encourage children to eat other kinds of foods? Things went downhill from there on. None of my long-suffering friends would have been surprised by this turn of events as they know all too well my strong (they would say obsessive) opinions about food. Not everyone is as passionate about it as I am, but generally it is a very emotive subject. Food has so many cultural and social associations. Think of Christmas dinner, how wedded most families are to their own particular traditions and how important it is for family members to attend. So it seems a pity that we are often encouraged to devalue food for the rest of the year in favour of so-called "convenience products" that distance us even further from its production. The anonymous paste in those "sausage rolls" might have been "healthier" in some sense than meat, but it could have been made from anything. Taking them out of the packet and sticking them into the microwave may be quick and easy, but is making fresh, healthy, delicious food at home really such a waste of our time? I will certainly carry on making food from ingredients that I recognise and avoiding "convenience foods", but I think I'll skip the focus groups.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Who owns the view?

Yesterday's conference in Birmingham which was organised by the Managing Environmental Change at the Rural Urban Fringe team provided a stimulating day. I felt that one of the most interesting points of discussion was about who owns the view? People often have a real sense of attachment to the outlook from their home and this is understandable. The downside is that this may lead to nimbyism, as individuals want to continue to look out on unsullied countryside. This is common at the point where town meets country, and the newcomers want their own little piece of development to be the last, with no further spread of building work into "their" view. It's one of those points that is obvious once you think about it. But is it fair? Maybe this attitude is as outdated as the mindset of the old British Empire: if I can see it then it belongs to me. Perhaps we need to plan with more equitable aims in mind, and in a way that will benefit everyone. And what about the green belt? Everyone was agreed that people need green spaces but does it now have an unhealthy stranglehold on sensible and sustainable development? Would green wedges or, even a green banana, work more effectively? But on the topic of bringing fruit and veg into the landscape, Pam Warhurst from Incredible Edible was inspirational. Whether you live in the town or the country, it was impossible not to turn one's thoughts to guerrilla gardening. A recording and other products from the conference will soon be available on the project's website.