Tuesday, 8 October 2013

The consequences of healthy eating

When one of the Relu projects came up with statistics for likely shifts in land use if we all ate our recommended five a day, and mentioned the potential need for many more polytunnels covering the south of England, the research received national press coverage.  There was plenty of opportunity for outrage.  Polytunnels are a blot on the landscape as far as most Britons are concerned and they invariably provoke protest and nimbyism.  Yet still the government urges us to increase our fruit and veg intake and most of us refuse to feast on turnips all winter.  What is to be done?  Last week I was on holiday near Turkey’s Mediterranean coast and was struck by the large numbers of polytunnels there.  Acres of plastic nestle alongside the beautiful beaches.  Tomatoes, cucumbers, courgettes and aubergines spill out of them and onto the local and international market; Turkey is a net exporter of fruit and vegetables.  This kind of technology extends the season very effectively and protects produce from weather and insect damage.  It provides the perfect-looking, all-year-round ingredients we demand.  Are there protests about these particular blots on the landscape?  Not at all, because the land is generally owned by local people and each family may have a small plot.  Almost everyone in Turkey still has a stake in farming and the rural economy.  Using polytunnels is one way of maximising their profits.  So, perhaps this is a boon for them and for us?  Or are we simply exporting our prejudices to poorer and less fussy communities?  Climate change may alter this picture completely, of course.  Other countries may no longer be able or willing to supply us, or they may find other customers who can pay more for their goods, as China and India wield increasing economic power.  Will we then look more kindly upon plastic monstrosities in our own backyard?  Only time will tell.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Confessions of a completer-finisher

Back at the beginning of April I began a new job.  This probably hasn’t been obvious to many of my colleagues in Newcastle as I’m still sitting here in the same office in the Centre for Rural Economy, in front of the same computer screen.  The Rural Economy and Land Use Programme, which first brought me here to Newcastle University in 2007, finally finished at the end of March, but I was fortunate to be able to continue working here, mainly thanks to the Living With Environmental Change (LWEC) partnership.  They wanted to establish a new LWEC series of Policy and Practice Notes, drawing on the Relu experience, and they are paying a large share of my salary so that I can produce the series for them.  Next week we expect delivery of the first three LWEC notes.  I have been waiting for this moment for the past five months and I can’t wait to hold the finished products in my hands.  It feels like a long time for the writing, design and print of such brief, four and six page documents and the completer-finisher in me has experienced a lot of frustration along the way.  I knew the task would be challenging.  LWEC is a much more diverse programme than Relu, it involves a vast number of programmes, projects and researchers across many disciplines.  Even so, I had hoped to have one or two notes out by the end of June.  Looking back I can see how over-optimistic this was.  To begin with, talking to the right people and persuading them that publications of this kind can increase the impact of their research, has sometimes been quite a challenge.  Getting first drafts, working on them and passing them back and forth for comment, invariably takes up more time.  On reflection, five months isn’t really so bad, particularly as three will shortly be arriving together.  Several texts are in various stages of preparation and more numbers in the series should appear over the next few months.  I also have to admit that the time taken has probably resulted in a better product that we would have achieved if the first note  had come out two or three months ago.  Not for the first time, I come to the conclusion a completer-finisher is not always such a good thing to be.  My inclination to see the finished product can take over at times.  I’m good at meeting deadlines – but that can include the completely illusory ones I create for myself.  It’s good to have colleagues who will sometimes tell me to take a breath and think again, and not worry about getting things finished quite yet.  That’s why I know that this new series isn’t just my own achievement, and that’s why I like working here. 

Monday, 26 August 2013

The Celtic tiger shows its wounds

I have just returned from a few days in Donegal.  Driving back and forth between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland I am always struck by the casual lack of any obvious border between the two countries.  The only immediate clue is in the sudden change of style in the road signs.  Miles become kilometres, the iconography looks different.  But as one proceeds through the countryside there are other, more dramatic contrasts.  Traditionally Ireland is a country of green landscapes, agriculture and farmsteads.  But when I first visited in the early 1980s change was already in the air.  Old farmhouses were being abandoned in favour of spanking new ranch-style bungalows with running water and the full complement of services, often built from the template designs in The Bungalow Book.  Irish rural settlement has always looked different from the traditional village that is so familiar in most of the UK.  Homesteads tend to be scattered rather than clustered, and there is little of the peculiarly English rural romanticism with its cottage garden and roses round the door.  But these new Spanish colonial style developments looked particularly incongruous.  Although the houses themselves may be quite grandiose, with pillars and stone ornaments much to the fore, the effect is stark.  These new builds usually stand naked in their standard one third of an acre, without the softening effect of any surrounding garden.  There may be some grass if you’re lucky; that can be zipped over with a ride-on mower.  Whole estates of this kind, often brightly painted in blues, reds and greens, create the impression of a giant Toy Town.  During the days of the Celtic tiger it was a pattern that became ever more prominent as spare money was poured into new houses and second homes.  Some of the old farmsteads were renovated and became holiday cottages; others were left to disintegrate.  But then, along with its European neighbours, the Celtic tiger faltered.  Bungalows have been abandoned at every stage of construction, as their owners were hit by the recession.  No doubt Northern Ireland has also suffered, along with the rest of the UK, but the wounds in the Republic seem much more obvious, a stark public display of the uncomfortable and sometimes tragic personal consequences of a challenging economic situation.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Tell me a story

For the past three days a number of my colleagues from the Centre for Rural Economy here in Newcastle have been in beautiful Florence, at the European Society for Rural Sociology Congress.  Of course I’m not at all envious (well, only a little).  Neither do I mind helping my colleagues prepare their presentations for such events.  In fact it’s something I really enjoy doing.   But I do wonder why it is that we assume academics will automatically possess the necessary skills for communicating their research to an audience, and why they are so rarely that able to draw on the assistance of communications specialists.  One of my colleagues, who had better remain anonymous, told me recently that preparing powerpoint slides used to be so much easier because he would “simply paste in chunks of text from my research papers”.  It’s harder now that I have shown him the error of his ways apparently.  He is very much the convert.  Solid bullet points of text are out while visual images are in, and I think he would agree that the audience tends to be more attentive as a result.  Finding the right picture is often challenging, but sharing the results of research should be about telling a story, and pictures can help to convey that story by adding a visual dimension.  I have written before, I know, about the importance of stories in communicating research, but this has been very much in my mind recently.  I am currently reading “The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot, a book that I had been intending to tackle for some time.  I wish I had got around to it sooner because I can hardly bear to put it down.  Reviews have mostly been full of praise, but I have also read a few critical comments, particularly on websites, and possibly from academics, that suggest this is not proper science writing.  I have seen it called “science-lite”.  I couldn’t disagree more.  Skloot manages to involve the reader in the lives of Henrietta and her family and make them real, while at the same time conveying the complex technicalities involved in creating the Hela cell line.  This important development, that facilitated so many different medical advances, couldn’t have happened without that individual and her personal story.  I have no qualifications in biochemistry and yet I feel that I understand much more about cells and their biology from reading about Henrietta Lacks.  I don’t think that using human stories or pictures in any way undermines “serious” science, and I wish that academics were routinely given more training and support to help them convey the fascinating tales that they have to tell.   We would all be the richer if they did.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

What makes a cow happy?

During our recent holiday in France I was struck once again by the numbers of cows we saw grazing in woodland in the Aude.  It’s a scene that, for me, represents the rural South of France.  These cows look so Gallic that I think they must “moo” with a French accent.  They seem to wander freely, often wear bells, and create an attractive picture of rural content and traditional farming.  Many years ago, when I was studying the Neolithic in Britain, I read that there may be evidence of branches of trees being cut down to feed cattle in these early farming societies.  Wild cattle are natural forest dwellers and will certainly feed on leaves if given the opportunity.  I also had a vague idea that cattle are supposed to be good for woodland, breaking up matted undergrowth and depositing dung that fertilises the soil.  Keeping cattle in woodland, therefore, seems to provide a win-win situation: good for the trees and good for the animals.  So why is it common in other European countries but seems rare in the UK?  A brief investigation revealed some interesting work by Forest Research.  Their survey concludes that there are, in fact, some areas of woodland being grazed by cattle throughout the country, with higher concentrations in the south of England, Cumbria and the north of Scotland.  Land ownership seems to be behind the pattern.  In the case of Scotland and Cumbria the practice represents an unbroken and continuing tradition in privately-owned land management, and is driven by the need for production.  Conversely, in the south of England it is used mainly on land owned by non-governmental organisations such as the National Trust, whose main aim is conservation.  In either case there does seem to be a dual benefit that draws on traditional land management practices.  I imagine that a couple of hundred years ago the trees might have been coppiced to produce a crop of poles for hurdles or for firewood.   A colleague in CRE who is carrying out research on permaculture agreed that keeping cattle in woodland could certainly be included under that heading as a sustainable practice that works with nature.  It’s not an intensive production method of course.  Too many cattle will ensure, in time, that there are no new trees, as the animals graze off new saplings.  But the trampling caused by lower numbers actually seems to create spaces for new plants to germinate and grow.  It’s a satisfyingly idea and creates a pretty rural scene.  Does it do anything more?  Above all, it prompts me to question my assumptions about farming and the countryside.  Arguments about intensive production methods, such as mega-dairies have even been aired on The Archers over the past year or so.  Most of us prefer to see cows grazing in fields rather than shut away in sheds all year round.  But is it even natural to give a cow a field in which to graze?  We might prefer it in landscape and aesthetic terms and we may conclude that the cows prefer it: anyone who has seen cows leave their winter accommodation in the spring would be hard pressed to deny that they enjoy being out in the fresh air.  But I think it’s also worth remembering that any farming method represents a means by which we reshape the natural world.  Given a choice, perhaps what those cows would really prefer would be to retreat into the forest and eat leaves as their ancestors did.  Though, of course, we have also shaped the modern cow into a very different creature from its ancestors.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Abroad thoughts from home

I have just returned from a holiday in France.  They do things differently there.  We were dining in our hotel in the charming village of Alet-les-bains, in the Languedoc-Roussillon region when an English couple at the next table asked whether they might have a glass of champagne as an aperitif.  The waiter was polite but unequivocal.  No, this was impossible.  Why?  Because we were not in Champagne.  Glasses of Blanquette de Limoux, the local sparkling wine were, however, forthcoming.  The English customers were quite obviously bemused.  They had simply been seeking a sparkling wine when they asked for “champagne” and had no intention of causing an international incident.  But the French take regional food and wine extremely seriously.  For them, eating locally is not about food miles or carbon footprints but about tradition and being true to the terroir.  It is self-evident to them that the food and wine from a particular region go together, and who could argue with the matching of cassoulet with the fruity reds of Languedoc where it originated, or mineral-tangy Sancerre with goat’s cheese from the same region.  That isn’t to say that French wines can never be drunk with other foods of course.  Alsace wines complement spicy dishes from across the world, and wine producers are keen to sell beyond their regional and national borders.  At the same time there is still a deep sense of locality and a desire to consume local produce in France.  Perhaps it is because even now very many French people, even if they are living in cities, still have a sense of rural roots, of family who produced this food and wine, just a couple of generations ago.  It is something we have generally lost in the UK.  This is not just true for France, of course.  My colleague at the Centre for Rural Economy, Menelaos Gkartzios, has been investigating these rural roots in his native Greece, and researching the phenomenon of urban dwellers migrating back to the countryside in response to the economic situation.  Many are taking advantage of the family networks that are still strong in southern Europe.  In Britain we are not, at the moment, in such dire straits.  If we were we would not be able to return to the countryside as an escape from unemployment and poverty.  Here it is more often the refuge of the well-off retiree.  Perhaps the loss of a sense of local food identity goes along with this.    

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Connections at our fingertips

Most of the work that goes on in the Centre for Rural Economy involves the brain rather than the body.  You might hear conversation, the tapping of keyboards, a kettle boiling, a clatter of cups.  We connect via spoken and written words, using all kinds of communications technology, or meet face to face over cups of coffee.  We may move books and papers around, but none of this requires a great deal of physical effort.  So when Claire Pen├žak, who has been our artist in residence over the past year, came to talk to me as part of her evaluation of the residency, I wondered why I hadn’t taken more advantage of her presence in CRE.  Claire uses choreography and visual art in her practice, while I use words.  Suddenly the idea of bringing these together to consider “connections between choreography and social science” seemed like a really interesting idea.  I always favour the surprise element in any presentation or event so this was an opportunity to shake my colleagues out of their expectations about what a seminar is.  We decided that this seminar wasn’t going to be about brain work alone.  Claire and I devised a very simple format.  I asked the participants to write down three words about connections.  Then, without sharing these, everyone took part in a choreography exercise, led by Claire.  We worked in pairs, balancing bamboo canes between us.  The trick of is to learn how your partner moves, to push forward and give way in time with one another.  In doing so, each pair keeps their bamboo canes aloft; if one person exerts too much power or fails to respond to their partner, the canes fall to the ground.  Then, when we had (more or less) mastered this, everyone in the workshop worked as a group to balance the canes between them.  It’s a fascinating exercise in respecting others’ space while working together to achieve an objective.  Afterwards everyone wrote another three words about “connections”, and shared both sets of words with their colleagues.  It was interesting to see how this second set of words was subtly different from the initial thoughts: words such as “peace” and “friend” and “interdependence” and “reciprocity” appeared rather than “email”, “buses” “wires” and “links”.  
Finally, everyone wrote a few lines on the theme of “connections.  This is one example:


Sensing the direction

through new pathways

knowledge at our fingertips

yet poles


Friday, 10 May 2013

What’s a food policy council anyway?

What’s a food policy council?  I couldn’t have begun to answer this question before attending the Food Policy Council Workshop organised by CRE and NIReS this week.  I now feel that at least I know what it could be, though I also learnt that these bodies appear in lots of different guises in different places and may want different things. 

The one-day workshop was divided into two segments: the morning local and regional, the afternoon national, and we had some expert guides during both.  Mark Winne and Pam Roy, who led much of the day, both have many years of experience in the politics and practice of food policy councils in North America, where the concept originated.  Collaboration seems to be fundamental to these organisations and the sharing of knowledge throughout  seemed to be an appropriate reflection of this. 

Food is, of course, fundamental to all of our lives.  The food magazine that carries the strapline “For people who eat” makes me laugh at its self-conscious joke every time I see it.  Some of us may be more obsessive foodies than others, but, whether we regard food as fuel or as one of the great pleasures of life, we all have to eat to stay alive.  Those of us living in developed countries are generally more privileged in our access to enough food, and in the vast choice available.  And yet, there are still those who are not able, for whatever reason, to ensure they eat a healthy diet.  Obesity is a major problem, particularly in deprived areas.  We were told that in Newcastle nearly 15% of children entering school reception classes are obese.  The statistics on poor health and early death mirror areas of poverty and deprivation.  Is the loss of skills a major factor that leads families to rely on unhealthy processed food?  Certainly many people seem unconfident about basic cooking.  Many of us say we like to eat local food, particularly those of us who are more comfortably off and able to make choices.  We like local produce because it’s fresh and it has a low carbon footprint.  And yet 75% of the food we eat in the North East is imported, while we export 75% of what we produce here.  Given that the Taste Club initiative that aims to promote local food has 7,500 members who profess an interest in local food, that seems to open up huge potential for new food and drink enterprises in the North East.  But small producers need to be able to break through, and it is difficult for them to compete on price with large supermarkets.  Faced with the goods on the shelf we still opt for cheapness over quality.  Is this an inevitable consequence of the market economy?  What about the huge buying power of the public sector?  Healthy eating should be a paramount concern when we are feeding school children and patients, but purchasers are often forced into lowest price deals. These are all issues that concerned people attending the workshop.  Many are already involved in projects and initiatives that tackle specifics: setting up community gardens and allotments to promote vegetable growing, providing education in budgeting and cooking cheap but healthy meals, running coops that buy in bulk and can afford to sell more cheaply in the community.  These are all immensely worthy ideas.  But a food policy council aims to take this kind of thinking to a different level, to influence the way in which local and national government exercises power.  Drawing on the experience of our experts, it is obvious that there are some important principles that need to apply: justice, equity and sustainability are key.  Partnerships are essential, and must be inclusive, looking beyond the purely urban to include rural food producers as well as consumers.  If Newcastle University could be involved, this would be in line with our aspiration to be a civic university, rooted in the local community.  Newcastle City Council is a key player and is already in the process of preparing its Food Charter, so perhaps we already have a step in the right direction.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Big momma is watching you

I clicked onto the Newcastle University website today to find a pair of rather malevolent eyes looking into mine.  I was inclined to close the browser immediately.  Those eyes made me feel distinctly uneasy.  But I was interested to see that they related to some research carried out by Professor Melissa Bateson and Professor Daniel Nettle of the Centre for Behaviour and Evolution at Newcastle, and Ken Nott of the University’s security team.  Bicycles are regularly stolen from racks on the University campus, but by putting pictures of eyes and short anti-theft messages above the racks the researchers found that they could reduce the number of thefts by 62%.  Unfortunately thefts from racks that were not “guarded” by the disembodied eyes went up, suggesting that the thieves had moved elsewhere, presumably to an area where they didn’t feel they were being watched.  What would have happened, I wonder, if all racks had sported these off-putting glares?  Perhaps the bicycle thieves would have overcome their scruples and got out their bolt-cutters anyway.  But the research is interesting, not only for its potential effects on crime, but because it highlights our reactions to eyes, and the wider importance they have for us as human beings.  It surely can’t be coincidence that the panda, with its eyes so clearly emphasised by black markings, is such a popular image for conservation?  Big-eyed creatures such as bush babies are generally regarded as being particularly cute and owls, with their clear, forward-looking gaze, also seem to strike a chord in a way that other birds do not.  Human babies have eyes that are disproportionately large and we know that eye contact between mother and baby seems to be important.  It promotes the attachment without which a baby may not survive.  It seems then that being looked at can be reassuring as well as threatening.  So why is that stare from above the cycle rack so threatening?   Are the thieves perhaps worried that it might be their mum who is watching when they steal that bike?

Friday, 12 April 2013

Poetry, algebra and creativity

Does anyone else still read the Liverpool poets?  The Mersey Sound collection was published by Penguin in 1967, and for years afterwards it seemed as though everyone I knew possessed a copy.  When I took “O” Level English in 1972, Adrian Henri’s “In the Midnight Hour” even turned up as the unseen text.  We were all thrilled by this at my school, as we didn't think people like teachers and examiners had ever heard of such radical writers.  When, in that most intimate sign of commitment, I shelved my book collection side by side with my partner’s, we realised we now possessed two copies of The Mersey Sound.  We were married a year later.  In many respects the book seems stuck in a very specific era, but particular poems from the collection still pop up regularly in my brain.  Today I was thinking of Brian Patten’s “Prose poem towards a definition of itself”.  In particular, the line: “On sighting mathematicians it should unhook algebra from their minds and replace it with poetry; on sighting poets it should unhook poetry from their minds and replace it with algebra” resonates.  Interdisciplinarity hadn’t been invented as a term, and would have seemed novel as an idea, when Patten wrote his poem, but this is a line to prompt that kind of creative thinking.  It also encapsulates a notion that I believe in absolutely: that being bounced out of our normal rut, having our expectations circumvented can be peculiarly inspiring.  I’m always pleased when colleagues ask me to help them prepare presentations.  I’m easily flattered and it gives me a chance to proselytise.  I rail against the ghastly powerpoint presentation, urge them to surprise the audience with a poem when they are expecting algebra, to illustrate a quatrain with quadratic equations. Why?  Because, if they do, theirs will be the presentation that the audience will remember, it will be an island in a sea of indistinguishable bulletpoints.  Persuading academics, or indeed any professionals, to take this dangerous plunge is often difficult.  They would rather be unmemorable than risk looking foolish, particularly in front of their peers.  Sadly, it’s a fear that most of us learn early on.  But sometimes risks really are worth taking.  The Liverpool poets came in for some vicious sniping and criticism from the literary establishment, but few would now deny that they were part of a hugely influential cultural wave being surfed so spectacularly and creatively by The Beatles.  And, unlike most poets, they sold an awful lot of books: two are still sitting on the bookshelves in my house.

Monday, 25 March 2013

Do ecosystem services belong to Green Van Man?

The other day I asked my husband what he thought "ecosystem services" meant.  He's accustomed to me asking him odd questions so wasn't thrown by this.  After some thought, he suggested that it might be an eco-friendly plumbing firm.  He thought they probably drove around in a green van, pumping out blocked drains.  Of course he wasn't surprised to learn that "ecosystem services" is more likely to be found in a scientific journal than in the yellow pages.  He had probably realised he was, once again, acting the guinea pig in a communications experiment.  But I wasn't entirely surprised either, to hear his response.  Every profession uses jargon and it can be a useful shorthand, but it also acts as a barrier to exclude the non-expert.  Ecosystem services is an expression that, I suspect, few people outside academia or policy making circles have come across.  So I tried to explain to my, probably not terribly interested, spouse, what it really means.  This took a long time and I'm not sure I really got the message across.  Ecosystem services covers so many of the vital functions that land provides for human existence: food, water, carbon storage, leisure, biodiversity, just for starters.  Our demands increase all the time.  Explaining this concept takes a lot of words, far more words than the two in that short phrase.   As a science communicator,  I always shy away from using jargon, and if it creeps into my writing I regard that as a failure.   But sometimes jargon does, after a while, stop being exclusive and become mainstream.  As a colleague pointed out to me, "biodiversity" was an unfamiliar term until quite recently.  He remembered a time when most members of the public, and even farmers, would not have known what it meant.  Now every farmer can discuss the biodiversity on his or her land, and it saves a lot of long explanations.  Acronyms may become familiar in a similar way.  I have sat in meetings where every other word was an acronym and felt totally baffled.  When I worked in the health service, patients often complained, with good reason, about feeling excluded by acronyms, and we worked hard to eliminate them from information leaflets and other resources.  Then, one day, someone complained about the acronym "NHS" and that stopped me in my tracks.  Is there anyone in the UK who isn't familiar with this shorthand?  Should we stop using it simply because it is an acronym, or accept that it has become a handy way of referring to this public service?  I think most people would incline to the latter view.   Would it be similarly blinkered to avoid "ecosystem services" forever?  This is a dilemma that I am still struggling with at the moment.  My instinct is to avoid it, but I accept that I may have to revise my opinion over the next few years.  Of course, if I see a couple of plumbers driving round my neighbourhood with "Ecosystem Services Ltd" painted on the side of their bright green van, that's really going to complicate things.

Thursday, 28 February 2013

Anecdotes, data and personal stories

I once heard my profession of communications referred to as “the new cultural intermediary”.  It’s a wonderful piece of jargon that I couldn’t possibly use without irony, but it does contain a grain of truth.  As a science communicator I often feel that I am trying to bridge the divide between two distinct cultures when I strive to make research accessible to a wider audience.  Scientists aim to remove the personal element from their work, to make it unbiased.  When they write for publications that will be read by their fellow scientists they like to use the third person: “the experiment was performed thus…” rather than “I did it this way”.  But you will never read a news item that is written in such a style.  It would sound much too flat and unengaging.  Every journalist is looking for an individual’s own account to illustrate their story because it’s the personal that brings communication alive for a reader, listener or viewer.  We want to connect with other human beings and to understand their experience.  I have had many conversations with scientists about this. and I understand very well how presenting research in this way conflicts with their training.  A brilliant comment today on Twitter rang many bells for me: “The plural of ‘anecdote’ isn’t ‘data’”.  I have to agree.  If a friend says that they found homeopathy helpful that doesn’t make me believe that it works.  I’m sure we all have friends who say they have found such therapies helpful, but that still doesn’t convince me.  However, if a rigorous clinical trial ever showed that it did have benefits and I had the job of communicating this, I would want to use some case studies and examples of real people to help me to do that.  I do think that there is a difference.  It’s true that this difference is sometimes lost in news stories and that can make scientists fearful of communicating their own research via the media. I would like to think that this is where we “new cultural intermediaries” can play a useful role, albeit one that sometimes feels like walking a tightrope.  Many scientists also shy away from social media, such as blogging and Twitter.  Some may simply dislike the technology but for others it is the idea of such personal communication that is alien and threatening.   However, social media are being embraced increasingly by the younger generations of researchers in both their private and professional lives.  I hope therefore that this new generation will be less fearful about making their research accessible to a wider audience, by allowing the personal to become more prominent in their communication. 

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Products or produce?

I’m just old enough to remember when you had to queue up at different counters in food shops for your bacon, cheese, meat and so on.  Supermarkets were very new idea, and greeted with suspicion by many.  But they were convenient because you could buy everything in one trip and only queue up once, so they soon caught on.  Then, recently, we became a bit suspicious again when we found that not all the food on the supermarket shelves was quite what it seemed.  Whether eating horsemeat is problematic depends very much on one’s personal feelings.  There are committed carnivores in this country who can’t shake off the image of childhood pets when faced with rabbit, while in other parts of the world people tuck into dogmeat with great enjoyment.  So we all draw our personal boundaries in different places but, assuming no harmful pharmaceuticals have contaminated the meat, horse is as wholesome as any other animal protein.  We say we are alarmed by the lack of transparency in the food chain and this does raise all kinds of questions about what goes into the food we buy.  There’s an easy answer if we are genuinely worried by this, of course.  Buy meat and vegetables to make the dish yourself, and you can be pretty confident that you know what has gone into it.  There has not yet been any suggestion that cuts of meat on sale in supermarkets are fillets of horse, and you could always buy from a local butcher, or even a farmer, if you feel concerned.  But increasingly we don't buy produce of this kind, we buy products that the retailers tell us will save us time.  Everyone seems busier these days and who has the time to cook?  But when we still have time to do so many other things, why is cooking an enjoyable meal so very far down the list of priorities?  Things have changed during my lifetime, women generally go out to work now, and I don’t for a moment think that cooking for families is automatically their responsibility.  But perhaps the fact that women have generally done most of the everyday cooking is part of the reason for it being devalued as a skill.   So, increasingly, we let someone else make the food for us and buy it in the supermarket as a ready meal.  Then the next generation doesn’t actually know how to make simple food, and has no choice – it’s buy the ready meal or starve.  That’s great for the retailers, who expand their ranges constantly so that they can sell us more and more products.  Presumably there is more profit to be made in the cheapest range of ready meals than in selling us the ingredients to make our own, so who can blame them?  Selling food and making profits is their function.  But the result is that we can be found eating the ready meal, in front of the television, watching a celebrity chef cooking up a dinner party menu that few will ever actually attempt.  And how shall we spend all that time we have saved?  We could watch some more television – there’s bound to be a documentary coming on about the disasters happening in the food chain.

Thursday, 31 January 2013

We watch a distinguished VIP on line (and also see the King of Sweden)

At 16.00 hrs GMT on Monday I logged onto the Royal Swedish Academy of Agriculture andForestry website for the 200th Commemorative Meeting of the Academy. Via a live weblink I was able to view Stockholm Town Hall, thronged with VIPs in evening dress. Musicians were playing what I assume was the Swedish national anthem to greet the arrival of their Head of State, King Carl XVI Gustaf. It was a glittering occasion, if slightly impenetrable to those of us whose linguistic skills do not extend to Swedish. However, it was clear that new members of the Academy were being received and then there were honours and awards being presented by the Academy President Kerstin Niblaeus to some distinguished scholars, not only from Sweden but from all over the world. However, my colleagues here at Newcastle and I were only really interested in one particular presentation. We waited nearly an hour.  Then, after this tremendous build-up and some musical interludes, Relu Director and Duke of Northumberland Professor of Rural Economy Philip Lowe, was presented with the Bertebos Prize by King Carl XVI Gustaf in recognition of his contribution to rural studies.  The recommendation upon which the prize was awarded says: "Professor Philip Lowe holds the Duke of Northumberland Chair of Rural Economy and is highly reputed in rural studies with significant contributions in sustainable rural development and land use management. He is the founding Director of the Centre for Rural Economy at the University of Newcastle, UK since 1992 and leads its current research programme on Rural Economy and Land Use. This has enabled researchers from different disciplines to investigate the social economic, environmental and technological challenges faced by rural areas and with considerable impact for future knowledge exchange within and beyond the involved stakeholders. He has published widely in the areas of sustainable land use management, advocating reflexive interdisciplinary research. Also, he has made significant contributions in international comparative research, and played an active role in rural policy development at the national and European levels." There was tremendous applause in Stockholm Town Hall, but it was nearly as loud here in my office. Everyone wanted to congratulate Philip on this tremendous achievement. And without the benefit of this modern technology, how could we have known how splendid he looked in a frock coat?
( Photo ©The Royal Swedish Academy of Agriculture and Forestry (KSLA). Photographer: Mats Gerentz)

Thursday, 24 January 2013

How many farmers does it take to change a production system?

In the mornings I have a very specific routine - I'm definitely on autopilot and I know exactly how long I need to wash, dress, breakfast and get to work.  Any change in routine is a struggle, particularly if it involves getting up ridiculously early.  But I was on the 5.56 am train down to London on Monday morning which, in view of the weather, seemed particularly brave.  My luck was in and the train was only 40 minutes late, in spite of the weather.  I was genuinely pleased not to miss any of the two days of results from Defra's Demonstration Test Catchments project.  Although I notice my friends' eyes glazing over when I try to tell them about diffuse pollution I really do find it interesting.  Perhaps the past few years of working for the Relu Programme have taken their toll.  But as with so many issues in life, we tend to think it's not our problem.  Until you look at the food on your plate, that is.  Not all diffuse pollution comes from agriculture but undoubtedly food production plays a major role.  The waste that comes out of the back end of cows, poultry, sheep and pigs has to go somewhere, while most of the crops grown in this country are helped along by fertiliser and pesticides.  Residues end up in waterways with a whole raft of consequences for their ecology, not to mention our drinking water.  Sediment is also a big problem, often being washed into rivers from areas poached by livestock.  But we need food.  It's quite a conundrum, so how do we balance those things out?  Is it possible to go on producing what we need - and actually we need to increase the amount of food we grow in line with population growth - while reducing the effects on soil and water? That's what the Demonstration Test Catchments are trying to address, so the research is quite fundamental to our survival.  I wish there was a magic answer that could solve the problem but of course life isn't like that.  The researchers are, however, looking very systematically at tools and practices that could help.  One of the greatest challenges, however, is to persuade farmers and land managers of the need to change their practices.  We all like to do things the way we do them.  Changing the way we farm, particularly when it seems to have worked well enough for many years can be a challenge.  But the evidence that the Demonstration Test Catchments are producing is overwhelming.  We need to change, and it can be done, even if it does take even more effort than getting me onto the 5.56 am train.  http://ccmhub.net/