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