Category Archives: Food

Aside

So – I am super impressed. Further to last night’s self-flagellation and my email to Marks & Sparks querying the sustainable sourcing of my favourite nut salad – I was expecting at least a few days’ wait for some ethical … Continue reading

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Burden of Proof: Paterson and the Bees

honey beeUK Environment Minister Owen Paterson has defied 71% of the British public, 2.5 million petition signatures and 405,000 letters to EU Ministers – all to derail a ban  on bee-harming pesticides.

Why? Because according to Mr Paterson, there’s not enough scientific proof that neonicotinoids harm bees.  At a time when UK & US honey bee populations have declined 50% over the past 25 years, this  begs the question – why is the burden of proof with those who want to follow a precautionary principle, rather than with those who stand to make a profit from applying toxic chemicals in our collective environment.

I won’t go into the detailed story line – Damian Carrington has done a great job of reporting it all here. But in short – it seems that independent science has repeatedly shown there to be a link between neonicotinoids and a drop in honey bee numbers, a species vital to our food security, and of course, inherently valuable in its own right.

Yet despite this, the UK government wanted to carry out their own trials – and these haven’t been able to conclude before last Friday’s EU vote took place. As a result – Mr Paterson has been citing lack of conclusivity in these particular experiments as a reason not to proceed with the moratorium. It is not surprising that the pesticide manufacturers are relieved.

At first glance – it may seem to make sense that we shouldn’t proceed in making such a decision without the full gauntlet of evidence to support it. After all – this would be a momentous change for industries involved; industries providing hundreds of jobs at a time of recession. Furthermore, the decision may impact how much food we can produce in the immediate short-term.  Perhaps this was the reasoning of the nine member states who opposed the ban.

But 13 states were in favour. Why the difference of opinion?

Well – let’s conduct a thought experiment. Let’s use the metaphor of the health industry. To licence a drug, the burden of proof is with the pharmaceutical corporations to prove that the medication they wish to sell, causes no harm. This seems fair, logical and the only course of action prudent to protect our public health.

Imagine if this were in fact the other way round – that it was up to governments, independently funded science and concerned members of the public to demonstrate that a certain drug caused harm,  before it was taken off the shelves. That it was only AFTER our eyes started bleeding and our veins pulsing and our hair falling out, that civil society could begin mounting a case that such medications should be removed from the shops.

A horrific idea.Yet one we embrace willingly when the chemicals sold are affecting the health of our collective environment and food – something that influences are own health more quickly than most medicine or money.

Fortunately – we still have a chance to correct this wrong. If the European Commission (the EU’s administrative arm) decides to appeal the Member States’ Ministers’ vote – we could have a second shot at saving our bees. I urge you to write to your EU Ministers and put this and all the other arguments found across t’interweb to them .

Our environment is our collective commons. Our responsibility and power to care for it should not be undermined by our democratically elected leaders and those corporations with more resources than most citizens to protect their interests. I hope our European leaders’ are more respectful of public opinion than Mr Paterson.

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Marine conservation gets political: the FishFight March in Pictures.

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Emma Mclaren behind the Greenpeace folks as we gather in front of the London Eye.

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Myself & Emma with some friendly sea creatures.

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Innovative jellyfish costume.

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Elisabeth Whitebread from Pew as a mackerel!

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Jack Clarke, the coordinator of the UK’s first ever Community Supported Fishery, Catchbox, and a very nice man dressed as a crab.

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Cara Batt from The Wildife Trusts as we wait for Hugh FW.

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And Hugh’s Up!

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The groups behind #127march

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Many dressed the part!

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1500-2000 came to the rally.

Why I’m going on the #FishFight MPA March

Whether you believe that the oceans’ integrity is inherently valuable, or there to serve humanity – MPAs are crucial to healthy oceans, functioning properly. 

As citizens of the UK and an increasingly globalised world, its important that we stand up for our rights to the global commons – the oceans. 

Governments already work to recognise to the rights of fishermen- which are hugely important in deciding the fate of our seas, and indeed, their continued livelihoods. 

But as citizens, consumers and inhabitants of this planet – the rest of us also need to make our rights a priority. We need to support our progressive fisheries minister, Richard Benyon MP, by showing that healthy oceans are important to us, and that he has public support in working to protect a greater number of Marine Protected Areas. 

Time to eat the ugly ones…

(As appeared on The Ecologist)

Crab

Crab

Last week, MEPs voted overwhelmingly to end the wasteful practice of fish “discards”. While a victory for those concerned about the future of our fisheries, what to do with the fish currently thrown overboard remains unknown.

But a food distribution system taking North America by storm, championing collaborative communities and sustainable fresh food, may be part of the answer – Community Supported Fisheries.

The practice of discarding has witnessed fishermen throwing between a quarter and a third of all catches back into the sea, usually dead; in some cases this figure may have risen to 90% according to the Fish Fight campaign.

Happily, last Wednesday, 502 MEPs voted to ban discards, representing a major step in ending this wasteful practice. But while the vote has been welcomed by many, “the real issue concerns the practical issues of applying such a policy at the level of each individual fishery”, as highlighted by Barrie Deas, Chief Executive of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations (NFFO).

Flounder

Flounder

Government can help, as shown by the diversity of policy solutions proposed by NGOs alone. But we, as consumers, citizens and members of a community, play a much bigger role.

Simply put – we need to eat different fish. Over 80% of what we eat comprises the ‘big five’: cod, haddock, tuna, salmon, and prawns. We now need to diversify, to eat those “ugly fish”, which although previously discarded, are of good quality but just don’t feature on UK dinner tables. Such fish (including cuttlefish, mullet and herring) represent about 17% of the total English catch, but are an untapped source of fresh, local fish, often caught by small-scale fishermen using responsible methods.

But, with consumer choice limited by what’s on supermarket shelves, how can we change our shopping habits to include these under-utilised gems?

Community Supported Fisheries (CSFs) may be part of the answer. Similar to the Community Supported Agriculture schemes that are increasingly popular across the UK, CSFs join fishermen and consumers together within cooperatives, wherein fishermen can supply their fish directly to local residents.

John Dory

John Dory

While each CSF is slightly different, they essentially work like this: members pay in advance for a share of a fisherman’s catch and each week they receive a set weight of fish which they collect or have delivered to their door.  Because members are buying a direct share of the entire season’s catch, they’re buying both mainstream fish, as well as those less fashionable species. Of course, this means that a member won’t always know what will turn up in their “fish box”, but they do know that it will be fresh and caught locally.

And the benefits are three-fold – to the community, to the environment and to everyone’s pockets.

First, community. Cooperatives are non-profit enterprises: they are run by the people, for the people, and so bring people together in a long-lasting way. Not only do local residents get to know more about their neighbours, but they interact with the fishermen too, better understanding the challenges and opportunities faced by industries where they live.

At the same time, fishermen can connect with their customers. Beau Gillis, a fishermen involved in Nova Scotia CSF “Off the Hook” explains – “We have 200 subscribers and I know a lot of them by name – they certainly all know me by name… In the beginning, we thought that the customer-fishermen relationship wasn’t all that attractive, but now it’s our favourite part of what we do. Selling our fish to customers who enjoy it”.

CSFs also reduce our environmental footprint. As mentioned, CSFs can open up markets for under-utilised species, providing an answer to the thorny problem of what to do with discards. Fishermen involved in cooperatives are usually small scale, using responsible fishing methods. And because the fish are locally sourced, food miles are kept to a minimum. As shown by the recent horsemeat scandal, knowing where your food comes from is more valuable than ever.

And lastly, let’s deal with money. Contrary to popular perception, buying fish like this can be cheaper than the supermarket. Because the middleman has been cut out, both fishermen and consumers are better off financially. Such wide benefits accruing to everyone involved are proven by the rapid rise of CSFs acrossNorth America. In 2007, there were none, but today, Community Supported Fisheries operate in over 120 locations across the continent, and continue to grow every season.

So what’s the catch?

Well, of course there are some challenges with this approach in addressing the issue of discards.

Firstly, some would argue that the CSFs may harm local supply chains. Fisheries are often very tight knit, with fishermen supplying to only a handful of processors, suppliers and retailers.  So creating a new method of distribution could compete with this established chain, including independent fishmongers.

Pouting

Pouting

However, CSFs are part of the community, and are normally only set up following consultation with suppliers. Moreover, they help condition the community to eat a wider and more diverse range of fish species, as well as more fish in general. In the long-term, this in fact could help bolster the market for local, responsibly caught fish.

Secondly, CSFs sometimes supply fish from fisheries not certified under the Marine Stewardship Council – the recognised standard for sustainable seafood. This, in part, is because the majority of today’s MSC fisheries are large scale. CSFs normally deal with small-scale fishermen, who traditionally, have found it difficult to finance the MSC accreditation process.

On the other hand, while not certified, small-scale, inshore fishermen are usually more responsible in the way they fish. Having fished the same patch of water their whole life, using low impact gear, they tend to take more care than the super trawlers roaming the seas. The MSC are now aware of this issue, and time will tell how the relationship between MSC and CSFs will evolve.

Red Gurnard

Red Gurnard

One last challenge is that consumers may not know what to do with their new fish species. While it can be initially exciting to open a fishbox, not knowing what’s inside, it may also be somewhat daunting when you simply want to cook the family mid-week supper. But with the help of recipe cards, online tutorials and general support from the cooperative, CSFs are a learning experience for the consumer and community: how to eat without throwing good food back into the sea.

In conclusion, if we’re to capitalize upon the progress made by our MEPs last Wednesday, we need to be innovative in thinking how we’re going to deal with the fish we previously threw away. While some answers lie in policy, many reside in our own fridges. We need to eat a wider range of fish, and Community Supported Fisheries provide a proven way of doing that.

Caroline Bennett, a sustainable fish restaurateur commented: “The future of fish is vital for the health of both the oceans and our own well-being, not to mention our culinary delight and invention. Community Supported Fisheries provide real alternatives to the established supply chains, connecting people with their food and diversifying the type of fish we eat”.

Catchbox CoopFor British fish lovers, the good news is that the UK’s first ever Community Supported Fishery is about to start trading fish in March this year. Covering the towns of Brighton, Horsham and Chichester, Catchbox (www.catchbox.coop) is connecting the people of these towns to each other, to their local fishermen and to a wider range of fish.

Soft cocks and bananas: gone fishing.

A month ago, I spent the day with a couple of crab fishermen in Salcombe, Devon. And I don’t mean just down the pub.

I was on a boat; their crabbing boat. 14 hours. 3am start and no loo. That’s right – no loo. I was also seasick for 13.5 hours – this may in part have been induced by the no loo situation – who knows. But either way, the day had all the hallmarks of a brief trip to hell.

But surprisingly, it wasn’t…

Now first of all, let me address why I was there. Well, I work for a project called GAP2, which is all about getting fishermen and scientists to work together. Many of you may not have realized that fishermen-scientist relationships are “an issue”– but they are, and they need to improve if we’re to work out how to better manage our often-overfished waters.

Reaching across Europe, GAP2 is running a project in the UK, where scientists Emma Pearson & Dr Paul Hart (from the University of Leicester) are working closely with crabbers operating out of Salcombe & Dartmouth.

So I was in Devon to make a short film on everyone’s progress.

Thus a day on the boat it was.

The Bed & Breakfast owner thought I was mad and I wasn’t convinced she was wrong. Emma, the hardy scientist I was accompanying, was completely at ease with a prospect of a day onboard, as her work necessitates going out with the fishers often a few times a week. But I was less sure. A land lubber and a wimp, I was harbouring a dark suspicion that not only would breakfast make a swift reappearance, but that a 14 hour day full of fish and waterproofs wouldn’t be “that much fun”.

The night before was filled with trepidation. I spent quite some time wrapping my camera in clingfilm,  I de-spidered the wellies, and I set the alarm clock with care. And I didn’t drink much fluid. All was set.

At 3am, the alarm sounded and I positively leapt out of bed. After negotiating my way into three layers of clothing and becoming a packhorse to a tripod, camera and enough food for a 14th century expedition to France, Emma & I exchanged a sleepy good morning before climbing into the car. We were off. Driving through the darkness, the roads were quiet and we quickly (oh how quickly) arrived at the dock. There we met the skipper, Alan Steer, who had kindly agreed to take us onboard his boat “Superb-us”. Deck hand Paul was also on side and we made our way to the boat.

Arriving onboard, in the 4am gloom I was pleasantly surprised. There was an indoor bit – “the wheelhouse”, and there was even a hob and a kettle! As we chugged out of Dartmouth we all had a cup of tea. Alan put his feet up on the dashboard, we had a chat about crabs and I ate a banana. Perhaps all was going to be well?

It wasn’t. The banana made reappearance swiftly. The travel sickness tablets too. I hung over the back of the boat. Although a beautiful, tranquil day in early June, my worse suspicions had been confirmed. The grey water slopped around the gunwale and I hoped I hadn’t ruined any paintwork.

But then the fishing started. As the morning sun rose in the sky, Paul and Alan made their way out onto deck. The first string of crab pots was going to be pulled. The fishermen were about to start reeling in their livelihood, and there was a buzz in the air.

Paul stood by the bait table, sharpening his knife. While it was a calm day, it still seemed particularly hazardous to be so casually holding such a sharp blade while standing on a slippery, moving deck. But Paul showed no such qualms and started ripping open a box of haddock.

Meanwhile, Alan operated the winch. The winch was hauling a rope, attached to which were the boat’s “crab pots”, laid out in neat rows along the seabed. For the uninitiated, crab pots are traps for the sideways scuttlers. Each weighs between 30kg, is made of a rope-wire mesh, and emerges from the sea covered in brittlestars.

As Alan pulled the pots from the surface of the water, he set them on his table by the side of the boat, opened the trap door and sorted the crabs inside. Underweight crabs, malting crabs and “berried females” (i.e. those carrying eggs) were returned to the water. The rest were sorted into males and females and plopped into blue bins underneath the sorting table.

The emptied pots were then passed along the table to Paul who fitted fish and then returned the empty, re-baited traps to a growing, neatly stacked pile on the opposite side of the boat. Emma the scientist stood close by to record the catch.

Activity settled into a steady, smooth flow of motion. The calm cries of “Cock, hen, soft cock, berried” merged with the chirpy background noise of Radio 1, and life began to look up for the pale and sweaty onlooker.

Having managed to focus on something other than the horizon, I got my camera out. The full film of the day is yet to be edited, but if you want a short glimpse of the activity, you can watch this on minute snapshot of the day here.

Next, once all the pots on the string had been hauled, we sailed back down the route that we’d come, relaying the string clean and empty to catch some crabs afresh.

And then we did it again. And then again. With 11 strings, this took all day. But there’s something about fishing that merely describing “how it works” can’t capture.

It’s a strange mix between factory efficiency and the great outdoors. And not just the outdoors experienced in a field – but the vast expanse of the ocean. Knife blades gleam, machinery whirrs and men in overalls move with smooth efficiency. But the seawater slops over the side of the boat. The rope from the winch swirls into vast snakey coils and the sun shines as a sea urchin rolls across the deck.

There’s a feeling of purposeful busyness, tempered by freedom. Sure – the day was all about work, there was an alarm clock get-up, a production line and uniform – but there was also a vast horizon, ever changing colours of the sea and the odd over-friendly seagull.

This is not to romanticize the occupation of fishermen. Their industry commands the highest death toll in Europe, the hours are long, and you rarely meet a millionaire.

On the other hand, I can see why they do it.

At about 3pm, all the strings had been pulled and re-laid and we began our journey back home. I can’t deny that there was a large part of me that was relieved; mightily relieved. Particularly so that I could find a loo.

Yet as we unloaded the catch in Dartmouth, and took a photo of me holding the biggest cock we could find, I felt like I’d achieved something. I’d made a connection with a food source, I’d witnessed an industry centuries old, and I’d tackled an environment I’m not best suited to. Obviously – I’d only taken some film – and everyone else on board remained of the opinion that I was a city softie. But while the day was characterized by nausea, and everything did pong somewhat of haddock – it transpires that fishers may have the right idea…

Accordingly – I’m going to be blogging more about them in the coming months. Stay tuned for the film in full, an explanation of French nicking, and an interview with Alan the skipper!

Treasuring trash and keeping it local

food waste (c) myzerowaste.com

Dinner? (c) myzerowaste.com

From rags to riches, trash to cash and rubbish to resource – the dream of closed loop recycling is both worthy and lucrative. Just this week, statistics revealed that the average British shopper bins almost 10% of their weekly food shop; not chucking fridge leftovers alone would save Brits £12bn a year.

But while recycling is a no-brainer, we need to be careful that loops of material reuse are small and local, returning both the advantages (and disadvantages) close to the source of the resource.

To do this, we need to be crafty; both like a fox and the Women’s Institute. I recently visited “Materials for Living”, an exhibition organised by two parliamentary groups, focusing on design and sustainable resources. The exhibition included a showcase of how by-products of today’s food system can be used to produce beautiful, durable, USEFUL materials.

A'Peel (c) Associate Parliamentary Design & Innovation Group

A'Peel (c) Associate Parliamentary Design & Innovation Group

For example, orange peel is the rubbish of choice for Alkesh Parmar, who has utilised this by-product of juice extraction. The result of his ingenuity and hard work is a strong flexible material (A’Peel) which has the feel of bakelite, but which is completely biodegradable AND makes use of the millions of tonnes of Brazilian orange peel which would otherwise go to landfill.

Materials from fish scales (c) Erik de Laurens

It doesn't even smell. (c) Erik de Laurens

Erik de Laurens has produced a material made entirely from treated fish scales, again, an otherwise unwanted (and massively produced) by-product of the fishing industry. And pineapple leaves from the Philippines have been used by Carmen Hijosato make an alternative to leather.

Importantly, with all these projects – they return the benefits of reuse to the community from which the original resource came. On speaking to Carmen Hijosa, she was eager to emphasise that it is the pineapple growing farmers who have clubbed together to form a cooperative for processing and sell “Ananas Anam”, and it is they who profit from doing so.

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Carmen Hijosa and her pineapple. (c) APDIG

But while positive project such as those above are offering solutions – there are many other examples where material loops, in our globalised world, are extended and sloppy. The result is that the impacts (both good and bad) of those who produce waste are divorced from those who recycle it.

The export of e-waste to developing countries

The export of e-waste to developing countries

Stephen Metcalfe MP recently wrote about the horrors of electronic waste being dumped in developing countries for processing and reuse. Some argue that developing countries are keen to accept this source of materials, both as another source of income, as well as a way of joining the digital age at a cheaper price. But images of emaciated children picking their way through town-sized garbage tips reveal these countries’ lack of infrastructure to deal with the reality. For example, Nigeria, which despite having a population of 155 million people does not have one licensed landfill. The untold effects of heavy metal toxins on these people’s health and environment is reason enough to stop this digital dumping from the rich, onto the poor far, far away.

Animal by-products (c) CAFO, Foundation for Deep Ecology

Next meal for the chickens? (c) CAFO, Foundation for Deep Ecology

Moreover, there was a recent House of Lords debate about the reintroduction of feeding animal by-products to livestock. Following the British BSE crisis in the late 90s, there have been very strict regulations on feeding animal by-products to other animals. But the EC is now looking to review these laws, and as such, so is the UK parliament. While it looks unlikely that cattle (as non-ruminants) will be fed offal anytime soon, pigs and chickens can certainly look forward to it on the menu. In theory, this is a good, environmentally-efficient practice (waste not want not what?). But the reality is that with today’s modern industrial farming methods and a globalised food system, feeding one dead animal (provenance unknown) to another is a super-efficient way to spread disease. After all, MRSA has been found in intensively reared pig farms, and let’s not forget why this practice was banned after the first BSE crisis. The recipients of the recycled goods (you and me picking up a pack of chicken breasts in Sainsbury’s) will be a very distant notion for the producers of the animal by-products from god-knows-where.

So the moral of the story? Reduce – yes, good. Reuse – go on then. Recycle – oh lordy, yes purhleease. But can we do it in our own back yard?

We need to be careful that the boons of recycling are not hijacked by economies of scale, as our food and banking systems have been. We need to connect benefits and costs. We need to keep things local. We need to tighten the noose on our resources.