Monday, February 14, 2011

Food security

OK, what is food security – a lock on the fridge door? Oh, if only it were that simple. Because keeping food safe is not what food security is about – it’s about the very real potential that this planet will not have enough food to feed all the people that live on it.

It's not just about population numbers, it's about where most of the food we produce is being consumed. Although overall global food production is sufficient to meet the needs of the world’s 6 billion people, about 1 billion do not consume daily minimal requirements for protein and calories. And if everyone in the world ate food at the same rate that we do in the developed west, we would need six planets to feed us all.

The problem isn’t just the ‘greedy west’ (although it may be cited as a contributary cause); the point is, we are eating the wrong things and producing them in a way that is unsustainable.

Without getting too scientific and technical, I can explain briefly just why we need to eat less meat, less processed foods and reduce our reliance on mass production.

Firstly – meat! Did you know that pigs eat more fish than any other animal? Not a good idea when our seas are under threat. Do you realise it takes ten times more ‘energy’ to produce one unit of meat than it does one unit of vegetables? That means you could feed ten people instead of just one by reducing meat intake. PETA has a rather good article on this.

“According to Environmental Defense, if every American skipped one meal of chicken per week and substituted vegetarian foods instead, the carbon dioxide savings would be the same as taking more than half a million cars off U.S. roads.”

Secondly – processed food. This is direct experience, not something I learned out of a book or on the internet. I used to travel to work with a guy from MAFF (Ministry of Agriculture, Farming and Fisheries as was). He would tell me not to eat lettuce, because its shape made a great ‘bowl’ for capturing all the chemicals in the rain and the pesticides used on them. He advised me to always cut at least two centimetres off the top of carrots, because that’s where all the chemicals collected. And, finally, how they had discovered that flour packed on wooden pallets had absorbed the wood preservative chemicals through the paper wrappings. We eat tons of chemicals - whether we want to or not.

Finally, mass production. To make meat cheap, it gets mass produced. And that involves some pretty inhumane practices, but more than that it involves unbalancing nature in a damaging way. There’s lots on this subject, but here’s just a taste of why monoculture (just one crop) has dangers and having all our animals together also increases public health risks.

So what is the answer? Can we revert to subsistence farming, can we convert the world’s production to organic farming? And can we change the eating habits of the whole of the western world? Oh my there’s a challenge, but actually, we do have to try.

The world is slowly becoming more and more aware that we are facing a real threat to our wildlife and habitats that will seriously deplete our biodiversity. But we are still largely ignorant of the role played by food production.

Do you know your favourite chocolate spread is full of palm oil? Do you know that the cheap bacon you buy in the supermarket means that certain species of fish are becoming extinct? It’s hard to expect everyone to suddenly become knowledgeable about how food is produced and the effect of various production techniques on the environment, but some very simple dietary habit changes could make the world of difference.

I’d love to give you the ‘answer’ right here – what to buy, what to grow, what to eat. But the truth is the responsibility is yours. Two very simple steps are to eat less meat and look for sustainability and eco-friendly logos on the food you buy.

This is a subject that should conern us all - whether we approach it from a species preservation aspect or personal health. It's important for us, the planet, and the future for every living thing.

Recommended reading:

The Meat Crisis
Crop diversity
Biodiversity, Ecosystems and Food Security
End of the Line
CABI Blog - dangers of high yeild crops
Fruit and Nut forests of Central Asia

Photo credit: Inhabitat

Valentine's day

(C) Carolyn Sheppard

Saturday, February 12, 2011

To affinity, and beyond!

When I worked at the University of Cambridge, I used to run the University's 'affinity programmes'. A witty colleague once said to me 'to affinity and beyond' - which (as Toy Story was out at the time) was very amusing. The affinity programmes I ran were successful and profitable. It was a good time - a job I enjoyed and a period in my life that saw lots of changes.

But here I am, more than ten years on, and I'm going back into the world of higher education! I'm excited, indeed, but I'm also nervous. Not because of the job - the job looks great and the people I've met so far have been lovely. I know it's an environment I will enjoy - lots of people around, lots of communication and a chance to make a difference. Corny as it sounds, I like doing that in my jobs.

So why am I nervous? Because it's a change in my life that is wider than just my job. I am going to have to move to Colchester during the week - which will mean living 'on my own' (well probably in some hired room) for the first time in my life.

In other words, I have to 'grow up' at last. OK, it's only Monday to Friday - but it is a change, and a big change for me. Living away from home, planning and working and living with a whole different set of criteria for 'performance'.

I visited my new workplace today - there is a terrific gym. Perhaps I should join - instead of spending evenings mooching or playing on the computer, I could go to the gym daily. Get rid of some of this excess fat. Or perhaps I could write more... or perhaps... It's about motivation, isn't it?

I am motivated to do a good job, I am motivated to earn money for my family, I am motivated to get out there and do something. I just find the whole thing rather overwhelming.

What's the point of this post? Not a lot. I just needed to write my emotions out a bit. I am scared, nervous, excited and anticipating a real change in life. I guess it's quite simply one of the oldest fears in the book - change.

Wish me luck!

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Mountain and the Climber

He sat with his friend and said ‘I like that mountain, it looks amazing. I’m going to go up it today’. His friend agreed that it was a nice mountain, but that he should take care and make proper preparations. Mountains, though immobile and ageless, could still be unpredictable.

Oh no, the mountaineer said, I am just going to look at it today. But when he got to the mountain, he found it intriguing. He wanted to scale its heights. The mountain called to him and he could not resist.

The start of the climb, the path was smooth and the slope gentle, the harder bits easy enough to negotiate with his experience. He knew mountains.

His friend wondered why he was gone so long, but was not concerned. The weather at home became windy, then it started to rain hard. He was worried that a storm was on its way. He decided to call the mountaineer and warn him. But the mountaineer had his phone turned off.

Halfway up the mountain the going got tougher. But he persevered, this was a lovely mountain and he wanted to reach the top and see the view. As he climbed further and further the slopes became steeper. He had no rope or crampons, but his hands were strong.

But then the weather changed, suddenly – unexpectedly. He was smothered in fog; a wet, dank fog that sank into his light clothes and chilled him to the bone. He started to shiver, but he continued. He could get above the fog, still see that view. His feet, clad only in light shoes, were blistered, but still he continued. That view was in reach.

The friend wondered now what had happened to the mountaineer. He thought. Should he send out a search party? Should he go looking himself? Whilst he pondered, the mountaineer was still climbing. But now it was snowing.

Cold and weak, he realised at last that the summit of the mountain was probably too high to reach, but still he persevered. He clambered over an icy boulder and slipped. He tumbled down a hundred feet. Battered and bruised he picked himself up. To climb on, or turn around? He was nearly at the top – and the view still held promises.

He thought about what his friend would say – how he would admonish him for not being properly equipped and for taking on such an adventure. Even more so he would be cross that he had not turned around at the first sign of trouble. And while he thought he continued to climb. He was annoyed. How dare his friend tell him how to climb? He’d been doing it for years! He knew that the view would be worth it – a view in a million to be sure.

The friend knew that nothing he could have said would have made a difference. Even though on frequent occasions he had reminded the mountaineer to check the weather first, he knew that the mountaineer was driven and if the impulse took him, he would not listen to his friend. The friend began to feel resentful. His wise advice had been ignored. If the mountaineer was in trouble, it was his own fault.

Nearing the top, the mountaineer was excited. The view… the view… he panted as the cold air froze the very sweat on his skin. With the summit in sight the mountain shifted. A few loose rocks, some icy shale. The mountaineer fell. He slid and tumbled down and down. He was cut and bruised by unfeeling rocks, he was scraped and scratched by brambles and bushes. He found no purchase on his descent, until he reached a bleak outcrop above a precipice where his torn body finally came to rest. He looked up at the sky above him, and to the tantalising summit above.

He sat up, realised that he could not walk and that he needed help. He fished his mobile phone from his pocket. It was, amazingly, still working. He tried to call his friend, but there was no answer. He pondered – should he call emergency rescue? There he was, injured on the mountain, but in no small part it was his fault. Well, his and the mountain’s.

Deep within the mountain, its soul chuckled. For mountains see, feel, breathe and move. Mountains are not just the rock and soil, they are the air and wind, the clouds and sky. And mountaineers cannot truly conquer them, and the mountain knows this.

The man sits on the mountain, injured and bleeding and needing rescue. And rescue will come – for it will be noticed that he has not returned. His ill-conceived venture will be acknowledged and someone will come for him eventually.

Meanwhile he is cold and bleeding. But it’s alright, he doesn’t’ die. And he still has the top of that mountain to see one day.

Do you think the view will be worth it?