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News archive: December 2006

Wal-Mart raises green stakes in UK

John Vidal wrote in The Guardian, UK:

“Supermarkets fought like rats in a sack for our custom in 2006, but mostly washed their dirty linen in private. No longer. Asda/Wal-Mart has turned on its peers and denounced what it calls “the dirty dozen” – Tesco, Sainsbury, Morrisons, Somerfield, Iceland, Aldi, Lidl, Netto, Budgens, the Co-op, Spar and Kwik Save – for not following its example in refusing to sell eggs sourced from abroad.”

Editorial comment:
We at OrganicFood.co.uk believe this could be the start of an exciting new trend whereby Wal-Mart, like most newly-converted entities, will start to preach green credentials to the market place. Hopefully, this could lead to all UK supermarkets discussing their greenness, raising the standards for all, starting with one of the British public’s favourite food causes: eggs.

Restaurant’s false organic claim

One of London’s most fashionable restaurants, used by film stars and members of the Royal family, has become the first in the country to be fined for falsely claiming that meat used in a number of its dishes was organically farmed.

Julie’s Restaurant and Bar was fined £7,500 after its managing director, Johnny Ekperigin, admitted three offences under the Food Safety Act 1990.

The restaurant, in Holland Park, west London, quickly became an institution – initially with the Sloane Ranger and ”Hooray Henry” crowds and latterly with a more bohemian film set – since opening in 1969. It was named after the 1960s interior designer, Julie Hodgess.

Prince Charles, nowadays a vigorous champion of organic food, is believed to have been a regular diner when he was a bachelor and Captain Mark Phillips held his stag night at Julie’s, which boasts a warren of private dining rooms.

With French colonial furniture and sumptuous divans, it is popular for both stag nights and first dates among London’s elite and, according to one food critic two years ago, “the whole place reeks of sex”. Prince Michael of Kent is said to have taken the one-time Royal Ballet principal dancer Bryony Brind, with whom he developed a close friendship, to their first dinner there.

Now, according to the restaurant’s website, patrons include Gwyneth Paltrow, Colin Firth, Helena Bonham Carter, Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell.

West London magistrates court was told that Julie’s claimed three of the dishes on its menu – marinated roast chicken, sausages and spice-crusted rack of lamb – used organic produce. But environmental health officers on a routine visit seized delivery records and discovered that none mentioned that the meat came from organic sources.

Environmental health officers from Kensington and Chelsea council estimated that Julie’s saved £4,184 by buying chicken that had not been produced organically.

Mr Ekperigin, who was also ordered to pay £4,297 costs, was warned that he faced a prison sentence if he was brought before court again on similar charges.

But he denied that he had used non-organic meat in an attempt to save money. He told the court: “It was purely a mistake and I had taken my eye off the ball.”

The Soil Association, one of the approved bodies for certifying organic produce, said it thought the prosecution was the first of its kind. But Steve Belton, its inspectorate director, said he believed that there was “a growing problem” of restaurants taking advantage of the public’s interest in organic food and he called on local authorities to carry out more inspections.

Fiona Buxton, a Kensington and Chelsea cabinet member for public and environmental health, said: “For many visitors to the restaurant this has led to a betrayal of lifestyle. Consumers buy into the idea of organic food either due to the health implications or in support of good animal husbandry. Julie’s Restaurant has cheated them of these values.”

Article by Nigel Reynolds for The Daily Telegraph, UK, December 19th, 2006

Giant organic Brussel sprout

A giant brussel sprout weighing nearly one and a half pounds was discovered by market gardener Carol Farley, of Culm Valley Organics, Uffculme, Devon, growing alongside its normal sized siblings. This supersize veg is 50 times heavier than the average sprout. Mrs Farley, said yesterday: “We’ve got over an acre of sprout plants growing which is thousands of plants and this one sprout was growing in the middle on a stalk…We use plenty of farmyard manure to fertilise the plants. Maybe that’s the secret.”

Nano food gets closer

Willy Wonka is the father of nano-food. The great chocolate-factory owner, you’ll remember, invented a chewing gum that was a full three-course dinner. ‘It will be the end of all kitchens and cooking,’ he told the children on his tour – and produced a prototype sample of Wonka’s Magic Chewing Gum. One strip of this would deliver tomato soup, roast beef with roast potatoes and blueberry pie and ice cream. In the right order. Violet Beauregarde snatched it, swiftly ate it and, at the pudding stage, turned bright purple and blew up to three times her size.

Far-fetched? The processed-food giant Kraft and a group of research laboratories are busy working towards ‘programmable food’. One product they are working on is a colourless, tasteless drink that you, the consumer, will design after you’ve bought it. You’ll decide what colour and flavour you’d like the drink to be, and what nutrients it will have in it, once you get home. You’ll zap the product with a correctly-tuned microwave transmitter – presumably Kraft will sell you that, too.

This will activate nano-capsules – each one about 2,000 times smaller than the width of a hair – containing the necessary chemicals for your choice of drink: green-hued, blackcurrant-flavoured with a touch of caffeine and omega-3 oil, say. They will dissolve while all the other possible ingredients will pass unused through your body, in their nano-capsules.

The end of cooking? Probably not. Catch me having friends round for a programmable nanocola? Not more than once. But our reaction to some of the dafter promises of the new science is not really relevant. You may not want it, but the food industry does. Every major food corporation is investing in nano-tech – government in Europe has pumped £1.7 billion in research money into the field over the past eight years. Nano-food and
nano-food packaging are on their way because the food industry has spotted the chance for huge profits: by 2010, the business, according to analysts, will be worth $20 billion annually. And there is already a prototype of a Wonka-esque chewing gum that, using nano-capsules, promises the sensation of eating real chocolate.

The food industry is hooked on nano-tech’s promises, but it is also very nervous. At a conference in Amsterdam to discuss nano-technology, food and health, I found representatives of all the big food corporations, mixing with some bumptious academics, all thrilled with their latest nano-applications, and some less gung-ho bioethicists.

The food people included Unilever, Kraft, Cadbury Schweppes, Tate & Lyle and Glaxo-SmithKline: they were very shy and entirely off the record, if they spoke at all. I was having a friendly chat with a research scientist from Numico, the European baby-foods giant (their brands include Milupa and Cow & Gate) until he found out I was a journalist. Then he refused to tell me his name and asked me to erase the word ‘Numico’ from my notebook. I thought he was going to snatch it away.

It’s obvious why they were edgy. Consumers are not ready for nano-food. Among some scientists in the field there is a real sense that nano-technology, in food at least, is a revolution that may die in its cradle – rejected by a public that has lost its trust in scientists and its patience with industry’s profit-driven
fooling with what we eat.

At the conference, the media was blamed, of course. The only journalist there, I got some eggs thrown at me. Ignorant, sensationalist journalism was holding back progress, fuelling the public’s ‘irrational’ reaction to
novel food processes. But Lynn Frewer, professor of food safety and consumer behaviour at Wageningen University, a leading centre of nano-tech research in the Netherlands, called the scientists to order. It was the public’s irrational fears that needed addressing, she said: ‘It’s human nature. An involuntary risk, however remote, concerns people far more than one over which they have a choice. That’s why the public find gene technology more threatening than eating fatty, unhealthy food.’

After the debates over GMO (genetically modified organisms) and BSE, she said, public faith is very low, not just in the food industry but also the food regulators. ‘The mechanisms to make [them] transparent must be put in place and enshrined – there need to be principles that the public can understand.’

Dr David Bennett, a veteran biochemist now working on a European Commission project on the ethics of ‘nanobiotechnology’, felt the prospect was bleak. He thought public rejection of nanotechnology was ‘almost
certain’. ‘Very little risk assessment has been done on this area, even on some products already entering the market – and it’s an open question whether it will be done. To Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, it’s a
gift.’ And, he went on, the lack of proper assessment of nanotechnology scares me shitless’.

What’s to be afraid of, from a technology that offers so much – healthier food, fewer, better targeted chemicals, less waste, ‘smart’ (and thus less) packaging, and even the promise of a technological solution to the problem of the one billion people who don’t get enough to eat? Amid the papers on issues such as ‘application of nano-filtration for demineralisation of twarog acid whey’ (which will boost the yield in ice
cream and yoghurt production) one much-discussed question in Amsterdam was how government should regulate the arrival of nano in the household. There are no new rules in Europe, and some voices – including the man from Unilever’s research labs – dismissed the need for any. Nanotech is natural, he insisted: it uses no new substances, just the same ones smaller. But other scientists in the field disagree.

‘Matter has different behaviour at nano-scales,’ said Dr Kees Eijkel from the Dutch Twente University. ‘That means different risks are associated with it. We don’t know what the risks are and the current regulations [on the introduction of new food processes] don’t take that into account.’

Aluminium, for example, is stable in the ‘big world’ but an explosive at nano-levels. Some of the carbon nano-structures that are being used in electronics have been shown to be highly toxic if released into the environment. Some metals will kill bacteria at nano-scale – hence the interest in using them in food packaging – but what will happen if they get off the packaging and into us? No one seems to know – and as significant a body as the UK’s Royal Society has expressed worries over the lack of research into the health implications of free nano particles being introduced to our environment.

The size question is central to these concerns. Nano particles that are under 100 nano-meters wide – less than the size of a virus – have unique abilities. They can cross the body’s natural barriers, entering into cells or through the liver into the bloodstream or even through the cell wall surrounding the brain.

‘I’d like to drink a glass of water and know that the contents are going into my stomach and not into my lungs,’ says Dr Qasim Chaudhry of the British government’s Central Science Laboratory. ‘We are giving very toxic chemicals the ability to cross cell membranes, to go where they’ve never gone before. Where will they end up? It has been shown that free nano-particles inhaled can go straight to the brain. There’s lots of concerns. We have to ask – do the benefits outweigh the risks?’

Asbestos is the analogy everyone comes up with. Sixty years ago, the stable, cheap building material helped war-devastated Europe put up housing quickly, until it was discovered that asbestos micro-fibres, once free, could cause hideous and lethal damage to the lungs.

Dr Chaudhry has been leading a team of researchers reporting to the government’s Food Standards Agency on nanotechnology and safety. He is worried that the health research is way behind the technology and that a whole range of tests has not been carried out – for instance, on the nano-compounds already being tested for water cleaning in Third World countries. Dr Chaudry’s team has told the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that it thought companies and researchers introducing nanoproducts should be obliged to notify the authorities about them. DEFRA agreed and launched the list scheme in September, but decided notification should be voluntary, not mandatory. And you and I cannot see the list – it will, out of respect to commercial interests, be kept secret.

This doesn’t sound like the sort of openness that will soothe a concerned public, all too wary nowadays of the reassurances of the food industry and science . But the FSA, which is awaiting the results next year of two research projects into nano-tech, food and safety, says it is confident that existing regulations on ‘novel’ foods, additives and food processes will cover any new products. And, at the moment, it doesn’t believe there is any nano-tech in food in Britain – though some scientists think that is wrong.

As with GM, we may be overtaken by events in the States, where food regulators have, under the Bush presidency, been steam-rollered by a food industry eager to push in the new technology. So far, however, the list of kitchen nano-products actually on American shelves is unimpressive. The
Woodrow Wilson Center, a Washington research institute, runs a database of nano-tech products that are commercially available, and the list under Food and Beverage is only 29 products long, compared with 201 under Health and Fitness (I’m excited by the nano-silverised self-cleaning socks). But the list has grown 50 per cent since March, when it was only 19 products long.

Most of these products are self-cleaning and anti-bacterial food-packaging items : cutting boards and so on. There’s a couple of Samsung nano-silverised refrigerators. There are nutritional supplements, under the well-established American brand Nanoceuticals. There’s a Vitamin B12 spray marketed by Nutrition-by-Nanotech. You simply catch a child with an open mouth and spray the stuff straight in: they’ll absorb the nano-sized vitamins directly through the mucal cells. ‘Tastes like candy… Would you believe it, they are asking for more!’ runs the copy line, less than enticingly.

Only three items on the Woodrow Wilson list are listed as food. One is ‘Nanotea’, from a Chinese company, that will increase tenfold the amount of selenium absorbed from green tea (that’s a good thing), through capsules engineered to bypass the stomach and dissolve in your lower gut. There’s Canola Activa Oil, an Israeli invention: nano-capsule-delivered chemicals in rapeseed cooking oil that will stop cholesterol entering the bloodstream – this is exciting technology, utilising nano’s ability to
suspend or dissolve any substance you like in water or in oil. And finally there’s SlimShake chocolate – a powdered drink that uses nanotechnology to cluster the cocoa cells, and thus cut out the need for

More important, what of the promise that nanotechnology offers hope to the one billion habitually undernourished on the planet? Nothing yet. Dr Donald Bruce, a chemist who heads a group examining technology and ethics for the Church of Scotland, is doubtful. He sat on a committee 10 years ago examining the moral implications of the introduction of GM. ‘The public were told that genetic modification was going to feed the world. And so we looked for evidence of any application of that science that had addressed the needs of a poor subsistence farmer. We couldn’t find any. The industry went for agronomic benefits, not for people benefits.’

With nano-tech, the food industry has once again got it back to front, he feels. ‘ Such innovation must be consumer-led – the consumer must be able to see what’s in it for them.’ Violet Beauregarde would certainly agree.

Article by Alex Renton for The Guardian, UK

Coke cans may cause cancer

While some experts worry cola isn’t the best ingredient in a healthy lifestyle, Canadian federal Health Minister Tony Clement is setting his sights on the cans.

A few days after tabling the Canadian government’s $300-million plan for managing chemical substances over four years, Clement says soft-drink manufacturers and many other industries will now be forced to prove their products are not putting the health of Canadians at risk.

“The obligation is now with the industry to show that the chemicals can be used safely in a given setting, whether it’s an industrial setting or a household setting,” Clement said in an interview.

Bisphenol A is on a list of about 200 chemicals that must be tested in the coming months. The substance is commonly used to coat plastic bottles and cans.

Recent peer-reviewed studies have concluded it may also be a hormone disrupter that could cause cancer.

“The industry that produces soft-drink cans has to show that that particular chemical, which does have some dangerous qualities to it, does not seep from the can into the liquid that the can is holding,” Clement said.

Coca-Cola Canada coats cans with the substance to prolong the shelf life of its products, said David Moran, director of public affairs and communications at the soft-drink company. The company has always met safety standards based on the existing scientific evidence, he said.

“What we’re doing is following generally accepted international practices that have been scientifically provento be safe in other jurisdictions,” Moran said. “Having said that, we’re a Canadian company operating in Canada and we’ll follow whatever the Canadian government comes up with in terms of new regulations.”

Bisphenol A is normally be identified in products in North America by the triangular symbol for recycling with a “7″ in the middle.

An industry official insisted there was no reason for alarm, because the current review is designed to make use of new techniques to measure and assess products.

“That’s the purpose here – to give consumers confidence,” said Gabby Nobrega, senior vice-president for Food and Consumer Products of Canada.

“You may read one article or you may read one study, but the government process is allowing industry, regulators and everybody to look at the use of substances in the totality of what we know about them, and that’s critical,” she said.

Nobrega noted Bisphenol A is also widely used in a variety of products, including eyeglasses, appliances and automobile parts. Environmental groups suggest this makes it harder to test or find people who have not
been exposed to it.

“That’s one of the problems with environmental contaminants,” said Kapil Khatter, a physician who works as a consultant for Environmental Defence, formerly the Canadian Environmental Defence Fund.

“We’re all getting exposed. So it’s very hard to find an effect because there’s not enough difference between those who are exposed and those who aren’t.”

Aaron Freeman, the director of policy at Environmental Defence, said soft-drink companies should immediately replace Bisphenol A with alternative products that are already available. If there are any health risks found through testing, he said it could take nearly five years of legally required procedures to remove the products from the shelves.

Despite his warnings, Clement said Canada is leading the world by making health issues a priority, thanks to a review of 23,000 chemical substances that began several years ago.

“It’s a case of us, I believe, putting the proper emphasis on human safety, (and) human health,” Clement said.

“Certainly, a group that is most at risk if nothing is done would be children, because their immune systems are not as developed as ours are, and there’s a longer period of time during which they could be exposed to
some of these substances,” he said.

“So I just think that this is about protecting our kids, it’s about dealing with rising incidence of cancer, of other environmental diseases, and so to me, this is revolutionary.”

Article by Mike de Souza for the Montreal Gazette

Farm animals at risk of extinction

Around one in five of domestic animal breeds are at risk of extinction, with a breed lost each month, due to a globalisation of livestock markets that favours high-output breeds over a multiple gene pool that could be vital for future food security, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned today.

“Maintaining animal genetic diversity will allow future generations to select stocks or develop new breeds to cope with emerging issues, such as climate change, diseases and changing socio-economic factors,? the secretary of FAO’s Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, José Esquinas-Alcázar, said.

But of the more than 7,600 breeds in the FAO global database of farm animal genetic resources, 190 have become extinct in the past 15 years and 1,500 more are deemed at risk of extinction according to a draft report, the final version of which is to be presented to an international conference in Switzerland in September that is set to adopt a global action plan to halt the loss.

Some 60 breeds of cattle, goats, pigs, horses and poultry have been lost over the last five years, according to the draft presented to over 150 delegates from more than 90 countries meeting at FAO’s Rome headquarters this week.

Livestock contributes to the livelihoods of 1 billion people worldwide, and some 70 per cent of the rural poor depend on it as an important part of their livelihoods. Globalization of livestock markets is the biggest single factor affecting its diversity, FAO says.

Traditional production systems require multi-purpose animals, which provide a range of goods and services. Modern agriculture has developed specialized breeds, optimizing specific production traits, and just 14 of the more than 30 domesticated mammalian and bird species provide 90 per cent of human food supply from animals.

?Five species – cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and chickens – provide the majority of food production,? FAO Animal Production Service chief Irene Hoffmann said. “Selection in high-output breeds is focussed on production traits and tends to underrate functional and adaptive traits. This process leads to a narrowing genetic base both within the commercially successful breeds and as other breeds, and indeed species, are discarded in response to market forces.?

But the existing gene pool holds valuable resources for future food security and agricultural development, particularly in harsh environments.

The report, the State of the World’s Animal Genetic Resources, the first-ever global study of the status of animal genetic resources and countries’ capacity to manage them sustainably, is based on data from 169 nations. The final version will be published to mark September’s International Technical Conference on Animal Genetic Resources in Interlaken, Switzerland.

Americans duped about GM

A poll of 1000 US citizens published on 6 December 2006 reveals that only a quarter realise they are eating genetically modified food and 60% have no idea it’s in their diet, New Scientist magazine reports. The news snippet reads:

‘Despite having consumed genetically modified food in their cookies and apple pies for the best part of a decade, most Americans still don’t know they are routinely eating the stuff.’

GM potato farmer fears UK protesters

Plans to grow genetically modified potatoes in Derbyshire have been abandoned because a farmer fears for his own safety. At the beginning of December the government gave BASF Plant Science permission to grow potatoes in a field near Draycott and in Cambridgeshire. But the Derbyshire farmer has pulled out, as he said he feared protests by environmental campaigners. BASF said it was confident of finding an alternative site. The GM potato crops are to be planted next spring. The trial will last several years. A BASF spokesman said: “BASF is committed to the UK trials of GM potatoes and while it is disappointing that one of the sites is no longer available to take part in this important scientific programme, we are pleased to confirm that we are reviewing a number of suitable locations.”

UN blames cattle for climate change

A United Nations report has identified the world’s rapidly growing herds of cattle as the greatest threat to the climate, forests and wildlife. And they are blamed for a host of other environmental crimes, from acid rain to the introduction of alien species, from producing deserts to creating dead zones in the oceans, from poisoning rivers and drinking water to destroying coral reefs.

The new UN FAO report ‘Livestock’s Long Shadow’ suggests that livestock production alone accounts for 18% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. The burning of fossil fuels to produce N fertiliser (a fuel-intensive process), energy used in the farming and transport of livestock and meat, and clearing of vegetation for ranching/grazing accounts for 9% of the world’s carbon emissions. In addition, ruminant digestion also accounts for a third of methane emissions, a much more powerful greenhouse gas. These emissions from livestock are larger than the global emissions from transport, and the UN predicts that the rising demand for meat will more than double the global impacts of livestock by 2050.

A Soil Association spokesman said:

“This UN prediction supports the conclusion that we must reduce our meat consumption. However, a total conversion to vegetarianism is unlikely to be the answer. Pastures and mixed farming are very important for wildlife and the maintenance of a large soil bank. Although deforestation for ranching must be stopped, the ploughing up of grassland for arable production would release considerable amounts of soil carbon. A negative impact of arable production (and of white meat, which depends on cereal crops, unlike red meat, which depends on grass) is almost certainly not accounted for in this analysis. The Soil Association is advising less but better quality meat. The expansion of organic production, being free-range, more extensive, and of higher animal welfare, supports this necessary change in modern diets.”

David Attenborough calls for morals

Sir David Attenborough has called for a “moral” crusade against wasting energy, drawing parallels with a more conscious approach to food and life.

Sir David, 80, the presenter of the Planet Earth television series and one of the UK’s most highly esteemed BBC broadcasters, told a Commons committee the wartime slogan “Waste Not, Want Not” should be used to persuade homeowners to switch off electrical appliances instead of leaving them on standby.

“I grew up during the war and it was a common view that wasting food was wrong,” said Sir David. “It was not that you thought you were going to defeat Hitler by eating a little bit of gristle but that it was actually wrong to waste food. There should be a moral view that wasting energy is wrong,” he added.

Sir David said he was convinced global warming caused disasters such as Hurricane Katrina. “I have just come back from Australia. People accustomed to living in hot temperatures in the Outback are saying, ‘It has never been like this’.”

He said climate change was a “political hot potato” but he was glad it was being grasped. He refused to be drawn on whether Gordon Brown had gone far enough with his pre-Budget report in tackling climate change.

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs select committee is investigating how the public can do more to combat climate change.
Sir David Attenborough has called for a “moral” crusade against wasting energy.

Sir David, 80, the presenter of the Planet Earth television series, told a Commons committee the wartime slogan “Waste Not, Want Not” should be used to persuade homeowners to switch off electrical appliances instead of leaving them on standby.

“I grew up during the war and it was a common view that wasting food was wrong,” said Sir David. “It was not that you thought you were going to defeat Hitler by eating a little bit of gristle but that it was actually wrong to waste food. There should be a moral view that wasting energy is wrong,” he added.

Article by Colin Brown for The Independent

Britain no longer as green and pleasant

According to the National Farmers’ Union, Britain is less self-sufficient in terms of food production than a decade ago. In 1996 farmers and growers accounted for 60% of food supplies – this has dropped to 42% in 2006.

Soil Association wins £16.9 million

180 schools in diverse communities across England are set to become beacons of good food culture, thanks to £16.9 million Big Lottery funding for a new collaboration of like-minded organisations called the Food for Life Partnership. The positive impacts will go much further, getting schoolchildren and parents across the country cooking, re-skilling dinner ladies, and offering farmers secure markets for local, seasonal and sustainably-produced food.

Led by the Soil Association, The Food for Life Partnership consists of the Focus on Food Campaign, Garden Organic and the Health Education Trust, bringing together unique experience of successful practical work in schools, revolutionising school meals and giving children the chance to grow and cook food, and visit organic farms.

It helps schools think about their food culture and create school meals which are both tasty, nutritious local and organic. Food for Life is based around the whole school approach – which encourages children, parents, catering staff, governors, headteachers and producers to all fully engage in changes to school food provision.

The Food for Life targets are:

1. School lunches should aim to provide food which meets the nutrition standards set by the Caroline Walker Trust and the School Meals Review Panel

2. 75% of all foods consumed should be made from unprocessed ingredients

3. At least 50% by weight of meal ingredients should be sourced from the local region (50 mile radius or the proximity principle applies)

4. At least 30% by weight of the food served should be from certified organic sources

5. Better classroom education on food, cooking, nutrition and health and ensure that all children visit a farm at least once during their time at school

Food for Life was set up by the Soil Association, Jeanette Orrey (former catering manager at St Peter’s Primary School, Nottingham), Lizzie Vann (who runs Organix, a leading organic children’s food company), and Simon Brenman (Organic Networks), a specialist in the organic supply chain.

Jeanette Orrey serves as the Soil Association’s school meals policy advisor, is a board member on the School Food Trust and has won numerous awards, including the Observer Food Award for ‘Person who has done the most for the food and drink industry’ in 2003. But prior to this, she was the dinner lady at St. Peter’s Primary School in East Bridgford, Nottinghamshire for 14 years.

She led a revolution in her school kitchen back in 2000, rebelling against the poor quality of centrally supplied ingredients. She chose to bring catering at her school back in-house, sourcing as much local, organic and fairtrade produce as possible – and all on a very tight budget. Since then, life for Jeanette has sped up and she now travels around the country talking about what has been achieved at St. Peter’s and encouraging other schools to implement Food for Life targets.

In 2005 the Training Kitchen at Ashlyn’s Organic Farm in Essex was opened – there Jeanette offers a two-day practical course on how to transform school dinners using the Food for Life approach aimed at school cooks and catering managers. The courses look at how to cook meals that meet nutritional standards from scratch using local and organic ingredients, menu planning, food purchasing and budget management. Jeanette is also the author of two books, The Dinner Lady and most recently, Second Helpings.

For more information, please visit www.soilassociation.org/foodforlife

London’s first sustainable restaurant

When I say that Acorn House is the most important restaurant to open in London in the past 200 years, there is a danger that you might misunderstand me. You might think I mean “important restaurant? merely in the way that restaurant critics usually mean it, which is that it represents a small potential change in direction for one wing of the catering business – the way people once talked of such joints as Kensington Place, Gordon Ramsay’s Aubergine, the Eagle, St John and Yo! Sushi. But Acorn House is a different kind of important.

Acorn House is life and death important. Because it is London’s first truly environmentally sustainable restaurant. Don’t you dare titter! Don’t you dare yawn and turn the page to see what Robert Crampton has been up to! Don’t you dare curse me for a credulous tree-hugging Cameronian payer of lip service to ideas I do not fully understand!
This stuff matters. The Stern Report is true. Everything we are and have ever been is going to disappear unless we do something very serious about global warming very soon.

If you really are one of those right-wing nincompoops who think that it’s all a big con by the “eco lobby? to keep themselves in hemp underpants, and that everything will all turn out fine because everything always does, and in fact there’s a completely independent scientist on the White House payroll who has proved that the world is getting colder and what we need is more carbon dioxide to stop the ice-caps getting too frozen, then, actually, you can turn the page. In fact, why don’t you burn it, too. No, I know, why don’t you roll it up into a taper and use it to set fire to a penguin.

The rest of you, who are maybe just beginning to turn off the odd stand-by switch, have stopped revving your engine at the lights to make old ladies cross the road quicker, and no longer leave all the lights on when you go out at night to discourage burglars (because you’ve grasped that burglars are all so wiped out on crack these days that they don’t have the mental quickness to associate the ideas of light and habitation the way they did in the good old days), well, you’re all heroes. But I’ll wager you still go out for dinner occasionally.

And there is nothing in the world so wasteful of resources as a restaurant. Apart, possibly, from a war. If we really cared about the future of humanity we would stay home and cook. Or we would go to Acorn House, which is built from organic and recycled materials, composts or recycles 100 per cent of its waste, demands positive animal husbandry, avoids industrial farming, uses green electricity, buys Fairtrade where it can, and pledges never to use airfreight.

When transporting within London, Acorn uses bio-diesel, take-away containers are eco-sensitive, and they purify water on site, so there are no road miles and no wasted plastic or glass (I’d rather share my table with a child murderer than a man who drinks Fijian water). And if you do want bottled water, there’s Belu, sourced and bottled in Shropshire, carbon-neutral and non-profit-making, with all proceeds going to fund water projects in drought-afflicted areas (Africa, principally, one assumes, rather than London and the Southeast).

I know it might all sound a bit mental and over the top, but it’s not. It’s just sensible. Every restaurant in London could operate like this. And the ones that can’t should close. I understand that you have to take your kids to school in something that, in extremis, would keep them safe from lion attack and nuclear war, but these are just restaurants. We don’t, truthfully, need them at all.

And the thing is, Acorn House isn’t a compromise. It is a great little restaurant. (In fact, all other restaurants are a compromise – we tolerate shortening the life of the race in return for a good nosh.)

I was sceptical at first. So sceptical that I went down for lunch on the day I had booked supper there with my girlfriend to make sure she wouldn’t be disappointed.

It is in King’s Cross, an area that is not only as impoverished by carbon fuel emissions as anywhere in the world (I believe the Euston Road, which begins here, is the most polluted in Britain), but is where all our problems began. For King’s Cross Station, gateway into town for the produce of the mines and factories of the North, made the Industrial Revolution, and all the consequent horrors through which we are now living, possible.

Acorn House is not a cutesy little tree house all in green and beige, but a long, cool, modern room with lots of produce and upmarket condiments and utensils on shelves, uncovered tables laid with linen napkins along both walls, a bar, and a visible kitchen at one end. It reminded me of Ottolenghi on Upper Street.

At lunch they do three soups, eight salads, three pastas and six mains, priced so that a main with two salads comes out at £10, or with three salads, £12. I had mackerel (a very sustainable fish), grilled, filleted and cutely split vertically along the spine to create, from one fish, four firm cigars of oily flesh, nicely punctuated with grill bars. But it wasn’t lovely and hot off the grill. Whether a batch was grilled earlier for lunch service or this had just sat around at the pass, I don’t know, but it made the dish a lot less exuberant than it might have been.

Most notable in the salad was the romanesco. You know romanesco, it’s that stuff they have in Waitrose that looks like a cauliflower crossed with a leprechaun. Here it was dressed with some tomato and looked foresty and festive. There was roast salsify, which I love, and long, straggly leek skins that feel good and roughagey going down, but are so fibrous they do sometimes go all the way through you undigested (I happen to have noticed). The Jerusalem artichokes were not on top form, a bit soft and wan – so I took my revenge by going back for dinner just when, after an afternoon simmering in my gut, the chokes were ready to parp their familiar song of joy.

In the evening, with candles and low light, it looked quite romantic. Celeriac and horseradish soup was chunky and sweet and not afraid of its ingredients (unlike those celeriac mashes you get which are all potato); autumn salad of pheasant, pomegranate and dandelion was rather less than the sum of its parts, and a bit fiddly; but the mozzarella di bufala was staggeringly fresh, given the ban on air travel. It came by train, apparently. Damn fast train. Drizzled with chilli flakes and olive oil and served with fennel and Amalfi olives it was a fine way to save the planet.

My shoulder of mutton was OK, but a bit dry (though I’m all for mutton over lamb for both flavour and sustainability), and needed the wetness of its accompanying quince. Pappardelle with lamb ragout was so-so. But I was deliriously happy to see that fried salmon and barley broth came in at only £13 (or £10 with two salads for lunch), despite being both wild and Scottish. If they can do it here then why does everyone else think they can charge that (and more) for farmed, flabby, world-killing fish?

In the end, not bad cooking, some excellent stuff, and at the end of the meal the bill comes with what you take for a promotional paper match box, but turns out to be a strip of tiny saplings to take away and plant. You see, it’s about turning carbon dioxide back into carbon and oxygen, not the other way round. Have I made myself clear?

Acorn House is only a start, but it is from such little acorns as these that mighty oaks are said to grow. Let’s just hope there’s time.

Acorn House
69 Swinton Street, WC1
(020-7812 1842)
Meat/fish: 10
Principles: 10
Importance: 10
Score: 10
Price: not the earth

Other sustainable restuarants

Duke of Cambridge
30 St Peter’s Street, N1
(020-7359 3066)

Every bit as impressive as Acorn, but done gastropub style. Not only is the (excellent) menu Soil Association certified, but the electricity is wind and solar-generated, the soap is made from neem oil, and they recycle everything.

Bordeaux Quay
Canon’s way, Harbourside, Bristol
(0117 9431200)

Bristol’s organic king, Barney Houghton, proprietor of the celebrated Quartier Vert, recently launched this vast organic restaurant-brasserie-deli-cookery-school. I haven’t reviewed it yet, but don’t wait for me, get down there.

Article by Giles Coren for The Times magazine, December 10 2006

Battery, barn or free-range eggs are rubbish

Eggs have hit the headlines again. Not since the Edwina Currie years has the egg industry taken such a bashing. Defra, acting on a tip-off, has discovered that some 30 million eggs labelled as free-range might actually have been laid by battery hens.

The whole industry is left ruminating over the fact that you can’t put a price on reputation. But what sort of reputation did free-range possess in the first place when its biggest virtue seems to be that it is not the battery system and allows little more freedom than barn production? In the battery system thousands of birds sit under artificial lights, crammed into wire cages that legally need be no bigger than 400sq cm. Beak trimming is common, to prevent cannibalism, and hens are given no opportunity to exhibit natural behaviours, as in the opportunity to flap their wings.

The National Farmers Union describes barn production as ‘the halfway house between cage egg production and the free-range system’. But although hens are able to perch and nest, it’s not exactly Cider with Rosie. A barn hen will never go outside and typically the stocking density (number of birds) runs into thousands. And beaks are still trimmed.

Since 2004, egg boxes have had to be more transparent about the provenance of eggs, so that ‘farm fresh’ has been replaced by ‘from caged birds’. But free-range egg boxes often still depict hens enjoying a bucolic life in lush grass. Research by a team from Oxford University in 2003 found that although, legally, free-range birds must be given eight hours of access to the outdoors each day, in practice less than 15 per cent of birds in the large systems (4,000-9,000 birds) were able to get outside. The rest were prevented by aggressive birds manning the exits.

Some good free-range producers such as Woodland Eggs advocate smaller flocks and access to trees (woodland is, after all, a hen’s natural environment). And in Harrods you can watch a livestream of Cotswold Leghorns running round outside before buying their pastel-coloured eggs (www.clarencecourt.co.uk).

Only seven per cent of eggs in UK supermarkets are certified by the Soil Association, which allows maximum stocking density of 2,000 birds (other organic labels go thousands higher), bans beak trimming and the feeding of artificial yolk colourants. The RSPCA’s Freedom Food label is also robustly inspected, guaranteeing higher standards of animal welfare from birth to slaughter.

Thankfully there’s an EU plan to phase out battery production by 2012. Meanwhile the egg industry is lobbying to replace battery cages with a new halfway house, the ‘enriched’ cage, offering a measly extra 200sq cm of space per bird. Battery cage or enriched cage? It’s six of one and half a dozen of the other.

Article by Lucy Siegle for The Observer, Sunday December 10, 2006

Voting with your trolley

Has the supermarket trolley dethroned the ballot box? Voter turnout in most developed countries has fallen in recent decades, but sales of organic, Fairtrade and local food—each with its own political agenda—are growing fast. Such food allows shoppers to express their political opinions, from concern for the environment to support for poor farmers, every time they buy groceries. And shoppers are jumping at the opportunity, says Marion Nestle, a nutritionist at New York University and the author of “Food Politics? (2002) and “What to Eat? (2006). “What I hear as I talk to people is this phenomenal sense of despair about their inability to do anything about climate change, or the disparity between rich and poor,? she says. “But when they go into a grocery store they can do something—they can make decisions about what they are buying and send a very clear message.?

Those in the food-activism movement agree. “It definitely has a positive effect,? says Ian Bretman of Fairtrade Labelling Organisations (FLO) International, the Fairtrade umbrella group. Before the advent of ethical and organic labels, he notes, the usual way to express political views using food was to impose boycotts. But such labels make a political act out of consumption, rather than non-consumption—which is far more likely to produce results, he suggests. “That’s how you build effective, constructive engagement with companies. If you try to do a boycott or slag them off as unfair or evil, you won’t be able to get them round the table.?

Consumers have more power than they realise, says Chris Wille of the Rainforest Alliance, a conservation group. “They are at one end of the supply chain, farmers are at the other, and consumers really do have the power to send a message back all the way through that complicated supply chain,? he explains. “If the message is frequent, loud and consistent enough, then they can actually change practices, and we see that happening on the ground.?

The $30 billion organic-food industry “was created by consumers voting with their dollars,? says Michael Pollan, the author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma? (2006), another of this year’s crop of books on food politics. Normally, he says, a sharp distinction is made between people’s actions as citizens, in which they are expected to consider the well-being of society, and their actions as consumers, which are assumed to be selfish. Food choices appear to reconcile the two.
How green is your organic lettuce?

Yet even an apparently obvious claim—that organic food is better for the environment than the conventionally farmed kind—turns out to be controversial. There are many different definitions of the term “organic?, but it generally involves severe restrictions on the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilisers and a ban on genetically modified organisms. Peter Melchett of the Soil Association, Britain’s leading organic lobby group, says that environmental concerns, rather than health benefits, are now cited by British consumers as their main justification for buying organic food. (There is no clear evidence that conventional food is harmful or that organic food is nutritionally superior.)

But not everyone agrees that organic farming is better for the environment. Perhaps the most eminent critic of organic farming is Norman Borlaug, the father of the “green revolution?, winner of the Nobel peace prize and an outspoken advocate of the use of synthetic fertilisers to increase crop yields. He claims the idea that organic farming is better for the environment is “ridiculous? because organic farming produces lower yields and therefore requires more land under cultivation to produce the same amount of food. Thanks to synthetic fertilisers, Mr Borlaug points out, global cereal production tripled between 1950 and 2000, but the amount of land used increased by only 10%. Using traditional techniques such as crop rotation, compost and manure to supply the soil with nitrogen and other minerals would have required a tripling of the area under cultivation. The more intensively you farm, Mr Borlaug contends, the more room you have left for rainforest.

What of the claim that organic farming is more energy-efficient? Lord Melchett points out for example that the artificial fertiliser used in conventional farming is made using natural gas, which is “completely unsustainable?. But Anthony Trewavas, a biochemist at the University of Edinburgh, counters that organic farming actually requires more energy per tonne of food produced, because yields are lower and weeds are kept at bay by ploughing. And Mr Pollan notes that only one-fifth of the energy associated with food production across the whole food chain is consumed on the farm: the rest goes on transport and processing.

The most environmentally benign form of agriculture appears to be “no till? farming, which involves little or no ploughing and relies on cover crops and carefully applied herbicides to control weeds. This makes it hard to combine with organic methods (though some researchers are trying). Too rigid an insistence on organic farming’s somewhat arbitrary rules, then—copper, a heavy metal, can be used as an organic fungicide because it is traditional—can actually hinder the adoption of greener agricultural techniques. Alas, shoppers look in vain for “no till? labels on their food—at least so far.
Fair enough

What about Fairtrade? Its aim is to address “the injustice of low prices? by guaranteeing that producers receive a fair price “however unfair the conventional market is?, according to FLO International’s website. In essence, it means paying producers an above-market “Fairtrade? price for their produce, provided they meet particular labour and production standards. In the case of coffee, for example, Fairtrade farmers receive a minimum of $1.26 per pound for their coffee, or $0.05 above the market price if it exceeds that floor. This premium is passed back to the producers to spend on development programmes. The market for Fairtrade products is much smaller than that for organic products, but is growing much faster: it increased by 37% to reach €1.1 billion ($1.4 billion) in 2005. Who could object to that?
The Guardian It makes me feel so good

Economists, for a start. The standard economic argument against Fairtrade goes like this: the low price of commodities such as coffee is due to overproduction, and ought to be a signal to producers to switch to growing other crops. Paying a guaranteed Fairtrade premium—in effect, a subsidy—both prevents this signal from getting through and, by raising the average price paid for coffee, encourages more producers to enter the market. This then drives down the price of non-Fairtrade coffee even further, making non-Fairtrade farmers poorer. Fairtrade does not address the basic problem, argues Tim Harford, author of “The Undercover Economist? (2005), which is that too much coffee is being produced in the first place. Instead, it could even encourage more production.

Mr Bretman of FLO International disagrees. In practice, he says, farmers cannot afford to diversify out of coffee when the price falls. Fairtrade producers can use the premiums they receive to make the necessary investments to diversify into other crops. But surely the price guarantee actually reduces the incentive to diversify?

Another objection to Fairtrade is that certification is predicated on political assumptions about the best way to organise labour. In particular, for some commodities (including coffee) certification is available only to co-operatives of small producers, who are deemed to be most likely to give workers a fair deal when deciding how to spend the Fairtrade premium. Coffee plantations or large family firms cannot be certified. Mr Bretman says the rules vary from commodity to commodity, but are intended to ensure that the Fairtrade system helps those most in need. Yet limiting certification to co-ops means “missing out on helping the vast majority of farm workers, who work on plantations,? says Mr Wille of the Rainforest Alliance, which certifies producers of all kinds.

Guaranteeing a minimum price also means there is no incentive to improve quality, grumble coffee-drinkers, who find that the quality of Fairtrade brews varies widely. Again, the Rainforest Alliance does things differently. It does not guarantee a minimum price or offer a premium but provides training, advice and better access to credit. That consumers are often willing to pay more for a product with the RA logo on it is an added bonus, not the result of a formal subsidy scheme; such products must still fend for themselves in the marketplace. “We want farmers to have control of their own destinies, to learn to market their products in these competitive globalised markets, so they are not dependent on some NGO,? says Mr Wille.

But perhaps the most cogent objection to Fairtrade is that it is an inefficient way to get money to poor producers. Retailers add their own enormous mark-ups to Fairtrade products and mislead consumers into thinking that all of the premium they are paying is passed on. Mr Harford calculates that only 10% of the premium paid for Fairtrade coffee in a coffee bar trickles down to the producer. Fairtrade coffee, like the organic produce sold in supermarkets, is used by retailers as a means of identifying price-insensitive consumers who will pay more, he says.

As with organic food, the Fairtrade movement is under attack both from outsiders who think it is misguided and from insiders who think it has sold its soul. In particular, the launch by Nestlé, a food giant, of Partners’ Blend, a Fairtrade coffee, has convinced activists that the Fairtrade movement is caving in to big business. Nestlé sells over 8,000 non-Fairtrade products and is accused of exploiting the Fairtrade brand to gain favourable publicity while continuing to do business as usual. Mr Bretman disagrees. “We felt it would not be responsible to turn down an opportunity to do something that would practically help hundreds or thousands of farmers,? he says. “You are winning the battle if you get corporate acceptance that these ideas are important.? He concedes that the Fairtrade movement’s supporters are “a very broad church? which includes anti-globalisation and anti-corporate types. But they can simply avoid Nestlé’s Fairtrade coffee and buy from smaller Fairtrade producers instead, he suggests.

Besides, this is how change usually comes about, notes Mr Pollan. The mainstream co-opts the fringe and shifts its position in the process; “but then you need people to stake out the fringe again.? That is what has happened with organic food in America, and is starting to happen with Fairtrade food too. “People are looking for the next frontier,? says Mr Pollan, and it already seems clear what that is: local food.

“Local is the new organic? has become the unofficial slogan of the local-food movement in the past couple of years. The rise of “Big Organic?, the large-scale production of organic food to meet growing demand, has produced a backlash and claims that the organic movement has sold its soul. Purists worry that the organic movement’s original ideals have been forgotten as large companies that produce and sell organic food on an industrial scale have muscled in.

This partly explains why food bought from local producers either directly or at farmers’ markets is growing in popularity, and why local-food advocates are now the keepers of the flame of the food-activism movement. Local food need not be organic, but buying direct from small farmers short-circuits industrial production and distribution systems in the same way that buying organic used to. As a result, local food appears to be immune to being industrialised or corporatised. Organic food used to offer people a way to make a “corporate protest?, says Mr Pollan, and now “local offers an alternative to that.?
Think globally, act locally?

Buying direct means producers get a fair price, with no middlemen adding big margins along the distribution chain. Nor has local food been shipped in from the other side of the country or the other side of the world, so the smaller number of “food miles? makes local food greener, too. Local food thus appeals in different ways to environmentalists, national farm lobbies and anti-corporate activists, as well as consumers who want to know more about where their food comes from.

Obviously it makes sense to choose a product that has been grown locally over an identical product shipped in from afar. But such direct comparisons are rare. And it turns out that the apparently straightforward approach of minimising the “food miles? associated with your weekly groceries does not, in fact, always result in the smallest possible environmental impact.

The term “food mile? is itself misleading, as a report published by DEFRA, Britain’s environment and farming ministry, pointed out last year. A mile travelled by a large truck full of groceries is not the same as a mile travelled by a sport-utility vehicle carrying a bag of salad. Instead, says Paul Watkiss, one of the authors of the DEFRA report, it is more helpful to think about food-vehicle miles (ie, the number of miles travelled by vehicles carrying food) and food-tonne miles (which take the tonnage being carried into account).

The DEFRA report, which analysed the supply of food in Britain, contained several counterintuitive findings. It turns out to be better for the environment to truck in tomatoes from Spain during the winter, for example, than to grow them in heated greenhouses in Britain. And it transpires that half the food-vehicle miles associated with British food are travelled by cars driving to and from the shops. Each trip is short, but there are millions of them every day. Another surprising finding was that a shift towards a local food system, and away from a supermarket-based food system, with its central distribution depots, lean supply chains and big, full trucks, might actually increase the number of food-vehicle miles being travelled locally, because things would move around in a larger number of smaller, less efficiently packed vehicles.

Research carried out at Lincoln University in New Zealand found that producing dairy products, lamb, apples and onions in that country and shipping them to Britain used less energy overall than producing them in Britain. (Farming and processing in New Zealand is much less energy intensive.) And even if flying food in from the developing world produces more emissions, that needs to be weighed against the boost to trade and development.

There is a strand of protectionism and anti-globalisation in much local-food advocacy, says Gareth Edwards-Jones of the University of Wales. Local food lets farming lobbies campaign against imports under the guise of environmentalism. A common argument is that local food is fresher, but that is not always true: green beans, for example, are picked and flown to Britain from Kenya overnight, he says. People clearly want to think that they are making environmentally or socially optimal food choices, he says, but “we don’t have enough evidence? to do so.

What should a shopper do? All food choices involve trade-offs. Even if organic farming does consume a little less energy and produce a little less pollution, that must be offset against lower yields and greater land use. Fairtrade food may help some poor farmers, but may also harm others; and even if local food reduces transport emissions, it also reduces potential for economic development. Buying all three types of food can be seen as an anti-corporate protest, yet big companies already sell organic and Fairtrade food, and local sourcing coupled with supermarkets’ efficient logistics may yet prove to be the greenest way to move food around.

Food is central to the debates on the environment, development, trade and globalisation—but the potential for food choices to change the world should not be overestimated. The idea of saving the world by shopping is appealing; but tackling climate change, boosting development and reforming the global trade system will require difficult political choices. “We have to vote with our votes as well as our food dollars,? says Mr Pollan. Conventional political activity may not be as enjoyable as shopping, but it is far more likely to make a difference.

Article from The Economist, December 7 2006

The state of wild fish

Occasionally the gulf between how food is bought and how it is harvested really hits you. Out in the English Channel on a 12-man rigid inflatable boat called Y-Knot, in gale-force winds and depleted light, it hits me repeatedly on the side of the head in the form of large and powerful waves.

It is 1 October 2006. A moratorium on scallop fishing in the seas off the South Hams coastline was lifted today. Throughout the summer months, this area fell under a 400 square kilometer ‘no take’ zone, introduced as part of the South Devon Inshore Potting Agreement, which prevented dredgers fishing for scallops and wreaking havoc on the seabed.

Eight miles out of the relative shelter of Dartmouth harbour, Y-Knot’s crew – Darren, Andy, Wayne and John – may be fishing for scallops, but they’re doing it the ethical way. They dive to the seabed and hand-pick the shellfish, causing minimal disruption to the ecosystem. If this trip is anything to go by, it’s a harrowing way to make a living. The Observer photographer, Andy Hall, and I are hanging on for grim death. ‘Your mascara’s running,’ yells Darren, Y-Knot’s owner, above the engines, presumably to me. I very much want to yell back that that’s the least of my worries, but every time I open my mouth, I’m engulfed by a wave.

Normally, I feel nauseous in a rowing boat, but here I don’t feel sick. Presumably my brain is too occupied with clinging on and not getting thrown into the dark swell – ‘You’d probably have 10 minutes in there,’ estimates John. I have no desire to pull the toggle on my life jacket, though at some point I notice that our photographer’s life jacket doesn’t seem to have a toggle at all. Rain starts to fall in huge, cold bulbs of water that run straight down the neck of my borrowed waterproofs.

Eventually the boat comes to a stop parallel to the South Devon village of Beesands. I grew up on this coastline and know it well, which should bring some comfort. But from this vantage point, the thunderous, craggy shore has nothing in common with the bucket-and-spade territory I know. I can make out the abandoned cliff-top village of Hallsands. A reminder that this area knows all about the destructive practice of dredging. In the 1900s, materials for development in Plymouth were dredged near Hallsands, despite warnings from locals that it was ruining the coast’s natural sea defences. They were proved right when, one night in 1917, most of Hallsands was swept away.

John puts on his oxygen tank, rolls backwards off the Y-Knot, and is consumed by the dark water. Without radio contact, the only way we know the divers haven’t met with a nasty end is that they send up a buoy. John’s buoy doesn’t come up. ‘For the record,’ says Darren, after 20 minutes, ‘at the coroner’s enquiry, you can all be my witnesses that I told him what to do.’ Because the light is failing, he can’t wait any more, and plops over the side. We sit in the boat while the three divers crawl about (visibility is less than half a metre) looking for scallops. The waters look eerie in the half-light.

After 30 minutes, John sends up a basket (with a buoy attached), the first indication that he hasn’t drowned. Wayne hauls in the basket, full of large, juicy scallops. The moratorium has obviously worked: the shellfish are a good size. The baskets begin to arrive one after another. Then the divers follow, wriggling back into the boat like seals. By now it’s pitch black, freezing cold and it takes an hour to get back to Dartmouth, where the crew spends another hour sorting and measuring the scallops.

Even though Darren Brown sells direct to restaurants such as Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen in Cornwall, and through his Shell Seekers stall at London foodie haunt Borough Market, it’s hardly big bucks. There are around 200 scallops in each of the nine baskets, selling for between 90p and £1.40 each. Factoring in fuel costs for transport and the Y-Knot, plus wages for four men, the profits are meagre. There has to be an easier way.

There is. Dredging. And it’s on the increase in Lyme Bay, where Darren and the crew are based and used to fish. Darren claims dredgers have obliterated the coast there. ‘It’s amazing,’ he reflects, ‘that you can have a county constantly promoting the beauty of the Jurassic Coast as a tourism destination, and let the dredgers come in and ruin it.’

Government agency English Nature agreed, and backed a Dorset Wildlife Trust (DWT) campaign for an enforced no-dredging area covering 60 square miles (less than 10 per cent of Lyme Bay), to enable scallop stocks to recover. The Southwest Inshore Scallopers’ Association was hastily formed to oppose this, and Ben Bradshaw – now Minister of State for Defra (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) – weakly agreed to some voluntary recommendations. In the context of fishing, ‘voluntary’ (at least in the minds of most environmentalists) equates to ‘meaningless’. The Lyme Bay story is typical. All over Europe, the US, Canada and Australia, and increasingly in Africa and Asia, fishing is territorial, political. Commercial interests and the ecologists are permanently at war.

The effects of this war were revealed in the report ‘Impacts of Biodiversity Loss on Ocean Ecosystem Services’, published on 3 November in Science and picked up by every newspaper and news channel in the world. In the report, an international group of ecologists and economists, led by renowned marine biologist Boris Worm, reported that 29 per cent of seafood species have collapsed. The report is the grim sequel to Worm’s seminal 2003 paper, co-authored by fellow marine biologist Ransom Myers, in Nature, which concluded that industrialised fisheries typically reduce community biomass by 80 per cent within 15 years of exploitation.

Despite those 2003 findings, there was not enough change in industrial practice. Three years on, Worm’s latest report shows that the impact of decreases in species population in ocean ecosystems affects the oceans’ planet-sustaining functions, including filtering pollutants such as carbon. The most chilling fact is that, if current trends continue, the last commercial fish species will be lost by 2048.

The idea that the next generation will not have any wild fish is unbearable. Yet we are devouring current supplies at an alarming rate: according to UN figures, human consumption of fish increased from 93.6m tonnes in 1998 to 100.7m tonnes in 2002, providing 2.6bn people with a minimum of 20 per cent of their average per capita protein intake. By 2015, total world consumption of fish is predicted to reach 179m tonnes. We see the same trends in the UK. Last year, sales of fresh fish surpassed fresh poultry for the first time ever. And yet, we’re still encouraged to eat more – the Food Standards Authority (FSA) recently launching its ‘two [fish] a week’ campaign.

Could the threat of the end of wild fish be the necessary wake-up call to the fishing industry? History suggests not. After all, the industry already had a major warning when the Grand Banks cod fishery collapsed in the Eighties. Known as Newfoundland Currency (a reflection of its fiscal might), cod has been fished in the Canadian fishery since the 19th century. In the Sixties, trawlers moved in and stocks began to plummet. In 1974, quotas for total allowable catches were brought in, but they were too high. When the fishery collapsed, 40,000 jobs were lost. There has been little sign of recovery in the cod population, suggesting that once species numbers plummet so far, recovery is slow – or even impossible.

Though the fishing industry seems loathe to take action, Greenpeace has entered the fray. The Save Our Seas campaign aims to halt the decline of the world’s oceanic systems. And its priority is the Mediterranean. Geophysically speaking, this sea has always been at a disadvantage: there are no significant tides to help disperse pollution and its entrance at Gibraltar is too small to allow large movements of water. At the same time, 150,000 tonnes of oil spill into the Med each year from boating accidents and operational discharges. Overfishing, particularly of bluefin tuna, disrupts the ecosystem further, and Greenpeace scientists are adamant that the only way to avoid further decline, and possible collapse, is through establishing eight ‘no-take’ policed marine reserves, the biggest of which would stretch for 18km. To help publicise the campaign, Greenpeace has sent in its most famous fighter, Rainbow Warrior.

Nothing can prepare you for seeing Rainbow Warrior for the first time. Although she looks well used, she’s still iconic, from her painted rainbow and dove emblems and wooden ship’s wheel (salvaged from the original) to the carved dolphin figurehead. The first Rainbow Warrior was blown up 21 years ago in Auckland by the French Secret Service. On deck, I watch as yachts make detours to take photos. Tourists wave madly and give victory signs.

That’s one way of greeting Rainbow Warrior. Another is to behave as the French purse seiner (trawler) fleet did in Marseilles, days before my arrival. Despite permission to dock – the Greenpeace crew was due to present a study on the benefits of marine reserves – a fleet of 20 French purse seiner pulled up alongside the Old Lady (as she’s known, on account of her creakiness), boarded, threatened the crew and blockaded the port until the authorities towed Rainbow Warrior out, against the express wishes of Captain Mike Fincken.

The fishermen had reason to be paranoid. The French fleet is the largest in the Mediterranean. It is able to swoop on shoals of fish using sonar and satellite equipment. Huge nets trap tuna during the crucial spawning part of their migratory cycle. These days, Cessna aircraft are even employed to track the shoals. The total catch of tuna in the Mediterranean (mainly supplied to the Japanese market) is now estimated at 37-41 per cent above the legal Total Allowable Catch (TAC) set by international quota. The purse seiners also catch wild tuna which are taken to one of the Med’s 50 tuna ranches – distinctive circular cages, held under the sea, with a diameter of hundreds of metres- located along the coastline. Here, the tuna are fattened for six to seven months before being sold.

The General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean (GFCM), and International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT) have been unable to stop a spiral of misreported catches and illegal boats. The number of bluefin tuna has decreased by 80 per cent over the past 20 years and, at this rate, it’s a prime candidate to become one of the first species to conform to Boris Worm’s 2048 deadline.

While ICCAT and the GFCM are seemingly unwilling to reverse the havoc wreaked by tuna ranches, Greenpeace is determined to halt the irreversible decline of the Mediterranean. So, just a few hours after joining the crew, at 4.30am, I am on deck watching as Rainbow Warrior chugs towards a distant tuna ranch.

‘Rainbow Warrior, Rainbow Warrior. Bastard bastards,’ crackles an excited voice over the radio that intercepts fishermen’s transmissions. There’s a police boat on the horizon. At about 5.30am, with the tuna ranch in his sights, Captain Mike gives the order for the divers and dinghies to get into the water.

The action is a relatively calm one, especially after the adrenaline-fuelled days in Marseilles. There’s a genuine sense of sadness as divers float out little white wooden crosses attached to buoys daubed with black writing, ‘RIP Mediterranean’. They float up to the vast circles of the tuna ranch. Down below, hundreds of caged tuna are forcibly restrained from completing their migratory patterns in the interests of feeding our increasing appetite for sushi.

The fishermen who run the units are Cuban. One of them motors a dingy over to the Rainbow Warrior. He is friendly and warns Mike, who has brought the boat right into the ranch, to be careful of some lines. Later, when we round the peninsula, we bump into the same Cuban fisherman. ‘I don’t want no trouble, really. I understand Greenpeace’s point, but they should target the big trawlers. They are the ones taking all the stocks. I don’t get involved, you know – it’s a job and I have two children.’ He lives in a makeshift house on the beach with his family. It looks like a shanty town.

As the Rainbow Warrior activists get back on board, it’s clear that some divers had wanted to go further and cut the pens open. I was surprised how strongly I wished they had, a reflection perhaps of the fact I’d spent the whole night before looking at photographs of fearless Greenpeace luminaries such as Marilyn Kaga and Paul Watson facing down Soviet harpoon boats. Watson was frustrated by Greenpeace’s non-interventionist strategies. He created the Sea Shepherd fleet, which roams the world’s oceans. Whaling ships and illegal trawlers are given one warning by him over a loud hailer and then he rams them.

‘I’d have let the tuna out, yes,’ says marine biologist Dr Roger Grace, as the divers file back on board. He’s been cataloguing Greenpeace’s oceanic campaigns for 30 years, and is an expert on marine reserves. He set up some of the world’s oldest no-intervention reserves in his native New Zealand which have brought spectacular species recovery. ‘In all that time,’ he says, ‘I’ve never had a fisherman explain to me why they need to fish in 100 per cent of the sea. Why not have 20 per cent set aside? Fish life functions best when the ecosystem is entirely set aside. If you’re forever pulling fish out on a string around the entire damned coastline there’s no respite anywhere.’

Rainbow Warrior’s engine room is full of Grace’s pictures of seascapes in New Zealand damaged by the removal of big predators. For example, it takes big snappers to eat big sea urchins. Once they are removed, sea urchins multiply. They eat the luscious kelp forest, chew it down. The seabed begins to resemble a lunarscape. This barren seabed can’t support fish populations and, as suggested in Boris Worm’s report, the devastation depletes the ocean’s ability to support the groups of species that help filter, recycle and store nutrients, trap sediments and reduce phytoplankton.

Grace also believes estimates of ‘sustainable’ stocks by fishery scientists might have been set too high. ‘They usually say you can fish down to 20 per cent of the original biomass,’ he says, ‘but this leaves no margin for error. Trying to keep it at 20 per cent is going to be hard – you can see this in the snapper fishery on New Zealand’s east coast, which has fallen to 16 per cent. They are still fishing. On the west coast, the biomass has fallen to 8 per cent despite efforts to manage stocks, and they haven’t stopped fishing. Every time campaigners try to reduce quotas, the fishermen take them to court. It will take 20 years to get stocks back.’

Back home, I am struck by the fact that people seem to eat a fantastic amount of fish. Perhaps they have been galvanised by the thought of an abundance of Omega-3 promised in the FSA campaign. Every sandwich seems to be filled with fish or sits next to a box of sushi, but none gives any idea of provenance. The fish might as well have been air freighted from Mars.

But John Rutherford, the CEO of the Seafish Industry Authority, thinks the FSA campaign to eat more fish is a good thing. ‘It seems that there are really good health benefits and that’s an important message to get across.’ He also has good news about local cod stocks, ‘I’m getting reports,’ he says, ‘from fishermen in the North Sea, they report seeing lots of cod.’ I’m surprised to hear this because, according to ICES (the International Council for the Explorations of the Sea), the 26,000 tonnes a year total allowable catch set last year was pretty much a kamikaze move to pacify the fishermen. What was needed was a total ban.

Another day, another slew of depressing, fish-related headlines. Twenty-four hours after I spoke to John Rutherford, the end of cod in the North Sea is predicted, completely contradicting him. Perhaps ICES hadn’t heard Rutherford’s good news of adult fish sightings. ‘They may be very localised observations,’ says ICES General Secretary Gerd Hubold, tactfully. ‘Our data suggests the situation regarding cod stocks in the North Sea has not improved since last year. Once again we’re recommending zero catch. The first thing everybody has to ask themselves is what do they want? Do they want cod stocks? Then leave the cod stocks to recover and within four years you could have a potential harvest in the North Sea of 200,000 tonnes a year. We are changing the entire ecosystem by taking these big predators out and we need to protect it for future generations.’

The Marine Stewardship Council’s logo offers a certain amount of assurance for those of us who can’t give up our Friday cod. It tells you that the product you are buying comes from one of 21 certified fisheries around the world, harvested by following MSC’s ‘sustainable’ criteria: to maintain healthy target fish populations, safeguarding the integrity of marine ecosystems and implementing effective fisheries management systems.

‘MSC labelling transforms a global industry into a sustainable one. In the marketplace we send clear signals to other retailers saying “raise your game”, and look at ecological improvements. It’s extremely effective,’ says Chief Executive Rupert Howes, ‘We are now reaching a tipping point. Consumers are learning to look for the logo. If they want cod they can get sustainable, certified cod from our fishery in Alaska, which doesn’t have a problem with stock levels. I promise you, I can’t taste the difference between this and North Sea cod.’

It’s not the taste that worries me. A study by Imperial College shows that the MSC fisheries do bring benefits to oceanic ecosystems (although it should be pointed out that the study was commissioned by the MSC). But can an organisation that has such commercial criteria ever have the right ecological emphasis? And, bearing in mind the state of global fisheries, should biomass baselines be set much higher, as Greenpeace’s Roger Grace suspects? I am also troubled by recent Birds Eye adverts where food critic Richard Johnson seems to make a virtue of the global nature of today’s catch, which may come from an MSC hoki fishery in New Zealand, cod fishery in Alaska or be a South African hake. All MSC certified, but all of which have to travel thousands of miles to reach the UK.

‘The fact is,’ continues Howes, good, well-managed stocks are not local to their markets, and people are still going to eat fish, so it makes more sense to bring it in from abroad. Besides, the bulk is frozen at sea and probably comes in by ship, which isn’t nearly as bad as air freight.’ What proportion is shipped instead of air-freighted? ‘Er, I’m not sure,’ he concedes.

In fact, no one seems to know, which makes it difficult to ascertain the true price of fish. In any case, a large proportion of the fishing industry is heading in a different direction: aquaculture, the business of cultivating marine and freshwater species, also known as aquafarming. More than 70 per cent of salmon sold in the EU is farmed. A few weeks ago, the MSC took the decision not to move its label into certification of farmed fish. Perhaps Howes and colleagues were mindful of the flak taken by the Soil Association, which elected to apply its organic standards to farmed salmon earlier this year – a decision that moved Peter Kindersley, a well-known organic pioneer, to resign. ‘It was a complete betrayal of everything organics has stood for on every level,’ he said. ‘Salmon farming breaches all the basic principles drawn up by the founders of the organic movement.’

Proponents call aquaculture ‘the blue revolution’, opponents call it madness. I see their point. Most aquaculture systems use wild fish to feed captive fish. Research shows it typically takes 3kg of wild fish to feed 1kg of farmed fish. Finding fish to feed farmed or ranched fish can put pressure on species that previously were not commonly fished. According to a recent Canadian study, disease epidemics in wild fish are induced by farmed fish, and infections can spread like wildfire through fish farms. In Australia, tuna ranching has been accused of luring sharks closer to the coastline and increasing the number of surfers killed in attacks.

Ecologists talk of sliding baselines, referring to the way that habitat and species lost becomes normalised. Once you accept it as a reality the standards just keep falling. With oceans, the baseline is more of a plummeting chasm. As Charles Clover puts it in his book The End of the Lin: ‘The fact that the sea is presided over by lunatics who believe there should be commercial fishing in 100 per cent of the sea breeds a culture that is corrosive.’

I can’t do anything about the lunatics except to support Greenpeace, the WWF and the MCS (Marine Conservation Society). There are other ways of eating fish that will limit my contribution to the devastation – the MSC programme, for example – but, currently, the ethical answers don’t add up. While my time on the Y-Knot showed how hard it is to turn a profit from ethical fishing, the alternatives are unappealing. There’s still no overall strategy to maintain and develop ocean ecosystems. Partial fishing hasn’t worked, total allowable catches are set too high, prone to abuse and do not allow species to recover.

I’m not given to breaking into restaurants to rescue crustacea, but I can’t get over the thought that ranching a large oceanic predator (which essentially means keeping it in a cage) is wrong. Add on the problems in the supply chain, doubtful provenance and food miles involved in shipping certified fish and I arrive at the conclusion that I no longer want to eat it. I will not, therefore, be following the FSA’s guidelines on two portions of fish a week, and I no longer subscribe to the view that there are plenty more fish in the sea. There aren’t.

Feature by Lucy Siegle for The Observer, Sunday December 10, 2006

Norwich is UK’s greenest city

Norwich has been portrayed as a peculiarly provincial place since well before Alan Partridge stepped out of his Lexus, and it continues to be so, long after his passing. Former Norwich City goalkeeper Robert Green recently dubbed it “a city the size of a town with a village mentality”.

But Norfolk’s capital may have quietly overtaken flashier parts of Britain in one important way. It has just been named the country’s greenest community, boasting the highest concentration of eco-friendly businesses in the nation, according to a survey by online listings people Locallife.co.uk. Norwich beat more widely feted green hotspots such as Brighton and Totnes in an analysis of farm shops, organic foods, charity shops, recycling, asbestos removal services and double-glazing firms.

Norwich is a pleasant place with an attractive medieval centre, and out of all Britain’s cities has one of highest ratios of green space per resident. But how environmentally friendly is it? And how has it gone green?

Shoppers in the Green Grocers, a smart organic supermarket wedged between charity shops in the city suburbs, have no doubt that the Green party has played a major part. “We’ve got the biggest [local] Green party and I think that’s what has made things change around here,” says Julie Dean, an optometrist, who is on her way to donate belongings to a charity shop.

The May elections gave Norwich city council nine Green councillors, more than on any other council in the country. Although it is controlled by a minority Labour group, the Greens hold the balance of power and claim to have helped improve recycling, designate Norwich an official fair-trade city, find funding for a cycling officer to improve cycle routes, and block cuts to rural railway finances.

Local businesses have seen changes, too. In two years, the Green Grocers has trebled in size, with annual growth ahead of the 20-30% seen in the buoyant organic market. “It either suggests Norwich people are more green and have taken an organic approach to heart or there is a gap in the market,” says owner Ben Binns. Blackboards show which vegetables are in season; the shop sells organic and bio- dynamic fruits from Norfolk farms; a customer loyalty card gives 1% of profits back to local charities. “We’re trying to play the Tesco game but with ethics,” says Binns, who also ensures the shop is carbon neutral by calculating and offsetting the food miles of all his stock.

Green businesses appear to have reached a critical mass in Norwich. Residents can find a local, eco-friendly version of almost anything, from Living Clean, an environmentally friendly cleaners that devises its own cleaning products, to permaculture landscape gardeners Roots to Fruits and Booja Booja chocolate, which is vegan and organic. There are ethical investment companies and ethical builders.

Dino Neale, a plumber, is shopping in the Green Grocers. He is taking a course in solar panel installation to make that a key part of his business and has persuaded his father, builder David Neale, to construct an eco-house out of straw bales on the outskirts of the city.

How did it happen in Norwich? It has good reason to be green: parts of the city are less than 1m above sea level, making it vulnerable to global warming. Some believe its eco-awareness sprang from green radicals who moved from the big conurbations to settle in Norfolk in the 70s; others point to the influence of the University of East Anglia, home of the internationally renowned Climatic Research Unit and other green initiatives such as CRed, a carbon-reduction project.

“Norwich has always had a radical history of dissent from the mainstream,” says Eamonn Burgess, a housing support worker and passionate recycler. “There was Robert Kett’s rebellion [over land enclosures and high prices in 1549] and we’ve always had a large Labour movement, battling for good causes. The main cause now is global and environmental survival.” Burgess reckons Norwich’s size encourages green behaviour. “You can walk from one end to another. It’s extremely accessible as a community and very well defined. There’s a community consciousness at a human level that’s lost in London.”

But there is also scepticism about the greening of Norwich. More than one local reckons it remains predominantly a “chattering class” concern. Yet ordinary folk are going green. “There is movement but it’s slow,” says Neale. “I don’t think it’s that genuine – people are jumping on the bandwagon. I go to Devon and Cornwall where there’s a lot happening.”

There is still no home collection for plastics or compost in Norwich, while the Conservative-run county council wants to remove waste by burning it in a controversial incinerator proposed for the edge of the city. “The city council aren’t doing that brilliant a job in recycling from people’s houses,” says local resident Vanessa Lockwood.

Traffic congestion is a growing problem and the county council wants to solve it with a northern bypass, which would deposit traffic in the suburbs if it does not plough through the beautiful Wensum valley. Bus services are poor, say some locals. “It’s very difficult to be green in the evening,” says Lockwood, who must use a car if she wants to have dinner with a friend across the city because so few bus routes operate late.

Clearly, there is a long way to go, particularly in tackling traffic and developmental pressures. “If Norwich is the greenest city in Britain, that says some problematic things about other places, because if you compare it with continental cities, it is far short of where we would want to be,” says Rupert Read, the Greens’ transport spokesman. But then again, as he says, “If we can have this greening happening in Norwich, you can have it all over Britain”.

Article by Patrick Barkham for The Guardian

Garden Organic for Schools

The annual harvest competition run by Duchy Originals Garden Organic for Schools and supported by HRH The Prince of Wales has been won by three schools: Haworth Primary School in Yorkshire, Oakham CE Primary School in Rutland, and St Thomas of Canterbury Primary School in Surrey. These three thriving schools won the national contest, coming top out of the 3,000 members who take part in the Duchy Originals Garden Organic for Schools scheme.

10% of all primary and secondary schools in the UK are members of this inspiring initiative, which helps schools to grow their own organic vegetables and fruit. The project is run by Garden Organic, the national charity for organic growing, and sponsored by Duchy Originals, The Prince of Wales’s organic and natural food brand.

The prize-winning schools have grown fabulous crops of organic vegetables, fruit and flowers this year. Haworth has been distributing its produce to elderly members of its community and also planted up baskets, containers and flowerbeds to brighten up its nearby fire, railway and police stations. Oakham has used its produce for weekly cookery lessons and has even written its own cookery book. St Thomas of Canterbury has provided vegetables and fruit for its school kitchen and also turned its garden into a wildlife haven.

Colette Bond, Head of Education for Garden Organic, says: “It is fantastic to see how much these pupils and teachers have achieved this year. They have worked very hard in their school gardens to grow a bumper harvest of organic vegetables, fruit and flowers, which have not only been put to wonderful use in their own schools, but also brought many benefits to their local communities.?

The winning schools were chosen for sending in the best reports, including diaries, photographs and artwork, to demonstrate what they had achieved in their gardens this year. They were able to choose from a variety of prizes. Haworth opted for a visit from the Education Team to help with its latest project, Oakham will be bringing a group of children to visit the beautiful gardens at Garden Organic Ryton, Warwickshire, and St Thomas of Canterbury chose a selection of gardening equipment, kindly donated by Duchy Originals, Link-a-Bord, Impact Publishing and HappyMais.

The Duchy Originals Garden Organic for Schools project is free to join and provides a wealth of support for teachers, pupils and parents keen to grow their own organic produce. Members receive a quarterly newsletter, free seeds and advice, and access to a dedicated website suggesting lots of fun activities, linked to the National Curriculum.

To find out more about the project visit www.schoolsorganic.net and check out Garden Organic at www.gardenorganic.org.uk

McDonald’s loses out to the little guys

Robertson’s organic cafe in the Devonshire town of Tavistock was packed at lunchtime yesterday, with customers enjoying Thai lentil soup and savoury tarts. Across the river, a rather more meagre gathering were ordering Big Macs, fries and sweet milkshakes with greater urgency than normal.

Burger and pizza joints continue to spring up in towns and cities across Britain but in one corner of west Devon the fast food giant McDonald’s is beating a strategic retreat in face of competition from an unexpected source – champions of fresh, locally produced food. Many residents of the market town of Tavistock were bitterly opposed to the opening of McDonald’s. But while they could not stop it, market forces have done the job for them, with the burger giant conceding yesterday that the site on the main road to Plymouth was “no longer suitable”.

Dick Spackman, secretary of the Tavistock Business Association, led the celebrations. “I was against it coming here in the first place,” he said. “It was never the right type of outlet for Tavistock. Over the past few years, we have built a reputation for the quality of our food.”

John Taylor, Tavistock Forward and EatWise chairman, said: “I think it’s tremendous. It just goes to show that the food is so good here we have seen them off. They don’t pull out of many places but because of the quality of our local food they have not been able to compete.”

Nestling beneath Dartmoor, Tavistock has a tradition of good eating. Last year its pannier market celebrated its 900th year and it is the reigning “best food town” in the south-west. Families and businesses come from miles around to buy fish, meat and vegetables at the covered market.

The high street is dotted with independent cafes and food shops, among them NH Creber Ltd – cheesmongerers and pepperers (est 1881) – which stocks a bewildering range of jams and pickles as well as cheese and pepper. Robert Creber said: “I am delighted. I don’t think McDonald’s is the image we are trying to portray.”

However, McDonald’s bridled at the suggestion that it was being driven out by the foodies. A spokesman said: “We have 1,250 restaurants across the United Kingdom and it is essential we continue to have the right restaurants in the right places to ensure we stay relevant and convenient for our customers.”

Of course, not all are happy at the closure, not least the 27 staff who lose their jobs. And some will miss their fast food. Jim Knight, a trucker, said: “I’m not a feta cheese and olives man. Give me a burger any day.”

Story by Steven Morris for The Guardian

USA grapples with organic fish

In the UK and the rest of Europe, there are strict legal guidelines in place that define what fish can be sold as organic. Organic fish is always from organic fish farms. As such, wild fish can never be labeled as organic – it’s wild.

However, in the USA, buying a pork chop labeled “organic? is relatively straightforward: it comes from a pig that ate only organic food, roamed outdoors from time to time and was left free of antibiotics. But they’re still debating – what makes a fish organic?

That is the question troubling the US Agriculture Department, which decides such things for America. The answer could determine whether Americans will be able to add fish to the growing list of organic foods they are buying, and whether fish farmers will be able to label their organic fish as such, and therefore charge a fair price for this more expensive and higher quality product.

Organic foods are grown on farms that shun chemicals and synthetic fertilizers and that meet certain government standards for safeguarding the environment and animals.

An organic tomato must flourish without conventional pesticides; an organic chicken cannot be fed antibiotics. Food marketers can use terms like “natural? and “free range? with plenty of wiggle room in the US, but only the Agriculture Department can sanction the “organic? label.

To the dismay of some fishermen — including many in the Alaskan salmon industry — this means that wild fish, whose living conditions are not controlled, are not likely to make the grade. And that has led to a lot of bafflement, since wild fish tend to swim in pristine waters and are favored by fish lovers.

“If you can’t call a wild Alaska salmon true and organic,? asked Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska, “what can you call organic??

Instead, it appears that only farm-raised salmon may pass muster, as may a good number of other farm-raised fish.

But a proposed guideline at the Agriculture Department for calling certain farmed fish “organic? is controversial on all sides. Environmentalists argue that many farm-raised fish live in cramped nets in conditions that can pollute the water, and that calling them organic is a perversion of the label. Those who catch and sell wild fish say that their products should be called organic and worry that if they are not, fish farmers will gain a huge leg up.

Even among people who favor the designation of farmed fish as organic, there are disputes over which types of fish should be included.

Trying to define what makes a fish organic “is a strange concept,? said George H. Leonard, science manager for the Seafood Watch Program at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which offers a consumer guide to picking seafood. “I think the more you look at it, particularly for particular kinds of fish, it gets even stranger.?

The issue comes down largely to what a fish eats, and whether the fish can be fed an organic diet. There is broad agreement that the organic label is no problem for fish that are primarily vegetarians, like catfish and tilapia, because organic feed is available (though expensive).

Fish that are carnivores — salmon, for instance — are a different matter because they eat other fish, which cannot now be labeled organic.

The Agriculture Department panel that recommended adding farmed fish to the organic roster was willing to work around the issue, and offered various ways that fish-eating fish could qualify.

But those work-arounds have infuriated some environmentalists, who take issue with the idea that a fish could be called organic if it ate meal made from wild nonorganic fish. This constituency complains, among other things, that demand for fish meal is depleting wild fisheries.

“When it comes to carnivorous fish, it seems to be a complete deception of what organic means,? said Andrea Kavanagh, director of the Pure Salmon Campaign, an advocacy group working to improve conditions for farm-raised fish. “Organic is supposed to be on 100 percent organic feed.?

As the discussion continues, the market for organic foods grows. Consumer sales reached $13.8 billion in 2005 compared with $3.6 billion in 1997, according to the Organic Trade Association. What started as a definition for a farming technique for crops has expanded into everything from processed foods to flowers and cosmetics.

Fish farmers, retailers and hungry organic consumers are painfully aware of what they are missing, and some of them are taking matters into their own hands. As things stand, a limited amount of seafood is being sold as organic at stores in the United States, usually because it was certified by other countries or by third-party accreditation agencies.

A company in Florida called OceanBoy Farms is selling what it says are organic shrimp to Wal-Mart, Costco and some other retailers. And at the Lobster Place, a seafood store in Manhattan, “organic? king salmon from New Zealand is offered for $13.50 a pound, compared with $22.95 for wild king salmon and $9.95 for farm-raised salmon.

“People will go for organic salmon when wild king salmon isn’t available,? said Todd Harding, director of wholesale operations for the Lobster Place. He said that the taste of organic salmon was more consistent, but that he generally preferred wild salmon.

While most consumers say they prefer wild-caught fish, 72 percent would buy organic fish at least some of the time, according to a recent survey by the New Jersey Department of Agriculture and Rutgers.

There is plenty of history to the debate. In 2000, when the Agriculture Department sought to weed out some of the food industry’s murkier organic claims, it named a task force to evaluate requests from fish farmers for organic eligibility.

The farmers argued, then as now, that with demand for seafood growing and many wild fisheries being depleted, farm-raised seafood should have a competitive edge. On farms, they said, the number of fish remains stable, and the quality of water and feed are controlled. One thing the task force did was rule out the possibility that wild fish could be labeled organic.

“It takes some thinking about,? said Rebecca J. Goldburg, a senior scientist at the advocacy group Environmental Defense, who was on the advisory panel. “What it comes down to is organic is about agriculture, and catching wild animals isn’t agriculture.?

The task force recommended that farm-raised fish could be labeled organic as long as their diets were almost entirely organic plant feed. The Agriculture Department shelved those recommendations and let the issue lie fallow. In 2005 a second task force was convened — this time, with more members affiliated with the aquaculture industry.

This year, the group recommended far less stringent rules, including three options for what organic fish could eat: an entirely organic diet; nonorganic fish during a seven-year transition period while fish farms shift to organic fish meal; or nonorganic fish meal from “sustainable? fisheries. Sustainable fisheries are those that ensure that their fish stocks do not become depleted.

Even if the recommendations are adopted, it will still take several years before U.S.D.A.-certified organic fish appears in stores or restaurants. But domestic fish farmers say that new rules cannot come soon enough. While the aquaculture industry has experienced rapid growth, the vast majority of it has been overseas — mainly in China — and much of the growth in seafood sales in the United States, which had a wholesale value of $29.2 billion in 2004, has come from imports.

Rodger May, a Seattle businessman who sells wild and farm-raised salmon, is preparing for the day when he can sell his fish as organic. For now he refers to some of his farm-raised salmon — which live in ocean pens, as opposed to man-made ponds — as “natural,? a designation that does not carry the same marketing punch as would “organic.?

Mr. May says he believes that he has created the perfect environment for organic fish. His “natural? fish are raised in pens that hold fewer fish than those for his regular farm-raised salmon, and they live in a body of water where fast-moving currents constantly provide fresh water and flush away waste.

His fish eat a mixture of oily brown pellets that resemble dog food and contain protein in the form of ground-up fish; other farm-raised salmon are fed protein from chicken and other land animals, he said.

“How can a wild fish be cleaner than one of these?? he asked. “What can be more organic than something that comes out of the sea, that has no chemicals near it, no antibiotics and is fed fish??

The Agriculture Department may ultimately agree with Mr. May. But even if it does, it could then face another round of difficult questions. For instance, what is an organic clam? An oyster? A scallop?

“How do you make conventional mollusk production different from organic mollusk production?? asked Ms. Goldburg, the Agriculture Department panelist, who noted that mollusks filter water for food. “They are all just sucking up water. Is it cleaner water??

This is an edited version of an article by Andrew Martin for The New Yorl Times, November 28, 2006

Food Ethics Council discusses CAP

The Food Ethics Council have published a paper that spells out some of the stickiest questions facing farm policy in the run up to further reforms of Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The questions relate to the environmental impacts of farming and other land uses, to international trade and development, to public health and to good governance. The paper focuses on UK policy, which they expect to play a significant part in EU negotiations – the CAP, in turn, affects food and farming around the world.

Download the full paper at www.foodethicscouncil.org/node/209

UK government allows GM potatoes

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has approved a new round of genetically modified potato research trials. What this means is that GM potatoes will be grown in the UK at selected sites, despite the fact that the British public consistently reject GM food. The trials will be to test similar traits to tests currently underway in other European countries, and as such will not add to human knowledge despite the risks of contaminating the main British potato crop.

Tom Heap, the BBC’s rural affairs correspondent, said:

“This will be the first GM crop to be planted outside the lab for the last three years. Similar scientific tests are already underway in Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands. The company, BASF, wants to grow potatoes that are resistant to blight. One of the things that some people are worried about is how you stop GM contamination. The British Potato Council is worried about the image of potatoes if in the consumers mind they are associated with GM.”

Peter Melchett from the Soil Association said commented on the Government’s announcement:

“This is a stupid decision. Everyone is against it. Nobody thinks that GM potatoes will seriously be used by British consumers or bought by them. Organic farmers are worried about contamination of our crops. There are real risks. American farmers have found this year that the whole of their long grain rice crop has been contaminated as a result of a trial that took place and finished over five years ago. This isn’t something that you can control and the idea that this will deal with a problem like blight is a fantasy. Blight is a disease, which evolved very quickly, you knock it back one way and it comes back another. 12,000 tons of fungicide is used on potatoes in this country and just over 1,000 is used to control blight and anyway if people don’t eat these potatoes, what’s the point.”

“In America, four years ago, all the major potato using companies and consumers decided they didn’t want GM potatoes. McCains and McDonalds said they won’t use GM potatoes years ago. All the big companies, all the British supermarkets, the British Potato Council… nobody wants this.”

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