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News archive: April 2007

Bees in crisis

America’s bees are disappearing. Not in a gradual way, but in a massive, completely unprecedented and shockingly abrupt manner known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). And if the bees die, who is going to pollinate the crops that feed us?

When John Chapple, one of London’s largest keepers of honeybees, opened his 40 hives after the winter, he was shocked: 23 were empty, seven contained dead bees, and only 10 were unaffected by what seemed to be a mystery plague.

Beekeepers are used to diseases sweeping through their colonies, and, nationally, nearly one in seven colonies dies naturally each winter. But this seemed very different to Mr Chapple, who is head of the London Beekeepers Association and has 20 years’ experience with the insects and their diseases.

“The problem was that most of the bees had just disappeared. It was like the Marie Celeste. There was no chance they had been stolen,” he said yesterday. “The ones that were left did not seem to have been attacked by varroa [the tiny parasitical mite that beekeepers have learned to live with since it arrived from Asia 15 years ago]. I really do not know what happened”.

Mr Chapple’s experience has chimed with other beekeepers. “Many colleagues and bee clubs tell me that they are experiencing something similar. The Pinner and Ruislip beekeepers’ group told me only this morning that they have lost 50% to 75% of their bees. I don’t know what is happening, but the bees are just going,” he said.

Many British beekeepers fear they are witnessing the start of an alarming phenomenon which is sweeping the US and mainland Europe. Colony collapse disorder (CCD) is possibly the most serious disease yet faced by bees.

According to the national bee unit, a branch of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, its “symptoms appear to be the total collapse of bee colonies, with a complete absence of bees or only a few remaining in the hive”. The unit says no one has any idea what is causing CCD. Theories in the US, where 24 states are affected and losses of 50% to 90% of colonies are being reported, include environmental stresses, malnutrition, unknown pathogens, the use of antibiotics, mites, pesticides and genetically modified crops.

Because bees pollinate millions of hectares of fruit trees and crops, the implications for agriculture are enormous. “Approximately 40% of my 2,000 colonies are currently dead and this is the greatest winter mortality I have ever experienced,” Gene Brandi, a member of the California State Beekeepers Association, told the US Congress recently.

In Spain, thousands of colonies are said to have been lost, and up to 40% of Swiss bees are reported to have disappeared or died in the past year. Heavy losses have also been reported in Portugal, Italy and Greece.

Government bee inspectors met yesterday, but Mike Brown, head of the national bee unit based in York, reported no signs of CCD in Britain. “There is no evidence in the UK right now of colony collapse disorder,” he said in a statement. “The majority of inspectors said that they can put the current mortalities in honeybee populations around the UK down to varroa or varroasis.”

“I just don’t know where they get their information,” said Mr Chapple. “They took away some of my bees but I have heard nothing. All I know that something is very wrong with our bees.”

Article by John Vidal, environment editor of The Guardian UK, April 12, 2007

Gorgeous UK organic bakery

This a tale of two Hastings. There is New Hastings, with a seafront rocking with amusement arcades, chippies, tattoo parlours and shops selling rock candy. And there is Old Hastings, quiet, quaint, higgledy-piggledy in a pretty, orderly kind of way, with secondhand book shops, antique shops and Judges.

The front of Judges has a slightly saggy look, the way old shops should. The name leaps out of a sky-blue fascia, and the windows are filled with fat eccles cakes, curly-whirly Chelsea buns, doughnuts, Viennese hearts, pink meringue pigs, coffee and walnut cakes, apple turnovers and Easter choccies. Green & Black’s Easter choccies, to be precise.

I had never thought of Craig Sams as a curly-whirly man. He was the magus of macrobiotics, the fellow who years ago led the organic healthfood charge with Whole Earth Foods, and who persuaded the nation that you could eat chocolate and feel good about it, so long as the chocolate was Green & Black’s. Sams stood down from most of his corporate responsibilities a few years ago, to cultivate his kitchen garden in East Sussex and to become a big cheese in the Soil Association. But the entrepreneurial spirit runs deep, because two years ago, supported by his wife, Josephine, he took over Judges, a bakery and tea shop in Hastings with a good local reputation, and turned it into … what?

Well, if I didn’t think the couple might find the description objectionable, I’d say a mini-supermarket devoted to things organic. Besides the breads and pastries, it sells an intoxicating jumble of goodies. There’s a small, well-chosen cheese section, a mini-meat section, fruit and veg in baskets, coffee from the Monmouth Coffee Shop, apple juice from Oakwood Farm, Steenbergs spices and shelf after shelf of packets, pots and packages, all tip-top organic – “2,000 altogether,” says Craig, “more than Tesco or Sainsbury’s. And as much as possible is produced locally.”

“And we’ve tasted every one of them,” says Jo. “If it doesn’t taste good, it doesn’t go on the shelves”

It makes money, too – “more money per square metre than Sainsbury’s,” says Craig, dryly.

When they took over Judges, the couple didn’t announce that everything would be organic, because they didn’t want to scare off the regulars. “We let people get hooked, then we told them,” Craig says.

He is particularly proud of his eclectic mix of clientele. It’s not just well-heeled weekenders stocking up on premium products. “We get fishermen, workmen, little old ladies, and first thing in the morning the street’s lined with builders’ vans collecting sandwiches for lunch.” Craig is also working on links to schools and a primary care trust. Ethical principles run as strong in the Sams family as entrepreneurial ones.

Could Judges be a model for other shops of this kind? Put it this way, there was a man from the Soil Association who had come to see how it all worked, and he was filling a basket at the same time.

Judges Bakery 51 High Street, Hastings, East Sussex, 01424 722588

Article by Matthew Fort for The Guardian UK, April 7, 2007

Fake organic food test

Scientists have developed a test that can detect if unscrupulous traders are trying to pass off non-organic fruit and vegetables as organic to boost their profits.

The chemical test relies on identifying a “nitrogen signature” that is left in food by the conventional fertilisers used in intensive farming.

Organic food, which is a £15 billion global market, is currently regulated by a system of certification and inspection.

Simon Kelly, of the University of East Anglia, said that the test, reported by his team in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, could provide extra evidence when foul play was suspected.

“When the test has been made more reliable then we may get to the stage where it can be used routinely in addition to the organic certification system,” he said.

Article by Roger Highfield for The Daily Telegraph UK, April 9, 2007

Town prepares for oil descent

As the supply of cheap fuel dwindles, organic farmers in Wales prepare the rural town of Lampeter for ‘energy descent’

There is, as the ads say, no Plan B. The age of cheap oil is drawing to a close, climate change already threatens, and politicians dither. But the people of Lampeter, a small community in the middle of rural Wales, gathered together earlier this week to mobilise for a new war effort. They decided to plan their “energy descent”.

It was in fact the biggest public meeting in Lampeter anyone could remember. West Wales has a long tradition of alternative living, but the scale of this was different. More than 450 people filed into the hall in a place where the total population is just 4,000. They had come to turn themselves into a Transition Town – one of a rapidly growing network of places that have decided not to wait for government action, but to prepare for life after oil on their own.

First, the coordinator of the Transition Town movement, Rob Hopkins, told them how urgent the crisis is. Hopkins, who helped create the earliest Transition Towns in Kinsale, Ireland, and Totnes, Cornwall, and advises the 20 or so others that have signed up, describes himself as an early topper.

He’s one of those who think that in the next five years we will have reached peak oil – the point at which half the world’s oil reserves have been used up. After that production goes into irreversible and rapid decline and our main source of energy starts running out. Since we have not so far identified another viable energy source to replace it, the only rational response, he said, is to plan our energy descent. “Life after oil will have to look very different.”

The world, he explained, divides into early toppers and late toppers. The early toppers, made up largely of former industry geological experts, calculate that world oil production has already or will very soon peak. The end of oil is nigh, in other words.

The late toppers, made up mostly of more optimistic oil companies, governments and economists, predict we have longer, with peak oil some 20 to 30 years away. “I tend to believe the people with no vested interest, but either way this is one of the most dramatic shifts humanity has had to face,” Hopkins warned.

By now the people of Lampeter, from ageing hippies to young activists, were shifting in their plastic seats (made with oil) and drawing anxiously on their water bottles (made with oil) if not reaching for their medicines (made with oil). Hopkins told them they were likely to experience a range of common symptoms that accompany initial peak oil awareness.

One might be an irrational grasping at infeasible solutions. At hydrogen, for example. No good, running the UK’s cars on hydrogen would need 67 Sizewell B nuclear power stations or a wind farm bigger than the south-west region of England. Or what about biofuels? No again, it would take over 25m hectares of arable land to run the UK’s vehicles on biodiesel, and the UK only has 5.7m hectares of arable land. We need to eat too.

Unfortunately, British farming has evolved “into a system for turning oil into food”, reliant on the energy-intensive manufacture of synthetic fertiliser, heavy use of oil-based plastics, and centralised just-in-time distribution systems that also guzzle oil.

After Hopkins, Guardian columnist George Monbiot, who lives near Lampeter, tried to cheer them up. Unlike Hopkins, he said he had been persuaded that the end of oil was not nigh, but only nigh-ish. We may have another 10 to 30 years. And there was lots of coal for energy.

The problem was that if we switched back to sin fuels that increase our emissions, climate change will undo us even faster than peak oil.

The drive for change in Lampeter has come in part from a group of local organic farmers – both Patrick Holden, the Soil Association’s director, and Peter Segger, the businessman who was the first to supply the mass market in Britain with organic foods through the supermarkets, have their land nearby. Both have decided that the future lies in selling more of their produce locally instead of having it trucked round the UK.

Segger and his partner Anne Evans have already switched from supplying the major retailers to selling half their vegetables within Wales.

Holden confessed to a touch of both survivalism and optimism. As an organic farmer who does not use artificial fertiliser, he said he had been feeling smug until he heard Hopkins speak a couple of months ago.

But he realised his produce was also part of the problem once it left his farm, feeding into the system of centralised distribution. Now he is trying to make his farm self sufficient in energy: he has already invested in burying half a mile of pipes under a field to extract heat from the soil that keeps his house warm.

Four hours into planning their energy descent and over bowls of local cawl broth the crowd in Lampeter were considering what they would like to happen – a ban on advertising that encourages consumption; turning the local supermarket into a giant allotment – and what they could they could actually do – install a community wind turbine; encourage low-energy buildings using sheep’s wool for insulation; swap skills.

Someone suggested that a local landowner give the town an acre for a community vegetable garden. There was an awkward silence until someone else remembered a playing field that would serve the purpose, if the council agreed.

There was plenty of inspiration from pioneer towns.

Transition Totnes has introduced its own currency with notes that can only be spent in local shops. Its businesses are being audited by an accountant who provides a wake-up call by identifying parts of their operations that become unprofitable as oil prices rise. The town is planting nut trees which can provide emergency food and timber for construction while also acting as carbon sinks.

Lampeter decided emphatically on a show of 450 hands that it would meet again to plan its next stage. And then its people spilled out on a clear spring night into the car park and, just this one last time, drove home.

How we use oil

· 130kg packaging made from oil-derived plastics is consumed by British households each year. Two-thirds of it is used in food production.

· 57 miles is the average distance a tonne of freight now travels by road. In 1953 it was 21 miles.

· 95% of our food products require the use of oil, and the supply of food accounts for 21% of Britain’s energy use.

· 3.5 litres of oil is needed to produce half a kilogram of steak.

Article by Felicity Lawrence for The Guardian UK, Saturday April 7, 2007

Human genes in safflower plant

Farmers are growing genetically modified (GM) crops that contain human genes to produce insulin.

The Canadian firm Sembiosys is growing insulin in the seeds of GM safflower, a seed oil plant, in trials in Chile, the U.S. and Canada. The company claims it will be able to sell a plant-based form of insulin within three years. The plants are able to produce insulin because they have been genetically modified to contain human genes.

The GM industry see this as part of a new wave of plants which could help change public opinion in its favour. Experts already claim to have modified tobacco so it produces a vaccine for cervical cancer. However, green campaigners remain sceptical.

Sembiosys chief executive Andrew Baum said: “Sembiosys believes it will be one of the first – or the first – company to get a plant-based pharmaceutical on the market.”

Insulin is used by diabetics to control their sugar levels and maintain a healthy body.

Mr Baum claims one large North American farm growing his safflower could meet the global demand for the drug. He suggests this would lead to a significant cut in the cost of insulin, which is currently manufactured in the sterile conditions of laboratories all over the world.

Consequently, it would be more affordable to Third World nations.

Mr Baum told BBC TV’s Newsnight: “While the first wave of products were really focused on the farmer and improving agricultural economics, there’s an increasing emphasis now in the industry on products that address more direct consumer benefits and consumer needs.

“The goodness of what we’re doing is so clear. People who are dying of diabetes will eventually get insulin.”

Friends of the Earth GM campaigner Clare Oxborrow warned there had already been contamination incidents with experimental pharmaceutical plants. “It’s worrying enough when it’s a crop intended for human consumption,” she said.

“But when it might be a pharmaceutical crop in the future that contaminates the food chain, that raises serious worries and questions about the risks involved for human health.”

Article by Sean Poulter for The Daily Mail, UK

Organic beans save Brazilian rainforest

Brazil’s other rainforest, the Atlantic, has also been devastated by felling – but organic soya farmers could be the key to its restoration

Clicaea Ferreira’s grandfather was a man of insight. If it hadn’t been for his vision, she says, then the fragment of forest that covers 50% of her farm in the Campos Gerais region of Parana state, southern Brazil, would have been cut down. Ferreira, speaking to a group of local farmers, gives a clear message: save the forest and go organic. But unusually for impassioned speeches about sustainability, she advocates growing soya.

The faces gathered on Farmers’ Day at the Ferreiras farm would look at home in farmers’ markets around Europe. As the barbecue smoke and sounds of the local school band drift across rolling fields and small woods, the scene owes more to the agricultural landscapes of Europe than the Atlantic rainforest – the Mata Atlantica – it has replaced. And the rhetoric on the twin pillars of organic farming and biodiversity conservation is couched in a familiar European language of environmental and social concern. But step from the recently harvested soya bean field into the forest and all that changes.

Ecological value

Under towering araucaria trees – the umbrella-shaped, monkey-puzzle trees – electric-blue Morpho butterflies strobe from the shadows, parrots and other dazzling birds yell from treetops, the skeleton of a capybara – the largest of all living rodents – lies across a path, and the ground has been raked by the powerful claws of ant-eaters. Wolves, tapir and jaguar are seen in this 500 hectares (1,236 acres) of forest, and the farmers are very proud of its ecological value.

“Once, the Mata Atlantica was a forest that spread for 1,300,000 sq km,” Ferreira says. “It contained 6.7% of all known species of plants on Earth. Now only 7.8% of the forest remains. Between 1920 and 1990, 100m araucaria trees were felled. In 2002, a law was passed protecting the trees, but there is still illegal felling going on. We must stop the felling because it’s killing our future.”

Together with non-governmental organisations, local authorities and some government help, the farmers are reshaping the future by protecting and restoring their native forest. The plan for Campos Gerais is to link forest fragments with wildlife corridors, to plant native araucaria trees instead of exotic conifers and eucalyptus, and to create a buffer zone around the restored forest of organic agriculture using non-GM crops.

Philipp Stumpe, a campaigner at the conservation organisation Preservacao, says Parana state holds most of the remaining Atlantic forest in Brazil. “We were formed two years ago to recover and rehabilitate the Mata Atlantica on private property,” he explains. “This is a voluntary project for farmers to join up the tiny fragments of forest on their land. Our target is to acquire 10,000 hectares in 10 years to add to existing protected fragments. We have set up a tree nursery and will plant 400 hectares of trees in wildlife corridors this year, and we are establishing a seed bank of forest flora, because none exists.”

Apart from the few remaining fragments of the Mata Atlantica, the land in Parana is agricultural and the farmers here are called “red feet”, after the colour of the soil. Since a freak frost in 1975 devastated coffee plantations, farmers have had to diversify, and soya has become the major cash crop. So lucrative has soya farming become in Brazil – supplying animal feed to the processed meat trade – that it spread to the Amazon basin and overtook logging and ranching as the main engine of deforestation in the planet’s most important rainforest. Following a recent report by Greenpeace, and an international campaign, there is now a moratorium on the expansion of soya growing in the Amazon, but that will not affect the intensive growing of GM soya crops in other sensitive ecosystems in Brazil.

A five-hour flight south of the Amazon, there is another side to soya: it is the link between those who reach for the non-dairy options in European supermarkets and the Brazilian organic farmers restoring their native forest.

Ferreira sells the organic, non-GM soya beans she grows to Alpro, best known for its soya milk. Her farm is part of a sustainable development initiative under the auspices of the Socio-Environmental Institute of Agricultural Research and Sustainable Development (Isapades), which is supported by the agri-environment scheme Floresta.

The soya beans are handled by Agrorganica – a fair trade company set up by local farmers and Dutch Organic International Trade, which tests the beans for any GM contamination and processes them before shipping to Alpro in Europe. Dwarfed by the massive silos of the soya giants in Parana, the tiny Agrorganica plant stands as a subversive gesture. But while the main players in the soya industry receive international opprobrium for their environmental record, Alpro’s market is quietly buoyant and growing because of its right-on credentials.

“We have 26 years’ experience of ethically sourcing our beans for soya milk,” says John Allaway, marketing director of Alpro’s UK division based in Kettering, Northamptonshire, “and we can trace the origins of all our ingredients to ensure they are GM free. Only 30% of our soya is organic at present but all the 60 growers we buy from in Brazil are now organic.”

In the 1970s, a Belgian, Phillippe Vandemoortele, hit on the idea that his preparation of soya milk, adapted from a Chinese food tradition, could be the answer to famine and starvation in the developing world. Although this did not catch on with the poor, it did become attractive to the affluent, health and environment conscious in Europe.

Healthy lifestyles

“Looking at the global food supply, plant-based foods offer more solutions to social and environmental problems,” says Allaway, “Animal-based foods use 10 times more land, 100 times more water and 11 times more fuel than plant-based foods. We are committed to healthy lifestyles, fair trade and lowering ecological impacts.”

Ben Ayliffe, forest campaigner for Greenpeace, is impressed by Alpro’s involvement in Brazil. “I think they’re doing well,” says Ayliffe. “They have a very small-scale operation but they have more control on the traceability of their products and they are streets ahead of the rest of the trade working with farmers and funding schools and other projects. It’s not greenwash, they practise what they preach.”

Back in Campos Gerais, farmers chew over what Ferreira and others have been saying about protecting the forest and going organic. A parrot perches in the rafters of the barn and butterflies drift through the hot afternoon. As shadows from araucaria trees reach across the soya fields it seems that old Europe and what looks like a new Europe in South America have a use for each other in the restoration of one of the most ancient and diverse forests in the world.

Article by Paul Evans for The Guardian, UK
Wednesday April 4, 2007

Organic tomatoes, peaches and apples more nutritious

Three new European research projects have just revealed that organic tomatoes, peaches and processed apples all have higher nutritional quality than non-organic, supporting the results of research from America on kiwi fruit reported 26 March 2007.

Researchers found that organic tomatoes “contained more dry matter, total and reducing sugars, vitamin C, B-carotene and flavonoids in comparison to the conventional ones”, while conventional tomatoes in this study were richer in lycopene and organic acids.

Previous research has found organic tomatoes have higher levels of vitamin C, vitamin A and lycopene.

In the latest research, the scientists conclude “organic cherry and standard tomatoes can be recommended as part of a healthy diet including plant products which have shown to be of value in cancer prevention”

A French study has found that organic peaches “have a higher polyphenol content at harvest” and concludes that organic production has “positive effects … on nutritional quality and taste”

In a further study just published, organic apple puree was found to contain “more bio-active substances – total phenols, flavonoids and vitamin C – in comparison to conventional apple preserves” and the researchers conclude “organic apple preserves can be recommended as valuable fruit products, which can contribute to a healthy diet”

New research by Dr Maria Amodio and Dr Adel Kader, from the University of California Davies discovered that organically grown kiwis had significantly higher levels of vitamin C and polyphenols. The researchers said: “All the main mineral constituents were more concentrated in the organic kiwi fruit, which also had higher asorbic acid (vitamin C) and total polyphenol content, resulting in higher antioxidant activity. It is possible that conventional growing practices utilise levels of pesticides that can result in a disruption to phenolic metabolites in the plant that have a protective role in plant defence mechanisms.”
Peter Melchett, policy director of the Soil Association UK, says, “This is a very rigorous study. There is clear evidence that a range of organic foods contain more beneficial nutrients and vitamins and less of things known to have a detrimental health effect such as saturated fats and nitrates.”

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