Dead zones, acid seas and no fish

2 July 2014: My story in Newsweek magazine on the latest science of the rapidly-changing chemistry of the oceans – largely brought about by mankind. None of it’s good news. Unless you like jellyfish.

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On the Boqueria’s fish stands I count 10 types of bivalves—creatures like clams, oysters and mussels that use calcium carbonate to make their endlessly varied shells. In as little as 20 years they will be very different and, in some parts of the world, entirely gone. Then there are the ranks of huge Asian prawns and tiny shrimps, terra-cotta crabs from Scotland, and lobsters, magnificent admirals in blue fringed with gold. Lucky for them, these creatures make their shells differently (mostly out of a polymer called chitin), so the rapidly acidifying waters of our oceans won’t dissolve them as it will the exteriors of the bivalves. But the acidification—which some scientists believe is the fastest change in the ocean’s chemistry in 300 million years—appears to harm the working of the gills and change the behavior of the crustaceans when they are very young.

Read on in Newsweek here

Abuse and violence in boarding schools

July 28, 2014: I’m writing a series of stories looking at abuse in British boarding schools and its wider context – social, historical and psychological. The latest piece, published July 21st in the Observer magazine, looked at the experiences of those who have loved and cared for survivors of abuse, and the immense collateral damage early trauma can do. A lot of it came from those of you, including many wives, sisters and mothers, who have emailed me their stories. There’s 600 or more comments on the article

Here’s the first piecepublished May 4 in the Observer. It covers my personal experiences at Ashdown House preparatory school in the 1970s and the current surge of criminal and civil cases concerning similar schools then and more recently. The comments are fascinating; some of over 2,000 communications I’ve had since the article. Many of those are heart-rending; tales of lives warped and soured by early misery. Very few people have defended the system.

Boarding_schoolsChildren as young as six are still sent to boarding school in Britain; there are about 4000 kids under 11 boarding in the private sector, and an unknown number in the state boarding system. Along with the bulk of the child psychiatry profession, I believe sending a pre-teen away from home carries an unacceptably high risk of long-term damage, however kind and caring the institution.

Several campaigns exist to try and stop this bizarre practice. (Children as young as six are still going.) It is often done quite casually, for  notions of status, which can of course still be bought in Britain, or mere convenience.  Boarding School Action tracks the campaigns’ progress on this blog. There is also an important one to change regulation that encourages cronyism and cover-ups in all institutions looking after children – see @MandateNow on Twitter and this BBC story.

In June 2014, the government announced plans to create a crime of emotional abuse or neglect of children – the “Cinderella law”. If the legislation goes through before the election, it will at last bring Britain into line with the rest of the world. It will be interesting to see the scope of it: will it cover just parents, or those in “loco parentis”, like the head.

There’s good academic writing on the psychiatry of early broken attachment and “boarding school syndrome” – see Professor Joy Schaverien here.

Therapy appears to have a high success rate with people who have suffered these traumas – more details from Boarding Concern.

If you want to write to me in confidence about your experiences, good or bad, please do so at alex.renton@observer.co.uk. I will respond. It may take a little while – it’s a full in-box.

Don’t eat crap. Three times a day.

Actually, the fruit bit isn't so great after all (Getty/Guardian)

Actually, the fruit bit isn’t so great after all (Getty/Guardian)

6 April 2014: Published in the Observer, my piece on the “5 a day” debate got an amazing 900+ comments. Some of them quite well-tempered (must be something in the diet).

 

So now it’s seven a day? Here’s my easy alternative: just stop eating rubbish

Nanny Britain’s fruit and veg regime will never work while the list includes fruitcake and sugar-laden drinks

My children are apple-cheeked and glossy-haired, strong and slender as willow wands. Not a filling in their heads, either. All the same, we had a family council on diet last week. A study by the epidemiologists of University College, London found that the five-a-day diet is inadequate. Seven or even 10 portions of fruit and veg is more like it and might reduce our chances of early death by 42% or more. Odds worth having: so I asked them to audit their intake.

My daughter confessed that while she has a banana most breaks, she didn’t like the school lunch fruit salad. She is probably getting four a day, tops. My son said he easily ate five a day. You don’t count chips, I countered, because they are made from potatoes (he did know that) and a potato, being largely starch, does not make the NHS five-a-day lists. I think his score is perhaps three – as bad as mine.

Suddenly, I saw developmental disorders all around. The failure to learn Mandarin. The trouble with long division. The severe allergic reaction to the word “walk”. Might there be scurvy lurking there too? Rickets? And how the hell were we going to get up to seven a day? That’s 2,555 portions of fruit and veg a year for each of us, and we’d be living longer, too. Should we marry the kids to greengrocers?

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Coffee under threat: how climate and the global market combine to create a crisis

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 Broadcast by BBC World Service, From Our Own Correspondent, 27 May 2014: Audio http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01zdr28

Published in the Observer, 30 March 2014: Under the coffee bushes, Rosibel and Benjamín Fijardo are on their knees, scraping carefully through a litter of dead leaves and dried mud. They are scavenging for stray coffee berries, fallen when the harvesters went through the plantation last week. After 20 minutes, Benjamín has a plastic cup half full. The beans look grey and mouldy, but he says they can be dried and sold. He returns to the work: “This is how we will feed our family for the next two months. By pecking like chickens!”

Nicaragua coffee picker

Benjamin Fijardo, coffee picker in Nicaragua (Oxfam)

For two million or more coffee workers and small farmers across Central America, the “hungry season” is beginning. It’s always a thin time before crops ripen, but with this winter’s coffee harvest down 50% or more on normal, for the second year running, hunger, malnutrition and debt are new curses for hundreds of thousands. Candida Rosa Piñeda, who owns this little plantation in the village of Atuna Uno, says she has not earned enough this year to buy a new pair of shoes. And she needs to replace most of her disease-damaged coffee bushes.

The disease that has brought these calamities to the pretty hills of Jinotega, in Nicaragua‘s central highlands, is new to most of the farmers I meet. They call it roya, rust. It is ugly. First, parts of the arabica bush’s glossy green leaves turn a dirty orange. Then dark dead patches appear and become holes. The infection spreads to the ripening berries, turning them from bright red to a zombie-skin grey. Trees can be saved, but they need to be carefully pruned and, just as carefully, treated with chemicals. The chemicals can be toxic to humans, and the trees will take years to come back to their normal production.

Hemileia vastatrix, the coffee rust fungus, is a known hazard of growing arabica, which is 70% of the world’s production and all of a cup of coffee’s taste. It has been a curse of coffee planters ever since it appeared in east Africa 150 years ago. However, the rust cannot survive temperatures below 10C. In this region of Nicaragua it usually occurred only below 1,300 metres. Up in the hills, cold nights and drier weather kept the disease at bay. And so that’s where the coffee farms are.

Most of the people I met said they had never seen it until three years ago: some believed it had been deliberately sprayed from the skies by aircraft. Some thought it had spread from the banana trees that shade the coffee plants and provide crucial food for farmers. But most agree that in recent years the weather has become hotter, wetter and less predictable.

Science is in no doubt that the changing climate is behind the rust and other problems affecting coffee production worldwide – and that things are likely to deteriorate. “In many cases, the area suitable for [coffee] production would decrease considerably with increases of temperature of only 2-2.5C,” said a leaked draft of a new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, officially published on Monday. The panel predicts falling coffee production in a range of countries, largely because of warmer weather. In late February, markets scared by drought in Brazil saw futures prices in coffee rise by 70%. All the coffee-producing countries of Central America have seen drops in production of 30% or more in each of the past two years. Some, such as Guatemala, report rising cases of chronic malnutrition in coffee workers’ children.

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For the good of animals and humans, butchers’ windows should look like this

A high Street butcher in Suffolk has been forced to take down its window display, as shoppers are said to be offended by the sight of bits of dead animals25 Feb 2014. Comment piece published in the Daily Mail (original here): A high Street butcher in Suffolk has been forced to take down its window display, as shoppers are said to be offended by the sight of bits of dead animals. Hanging pigs’ heads, limp rabbits and dead pheasants were upsetting the children.

The story is  ludicrous. But such silliness is indicative of something disturbingly wrong in our nation’s culture.

The senseless twits behind the hate campaign mounted against JBS Family Butchers of Sudbury say they are trying to protect their children from the ugliness of ‘mutilated carcasses’.

This seems implausibly puritanical. Any child with internet access and a stack of video games will have seen far worse.

These sentimental folk are part of an ever-growing collective ignorance about food and farming that is immensely damaging not only to the countryside, to farming and to animals — but also to ourselves.

Our lack of understanding of where food really comes from is helping to create mountains of food waste and a population of fat, unhealthy Britons.

We should not underestimate the scale of that ignorance.

Last year, a survey of 27,500 children by the British Nutrition Foundation found that almost a third of those aged five to 12 thought fish fingers came from chickens or pigs. One secondary pupil in five didn’t know where potatoes came from. Ten per cent thought spuds grow on trees.

If you’re shocked by those figures, consider this: 80 per cent of the secondary school pupils surveyed had been on a ‘farm visit’, presumably arranged to counter lack of understanding of food and its sources.

The senseless twits behind the hate campaign mounted against JBS Family Butchers of Sudbury say they are trying to protect their children from the ugliness of 'mutilated carcasses'

The senseless twits behind the hate campaign mounted against JBS Family Butchers of Sudbury say they are trying to protect their children from the ugliness of ‘mutilated carcasses’

Few of us today spend time thinking about where our food comes from. It arrives on supermarket shelves or over the fast-food counter without any traces of its origin.

There’s no mud on our salad or root vegetables. Most fruits are so perfect, glossy and uniform, they might have been made in a factory.

Butter comes wrapped in foil and a cut of steak or a chicken thigh is sold in a plastic tub covered with plastic film. Is it any wonder that some people, confronted with the visceral reality of  an old-fashioned butcher’s window, take fright? But there is a curious double standard at work. While we recoil at the sight of a pig’s cheeks or a pheasant, we are happy to put meats of much stranger origin in our mouths: ready meals full of chemicals, sugar and preservatives, even cheap ‘beef’ dishes that turn out to have been made from horses.

The consequences of our ignorance about food’s origins are far-reaching.

First, there is the waste. The average UK family loses £60 a month throwing away usable food — nearly a meal’s worth a day. And supermarkets reject huge amounts of food because it doesn’t look right. Retailers say they are only catering for our inability to tolerate anything not recipe-book perfect.

In a refreshing bout of honesty, Tesco admitted recently that nearly half its bread products, more than two-thirds of its bagged salads and 40 per cent of its apples are thrown away. Yet this food is good and healthy.

Neither Tesco nor any other store has admitted what weight of edible parts of animals are chucked out. Yet there is little of a farm animal, other than the hide and bones, that cannot pleasurably be eaten.

Hypocrisy

As the chef Fergus Henderson says: ‘If you’re going to kill an animal, it seems only polite to use the whole thing.’ But British butchers use less of an animal than their European counterparts — half a pig’s weight, whereas an Italian butcher will make meals out of 70 per cent of the carcass.

I’ve watched the Michelin-starred chef Andrew Fairlie preparing one of his most popular dishes — a ‘plate of pork’. It was a spread of delicious, old-fashioned treats: black pudding, smoked pork belly, a terrine made from the pig’s cheeks and tongue, and cuts from the head. ‘Any self-respecting chef should be using as much of the animal as possible,’ he said.

One of the window-display horrors that the good people of Sudbury complained about was a pig’s head. These are usually thrown away now, though for our ancestors they were a treat. Think of the ancient carol The Boar’s Head, which describes a great Christmas feast, and the many pubs named after it.

The second consequence of our ignorance concerns animal welfare. Those animal-lovers who object to seeing carcasses of birds and occasional pig parts in butchers’ windows are guilty of a grim sort of hypocrisy. Anyone who truly cared about animals would support any butcher who used whole animals.

Our squeamishness is a  driving factor in two evils: cruelty to animals and damage to the environment.

Choosy consumers who will eat only the lean meat from animals at the bargain prices we demand have driven livestock farming into a crisis. It is not possible for modern farming to keep animals in a traditional and kind way while supplying a narrow range of cheap cuts.

Ninety-five per cent of the chickens and almost all  the pigs we eat are raised in factory farms, where conditions would appal anyone with any feeling for animals.

The image of Daisy the Dairy Cow, happy in a green meadow, is becoming a myth. The new milk-factory super-farms, common in the U.S., and arriving here, house cows that never see daylight and die after just four years of production. All so we can have a cheap pint of milk.  A third of British pig farms have gone out of business in the past ten years and we now import 60 per cent of our pork from Europe, where pig welfare standards are  much lower.

The third point is that eating like this is bad for us. Rather than cooking from scratch with cuts of meat from a local, trusted butcher, we buy cheap meat from unknown sources, sold to us with added salt, preservatives, flavourings, colourings and fatty, sugary sauces. This does none of us any good at all and has helped to fuel our obesity crisis.

What’s the solution?

Sign: JBS Family Butchers has reluctantly had to remove the display after it become the target of a campaign including anonymous hate mail and people hurling abuse in the shop

Sign: JBS Family Butchers has reluctantly had to remove the display after it become the target of a campaign including anonymous hate mail and people hurling abuse in the shop

As we know, British children are toured around farms on school outings but many remain uncertain of the link between an egg and a chicken. More needs to be done.

A few years ago, concerned that our own urban children were growing up just as ignorant, my wife and I decided to keep a ‘remote pig’. So with the help of a friendly farmer just outside Edinburgh, where we live, we adopted a piglet.

We visited him fortnightly, often bringing chocolate. It was a bit like having a child at boarding school – in slightly more friendly conditions.

Fond as we were of the pig, there was no sentimentality. The kids called him Crispy Bacon. And a year later the family assembled in the butchering shed as we turned the grown-up piglet into a freezer-full of delicious roasts — and sausages and bacon.

We had worried about the emotional effect this might have on the children. But on the trip home, my five-year-old saw a field full of ewes and their young. ‘Can we get a lamb?’ she asked. ‘We could eat him!’

We were pleased — and so was the farm. It now has a wider adoption programme to help other city families be remote meat-producers. It’s fun, the meat is a bargain and we have learnt a new respect for farmers and animals.

Getting back in touch with the land and the origins of our food is good for us, for the economy and for Britain. Ignorance, of the sort shown by the silly shoppers of Sudbury, is causing untold damage to our farming traditions and the animals those shoppers purport to love.

Alex Renton is author of Planet Carnivore: Why Cheap Meat Costs The Earth (Kindle and iBook, £1.99).

Original here, with 100+ comments : http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2567186/Why-sake-animals-humans-I-wish-butchers-windows-looked-like-this.html#ixzz2uKneIDHE

Whisky Galore

Originally posted on :

dewarsThe exploits of the Buckfast Triangle has been in the news recently. But here, Alex Renton explores the other end of corporate booze culture. 
The Scotch Whisky Association is back in court again this week pursuing the bizarre notion that a state should not be able to impose taxation in order to tackle a threat to health. It is an ongoing act of vandalism committed, shamefully, by our greatest export industry. If it loses this appeal in the Court of Sesssion, as it probably will, the SWA and its friends -the booze giant Diageo and some of Europe’s wine conglomerates – plan to pursue the matter onwards, to the London Supreme Court and then in the European arenas.
This will take years – till 2017 at least, by the industry’s own admission. It is an historic obstruction of democracy. Scotland’s government passed the law bringing in a minimum alcohol price…

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