The free-from-fear diet

Screen Shot 2015-11-24 at 13.33.5023 November 2015 for the Observer as “What is Healthy Eating?“:

It’s easy to develop a case of the latest psychiatrically acknowledged eating disorder, orthorexia nervosa – an obsession with avoiding foods perceived to be unhealthy. I got one for just £65. That’s the price of an introductory session at London’s Hale Clinic, an alternative therapy centre a couple of stuccoed blocks from Harley Street.

The Hale was opened by Prince Charles back in the 80s, and celebrities have been aromatherapied, ear-candled and detoxed there ever since. As you pass through its Grecian columns you cannot but ponder the fact that here Princess Diana’s colon was regularly irrigated. I arrive for something simpler: a consultation on my diet. I am a normal 50-something foodie whose diet philosophy has long been “Don’t eat crap” (with occasional cheesy Wotsits permitted). My complaints are pretty normal for my age cohort, too: a little joint pain, a desire to snooze after lunch, a failure to tolerate the quantities of alcohol I once enjoyed. Oh, and those close to me might mention a mild tendency towards flatulence. Like the bulk of the British public, I have a somewhat troubled relationship with my gut.

Today I have an appointment with the much-recommended Linda Crawford, a Hale Clinic veteran who is also principal of the College of BioEnergetic Medicine and director of the London Shyness Centre. She is cheerful and charming as well as multitalented: a psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, neurofeedback practitioner, kinesiologist, treater of chronic fatigue syndrome, dietary problems and – according to a recent promotional email – able to treat the potentially fatal Lyme’s disease by homeopathy.

In an upper room that reeks of burning herbs, Linda straps a velcro band round my head. A lead runs from it to the back of her PC. She tells me to relax while she measures my body’s “stress response to certain hertz wave frequencies”. This is painless and a lot less hassle than a stool sample (I offered; it wasn’t needed). After 10 minutes or so my magnetic resonances have been fully read. Linda, with an I-told-you-so smile, prints out a sheet and hands it to me.

It is amazing. I have won the hypochondriac lottery. I’m the owner of 29 different allergies, sensitive to substances from MSG to strawberries and including such regulars in my life as milk, chicken, wheat dust, red and green peppers, cheese, peanuts, honey, lentils, brewer’s yeast, lactose, various grasses, cat hair, tobacco and “summer and fall pollens”. The fact that I believe I have no hay fever or allergy is not of importance.

I am aghast. I don’t know where to start. Cheese? I love cheese. “But your body doesn’t,” says Linda, wagging a finger.

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Peering at her computer screen, a seer into a crystal ball, she finds other problems. “I see a lot of stress… I’m seeing insomnia, depression, constipation… Very stressed in the cranial nerve, the large and small intestine. Do you get constipated?” “No,” I say. “Hmmm… Is your memory poor?” “I’m a middle-aged man,” I say. “We tend to worry about our memories.” “That’s what I thought! I’m seeing stressed kidneys, which would affect your memory.”

This sparks my scepticism, not a common reaction at the Hale. But the diagnosis all seems a bit “You’ve met a tall dark stranger”. Ask any adult in later life if they are ever stressed or have sleeping problems, memory issues or depression and you are likely to get at least one positive. And whether it’s constipation or flatulence or irritable bowel syndrome, an astonishing 80% of adults are not happy with the workings of their bowels.

Read more here

Food is too cheap

cheap-eats-cover10 Jan 2015: Thrifty or lavish, we all are now guests at the discounted, buy-one-get-one-free, year-round cheap food feast, eating more than we need and paying less for it – as a proportion of our incomes – than our grandparents did, or their parents before them. This, it turns out, is not entirely a good thing.

Cover story for Newsweek magazine – free to read here 

 

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

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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Food is too cheap and that’s damaging all of us

Editorial I wrote for the Observer

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jan/13/price-to-be-paid-cheap-food

Sunday 13 January 2013 The world is throwing away a shocking amount of food. A report last week claimed that at least a third of the 4 billion tonnes of food the world produces each year never gets as far as our mouths. Between 30% and 50% of food purchased in Europe and the US is thrown away. The research is questioned, not least by the supermarkets, but it does echo the results of an exercise in Britain six years ago, when researchers for the government-funded Waste and Resources Action Programme (Wrap) went through the nation’s rubbish bins. It concluded that we were throwing away 30% of the food we’d bought while it was still edible.

Britain – and much of the rich world – has got used to filling the fridge with what looks nice, not what it actually needs. The cost of that indulgence is, says the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, £10bn annually. Globally, the cost, in money, energy and ever-scarcer water, is unquantifiable.

Our future food security has been climbing the top 10 of current global worries. The prospect of feeding a mid-century planet of around 9 billion people looks impossible without major and potentially unattractive changes to farming and our diet. If you accept the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation’s call for production to be increased by 70% to feed the population of 2050, most of the work will be achieved just by being a bit more thrifty. All we have to do is to use better what is already there.

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Is this the worst dish in food?

May 28th 2011, The Times

Khash, the worst dish in food, from Armenia

Khash: the worst dish in the world?

Take 4 cow’s hooves and ankles and 1 brain (optional); boil for 32 hours (without seasoning); remove scum; gnaw bones. Haute cuisine, Armenia-style Khash, “the masterpiece of Armenian cuisine”, is always eaten early in the morning. “It is not wise to eat it late,” says our host, Shirak. “Khash is so rich, you need all day to digest it.” He takes us to visit the kitchen the night before the feast; we inspect the great pot where four cow’s feet and ankles and one bovine brain are bubbling. “It started cooking last night, because khash must be stewed for 32 hours,” says Shirak. We agree to meet when that time is up: at 7am.

Read the full article at Times Online  (it’s in front of the paywall)

Fewer British babies would mean a fairer planet

25 October 2009 The Observer

It’s not the growing number of people in poverty who are causing climate change, it’s the rich

The worst thing that you or I can do for the planet is to have children. If they behave as the average person in the rich world does now, they will emit some 11 tonnes of CO² every year of their lives. In their turn, they are likely to have more carbon-emitting children who will make an even bigger mess. If Britain is to meet the government’s target of an 80% reduction in our emissions by 2050, we need to start reversing our rising rate of population growth immediately.

And if that makes sense, why not start cutting population everywhere? Are condoms not the greenest technology of all?