Friday, 19 January 2018

Why grouse shooting needs reform

Hen harriers are the UK's rarest predatory birds, and are under increasing persecution. Between 2010 and 2017, numbers plunged by 75%, with just three remaining nesting pairs in England.

This is down to a practice called 'driven grouse shooting' - a sport of sorts. Breeding hen harriers target grouse, and grouse shooters ('drivers') don't want this as it reduces the amount of grouse that they can shoot for pleasure and money. So land managers, etc., illegally kill hen harriers, along with foxes, crows, stoats, red kites, mountain hares and other wildlife. The National Trust and private land managers have allowed disease-carrying grouse to flourish, whilst killing many other natural predators, for the sake of respecting a Victorian sport.

Harrier hen in flight. Credits: Radovan Vaclav 

After debating driven grouse shooting in 2016, the government, via Natural England, recently announced a dodgy hen harrier breeding scheme to which the RSPB are adamantly opposed. Their remedy is to remove and hand rear hen harrier chicks and eggs in captivity, then later re-introduce them into the wild. This avoids the root of the problem - driven grouse shooting, which, as conservationist Mark Avery says, "is underpinned by wildlife crime". The National Trust's policy supports grouse shooting by appealing to "the importance of rural traditions as part of the spirit of many of the places we look after". I'd love to know why rural traditions based on killing and conservation damage are more important to uphold.

Land management practices to attract grouse include drainage and heather burning, which is shown to negatively impact the ecosystem services afforded by peat bogs (carbon storage, vegetation growth for water storage, providing soil nutrients), as well as water tables and downstream aquatic food webs.

Heather moorland. Credits: Ian Balcombe

Whilst land managers that target important predators native to the UK in order to increase red grouse populations, they should rethink their efforts. Reduced grouse numbers are likely a result of afforestation and land conversion to sheep pasture (the irony isn't lost on me). Draining land reduces the boggy plants and insects that grouse chicks feed on.

It's important to say that some heather and predator control appears to increase the populations of several endangered ground-nesting birds, including the Lapwing, Curlew and Ring Ouzel. To manage these trade-offs and protect the Hen Harrier - our rarest bird of prey, the RSPB are calling for a licensing system for grouse moors, "to improve standards in grouse moor management, compliance with the law and encouragement for existing good practice". Other measures could include less intensive burning regimes and lower sheep densities.

There are other reasons to ban driven grouse shooting, but in short, the government are treating this the wrong way. I've been pleasantly surprised by Gove's apparent transition from contentious education secretary to "full-throated environmentalist" as Secretary of State for DEFRA. Perhaps with a little more persuasion and public will, we could achieve reform in grouse shooting and moor management.

Support endangered wildlife and sign this petition to ban grouse shooting!


Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Beyond the gate: The problem with free-range eggs

Yesterday I read an article that really challenged me and prompted further research into the poultry and egg industry. I had already viewed the industry with suspicion, but Chas Newkey-Burden presented a case that cannot be disputed:

1) 'Free-range' barely ensures free range.

2) Intensive production doesn't allow for any level of natural animal behaviour

3) Commercial production compromises the welfare of chickens and chicks.

A 'free range' egg farm in Cornwall

It is firstly worth saying that free-range is still preferable over cages or barns. Caged hens are so limited to roam that they experience musculoskeletal weakness. However, there is great variability in the welfare of hens in free-range systems. Whilst there is often ample space outdoors, many are too cooped up to access the barn exits.

Surely if you raise your own chickens and let them run wild, that would be okay? Newkey-Burden seems to say no... but his reasoning is limited and I fear his hard-line approach that demonizes "flesh guzzlers" is more likely to preach to the converted. Whatever dietary standpoint you take - vegan, vegetarian and carnivore - there is good reason to reconsider your purchases.

It partly depends on your valuation of animals as sentient. Many of us believe animals are aware of their emotions, feelings and perceptions. For example, they can feel pain and experience pleasure. If this is true, they should have the some or full rights to freedom, and should not be caged, or even owned, some argue.

We might assert that since humans are technically part of the food chain, we should have the same rights as other carnivores to eat animals or animal products.
Male chicken sexing
The difference, it seems to me, is that most humans in the developed world don't hunt; humans are the only animal that have the capacity to breed, control and domesticate animals. Whether or not this is in itself an problem, we ceaselessly abuse this power through many unethical practices - from lasering bird's beaks to stop them from pecking each other in frustration of their cramped conditions, to crushing new-born male chicks which have no egg-laying capacity and whose lives are therefore worthless by anthropocentric estimations. The commodification of food means that chickens' lives are ended prematurely because they have no economic value.

But for the consumer, the ambiguity of labels doesn't help matters. Under EU law, you can have a maximum of 9 'free range' hens per square metre. The higher the density, the greater the risk of pecking and hence the need for beak trimming and chicken glasses. In multi-tiered free-range systems, metal staging allows for more natural roosting behaviours, and reduces smothering, cannibalism and aggression. Some free-range companies ensure that their outdoor spaces include trees and sheltering spots, whilst barn hens have no access to the outdoors. From a commercial standpoint, complex environments and outdoor access increases the risk of diseases and parasites, and requires more cleaning. But in these environments, hens can more easily practice natural behaviours, such as making choices based on social and thermal preferences.

These nuances in management practices and conditions hugely impact animal welfare, but how little a label tells us! We've been led down the garden path to believe that we can maintain ethical standards and still expect 90p for a pack of 6 free-range eggs. Until this age of cheap food ends, the industry will keep spinning these mistruths.

Organic offers the highest level of graded-eggs, beyond RSPCA-assured. Organic hens are fed on a non-GM, grain-based diet and have unrestricted access to the outdoors.  Routine-multilation such as beak-trimming is prohibited, and smaller flock sizes means birds are better encouraged to make use of the outdoor space. To mitigate the risk of diseases and parasites, outdoor ranges must be rested periodically. As is probably obvious, this system shuns purely commercial concerns in favour of an ecological-based approach.

However, not all smallholder farms or roadside egg sellers can afford the cost of organic certification.

If you want to buy better eggs, here are a few options:

1) Buy locally and ask about the farms/farming practices. Directories for local producers and food councils/assemblies are a good place to start.

2) Buy organic. Organic farmed are independently audited to allow them to make organic claims, however EU organic standards only insist on the same stocking densities as free-range. Local and organic gives you the best chance of knowing what level of ethical standards the hens were afforded.

3) Seek advice from websites like Ethical Consumer, who provide score ratings on a number of variables.

4) Go vegan

Unfortunately, supermarket eggs don't promise higher ethical standards. If you purchase your eggs from supermarkets, choose organic eggs certified by the Soil Association.

For better eggs, we should expect to pay more, because they accurately reflect the cost of ethical and sustainable production. Alternatively, buying locally from smaller farms is a good way of getting more ethical produce cheaper than at retail.


Thursday, 11 February 2016

Just Eat It - the third of food that never makes it

On Monday I arrived in a small, strangely lit room at the University of Birmingham, my blotched face nipped by the winter wind and each arm laden with hessian bags, clanging with the sound of old pots and pans used in my latest leftovers cooking challenge. I clattered my way to the remaining seats on the second row with ten seconds to spare before the film started rolling.

This was Birmingham's premiere of Just Eat It: a 75-minute documentary about food waste and food rescue. It wasn't one of those questionable homemade conspiracy-theory films that you find on popular video-streaming sites. It was great to see that those campaigning for the cause don't pluck numbers out of thin air. The facts were nonetheless shocking. A third of the world’s entire food supply never makes it onto a plate (UN; FAO). No matter how many times I repeat that, it never becomes less ugly. I imagine taking the globe, cutting it into thirds and chucking one part away.

The Just Eat It documentary features interviews with key experts on food waste, like Dana Gunders, Jonathan Bloom and my personal hero: author, activist and founder of Feedback, Tristram Stuart. Yet the saddest part was hearing from those in the industry, all along the supply chain, from the truck drivers to the cashiers. Even among the harvesters who strip bunches of celery to half their size to form the celery 'heart' sold in supermarkets, leaving the rest to rot on the field, there was unanimous agreement that food fit for human consumption should never go to waste.

But they also shared a degree of despondency. Where will the change come from? Should we, the consumers, subvert the system by collectively starving the supermarkets of demand for their products? Too many people are too busy for this to gain much traction. We can start by changing our household habits: looking in the cupboards before doing a shop, freezing food we know we won't be able to use on time. Portioning rice rather than guessing. But what else can we do?

An estimated 20% of produce never leaves the farm (WRAP). One campaign established by Stuart's charity Feedback is the Gleaning Network. Gleaning is about collecting left-over crops and redistributing them to the vulnerable or needy. It's a great way for consumer's to recover food waste outside of the household.

However, questions have been raised over liability. What happens if recipients fall ill from donated food? In the US, retailers can rest in the assurance that a 'Good Samaritan Law' prevents legal action against donors and distributors of food. A similar law was rejected by the House of Lords in 2014, ruling that the introduction of such a law in the UK is a "solution looking for a problem". Surely at the least it would prevent the "we might be sued" excuse. And why do supermarkets prevent bin diving when a) it isn't 'stealing' because once thrown away, the food is of no monetary value to the supermarket, b) There has been no single court case over skip-dived food, c) someone could still bin dive for food, get sick from the chemicals supermarkets throw on it to prevent them from eating it, and sue them for getting ill! If supermarkets were to cause any fuss, it'd likely be argued on the grounds of trespassing, rather than the actual act of collecting their food waste.

Then there's date labelling. In the US, the only product required by the federal government to have a date label on it is baby formula. Anything beyond this, particularly the use of multiple terms: 'best-before', 'display until', 'sell by' and 'use by', is bound to confuse.

But why would supermarkets scrap labels when they profit off people wasting edible food? The sooner households throw food, the sooner they need to purchase more. And in terms of their own waste, why bother trying to pass it on elsewhere's cheaper for supermarkets to discard excess food rather than redistribute it.

So it seems to me that the onus lies on a higher power, i.e. the government, to regulate. After all, regulations are not there to be liked by all. Then why do the EU set regulations about the exact curvature and diameter of bananas? Banana envy is real.

Just Eat It also took us on a journey with the film's director, Grant Baldwin and his wife, Jenny Rustemeyer as they challenged themselves for six months to eat only food that would otherwise go to waste. In the six months, they brought home £14,000 worth of discarded food for the price of £140. The night before embarking on the venture, Jenny joked that she hoped there wouldn't be any 'dumpster diving'. A farcial hope; it's pretty difficult to intercept potential food waste before it's thrown in the bin. One grassroots organisation that has succeeded in doing so is The Real Junk Food Project.

I promised to report back to you about my visit in December to TRJFP's Ladywood pop-up. The team of volunteers operate 'Pay As You Feel' café using food that would otherwise go to waste. They've spent the last few years making the transition from supermarket bin to establishing agreements with food chains, restaurants and supermarkets. Absolutely passionate to eliminate food waste (in an ideal world, they would be out of business), their next step is finding funding that will enable explorations into alternative growing economies.

Gleaning networks run across the UK to distribute would-be waste to those in need. Just Eat It and projects like The Real Junk Food Project, Fairshare, Foodcycle and Feedback make me want to do more gleaning, campaigning, asking my local ASDA has a food recovery programme (they don't), more jumping in bins and exposing corporate interests for what they are.

Yet, while food recovery and freeganism would be great for my pocket, they don't change the fact that an exorbitant amount of food is produced, regardless of demand. The discussion after the film was a bitter reminder of how deep the problem is, and how the solution is far from straightforward when it comes down to economics.

I chatted afterwards with a student who "doesn't study, but reads economics". He believes that in the long term, we could reach a point of equal supply and demand, but only if supermarkets can get over the hurdle of making short term losses during the transition towards that point. If supermarkets started to sell all vegetables of all shapes and sizes, would the sheer amount of supply push down consumer prices. Or would farmers reduce their production to meet consumer demand given the increased consumption of 'ugly veg'? Could more farmland be given over to greening? Or could it simply be farmed less intensively?

So where do we go from here? Is there any way that supermarkets can eliminate the waste they are creating (indirect and direct) without hitting their profit margins in the short term? It feels like there are more questions than answers.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Lemon and Pistachio Cannoli

Homemade Cannoli

Cannoli should be the next food trend, but for some reason it's largely left off our radar. I derive little pleasure from most of pretty, sugary things like cupcakes and macarons, compared with the satisfaction of that first bite of a crisp, cinnamon sugar-dusted cannoli shell, filled with sweet, thick ricotta cream.

Cannoli are traditional Sicilian pastries of real substance, and the key here is to stay authentic. Wine should be used in the pastry; no baking soda or powder. Ricotta as the filling, and don't even think of using whipped cream to aerate it.