Monday, 20 May 2013

Polly Toynbee playing at being poor

I have been reading Hard Work by Polly Toynbee. Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee tried living on a council estate and tried different low-paid jobs. I was interested in Chapter 4 Spending where she recounts trying to buy food cheaply. She went to Lidl, seemingly for the first time in her life, and bought what she thought was cheap food.

Looking at the list of foods she bought, my first thought is that she's including rice, pasta and yellow split peas. That's good, rice and pasta are really the cheapest foods that you can buy, and yellow split peas are a cheap source of protein. There was something a bit strange about this list though. She wrote that 1 kg of rice cost 55p, even though it was reduced in price. However, in Lidl and a number of supermarkets cheap rice has been 40p a kilo for a number of years.

The other strange thing is that she wrote that Lidl doesn't sell lentils. She wrote that she went to Sainsbury's to buy lentils. Lidl do sell lentils, and have done so for years. I remember that they were 88p per half kilo for years, and now they are 90 something p. The book was published in 2003 but I find it difficult to believe that cheap rice was 55p per kilo and they didn't have any lentils.

She was quite pleased with her efforts. She wrote:-

I add it up and it totals £8.05! How clever! I feel like one of those smug people who sometimes send me letters responding to pieces I have written about poverty, boasting about how they brought up family of six on lentils and home-made bread - and jolly good it was for them too.

She doesn't comprehend that when someone sends her letters like this it's not because they are boasting, it's because they are angry. If a journalist writes something - that poor people can't possibly afford to eat healthy food - and a poor people knows that this is false, then they want to show that the journalist is wrong. It makes them angry that journalists are not helping poor people by telling them they are condemned to eating unhealthy food for the rest of their lives when they know damned well that this is not so. They know it's not so because they have been eating healthy food for years on little money.

Perhaps Polly Toynbee would think that Jack Monroe is smug too. Jack Monroe is a single mother who writes a blog where she shows people how to cook for little money. There's a section on her blog detailing budget recipes. I think that Jack Monroe is more of a help to poor people than Polly Toynbee will ever be.

Polly Toynbee ends chapter 4 by saying that if you're poor you might as well go into debt because they've got nothing to lose. I suppose if I was to suggest to some of my neighbours in my council block of flats that they would be better off going to a credit union than a loan shark, she would consider that smug too.

In my estimation, there's nothing more smug than a middle class Guardian journalist who goes to Lidl for the first time in her life as material for her book but doesn't stick around for long enough to find out where the cheap rice and the lentils are.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

nitrogern fertilizer

In this month's National Geographic magazine is an article titled Fertilizer Curse Could agriculture destroy our planet?. It is about artificial nitrogen fertilizer - it's benefits to humanity but also the problems that it causes. It is made in giant factories from the nitrogen in the air and hydrogen from natural gas. It helps crops to grow abundantly but it is also 'suffocating wildlife in lakes and estuaries, contaminating groundwater, and even warming the globe's climate'.

In the article it is stated 'Nearly half the people on the planet wouldn't be alive if not for the abundant food made possible by nitrogen fertilizer'. I don't believe this. If industrial nitrogen fertilizer had never been available then agriculture would be different in two ways. Firstly, we would be growing more pulse and less grain. Pulses do not need so much nitrogen because they can get it from bacteria in their roots. We would be eating more peas and lentils and less bread and pasta. Secondly, we would not be feeding so much grain and soya to farm animals. We would be eating that grain and soya ourselves. Eating more pulses, we wouldn't need the protein from farm animals. Also we probably wouldn't be eating more protein than we need.

I'm not saying that we should try to do without nitrogen fertilizer. As this article suggests, we should continue to use it, but more intelligently and sparingly. In intensive rice-growing areas of the world, they don't feed much grain or soya to farm animals. So they need fertilizer more than wheat/barley/maize growing areas of the world. Half of the world's wheat, and even more of the barley and maize, are fed to farm animals. African soils often have little nitrogen, so they benefit a lot from it too. However, many Africans can't afford nitrogen fertilizer.

Overestimating the importance of industrially-produced nitrogen fertilizer by writing that half the population of the planet would not be alive without it is not helping the debate. The (human) population of the planet is 7 billion, the pig population of the planet is 1 billion. I doubt that these 1 billion pigs (and however many billion chickens and cattle) would be alive today without nitrogen fertilizer. That would be a good thing, though.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

mega-farms and insects

In this week's Independent newspaper there have been 2 articles of interest to me. The first one is Forget badgers. If we really care about animal welfare, it's time to put a stop to mega-farms. I agree with nearly everything that Terence Blacker writes - that mega-farms are a threat to animal welfare. The one point where I disagree with him is where he says that poor people will get cheaper food because of mega-farms. "The arguments against this utilitarian approach can seem footlingly middle class – the fretful concerns of those who have never had to worry about the cost of feeding a family."

Mega-farms may produce cheaper meat but don't provide cheap protein. Feeding soya and anchovies to farm animals is a waste of protein. People can eat soya and anchovies. Millions of poor people do, and millions more would do if they could afford it. They can't afford it because the more affluent half of the world want soya, anchovies and grain to feed their farm animals. The demand from affluent countries means that the price has risen beyond the means of poorer people.

People don't need as much protein as they think they do. In the affluent countries of the world people eat far more protein than they need, and with that comes saturated fat. In poor countries many people don't get enough protein or enough calories. So to justify mega-farms on the basis of cheaper food for poor people is completely wrong. And that's not saying anything about animal cruelty, the ecological problems of disposing of the waste of millions of animals, the problem of soil degradation and the increased risk of disease and antibiotic resistance.

Here is another recent article from the Independent about mega-farms and an editorial.
Campaigners warn against rise of the 'mega-farms': Could massive pig, fish and dairy units harm the environment?
Editorial: Who needs mega-farms?

The other Independent article is about eating insects. UN has a new nutritional, sustainable diet for a hungry world: insects.
"As cold-blooded creatures they are “very efficient” in converting feed to protein, needing 12 times less feed than cattle in order to produce the same amount. They also feed on human and animal waste, and can transform this into protein."
This shows a lack of understanding of basic biology. Animals don't convert feed to protein. The feed that they eat contains protein, which is broken down then re-assembled in their tissues. It is true that cold-blooded creatures are more efficient at converting plant protein into animal protein, and if instead of feed they're converting human and animal waste that sounds good too. However, I would prefer to eat crayfish tails than insects.
"The UN acknowledges that “consumer disgust” remains “one of the largest barriers to the adoption of insects as viable sources of protein in many Western countries”."
It seems to me that it would be far easier to persuade people to eat more grain, soya, anchovies and other fish than it would be to persuade people to overcome their 'consumer disgust' and eat insects. People already eat lots of maize in it's most boring form, cornflakes. Why would it be so difficult to get people to eat more maize, in the form of polenta and tortillas? Get people to eat more soya in the form of tofu, miso and tempeh. And get them to eat more anchovies and other fish. Instead of feeding these things to farm animals then eating them. Then we wouldn't need mega-farms. Then we would have genuinely cheap food and genuinely cheap protein. Why can't the UN say that?

Monday, 13 May 2013

Woolton Farmers' Market

I went to Woolton Farmers' Market in Liverpool on Saturday. I bought a bag of pork scratchings. When I got them home I looked on the list of ingredients on the packet. It's got 4 different E numbers in it (E621, E635, E330 and E160(c)). It's also got hydrolysed vegetable protein, rusk, dextrose and sugar.

I thought the whole point of a farmers' market is that it gives producers a chance to sell directly to the public. Obviously these were made in a factory not by the people who were selling them at the farmers' market. On the packet it says Traditional Black Country pork scratchings and Authentic Black Country MS pork snacks.

I Googled Woolton Farmers Market and the first site to come up said this:-
When you shop at a farmers market you can be sure that the person selling you fruit, vegetables and meat is the person who has grown or reared it.

All traders in the market must come from a 30 mile radius, so you are supporting your local community as well as buying fresh first class produce.
This product doesn't come from within a 30 mile radius, it isn't made by the people selling it, so what is it doing at a farmers' market? It's just a con. Why would I go all the way to a Farmers' Market to buy something which I could probably get at a pound shop?