Landgrabs – the new enclosures

What is land for? Who is it for? Who owns land? What is the future for millions of farmers whose families have farmed land for generation but who have no title to it. These are some of the most pressing questions in the world today.

UK writer Fred Pearce took a look at the whole issue of land grabs in a recent book The Landgrabbers and spoke about his findings at the Halifax festival earlier this month. You can hear interview with him about what he found by clicking on the link above.

The documentary Land Rush gives and insight into just one example in Mali.  75% of Mali’s population are farmers, but rich nations like China and Saudi Arabia are leasing their land in order to establish large agribusinesses. Many Malian peasants do not welcome these efforts, seeing them as yet another manifestation of imperialism.

The film follows American sugar developer Mima Nedelcovych’s Sosumar scheme – a $600 million partnership between the Government of Mali to lease 200-square kilometers of prime agricultural land for a plantation and factory.

However, unlike some of his competitors, Mima sees the involvement of the local community as key to the project’s success and offers partnership to local farmers as contracted sugar cane growers with the prospect of becoming, in time, “a small commercial farmer and then a larger commercial farmer.”

But the scheme isn’t welcomed by everyone and the Sosumar experiment abruptly ends when a military coup takes place in Mali.

What is happening in Mali is just a tiny fraction of what is going on globally. “A new look at land-grabs in the global South linked to EU biomass policies” argues Biofuelwatch, while UK pension funds and asset management companies could potentially have £37 billion invested in ‘land grabs’ worldwide, according to a new report published in mid June by Friends of the Earth.



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A stoker’s tale, an extraordinary, ordinary life: from D-day to grocery sales


One of the many who did not make the 70th commemoration of the D-Day landings was my uncle Bill. When I was growing up he worked as a rep for a wholesale grocers. He had had other jobs – as a surface worker at Cronton colliery, working on the roads relaying kerb stones, making metal boxes electrical connectors for the mining industry, running round in a van getting customers for a cooked meat manufacturer and later selling cakes. But before all that, on June 8th 1944, aged 19, he was a stoker on a landing craft heading for Gold beach in Normandy.

As he wrote a few years before he died earlier this year, soon after his 88th birthday, “When your mum and dad got married I could not get leave because [it was the] 6th June. Was to be a secret and special day. Our job on D-day was to take a converted Thames barge to Normandy gold beach [on June 8th]. We loaded a specially adapted vehicle with engineering equipment on to the beach. This would be used repairing damaged craft, we achieved our objective and then ferried Canadian troops from ship to shore. We eventually sat on a mine, this disabled us. We left the craft, slept on the beach until we got home to Southampton on an l.s.t [landing ship, tank] loaded with German prisoners. We then [were] put [on] a train to take us back to our home depot.”

After his survivors leave, he wrote, “I went back and drafted to Cape Town South Africa, there I joined a destroyer HMS Rapid. We then proceeded to Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, I celebrated 21st birthday on the upper deck in Trincomelee harbour, we set from there to invade Japan, fortunately surrender was declared so we returned to Trinco. When my time was up we returned bringing back to Scotland H. M. Sasonia, this was a depot repair ship mothballed” [on the Clyde]

None of this I knew as a child or young man. He never spoke of it. And even towards the end of his life never in very much detail. But at least he did speak a little about it, went on parades, was a proud member of the Landing Craft Association, in his latter couple of decades. To me growing up he went round selling groceries to shops. How little I, or even his sons, knew. How little he said. And now he is gone, it is too late to ask more.

But he remembered everything and everyone so clearly, as so many of those interviewed seem to. When he was working on the roads soon after the war he wrote how “One day a lorry arrived to remove dirt, it was a contract firm working for Whiston council. And the driver was George Langley. He was the driver of the engineering ferry we took from Poole Harbour to Normandy for D day landing in 1944. He lived in St Helens. What a coincidence. I tried to make contact recently but unfortunately he had deceased.”

Bill Dando served in the navy from 22nd April 1943 to 12 December 1946. He died in February 2014.

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Cutting food waste at sea – experiences between Hull and Zebrugge

Take £200 in £10 notes and throw them in the waste bin. That’s what Reis IJsselstein did to bring home the cost of throwing away left over food from the buffet on board his ferry. Well, not actually his, but one of P&O’s ferries that cross the North Sea between Hull and Rotterdam and Zeebrugge every night. A recent trip to Brussels meant I had the chance to take a ferry and see what was happening with food on board.


Today, Reis is the Dutch head chef on the Pride of Bruges. In the mid 2000s, he and some colleagues decided to try and cut down the amount of waste food left from the buffet restaurant, which serves breakfast and dinner to the passengers.

There’s always some waste from buffets, as all items need to be available for the last person to dine, who has paid just as much as the first person, he says. If it’s not then some complain vociferously. Once they started the waste management scheme and the galley team became more aware of what was being thrown away he saw the amount of waste at the end of a serving dropping. Now, they reduce the amount put out later in the evening and waste levels run at a minimum of around 10%, any significant excesses beyond 15% leading to changes.

What started as an initiative among the chefs is now up and running on a computer programme after he got a manager to set it up for them. After every sitting, each of the people in charge of different parts of the buffet have to weigh and record what is left. That amount is entered onto a spreadsheet, its cost shown and totted up by the day and week. That way he keeps track of waste levels and picks up on excessive levels.

There’s not much creativity left in what they cook for passengers today, with menus and buying of the ingredients and many dishes done by head office and only changed twice a year. He and his fellow chefs, some of whom he’s training up on board, can be more creative with the crew meals. On the Pride of Bruges, of the 100 person crew, 80% are Philippinos who live on the ship for 6 months, working 7 days a week before having travel paid, two months back home. There is a five week menu cycle for the crew and much more chance for the chefs to show their creative skills.

Over on the sister ship, Pride of York, head chef Vic Tyson says he’s seen the amount of waste drop tremendously in his 21 years at sea. He too runs the same waste management system and likes to see if he can beat his colleagues on the other ship. There’s a different crew mix on the British ship, more British and Portuguese, who do not live on board for the same length of time.

Vic has noticed a general increase in size of the passengers over the years, more vegetarian and special diets, but thinks the younger generation now seem to be eating more healthily. A big change over the years has been in the requirements from the port health authorities, says Alistair Macphail, food and beverage manager on the Pride of York. After the norovirus outbreaks in cruise ships in the past and e.coli food poisoning outbreaks ashore, the authorities are much more vigilant in wanting to know if anyone is ill, what they have eaten and how the food was handled. On board, all raw meat, for example, is handled in a separate part of the galley, which is not used at any other time. There are also stringent procedures to follow in case of an outbreak and crew training on how to deal with them.

I was struck by how long most of the crew I met, including the waiters, had worked for the company. People either stayed a long time or got out quick, says Annuska Popelier, food and beverage manager on the Pride of Bruges.

These two ships make the longest trips of P&O’s 15 ferries around the UK. Across all the ships the most popular dish, says Phil Wilkin, Category Manager for them all, who is based in Dover, is still fish and chips, accounting for about half of all meals served across the fleet.

The question that sticks with me is, is it time to rethink buffets more generally, not just at sea? Given their built in levels of waste, perhaps they are a good place to start and for everyone to monitor those levels and get them down. Even if it means cooking to order towards the end of service, especially for the meat, dairy and fish products that have a much larger environmental footprint. Perhaps it is time for an audit on food waste not just food hygiene – and a good place to start with the proposal developed by This is Rubbish on The Industry food waste audit proposal (IFWAP).

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Challenging and changing consumerism for sustainable societies

Among the speakers at the #EU5P conference was Professor Güliz Ger from Bilkent University. Much of the conference was about the need for change and overcoming the current ideology and practice of consumerism. She was speaking about how to do that so I interviewed her afterwards:


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Another EU is desirable, necessary and possible for sustainable societies

It was a brave thing to attempt – a conference called ‘The EU’s Fifth Project: Transitional Governance in the Service of Sustainable Societies’ (#EU5P)*.

Especially at a time when the EU is under attack, not entirely undeservedly, from so many sides. Two intensive days last week (May 8-9) with dozens of talks and discussions arguing that the EU’s 5th project should be about transforming it into an enabling, diversity embracing, experimental community of nations, embracing new and different measures of progress from GDP, reshaped government policies and means of governing that support local social innovation and agro-ecological transition. All necessary if we are to create sustainable societies across Europe and as part of a more just and peaceful world.

And despite all the critiques of the EU, it worth remembering, especially in 2014, 100 years after the First World War began, that the EU is essentially about peace and a civilising mission in a continent riven by over a millennia of war. The aim of the founders was to prevent France and Germany ever going to war again. The economy was the means not the end. And the central focus on the economy after the Second World War made sense then, but it does not now.

Not, at least, the economy as we know it. It is part of the problem not the solution, with growing levels of inequality and not merely imperfect, but insane indicators of progress – GDP, casino capitalism finance, in which, as one speaker from Finance Watch pointed out, the size of the derivative market is $700 trillion – 12 times the size of world GDP. In this mad world, risk is seen as seeing a decrease in the value of a financial asset, rather than wrecking the planet for ourselves. The governor of the European Central bank was said, by one speaker, to have been stumped when asked to think of a connection between finance and climate change and simply felt technology would sort out the climate problems.

Today, there is simply too much finance of the wrong kind, as even the Bank of International Settlements acknowledges, and not enough finance to invest in real things that will make a difference to poverty, tackling climate change, and make the transition need to a new kind of economy built on ecological principles. But, of course, we also need to remember that despite all the talk of not having business as usual, for the few the system is working – delivering more wealth and power into their hands.

That’s why, as various speakers illustrated, so many people from the bottom up are trying new things – from the transition town movement with over 1300 known initiatives, city mayors, community supported agriculture, local currencies and much more. All are different kinds of the types of social innovation that needs supporting. It requires experimentalism in governance, which involves many more actors than traditional centralised, bureaucratic types in interactive and energising ways.

And it took two Americans to remind Europeans that in some ways the EU itself was a kind of evolving experimentalism in how to build and run a community of diverse nations – without having a civil war to settle the outcome as happened in the US. Although you could see Europe’s previous 1000 year history of wars as something of a counter to that.

But also as something to remind us when hearing the debates about the EU and the future it is about much, much more the taxes, Brussels Bureaucrats, free movement of labour, goods and serivces, and the rest. It is about finding a fair, equitable, sustainable and peaceful way to live together, and not just in Europe – where we are a rather privileged peoples compared to most of the rest of the world, as several participants pointed out. Europeans will have to adjust to both climate change but also geo-political change and find a new roles and ways of doing things in response to both.

This is why a strong, coherent but diverse Europe / EU that supports and bridges the gaps between social innovation and ecological innovation should indeed be its 5th project. Not federalism, not fragmentation but cooperation in solidarity with peoples beyond Europe from whom much of our past wealth was taken, and which places a special responsibility on the EU taking such a new approach to the future. The seeds of this are there. They need nurturing to grow.

*The Francqui International Conference 2014 was organised with the support of the Franqui Prize, the most prestigious scientific prize in Belgium, by the winner of the 2013 prize, Professor Olivier De Schutter.

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What is world’s oldest agricultural research institute doing? Visiting Rothamsted Research

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Last week I spent a day visiting the world’s oldest agricultural research institute – Rothamsted Research. It is in Harpenden, Hertfordshire, about a half hour train journey north of London. I spent about six weeks there between the third and fourth year of my soil science degree for my work experience in the summer of 1971 and haven’t been back since. Apart from the building nearest the road, and the old Manor, the place is unrecognisable to me now.

I’ve gone back to see what is going on because I have been on an oversight group for a public engagement project to help the institute seek feedback on how it should work with industry. The results of that are due out in April and you can find out more from Dr Matina Tsalavouta, e-mail:, the communications officer.

Rothamsted Research is run as an independent charity and gets much of its funding from the UK’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), which still employs most of its staff. As a charity it works for the public benefit so how and on what terms it works with industry matters.

So what are they up to today? I got a quick glimpse from the various meetings I had, starting with what brought me there in the first place, the soils side – now housed in much more splendid buildings than the somewhat hut-like place I remember working in, in 1971, which, I’m told, was knocked down a few years ago and is now under the Centenary Building, opened in 2003, that houses about 200 scientists.

Prof Keith Goulding heads the department for sustainable soils and grassland systems and showed me round. Thanks to its long history, continuous sampling and the experiments run in the same field – Broadbalk – since 1843, they have a unique sample archive of soils and crops dating back to then. In the interview with him you can hear how it’s been used to look at depletion of nutrients, as well as our discussion about the relative neglect of soil science; how maize growing in the south of England affects run off; the unique farm platform at their North Wyke site in Devon where they can monitor all the inputs to and outputs from a grassland system producing beef and sheep including water going into and out of each field; how grassland management affects run off; the opportunities remote sensing offer, and questions about the future use of these heavy clay soils if climate change predictions are correct.

Most of the research today seems to focus on the plants rather than the soil. And researchers don’t have to go outside to do much of the research as there are over a dozen growth chambers and various glasshouses where plants can be grown in controlled conditions and their pollen prevented from entering the environment. An extensive bio-imaging building houses, amongst other things, three electron microscopes that can produce images from hundreds to hundreds of thousands magnification. It is also where I met one of the few people still at Rothamsted since when I was there.

For John Pickett, research fellow and leader of the chemical ecology work, he studies ecology where it relates to interactions mediated by chemistry. Which means? Well, for example, understanding semiochemicals or signal chemcials that plants make and plants making substances such as pheremones that deter herbivores or repel insects. He’s proud that the synthetic pyrethroids were developed by his former boss Michael Elliott at Rothamsted in the mid 1970’s. Today, he’s working on what’s become known as push-pull pest control in Africa, which involves using locally available companion plants, and intercropping cereal crops with a forage legume, desmodium, and planting Napier grass as a border crop. The Desmodium repels stemborer moths (push), and attracts their natural enemies, while Napier grass attracts them (pull). (See paper available at

Much more controversially, he’s behind the recent trial of wheat that has been genetically-engineered to produce a pheromone that repels aphids. Done more as a proof of concept than for crop production he sees these approaches as reducing the need for pesticides in the future.

Another colleague is focused more on changing what plants produce. Johnathan Napier heads up the group working on designing seeds and has a whole lot of Camelina plants engineered to produce the kind of omega-3 fatty acids found in oily fish growing in a greenhouse. He wants them to replace fish meal in feeding farmed fish and perhaps be eaten by people too.

For Dr Malcolm Hawkesford, head of the plant biology and crop science department, one of his challenges is to develop wheat with a yield potential of 20t/ha by 2020.

These are just some of the projects underway at Rothamsted. Whatever you think of the research, they may also have taken a first step through their public engagement work on a road that could lead to a wider-ranging public engagement not just about one aspect of one institute’s work but about the priorities and programmes of Research Councils in the UK.

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New #TrackATree project to help understand impact of climate change on woodlands in the UK

I’m delighted to say my elder daughter’s PhD project, Track a Tree, has just launched. She is asking for volunteers to become citizen ecologists who will record the progress of spring in woodlands across the UK. She’s looking for people to record the spring phenology, or seasonal timing, of individual woodland trees and the flowering plants that grow beneath them.

By observing UK woodland communities, the aim is to find out how spring timing varies across some of the UK’s most important habitats, and discover how changes in climate could affect UK woods.

On the Track a Tree website – – you can find out more about the project, download the clearly written field guide which tells you which trees and flowers to monitor, register to become a recorder and start making observations. There will also be regular updates on Twitter @TrackATree and on Facebook:


After selecting a woodland tree and completing some basic information about its characteristics and location on the website, volunteers should then make regular trips to the same tree, ideally weekly, from before it buds, through to leafing, to record its development and that of key plants, such as bluebells, beneath its canopy.

The Track a Tree study, which will take place over this spring and next, should provide a clearer picture of how climate change is impacting on seasonal developments in key woodland trees and plants in parts of the UK.  Shifts in the order of spring events may lead to some species doing better at the expense of others. The findings will help predict how future change in climate could impact on trees and flowers, and inform the management and conservation of ancient woodlands.

The initiative is a sister project of The Woodland Trust scheme Nature’s Calendar, which records the seasonal timing of a range of British wildlife.

Christine Tansey, of the University of Edinburgh’s School of Biological Sciences and the Woodland Trust, who is leading the study, said: “Climate change is already impacting on woodland, with spring plants emerging sooner than they used to. It is important that we learn all we can about how climate change could further impact on this natural heritage. Our study asks the public to become citizen scientists, tracking seasonal changes in woodlands”

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