Expanding our understanding of plants and where our food comes from – from clay pit to Eden today

Bodelva Pit before constructionEdenBiomes

I was in Cornwall a few weeks ago and took the chance to visit the Eden Project. I had last been there nearly 15 years ago, shortly after it opened. Quite a transformation – but that is as nothing compared to what it started out as – an old clay pit (see photos above).

As it happened, we had gone to visit the Eden Project after visiting the Lost Gardens of Heligan. This is where the project’s co-founder, Tim Smit got a taste for transforming landscapes, as Tony Kendle, another early developer of the project and now creative director, told me.

After talking with Tony about how it began and what it is aiming to achieve today, in particular around helping people understand more about the food they eat, Ben Foster, who’s been at Eden since 2002, and I went down into the biomes. He explained a bit more about the great domes which house the plants and what it’s like inside.


[Photos-left to right: Inside the tropical and Mediterranean Biomes, the WEEEman – a sculpture made from the waste electrical and electronic equipment one (UK) person throws away in a lifetime, about 3.3t]

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Beware the dangers of disruptive technologies

Yesterday, in what turned out to be a very disruptive day for many in British politics as the results of the UK general election today made clear, it now seems fitting that I went to a talk on disruptive technologies and the ethical implications and threats and opportunities they pose.

Thanks to an invitation from Prof Graham Dutfield at Leeds University’s School of Law, I heard philosopher, neuroscientist and geostrategist Prof Nayef Al-Rodhan, Senior Fellow and Programme Director of the Geopolitics and Global Futures Programme at the Geneva Center for Security Policy, Geneva, Switzerland.

Al-Rodhan_book2He highlighted his concerns about a wide range of emerging technologies, ranging from Artificial intelligence to synthetic biology to precision genetic engineering, to quantum computing, to neuromorphic chip technology. The way many of these were converging together, their potential for contamination of the biosphere and three in particular were of concern as he explained in a brief interview after his talk. He also outlined his view of human nature as emotional, amoral egoism:

He called for precautionary-based regulation now before it was too late to manage these emerging technologies. You can find much more about his work and numerous publications in this area on his website Sustainable History.

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Why we must change now by UK’s #FoodSecurity champion, Tim Benton

Tim Benton has got quite a title. He is the champion for the UK Global Food Security Programme. He is also a professor in population ecology at the University of Leeds. In January, he was one of the witnesses at the environment hearing of the Fabian Commission on Food and Poverty. In early March, I met up with him in London and had chance to ask him more about his role and how his professional background informed his understanding. Here’s the interview:

Some of the key points he made were that:

  • Unless we change direction in what we consume and how we produce food, that alone would account for a 2 degree rise in global temperatures by 2050
  • Change requires facing up to the impossibility of infinite economic growth in a finite system
  • Without that change of direction conflict is likely as food, water and national security are all linked
  • Change is needed now to avoid passing a 2 degree rise in global temperature in the next decade which would lead into unstoppable positive feedback loops and catastrophic climate change
  • Creating real physical stocks makes sense in face of the likely climate changes and weather extremes
  • There is a lack of public pressure on politicians to take these challenges around food security sufficiently seriously
  • Paying the true cost of food is necessary but must be done in a way that protects the poorest.
  • We cannot assume the future will follow a linear pattern and be much like the past
  • We cannot continue current wasteful practices
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A Recipe for Inequality: Why our food system is leaving low-income households behind – Fabian Commission #foodandpoverty interim report

I’m on my way to Glasgow to chair a hearing of the Fabian Commision on Food and Poverty tonight. Yesterday, we released our interim report ‘A Recipe for Inequality: Why our food system is leaving low-income households behind’.

You can see the report here, or read the story in the Guardian or the Mirror.

FabComIntRep Continue reading

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Say no to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (#TTIP) urges War on Want executive director John Hilary

For the proponents of ‘free trade’, cheaper jeans and beef, as a headline in an article in the Times today suggests, are enough to justify the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and the various other such partnerships across the Pacific and between the EU and Canada in the pipeline.

Not so, argues John Hilary, executive director of War on Want, who was speaking at Hebden Bridge Trades Club on Valentine’s day. I went along to hear him argue that far from a consumer cornucopia arising from such deals, their secretive, undemocratic negotiations are all for the benefit of big business on both sides of the Atlantic. Their agenda is about deregulation, privatisation and giving companies the ability to sue governments seeking to enact health, food and environmental legislation and threaten hard fought for food standards in Europe amongst many other things. Here’s what he had to say:

After his talk, he discussed a wide range of questions. Here are his answers on a wide range of issues that were brought up: Fracking, time frames, the NHS, food, strategic geo-politics, the co-op movement, media coverage, core labour standards and race to bottom, internationalism and vision of world we want, the 1% against the 99%, people power, politics and trade unions and local councils.

It is not just in the UK and Europe that opposition to TTIP is growing but in the US too, as a new video “Fast Track to an Empty Basket”, from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, shows. The trade agreements, say IATP, allow agribusiness and other global corporations to undermine food safety standards, local food efforts such as Farm to School and GMO labelling.

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Smallholder innovation for resilience in the face of climate change – reports from China, India, Kenya and Peru.

“Understanding the coping and risk-management strategies of farmers who are already facing extreme climatic stresses and variation will be useful in developing strategies that can be adopted by other farmers who will face similar challenges in the future” according to a new report – Coping with Climate Change: The Roles of Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture launched last month (download here) from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). The report launch coincided with the 15th session of the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (CGRFA-15) in January 2015.

I was in Rome for that meeting and a side event that gave examples from four countries – China, India, Kenya, and Peru – of just how some farmers are being innovative in response to just such challenges. The speakers were presenting their findings at the halfway point in an EU-financed project “Smallholder Innovation for Resilience: Strengthening innovation systems for food security in the face of climate change” (SIFOR).

Krystyna Swiderska introduced the session with a brief overview of the project.

You can see her slides here

Ajay Ratogi talked of their findings on biocultural innovation in the central and eastern Himalaya in India, including the farmer who bred a large variety of radish – in picture

You can see his slides here

Alejandro Argumedo examined the responses to global challenges in the Potato Park in Peru

You can see his slides here

Yiching Song, whose project areas I’ve had the chance to visit and discussed in earlier blogs, discussed the major findings and action in community-based genetic resources conservation and management in SW China, including the creation of a new farmer seed network.

You can see her slides here

Unlike the other project areas in China, India and Peru, the work in Kenya is located near the coast. Chemuku Wekesa described the adaptations to climate change being made by the Mijikenda community.

You can see his slides here

After the presentations there was a chance for questions from the audience at the well-attended side event and you can hear them (but not quite from the start) here:

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Food Security Governance – Empowering communities, regulating corporations. A new book by Nora McKeon

While I was in Rome this week I met Nora McKeon who’s just published a new book on how we manage our food systems. I took the chance to ask her to outline the key aims of the book and you can hear her here:

As she says in the introduction to the book:

“Food is the most basic of human needs. Maintaining a proper supply of it is essentially what food governance is about, and failure to do so provokes serious consequences. One to which governments are particularly sensitive is that of insurrection. The Roman historian Suetonius reports that it was the unpleasant experience of being pelted with bread crusts by an angry mob in the forum in 51 AD that prompted the Emperor Claudius to institute the most comprehensive food supply system the Roman empire ever knew, ranging from bread distribution to more complex measures like offering inducements to ship owners to fill their vessels with grain and planning a new port for Rome. Unsustainable – and often iniquitous – food systems are said to have contributed to the fall of a host of illustrious societies. The Sumerian civilization succumbed to a combination of technical problems (soil salinity caused by poorly drained irrigated soils) and political issues (the growing power of the priestly caste, who vested in themselves ownership of previously common land). The opening act of the uprisings that toppled the French Ancien Régime was the women’s march on Versailles on 5 October 1789 sparked by the high prices of bread in themarket places. In a positive vein, three centuries of stability in the far-flung Chinese Empire of the Great Qing, embracing the same period as the French Revolution, can be attributed at least in part to deliberate policies aimed at keeping rural producers on the land and ensuring food distribution when needed through a vast network of locally-supported granaries.”

She says that “Now is the time to focus on food governance not only because we are getting very close to the absolute ecological, socio-economic and political limits of today’s unsustainable and inequitable food system, but also because there are alternatives out there. If we have the courage to say “no” to the dominant food system we are not jumping off a cliff into a pollyana dream world of pre-capitalist pastoral utopia. Over the past three decades a robust, diversified and increasingly articulated network of different ways of going about food provision have sprung up, rooted in territories and cultures throughout the world. Sometimes they are not “alternative” at all, since they constitute the main avenue through which peoples’ food needs are met, as in the case of the “invisible” food webs composed of family farmers and local markets in Africa. These solutions are practiced and advocated by increasingly authoritative organizations of peasant farmers, artisanal fisher folk, pastoralists, Indigenous Peoples, urban poor and other constituencies most affected by food insecurity. They are mobilizing around their experiences and their claims at all levels, up to the global. Many of them identify with what has become known as the food sovereignty movement. This book will tell their story, along with that of the dominant food system.”

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