September 2007: Economic Growth, When Is It OK To Say Stop?
Despite some sub-zero conditions salad leaf cropping goes on. Now more picking of indoor leaves but still some outside semi-sheltered tunnels of Winter Purslane. We are confident salad leaf customers are buying a lot of nutrients per £ or lb, with of course v.low energy/carbon input.
By way of contrast our local multiple supermarkets have recently reached new lows by selling 4x440ml cans of lager for 88p(22p each). There are several problems with them doing this but one might be that the nutrients and pleasure obtained (crap beer) might still be poor value even at 22p. However low the price goes it can still represent a bad deal.
Looking at the wider issues suggests that most of the recent Competition Commission Enquiry really was laissez-faire garbage. Newsnight recently suggested the duty and other costs meant the selling price was below product cost (this practice the Commission suggested this could still be in the interest of consumers). The 4 largest multiples all charge exactly the same price for this line, an amazing coincidence when the next nearest line is £2+, hardly diversity.
Alcohol Concern and others inevitably pointed out the strong relationship between price, availability and excessive drinking and illness. That multiples have felt able to price alcohol aggressively low over recent years suggests they feel under little pressure over the consequences.
Most Government pronouncements have concentrated on deliberately ineffective measures (persecuting underage drinkers, berating parents, voluntary code guff, working with industry, etc) while avoiding any action affecting sales at Tesco et al. Any moral discussion about targeting at market segments best described as alcoholic has been avoided so far.
Clearly a heavy human and health costs price is attached to the above, but paid afterwards and not by Tesco et al. One should also be very concerned that the C.Commission is empowered to intervene and regulate the grocery market in the UK. Currently power is still moving to the multiple supermarkets (they have 80% market share) and away from producers, independent retailers, local authorities and arguably consumers (citizens?). The Commission’s logic runs that if the consumer gets a low price that’s a good thing almost regardless of any other factor. Public policy is therefore built on a very thin premise, from a harsh ideological place.
I hope the wider issues matter to any citizen but all vegetable growers, organic or conventional, know that multiples with all the negotiating cards behave in a predictable way. The above suggests we should not tolerate such irresponsibility and cannibalising of public health. Beyond blaming we also all need to be careful not to be too easily taken in with any strategy of cheap alcohol, consumer goods, giveaway council houses, cheap flights, etc. Knowing there is no free lunch should make us very wary of people who offer one (liquid or otherwise).
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Clocks changing and daylength shortening several minutes each day can be changes that sets us all back. Even Alaskans and Finns struggle. We are however cutting some of the most nutritious leaves of the year (after Elliot Coleman) with Purslane, leafy Endives, Mustards and Mizuna dominant in the salad mix. Most are sweeter than attempted in warmer months and critically will stand sub-zero temperatures, particularly in sheltered positions and polytunnels.
The challenge is to time the growth periods late enough to avoid bolting or heat stress but early enough to get to cutting size before lack of light or an early handbreak frost. There may well be little or no regrowth until February light and warmer soil arrive. Commercially this means despite the excellent nutrition provided the yield per square foot of land is much less than “faster” times of the year.
Why is this important? As growers it is not lucrative (hence lack of UK Winter leaves on sale) despite the rich nutrients provided per £ spent. None of us as consumers want to pay the cost when other salads from Southern.Europe are widely available at seemingly reasonable cost.
Researcher Andy Jones (of “Eating Oil” Report fame) calculated Glebelands salad versus Andulusian Salad (typical UK Winter source) showing around x1000 energy use for the latter. Crudely 2 miles versus nearly 2000. Instinctively we can see there is a problem here but scrutiny shows also issues around soil damage, water use, nitrate contamination and illegal labour rates.
All undesirable but ultimately issues that rebound on the rest of us, and jeopardise wider survival. Intervention from deregulationist DEFRA and neo-Labour is not on the agenda, particularly while low food prices continue to assist their economic bubble attempt. Further thoughts on the latter follow.
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Oct 2007: Tales From The Riverbank VI - Pyramid Selling With Gordon, Tony and Rupert
Those of us with formative years from the 1970s will remember pyramid selling, briefly very popular but scarily daft and painful for thousands of people. Much of the last 20 years of economic growth seem to have grim parallels, bizarrely unnoticed until recently.
Most of us can easily look the other way when we want to, certainly when goldrush (cheap shares/asset giveaways/cheap migrants?) fever looms. Mrs Thatcher may have set it off but Tony certainly presided over most of the great British property hike, expanding values on hopes of endless growth but built only on foundations of sand. Gordon’s expounded theory of expressing confidence to keep it all going neglects the reality of individual income being sufficient to pay back what has been borrowed. Why do our representatives follow Rupert’s missives so slavishly? Whose interest is being pursued?
The “credit crunch” allegedly is interrupting global cashflow, translated meaning the bubble has burst. A trickle of articles (Eg German one/IoS Business writers) show overvalued property in the UK, the US and some other western regions has a real price.
While Chinese and BRICS countries’ rapid growth may help avoid global recession the lack of economic substance and preoccupation with consumer tat (shopping) in the UK/US has just come unstuck. Any elite/state which effectively parasitises it’s own people and environment doesn’t have a long term view, certainly not for the wider population.
Devout belief in human ingenuity, continuous growth and technofixes helped Polynesians cut down the all the trees on Easter Island. They didn’t have a boat to get them to anywhere else and we don’t have Apollo 6.2 billion.
Investing time and energy in maintaining soil, water and air quality will sustain life; building more Trafford Centre won’t. Sudanese, Congolese and Kenyans fighting over land and survival now merely have the misfortune to be at the sharp end right now. We don’t want to look at western colonial messes but they show us exactly how bad things can get without a long-term plan.
We can’t even grow or find our food in the right country never mind respect million of years of biological complexity. Understanding what we’ve got and how it works is a mature aim, turning it all into hamburgers will kill the recipients.
PS humour that keeps cold fingers picking and complacency at bay:
Could Ruth Kelly replace Radio 4’s previously popular Donald Rumsfeld moment of the week?
Recent gems include driving on the hard shoulder as a policy/confusing religious fervour with being public representative/presiding over education policy while urban secondaries sunk to new depths……
Hazel Blears’ thatcherite pronouncements while the ghost of Ewan McColl looks on.
Manchester Airport spokesman saying on TV that recent protest re UK flights didn’t matter because the airport would be carbon neutral soon.
Manchester Met University being desperate enough to host a sustainable aviation dept (partly funded by the aviation industry).
University of Manchester being desperate enough to host Sustainable Something (global shopping?) Dept attached to Tesco. Bit like a big version of their schools plan with more than less negative PR than the “free”footballs?
The party of the right being more left than the party of the left.
Rumours of gold panning alongside the River Mersey at Sale.
Pretending there is only 60million people on board Blighty (correct answer 70+).
Food Standards Agency pronouncing parents should decide how much toxic food their kids can take, apparently their Milton Friedman portrait spoke to them at a recent board meeting.
Recent warm greetings for hundreds of Francoists and Falangists at the Vatican, bring back St.Paul.
Neo-Labour spending £50million(so far discovered) on GM crop support versus £1.6 million on organic farming. Their Milton Friedman portrait forgot to warn them about goddamn Freedom of Information of Acts.
As a Polytechnic ecology student in the 1980s I recall the debate over global growth and limits of. The academic consensus was broadly that while we had a burgeoning population we also had more resources than alarmist “Malthusians” allowed for, it was all about who had access to them.
While the latter hasn’t stopped being true the Malthusians, indeed Thomas Malthus himself (1766-1834), suddenly appear to have recognition. A series of recent articles and news pieces appear to acknowledge the finite nature of global resources and the rising population reliant on them. John Vidal led in the newspapers, Newsnight chipped in on TV and the business world and the UN turned out some scary forecasting on food and energy.
While the UK consensus has so far appeared to be economic growth forever it may now be apparent that this was always nonsense. It does feel neo-Labour and other politicians may be the last to notice but realities have been biting earlier in other parts of the world. Conflicts over food and resources were predicted in the 1970s (as well as the 1700s!) and have indeed been taking place.
Aside from the more blatant oil grab in the middle east, 1990s fighting in Rwanda and currently in Dafar are generally regarded as tribal or ethnic conflict. While there is rivalry, it is over resources of land and water, the means of survival. A really well told and researched piece by Jared Diamond on Rwanda gives the game away as the story of land ownership, murder and overpopulation is picked over
There are some current price movements on grain and fresh food, perhaps related to immediate climate effects, but far more significantly global business interests and speculators are finally alive to the market (as they would say) ”fundamentals”; supply, population, resources.
It is possible the current effect of poorer people being priced out of food markets by 800 million car divers and US biofuel subsidies, may be repeated a lot more. Land prices will continue to rise and countries may polarise between those with good resources(under their own control)and those that haven’t. There are some inevitable doomsday type scenarios possible here but while this may vindicate many ecologists of the 1970s, this is clearly a time for action. The first might be to keep saying permanent economic growth is nonsense?
Regionally the NW is relatively well provided for with a very mild climate, reliable water (rainfall!), and decent soils over a large area. This has led to a substancial population with huge consumption, currently globally supplied. It would be fair to say not much energy had gone into planning for the future - some local MPs have heard of Peak Oil, some Food and Energy Security, it doesn’t go much further than that .
Certainly high energy or food prices would produce serious problems for the region. Immediate steps might be secure as much of the fertile land Eg Carrington type quality from concrete as possible. Soil is slow to form and undervalued now, could Peel Holdings be relocated to Miami or recycled as forestry planners? Areas currently being denuded by sheep could be productively returned to timber production for heating and construction materials. Efficient transport systems might significantly reduce car costs and congestion and we might adopt building standards that encompass low energy and relevant heating technology. While some of this may seem unlikely now other countries’ activity and our own history suggest much is possible.
Quality of life in warm dwellings well supplied with food and fuel from the region may prove more satisfying, and less fearful, than current preoccupations with escaping it all (why is this so necessary?), Trafford Centre unreachable dreams and Sky brain rot.
A decade of increasing competitiveness, often at a personal level, has seen levels of mental illness, declining satisfaction and degenerative disease at big numbers. A sustainable future cannot be more of the latter. Current affluence and resources give us opportunities and some time, lets make the most of this.
Adam York 9.09.07
August 2007: Tales From The Riverbank III-It’s Stopped Raining!
August has seen respite from Climate Changed conditions of July. Unfortunately too late for some crops, notably our Squashes, for others such as Lettuce and Salad Leaves it has been much better.
Our crude assessment is that S.Lincs (the most important food producing area in the UK) and the NW have been some of the worst affected areas. Scotland and the far north of England have certainly fared much better. Potatoes have been heavily affected by blight which will lead to some shortages soon and Brocolli prices have been very high for 3-4 weeks. Most other price effects have been small and most losses have been bourne by growers. In an industry perpetually on the edge this is very unfortunate but with supermarket power so strong in the UK, inevitable and unlikely to change while laissez-faire neo-Labour continues.
Gloom aside, Wheat prices have started moving to more realistic levels as rising world population, biofuel land-use nonsense, deteriorating climate and market speculators collided. £200/tonne and rising….? This is good for producers. Bread and flour prices are still catching up and the intriguing public response is still happening. I suspect the latter will be immediate acceptance, trouble only ever arising when people feel there is any choice.
The darker side to the whole process will be in poorer regions of the world where it will be food for the poor versus higher prices for grain elsewhere. John Vidal highlights these issues well in this 29/08/07 piece: http://society.guardian.co.uk/societyguardian/story/0,,2157708,00.html
The Climate Camp raised morale in the Glebelands fields as a couple of thousand well organised people rang rings round neo-Labour, BAA and middle class 5 a year indulgers everywhere. High points included the Guardian showing its true colours in more than one dire article whinging about camp menus (actually v.good), the kids entertainment (better than Sky?) and non-existant reportage whenever anyone made a serious point. Mr.Orr, the Agrexco site Manager (Israeli airfreight fiends) excelled himself by out-bullshitting the Met, claiming protesters were drunk and chanting “Hamas”. Amusing until you consider sometime august news organisation the BBC carried it as a factual story.
Misuse of terrorism powers, needless aggression and lots of dishonest PR didn’t do a lot for the Metropolitan Police’s reputation or 2007 budget, but their use by the Home Office in such a partial way was shameful. Memories of the Miners Strike returned and the contrast with the non-intervention during redneck fuel protests was stark.
The Camp serves obviously to make people uncomfortable about flying but much wider issues received some coverage. An excellent briefing was distributed “What’s Going On” (PDf coming) which reports on many topics fundamental to our ecological future and shows how little real information appears in the mainstream media beyond the business pages. The Camp was also inspiring to show how relatively small numbers of well prepared people pursuing a strong case can make progress, despite serious and powerful opposition. Picking on extreme targets such as private jets, the ginormous Heathrow air-freighted food centre, Sizewell and BAA was inspired and even the tabloids were grudgingly admiring.
So far neo-Labour is still pretending airport expansion everywhere is essential (and compatible with climate targets…..). The absurdity may be obvious but this doesn’t force change at all. The impending rises in energy costs so likely to reshape the world are also only recently being taken on board by the world’s largest energy companies. Large and powerful structures do not seem to guarantee wisdom, prudence or being “iceburg proof”. The need to restrict the range of inequality in the UK and attempt to maintain a coherent society looks more pressing than deregulation of the planning system and going shopping.
Adam York 29/08/07
August 2007: Tales From The Riverbank II-The Impact of The Rain
Recent bad weather has been grim if you were flooded, irritating if your event was cancelled and disappointing if you missed the sun. For growers and many outdoor workers it has been disastrous and may well prove to be the worst season in recent decades. Climate change deniers and binge flyers I hope get wet and hungry. I give some detail below as to why the conditions have been so serious for food production, particularly organic vegetable growing.
Excessive rain we have all experienced but in Greater Manchester there was only one day in the whole of July without rain. The most immediate effect was inability to weed as dry surface conditions are necessary to efficiently kill emergent (or tiny) weeds. They are mechanically cut, pulled or buried at this stage, all considerably more difficult and slower when they are bigger with proper roots. The latter also compete with the crop and harbour slugs to some extent.
Driving tractors onto sodden soil is a no-no, as besides getting stuck, compacting or seriously squashing the soil is a little known issue. Compaction sounds no big deal but airless, dead areas don’t come back to life easily. If you are waiting day after day to get planting your transplants(little plants often in plastic modules) they won’t wait forever, fed or not. Many have only 5-10 day planting out windows before they are scrap.
Many plants also are quite specific as to the timing of their growth and July is the great brassica month. Many of these such as Cauliflower and Purple Sprouting Brocolli will not produce a crop until the following Spring but cannot be planted again until July 2008. While this family loves moisture like all plants they can drown or have their nutrients washed away.
Nitrate, the building block of plants, is very soluble and easily ends up in rivers and the sea in waterlogged conditions. Restriction of conventional farm use of synthetic nitrate is on every water authority and conservation body’s wish list. If you did manage to get plants in then there was the lack of sunlight. The sun is the driver or energy source and the lack of it has caused slow growth such as undersized Lettuce. The latter have also been mud splashed between leaf layers and we lost an amount of new plants in a couple of extreme storms to physical damage.
Continuous moist conditions allowed slugs and snails unusual(on open farmland) progress but more seriously most of the UK has had early Potato Blight. Once started blight would require very favourable weather to slow down, chemical suppression is not very effective either. The NW appears to be particularly affected due to the duration of rain here.
Whinging farmers aside does it matter? So far the damage has largely been to the morale of those on the land. Some crops are delayed or lost but major reckoning is due shortly as brassicas and potatoes either survive or not and arable crops are harvested (or not).
Most UK field production is for animal feed Eg Barley and Beets but Wheat for milling is already rising in price as estimates of field damage come in. Vegetable prices have not moved much so far although margins are paper thin in horticulture and multiple supermarkets are driving on the pressure with current price war. Packers and traders have been sourcing from Poland and the east although sampling suggests Brocolli and Caulis have been out of stock of late at Tesco et al.
It matters overall because while the UK is struggling to remember its agricultural potential a global food shortage has become the elephant in the room. Rising population, declining soil and fertility, and energy hikes are all grave issues. A dodgy climate messing up food production is not what we need right now, other than shock therapy for the complacent.
Respect is owed to the derided ecologists of the 1970s who pointed out the population and food issues now astride us. Anybody looking for sensible planning for survival try Jared Diamond in his gloomily titled but seminal “Collapse”. Nice summary given at; http://www.earthinstitute.columbia.edu/videos/tag/41
July 2007: The Asda Banana Scandal
Early in 2007 Asda were involved in discussions with representatives from 3rd world Banana growers as the fall out from Sainsbury’s fairtrade only Banana policy spread. The argument runs that a stable and reasonable price allows growers to survive, plan and send their children to school. The critique of low price (sometimes known as “dollar Bananas”) fruit is that it leads to large S.American plantations with low pay, casualised labour, chemical inputs and inferior flavour .As Bananas are the greatest value grocery product in the world this is a serious issue.
In characteristic Asda/Walmart fashion a price response was given whereby Asda stores reduced their Banana price to 68p/kg. As Action Aid and others have pointed out this price does not enable the pickers to achieve a living wage, whatever speed they go (production is relatively labour intensive). The Asda view appears to be that they were initiating another grocery price “war” and Bananas are good ammunition, the limited negative publicity not being enough of a deterrent. Whether the free-marketers at the Competition Commission noticed or really cared is not clear so far.
To enhance their ethical reputation further Asda then reduced the selling price to 62p/kg which again had the effect of forcing Tesco and Morrisons to do the same. In early July they they all went down to 59p/kg. Clearly cheap Bananas are popular with many UK shoppers (and Germans!) although the extremity of the case does offer the opportunity to embarrass. Even simple pickets or leafleting might well achieve a great deal with such a blatant example. It has also driven a coach and horses through the earlier hope of an ethical only UK Banana supply.
One might wonder that even the pro-globalistas at New Labour were getting edgy at all this, I think Adam Smith kept using the word responsibility in his writings. It has emerged however that so desperate are they to see inflation minimised around their growth and cheap labour bubble economy, that they are rather keen on the big multiple grocers.
Tesco, Tony and Gordon is not news any more but the idea that food prices can be relied upon to continue to deflate and therefore to pull overall prices down is scary and ignores the inevitable. Grocery logistics can only be squeezed so far and the victims further afield numerous. The nation’s obsession with low prices is critical to the whole process and the recent economic chilliness has taken it to new levels. Cheap food, BSE, dodgy GM technology, foot+mouth, nitrate pollution, remember them, more coming soon…
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