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Where to go? ~  green, grey & brown sites Sustainable development is a challenge for us all. If we don't engage everyone, future generations will soon begin to pay for our neglect. For this reason, there are in the UK Sustainable Development bodies with national, regional and more local focuses. But what should these groups actually do? Here are some of the ideas which I as one individual have thought about as a member of a sustainable development group with a regional remit.

Sustainability As If People Mattered

What are the regional Sustainable Development (SD) bodies in the UK for? Is their role to provide 'advice' to politicians and state-employed policy-makers at the regional level? Is it to lead by example and implement programmes of work? Is it to be a talking shop between people representing different 'stakeholding' interests in SD? Is it something else altogether? Or is it all of these things?

Meaning and leadership in regional Sustainable Development
My personal view is that good regional approaches to SD are all these things.

Regions in the UK are all of a size (between 5 and 10 million people) where well-crafted action for sustainable development can have meaningful impacts. Regional SD groups should therefore:

* work together, with each other and with others, on the basis of mutual confidence and shared understandings - both of the factors shaping the region's physical and socio-economic contexts, and of the perspectives of all partners;

* recognise that everyone is a stakeholder in this difficult challenge, not just those who are formally represented at the regional level;

* understand that SD is different from almost all other processes in that what happens now and in the near future cannot be revisited on the same basis and revised at some point later on: SD is globally shaped and uni-dimensional in respect of time;

* also understand that 'good enough' and actually deliverable has some chance of success, whilst 'beyond any scientific doubt' but not yet actionable is of very limited value in this period of rapid eco- and socio-economic change;

* offer visible and clear thought leadership to 'people on the street', as well as more formal and conventional strategic advice to those who formulate regional policy;

* recognise that this is real life; our current insights into the challenges of SD are far from perfect. Nurturing an ethos of shared responsibility in all who live and work in a region is however critical, right now.


Supporting regional approaches to sustainable development
The UK government has been working with the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC), Defra and others to promote regional SD. To this end, there does now seem to be a modest level of financial support.

It is nonetheless puzzling that these national bodies apparently imagine that each regional SD group can identify without further effort what the specific or even unique challenges for their region are. Yet, whilst this can be done for matters such as flood risk, the issues are far less obvious in many other respects. Not many policy makers and politicians at the local level, for instance, are even aware of what the risks might be.

Much work still needs to be done to bring together the relevant social, economic and environmental profiles for each region of the UK, and to encourage regional SD protagonists to share pro-actively their assessments and responses to these profiles. Just as UK regional strategies in science remain weak, so do those for SD.

Hearts and minds
There is a compelling case for regional SD bodies to recognise that 'advice' alone is not enough - especially in a time of flux for overall regional development policies, even before we come to the ultimately much more pressing matters of global warming, diminishing bio-diversity, economic difficulties (domestic and global) and the general well-being of current and future citizens.

Regional SD approaches are about leading from the front (no-one else has that specific focus and remit...). They must recognise the stakeholding of every person in their region, and find ways to reach them all. This is about encouraging dialogue, sharing good practice, aligning policy and developing the ideas which will help us all to face the future.

To achieve this requires not only analysis of the current regional state of play, but also commitment to help change the cultural climate as well as the environmental one.

Here is one challenge which a rational-legal or scientific approach alone simply cannot resolve.


Read more about Sustainability As If People Mattered.

Vegetable patch Earth Day, the annual event on 22 April, was devised in 1970 by a US Senator from Wisconsin. Today the Earth Day Network has a global reach. 2009 marks the start of The Green Generation Campaign, leading to 2010, the fortieth anniversary of this important day. A billion people already participate in Earth Day activities, now the largest secular civic event in the world. It's time for us all to take the Green Generation route to the future.

Sustainability As If People Mattered.

We all have to 'Go Green'.... and even back in 1970 many of us knew it.

Whilst we in the UK were busily promoting the then very new Friends of the Earth - at the time perceived by some as a dangerously radical organisation - our eco cousins in the USA were going about their business, it seems, in a rather more formal fashion, via a proposal by Gaylord Nelson, a then US Senator, that there be a national Earth Day.

Today (22 April 2009) sees the thirty ninth anniversary of what has evolved into International Earth Day, with a network of more than 17,000 partners and organizations in 174 countries looking forward the fortieth such event, to occur in 2010.

The Green Generation
Now, the focus is on the new-wave Green Generation, a cohort with unambiguously ambitious aims:

* A carbon-free future based on renewable energy that will end our common dependency on fossil fuels, including coal.

* An individual’s commitment to responsible, sustainable consumption.

* Creation of a new green economy that lifts people out of poverty by creating millions of quality green jobs and transforms the global education system into a green one.

Sharing responsibility for sustainability
People of every sort have begun to recognise their responsibility for sustaining the future of our shared environment. Those who have their own challenges, living in a complex multi-cultural society, work together sharing a common resolve to make things better, just as others also do.

But the further you are from where decisions are made, the harder it is to get the support you need to do your part. Sometimes it's money and resources you require; other times it's the encouragement of family, friends and neighbours who don't always understand why wider environmental and community issues matter.

People at the grassroots can feel they have little power to change things.

Small actions are important
But every small effort is part of the greater scheme of things, with important ramifications.

Perhaps it's 'only' planting some vegetables with the kids in an urban space, or explaining to our children why they need to respect their environment - or indeed digging up the White House lawn to plant organically produced vegetables, as Michelle Obama has just done - but from these acts the idea can grow. We're all part of the same shared world.

The environmental movement is growing quite quickly now, even in inner cities. People undertake small projects - helping with a city farm, supporting older people who want to shop locally, or whatever - but over time the ripples of these activities will begin to overlap, as more and more people join in.

Individual initiatives become communal
You may start a small project almost alone but, as others start also do the same elsewhere, there is somehow a change in perceptions.

Through sharing ideas and action we begin to see why everyone must understand that there is only 'one planet' to live on, and that we all have to do our bit to save our environment. Big supermarkets or small traders, there is now an active acknowledgement green issues and eco-initiatives.

All together in common cause
But there's another important thing here too: It doesn't matter where you come from, or what your culture, gender or age is. We must all to 'Go Green', and quickly.

Different people from different places will start in different ways, but we all need to rely on each other. Nobody can 'save the planet' on their own: Environmental sustainability is quite a new idea, no-one rich and powerful 'owns' it.

The idea of sustainability belongs to us all. Here is something we can all contribute to.

A green leveller
The 'green agenda' is a great social leveller, because we are all part of the problem and likewise all part of the solution. Environmental actions, even tiny ones, are critical if we are to sustain our fragile planet; and, happily, sharing our concerns and our ideas for action can bring us together regardless of creed or nationality.

It's not easy to work, often unpaid and in small ways, protecting the environment and looking after the people in local communities. You can feel alone and perhaps unappreciated. But that work is vital and slowly it is being recognised - which is the first step to the work being properly supported.

With luck the Green Generation Campaign and the run-up to Earth Day 2010 will help to make that happen.


Read more about Sustainability As If People Mattered.

Terraced housing & cars The new economics foundation (nef) tells us that, as of today, the UK has used the levels of resources it should consume during an entire year, if it were environmentally self-sufficient. In 1961, nef calculates, the UK's annual eco-debt began on 9 July; by 1981 it was 14 May, but in 2009 it falls on 12 April, Easter Sunday. But how can we help people in their daily lives to address and cope with these frightening calculations constructively, rather than such information just causing further alarm? Science and 'facts' alone won't get us where we all need to be.

Sustainability As If People Mattered.

I'm not sure that those of us already concerned with sustainability approach these matters in the best way to engage others yet to be converted - nef* says Easter Sunday (eco-debt day 2009) is 'a day which for many has become synonymous with over-indulgence'. That's a pretty unempathetic perspective on one of the UK's few annual family holidays.

Sometimes perhaps the force of our convictions and fears about sustainability can make us sound a bit crass.

Offering hope, not inferring guilt
Inducing guilt and/or alarm is not often the most effective mode by which to gain mass support, in an open democracy, for complex and uncomfortable change. Personally, I'd rather see Easter as an occasion with a message, whether sacred or secular, of new beginnings and hope - an opportunity for positive reflection on the future.

Eco-protagonists and scientists are vitally important to our understanding of what's happening to the environment. But they're not always good at helping people in the wider community to face up to the enormous environmentally-related challenges which, we must urgently acknowledge, are already upon us.

Research findings and predictions based on rational calculation do not always translate as clearly as the scientists imagine into policy acceptable to the wider citizenry. To the person in the street it can all seem just too difficult and scary, well beyond the scope of 'ordinary folk'.

Engaging people for positive change
Nonetheless, the UK's increasing eco-debt is desperately alarming, and something we need to get everyone to think about, right now.

The question is, how?


[* Andrew Simms (2009) Ecological Debt: Global Warming and the Wealth of Nations, cited in Transition Network News, March 2009. Andrew Simms is nef Policy Director and Head of the Climate Change Programme.]

Read more articles on Sustainability As If People Mattered.

derelict site What’s the reality of low carbon communities? You can have your say about the future of zero carbon development for two weeks from today. The Homes and Communities Agency Academy is hosting an open, on-line debate about creating low carbon communities, addressing issues like the carbon implications of the credit crunch and lessons from the international experience. Contributors include podcasts from high profile speakers such as David Lock and Paul King So now have your say....

Sustainability As If People Mattered
The Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) Academy, for which I am a tutor, has existed only since 1 December 2008, when it arose from the previous Academy for Sustainable Communities; but already it is reaching out to engage people in debate about critically important issues.

The first of these open-access debates begins today, Friday 23 January 2009 (until 6 February), on the new HCAA Debate Place portal.

The question under discussion is how we can rise to the low carbon challenge?

The weblink to this national debate can be found here.

Creating low carbon communities
The HCA Academy will be asking:

What is the reality of creating low carbon communities and what can we learn from International experience?

The debate will be facilitated and you can post comments, ask questions and watch video clips on climate, connectivity and community issues.

The on-line discussion will probe issues such as:

- Will the Code for Sustainable Homes be affected by the credit crunch?
and
- How do we reduce the carbon footprint of new homes in the UK?

Low carbon case studies
The debate will be supported by a series of on-line films from high-profile speakers, including David Lock from David Lock Associates and Paul King, CEO of UK Green Building Council.

Research published by the HCA Academy which examines lessons learned from international case studies will provide further insight into the latest issues and skills implications of low carbon developments.

Continuing the debate
Following the debate, a short summary report will be published on-line.

'Debate Place' will also host links to resources such as the website Demystifying Climate Change, a resource designed to help practitioners navigate the low carbon debate and work out relevance for their own work.

We hope you can contribute to this high profile and important debate, and that you will encourage others to do the same. To join the debate please click here.


Read more about Sustainability As If People Mattered and about Carbon Neutral Villages.

fish market Recent advice is that, to 'save' the planet, we in the developed nations should eat meat at most four times a week; but we should also recognise the current fundamental economic centrality of meat in many parts of the developing world. Discussion of these recommendations has produced some very interesting ideas about what might constitute almost zero carbon food and even zero carbon meat. Hill grazing sheep, jellied eels and lobster aquaculture are amongst the food items and techniques coming to mind.

A recent Food Climate Research Network report says that we should reduce our meat consumption to four portions a week, to avoid 'runaway climate change'.

By a coincidence, this topic came up when I was at a Defra (Department for the Environment, Food and Farming) Consumer Consultation in London last week, with other consumer people and Defra senior policy makers and stakeholders . Food and food security were debated in some depth, and amongst the topics we considered were future trends in the production and consumption of food.


Food security and self-sufficiency
How secure and / or self-sufficient is the UK, or indeed Europe, in the way this very basic commodity is used?

Actually, it transpires that the UK is about 60% self-self-sufficient in food (even though we are a small island with a lot of people, 70% of the UK's land is still in agricultural use), and Europe as a whole almost completely food-secure, if it chooses so to be. It's not just the self-sufficiency in food as such which counts, but also food supply security overall.

And this is where the discussion of the move towards vegetable-based food came in; generally, it uses much less carbon in the process of take-to-table. Nonetheless, this carbon equation cannot always be judged simply on the basis of e.g. 'food miles' alone.

Mostly-meat based local economies
As is frequently acknowledged, there are many places where moving to a vegetable-based food economy any time soon is not an option. Some of these economies are in Europe, and quite often they are very local, but meat is also basic for many much more challenged food economies in the developing world.

As examples, we might consider sheep grazing on rocky hillsides (to quote: "Forages constitute 75 to 90 percent of the total diet for sheep. Sheep are excellent converters of forage to meat and fiber") or perhaps eels in estuaries ("Jellied Eels were once a staple food of the poor in the East End of London").

Other functions of food animals
Not much else edible is likely to grow in these environments, and sometimes (aka the sheep) the animals also perform other functions, such as wool production, or keeping the balance of plant life in check.... which both in turn help rural tourism and other rural trading and local economic functions.

This is of course critical in some parts of the world where local economies (and local ecologies?) are particularly fragile.

The management of naturally occurring meat sources
Another example, which involves deliberate human agency, is an aspect of the newly-termed aquaculture. Work at the National Lobster Hatchery in Padstow, Cornwall has I gather shown that if baby lobsters are nurtured in a protected environment (i.e. with fewer predators) until they are a few centimeters long, they can have a survival rate about one thousand times greater than if their initial growth is totally 'in the wild'.

Just think what a thousand-fold increase in good food could do for some communities in the developing countries... (and what more immediately it can do for fishing-based economies closer to home).

Transitioning to low meat economies
These few observations are clearly only the tip of a very big 'carbon iceberg'.

There's strong evidence that in general cutting back on meat (in the developed world anyway) is a move in the right direction for sustainable living and sustainable food supplies.

And there's also the very real issue of how to make the global step-by-step transition - probably over decades and even longer - from meat economies, to those which are likely to be more realistically long-term food sustainable. Even in New Zealand you can't just stop growing beef at a stroke....

[Later note: A colleague, responding to this agenda, has suggested that part of 'food transitioning' should be to link sustainable energy technologies with sustainable foods, e.g., marine wind turbines should also have a facility to grow edible mussels.... the scope is no doubt becomes endless when we start to think about it.]

Food for thought
It's not up to me to decide who eats what, and for which reasons; and 'even' vegetarians can't assume that all they nibble is virtuously eco-good. And there's nothing virtuous in those of us who are more blessed criticising a way of life elsewhere which requires meat-eating, if meat is the basis of an already desperately poor livelihood.

But if I were a meat eater - and especially if I were a younger meat-eater - I'd be thinking quite hard about all this.


Read more about Food and Sustainability As If People Mattered.

Greece Corinth railway line with freight Energy is a commodity with variable value, it seems, depending on where you are. 'We Greeks,' said a fellow-traveller on the train as we journeyed out of Athens, 'could have free hot water and free lighting all year; but we prefer to pay for it... Why put an annual 2000 hours of sunshine to good use, when we can produce energy more expensively in other ways?' He was, of course, being ironic.

The train tracks from Athens to Corinth are shiny and new, and very impressive; but there is as yet little stock to run on them. The evidence of intention to develop the Peloponnese peninsula region's economy is plain. There are huge shunting areas and massive swathes of land ready for industrial investment and construction.

Sunshine is (almost) free
But where were the solar energy panels and, perhaps, the power windmills? We saw almost none.

It's not the business of visitors to a neighbour in the European Union to make critical comment. There are doubtless plenty of reasons why renewable energy is apparently not as yet the Next Big Thing in Greece.... but when you're from the UK and accustomed to the sort of sunshine which might, saved up, boil an egg (I jest, a little) for each of us over the year, the solar blessings of the Mediterranean seem to be a gift best put to good advantage.

Counting blessings
We all fail to see the benefits of things we're familiar with. It's more complicated than at first glance to convert sunshine into 'free' energy, but perhaps our train companion had a point.

Read more about Energy and Climate Change.

And a note too on Africa, where the issues are much more acute: Africa awash in sunlight, but not solar energy

Crowds Today is World Population Day. On this day in 1968, world leaders proclaimed that individuals have a basic human right to determine the number and timing of their children. Forty years later, population issues remain a real challenge even in Britain, where greater cohesion is still needed for policy in action.

Inevitably much of the focus since then has been on women, and especially maternal health and education.

There can be no doubt at all that a failure of health care during pregnancy and birth takes a terrible toll on lives, both maternal and infant. Multiple unplanned pregnancies are a leading cause of premature death and tragic disability for many women and their children, especially in very poor countries.

Access to family planning
UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, says active use of family planning in developing countries has increased from 10-12% in the 1960s to over 60% today. But despite these improvements, a World Bank report just released says that 35 countries - 31 of them in sub-Saharan Africa - still have very high fertility rates and grim mortality rates from unsafe deliveries or abortions.

According to this World Bank report, women in developing countries experience 51 million unintended pregnancies each year because of lack of access to effective contraception That is a great deal of heartache, even apart from the enormous issues it raises for global ecosystems.

Not just a a 'Third World' issue
But this is not a problem only for people in the poorest developing countries.

Most of us are aware that people in the 'developed' countries use hugely more energy and other resources than do those in poor countries. Even with our much lower fertility rates we are currently much more of a threat to global sustainability than are people in Africa.

Blighted lives in the Western world too
"Promoting girls’ and women’s education is just as important in reducing birth rates in the long run as promoting contraception and family planning," says Sadia Chowdhury, a co-author of the World Bank report.

That is also true even in places such as today's Britain. Teenage pregnancy - and unintended pregnancy overall - remains a serious issue for many families in the U.K. even now.

There is an essential synergy between prospects for women in education and employment, and elective motherhood. Each benefits from the other. And each also brings benefit for the children who are born, including better prospects even for their very survival.

IMR inequalities relate to social class
Currently differences in infant UK infant death rates can be huge, and can often be attributed to occupational and class differentials. In 2002-4 a baby born in Birmingham was eight times more likely to die before its first birthday than one in Surrey, with rates of 12.4 and 2.2 infant deaths per thousand live births respectively. (Bradford is another very high-risk area, and set up its own enquiry to see how to improve.)

This is not an easy matter to discuss politically, but it could not be more important, even in Britain, one of the wealthiest nations in the world.

Improving family health
One main health objectives of the British Government is to improve infant mortality rates (IMR: the number of babies who die before their first birthday, against each one thousand born), so that the infants of poorer parents have better outcomes, like those of more advantaged parents.

The target for England is a 10% reduction in the relative gap (i.e. percentage difference) in infant mortality rates between “routine and manual” socio-economic groups and England as a whole from the baseline year of 1998 (the average of 1997-99) to the target year 2010 (the average of 2009-2011).

Life outcomes and expectation
To focus this up: for each baby in the UK who dies before his or her first birthday, there will be about ten who survive with enduring disability, and often with diminished life expectancy.

At present, often through lack of knowledge, or sometimes difficulties in accessing appropriate care, this distressing outcome is much more likely to affect families where women are poorly educated, than those where women have a good education and good jobs or careers.

Preventable tragedy
It does not have to be like this.

The Government is absolutely right to tackle this difficult matter, but effective action requires co-ordinated delivery by all who provide care and support for parents and children. There must be no room for professional maternity care in-fighting, such as is reported by Sir Ian Kennedy, chair of the Healthcare Commission to exist between obstetricians and midwives.

Children's Centres as a way forward?
The national transition from Sure Start to the encompassing provision of Children's Centres, underpinned by the fundamental philosophy of the Every Child Matters initiative, is now underway.

To date there has been little discussion about how family planning support needs to be built into this really important development.

Professional obligation
This may be a tricky issue, but it's one where the professionals could, if they chose, much help the Government to help all of us.

When are we going to hear those who provide early years and family support saying, loud and clear, that 'every child a wanted child' is a basic requirement for everyone in Britain as well as elsewhere?

A not-to-be repeated opportunity?
The need for effective family planning in parts of the developing world remains desperate, and must be met.

But that doesn't excuse skirting the issue here at home, just at a point when new and joined up services focusing directly on families and children are being created, with the aim of eradicating child poverty and increasing wellbeing for everyone.

And given the political sensitivities, surely it's the practitioners - in health, education, welfare and the rest - who have to lead the way?


Read more articles about Public Service Provision.

Ratatouille Today marks the start of UK National Vegetarian Week. The arguments for a balanced vegetarian diet are persuasive - it 'saves' energy, it uses less carbon and water, it can respect the seasons, it has potential to make a huge contribution to resolving global hunger, and it's good for us. So how can we make vegetarianism more often the diet of choice?

Nobody expects an immediate cessation of meat production, let alone a stop right this minute to diary farming. Many people, admittedly not all, will be happy for now to see the continued consumption of vegetarian diets could just be 'meat-free', with all the benefits that would bring.

But one of the things National Vegetarian Week can do is introduce us to the wide and tasty range of foods which a vegetarian diet includes and the reasons for choosing it. And it can help raise awareness of how to prepare and cook vegetarian ingredients.

Long-term business
And, most importantly, perhaps National Vegetarian Week can help along the debate about how in reality the transition to a more sustainable food economy might happen. There have to be ways to protect the livelihoods, for instance, of people who currently produce meat, but who in the future will need to farm differently. Food production is self-evidently critical for us all. It's the nature of the product, not the supply, which must change.

At last we're beginning to act (albeit far too slowly) to the idea that carbon needs to be conserved in our industial, domestic and transport arrangements, as does water.

Canny investors have already realised that now is also the time to get a grasp on how to make meat-free food an integral part of the move towards what we all hope will be a sustainable future.


Read more about Food (a series of postings on this theme)
Food, Facts And Factoids
Beans Or Beef? The New Eco-Moral Choices
Seasonal Food - Who Knows About It?.

08.3.10 Sefton Park protests   Nobody asked me  185x85  072aa.jpg Renovation of Liverpool's Sefton Park has not lacked controversy - especially concerning the removal of healthy trees (and thereby wildlife habitats) in order to improve sightlines for monuments. In protest at this there has been both formal objection from Friends of Sefton Park and anonymous direct action.

08.3.10 Sefton Park protests   Nobody asked me  Noticeboard 500x290  072a.jpg

08.3.10 Sefton Park protests Digger  500x450 099a.jpg

08.03.16  Sefton Park protests   300 trees felled 500x370 007a.jpg

08.03.23 Sefton Park protest   grotto noticeboard  017a.jpg 08.3.16Sefton Park protest  tree notice Help! 120x470  005aa.jpg

08.04.5 Sefton Park protest poem  500x300 087a.jpg

08.05.15 Sefton Park (Lynda Fon, Cllr. John Coyne, Martin Robinson - Friends of Sefton Park 'binding' the trees after they have been stripped) 500x370 005a.jpg

08.04.26 Sefton Park Protest poster Contact Louise Ellman MP  003a.jpg

08.06.12 Sefton Park Children's protest pictures in Cafe 500x300  025a.jpg

See also Liverpool's Sefton Park Trees Under Threat - Unnecessarily?.

More articles on Sefton Park, Liverpool.

08.04.02 place laid for dinner 140x78 010a.jpg Food is rising rapidly up the agenda. Allotments, biofuels, calories, customs, eating disorders, famine, farming, fats, fibre, foodmiles, GM, health, organic, packaging, processing, salt, seasonal, security, sell-by, sustainability, vitamins, water.... Where do we begin with what to eat and drink?

Modern society has moved from food as nutrition and survival to food as an element of our leisure experience. Until recently it's been seen by many as an issue to be left to dieters or even ‘health freaks’.

But now people are beginning to ask what food's about. The immediate answer to this question could be, it’s all very confusing. There are 'facts' and there are, it seems, 'food factoids'; and there are some consequences for action, when we think things through....

Here are some general headings and questions about food which may help:


Nutrition (Should we eat it?)
Strange as it may seem, for most adults there is still more concern about calorific value and ‘losing weight’ than there is about the nutritional value of what we eat. Almost everyone wants to be slim; yet despite concerns in many parts of the world about obesity and health relatively few people actually eat their fruit and veg ‘Five A Day'.

We as consumers still don’t fully appreciate nutritional information or understand the significance for our health and well-being of salt and other minerals and vitamins, various sorts of fats, fibre, ‘additives’, sugar, glycaemic index, units of alcohol and so on; and in some respects nor, completely, do the experts.

The healthy eating message is beginning to sink in, but questions around nutritional labelling and how to project the public health message continue to loom large.


Children eat too (Is food for kids especially important?)
Even (especially) for children, the health impact of being overweight, along with issues around longer-term well-being and educational outcomes, are now major concerns, as Jamie Oliver and his School Dinners campaign keep reminding us.

It is not altogether clear however that poor children necessarily have ‘worse’ diets than better off ones – possibly because even wealthier children eat ‘the wrong things’, albeit from choice (kids of all sorts it seems won’t eat their greens). But perhaps some groups consume ‘nicer’ food than others, even though the direct nutritional value - or not - of food consumed by children may (sometimes) vary independently of income.

So what more if anything needs to be done about family eating patterns, or advertising food to children, on the television and elsewhere? How much value should we put on meals together as a way to promote family well-being and cohesion?

And how important, as a good start, is breast-feeding? Should we as a society do more to encourage it?

Or should we emphasise exercise more than nutrition, to protect children's physical and mental health?


Organic? GM? Nano? Sell-by date? (Is it wholesome?)
Confusion reigns when we look at the science behind modern food production.

Is organicWho says so, and why is it so pricey?) What about free-range? What's a superfood? And do superfoods really exist?

Has the product we're about to eat, or an antecedent of it, been genetically modified? Is that good or bad? – and for whom? consumers, farmers or other people in the developing world? Also, how has it changed the food?

What of new techniques? Are any food nanotechnologies involved? Whatever would they be for? Are they good or dangerous?

Who decides ‘sell-by’ dates? And by what criteria?

Can we trust the Food Standards Agency, the government and European legislation and everybody else involved in food regulation and statutory labelling? What about the consumer organisations and the supermarkets? Who knows best?


Presenting, preserving and not wasting our food (Is tinned OK and who needs packaging?)
How can we tell whether tinned food is as good as frozen or fresh? How much packaging is required for hygiene and how much is, for instance, simply there to make food look good?

What's the relative energy and resource cost of different ways of preserving food?

And, crucially, how can we ensure that food we buy is not wasted? At present one third of food purchased - in restaurants, shops or wherever - in the UK alone is simply thrown away: hence the Love Food Hate Waste campaign. Perhaps even with today's relatively higher prices we are more careful about food if we're locavors, when we know locally who grew or prepared it, and where, than when we don't?


Food miles (Does it cost the earth?)
Food travels the world in strange ways. We (in the UK) get tomatoes and lamb from the other side of the globe, yet we also grow them ourselves.

How to tell people usefully about the food mile cost of what they eat may be a moot point. It’s not just how many miles, or even carbon footprint: it takes some eight units of grain to produce one unit of beef; but some people still reckon that good value - including, no doubt, growing numbers of consumers in China and India, who have a preference for an affluent Western diet.

So sometimes the real cost or value can only be calculated by comparing what would happen if foods of equivalent nutritional or other sort of value were produced in a different way. And how would you put that on a label?


Biofuels (Is growing 'food for cars' acceptable?)
We all know that we're using too much oil, charging around in cars and planes when often we don't need to.

Biofuels seemed for a while to be the perfect way out of this - grow crops to substitute for more usual oils. But now, as the UK's Chief Scientist has said, we know there are costs too; some biofuels are neither sustainable, nor ethical.

And on top of this we must acknowledge that biofuels, like food for people, takes up valuable land space. The question is, what's the 'right' balance - if there is such a thing?


Water used (Will it increase global tensions?)
There is an emerging awareness that food is mainly water, and that water is the also the most precious (and sometimes wasted) commodity in its production.

If the beef-to-grain carbon ratio is high, the equivalent water ratio is many times more so. (Let us pass on the comlex issues around food for domestic animals and pets - there is an important balance to acknowledge here between these animals' functions as sources of security and comfort for people, and their costs to the environment - but who has looked at this balance?)

There are those who believe that water, not oil, will trigger the next global disputes; but as yet few of us have thought how to approach the global issues of water scarcity and food.


Food prices (Can we afford it?)
The cost of food against income has fallen for most of us in the first world over recent years. Now it’s beginning to increase again to more traditional levels – though it will probably stabilise - as global issues such as draught, climate change and biofuels impact on the market.

Food habits have changed from agrarian times, but often seem nonetheless to lag behind the reality of what's available, and may say more about cultural expectations or how a person ate when they were young, than about what's now regarded as 'best' for them (or, indeed, with modern advertising the converse may also be true on occasion).

Perhaps people need to know about less expensive and more nutritious alternative foods, if the ones they’re used to become more expensive, or may now be known to be less 'healthy'? But who can best tell them?


Commercial advantage and competition (Do supermarkets cause ‘food deserts?)
Allied to this is now a fear that supermarkets placed in disadvantaged or poor areas will result in so-called food deserts, where poor people can no longer afford to buy even the basics of a decent diet.

But some observers say that food deserts are really different types of access, or actually an urban myth or 'factoid'. Evidence for these food deserts is to date far inconclusive – indeed, some research indicates that when supermarkets come to poorer areas, both the economy and local people’s diets may improve.

So how can we indicate economic ‘value’ and nutritional benefit in the contexts of where people live, what they expect to eat and how they get access to their food?


Customs, symbols and traditions (What sort of foods for whom?)
Shared food has always been a way of bonding - we cut cakes and 'raise a glass', offer potlatch, drink tea and conduct many other ceremonies across the world to denote belief, position or togetherness.

Then there's the fascinating question of why different people in different places and at different times eat different sorts of food. Sometimes it's easy to explain - 'luxury' and difficult to obtain foods are reserved in almost all cultures and communities for conspicuous consumption on special occasions, for instance - but often there are other styles and patterns to eating too.

And what do we know about 'healthy' diets across the world? Why do people in some places live longer and fitter lives than others? What traditions and customs help us keep our communities intact? And is any of what we might learn about customs and habits of food consumption transposable from one community or culture to another?


Seasonal, allotments and home grown (Should we grow it ourselves?)
Locally produced foodin season' is the new mantra, but it can’t be the whole story. There are many localities which can’t provide the full spectrum of nutritional need. Varied diets often require varied sources.

Nonetheless, an appreciation of the cycles of nature helps us to understand how our food is produced and what makes it special. ‘Seasonal’ recipes draw attention to the possibility of ingredients with a low carbon footprint, just as allotments, smallholdings and local market gardens offer the possibility of learning about how what we eat grows.

Producing and sourcing food locally may not resolve all our problems, but they certainly have their place in the spectrum of things we as consumers can enjoy and need to know. How about allotments for everyone who wants one (there are long waiting lists in some places), and special efforts to grow – and eat - vegetables and fruit in schools and other community locations?


The food economy (How does all this fit into UK plc?)
There are many things to think about here; just ask the politicians, farmers and market gardeners. And that's before we get to talk about European subsidies and farming compensation packages...

That however is not the whole story. Slowly, we are grasping the interconnections between the economic impacts and needs of farmers and growers, and how official policies affect the welfare of the wider rural and urban economies. Never again, hopefully, will problems like foot and mouth be addressed without understanding the fragile complexities of the rural economy as such; and hopefully too in future the wider public will perceive the business and scientific complexities of matters such as animal vaccination.

But let’s understand that not all food needs to be produced in rural areas. There’s plenty of scope also for townspeople to develop opportunities and skills via commercial companies and social enterprises around food, as is evident from the popularity of city-based organic foodstores, local vegetable deliveries and farmers’ markets... not to mention the universal interest in restaurants and cafes in modern day society!


Food, farms and famine (What about the developing world?)
If opportunities for stabilising the food economy remain to be developed efficiently, effectively and well in Western economies, how much more so is this true for those parts of the globe where even the grain supply is critically under-resourced, and where water and food are in desperately short supply. These were the sorts of concerns of the Downing Street Food Summit in early 2008.

Many people would like reassurance that the food they purchase is ethically sourced and gives a fair return to the farmers who produced it. And we need to understand much more about the food supply chain, as Professor Tim Lang of the Centre for Food Policy has been saying for years.

Movements such as Fairtrade are gaining wider recognition – plus a greater share of commercial shelf-space - and are critical to our understanding of food as a global issue.


Sustainability and ‘food security’ (Will there be enough food for everyone?)
There are those who fear we are sleepwalking into a global food disaster. We need to find ways of adjusting our eating habits (and other consumption) without delay.

Currently it’s said that humankind acts a though we had three planets-worth of resources at our disposal, not just one. And that's before we start to look at how population is increasing (in the UK as well as almost everywhere else).

It is also suggested that, in contrast to the current situation, the UK (and doubtless numbers of other nations) could with ease be self-sufficient for food if everyone were vegetarian - even though our lifestyle in the Western world is many times as water and carbon intensive as that of people in developing countries. Veganism, of course, is even more effective as a way of feeding everyone. Becoming 'selfsufficient-ish' (and largely vegetarian-ish?) can be achieved in most, except perhaps the most extreme, locations.

These last few observations offer a rather pointed context for all the other matters discussed above.


Read more about Food
and about Sustainability As If People Mattered.

What questions and views do you have about food?

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