Monday, 28 November 2011

Allotments - A Vital Community Resource, Pt I

In 2009, Securing Food Supplies up to 2050: The Challenges faced by the UK, was a report put together for the House of Commons. The report was ordered by the House of Commons and was compiled by the relevant select committee – The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. The report outlines precisely what the title suggests and over the course of a few blog articles I shall present a brief look at it with a view to underlining the importance of allotments to local communities. Especially helpful for those unaware of the current value placed on this valuable community asset. All text is taken from the report with any personal comments in squared brackets.

The report begins with a summary and goes on to have five main parts:

· Introduction: The Global Challenges.
· The challenges for the UK.
· DEFRAs vision for food.
· Acting on the vision.
· Conclusion.

The world faces an unprecedented double challenge, it needs to produce more food but in a way that does not degrade the natural resources upon which agriculture depends. Meeting this demand will require a fundamental shift in thinking about food by government and consumers. The UNs World Food security conference of 2008 chose to draw attention to projected population and food production figures, not as targets, but rather to focus attention on key issues. Generally, the feeling is that growth in overall output is less of a solution than an increase in particular commodities in particular areas.

Therefore the choices faced by the UK are to increase its own output of fruit, vegetables and cereals whilst securing global supplies. An essential factor in increasing home grown output is sustainability. After admitting that DEFRA has, due to other commitments, neglected the issue of food for some time, the committee now intends to focus attention on this issue. The intention is to produce a vision and strategy for food that provides a long term framework that goes beyond the short term political cycle. Tackling the existing weakness in the current UK food system is considered to be a fundamental issue as is fostering stable relationships in the food supply chain.

Increasing interest in home and local food production is considered a vital element in encouraging consumers to think more about the environmental issues around food production and consumption. Not least for the part it plays in reconnecting people with their food - a vital component in understanding for people facing a fundamental shift in perspective about food.

Introduction: The Global Challenges.

With supermarkets lined with well stocked shelves, restaurants supplying every type of cuisine and the wealth of instantly recognisable food brands; disruption of the food supply is not generally considered by consumers. Yet rationing started during the Second World War continued into 1954 and there were widespread shortages of sugar in the early 1970s. Until very recently, the government also took food for granted. There is a growing awareness in the governments of developed countries that the food supply that has appeared to work well since 1945 and the issues associated with it, may not continue to do so without urgent political attention.

In the light of this new political interest in food policy DEFRA has held meetings with experts in the associated fields, key players and accepted submissions from interested parties in order to develop a “Food Security” strategy. Here we can define Food Security as:

“..existing when all people at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy lifestyle

Food Prices
The reason for the sudden interest in food is clear – an escalation in global food prices. According to the World Bank, wheat prices were up 171% between 2005 and 2008 with global food prices increasing by 83% over the same period. A Chatham House report, Rising Food Prices: Drivers and Implications for Development, from April 2008 stated that:

the unusual feature of the current situation is that the price spike applies to almost all major food and feed commodities, not just a few of them

It noted that Wheat was at an all time price high, corn the highest in 11 years and soya the highest in 34 years. Contrasting sharply with the period between 1974 and 2005 when food prices fell in real terms. Food price escalation was blamed for violent protests in Egypt, Haiti, The Ivory Coast & Cameroon. Demonstrations were seen in Mauritania, Mozambique, Senegal, Uzbekistan, Yemen, Bolivia & Indonesia. Argentina joined others in imposing export restrictions and rising prices began to affect the UK.

The Soil Association compiled a report published in August 2008 showing food inflation to be running at 13.7% annually. Prices for oils and fats rose by 29%, meats 16.3%, bread and cereals by 15.9%, vegetables by 11.1% and fruit by 10.7%. Professor Watson, DEFRAs chief scientific adviser, outlined 6 factors that he believed contributed to the rise:

· Poor harvests in the US and Australia.
· Increased biofuel production
· Rising energy prices
· Changing demand (China buying more meats f.ex)
· Export bans
· Food Speculation

Chatham House concluded that the “jury was still out on whether price rises would continue or not”. DEFRA did expect food inflation to fall but expected higher and more volatile food prices are here to stay. Chatham House expected medium and longer term food rises were “poised to rise again”.

At the UN Food & Agricultural Organizations – Food Security Conference, held in Rome in June 2008, two projections became generally accepted and repeated. The first was Ban Ki Moons announcement that food production needed to increase by 50% by 2030 to meet demand. The second by Jaques Dijouf stated that food production needed to double by 2050. The claims made by both men were drawn from reports compiled by the International Food Policy Research Institute and the UNs F&AO, which were published in 2006 as the Future Scenarios for Agriculture. This was fed into the World Banks development report for 2008.

Although DEFRA does consider the projections as valid for focussing attention on the realities of food supply, it does make every effort to question the sound bites presented by the UN. Especially as food supply and demand is subject to wide margins of error due to the many factors involved in compiling projections. DEFRA also sought wider opinion on the matter which generally agreed that although food production is likely set to rise, the presented figures could not be accurately relied upon.

Andrew Wood, Natural Englands Executive Director for Evidence & Policy, raised a number of issues one of which was to point out that if the substantial number of obese people followed WHO healthy eating guidelines, food consumption would actually fall. The Soil Association followed similar reasoning and stated that:

Globally more than sufficient calories are produced – whilst nearly 1 billion people are malnourished in the south, 2 billion people are clinically over weight in the north

Although this reasoning over simplifies the problem it does raise the issue that a balanced diet plays in the wider world, especially in the face of growing numbers of people. Particularly drawing attention to the fact that growing numbers does not necessarily imply growing demand – there is no way to be sure that the populations of India and China will follow the habitual consumption practised in the West for example [see the report for greater detail].

The projections made by the UN really serve to focus attention on what can be done to improve the global situation regarding food. Improving diet and reducing food waste are considered key issues. Post harvest losses due to poor storage, transport and infrastructure could be improved. As could the estimated 30% food wastage by consumers, half of which is considered edible.

Concerns about food production are not new, the World Bank in 1982 stated in a report that it had concerns about, “whether agriculture would be able to provide enough food for the worlds growing population”. However, looking back, agricultural performance between 1980 and 2004 was “impressive”. Not that everyone had enough to eat, but that was due to affordability and access – not production. Professor John Beddington, the Governments chief scientific advisor, stated that global production had doubled over the previous 40 years, illustrated by the following graph.

Since the availability of food has kept apace with population growth it is prudent to ask what is different this time. Some suggest that despite population growth trends of 1.5-1.6% over the past 50 years, there is in fact no implication that the trend will continue. The generally accepted threats of climate change and diminishing resources form the main basis for concern with the world facing an:

Unprecedented double challenge of meeting a huge growth in food demand whilst respecting far higher environmental standards than in the 20th century. Production increases in the last half century have been achieved at considerable economic cost and only with the heavy use of energy and oil inputs.

Such methods of production are widely accepted as being unsustainable, with sustainable in this context best defined by the Brundtland Commission of 1987 as:

Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations

The committee concluded that to secure food in the manner we have up to this point merely creates a short term illusion of security and accepts that genuine food security cannot exist without sustainability. This poses some challenges as summarised by Chatham House.

  1. The need to radically reduce greenhouse emissions produced by the food system.
  2. The need to reduce the end-to-end dependency on fossil fuels in the food chain.
  3. The need to address the depletion of natural resources & the ecosystem on which agriculture depends (soil & water).

With respect to these concerns in particular the connections have been made between organic farming methods and sustainability. The Soil Association added that a low carbon diet could be delivered through a wholesale shift to organic farming in sufficient quantities to feed the UK population, according to independent research done by the University of Reading. The scenario proposes a drop in commercial chicken, egg and pork production to roughly a quarter of current levels with an increase in wheat and barley for human consumption.

Despite some objections raised by the committee about widespread organic production they accept one aspect of this question of food production remains as being of prime importance – sustainable food production.

End of Part I

I hope you found the first part of this report summary interesting and will post a continuation soon.

Thanks for reading.


Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Answers on a Postcard....Please!

Cowling Parish Clouncil have now updated their records to include Septembers aforementioned "missing" minutes. Well done, Bravo!

As it would seem there is someone "in the office" at the moment I wonder if there might be anyone prepared to consider the following questions:

  • What does the PC, (as a pro-allotment local authority in charge of allotment provision), think of the failure of the District Council to respond to the annual data collection by the National Society for Allotment and Leisure Gardeners?  
Surely, as a proud local authority that is content with its current efforts regarding allotment provision, Cowling feels sold short by not being able to boast its best efforts nationally?  You can read all about it HERE and check out an interactive map built from the data (Screenshot shown above. Grey areas failed to respond - sometimes its best to say nowt!).

  • Has the vacant plot (mentioned in August) been dealt with yet?  
 As I am sure the PC are aware, there are standard procedures for dealing with such simplicities and solution seeking local authorities have a very simple system to move people into new plots within weeks!  I know that seems lightening fast, but there you go. That's what enthusiasm gets you - results!

  • Does the Council consider the village newsletter to be good value for public money?
I understand that the editor is the wife of a current PC member (former member of the abandoned Allotment Working Group) and expect the council is happy with it generally.  But as I have had two notices on behalf of the Cowling Allotment Group excluded from the village newsletter in the last 6 months, it is beginning to smack more of "jobs for the boys" than a community newsletter reflecting actual views in the village. Over £500 a year for a few sheets of A4 black and white print once a month. Which fails to include two pro allotment notices, in spite of the PCs claim of pro-allotment sentiment! Poor value and pitiful execution, in my humble opinion. 

  •  What is Cowling Parish Council doing about:
A - The appalling state of the currently mismanaged allotments?

B - Providing the LONG overdue new plots to accommodate the growing number of villagers (and the Council Tax [amongst other benefits] they provide) on the waiting list?

Go on..  Give us some answers!


Monday, 14 November 2011

Well Done.. Kind Of!

At last!  The Parish Council have finally published the outstanding minutes for Octobers meeting and both October and Septembers extra ordinary meetings.

Shame Septembers meeting minutes are missing, but then it wouldn't be Cowling if everything was done "by the book" and you can't expect to have everything can you?

Any chance of those people that so wanted positions on the Parish Council doing the few duties asked of them.. properly?

Friday, 4 November 2011

Food Miles?

How about food yards?

Not sure where we stand at the moment with allotment provision in Cowling, it seems we are still in the "doing our best" phase.  It's true to say that the Parish Council are very good at doing their best, they have been doing it for well over five years! Despite government guidance on the matter stating that even a failing local authority should go from failure to provide sufficient allotments to an acceptable solution in three years!

But I do find it interesting whenever I look into what doing their best might actually mean.  A strange question to a straightforward statement, you would think.  But a little look at certain claims made versus records kept during this process, suggests otherwise.  

For example, in September we had a piece in the Craven Herald. I found the few words issued by the clerk to be telling.  He went on to list all that had been done by the PC which contrasted somewhat with the answers we got when we questioned them on the subject earlier this year. His claims had now grown to include each of the things WE have presented them with as viable options over the past few months.

Still, they are doing there best aren't they?  Maybe they are, but if they were previously unaware of the obvious avenues we made them aware of (and they publicly claim to now be pursuing) what are the chances of them discovering the equally simple avenues that have not yet been presented to them?

Unfortunately I am unable to say much more.  Under the direction of the Chair, the PC now refuses to communicate directly on the matter. The clerk has difficulty in actually receiving mail that goes through his letterbox. The PC meeting minutes for September remain unavailable in November and anyone unfortunate enough to witness one of these meetings knows that even when the minutes do get published they will bear scant relation (on certain matters) to what actually happens. Still, they are doing their best!

Which is more than can be said for the Allotments Working Group, which has been disowned since it was shown up for the sham that it was.  Three Parish Councillors deciding what's "best" over tea and hobnobs until, hoisted by its own petard, someone joined that wanted to actually DO something about:

A) The poor state of current allotments and their management.
B) The woeful lack of provision suffered in the village.

The Councillors then each resigned from the Working Group, one by one in another dramatic display of "doing ones best" to solve the problems faced by the Parish Council.

As for the statutory claims made for allotments, we have submitted another group of representations. But as I have been reminded by one of the enthusiastic amateurs that we sadly rely on to get an allotment in the village:

"our only statutory obligation is to consider the claim"

Most local authorities, seeing where this argument is headed, avoid it like the plague - God Complex strikes again!

Will Cowling see a solution to the pathetically poor provision suffered for so long in the village? I am beginning to think some people are too busy with other irons in their fires to be able to represent the ALL the villagers of Cowling fairly.

Anyone wanting an allotment in this village should consider making themselves heard loud and clear on this issue.  You have a right to an allotment and your government has been acknowledging the need to improve provision of this community asset for years now. Yet your local representatives in charge of providing allotments, amongst their Duties & Responsibilities; consider that what they are currently failing to provide is "Doing their Best".  It's time to ask them not do their best, but to do what they are there to do!

Do nothing and you can be sure of the results!