Michael Pollen wants to save the world

If you haven’t heard of Michael Pollen, then get to know him. He’s a really influential voice in the US currently and argues vehemently against the way the food system works over the pond and increasingly around the globe. He manages to join the dots between government policy going back decades, the era of cheap oil and fertilisers, globalised food networks and the consumer.

His most famous book is the Omnivore’s Dilemma, a book which is sat on my shelf but I haven’t quite got around to reading it yet. Leanne has previously commented on his latest book, In Defense of Food. The theme across all these books is the same. He investigates the American food culture and traces meals from the land right to the table.

Last weekend, the New York Times magazine had a food special (If anyone from NYC is reading this can you please post me a copy…) and Pollen wrote a fabulous piece entitled Farmer In Chief. It’s actually a really succinct introduction to Pollen’s style and gives a good overview of his viewpoint. His key point is that localised food systems are better for the environment, consumers and the resilience of the country. He shows how the new system needs to work as currently we are eating fossil fuel (9 calories of oil per calorie of food eaten on average) and we’re also doing huge damage to the soils (with which all life on earth depends). His final point is that the new President should convert a part of the Whitehouse lawn to a “Victory Garden” (allotment) and the chef in the Whitehouse should cook local food meals, including one meat-free meal a week. Great ideas and something that could stimulate the “economy” in these difficult times – not so much in terms of GDP or growth, we can’t continue to measure our economy like that – but it terms of the collective health, wellbeing and dare I say it “happiness” of a nation…

So I’ll leave you with a really good video you should watch from TED (again). In Pollen says we should look at the human race from the perspective of the plants and animals and think about what we are doing to the planet!


Who is my MP?

As part of my thesis research, I emailed the 3 MP’s on the Wirral to gather some opinions on the work I am doing concerning local food production.

My (questionnably) MP is Stephen Hesford, Wirral West and this is who I probably voted for in the last general election. Frank Field is the MP for Birkenhead to the east and Ben Chapman is MP for Wirral South.

All very straightforward. Well it was until I got a reply yesterday from Stephen Hesford saying:

Dear Mr. Wright,

Thank you for your email.

Frank Field is now the MP dealing with people in Prenton and so have passed onto him your email.

He will be in touch.

Yours sincerely,
Stephen Hesford MP

Fair enough I thought, but I mentioned Prenton as an aside. My research is on the very important topic of food production on the Wirral, also Mr. Hesford and Mr. Chapman have been championing the allotment cause in the House of Commons which is why I wanted to get the opinion of the 3 MP’s on the peninsula. I wrote back to him mentioning this fact:
Dear Stephen,

Thank you for your reply. I am actually looking at the totality of the Wirral’s available growing space – especially considering the West of the peninsula has a lot more land available for growing (take Church Farm Organics in Thurstaston for example) and am also looking at the provision of allotments in these areas.

Despite living in Prenton I would be interested in hearing your views on the subjects raised in my initial email.

Many thanks,
Andrew Wright

Anyway I got the following reply this morning:

Dear Mr. Wright,

I am afraid that I must stick to what I have written previously. I wish you well with your project.

Yours sincerely,
Stephen Hesford MP

I’m currently confused and not sure who my MP is? According to Wikipedia, the Wirral West constituency is “set to lose part of the Prenton Ward to Birkenhead.” I had a look at the Election Maps website and this does appear to be true. Our road is currently right near the boundary but from the next election Wirral West will be mainly to the west of the M53 motorway.
These changes were agreed by the Boundary Commission in 2005 but don’t appear to be changing until the next election. The website TheyWorkForYou still lists Stephen Hesford when I enter my postcode.
So where does that leave me and who is legally and consitutionally supposed to be dealing with the areas for my area? I suppose I’ll have to wait until I get a reply from Frank Field and see what happens then!
Update: I had an email back from someone working at TheyWorkForYou who informs me that:
Parliamentary boundary changes do not take place until the next
general election. The postcode CH43 0SU (which is Broxton Avenue, I
believe) is currently in the Wirral West constituency, and will move
to the Birkenhead constituency at the next election. So yes, Stephen
Hesford is your MP until the next election.
Hmm.. What to do next?

Feeding the Cities

I’ve had quite a productive week of research including reading a great new book by Carolyn Steel called Hungry City. It charts the way cities have fed their populations and have grown to require more than the immediate hinterland to do this. It goes hand it hand with the Industrial Revolution, the invention of the Railways and shipping. In the introduction, Carolyn says it’s taken her many years to write this book. She’s trained as an architect and wanted to look at how food systems shape the cities. I’ve found it a really good introduction to understanding how the world has formed itself around our food systems. The worrying bit of all this is how linked we now are to huge globalised systems which may not be able to cope with shocks of oil price rises (and falls!)

I’ve also started reading Felicity Lawrence‘s new book Eat Your Heart Out, it’s an expose of the food business and looks at different food types in each chapter. I’ve sort of skim read the first chapter about cereals as agriculture crops aren’t really the focus of my thesis but the Vegetables and Meat chapter is shocking. She’s upto speed with the concepts of Peak Oil, Transition Towns and our need to provide resilience for our communities.

The power of the supermarkets and the seemingly weakness of farmers is all too apparent in today’s society. The BBC today is reporting that British milk production is at it’s lowest for 30 years, whilst we are importing more and more from European farms. We have some of the best land for grazing cows but still the system is unable to pay farmers a fair price. Something is wrong and if two dairy farmers are really going out of business each day, we are bound to hit a tipping point where we lose our capacity to provide for ourselves and prices will shoot up as supply drops.

I’ve also been reading through various papers extolling the virtues of Community Supported Agriculture, the need for Food Security, Edible Cities in the USA, Food Strategies, Farm Costs and Food Miles, Wirrals Allotment Strategy… the list goes on. I’ve realised there is far too much stuff out there to read and I’ve got to focus. One way of doing this is using mindmaps. I’ve been using piece of freeware mind-mapping software called unsurprisingly, FreeMind. It allows you to really easy build up mindmaps and is really easy to use. I’d recommend it unreservedly. The best bit is the keyboard shortcuts, you can pretty much do everything without using the mouse.

Finally I’d like to sing the praises of a fabulous magazine/newsletter called The Land. It comes out 2-3 times a year and has a huge range of articles about the countryside, farming, land and planning issues. Their mission statement is as follows:

The Land is written by and for people who believe that the roots of justice, freedom, social security and democracy lie not so much in access to money, or to the ballot box, as in access to land and its resources

It’s all very inspirational and motivating. I really like the non-mainstream way it’s produced and the quality of the illustrations and printing. It’s also got me into Woody Guthrie’s songs from the early part of the 20th century. When we were housesitting Tom Hodgkinson’s house in the Summer he had a double CD of Woody Guthrie songs that I kept listening to. I loved the simple stripped back lyrics and instruments.


The end of the World?

Leanne pointed out Charlie Brooker’s column in the Guardian today, it just about sums everything up – hilarious:

“And it had to happen, obviously. For years, money was just appearing from nowhere, or so we were told. People bought houses and bragged about how the value kept zooming up, and up, and up. In fact they didn’t seem to be houses at all, but magic coin-shitting machines. It was all a dream, a dream in which you bought a box and lived in it, and all the time it generated money like a cow generates farts. Great big stinking clouds of money. And none of it was real. And now it’s gone. Your house is worth less than your shoes, and your shoes are now, in turn, worth less than your mouth and your arse. Yes, your most valuable possessions are now your mouth and your arse, and you’re going to have to use both of them in all manner of previously unthinkable ways to make ends meet, to pay for that box, the box you live in, the one you mistook for an enchanted, unstoppable cash engine. I hope you’ve got a nice kitchen. Maybe that’ll take your mind off things. And sell that Alessi smoothie maker while you’re about it. You can’t afford fruit any more. It’s tap water at best from now on. It’s good for you! Really, it is.

All of it was a dream. All that crap we bought, all the bottled water and Blu-Ray players and designer shoes and iPod Shuffles and patio heaters; all the jobs we had; all the catchphrases we memorised and the stupid things we thought. Everything we did for the past 10 years – none of it really felt real, did it? Time to snap out of it. Time to grow our own vegetables and learn hand-to-hand combat with staves. And time, perhaps, to really start living.”

Urban Agriculture in Action: Cuba

When talking to people about local food production, I’m constantly asked whether I have seen the film about Cuba and local food production. Well yes I have, and I’d consider it one of the most important things to watch if you want to get a feel for how we (the West that is) may have to change our production systems in the face of Peak Oil. It’s called the Power of Community: How Cuba survived Peak Oil, and you can watch it on Google Video.


To summarise, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba had to cope with a sudden drop of imports of fossil fuel, fertilisers and other commodities. This “special period” meant that organic farming became the norm, people were trained to use permaculture principles in urban areas and the amount of food produced locally increased dramatically (well it had to really). The changes took several years and were facilitated due to the fact the government could give anyone who wanted it some land to grow on.

It’s a great positive video to watch, and I imagine the hardships endured by the population and the issues are a little more complex than we have seen. Unfortunately I have not yet found any recent statistics about how much organic produce is being grown over there. I’d also like to see some academic papers on yields achieved.

This idea of localised food production fits in with the whole idea of localisation of economies and communities. This is something which the Transition people have been pushing for a while arguing correctly that Peak Oil and Climate Change will make this sort of thing happen and we need to prepare for it. I’ve just read “Localisation as a response to peak oil and climate change – a sympathetic critique” by Peter North of Liverpool University. It contains a good overview of current issues, I found it’s opened a lot of new ideas for me to think about when thinking specifically about food production. For instance he argues that the “Transition” is being slightly naive about overthrowing the system without politics (although looking at today’s share prices the economic systems might just self-implode) something which I’ve seen other people mentioning recently.