Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Air freight: the Impacts

Last week I took the train to Southend where Airport Watch launched the report I wrote, Air Freight: the Impacts. UK freight volumes, along with passenger numbers, have declined since the recession, but capacity expansion is still planned and underway all over the UK. This will either undermine greenhouse gas emission (GHG) reduction targets if the capacity becomes operational, or leave us with a load of white elephants with empty warehouse space, or add yet more generic business premises to the UK’s logistics landscape of windowless grey sheds proliferating around major road junctions.

The negative environmental impacts of air freight are well known, in particular the GHG emissions are many multitudes of transporting freight by other modes, by road, rail and ship. The report also questions the supposed economic benefits, highlighting a £20 billion air freight trade deficit with more goods flown into the UK than are exported. Air freight expansion also has a poor track record of job creation, and any economic benefits need to be weighed against considerable funding and policy support from many government agencies. The longer term trend has been the UK’s air freight volumes flatlining for the past decade, concurrent with economic growth until last autumn, so the evidence for the argument that air freight expansion is vital for economic growth appears to be weaker than the case for expansion for more passenger flights.

Airport Watch launched the report at London Southend Airport. SAEN is running an amazingly comprehensive campaign against the expansion of the airport and a planning objection has been submitted. This highlights the noise nightmare with the runway expansion meaning the flightpath would go right over several schools and a church would become a noisy place for worship, an erroneous assessment of the noise impacts of more, larger, noisier planes flying lower over the area, exaggerated job creation claims, a pro-airport bias by councils and unrealistic passenger number projections. Freight magnate Stobart, operators of the airport, have been inconsistent in their statements on freight growth plans at the airport. We had a look at the exhibition about the expansion plans in the foyer, which managed the typical spin of how it will ‘enhance’ features like a bit of woodland that will not be covered in asphalt with the extended runway.

SAEN anticipates that if the expansion goes ahead and passenger numbers increase, most of them will head into London, for example for the 2012 Olympics, and we saw the main site taking shape from the train on the way to Southend. Southend Airport also goes by the Name of London Southend Airport. It one of several airports which is are not actually in London, it is out on England’s south east coast, like Manston in Kent which is referred to as London Manston Airport, and Oxford Airport where there was objection to renaming it London Oxford Airport as London is 60 miles away. The naming of these regional airports shows how the expansion is about enabling development that is of questionable benefits to local residents and will funnel passengers into the tourist attractions and business centres in the big cities.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

IATA talks up technofixes

James Lamont reports in the Times that IATA (the International Air Transport Association) continues its opposition to aviation’s inclusion in the European Union European Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS), which imposes carbon emission quotas but allows businesses to trade carbon permits as an alternative to reducing emissions. The aviation industry is scheduled to be finally hauled into the ETS in 2012, whilst other industry sectors have been included since 2005, but Giovanni Bisignani, chief executive of IATA, is arguing for continued favourable treatment from governments, with exemption from the responsibilities of other industries.

Bisignani claims that instead of incentivising aviation to reduce emissions, including aviation in the ETS will hinder the industry’s progress in adopting greener technology, in particular investment in more fuel efficient aircraft. IATA claims that each generation of aircraft increases fuel efficiency by 15 per cent. Stephan Gosling and Paul Upham, writing in the book Aviation and Climate Change, make a more realistic and scientifically based assessment of annual fuel efficiency improvements of between just 1 and 1.5 per cent per year. The argument that aviation can maintain its growth trends whilst reducing GHG emissions relies on theoretical technofixes. IATA has pledged to cut carbon emissions by half by 2050, from 2005 levels. With a realistic projection of technological advancement, it is not possible to reduce aviation’s GHG emissions whilst maintaining its position as one of the world’s fastest growing industries. The aviation industry looks to Boeing’s forecasts for future growth, and in June 2009 Boeing made a still-robust forecast of passenger traffic growth of 4.9 per cent per year, a minimal reduction of the 5 per cent growth rate average over the last 30 years.

Even with the economic downturn beginning in autumn 2008, and some airlines reporting major losses, the big picture is that airlines are still ordering plenty of old style planes (as opposed to the dramatically more fuel efficient planes which have not been invented yet) from the Boeing / Airbus duopoly supplying the vast majority of the world’s aircraft. In 2008, Airbus delivered a record 482 aircraft, and received orders for 900, its third highest annual total. Boeing ended 2008 with 662 commercial plane orders. The skies will be crowded with models which have been flying around for ages, like Boeing 747s, 767s 737s and 777s, and Airbus 320s, 330s and 340s, albeit newer models with marginal fuel efficiency improvements. Both aircraft manufacturers have a considerable order backlog which is helping them through the recession. Earlier this year Boeing announced that it had a backlog of more than 3,700 planes, with Airbus reporting a record order backlog of 3,715 planes. Boeing’s 787, or Dreamliner, also called the Greenliner as Boeing claims it will be 20 per cent more fuel efficient than similar sized planes, was supposed to take to the skies in autumn 2007, but its manufacture has been so plagued with delays it is sometimes referred to as the ‘7 late 7’.

Bisignani claims that the adoption of biofuels could reduce aviation’s carbon emissions by as much as 80 per cent. This wildly optimistic claim counters a recent report commissioned by the US FAA (Federal Aviation Authority) and undertaken by Rand, Near-Term Feasibility of Alternative Jet Fuels. This report concluded that many of the alternative aviation fuels which are being developed are likely to have higher GHGs than conventional jet fuel when produced on a commercial scale. The fossil fuel based alternatives, derived from coal and oil shale, have a worse energy balance (energy outputs compared to the energy used to produce the fuel) than conventional jet fuel as the material is more difficult to extract and requires more processing. Regarding biofuels, the GHG emissions from land use changes for biofuel crops is highlighted, which increases the emissions dramatically. Previous claims for lower levels of GHG emissions from biofuels have excluded both the direct land-use change of growing biofuels, such as deforestation and uprooting grasslands to plant biofuel crops, and indirect land use changes when land used for food crops is used for biofuel crops, leading to land somewhere else being converted to agriculture to replace the displaced food crops.

Finally, Mr Bisignani criticises the UK’s increase in Air Passenger Duty, claiming it helps bail out the banks rather than helping the environment. This conveniently overlooks aviation industry stimulus packages (i.e. bailouts) from governments all over the world. In the UK, Business Secretary Lord Mandelson announced a £340m loan to support the manufacturing of Airbus A350 wings in Bristol in August 2009. Bailout packages have been approved, or are imminent, for several flag carriers including Air India, Japan Airlines and for several Chinese airlines, and Boeing highlights the Chinese government’s stimulus package in its high growth predictions for the country. Singapore introduced a relief package for the Changi Airfreight Centre. In the US, $1.1 billion has been doled out by the FAA, approved by the Obama administration, to several airports, about $100 million of which did not meet the grant criteria.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Securing Saudi Arabia's food supply - migrations, farms overseas & irrigation

From 25th to 29th November about 2.5 million Muslims from all over the world made the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. The event triggered a man-made animal migration to feed the pilgrims. For the first time in nine years, some of the livestock was supplied by Somalia, as Saudi Arabia lifted its long term ban on imports of Somali livestock, which it had imposed due to concerns over health screening of the animals. The lifting of the ban meant that Somalia’s monthly livestock exports could double to 1 million animals, with 60,000 ready to be exported within a few days, for the Hajj. This is indicative of the scale of food imports to the Middle East for the burgeoning population and tourism, and the dependence on food exports for some poor African countries. Livestock exports make up 40 per cent of Somalia’s GDP, whilst Saudi Arabia spends $6 billion per year on food imports.

View Larger MapSomalia’s Bossaso Port will be upgraded to enable it to cope with the increased livestock exports. But other African countries are vying to increase their exports of livestock to Saudi Arabia and the supply chain could extend further into Africa. In 2008, a farmer in Nigeria’s Zamfara state said that he lost out on the opportunity of a contract to supply Saudi Arabia with 150,000 slaughtered rams per month to the Saudi Arabia government because of a lack of storage facilities at Nigeria’s airports. It was reported that state approval for the requisite cargo airport for exporting fruit, vegetable and meat to the Middle East and Europe was fast tracked, taking just 3 months.

Along with sourcing more food from abroad, Saudi Arabia has long standing ambitious programmes attempting to increase its own food production, up against the ecological constraint of desert conditions unsuitable for agriculture and depending on gargantuan irrigation schemes. This article by Kelly McEvers is about the environmental cost of producing milk in the desert, in temperatures of up to nearly 50°C in the summer. The Afu-Safi diary farm in Saudi Arabia originated in the 1970’s. It was modelled on a dairy farm in California, but is twice the size holding 38,000 cows. Each cow requires over 100 litres of water per day and oil drilling technology was used to reach aquifers beneath the desert and. The aquifer is running dry and the dairy has been given permission to drill deeper underground to another aquifer 1.6 kilometres underground.

But the wheat growing which was also dependent on this source of water is being phased out. Saudi Arabia’s Hail Agricultural Development Company (Hadco) stopped producing wheat in 2008 and is purchasing land abroad. Hadco has already purchased 9,239 hectares of land in Sudan, and is considering purchasing another 32,755 hectares in Sudan within the next five years to grow wheat, corn and other crops to be used for feeding livestock. In January 2009 Saudi Arabia received the first batch of rice produced abroad.

Saudi Arabia has shifted the emphasis from attempts at increasing food self-sufficiency to extending the supply chain to source more food from other countries. Middle East countries including Saudi Arabia, and Asian states, have purchased a total of over 20,230,000 hectares of land suitable for arable crops in Africa in the past two years, about ten per cent of the farmed land in Africa. This would secure food supply and stable prices for the wealthy importing countries. The likely outcomes for exporting countries like Sudan, which are unable to feed their own people, appear less favourable with widespread reports of aggressive land grabbing, lack of transparency over land deals and smallholders losing their land. There are reports, for example from the International Land Coalition, that Saudi Arabia is the most aggressive purchaser, establishing a chain of overseas farms at the scale of nearly 100,000 hectares. Saudi Arabia is also considering purchasing land in Ethiopia and in other regions outside Africa in Egypt, Turkey, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Vietnam, and the Philippines.

Attempts to irrigate the dry Gulf states for agriculture persist though. In 2008 it was reported that UAE is conducting a study into the feasibility of building at least 70 dams in the northern emirates in an attempt to channel water supplies for food production in the region.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Pomegranates provenance mystery

I bought these from Sainsbury’s, a fresh pomegranate and some seeds packaged in plastic with a little plastic spoon. There was no country of origin label on the fresh version, not on the labels stuck on the individual fruit or the shelf, and I could not see it on the box. I asked a member of staff who found out that the label was on the back of the box and the pomegranates are from the US. In the UK there is a legal obligation to label single ingredient fresh produce with the country of origin, but as more of the ‘fresh produce’ aisle is taken up processed foods provenance information is being lost. The packaged version just says ‘produced in Egypt’ which could well mean the fruit was just packaged there.

Pomegranates are fiddly to get the seeds out without seeds and juice flying everywhere. I can understand pre-prepared versions of this fruit, unlike ridiculous pre-peeled oranges encased in plastic. The best way I know to eat a fresh pomegranate is to cut off both ends, score a sharp knife through the skin in a circle around the middle and then about six lines from end to end. Then gently tear the fruit into chunks, and it is quite easy to get the seeds out and peel off the layers of white pith. It is still a bit fiddly. So a comparison between the fresh and the packaged - the juice from the fresh was much darker red, the classic colour that pomegranates are prized for, not really sweeter but a more complex flavour with more to it than the packaged one, which tasted fine but the fresh had the edge.

Pomegranates are considered a ‘superfood’ with all sorts of health benefits like reducing risks of cardiovascular disease and packed with antioxidants but I get a bit annoyed with certain fruits being trendy as supposedly the healthiest with the price then being hiked up. Lots of countries are increasing their production and exports of pomegranates, so some info about that will be pomegranates part 2 posting at some point.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

India's food exports boom, as 200 million people go hungry

India has more starving people than sub-Saharan Africa, with more than 200 million classified by IFPRI (International Food Policy research Institute) as hungry, even though the country is the world’s biggest rice grower with surplus grain in government warehouses. A bold policy proposal ensuring the right to food, the National Food Security Act would entitle every rural and urban family to 25 kilos of rice or wheat per month at a price of three rupees. This proposal has been widely welcomed, but previous government initiatives to reduce hunger have not met the stated targets.

In contrast, government supported programmes to increase India’s food exports are evidently a higher priority than feeding hungry people, as many of the export targets have been met. Whilst India’s other key export sectors, including textiles and jewellery, declined in 2008, plummeting 9.9 per cent in November alone, agricultural and processed food exports are booming. APEDA (Agricultural and Processed Foods Export Development Authority) reported that agricultural and processed foods exports totaled 17.5 million tones valued at Crore 31,820 in 2008. This is a growth of 46 per cent by value compared to 2007. It is worth pointing out, however, that the export volume growth of 70 per cent, from 10.9 million tones to 17.5 million tones, was much higher than the revenue growth, so the revenues are actually declining per tonne of food that is exported. APEDA is anticipating 20 per cent growth in exports for 2009, and has set a target to double India’s agricultural exports from $9 billion to $18 billion within five years.

Many countries including the US are investing heavily in India’s food processing industry. It is claimed that India will soon host the world’s biggest food park, the Himalya 13 hectare food plant near Delhi Airport will produce supposedly healthy functional foods, meal replacements, and processed bars made from nuts and berries and grains. Contract farming will source oats from Rajasthan and Gujarat, but other opportunities for Indian suppliers will be limited as US interests in the plant will be supported with nuts, almonds, and berries to be sourced from California. The US EXIM Bank has supported the plant with concessionary rates for the import of the plant and equipment. This is extending the supply chain, and increasing the environmental damage of transportation, for the construction and operation of the fancy food plant itself, as well as the actual products.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Iraq’s oil pipelines

Iraq’s health care remains severely affected by war with ill-equipped doctors, filthy hospitals and lack of basic medicines even in Baghdad’s best hospitals. In contrast, gigantic infrastructure projects for exploitation of the country’s oil and gas reserves are fast-tracked fuel. The interests in these developments, and the pipelines, map the realpolitik of the invasion and ‘reconstruction’ of Iraq, behind the political posturing, but pass with little comment in the mainstream media outside dry reports in the business pages.

As a result of the first contract to emerge from Iraq’s oilfield auction in June, the country’s oil ministry has signed an agreement with British Petroleum and CNPC, China’s largest oil and gas producer and supplier, to develop the ‘super-giant’ Rumalia oil field. The foreign firms have the lion’s share of the development, which aims to boost output to 2.85 million barrels per day. BP has a 38 per cent stake, CNPC 37 per cent and Iraq’s State Oil Marketing Organisation the remaining 25 per cent. UK firm Foster Wheeler is to build the country’s biggest ever oil refinery to process over 300,000 barrels of oil per day, complete with an export pipeline.

Back in June 2008, UAE based Dana Gas and Crescent Petroleum’s LPG plants, complete with a 180km natural gas pipeline to fuel new power stations, was on fast track, and at $650 million the largest single private sector investment in Iraq since 2003. Now, Dana Gas and Crescent Oil intend to build a $60 billion Gas City in the province of Anbar, which has suffered some of the heaviest fighting since the US led invasion. Prime Minister, Nouri Maliki has identified gas from the Akkas field for possible export of 15 billion cubic metres via the planned Nabucco pipeline from Turkey to Western Europe, which aims to reduce dependence on Russian gas supplies, (see this article by Peter C Glover on the ‘international intrigue’ surrounding the Nabucco pipeline) or to Syria for power and fertiliser plants. The Province Governor, Quassim Al-Fahdawi is arguing that the first priority for use of the gas should be the local economy in Anbar, rather than export.

As pipelines are built for exporting fossil fuels, the Iraqi government is supporting a crackpot scheme aiming to produce biofuel from dates. It is estimated that Iraq’s production of dates could rise from about 350,000 tonnes per year to 900,000. So much for claims that new generations of biofuels will not compete with food supplies. Hunger is a pertinent issue for Iraq with the World Food Programme estimates that 930,000 Iraqis face food insecurity and an additional 6.4 million would be food insecure without the Public Distribution System.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Plastic food for your child's lunchbox

The UK has a problem of declining take up of school meals, in Scotland the proportion of pupils eating schools meals was down to 39 per cent earlier this year. One reason is the drive for healthier meals and snacks at school, the changing menus with the unfamiliar food means lots of pupils just go off and buy burgers and chips etc. In addition to competition from takeaway outlets which often sell greasy and overprocessed food, school meals have to contend with competition from heavily marketed products with the targeting parents for putting in their children’s school lunch boxes.

I bought this product for a child’s lunch box 4 years ago in October 2005. It is from the Dairylea Lunchables range. The packaging is all about the chance to win an adventure weekend and activity toys, and has a cartoon character, a dancing cow that looks like its got BSE. Inside the actual ‘food’, encased in multiple layers of plastic, is less colourful. There is some ‘meat’ and some sort of pitta type bread, inside which lurks some processed cheese encased in its own layer of plastic, the type of cheese that doubles up as a toy as it can be torn into strips. It came with a concession to real food, a small carton of 100% orange juice, and some strawberry flavoured yoghurt. The rules on labelling mean that the use of the term ‘strawberry flavoured’, as opposed to ‘strawberry flavour’, means that it should contain at least a little bit of real strawberry and not entirely artificial flavourings.

I am keeping the product to see what will eventually happen to it. Three years later it looked much the same, I took this photo in 2008, now in October 2009 there is little discernible difference. I wonder if it will start leaking noxious gas if the plastic biodegrades before the food-like substance contents. I might open it after keeping it for 10 years, but suspect it will look much the same in 2015.

The Lunchables products have had their marketing claims challenged. In 2002, the ‘Harvest Ham’ product in the Dairylea Lunchables range won the dubious honour of the Food Commission’s Parents’ Jury Not In My Lunchbox award for the worst food product marketed for children’s lunch boxes, listing the product’s ingredients much more prominently than the small print on the packaging. One mother’s comment summed up the product as ‘Absolutely vile, overprocessed rubbish’. The manufacturer, Kraft Foods, was hauled up by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) for the Lunchables range in 2007, upholding complaints that the advert breached clauses on ‘truthfulness’ and ‘substantiation’ in its claims that the product was ‘packed with good stuff’ and banned the advertisement from being used in future campaigns.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

US continues airport stimulus funds

In August, US television network CBS reported that, out of a total of $1.1 billion in federal grant money from the Obama administration, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) had awarded $100 million to 50 airport projects that did not meet with grant criteria. Stimulus money had been spent on tiny airports serving recreational flyers and corporate jets, and small remote communities, including $15 million for Ouzinkie, with a population of just 167, to replace its runway. In addition, the FAA approved funds for four airports with a track record of mismanagement of federal funds

Yet, in September, the US Senate was considering legislation to allow an increase in the most obvious form of aviation subsidy, to raise the maximum airport passenger fees from $4.50 to £7 per passenger. According to the FAA this would raise about $1.3 billion for airport development. This is particularly eagerly awaited by Chicago O’Hare Airport, to enable expansion to 8 runways and a new terminal, a controversial development as documented by the blog The Reckless Expansion of O’Hare Airport. Many US airports are still receiving considerable stimulus funds for baggage handling and security including $14.4 for San Antonio Airport and $15.6 million for Dayton.

In addition to federal stimulus funds, some states are still proving generous. For example since 2003, Pennsylvania has spent more than $87 million in state funds to improve the state’s airports and in June Governor of Pennsylvania Edward G Rendell announced expenditure of nearly US$3 million for 16 airports to improve safety and facility maintenance.

Port Columbus Airport in Ohio, USA, has requested $1.5 million from President Obama’s economic stimulus package to replace its leaking roof with a ‘green’ roof. Green roofs already garnish the most visible buildings in several airports including Chicago’ O’Hare and Midway, with landscape planting on water-resistant membranes deflecting heat, absorbing noise and reducing water runoff. The airport is also hoping for $650,000 for five low-emission, fuel-efficient shuttle buses. Great measures for improving the airport’s environmental performance and image, but none of this tinkering with the airport site will reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from the core business of the flights.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Plums rot in the ground, but not the packaging

British plums
There has been some progress in reducing the amount of plastic encasing most of the fruit in UK supermarkets. Sainsbury’s new, lighter packaging for soft fruit including plums, cherries and strawberries has a film lid instead of the more rigid clip on lids, which is claimed to reduce the weight of the packaging by up to 87 per cent. I went to buy some a couple of weeks ago but could only find the old packaging, pictured here on the top of the photo. I popped in again a few days later and found some plums in the new packaging, see the photo below in comparison. The packaging is certainly less substantial, though nothing like an 87 per cent reduction. The label says that it is recyclable at larger Sainsbury’s stores, but I prefer to buy fruit in brown paper bags. Even soft fruit, ripe and soft, need not get squashed if you are careful with it and the paper can add some much needed fibrous matter for the compost. There is even plastic packaging for fruit and veg at farmers’ market these days, like the plums in the other photo, which I bought at Rye in Sussex.

The bigger picture of the UK plum harvest is not as positive as the NFU (National Farmers Union) recently predicted that tonnes of UK plums would be left to rot as major supermarkets including Tesco favour imported ones. Imported plums are usually picked unripe so tend to be rock hard. The UK government has called for more domestic production of fruit and vegetables, noting dramatic reductions in growing of many types of produce including cauliflowers (another type of produce which has also often left to rot and be ploughed back into the ground when supermarkets source from overseas or the veg does not meet some superficial cosmetic appearance or uniformity standard), tomatoes, lettuce and plums. Boosting domestic production is not enough if there is not action all along the supply chain so we can actually buy it, and if the major supermarkets, which sell most of the fruit and veg consumed in the UK, do make local sourcing a higher priority.

Friday, 11 September 2009

History etching into Sicily's landscape

Sicily, marketed as ‘an island a continent’ to tourists has a varied and beautiful landscape of mountains, farmland, coast and caves. Going there does not feel not too detached from reality, as the island is too small too hide gigantic infrastructure projects like the petrochemical complex seen from the train to Siracuse and quarries gouging out whole hills. The island is criss-crossed with a gigantic road network with enormous flyovers on huge pillars and tunnels through the hills. Hurtling down one of these I fleetingly saw a sign to a place called something like ‘Five Bridges’ a town living in the shade of enormous pillars, with the little arches overarched by the new motorway. With its fertile land and geographical position as a strategic trading point Sicily’s history is dominated by successive waves of invasion by the Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Normans etc... This is a photo of a map of Sicily from Roman times. It is ‘upside down’ as Rome was regarded as the centre of the world.

It was not just the sea ports that were fought over. Enna is a town high on a 1000m ridge in the centre of the island that was repeatedly fortified as a strategic base. Now, if a monster new infrastructure project takes place, it will not just be the A19 motorway passing through. A delegation from China has visited with a view to investing in and constructing an airport and logistics hub for exports to Europe and an expanding affluent population in Northern Africa. This is a map of Enna,
View Larger Map if the development takes place the new 500km runway will be longer than the town. The Sicilians have a formidable reputation for holding up or even halting developments that trash the landscape. Residents near the Zingaro nature reserve campaigned successfully for a road planned to cut through the area to be routed underground through a tunnel. I wonder if this, if it comes to anything, will cause a stir.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Bargain booze and label confusion

For a long time, when you entered a big supermarket, the entrance would be the aisles full of fresh fruit and vegetables, cut flowers and other ornamental plants. More recently, the entrance is often piled high with crates of bargain booze. This discounted booze is partly responsible increasing rates of alcoholism and British pubs going bust. Below cost selling of booze by supermarkets is outrageous, recently Tesco in Hexham, Northumberland had a customer offer of 15 cans of lager for £5 if they spent £30 on other goods. The Publican website is running the Make it the Minimum petition for a miminum cost of 50p per unit of alcohol.

Once you have navigated round the cheap alcohol to the fruit and vegetables and nauseating neon cut flowers, the distinction between fresh and processed foods is blurring. In amidst the vegetables there are little plastic packages of gloopy stuff that is, apparently, salad dressing, and there is a whole section of prepared fruit and vegetables, encased in plastic with little plastic spoons like an aeroplane meal. The labelling of the ‘ready to eat’ fruit salads and sliced and diced vegetables has changed. For a while many of the labels read ‘produce of more than one country’, not just on mixed fruit salads and prepared combinations of veg such as for stir fries, this uninformative label appeared on some single ingredient products like diced or sliced pineapple. Now the labels on the prepared fresh fruit and veg in Sainsbury’s, like this sliced melon, says ‘produced in the UK’, or ‘produced in Ghana’ or wherever, i.e. where the last bit of processing was done, so as with traditionally processed food like tinned stuff, the provenance of the actual ingredients is a complete mystery.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Business Park to trash bird habitats

A few weeks ago a report by George Monbiot in The Guardian newspaper detailed subsidies of over £80 million over the last ten years for airport expansion in the UK, channelled via many government agencies including bodies controlled by the Scottish and Welsh national assemblies and EU funding via unelected Regional Development Authorities (RDAs). A considerable proportion of this is freight related including a truck park and warehousing at Kent Airport, maintenance hangars at Glasgow Prestwick Airport and a business park at Newcastle Airport. Yet many subsidies for aviation expansion all over the UK were not captured by Monbiot’s information request. I’ll gradually get around to blogging some of these.

For starters, there was European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and Highland Council funding a for link road, which opened in 2006, to provide access for Inverness Airport Business Park. In the Inverness Airport Masterplan it is stated that the area designated for the business park ‘earmarked for aviation related development such as hangars; maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) and cargo/freight interchange’ and it is explicit that the business park will help the airport expand as it is described as an ‘important catalyst for growth at the airport’.

The outline planning application for Inverness Airport Business Park was submitted in February 2008. The development site is 250 hectares of land adjacent to the airfield on the west and south.
View Larger MapIt is being built on green space, 34 per cent of the site is prime agricultural land used for arable crops and 25 per cent is a coniferous plantation. The Masterplan up to 2010 includes development of a 3,000 m² building with landside access road and rear side access area. The business park is part of the A96 Growth Corridor Development Framework for a multimodal transport gateway of road, rail and air links and will incorporate business premises and light industry.

As the development area is substantial and some of it will not be built on there is scope for mitigating habitat loss for some species like bats, badgers and red squirrels on other areas of the site as detailed in the Environmental Statement. The ‘Woodland Zone’ is to be a mix of business and light industrial uses set partly within Dulcross Wood, following the tradition of naming developments after the natural habitats that have been, to a certain extent, trashed to accommodate them. But some of the environmental impacts that cannot be mitigated will affect the breeding habitats of endangered wild and farmland bird species. This includes goshawks (pictured), of which there are only about 100 pairs in the whole of Scotland. They are only found in a few sites as they nest in large, undisturbed forests, preferring to return to the same site year after year.

The business park is a more serious threat to skylarks and grey partridges, with the irrevocable loss of breeding habitat. Skylarks are highlighted by the RSPB as needing urgent action is needed to secure the future of the species. In 2007 it was reported that the population of grey partridges, iconic farmland species with a distinctive orange face, had crashed from about 145,000 by over 80 per cent in 25 years due to pesticides, predators plus loss of habitats hedgerows and grasslands.

Friday, 7 August 2009

Chicken tikka tussle

The Glaswegian MP Mohammed Sarwar is calling for fellow parliamentarians to back his campaign for EU (Protected Designation of Origin) PDO status for chicken tikka, which he is claiming originated in Scotland. If his campaign is successful this would effectively patent the name ‘chicken tikka’ so it could only be used when produced in specified standards within a defined geographical area. As Dervinder Sharma writes about on his blog, the development of dishes are complex and impossible to attribute to a single person or geographical area. But the story goes that a Glaswegian chef spontaneously made up the sauce for chicken tikka after a customer complained their meal was too dry, throwing together a can of tomato soup and some spices that were close to hand. The claim is contested by a restaurant chain in Peshawar which claims to have been cooking chicken tikka since before the partition of India in 1947.

This follows similar PDO battles in the UK. British cheese producers resisted calls from Greece for PDO status for the term ‘feta cheese’ but Leicestershire pie makers wanted the boot on the other foot when they applied for PDO status for Melton Mowbray pork pies. Both these applications were eventually approved by the EU.

India has already had to contend with a US Patent Office application for the healing properties of turmeric, which has been used widely as communal knowledge for hundreds of years. India’s campaigners against biopiracy also have intellectual property applications coming at them from within their own country. The Agricultural and Processed Food Export Development Authority (APEDA) applied for a patent on basmati rice. This was eventually granted, vesting APEDA with power over registration and enforcement of Intellectual Property Right (IPR), even though rice was listed by the government as protected from IPR. As Dervinder Sharma points out, opponents to the patent had amassed some 50,000 pages of evidence that basmati rice is a ‘prior art’, known to exist earlier than the patent applicants are claiming.

Meanwhile, the real treasure of biological diversity is increasingly at risk with rare breeds including poultry in diminishing numbers on small farms. This photo is, I think, a White Dorking chicken. The Dorking breed comes in many colours including silver grey, red and dark. Dorkings were first introduced to Britain in AD30 by the Romans and later used to develop the successful Sussex and Faverolles breeds. According to the Rare Breeds Survival Trust this is one of many vulnerable breeds of poultry on its watchlist, which have been carefully bred to suit local conditions and give good quality meat and eggs. There used to be flocks all over the Southern counties of England.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Camel milk chocolate

camel milk chocolateThe supply chain for food and ornamental plants for Dubai's population and tourists extends all over the world - seafood from Canada, Halal meat from China, pomegranates from Afghanistan, cut flowers from Ecuador and Colombia, indoor plants from Holland and mediterranean plants from Italy. The Gulf region has had varying success with attempts at increasing local food production with eye-poppingly energy and water guzzling schemes like wheat growing, shrimp farming and mass imports of cows from Australia. The locally produced flowers adorning Dubai's parks, hotels and offices are similarly ambitious and ecologically destructive, there are rose farms in the desert and millions of petunias that need watering.

But there could be a (relative, minor) outbreak of sanity in Dubai's food manufacturing with a new product where one of its main components is actually working with the desert conditions. Chocolate made with camels' milk is making its way to the shelves all around the world. It will be a very niche item as apparently only Dubai has the appropriate facilities to manufacture this premium product, and there are only two camel farms in the country. Other ingredients will come from around the world including honey from Yemen and vanilla from Madagascar.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Food Inc trailer

The film Food Inc, made by Robert Kenner, is screening in the US, hope it goes worldwide. Looks like an amazing insight into the reality of massive industrial food supply chains. The reality of food production is kept very secret, in the US it is illegal to criticise food products and taking photographs of food processing plants may also be prohibited. The reality of how the products are made is increasingly at odds with whimsical marketing of a long gone farming landsape and culture. As for the food, the processed meat products are everywhere, and even vegetarians may have been perplexed by the 'notional tomato' with hardly any flavour.

The movie website has loads of info, I like the Hungry For Change part with the interactive school cafeteria.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Water awareness

A new installation has been launched at Heathrow Airport, a giant 6 metre high pump in the Terminal 5 departures concourse to raise awareness of the water pumps in developing countries which water brand One Water donates all its it profits to. Passengers can donate by text or through buying bottles of One Water, with over 2 million bottles already sold at Heathrow’s retail empire. It’s brilliant to raise awareness and funds for practical programmes to the 1 billion people without access to clean water, but does it have to be by buying bottled water? Whatever the merits of One Water, there is still a lot of packaging and transportation involved.

It’s like buying a fur coat to promote animal rights or eating veal to show support for vegetarianism. It reminds me of British Airways sponsoring an ice rink at the British Natural History Museum, considering their contribution to climate change. Or Heathrow Airport roping some local children into planting 2,500 trees to create a woodland that, according to Airport Watch, the UK umbrella group opposing unconstrained airport expansion, would be unlikely to survive if the contentious third runway goes ahead.

As for having an exhibition about water at an airport. Airports use a huge amount of water and pollute waterways with de-icing chemicals like glycol. I didn’t go to Heathrow Airport to see the water installation or go out to buy some One Water. Instead I took a walk around Bilberry Reservoir in Kirklees, this photo caught the sun on it quite well. Somehow though, by the time our water comes out of the tap it tastes very chlorinated, maybe if there was less chlorine or it was filtered better more people would be happy to drink tap water. I’ve got one of those filter jug things.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Will Kenya's flower exports help the hunger crisis?

Yet another report extolling the supposed benefits of air freighted horticulture (flowers, fruit and vegetables) in Sub-Saharan Africa. This one, Sustainable Development in a Changing Climate, emanates from the UK government’s House of Commons International Development Committee. As usual, the argument that air freighted food and flowers can result in lower greenhouse gas emissions rests on a single study by Cranfield University for supermarket supplier World Flowers. Carried out in 2007, this study compared the supply chain to the UK of air freighted roses grown near Lake Naivasha in the Rift Valley in Kenya with similar roses grown in a heated greenhouse in the Netherlands. Whilst this study showed that the Kenyan roses resulted in lower greenhouse gas emissions than the Dutch roses it is just one small scale study and does not apply to the entire air freighted horticulture sector, with produce often carried on connecting flights criss-crossing the globe.

Along with greenhouse gas emissions there are other environmental impacts to consider, as documented in the 2008 report by Food and Water Watch and The Council of Canadians Lake Naivasha: Withering Under the Assault of International Flower Vendors. Over 30 commercial flower farms siphoning off water with canals dug around the lake, restricting access to the lake by blocked corridors so cannot provide water for livestock including Masai cattle grazing, depleting biodiversity, and contaminating the wider environment with toxic pesticides and fertilizers. The chemicals are also poisoning workers, many of whom are not provided with protective clothing. The report highlights wider issues of poor labour standards, low wages and mass sackings which led to protests at the Oserian flower farm, which supplies over 1 billion cut flowers per year, in 2006. While exporting flowers effectively exports enormous amounts of embedded water as a flower is 90 per cent water, there were instances of wages insufficient even for a farmer to purchase water for their family.

Yet the IDC report maintains that horticulture exports are crucial for development and supporting livelihoods. While the export earnings from Kenya’s air freighted horticulture, predominantly flowers, may be impressive, up 64 per cent in 2007 to over $644,000,000, these earnings from fertile land which could feed Kenyan people, are not filtering down to people whose basic food needs are not being met. As with many other countries Kenya’s hunger situation is getting worse. The Kenyan president declared a national disaster in 2008 with nearly a third of the 34 million population facing food shortages due with displacement and disruption post election violence and crop failures exacerbated by drought a key factor in ongoing food crisis in 2009 affecting areas of Kenya including the Rift Valley. By June this year some areas of the Rift Valley have had no rain for several months. In June the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) launched a new food appeal for the Horn of Africa, especially urgent for Kenya because of the widespread famine and worsening conditions.

One organisation contributing to the IDC report, the Overseas Development Institute suggests air freighted produce from Africa might be labelled as ‘good for development’, but there is insufficient evidence that paying growers a pittance for ornamental flowers, something we don’t need, and wrecking the planet in the process, is the best way to lift people out of poverty. In importing countries like the UK the debate has become highly polarised, and the horticulture exports are still a contentious issue in Kenya as well. Just days after the publication of the IDC report, IBECA, the Indigenous Biodiversity Environmental Conservation Association in Kenya began campaigning for a boycott of 30 flower farms around Lake Naivasha, and protestors prevented a farm from extracting water through a deep canal.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Booze boosts British food & drink exports

British “booze cruises” to pick up cheap alcohol from continental Europe may be on the wane with the collapse of the pound against the Euro, but alcoholic drinks are a mainstay of the UK’s food and drink exports. A study by Leatherhead Food International for the Food and Drink Federation, UK Food and Drink Export Performance 2008 shows an enormous rise in the value of UK food and drink exports, partly attributed to rising commodity prices and the devaluation of the pound against the Euro and other currencies. Food and drink exports were worth £9.23.billion, but when alcoholic drinks are included, exports totalled £13.6 billion. So, alcoholic drinks make up almost one-third of the value of the UK’s food and drink exports, at over £4.3 billion.

Some of the other product categories noted as strong export performers are notable for the key ingredients being imported; tea exports are up by over 14 per cent, and chocolate by nearly 11 per cent. In 2007 chocolate exports totalled nearly £316 million. The value of UK tea exports was almost as high as the value of exports at over £159 million. The value of coffee exports was even higher at over £180 million. Exports of these high value products made with imported ingredients makes the UK look even less self-sufficient in food than the widening food trade deficit would indicate. Defra statistics show that in 2007 food and drink exports were £6.56 billion, with imports more than three times the value at almost £20 billion.

The UK food trade deficit is particularly acute with fruit and vegetables. By 2007, the value of exports was more than six times that of exports at £6 billion. The growing popularity of allotment and garden growing (like these peas in the photo) may be in the news, but in reality it can be difficult to follow heath guidance to eat more fruit and veg, whilst reducing food miles by eating local produce. Bizarrely, the UK’s fruit exports include produce which did not originate here, so banana exports were valued at over £21 million, about 50 per cent more than apple exports at £13 million. As usual, the supply chain for our food is more convoluted than it appears.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Airport's biometric ID scheme glitches

Manchester Airport is at the vanguard of biometric ID trials for schemes that are planned for rolling out across the country. The programmes have been beset with technical hitches and staff opposition. The airport trialled the UK’s first biometric access control portal for staff, using iris recognition to monitor and control access to restricted areas. The biometric identity cards, called the Critical Worker Identity Card (CWIC) scheme, were to be compulsory for all staff at Manchester and London City Airports. Pilots warned that they would not co-operate with the trial. The ID scheme was quietly scaled down earlier this month, abandoned for existing employees, with only new staff expected to apply for an ID card.

Biometric face recognition for passengers, with five machines at Terminal 1 targeting so called ‘high risk’ passengers, have also been beset with problems. Initially, the kit was set so that an 80 per cent likeness with passengers’ digital passports. In the Times, David Leppard reported that leaked information from a member of staff claimed the machines were throwing up so many false negatives, a 70 per cent error rate, that long queues were developing, so the machines were recalibrated to a 30 per cent likeness. Ron Jenkins of Glasgow University, a leading expert was of the opinion that this would render the machines so ineffective as to be unable to distinguish between UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown and actor Mel Gibson, or between Osama Bin Laden and actor Winona Ryder. So the enhanced security was actually laxer, and slowed down passenger flow through the airport instead of speeding it up. The UK Border Agency categorically denied that the machines had been recalibrated.

It could be worse, in the US, 10 airports including Dallas Fort-Worth and McCarran, are trialling ‘whole body imaging’ machines that reveal what is underneath passengers’ clothes. After being criticised for being too revealing apparently a ’modesty filter’ has been fitted, and passengers, who are randomly selected for the procedure, can opt for a ‘good old-fashioned pat down’ by security staff instead.

Its all too intrusive and technology driven, and forgetting that human observation and intervention is vital to averting genuine security risks, such as the failed car bomb attempt at Glasgow Airport and the so called ‘shoe bomber’ who was subdued and restrained by passengers.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Air cargo firms deliver aid and arms

Originally uploaded by RoseBridger
SIPRI, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute,have published a report Air transport and destabilising commodity flows, which reveals that 90 per cent of air cargo companies identified in arms trafficking reports to conflict zones in Africa have been contracted to transport humanitarian aid and in peacekeeping operations by the UN, EU, NATO member states, defence contractors and NGOs. Many of these air cargo carriers are also involved in transportation of conflict sensitive goods such as illegal narcotics, cocaine, diamonds, fossil fuels, valuable metals and minerals such as coltan, which is used in electronic products. In some instances, air cargo companies are delivering aid and weapons to the same conflict zones.

The report covers Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Somalia and Sudan, although ‘war economies’, conflicts driven by economic and political gain and rooted in control of resources, operate across states and regions. Air transportation links between groups in different states can be stronger than within individual states. Conflict zones may be geographically isolated, but are dependent on connections to global markets and reliant on external support and supplies. Air cargo firms have a central role in these destabilising commodity flows, as there is a reliance on air transport for essential commodities over dangerous land routes. Carriers are identified as ‘facilitators of war economies’ through transportation of small arms and light weapons, and less directly through movement of valuable raw materials and supplying extractive industries with equipment, spare parts and fuel.

SIPRI recommends two key actions that could be taken at the EU level. Aircraft have to be registered, which means that air cargo firms are the only non-state actors in the commodity flows which are relatively easy to trace. This means that a combination of training, coordinated information and field research would enable policy makers to undertake systematic monitoring of air transport firms involvement in illicit or destabilising commodity flows. ‘Ethical transportation’ clauses could be added to peace, humanitarian aid and defence logistics supply chain contracts. Secondly, refinement of the established EU air safety mechanisms to target air cargo companies with poor safety records the would effectively target several of the air cargo firms involved in the destabilising commodity flows, as they have a poor safety record. These measures would help to make companies choose between transporting aid or transporting arms, and put ‘hard core arms dealers’ out of business.

The lamentable air cargo safety record in Africa continues. Eleven people were killed on 9th March, when a cargo plane chartered by Dyncorp carrying tents and water purification treatment to Somalia crashed after taking off from Entebbe Airport into nearby Lake Victoria. Then, on 30th April a Boeing 737 cargo plane crashed near Kinshasa the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, shortly after taking off from Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo.

Sunday, 31 May 2009

Sustainable food of the Lleyn Peninsula

Locally produced food has been highlighted for its potential to boost the Welsh rural economy, as well as reducing the environmental damage of lengthening ‘food miles’ transporting food from producer to consumer. The Lleyn Peninsula, a narrow strip of land jutting into the sea, sometimes referred to as the arm of North Wales, has a surprising range of local produce with livestock like buffalo along with the ubiquitous sheep and cattle.

The Lleyn Peninsula is best known for its seafood. I visited Llyn Land and Seafood Festival held in Pwllheli marina. Stalls included free range geese and chicken meat from Ty’n y Celyn of the Vale of Clwyd and North Wales Buffalo, much of the herd originating from Romania has adapted well to the farm on the Halkyn Mountain overlooking the Dee Estuary. Buffalo can bring less productive land into food production as they are good converters of poor quality forage. There were Menai Oysters, from a restored mussel bed that had not been worked for two decades, and has been developed into an oyster and mussel farm supplying the wholesale and restaurant market. In addition to locally sourced food there were unusual twists to imported food and drink like chocolate and champagne, and more sustainable packaging made from biodegradable corn starch. The annual festival is hosted by the Llyn Fishermen’s Association.

I spent a day at Aberdaron, a fishing village at the tip of the Lleyn Peninsula. The Aberdaron crab and lobster fishery is working with the National Trust, which maintains most of the Lleyn coastline, to meet their sustainability criteria and towards Marine Stewardship Council certification. This includes making the transition from using edible wet fish as bait to using waste salmon, which will save resources as well as reducing costs. Crab caught in the morning is dressed and packed locally and in shops by lunchtime. Tried all kinds of produce, all very good, all in the name of research of course.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Birds in the flightpaths

The occurrence of flocks of geese simultaneously getting minced up in both a plane’s engines was considered very unlikely, but this is what happened as a US Airways plane took off from New York in January. Miraculously, the pilot landed the plane safely in the Hudson River, but the incident raised concerns about the risk of bird strikes worldwide. The outcome of bird strikes is always fatal for the birds and might not be so fortunate for passenger safety. The incident helped to put the kybosh on London Mayor Boris Johnson’s proposals for a new airport in London’s Thames estuary. The RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) puts the Thames Estuary in the top five internationally important sites for birds in the UK and tens of thousands of migrating birds would be at risk if a new airport was built there.

Birds that are considered to endanger flights are likely to be moved or destroyed. BAA (British Airports Authority) was concerned that flocks of whooper swans might be a safety risk at Glasgow Airport. During the winter the birds, which can weigh up to 15 kilos, migrate from Iceland to live at Black Cart Water, which is near the runways. These birds were relatively lucky as the roosting area is protected by law. The whooper swans are a protected species living on a site of special scientific interest. Unable to move or destroy the birds, the airport operates dedicated 24 hour bird patrols. Other ways to keep birds away from the runways include chemicals on the grass to remove nutrients that would attract them, and playing the sound of distressed birds through loudspeakers.

There was a reprieve for 800 crows nesting in woods near Manchester Airport. The crows are living right under a flightpath, but have been there for over 300 years without being considered a risk to passenger safety. Yet in April the crows were due to be culled, as they were reported to be ‘commuting’ between the golf course and the airfield. The cull was postponed after hundreds of people signed a petition opposing it.

In 2008, birds at Belfast Airport had not been so lucky. Canadian and Greylag geese nesting in the park alongside the runway were raising safety concerns after 16 bird strikes were reported in a year. The Environmental and Heritage Service deemed the geese to be ‘feral’ birds, in contrast to the migrating species that only visit the airport area in winter, so the geese’s eggs were destroyed by pricking them and dipping them in oil. At Inverness Airport a gull nested and laid eggs on a car roof in the long-stay car park. The RSPB reported this was the first incident of this kind, but not particularly surprising if the car had been there a long time as the gulls like to nest on a flat surface. The nest and eggs were destroyed in adherence to the airport’s bird strike policy.

I’ve not got any photos of birds near airport runways, but these are some geese landing, elegantly, at Watermead Park in Leicester, where birds are as safe as they can be these days on this protected site.

Monday, 11 May 2009

Dubai's fake trees

Dubai property prices crashed 41 per cent in the first three months of this year and tourism has plummeted. Yet developments are still underway of the same scale and ambition as the artificial Palm Island, the Burj Al Arab hotel shaped like a sail and the Arctic Winter Experience. This contains some of the world’s biggest indoor ski-slopes and snowdome. This complex with its spectacles like rotating mountains and the Penguinarium (strange - penguins come from the Antarctic) is faring better than the real ice-caps.

Apparently it uses geothermal energy to maintain a constant -1ºC temperature, but most of the gigantic tourist attractions in Dubai are fossil fuel guzzling and major emitters of greenhouse gases from construction, refrigeration and water desalination. Current developments include the Hydropolis luxury hotel, a 260 hectare complex with 220 luxury suites 20 metres below the surface of the Arabian Gulf. The Versace beach will have coolant pipes under the sand to maintain a constant temperature of 22ºC. Giant fans will blow a gentle breeze over beach. With Dubai’s daytime summer temperature ranging between 40ºC to 50ºC, the fuel consumption will be enormous.

Johann Hari’s article in The Independent newspaper, The dark side of Dubai, looks at how the infrastructure for maintaining these energy and water guzzling projects in the desert is showing the strain, with rising seas threatening artificial islands and sewage treatment failing so raw sewage has been flowing into the posh beaches. The article also documents instances of the mistreatment of construction and service workers in Dubai, and ends with an interview with a Filipino employee at Pizza Hut saying ‘Everything in Dubai is fakes, everything you see. The trees are fake…’.

Intrigued, I had a look at Dubai’s long history of importing plants on a massive scale. Often they are living plants, frequently fully grown and transported a long way. 100 year old Sicilian olive trees were imported for the Bur Juman shopping mall. Lawns and fully grown trees are imported from Turkey, and there is a considerable import of live plants grown in sterile soil in US and many European countries. Plants grown further north, for example in the Netherlands, are considered ideal for indoor settings like shopping malls and hotels in Dubai, as they accustomed to lower light levels. As for the fake trees, some trees cannot survive the lower light levels indoors, so called ‘preserved palms’ are made from the preserved fronds and trunks of dead trees, which are wrapped around metal frames. So yes, even the trees can be fake in Dubai.

Monday, 4 May 2009

Feeding the fuel tanks

Biofuels are already in use mixed with petrol to power cars and trucks, and have come under scrutiny for competing with land for food and contributing to the food crisis, with the number of hungry people rising to 1 billion. Now, there is fast paced development of biofuels for aviation fuel. There are claims that these are ‘second generation’ crops which do not compete with food supplies, unlike the corn, palm and sugar cane which form the majority of biofuels currently in use. The biofuel blends that have been used for recent test flights show that this claim does live up to scrutiny.

Virgin Atlantic’s test flight in 2008 used biofuel made from coconuts, and babassu nuts – a type of palm oil used for cooking oil. Just twenty per cent biofuel in one of the plane’s four engines used 150,000 coconuts for a short-haul flight from London to Amsterdam. If coconuts are developed for mainstream use as aviation fuel, millions of coconuts would be burned up in a single long haul flight.

In January 2009 other airlines began test flights using a proportion of biofuels blended with conventional kerosene. Japan Airlines’ biofuel test flight used 84 per cent camelina oil, sixteen per cent jatropha and one per cent algae in a 50 per cent biofuel mix in one of a Boeing 474’s four engines. Camelina is also known as false flax and is highly nutritious being rich in essential fatty acids, used for cooking oil and also as chicken feed. Japan Airlines claimed that growing camelina as a biofuel crop does not compete with food crops, as it can be grown in rotation with other crops when the land might otherwise be fallow. This is a theoretical scenario and camelina is still as crop that could be used to feed people.

Air New Zealand’s two hour test flight used a 50 per cent blend of jatropha in one of a 747’s four engines. Jatropha is an inedible plant with black berries yielding up to 40 per cent oil. Chief Executive, Rob Fyfe anticipates that jatropha could provide about ten per cent of the airlines’ fuel, about a million barrels of 160 million litres, by 2013. This would require about 84,000 hectares of land to be planted with jatropha.

Jatropha is being hailed as a potential sustainable biofuel for aviation, as it can grow on marginal, dry land and not compete with food crops. A report, Jatropha: the myth of the new wonder plant, from Alliance Sud raises concerns that jatropha plantations are displacing food crops. The Indian government plans to plant 11 million hectares with jatropha by 2012, and some of the land that has already been planted was previously used by smallholders for crops like rice. In Africa, land has been allocated for jatropha on the most fertile land in Tanzania, displacing rice, maize and cassava crops, and while much of Ethiopia is drought ridden, jatropha is being grown in some of the areas benefitting from the most rainfall.

Continental Airlines biofuel test flights, in Houston and Quito in Ecuador, used a biofuel mix of 47.5 per cent jatropha and 2.5 per cent algae blended with 50 per cent kerosene in one of a Boeing 737’s two engines. The airlines have emphasised the use of algae in the test flights, it is even being called a ‘third generation biofuel’ which could be grown in water, so not raise any ‘land-take’ concerns. In reality, only minute proportions of algae have been used in test flights, just 2.5 per cent in the Continental Airlines biofuel mix, and one per cent in Japan Airlines engines. Regarding future use of algae as aviation fuel, development programmes have not figured out how to produce it on a mass scale, and a Biofuelwatch report Biofuels for Aviation, reveals that the Carbon Trust estimates that algae-based fuel will not be not commercially available until 2020.

Air France, Air New Zealand, All Nippon Airways, Cargolux, Gulf Air, Japan Airlines, KLM, SAS and Virgin Atlantic Airways have formed a consortium with Boeing, the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group aiming to use biofuels to partially replace fossil fuels, by 2013. With the worsening food crisis we need to use land to feed people, not planes.

Saturday, 18 April 2009


Chocolate sales have long been noted to hold up in a recession, supposedly because people turn from big ticket purchases to little treats to cheer themselves up. An article in Time magazine indicates this is a ‘sweet spot’ even now, with the chocolate sector resilient and major brands like Nestle, Lindt and Cadbury predicting growth for the year.

This year many manufacturers made a concerted effort to reduce the environmental impact of this growth by reducing the packaging on Easter themed chocolate confectionery in the UK. This can be multilayered card and plastic to protect the delicate mouldings of eggs and bunnies. It is estimated that packaging has been reduced by an average of 25 per cent. In the shops I saw Easter chocolate in every kind of shape from shoes to motorbikes to landmark buildings like Big Ben in London.

Bars of chocolate are cheaper weight for weight, as you don’t pay for so much packaging or for a load of air inside hollow shapes. Another tip for the cash strapped in the UK is to try cooking chocolate, which is VAT (Value Added Tax) free, unlike chocolate that is marketed as confectionery and has 15 per cent VAT slapped on. Cooking chocolate looks less fancy as it comes in functional chunky blocks. Although it may not look as luxurious it often has smoother and creamier texture. Frequently it contains a higher proportion of cocoa butter than confectionery chocolate, so it can easily be melted and made into shapes or spread on cakes.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Fair trade creates an olive branch

On 4th April I went to a talk by Hadas Lahav and Samia Nasser, who were visiting Leicester as part of their visit to the UK to raise awareness of Sindyanna. Founded in 1996, Sindyanna in a non-governmental organisation bringing together Arabs and Jews, working together helping farmers and producers in the Arab region of Galilee and the Occupied Territories develop markets for fair trade produce. This creation of economic opportunities and linkages helps develop solutions to the Middle East conflict.

Palestinian producers face tremendous difficulties in accessing markets due to movement restrictions, and have to contend with restricted water supply and damage to olive groves and crops, see info from War on Want. Sindyanna projects provide much needed secure employment for rural Arab women. Only 17 per cent of Arab women in Israel participate in the job market, and those in employment through contractors frequently receive just half of a legal salary.

The olive oil is extra virgin, from the first cold pressing, and some bottling equipment from Italy was purchased recently. In addition to formal trading relationships in developing supply chains for export, there is community involvement, such as volunteers helping with the olive harvest. This year olive oil sales are anticipated to reach 50 tonnes, exported to the US and many European countries including the UK, Austria and even Italy. Twenty Palestinian farmers have worked cooperatively on the expensive and complex process of gaining organic certification for a total of 100 dunan (100,000 square metres) of land.

The olive-oil soap is from Nablus in the West Bank, and sales should reach 60,000 bars this year. The producer has been unable to sell in Israel since 2000. To make its way to export markets has to pass through the Beit Furik military checkpoint. Other Sindyanna products include dried herb mixtures, honey, carob syrup and hand made basketwork. It is hoped that couscous will shortly be another addition to the range. Sindyanna also supports Arab artists and some of their work is featured in the 2010 Bread and Roses calendar.

Sindyanna has had IMO Social and Fair Trade Certification since 2006, in recognition of good conditions for workers and long-term trustful cooperation between trading partners, and is a member of the World Fair Trade Organization. They are looking for more markets for the products, so outlets like health food and fair trade shops might want to drop them a line.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

No more orchids from Taiwan

Just over two years ago, in February 2007, an ambitious new facility opened at Manchester Airport World Freight Centre, the Pangaean Freight Centre, for air freighted perishable produce - food, fruit vegetables, fish, flowers which require temperature control. The Pangaean Centre had big ambitions and Manchester Evening News reported that the centre was importing more than 600 boxes of herbs and watercress a week, and 100 rare orchids. Some of these orchids were from Taiwan.

The chilled handling facility was predicted to achieve a turnover of £1.5 million by 2010, and aimed to triple volumes from 6,000 tonnes in the first year to 18,000 tonnes in year two, and grow its pharmaceuticals business in addition to the food and flowers. Situated near Junction 6 of the M56 motorway it was in a prime position to access many of the major supermarkets distribution networks. Founder John Crofts was hailed for his business acumen including speaking at the international Air Cargo Handling conference in 2008.

But at the end of March 2009, Pangaean freight centre ceased trading. Three jobs have been lost, but it is remarkable that there was such a small number of jobs, for a facility of over 8,000 sq ft. The closure of the Pangaean Centre also raises the question of what has happened to the government loan that helped to establish it.

In the face of Pangaean’s failure, and freight volumes which have plummeted every month since April 2008, Manchester Airport still plans to increase freight volumes to 250,000 tonnes a year by 2015. The freight growth plans would entail the demolition of Rose Cottage, a listed building surrounded by a rare wildlife oasis in this heavily urbanised area, which includes a 300 year old pond with a colony of rare crested newts. The Save Rose Cottage Campaign is opposing this development.

The closure of the Pangaean Freight Centre does not necessarily mean that the UK is reducing its dependence on air freighted food and flower imports. Prepared fruit salads into Heathrow and fish to Gatwick are still holding up, and the UK is a key destination for prepared vegetables from Thailand landing at Munich in Germany, which are then shipped and trucked here.

Friday, 27 March 2009

K+N global logistics

Here’s another set of company results showing that this is not a recession for the biggest power players in global supply chains. K+N is one of the world’s biggest logistics firms. Here is a photo of one of their lorries. You might be less likely to see its giant warehouses, which K&N began construction of and expanded in many locations in 2008, including Hamburg and Kuala Lumpur. K+N posted its best financial results for 2008, with turnover up 3 per cent from 2007, and a 21 per cent increase in the shareholder dividend.

Air freight was up 2.1 per cent for 2008 in spite of fuel costs and the downturn. K+N’s recent air freight highlights include collaborating with carrier Volga-Dnepr to fly 300 tonnes of heavyweight oil drilling equipment from Parchim in Germany to Siberia in three giant Antonov An-24 planes. K+N also provided the logistics for the solar taxi which travelled around the world including flying it from Calcutta to Bali, where it carried environmental ministers around at the climate change conference in December 2007. This air freight leg of the journey will have resulted in far higher greenhouse gas emissions than the shipping legs between Perth and Singapore and from Jebel-Ali to Mumbai.

The solar powered vehicle is a remarkable achievement and it is important to build up enthusiasm about progress in renewable energy. But we also need to recognise the likely limitations. Even at the pinnacle of innovation with renewables, we are unlikley to be able to transport heavyweight items all over the world as quickly as fossil fuel dependent air freight allows. Social changes like forward planning and patience are just as important as technological progress.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Air rage debate in windy Blackpool

Monday was a very windy day in Blackpool on the North West coast of England. So windy I couldn’t hold the camera steady to take photos outside. But here is a photo of the very bling ceiling of the Winter Gardens conference centre, with the chandelier lights. Wandering around Blackpool was a contrast; it looked pretty bleak with lots of empty shops, and could do with investment in local services and infrastructure.

Yet, in the face of the recession and plummeting passenger numbers and freight volumes, Blackpool Airport has just started a £2.5 million improvement programme including upgrading the runway. Blackpool Airport’s passenger numbers fell from 558,278 in 2007 to 439,200 in 2008. January 2009’s passenger statistics showed an enormous 63 per cent drop from the same month in 2008, to just over 7,000 people. Airports all around the world are still going ahead with gigantic expansion programmes in spite of plummeting traffic.

I was on an “Air Rage” panel discussing aviation expansion at the Green Party conference. Also on the panel were Rupert Read, lead candidate for the Eastern Region in this year’s European elections (the Green Party is the only UK political party to unequivocally oppose aviation expansion) and Robbie Gillett of Plane Stupid, a campaigning group recently hitting the headlines when an activist threw green custard over Peter Mandelson to highlight his support for aviation expansion as an unelected official.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

UK’s retail big 4 keep growing

Retail gloom has not been affecting the biggest 4 retailers in the UK. Tesco, Asda, Morrisons and Sainbury’s all reported growth and increased profits for 2008, and even as the economic downturn increases in severity, the Big 4 continue to report growth with rising profits and new stores.

This picture is of the expansion of Sainsbury’s biggest store in Huddersfield which includes a bigger petrol station. Sainsbury’s reported half year profits of £272 million in October 2008, a rise of 13.3 per cent. Then, in March 2009 Sainsbury’s announced that it is buying 24 stores from the Co-operative Group, which will increase its retail estate by nearly 22,000 square metres. Morrisons is buying 38 stores from the Co-operative Group and reported £637 million annual profits to February 2009, a 13 per cent rise, and. Asda outperformed its sales and profit plans reporting a 6.5 per cent rise in full year sales for 2008, and reported growth in its market share to its highest ever level.

The UK’s biggest retailer is Tesco, and although some recent results, like its Christmas sales, were below expectations compared to its record profits of £2.8 billion announced in April 2008, growth plans continue. Tesco has lodged hundreds of planning applications for new stores, including for the sites of what were Woolworth’s and MFI stores before they went bust. But Tesco’s growth plan is not just for giant and expanding stores. Tesco is also honing in on smaller sites in town centres and is even targeting pubs, which are closing in droves, for turning into small stores, see article Tesco Planning for Monopoly. This could be the final straw for many of the UK’s struggling independent retailers.

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