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.

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