Monday, 22 February 2010

Storms hit Madeira, and what fate for the levadas?

In Madeira the worst storm for 17 years has brought floods and mudslides which have killed more than 30 people and injured many more. The island popular with tourists, is accustomed to a lot of rain. Were it not for the canals, or levadas, which cover most of the small volcanic island, the rain would plummet straight into the ocean. The levadas slow water run off and regulate water flow, irrigating terraced plots growing all kinds of food from avocadoes, squash, tomatoes and aubergines, fruit trees, all kinds of green leafy vegetables and herbs. The levadas also serve as wonderful paths for walking around the island, although some stretches are narrow with a long sheer drop, so you just have to hope no-one is coming the other way.

Just maintaining the levadas in stable weather conditions is a never ending task undertaken by all the farmers on the small plots. Storms outside the parameters of the normal frequent heavy rainfall are likely to be more frequent and more severe with climate change, and will damage food production and necessitate major repairs. This will be especially difficult as a growing number of smallholders in Madeira have day jobs to supplement their incomes.

Terraced agriculture is a way of working sensitively with nature to make land more fertile and increase food production. Terraces and small canals minimise soil erosion and are also used to make dry land fertile. In Peru stone wall terraces enabled farmers to irrigate steep slopes with canals with minimal rainfall. The Cinque Terra in Italy has protected national park status. Five towns nestle into the steep cliffs and are surrounded by intricate terraces. You can walk along many paths and see the ingredients of many traditional local dishes growing, like olives, basil and fennel, and look out over the Mediterranean.

My own back garden in Yorkshire slopes steeply towards the North West. Were it not for a previous owner putting in three levels, little sunlight would reach the soil. With the terracing, the amount of sunlight between the spring and autumn equinoxes is remarkable and there are microhabitats for many kinds of plants.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

BT brinjal blocked – for now

The aubergine, also known as egg plant, is believed to have originated in India where the vegetable is called brinjal and is a staple ingredient of many dishes including curries. India hosts over 4,000 varieties, some are still found growing wild. There has been an epic campaign all over India against a genetically modified (GM) variety developed by seed firm Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Co (Mahyco). A bacterial gene has been inserted, which prevents certain pests from feeding on the crop. The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) approved BT brinjal for commercial production in October 2009, but Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh has announced a moratorium on growing the crop, saying that further studies into safety are required. The ruling follows a national consultation tour which was met with lively anti-GM protests often involving people dressing up as aubergines, a National Day of Action, street plays, vehicle stickers and a film. Members of the campaign group Safe Food Alliance thanked the minister in person for his decision. Devinder Sharma’s blog has many articles on the saga, the latest installment welcomed as a ‘triumph of good sense over bad science’.

As with other GM varieties, Mahyco insisted and GEAC approved, that the GM brinjal is ‘substantially equivalent’ to its non-GM counterpart in terms of factors including protein and carbohydrates and its chemical constituents. The biotech firms then try and have it both ways by insisting on intellectual property rights on the basis of the GM variety’s unique properties. GM crops may be resistant to certain pests, but they still require pesticide. Mahyco recommend one or two sprayings of one of its pesticides for the GM brinjal.

There has been intensive genetic research on the solanaceae family of vegetables, which includes aubergines, tomatoes, peppers, chillies and potatoes. Suman Sahai outlines the the lack of safeguards against risks that could ‘awaken a sleeping poison’. Farmers have worked for thousands of years to domestic wild solanaceae plants breeding out toxins. After all, the edible solanaceae plants are related to deadly nightshade. Genetic manipulation could trigger not just new toxins, but the old toxins which were removed by the selective breeding. There is ‘no mechanism to detect unexpected or unintended consequences like new toxic compounds in the cell’. Furthermore, there is no system in place for segregation or labelling so that customers could distinguish between GM and non-GM produce, although Indian government is in favour of mandatory labelling of GM food, and the ministry of health has drafted rules. There is no programme for monitoring the long term impacts, and there is no liability law should there be health damage to consumers or contamination of non-GM crops.

GM crops do escape and contaminate non GM crops. GM cotton has been detected in cotton labelled as organic in Europe and Japan. Just this month, there are widespread reports that around 30 per cent of India's organic cotton exports to Europe are contaminated with GM cotton, which could damage this fast growing export sector. In Thailand, commercial planting of GM crops is banned and only tightly controlled field trials are permitted. Yet farmers’ group Biothai found GM contamination of 17 crop samples including maize, papaya and cotton, and the first ever discoveries of GM chillies which were growing in Chiang Mai and soya in Mae Hong Son.

The tomato, another member of the solanaceae family, has been the focus of GM research including the purple tomato. Now, a team led by Dr Asis Datta at the National Institute of Plant Genome research in New Delhi India has created a GM tomato with a longer shelf life, taking 45 days instead of 15 to become soft and shrivelled. The scientists ‘silenced’ two genes which drive ripening in fruit and vegetables. Advocates argue that this genetic engineering process is different from genetic modification, as instead of introducing a new gene to the plant, the target gene is deactivated.

Dr Datta says the genetic engineering could be applied to other key fruit crops, but, leaving aside any unforeseen environmental and health effects, who would benefit from the extended shelf-life if these crops were introduced to the food supply? It is unlikely to be the consumer. With fresh produce, there is a trade off between extending shelf life and the quality. Already, the harder tomato varieties preferred by supermarkets as they can withstand lengthy transportation and storage have far less flavour than the softer varieties. Many types of produce including apples are stored in a controlled atmosphere for several months. Yet the produce only has a few days shelf life once it is available in stores. Extending shelf life enables retailers to store fresh produce for longer, to source from somewhere cheaper further away.

Here in England, an application has been made for a GM trial of potatoes resistant to the cyst nematode pest. A 2008 crop trial was destroyed by protestors, the same fate as most of the GM trials in England. EU law requires GM trial locations to be disclosed, so between EU firms conducted 75 per cent of field trials outside Europe between 2006 and 2008. But the results of a 2009 GM potato trial in Leeds, Yorkshire, with security fencing, CCTV and full time guards led the researchers at University of Leeds to apply for permission for another trial which they intend to start later this year. The John Innes Centre in Norfolk has spent £20,000 on security fence and cameras.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Canada airports to ban books?

New airport security measures in Canada for passengers travelling to the US listed just 13 permitted items which passengers can take into the cabin. There was no surprise that this includes medical devices, canes and laptop computers. But books and magazines are not on the list, leaving Canadian publishers ‘dumbfounded’ as it appears that passengers will only be able to take books bought airside after the security check onto the plane. There is not much to do at airport except read, so if this apparent book ban is implemented, airport book sales will be boosted, and the choice of reading will be narrowed. 

Airport retail benefits from a comparatively wealthy customer base along with lengthy airport dwell times which have increased since 9/11. If there is an airport book ban, I wonder which of these books about aviation would make it to the airport book stores? The History of Air Cargo and Airmail by Camille Allaz, from the first tentative flights of farm animals in a hot air balloon, is informative and fun and positive about the aviation industry, but is only available in hardback so a bit heavy to take on a trip. I doubt that these next three books made it into the airport bookstores when they came out:
Climate Change and Aviation edited by Stephan Gossling and Paul Upham is an authoritative and measured assessment of aviation’s climate change impacts and possible solutions
Ghost Plane by Stephen Grey, this investigation into US and UK complicity in ‘torture flights’ is still bringing information about extraordinary rendition into the public arena
• The Sustainability of Air Transportation by Milan Jani get down to the detail of the environmental impacts of airports, airlines and air traffic control.

Airport book shops typically include an aviation enthusiast section, and, not for the nervous passenger, books about air disasters, averted and otherwise. Books by and about airline executives are often given generous shelf space, like Michael O’Leary of Ryanair expounding on their supposed entrepreneurial spirit. All this conveniently ignores subsidies like tax free aviation fuel and omits to mention that expanding airport retail complexes are a revenue stream that helps keep the cost of flights down. It is extraordinarily effective. Many high streets and malls have gaps where shops have closed down since the recession. Yet, globally, airport retail has continued to grow through the recession with airports including Sydney, Heathrow, Brussels, Seoul and Dubai boosting retail revenues. While the US media was full of headlines shouting that (minor) airlines were going bust, US airport retail spending increased by 20 per cent to $639 million in 2008. Expansion continues, for example Frankfurt Airport is building two new walk through stores.

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