Thursday, 27 October 2011

fuel for thought

I’ve spent much of the last week researching Canadian tar sands and Norman Baker’s alleged attempt to derail a flagship environmental fuel standard being set by the EU. Canadian tar sands are the second largest oil reserve – after Saudi Arabia – in the world. Allowing them to be burned will mean, according to James Hansen of Nasa,  ‘game over’ for the climate.

The research has caused me to feel thoroughly emotional and it was in that state that I went to see Norman in his Newhaven surgery last Saturday to ask him what he was up to. He spent 20 minutes with a group of us during which he confirmed the facts but was unable to explain his stance in a way that I could accept, given the MEP briefing papers I’d read. So I continued my research.

In December member nations will vote on an amendment to the Fuel Quality Directive that aims to reduce European transport greenhouse gas emissions and will effectively price tar sands, shale oil and other ‘dirty transport fuels’ out of Europe’s forecourts.

Norman, in his role as Transport Minister, initially supported the amendment as it was in line with Britain’s commitment to CO2 emissions reduction. However, intense and aggressive lobbying by the Canadian government and energy companies, as shown in this comprehensive Friends of the Earth report, has caused the government to backtrack. Now Norman is now not only blocking this important initiative but has also stated he is lobbying his equivalent Ministers of Transport across Europe in a hope to quash the vote in December.

Friends of the Earth and the Cooperative say that Norman’s volte face coincides with a visit by David Cameron to Canada, where our PM opened Canada’s fourth Trade Consulate in the offices of  Suncor Energy. Suncor’s website claims it was the first company to develop the tar sands (they call it oil sands). Norman told me when we met that he’s had no direct contact with David Cameron or the Canadian government on this issue.

Although the amendment is supported by all the Lib Dem European MPs and many others, both Norman and the Canadian energy company lobbyists say it is discriminatory. It doesn’t include other kinds of fossil fuel which, because of the energy, pollutants and environmental ravage required to get them to the pump, are deemed to be more greenhouse gas intensive. Norman’s department instead proposes a new measurement methodology. The Cooperative and other NGOs say that this ‘discrimination’ tactic is untrue: other kinds of heavy fuels such as shale oil are already included and more can be included as research is finalized. They say this new methodology proposal is a ‘wrecking’ tactic that could set the initiative back years.

I think part of my strong emotional response to this has been because I’ve fully realized that we’re not going to make a calm transition to renewable energy now that we have reached peak oil. Instead, there is a powerful, dirty lobby of energy corporations and government which, now that unconventional sources of energy are now economically viable, is gearing up for a race to the bottom in the name of energy security. Tar sands, gas shale through fracking, underground coal gasification: there is plentiful dirty fuel - Extreme Energy as some are now calling it - out there that will kill our climate many times over. We need to all wake up to this issue, just as we are waking up to the role of the bankers in wrecking our economy.

The front page of yesterday’s Independent wrote of a Cabinet split as to whether to prioritise economic recovery or the environment. And while I realise that Norman’s under enormous pressure to toe the party line, I know he’s a man of conscience and trust that he will, ultimately, do the right thing.

Photo courtesy of the Pembina Institute. More here.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

oats and beans and barley grow

It’s fascinating to see what happens when you step out of your comfort zone. Eating locally from within the borders of Sussex has thrown up all manner of experiences. My kitchen has turned into a laboratory as I incubate new skills, literally new cultures. Sourdough bread and cider are two, and I made my own salt from the sea.

It’s clear that we can eat a healthy, mixed diet from within the borders of Sussex. Meat and dairy abound, as well as vegetables of all kinds both from the fertile greensand soil of the Downs and the glasshouses of Fletching and beyond. Boathouse Farm has its own potato fields, and pumpkins grow well in a good year. Apples and other fruit of course are traditional from around here. Sussex is covered with wheat fields and there are farmers who grow grains and pulses such as barley, oats and field beans for their animals, so the skills and equipment for growing all our food needs are there, in the heads and hands of Sussex farmers.

But. And it’s a big one. Our infrastructure for bringing this food from field to fork is woefully lacking. As I wrote last week, wonderful Plumpton Mill is only one of three flour mills left in Sussex, with a capacity of 50 kilos of flour an hour. Abattoirs have been closed in the last two decades by red tape, so meat is harder to manage at a small scale. Smaller farms, providing dairy, meat and veg, close through lack of customers. 

The biggest barrier of all is in our minds: the way we source our food. People have become utterly dependent for feeding on big daddy supermarkets, with their grotesque money-based way of pushing farmers, nature and all the living beings that nourish us to their limits. And sorry, but Waitrose is only better by a small degree than any other supermarket; there’s no real ethical refuge there behind the tasteful marketing.
I find myself raging about this, about the stupidity of people all around me who just want to go on with the dream – or is it a nightmare – of convenient industrial food and who at our collective peril neglect the farmers and the shop keepers, the wonderful land, sea, food and drink around us that are our true ecosystem, our resilience and our real sustenance.

  Picture by Erma Shutter

Thursday, 6 October 2011

salt of the (sussex) earth

It’s day six of the Lewes locavore diet. Always one to jump in the deep end I decided to see if I could eat a normal diet just from Sussex. Since then, only food and drink from Sussex have passed my lips. I have to admit, it’s been tough. I have risen to the challenge and made my own salt; I’m starting to like its bitter taste. I miss pepper. And I’m getting physical withdrawal symptoms (headaches, aching joints) from the green tea I thought was so healthy. I can’t make salad dressings without lemons or vinegar, which as far as I can tell, is not produced in Sussex. And I simply can’t find anywhere that grows oats, which makes life rather sad, without oatcakes, porridge, muesli etc. Without imported rice and pulses, my mainly vegetarian diet has become more animal-protein based, so, lots of eggs.

When you start to break down the food you eat, you start to realize how much we depend on imported food and also preserved food, and unconsciously become part of the corporate food chain, which really doesn’t exist to feed people as much as to make money.

I managed to track down Sussex flour, though, from Plumpton Mill - restored by its owners; it was cited in the Domesday Book a thousand years ago. This water mill is a wonder to behold, one of only three now milling flour in East Sussex. It can produce 50 kilos of flour an hour; I strongly encourage people to buy this lovely flour, whose wheat is biodynamically grown at Plaw Hatch near Forest Row. Appallingly, though, despite half of Sussex seeminlgy growing wheat, it's all part of the industrial food machine: Plaw Hatch, I believe, is the only farm to grow wheat for local consumption. 

To complete the local cycle, I got some sourdough starter from my friend Grace and have made two handsome loaves of sourdough – it’s so easy. As I write I’m mentally peppering this with exclamation marks. I suppose what’s emerging from this diet is that despite the hardships, I’m also finding that eating from my terrain is terrifically exciting.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

going locavore

I’ve decided to go Locavore. Just dipping my toe into the water, for the 10 days of Lewes’s Octoberfeast, starting tomorrow. This means sourcing all my food and drink from my East Sussex terrain.
Most of my diet is already based on the animals and vegetables that grow plentifully round here. Local farm shops provide lamb reared on the South Downs, biodynamic eggs, organic veggies from my allotment and several local farms, Golden Cross goats cheeses, and I can get delicious unpasteurised milk and even Sussex Downs butter in paper wrapping from the Lewes Friday market.

Starch-wise I’ve ordered a sack of Boathouse potatoes from the Ashurst veg box and I’m going to drop in on Plumpton Mill later today as I hear they mill wheat and rye grown by Plumpton College. Interestingly, a lot of the real bread we eat locally is made from wheat from Shipton Mill in the west country. I’m finding it much harder to source oats, which we eat daily in porridge, muesli and oatcakes. Dried beans, too are almost non-existant in Sussex; in the longer term that would affect the diet of the vegetarians and even more so the vegans in our family. I’m not sure one could be a vegan locavore in Sussex.
In terms of drink, there are several local wines, I hear, though Harveys sadly won’t be included, as the malt and most of the hops come from out of the region. I drink green tea, and will have to give that up in favour of the herb teas I’ve been collecting this summer. That’s probably my only real sacrifice.
As far as condiments grow, I’ll sadly have to do without pepper. Which would be hard long term. For now there’s horseradish ready to harvest from my allotment, dried herbs and chilis I got at last weekend’s great ChiliFest in Southease – Adrian there grows dozens of varieties in his unheated greenhouse.
The one and only thing I could not do without, even for a week, is salt. I’ve researched the matter and realised that there is no place in Sussex that creates its own salt. So I set off on yesterday’s Indian summer day to Bishopstone to collect 10 litres of sea water.
I strained the murky water through three layers of muslin before setting it on to boil on a charcoal/wood burning stove set up outside my back door.  After about five hours, the salty water was reduced right down and started to gloop and spit. I transferred it to a shallow bowl, where it’s sitting in the sun, turning into salt. It’s a bit grey, and strangely bitter. But it’s about a cup’s worth, plenty for my 10 days as a locavore.