We are what we Eat

The old adage “We are what we eat” is only partly true, at best.

We eat vegetables but we are not vegetables. Similarly, those of us who eat meat are, in a real sense, meat – but we are not chickens or pigs. And almost all humans would recoil at just the thought of eating another human.

 

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that what we eat defines who we are, what we feel and how we see our place in the world. As I explored in a previous column, whatever we eat has some kind of environmental and social impact. But it is also self-evident that some kinds of food have a greater impact than others.

 

The Caviar industry, for example, has led to the extinction of the Sturgeon in large parts of its native range – especially in the Black Sea. Elsewhere prawns are mass-produced using slave labour, as well as destroying Mangrove swamps, which are some of the most important habitats for wildlife on the entire planet.

 

Closer to home, the relationship between what we eat, the kind of food grown by UK farmers, and how those farmers will be supported by the Government, is one of the most important debates taking place now as a result of Brexit. So it should come as no surprise that I will continue my exploration of this debate in this column – an exploration I started here. 

Reports are being published almost weekly now, by various groups seeking to influence that debate in the run-up to Environment Secretary Michael Gove publishing a new Agriculture Bill – which we now understand will appear in “the second half of 2018” – which to me means the Autumn.

 

At a recent consultation event Gove laid out his views on what sort of food should  be being produced and consumed. He talked about food production being about “health, living longer more fulfilling lives, and a greater connection with the natural world.” He asked (rhetorically) whether farmers should be producing food that was healthy and good for the environment. And he emphasised the impact of the food we eat on our wellbeing, noting that diet and lifestyle were now the biggest factors affecting our health.

 

Given Gove’s politics it was obvious he was going to talk about how individuals have to make their own choices – whether to eat healthily or not, but he also recognised that Government, while not being the Nanny State, has a role to play – including as “an instrument to remove perverse incentives” – presumably referring to incentives that encourage people to eat unhealthily. He reiterated that he wanted to see a new agriculture policy support high quality food production but importantly, added a caveat

 

food that’s good for us is good for the planet.” Now this is an interesting idea – and one that can be moulded to a variety of different viewpoints.

 

The Vegan Society recently published a report “Grow Green: Solutions for the farm of the future” in which they argued that farmers should be specifically supported to grow far more pulse crops  – that is peas and beans, for human consumption.

 

Peas and beans are very healthy foods – high in protein and also plenty of other essential components of a health diet. Producing them avoids many of the problems associated with animal protein, even aside from the animal welfare issues. Pulses also have a very low carbon footprint and require little or no Nitrogen fertiliser, which is responsible for so much environmental damage, here and worldwide. As the Vegan Society study shows, we used to grow far more pulses that we do now – so some sort of incentive is needed to reverse that trend.

 

And if you think veganism and the wider issue of people reducing or stopping eating meat is a fringe issue, think again. A recent survey found that 12% of the UK population has given up eating meat. 12%. That’s nearly 8 million people. With a further 25% planning to reduce their meat consumption over the next 12 months. Taken together, that’s over a third of country. And even meat-lover and former vegan-baiting celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay has said he is going to give “this vegan thing” a try.

 

Others are advocating that people reduce the amount of meat and dairy in their diet, and to be much more selective about how the meat and dairy they do eat, is produced. The Eating Better charity recently published its Eight Principles for better eating, covered here in the Guardian. Eating Better is as sceptical as I am about the use of Red Tractor as an indicator of anything, other than legal compliance; and recommends looking for labels from LEAF, and the Organic certification system. The organisations also looked at what “free range” really means and how important it is to find out where your meat/dairy is produced and under what conditions, if you are going to continue eating it.

 

The Dairy industry immediately hit back at the report, as you would expect, but it shows they are worried. And it’s not only the statistics on changing diets outlined above, that should make them worry. Recent stories such this one, where a dairy farmer was fined for illegally supplying water contaminated with nitrate fertiliser to his tenants; or this one – where effluent from a dairy farm killed wildlife in a local stream, do the industry no favours.

 

Nor does the increasing use of Maize instead of grass, to feed dairy cows. Maize, if not grown very carefully, can cause immense environmental problems – from the loss of farmland wildlife, to nitrate pollution, even leading to vital top-soil being washed off fields exacerbating urban flooding downstream. Lush has already highlighted the damage caused by growing Maize for biogas.

 

The debate around the future of farming in the UK continues to hot up. If you’re interested in contributing your views on how farmers should be supported in future, please send your views to the Environment Secretary Michael Gove at Defra. Various organisations have created easy to use portals to help you send in your views  – sustainable food charity Sustain has one here and RSPB has one here.

 

If you care what you eat, make your voice heard.

This article first appeared in Lush Times.

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Posted in agriculture, Agriculture policy, Brexit, Lush Times, Michael Gove, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Writing elsewhere

It will not have escaped your powerful observational skills, dear reader, that there has been little going on at “a new nature blog”, for the last few months. Have I given up writing, developed a terrible case of bloggers block, or lost the use of my hands, I hear you wonder.

None of these  – in fact I have been writing as much as ever, but in a different place. It started about a year ago when I started writing pieces for Lush Life – then last September I moved across to Lush Times. Since the beginning of January I have been writing a weekly column – called No Tern Unstoned.

This week I look at the Red Tractor food standard and ask whether it really gives us any assurances about the way uk food is produced.

You can find the article here.

 

Photo via Wikimedia commons, by Ole Husby from Melhus, Norway – Red tractor (Hanomag C115 Greif), CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32307288

Posted in Brexit, Food, Lush Times, Red Tractor | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

The death of Sudan the Rhino points us towards a future for Nature

Albrecht Dürer: Rhinoceros.

Sudan, the last male Northern White Rhino, has died at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. He was 45 and, as part of an unsuccessful breeding programme, had been moved to Kenya in 2009, from his previous home. at the Dvůr Králové Zoo, in the Czech Republic, where he had been living ever since he’d been taken from Sudan when he was two.

Northern White Rhinos had once ranged across Kenya, Uganda and the Central African Republic, but the last wild ones were killed by poachers in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in 2004. Poaching caused the extinction of this particular sub-species of Rhino, with poachers driven by the huge financial returns for Rhino horn, due primarily to its use in Chinese Traditional Medicine, and also for dagger handles in Yemen.

Poaching isn’t the only reason why Rhinos, across the world, are declining and some other species are approaching extinction. The other reason is space – Rhinos need a lot of space; and they don’t fit well into land used by people for farming. They are also renowned for their strength and people tend to think they are dangerous – a threat. Even now there are occasional deaths due to Rhinos, but these are rare. And as the number of Rhinos declines, and surviving populations are confined to protected areas and National Parks, there are few opportunities for Rhinos and humans to come into contact, minimising the risk of accidents.

To an extent, the plight of the Northern White Rhino is emblematic of the disappearance of natural areas, and wildlife populations, across the world. Scientists are increasingly of the view that we are now in the midst of the 6th Great Extinction. The previous five Great Extinctions happened thanks to events such as asteroids impacting the Earth, or great geological cataclysms. This one has been created by our own hands – it is being called the Holocene or Anthropocene Extinction, anthropocene – because humanity’s actions are responsible.

While we in Europe tend to think of Rhinos as exotic animals which only live in the Sub-Tropical and Tropical forests of Asia or the Savannahs of Africa, this was not always the case. The ancestor of Rhinos appeared by 50 million years ago, and by 25 million years ago the planet was “practically teeming with Rhinos”.  Rhinos and other “Megaherbivores” ruled the planet.

During the last interglacial (the period between ice ages), several species of now extinct Rhino even lived in England, along with other giants like the Straight-tusked Elephant. These Megaherbivores were the ultimate Ecosystem Engineers. They created the conditions from which many species of wildlife in England, Britain and Europe evolved.

Woolly Rhinoceros roamed the icy wastes of Ice Age Britain – with one particularly well-preserved set of remains dating to 42000 years ago. Beetles and midges preserved with the animal indicate that the Woolly Rhino was living on Mammoth Steppe – a habitat which occurred across large parts of Europe, Asia and North America during the last Ice Age. Mammoth Steppe was a kind of grassland, different from but related to Arctic Tundra.

Then, around 50,000 years ago, something started to change. Some believe that early humans hunted the Rhinos and other Megaherbivores to extinction. Others point to natural variations in the climate; or perhaps it was a combination of the two. Whatever the reason, by the time the last Ice Age had ended, there were no Rhinos left in Europe to recolonise Britain once the ice had gone.

No Rhinos, no Straight-tusked Elephants, No Megaherbivores. The loss of Megaherbivores happened across the world – in Europe, parts of Asia, and America. What was left was a very restricted fauna, left in a far smaller area of the Earth – the Elephants and Rhinos of Africa and Asia that we think of now as having been so common 50 or 100 ago, were already just a tiny relic of the previous range and diversity of Megaherbivores.

A period of the Earth’s history spanning hundreds of millions of years, when Megaherbivores dominated Europe and the rest of the world, had ended. And as those Rhinos and Elephants and other giants disappeared, a whole range of open-ground species – plants, butterflies, birds and fruit-producing trees, suddenly lost the Ecosystem Engineers that created the conditions those species depended on. Some trees, for example, had depended on those giants to eat their fruits and spread them around, but had now lost the way their seeds were dispersed.

So how did these species of open ground, of grasslands, survive after the Engineers that created their habitats disappeared? Some scientists are suggesting that it is us, humans, who stepped into the footsteps of these giants, and created similar conditions. How? Through the invention of agriculture.

Humans across the world, independently of each other, invented agriculture around 10,000 years ago. The idea is that by clearing the forests and ploughing the soil, the early farmers inadvertently created the same sort of conditions that had previously been created by the Megaherbivores. The actions of Rhinos grazing, rolling around in the dust, or Elephants knocking down and uprooting trees and Hippos creating wallows were all recreated, to a some extent, by farmers.

This has big implications for the future and what we can do, if anything, to stop the 6th extinction, or at least, ameliorate its effects. Rewilding is a big exciting idea to free up landscapes (across Europe) by removing human impacts –  impacts like the effects of agriculture, allowing forest to develop; and reintroducing extinct animals like Beavers, or, more controversially, predators like Lynx or Wolves.

While this approach will restore some natural processes, it will not replace the impact of the Megaherbivores, like Rhinos – whose loss has been partly compensated for by agriculture, over the past 10,000 years. And, of course, agriculture today – with its emphasis on agrochemicals and intensively bred varieties of crops – is not the same as those earlier traditional approaches which could create the conditions where species of open ground could flourish.

What this highlights is that we need to develop a rewilding approach, in tandem with developing  a new kind of agriculture, one which is more sympathetic to nature, works with not against nature and one which incorporates the space and creates the conditions needed by those species which previously depended on Megaherbivores.

This might be a fitting memorial to Sudan, to all of the White Rhinos, and to all the other Rhinos that the Earth has lost.

this article first appeared in Lush Times.

Posted in No Tern Unstoned, rewilding | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

The Pillar 2 Coup: Rural Payments Agency poaches Countryside Stewardship from Natural England.

Agri-environment scheme farmland near Dorchester. ©Miles King

Last week the Government launched its long awaited “what on earth are we going to do about paying farmers, after Brexit” consultation, called Health and Harmony. At the heart of the new policy lies the principle of “public goods for public money”. No longer will bagless vacuum cleaner billionaires and Saudi princes be able to hoover up subsidies “just for owning land.” There will be a transaction – taxpayers will pay landowners and get something in return – some public goods in the economics jargon.

This is not a new idea. Schemes which paid farmers to look after wildlife or archaeology on their land, or create new areas for wildlife, have been around in Britain since the 1980s, starting with Environmentally Sensitive Areas and Countryside Stewardship. These evolved from modest beginnings, into the Entry Level and Higher Level Schemes (in England) from 2003. These in turn evolved into Countryside Stewardship Mid-Tier and Higher Tier schemes in 2013.

Each scheme in turn had its pros and cons. Entry Level spent a great deal of money across a large area of land delivering very little benefit for nature. Countryside Stewardship has been overly bureaucratic, complex to administer and put a lot of landowners off  joining. Former Natural England agri-environment expert Steve Peel recently wrote eloquently on here about what makes a good agri-environment scheme and what makes a bad one. Let’s hope the Government takes note of this advice before designing the new “One Agri-Environment Scheme to rule them all”  system, which will replace CAP payments once we leave the EU (or some time afterwards.)

Yesterday’s news does not bode well that the advice Steve (or anyone else) offered is being read. Farmers Guardian’s Abi Kay reported that Countryside Stewardship is going to be taken away from Natural England and given to The Rural Payments Agency.

“Natural England staff who worked on Environmental Stewardship and CS delivery will move to the RPA so their knowledge and expertise is maintained.”

According to some people commenting today, staff working on Higher Tier Stewardship schemes (eg on SSSIs) will stay at NE. So the idea that this move is about simplification doesn’t wash. It also begs the question of whether the staff working on Stewardship at NE will have any authority to over-ride decisions made by RPA staff.

But isn’t it a good idea to have all of the admin for Stewardship under one roof? Yes, in theory, but it depends on which roof.

The Rural Payments Agency is notorious among farmers as the organisation which comprehensively screwed up the payment of the as then new Basic Payment Scheme back in 2014. A highly complex new IT system was commissioned to enable farm payments to be moved online. 7 years later the system is still not working properly.

Parliament was scathing in its criticism of the RPA’s failure to effectively distribute basic farm subsidies – criticizing its culture and revealing internal in-fighting. Given the RPA’s central role in making Countryside Stewardship work (they provided the scheme maps) it is perhaps not that surprising that Stewardship also fell over. But this time the blame has been laid at Natural England’s door.  It doesn’t seem inconceivable that, after the beating the RPA received over Basic Payment Scheme, they were going to make sure NE took the punishment for Countryside Stewardship.

This is what seems to have happened now. But this is part of a bigger turf war between Defra agencies. Once Brexit had happened it became very clear to everyone that there was going to be some fundamental reorganisation of Defra agencies – getting nearly £4Bn a year of farm subsidies out of the door is a massive bureaucratic exercise. Once we leave the EU – and the CAP – that job disappears. Since the end of June 2016 the race has been on, to see which Defra agencies come out on top. This news is a strong indicator of who has won.

This hasn’t been helped by the fact that Natural England bosses weren’t prepared to fight the fight  – especially after they took a verbal beating for Countryside Stewardship in front of the EFRA committee (Guy Thompson subsequently left Natural England and now works for Wessex Water). And let’s not forget that the RPA is a much larger organisation than Natural England, and is much more closely aligned with Defra – it could be seen as an arm of Defra. The RPA never had that independence of spirit that characterised Natural England when it was first created – though that spirit has been comprehensively crushed since 2010. So perhaps it’s not surprising that, in having to choose between the two, Defra has chosen to go with RPA.

As far as getting Agri-Environment schemes to create better farmed landscapes for wildlife, or anything else, it’s a huge error. RPA’s culture is administrative, bureaucratic. It’s all about process and compliance. Farmers complain about the excessive administrative burden of receiving farm payments or applying for Countryside Stewardship – they have the RPA to thank. The idea that RPA culturally (regardless of whether their staff are interested, or indeed qualified) will be able to work closely and flexibly with farmers to achieve improvements for nature on farmland is a fantasy. Their motto may as well be “computer says no.”

Meanwhile once Natural England has had its Countryside Stewardship function (and staff) surgically removed, what remains will be on life-support, because that has been a large part of the organisation’s role. Further, the fabled one-stop shop, single point of access approach that Natural England had been required to develop, has just been abandoned. Natural England staff tasked with ensuring Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) are protected, are now potentially lined up against RPA staff delivering agri-environment schemes on those SSSIs. You can imagine who will win those tussles.

Does all this matter? Isn’t it time to abandon Natural England as a failed quango? Commenting this morning, George Monbiot suggested as much.

 

 

Perhaps George is right.

If so, then what is also vital is that the Rural Payments Agency is also abolished before the introduction of the new England Agriculture Policy. We need a publicly-funded independent champion for nature (as Natural England was intended to be when it was set up); and we need a new body which will deliver the public goods for public money approach being advocated by Michael Gove.

 

Posted in Agri-Environment Schemes, Brexit, Defra, Natural England, Rural Payments Agency, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

Health and Harmony? Government consultation on future of agriculture reveals no new detail

 

Last week was  a momentous one in the life of farmers and anyone who take an interest in our food.

The National Farmers Union (NFU) took the historic step of appointing a woman to be its President – it’s symptomatic of these strange days, that the NFU, the most conservative of bodies, should appoint a woman leader before the Labour Party has managed it.

Minette Batters takes the helm at probably the most serious crisis point for farming in the UK since the Second World War. Others who failed to win the election may have breathed a quiet sigh of relief, for not being in charge when it is quite possible that things will go very badly wrong for farmers.

You may think none of this is relevant to you, but what happens to agriculture determines not only where our food comes from and the standards to which it is produced; but also the impact that farming has on land, water, soil and nature across three quarters of the UK land area.

Yesterday (27 February 2018) the Government’s Environment Department (Defra) published its long-awaited proposals for the future of farming in the UK. The paper is called  – slightly oddly – Health and Harmony. (Oddly because it contains almost nothing about the relationship between health and agriculture – let alone music.)

The proposals for a new policy are a direct result of Brexit, which means the UK leaves the EU Common Agricultural Policy or CAP as it is known, currently swallows up around half of the entire EU budget which, in 2016, totalled a staggering 50 billion euros.

To be honest there were very few revelations to be found in the 66 pages (with lots of white space) of the new consultation document. The Government reiterated its commitment to move to a “public money for public goods” approach. Public Goods include things like nature, water quality, soil quality and tackling or adapting to climate change, as well as more intangible things like natural beauty and the mental health benefits of being in nature.

The paper gets confused between Market Failures (costs to society that are not paid for by the market) and Public Goods (things which land provides for people which cannot be used up and which are available to all.) It suggests that paying for improvements in the productivity of farmland is a public good – it really isn’t  and nor is food production. Government funding should be used to support innovation in agriculture, but that’s a whole different point.

The Government, through this consultation, has repeated its desire to reduce the burden of bureaucracy on farmers – the Farm Inspection Review had already been announced the previous week. This new inquiry follows a long line of previous inquiries, which have gradually snipped away at some elements of regulation, while leaving glaring gaps elsewhere.

When it comes to bureaucracy, CAP certainly has its fair share of absurdity. Current rules require farmers to map individual shrubs and tracks, on pain of hefty fines. Losing a single ear tag from a sheep can mean loss of farm payments. Elsewhere though, farmers can plough up ancient wildflower meadows with impunity. And while some farmers may feel they are disappearing under paperwork, the Environment Agency recently highlighted the fact that pollution from agriculture was the main reason why the quality of our rivers and lakes continues to decline.

Secretary of State Michael Gove’s paper is keen to lay the loss of wildlife and history from our farmland at the door of the CAP. In truth though a great deal of the damage was done during the period from 1950 to 1973 – before we had joined the Common Market. It is true that hedgerows continued to be ripped out, wetlands drained and grasslands ploughed, using government grants, right up until the 1980s. But this was only a continuation of the agricultural revolution that had already been going on for decades. You can read more about this in my Agriculture after Brexit report “A Pebble in the Pond.”

The consultation does include some good proposals and some interesting case studies. Natural England, the Government’s wildlife expert body, is experimenting with something called “Payment by results.” This approach pays farmers to ‘produce’ more wildlife, rather than paying them to follow a set of rules created by someone else, which may or may not produce more wildlife. This encourages innovation – and also gives the farmers the freedom to adopt whichever approach they feel is right for their farm. Farmers are a notoriously independent bunch, and adopting this approach appeals to that independent nature.

Elsewhere the consultation confirms that we will continue to apply the “polluter pays” principle after leaving the EU. Polluter Pays, means exactly what it says – if you pollute, then you pay to have it cleaned up. In some ways Polluter Pays could be seen an admission of failure – better not to pollute in the first place. But the principle, if properly applied, encourages farmers to change practices so they avoid the risk of polluting, and thereby having to pay.

One of the really major issues here is whether farm regulations will be strengthened or weakened. Polluter Pays relies on regulations – the threat of fines or worse. There is a suggestion within the paper that the Government is thinking about strengthening what is known as the Regulatory Baseline. Conversely, the paper proposes that farmers become their own regulators  – this is known as marking your own homework.

The risks are obvious – without independent assessment, those who ignore things like food safety, animal welfare or environmental protection can proceed without risk of being caught, while law-abiding farmers end up being tarnished by the same brush when their “free loader” neighbours finally get caught.

On Pesticides, the Government recognizes that:

Farmers must be able to protect their crops and people must be protected from the risks that pesticides can pose to them and the environment. Strong regulation of pesticides is essential to limit the risks, but this should be supplemented by integrated pest management.”

There is clearly a tension here between a recognition that the public is rightly suspicious of industry claims about the safety of agro-chemicals, and the agro-chemical industry’s strong influence over Government policy. Adopting an integrated pest management approach is something the UK signed up to thanks to an EU Directive in 2009.

Farmers and landowners are understandably worried that the current system, in which they have been operating for over 40 years, is going to come to a crashing stop, with nothing to replace it. Their fears are that the current budget of nearly £4 billion paid out in subsidies to farmers a year is likely to be severely cut – possibly to less than £1Bn a year. And this could all happen very quickly. If the UK crashes out of the EU without a deal – the so-called hard Brexit – farm payments via the EU will stop in just over a year’s time. This leaves no time at all for a transition to the new approach of paying for public goods.

One other large disappointment for me is that the importance of protecting existing high quality wildlife habitat on farmland was almost completely ignored in this consultation. There were plenty of mentions of creating new habitat – whether by planting trees or sowing seeds, but very little recognition that there is an existing resource, and much of it is unprotected and at high risk.

Existing high quality wildlife habitats on farmlands can be protected as Sites of Special Scientific Interest. Many are not though. Natural England is supposed to legally protect them (in England), but it has fallen behind with the task of designating new SSSIs. The risk is that, with the massive changes that are coming (unless Brexit is reversed), much of what is left will be destroyed, as farmers try and extract income from every available inch of their land.

 

this article first appeared on the Lush Times website..

Posted in agriculture, Agriculture policy, Brexit, Common Agricultural Policy, NFU | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Oxfam’s Haiti scandal should force us to rethink how Charities deliver International Aid

e-waste recycling; Agbogbloshie, Ghana. © Reece Pickering

 

Oxfam plus other aid and development charities are rightly being castigated for the appalling actions of some of their staff, for example those in Haiti. Some also argue there is a systemic problem associated with these agencies, known as the ‘White Saviour’ problem, where people in the developed West feel they operate from a position of moral superiority – a position that is a hangover from the colonial past.

Elsewhere the entire approach to providing Foreign Aid and International Development funding is under attack  – Conservative leadership contender Jacob Rees-Mogg photo-bombed the handing in of a petition gathered by the Daily Express, imploring the Prime Minister to cut the overseas aid budget and use the money instead on domestic priorities – such as the NHS.

As if in response to this pressure, International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt has threatened to cut off £32 million a year of Government funding which flows to Oxfam for the charity’s overseas work.

The Government’s dysfunctional relationship with the Charity Sector doesn’t stop there. Having failed to install former Charities Minister Rob Wilson as the new Charity Commission chair, it has courted yet more controversy by overruling a Parliamentary Select Committee in approving Baroness Tina Stowell, a former Conservative minister, in the post.

The Charity Commission is the regulator for the entire sector, covering everything from massive charities such as Oxfam, down to the smallest groups comprised entirely of volunteers. As the President’s Club scandal illustrated, the Charity Commission needs to have not only the full confidence of the public in ensuring charities act in the public interest, but also to be seen to be above party politics. It is even more important that the Commission is seen to be scrupulously independent of all political parties, and especially the governing party or parties. That the Government has deliberately ignored Parliament’s concerns and given this critical job to someone with very clear political connections to the governing party, risks undermining the integrity of the regulator at a time when its independence of thought and action is more important than ever.

Perhaps we should not be surprised – successive Governments since 2010 have attacked both Charity work which they perceive as political – and any perceived leftist slant within the Charity Sector. This has culminated in charities being gagged from lobbying on behalf of the interests they were created to serve; Oxfam had no sooner released its annual report on global wealth inequality, than the organisation was attacked for the actions of some of its staff in Haiti seven years earlier. Some commentators have suggested that this is, perhaps, no coincidence.

There is a conflict of ideas at the heart of this story – between those who believe that inequality, (whether within countries, or between countries), is driven by a concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, who also control the markets that determine where wealth flows; and those who believe that it is only by introducing free market capitalism across the world, that existing inequality can be reduced – arguing that “a rising tide lifts all boats” (spoiler alert: it doesn’t).

Those supporters of the free market see socialism, hiding in plain sight, within the charity sector. They argue that charities such as Oxfam are not really interested in helping poor people in developing countries to improve their lot, but are only interested in exploiting them – to capture the moral high ground, to feather their own nests, or worse. Sadly, the actions of individuals such as those working for Oxfam in Haiti provide just the sort of examples they seek, to prove their point.

And of course it’s also true that charities based in countries like the UK or other former European empires, cannot operate outside the historic context of Empire, Colony and all the horrific events that took place, from slavery to the wanton exploitation of natural resources. There is always a danger that their actions will be seen as neo-colonial; the “White Saviours” coming to save the “savages” from themselves. Charities like Oxfam really do have to show they operate to higher ethical standards than anyone else, or risk being tarred with the neo-colonial brush. It may already be too late.

Should the UK be spending billions of pounds a year on international development programmes – whether it be through charities like Oxfam, or via direct support to Governments? There are many reasons why we should. Apart from anything else, we as a country should accept that the problems blighting developing countries now, are still at least in part due to our country’s behaviour during Imperial times. You could call it reparations for past wrongs.

As a very wealthy country we have a moral duty to support poorer countries  – this is a straight matter of redistributing wealth and the same reason that the UK was a net contributor to the EU economy – to benefit countries who needed our support. And the same reason that wealthy individuals should  pay more through taxation to pay for the public services we all use; and provide support for the poorest in society to better their futures.

What, then, should the money be spent on?  Aid in emergencies is one thing, but supporting development can cover a lot of activities, and some undoubtedly fall into the White Saviour category, or worse. Perhaps a better word to use is regeneration – with those providing financial support working in partnership with people in developing countries, learning from them the best way to move forward, rather than patronising them and telling them what they need.

In truth, we in the West probably have far more to learn about regeneration from those in the developing world, than we have to offer them. A fair trade where ideas and wisdom flows to us, and in return financial support flows from us, may appeal to both those seeking to reduce wealth inequality, and those wishing to use the power of markets to improve people’s lives.

this post first appeared in my No Tern Unstoned column for Lush Times.

Posted in Charities campaigning, international development, No Tern Unstoned, Oxfam | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Parliament rejects Baroness Stowell for Charity Commission job. Govt ignores them.

Some of you sharper eyed readers (clue – that’s all of you) will remember I wrote about the background to the incoming Charity Commission chair, Baroness Tina Stowell a couple of weeks ago. 

Shortly after that article, it was revealed that the Government had rejected a candidate with a very strong background in the Charity Sector and no political affiliations. Former Charity Commission CEO Andrew Hind wrote this on Civil Society:

 

 

 

So, given what we already know about former charities minister Rob Wilson being lined up for the job, there have been two attempts by the Government to instal political appointees to lead the Charity Regulator, while one strong apolitical candidate has been rejected.

Preferred candidate Baroness Stowell was interviewed by the Culture Media and Sport Select Committee yesterday. If you want to, you can watch it here . I have watched it – and I would advise you not to. It’s a painful affair. You would imagine that the former leader of the House of Lords would be a good performer. Either she was having a very bad day, or she was totally unprepared for the interview, or knew nothing about the subject, or quite possibly all three.

Baroness Stowell came across as someone who knew very little, or perhaps just nothing at all, about the sector. Her answers were evasive in the extreme and she repeated herself with many hesitations. When the transcript is published it is likely to be pretty short, once all the “errs” “ahs” and “you knows” are removed.

But there were some useful nuggets to be gleaned from the dross. Stowell confirmed that Lord Ashcroft had asked her to join the board of Crimestoppers and his company Impellam. When questioned about a possible conflict of interest by Rebecca Pow, she claimed that being on the board of a company that makes its profits from charging the public sector exorbitantly for temporary staff, would somehow give her insights into the Charity Sector, because she was very interested in the relationship between people and jobs.” Having offered to resign from her very brief charity trustee-ships and to resign (again) from the Tory party, she refused to accept she might need to leave this presumably well remunerated role with her friend Lord Ashcroft.

The Select Committee questioned her closely on her total lack of experience in the sector, her political affiliations and the impression, at the very least, that she was a political appointee. They noted her voting record, which had included support for the Charity Gagging law. But she refused to accept that the gagging law had had any effect on charity work. This is despite all the evidence that it has had and continues to have a significant effect.

At one point the Baroness claimed that she had had no contact with ministers during the application process – and indeed in any normal job application, informal discussions with the people ultimately deciding  whether you get the job or not, are very much frowned upon. This is especially true of such a sensitive appointment.

Near the end of the interview however, she admitted that she had had an informal conversation with the Secretary of State at DCMS at the time, Karen Bradley. Stowell explained that she had been having an informal conversation with Bradley “about something else” when she casually asked what was happening with the Charity Commission chair appointment and Bradley said the decision had not been made. Stowell refused to divulge what the something else was. To say this undermines Stowell’s suggestion that she was a “political outsider” would be the understatement of the year.

The Select Committee agreed unanimously that they would write to the new CMS Secretary of State Matt Hancock recommending he rejected Baroness Stowell for the job. The letter is uncompromising and damning in its criticism of the process that led to Baroness Stowell appearing before them. The Secretary of State may well choose to ignore the Committee’s view (and there are already reports that he plans to do just that), but the reality is that the damage has already been done. Who in the Charity Sector is now going to support this appointment.

One other thing that Stowell mentioned was also enlightening. As well as her trustee role with Ashcroft’s Crimestoppers charity and his outsourcing business Impellam, Stowell took on a trustee role with a small charity called the Transformation Trust, as I mentioned in my previous post. The Committee asked how this had come about. Stowell explained that she had been approached about it by a mutual friend of hers and the Trust’s chief exec Amy Leonard. By strange coincidence, Amy Leonard was press officer for the New Schools Network charity, which promotes that most political of educational initiatives, the Free Schools project. Leonard had also worked for the Compass Education Trust – a free schools academy set up by Peter Wilkinson, the man who vowed to break the RMT during the Southern Rail crisis. While the Transformation Trust may be doing good work, delivering public benefit, its political links raise further questions for Stowell to answer, should she be given the job.

UPDATE: Secretary of State at CMS Matt Hancock has given Baroness Stowell his full backing this morning.

 

 

 

 

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Where now for UK Agriculture?

The UK’s decision to leave the European Union has created a huge set of risks and threats, but also some opportunities. One opportunity is to change the course of farming policy and practice. For 40 years the UK was subject to rules on how farmers were paid – rules decided in Brussels (though greatly influenced by UK farming industry lobbyists such as the National Farmers Union). These rules collectively became known as the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP for short). The original intention of that policy was to pay secret war reparations, by siphoning money from German industry to French farmers. You can read more about the Common Agricultural Policy and how it helped wipe wildlife, history and communities from the British countryside, in the People Need Nature report “A Pebble in the Pond.”

 

Around £3 Billion a year of farm subsidies are currently paid out to UK farmers, with large landowners getting the lion’s share. Small farmers with less than 5ha of farmland are entirely excluded from this scheme.

 

As we leave the EU a new UK Agricultural Policy will be needed – but not yet. The transition period, which is set to run from April 2019 to December 2020 – or the “18 months of chaos”, as I predict it will become known, will likely see the UK remain inside the CAP. Environment Secretary Michael Gove has indicated that during this time he will introduce a cap on the total payment made to each farmer. This cap could be at around £100,000 a year, which sounds like a lot of money (and it is.) Over the following few years, the new UK Agricultural Policy – let’s call it a UKAP, will be introduced. This is where it gets interesting.

 

Secretary of State Gove has indicated time and again that he wants the new approach to be based on a principle that public money should only be used to pay for public benefits – or, more specifically public goods, in the technical language if economics. Growing food in and of itself is not a public good, because any food grown is sold on the market – that makes it a private good. Public goods include clean air, healthy soil, wildlife, flood prevention and any actions taken to limit the impact of climate change, access to the countryside, among many others. Some suggest that “rural vitality” is a public good, which means supporting deeply rural farming communities that would otherwise disappear, without public support – and upland hill farms are the most often cited example.

 

This is radical departure from the current system, which pays around £200 per hectare per annum to landowners, regardless of whether they grow food or not (within a set of loose rules designed to ensure that they do not do anything too damaging to the environment.) Needless to say the farmers, notably through their main representative the NFU, are not happy about this. But the winds of change are blowing and it seems likely that a change to “public goods for public money” is going to happen. If all £3 Billion a year of the current subsidy were paid to landowners to deliver public goods, in theory wildlife could be restored, flooding could be avoid, there would be much more access, struggling rural communities could thrive, and so on. But of course with the anticipated shock to the economy that even the softest Brexit will create, the Treasury is already looking to claw back that money.

 

While this looks like very good news for nature, a far larger risk threatens to pull in the opposite direction – that is the radical change to the way the UK trades with the rest of the world. Losing our place in the Single Market and Customs Union threatens UK farmers in multiple ways. A flood of cheap food imports (produced in some cases at much lower standards of hygiene, safety environmental impact or animal welfare) will undermine domestic food producers sending them out of business. Those who depend on exports to survive will also suffer especially those which export mainly into the EU (sheep and beef farmers.) Selling pork or innovative jam to China will in no way compensate for the loss of access to local markets.

 

A much more sensible approach might be to follow what our French neighbours are doing – requiring all publicly funded bodies (schools, hospitals, care homes etc) to procure half of their food from organic or local sources, by 2022.

The next 6 months is probably going to be the most exciting time to be involved in shaping agriculture and food policy in the past 70 years. I will be keeping you regularly updated on progress.

this post first appeared in my No Tern Unstoned column for Lush Times.

 

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The rise of ChariTina – and why she will be the perfect Charity Commission chair

In last week’s No Tern Unstoned Column (which you can find here) I explored the double standards operating in the murky world of philanthrocapitalism. To boil it down for you, the article explores how charitable giving (through misogny-fests like the President’s Club) buys political influence, but charities are gagged from speaking up (to Government or the public) on behalf of the err public interest for which they exist.

On the same day the article was published,  the Government announced its preferred candidate for the new chair of the charity regulator, the Charity Commission. You may recall the outgoing chair was the political appointment William Shawcross, who was widely known as a Neocon before he took up the post. He also brought in such luminaries as Professor Gwithian Prins (of the private University of Buckingham) who advises the GWPF (now renamed the Global Warming Propaganda Front).

The Government had wanted to install former Charities Minister Rob Wilson in the post (I guess they thought he knew something about charities), after he lost his seat in the 2017 General Election. This move was rumbled, so they abandoned that plan.  Shawcross was persuaded to stay on a bit longer while they looked for someone else. Who could it be? Someone with a deep knowledge and experience of the Charity Sector? Someone who understands what charities are for, why they are so important; and the pressure that is being applied to them by this Government?

Step forward Baroness Tina Stowell, former Leader of the House of Lords under David Cameron. ChariTina as I will call her, must be perfectly suited to the job. She had a civil service career – in the MoD, US Embassy, and a couple of years in TV after working in John Major’s Number 10 Press Office (that must have been fun – Back to Basics and all that). After Major’s defeat in 97 she joined William Hague’s team as deputy chief of staff. It was during her short time in Hague’s top team, that Michael Ashcroft was given his peerage – here’s the fascinating story of how Hague managed to persuade a very sceptical Tony Blair – and what role did Tina Stowell play? Ashcroft had wanted to be styled Lord Ashcroft of Belize. Sadly this was turned down (they thought it was a joke – they’re not laughing now.)

We’ll return to Lord Ashcroft of Belize later.

When Hague’s leadership sunk without trace, Stowell joined the BBC upper echelons for 10 years, eventually becoming Head of Corporate Affairs. She then set up a lobbying firm Tina Stowell Associates – almost no trace of which still exists on the web. Shortly after that ChariTina got her own peerage (as a Tory peer – she could just as easily have been a cross-bencher) when Cameron became PM and she made her way through the Lords to become its Leader, a post from which she retired after the Referendum.

So far, so not very charity-ee, for ChariTina.

What’s she been doing since then, I hear you ask. Has she thrown herself into the world of charities, taking on trustee-ships of large influential charities, as so many others in her position are liable to do. Err no. It’s unfortunate that the Charity Commission website does not enable searches by Trustee – as Companies House does for company directors. Perhaps this is something ChariTina can address. Still, looking at Companies House, I found she had taken up two charity Trustee posts. The first is with the Crimestoppers Trust. This is a medium size charity, income about £5M. Stowell joined the Trustee board in July 2017, according to Companies House. Strangely, the Charity Commission hasn’t got round to updating Crimestoppers details on its own website. Either that, or the Charity hasn’t got round to telling the Charity Commission that it has a new Trustee (who’s about to become its Chair). I don’t know if it’s a crime not to inform the Commission of a change in Trustees. Perhaps I should phone Crimestoppers.You may not be surprised to discover that the chair of the Crimestoppers Trust is that collector of other people’s Victoria Crosses and massive Tory Party donor, yes it’s Lord Ashcroft of Belize. Just a coincidence, I’m sure.

Even more recently, on 1st January this year (and presumably after she applied for the job with the Charity Commission) ChariTina joined the Trustee board of The Transformation Trust. This much smaller charity (turnover £800k) helps school children, often from deprived backgrounds, to improve the chances of them getting a job, by acting as a sort of broker, taking funding from large corporates (and others like the Royal Navy) and organising out of school activities, work placements and the like. The existing board is filled with the Great and the Good, although I did also notice Rachel Wolf is a Trustee. Wolf was funded by Cameron to set up the New Schools Network, of which the unsavoury eugenics enthusiast and social media misogynist Toby Young is still Chief Exec (at the time of writing.)  Wolf was a former advisor to Cameron and Gove, and more recently helped set up a new member of the right wing thinktank-ocracy – Parents and Teachers for Excellence.

On this cursory search ChariTina’s charitable credentials seem even thinner than her predecessor’s. One other clue also surfaced when I was looking for evidence as to why Stowell would be the best person for this vital job. She holds a couple of company directorships. One is with ABTA limited – the organisation that represents travel agents. No, not this one. The other one. The other Directorship is with a company called Impellam. Impellam is an outsourcing company, just like Carillion. Impellam provides casual staff to public sector organisations – Impellam calls itself the “second largest staffing business in the UK.” It earns £2Bn a year from providing temps – Supply Teachers, Agency Nurses, Locum Doctors etc. All these staff are filling spaces in the public sector – spaces that have been created by the er policies of the Government (more here). Who could possibly be behind this very successful business that seems to be so closely aligned to the Government?

YES! It’s our old friend, Lord Ashcroft of Belize. He owns Impellam. I expect ChariTina’s experience of the charity sector will be helpful in increasing Impellam’s profits.

There we have it.

Baroness Stowell’s position as preferred candidate for Charity Commission chair is obviously down to her having been a charity Trustee of two charities for a combined total 6 whole months. It can have absolutely nothing to do with the fact that she’s a Tory Peer or has close links with Tory party funder and Eminence Grise Lord Ashcroft.

 

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What they say….and what they do.

For the past 84 years, January, in the farming calendar, has seen the Great and the Good gather together for the Oxford Farming Conference. For the past 9 years, those Great and the Good have been challenged, heckled, and generally ribbed by the very different group of farmers, growers and rabble-rousers who meet down the road, at the Oxford Real Farming Conference. I was lucky enough to go along this year, on behalf of Lush Times.

Amongst the many fascinating talks and discussions – all (as far as I could tell) exploring what happens to the future of farming after Brexit – I was particularly taken by a session on land taxation. This pitted Country Landowners Association Policy chief Chris Price against Green MEP Molly Scott-Cato. This was also the only event at the Conference where singing was obligatory – led by the inspirational Robin Grey of Three Acres and Cow. Elsewhere, conference goers enjoyed hearing about how Beavers have been introduced to farmland in Cornwall, to reduce flooding in the nearby village of Ladock; and the importance of the Microbiome (all of the microbes living in one place) in the Soil, in farm animals and inside us.

Perhaps the most extraordinary event of this year’s conference was that Environment Secretary Michael Gove came along, for a Question and Answer Session with green Tory MP Zac Goldsmith (whose uncle founded The Ecologist magazine.) Mr Gove spoke eloquently, persuasively. The sometimes rapturous applause that met his pronouncements, was suggestive of a religious revivalist meeting. There was almost no heckling, which was in itself extraordinary. He was also very adept at deflecting awkward questions from the floor: I asked how the aspects of nature which cannot be given a monetary value by the Natural Capital Accounting approach would be valued and protected. He responded by quoting Monty Python, before imploring everyone to take responsibility for protecting nature. We can all do our bit.

 

This message was repeated in the 25 Year Plan for Nature launched last week (which I wrote about in last week’s Column.) We can all do our bit. Just yesterday the Prime Minister tweeted, asking

“what will you do to cut down avoidable plastic waste?”

 

 

 

 

 

While on the one hand Michael Gove accepts that the market cannot provide all the solutions to society’s needs or ills, the suggestion appears to be, that, where the market cannot provide, it our own responsibility to take action. And of course this is true, up to a point. One particularly effective organisation working to help reduce waste is WRAP (the Waste and Resources Action Programme). This started out life in 2000 as a publicly funded campaign, working to reduce waste. In 2014 it became a Charity. Westminster Government funding has been cut (though Welsh Government funding has increased) and now 15% of its workforce is going to be axed. While the Government talks a good talk on reducing plastic waste, it cuts funding for the very organisation created, by Government, to lead that campaign.

 

The Hen Harrier may not be threatened by plastic waste, but it is on the very edge of extinction in England. This is due to its persecution at the hands of game-keepers on upland private estates managed for Driven Grouse-shooting. This is not something where we can all do our bit, as Driven Grouse-shooting takes places on private land, by individuals paying a great deal of money for the dubious pleasure.

 

Campaigners have repeatedly pointed out that the single most effective way of preventing these beautiful birds from being wiped out in England, is to enforce the wildlife crime laws. But no. Instead, the Government has decided to licence the removal, from Grouse Moors, of Hen Harrier chicks. They will then be reared in captivity, before being released somewhere else. Presumably that somewhere else will be a place where they are less likely to be shot, snared or poisoned – perhaps on an RSPB nature reserve? Except the RSPB has condemned the proposal. And it’s easy to see why.

 

Natural England, the Government’s wildlife experts, suggest that Brood Management (as it is known) is good because it will

 

“reduce hen harrier predation of grouse chicks on driven grouse moors, leading to an improvement in the conservation status of hen harrier.”

 

This is a euphemism for “if they don’t eat the grouse, they won’t be killed.”

 

The 25 Year Environment Plan fails to mention the fact that the Hen Harrier is on the brink of extinction, thanks to wildlife crime. Instead it suggests that Hen Harriers need more new habitat (when they have plenty already) and that re-introductions (returning the bird to areas where it has become extinct) are the answer. This is called displacement activity. Rather than tackle the difficult problem of wildlife crime on estates owned by the immensely wealthy, alternatives are put forward which are unnecessary and a distraction.

 

What do about plastic waste and the plight of the Hen Harrier might not seem like they have any similarities. But they both illustrate the inherent risks of talking a very good, while doing the precise opposite. This is exactly the sort of thing which made the Government’s announcement yesterday, that it was setting up a unit to counter fake news, so risible.

But if Michael Gove really wants to leave a political legacy from his time at Defra – that he shifted the debate about how important the environment is to everyone – that he took action – then he will need to resolve these dissonances, and fast.

 

first published on Lush Times, No Tern Unstoned. with a few updates

 

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