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The Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson comes across as pretty credible when making speeches, but he can be let down by his friends. Last month he made a major speech in Parliament to overcome public scepticism and persuade the EU to allow cultivation of Genetically-Modified crops. His speech was straightforward enough but a lot less entertaining than John ‘Mad Cow Disease’ Gummer who, you’ll remember, made his point by force-feeding his daughter with a beefburger on TV. But Owen still has to persuade the Prince of Wales, Prime Minister and House of Commons Catering Committee to put ‘Frankenstein food’ on their menu.

A meat-based diet is amazingly inefficient in terms of resource-use compared to a plant-based one.

Paterson wants the EU to approve a long list of new GM crops, including herbicide-tolerant maize and sugar beet on the basis they offer increased yields which keep food prices down. Critics say the technology is unproven, threatens human health and the ecosystem and is driven by the corporate greed of food producers, not the needs of consumers. The precursor to Paterson’s speech was a report by the Parliamentary International Development Committee two weeks earlier to the G8 ‘International Summit on Nutrition’ held in London. It is generally acknowledged that a meat-based diet is amazingly inefficient in terms of resource-use compared to a plant-based one, so it was hardly surprising when the Chairman Sir Malcolm Bruce announced:

‘There is no room for complacency about food security if UK consumers are to enjoy reasonable food prices. With the UK never more than a few days away from a significant food shortage, UK consumers should be encouraged over time to reduce how often they eat meat.’

The ‘Springwatch’ presenter and president of the RSPB, Kate Humble was pretty supportive of both. She suggested the Sir Paul McCartney approach to meat consumption was one solution.

One solution is meat has to become a luxury – a treat.

‘Don’t be too quick to knock the science’ she said. ‘One solution is meat has to become a luxury – a treat. We need to stop having bacon sandwiches for breakfast, chicken sandwiches for lunch and steak for dinner.’

Whilst the well-rehearsed arguments for and against GM are kicked back and forth across Europe now could be a good time to read the report. It recommends the UK Dept. for International Development continues to help smallholders in the developing world increase food production and reduce reliance on imports. It emphasizes the damage which rising commodity prices do to the UK food industry and consumers and is particularly critical of the EU requirement that 10% of transport energy must be provided from renewable sources by 2020.

Diverting production from food into bio-fuel solves one problem but creates another…

…as seen when the USA shifted production of maize for export into maize for bio-fuel. The resulting price hike in this staple food sparked riots South of the border.

But the report does leave several elephants wandering through the room e.g. whether GM or better farming practices is the solution and whether DFID’s budget should be hacked in the government spending cuts. It does not shy away from the contentious issue of population control in the developing world and points out that when world population grows from 7.1 billion today to 9.3 billion by 2050 as predicted then food prices (let alone energy prices) will go through the roof. The Committee praises DFID’s efforts to meet the need for contraception in many developing nations and urges HMG to maintain a keen focus on women’s reproductive rights.

The Committee also took some shots at emerging problems e.g. investors who buy up areas of land farmed by smallholders in developing countries. They recommended UK-domiciled corporations are required to be transparent about such land deals.

There is ‘considerable scope for the Government to reduce domestic food waste and set national targets to curb food waste within the UK food production and retail sectors…with clear sanctions for Companies which fail to meet these targets’.

Of course one way to keep prices down for the UK’s (relatively-static) population is to increase domestic production, hence Owen Paterson’s speech. Another is to reduce food wastage. According to the committee there is ‘considerable scope for the Government to reduce domestic food waste and set national targets to curb food waste within the UK food production and retail sectors…with clear sanctions for Companies which fail to meet these targets’. It sounds like portions may be about to get smaller at the Market Cafe – which is one way to curb obesity and save money for the NHS.

Meanwhile, a Good Food news story: The miserable weather this spring may have caused the unexpected surge seen in the number of elvers migrating up the river Severn. Cool weather may have shifted ocean currents and helped the baby eels return to the Severn estuary from their birthplace in the Sargasso Sea. Elvers are a local delicacy in Gloucester but when exported to the Far East sell at a price, pound for pound, higher than caviare. I was introduced to catching elvers many years ago by a friend who fries them with smoky bacon and serves them with scrambled egg on toast. Very nice, but too expensive nowadays for anything but an occasional treat.

Netting is strictly controlled by the UK Environment Agency to between February and May and because of the decline the EU has imposed a ban on exports to outside Europe.

Sadly, elver numbers have fallen by 90% over the last 20 years (no-one really knows why) so the European Eel is now on the EU list of endangered species. Netting is strictly controlled by the UK Environment Agency to between February and May and because of the decline the EU has imposed a ban on exports to outside Europe. The French have, predictably, refused to sign-up to the ban and continue to employ their preferred fishing method of trawling by boat. This is of course far less fun than risking your life with a hand net on a muddy Gloucestershire riverbank through a freezing night.

Hopefully the eels now know all about the French and will continue to return to the UK instead.

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