In this week’s New Statesman: The cheap food delusion

Colin Tudge on a food chain out of control. PLUS: Lord Ashcroft profiled.

Colin Tudge: The global food chain is out of control

Colin Tudge, author of Good Food for Everyone Forever and co-founder of the Campaign for Real Farming and the Oxford Real Farming Conference, writes a searing report on the state of a globalised food chain built to “maximise wealth” with scant regard for consumer welfare. He writes: “...the whole, ever more complicated global food chain is absolutely not under control.”

If agriculture in Britain and around the world were designed to do what most people innocently suppose is its job – to provide us all with good food without wrecking the environment at large and driving our fellow creatures to extinction – it would not resemble what we have now...

Horseburgers perhaps are just a scam that was waiting to happen but far worse disasters are waiting to happen, too.

As things are, despite the soothing words from on high, they are inevitable: not accidents at all, but systemic. We have already seen far worse.

Tudge reminds that these events are the “inevitable” outcome of industry “shortcomings” –  “...not accidents at all, but systemic. We have already seen far worse.” He recalls disasters like the foot-and-mouth outbreak of 2001 and the mad cow disease (BSE) of 1986, a “home-grown” epidemic that “began with cost-cutting just the same”.

Tudge sees a radical solution in downsizing, arguing:

We need nothing less than an agrarian renaissance...

If we in Britain did set out to grow our own food we could easily be self-reliant; so could most countries in the world.... “Self-reliant” does not mean “self-sufficient”; naturally, we should continue to import tea, coffee, oranges, bananas, cinnamon and nutmeg... But we should not be reliant on imported meat, and certainly should not be scouring the world for whatever is cheapest...


Lord Ashcroft: The Tory Kingmaker

This week Andrew Gimson, author of Boris: the Rise of Boris Johnson, profiles Lord Ashcroft, the self-made Tory billionaire who can supply the ammunition to destroy the Prime Minister. Ashcroft initially agreed to be interviewed then, but then requested the interview be conducted over email.

“It turned out that Ashcroft did not really wish to see me,” writes Gimson. “He had closed the discussion down before it even got started. This guardedness is a deeply ingrained characteristic.”

Gimson quotes Ashcroft who, when describing himself in his book Dirty Politics, Dirty Times (2005), wrote: “I am a private rather than a secretive man.” Gimson also queries Ashcroft on his “second political career” – the Lord’s “significant” commitment to poling:

As Ashcroft relates: “Almost overnight I became fascinated by polling and by what could and could not be achieved by the process. In no time at all, I was a polling bore.

Later on Andrew Mitchell describes what it was like to travel with Ashcroft – the two visited 24 countries together when Mitchell was shadow development secretary. Mitchell said:

He’s a very good friend of mine. He is brilliant company and has a tremendously wicked sense of humour which makes him all the more enjoyable to spend time with. He is a very good friend and a truly terrible enemy. He has an elephantine memory, which of course is even worse in an enemy, because it means he never forgets.

Ashcroft once compared himself politically to “a lion stalking its prey” – and GImson writes that some in the party find “the ruthlessness with which he denounces those who have offended him is a bit off-putting”:

Some Tories resent his power and find him “ruthless” and “repellent”. They feel that he is “quite menacing in his personal dealings”, consider him a natural monopolist who wants to buy influence, and say he reminds them of “the villain in a Bond movie”. They reckon he is always “sizing you up and looking for your weaknesses”...

It is easy to imagine that if Ashcroft gets enraged with the government at the same time as the voters he is polling, he could emerge as a tribune of the people...Ashcroft the pollster is now a convincing enough figure to supply the ammunition that could destroy a prime minister.




Michael Berrett: Long walk to freedom

In the NS Essay this week Michael Barrett, professor of biochemical parasitology at the University of Glasgow, explores the legacy of David Livingstone – explorer and tropical disease researcher – 200 years after his birth. Livingstone’s remarkable travels through Africa eventually killed him, but his research opened the way for great scientific discovery, and his reputation is one of social progressiveness. Barrett begins:

On 1 May 1873, at the age of 60, Dr David Livingstone died while on an ultimately futile quest to identify the source of the River Nile. The deprivations that Livingstone suffered over the 30 years that span his three great expeditions to Africa are astonishing. His first aim had been to bring Christianity to Africa; he died fighting to end the slave trade…

His unyielding Christianity led him to reject the theories of his contemporary and fellow explorer Charles Darwin. Their contributions to cataloguing the natural world were, however, comparable. Livingstone’s published accounts of nature’s wondrous diversity were received with the kind of awe that David Attenborough inspires today…

He learned to speak the languages of those among whom he tried to spread the gospel. He wished to treat Africans with respect; he tested their medicines and embraced many of their customs. He gave his life in the fight against the slave trade. Few European place names were preserved in post-colonial Africa but it is still possible to visit the towns of Livingstone in Zambia and Blantyre in Malawi.

When Kenneth Kaunda, the former president of Zambia, described David Livingstone as the first African freedom fighter, he might just have had a point.

Anthony Seldon: Balls must go

In a guest column this week, Anthony Seldon, co-author of Brown at 10, writes an open letter to the shadow chancellor opining that for the good of himself, his family and the party, “the time has come for you to fall on your sword.”

After 20 unbroken years at the heart of politic... quitting in the next few months until, say, 2017 would undoubtedly benefit your leader, your party, your wife and even yourself. Let me explain...

Read this piece in full on the website now.


George Eaton: Miliband’s mansion tax retoxifies the Tory brand

In the politics column this week George Eaton writes on Miliband’s inspired twinning of a popular tax cut (10p tax rate) with a popular tax rise (mansion tax), a move that will “retoxify the Conservative brand while reinforcing the impression of the Lib Dems as the helpless hostages of a Tory clique.”

Read this piece in full on the website now.


In the Critics

  • Writer and former television producer David Herman takes aim at the cosy nostalgia of British TV drama. “British television is on a huge nostalgia binge”
  • Our lead book review sees American critic and poet Adam Kirsch write on James Lasdun’s memoir of being stalked, Give Me Everything You Have
  • Jonathan Derbyshire talks to the historian Paul Kennedy in the Books Interview
  • Richard Mabey reviews Field Notes from a Hidden City, an “urban nature diary” by Esther Woolfson
  • Bryan Appleyard reviews The God Argument: the Case Against Religion and for Humanism by A C Grayling
  • David Cesarani reviews Helga’s Diary: a Young Girl’s Account of Life in a Concentration Camp by Helga Weiss
  • Kate Mossman reviews new albums by John Grant and Steve Earle
  • Ryan Gilbey reviews Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder and the screen adaptation of David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas


Read about this and much more in our “In the Critics” blog on Cultural Capital

Purchase a copy of this week's New Statesman in newsstands today, or online at:


Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.