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.

 

ELSEWHERE IN THE MAGAZINE:

 

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: subscribe.newstatesman.com

 

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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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.