Latest from Birmingham Post lifestyle...
A few weeks ago I wrote about the growing interest in eating insects, especially in developed countries like ours. Now the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has published a wide-ranging study into the history, current practices and future potential of this. The Report, ten years in the making, looks at how people might move from gathering insects in the wild, for local processing and consumption, to farming them on an industrial scale to feed both people and animals.
This is no quirky niche market exercise; the world's population is likely to reach nine billion people by 2050. The increase is taking place at the same time as climate change and other factors (including the space needed by the extra people) are predicted to reduce the area of land available to produce food. Innovative approaches to feeding everyone are essential. Although in the West there is often revulsion at the idea of eating insects, in less developed countries there is an existing base to build on. According to the Report nearly 2,000 insect species are already part of the diet of at least two billion people.
The most commonly eaten insects are beetles, caterpillars, ants, bees and wasps, and grasshoppers, locusts and crickets. All stages of insects are consumed, for instance ant eggs and pupa, beetle grubs and moth caterpillars, and adult grasshoppers and dragonflies. Smaller species can be produced in huge numbers to turn into animal feed, especially fishmeal and chickenfeed.
Rearing insects for food has many advantages. They are rich in proteins, vitamins and minerals, and they can produce some elements, such as such as omega-3 and fatty acids as, or more efficiently than, fish, cattle and pigs. Insects require less land and water, and emit less carbon dioxide, methane and ammonia. They are much more efficient than animals like cattle and sheep at turning their food into themselves. Widely eaten mopane worms for example (these are the caterpillars of an emperor moth in Africa) apparently need three kilos of leaves to yield one kilo of worms, whereas cattle need ten kilos of feed to produce one kilo of meat.
Add to these the facts that some crop pests can themselves be eaten (in the tropics the most popular edible beetles are palm weevils which are described in the FAO Report as 'significant palm pests') and that many species can be raised on organic waste such as manure and waste meat, and the case is compelling.
The prospect of snacking on chocolate covered bees (a Nigerian delicacy), crispy fried locusts, or nectar-rich oak galls (available in Mexican markets) may be strange to us now. Perhaps though our grandchildren will happily be doing so, sustaining themselves and the planet at the same time.
If you want to browse the full report go to http://www.fao.org/docrep/018/i3253e/i3253e00.pdf
Well, it's been a day of contrasts so far.... just as I was looking into these wine samples from Lidl an invite to the inaugural Fortnum & Mason food and drink awards dropped through the letter box.
Our self-proclaimed 'greenest Government ever' continues with its Gilbert and Sullivan approach to living up to that claim. The latest manifestation of its skewed attitudes to the natural world is the attempt to block the European Union (EU) imposing controls on the use of insecticides thought by many to harm bees. The substances are neonicitinoides and one of them is said to be the most widely used insecticide in the world. The manufacturers deny that their products are causing any harm. (There are echoes in this debate of that surrounding DDT in the 1950s or, in a different context, that about the link between smoking and lung cancer.)
As for bees and other essential pollinators, as reported previously here, their numbers are declining. This is a major cause of concern - a significant proportion of our food relies upon insect pollinators. No one is suggesting that the insecticides are solely responsible for this; other factors include habitat loss, parasitic mites, and fungal and viral infections. Even so the decline of bees has apparently mirrored the rise in use of the neonicitinoides, and effects caused by a variety of factors in combination are both rarely tested for and notoriously difficult to demonstrate.
With millions of people supporting a ban, many scientific studies providing plausible, if not always compelling, evidence of links between the use of the insecticides and problems with bees, and the Environmental Audit Committee of the House of Commons calling for action, the EU proposal for a two year ban seems to be no more than common sense. Not according to the Government. When the measure was voted on in Brussels on April 29 we voted against.
This despite supporters of the ban presenting a petition to the Government signed by 300,000 people, and MP Joan Whalley, Chair of the Environment Audit Committee saying, after a six month investigation, that Defra's approach to protecting bees is 'extraordinarily complacent' and that 'the weight of scientific evidence now warrants a ban'.
As with the debate about badgers, cattle and bovine TB, government scientists seem determined to reflect just one side of the argument. Their pronouncements are in line with, and supportive of, government policy and the views of companies with a commercial interest in the continuing use of the chemicals. The Government Chief Scientist Sir Mark Walport, writing in the Financial Times on 26 April, made many valid points, including the fact that neonicitinoides were introduced as safer alternatives to DDT, and that bumble bees seem to be more susceptible to them than honey bees. Even so he came out firmly against the (temporary) ban.
Two oft quoted principles of policy-making are the precautionary principle, and that policy should be evidence-based. In this case the first seems to have been ignored, whilst the second has been reversed: in Whitehall we have here what looks like policy-based evidence!
We have a curious attitude to wildlife, being very selective about which species we like and which we don't. Often there seems to be no logic regarding which species are considered cute and which vermin. Rabbits and grey squirrels seem to have a foot or two in each camp, whilst some animals move from one to the other. For example toads and bats, which used to be disliked and even feared, are now thought endearing and worthy of conservation.
Deer may be moving the opposite way in the public's affections. Once only occasionally glimpsed disappearing into the depths of a forest they are now often encountered. And not only in the open countryside or places like Cannock Chase; as I have previously reported red deer turn up from time to time in the heart of the Black Country, in and around the Sandwell Valley and areas of Walsall.
People and deer meet more often now because deer numbers are increasing at the same time as there are more visits than ever before to places like Cannock Chase and other open spaces. Walking, cycling, jogging and horse-riding have never been more popular. This means that deer are spreading to new areas, becoming used to people and therefore less wary of them, and they are more frequently disturbed in their day time resting places.
Recently the annual count of deer on the Chase took place. Organised by the Forestry Commission and Staffordshire County Council, it revealed that the 26 square miles of the Chase is now home to record numbers of deer, probably, despite the cold winter a thousand or more. In the main part of the Chase they are mainly fallow deer, whilst the larger red deer are concentrated in the south east and are often seen around Burntwood and Brownhills. More widely, following their 2011 census, the British Deer Society reports that there may be nearly two million deer in Britain and says that in 'urban environments ... there is a serious problem developing with growing deer populations in areas where practical management is very difficult.' (Full details at http://www.bds.org.uk .)
'Practical management' includes culling. Generally between 20 and 30 per cent of the population may be culled each year, but recently there have been calls for this to be increased to 50 per cent. Other problems include illegal poaching, damage to crops, woodlands and gardens, and traffic accidents. Last year about 160 incidents involving deer and traffic were reported in Staffordshire. In a collision between a deer and a car both the deer and the car's occupants can come off very badly.
Deer may still have the 'aah....' factor, but for how much longer?
PS Don't forget to enjoy International Dawn Chorus Day on Sunday 5 May, devised by the local Wildlife Trust here in Birmingham. Details at http://www.idcd.info/
One of the nation's favourite animals, the hedgehog, seems to be in a lot of trouble. According to the People's Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) their numbers have declined this century by nearly 40% in towns and cities, and by nearly as much in the countryside. The figures come from a long-term monitoring programme, and mean that relatively speaking hedgehogs are disappearing as fast as tigers. A bird declining so fast would attract a 'red alert'.
There are doubtless a number of factors which have led to this parlous situation. The increase in badger numbers may be one (badgers prey upon hedgehogs) loss of habitat, pesticides reducing their prey, declining earthworm numbers and weather may also be factors. With respect to habitat, on the face of it suburbia may not seem to have changed very much in ten years. Look more closely however and you soon realise that many large gardens have been lost to infill developments, and garden fashion has led to the construction of more decks and patios. Whilst these may provide resting and nesting places for hedgehogs they take up valuable foraging space, and that is likely to be more of a limiting factor.
As for the weather, the poor old hedgehogs are suffering in every respect. They naturally favour drier habitats and avoid very wet places. For the last few summers this has become increasingly difficult, with frequent floods and downpours occurring in many places. There may or may not be some compensation in the increased populations of slugs, one of their favourite foods. This spring will certainly not favour hedgehogs. They will extend their hibernation period through the very cold weather, but this means that they will be in a poorer condition than normal when they emerge. Any that are active will find it difficult to find worms in frozen ground. Smaller second generation hedgehogs, born in late summer each year, suffer more mortality during hibernation than their older siblings in a normal winter, this year that mortality will be increased.
Five years ago in this column I wrote about emerging evidence that hedgehog numbers were declining, but concluded that they were probably not in serious trouble. I have had to revise my opinion in the light of the latest evidence. As PTES Surveys Officer David Wembridge say 'Over the last twenty years or so, the world's tiger population is thought to have halved. Although they are very different animals and there are many fewer tigers left in the wild, the fact that we are losing hedgehogs in Britain as quickly, should ring alarm bells as loudly.'
If you want to know more, go to http://www.britishhedgehogs.org.uk where you will also find details of Hedgehog Awareness Week in May.
One of the most fascinating aspects about living in China is the assortment of wonderfully complex traditions, superstitions and customs, which have lived on for centuries and remain as important today as ever.
Chinese people have a deep devotion to tradition and their families, as well as an enduring respect for their ancestors. Although today's generation of young Chinese have grown up in a country of privilege and mass-consumption, their parents and grandparents have nevertheless raised them to be devoted to the health and happiness of their relatives. Even today, it goes without saying that once the (usually single) child in a family reaches working age, it falls upon him or her to support the elderly members of their families. It is still very common for sons to bring his wife to live with his parents, so that the elders can take care of the couple's baby, while the young couple goes out to work.
The emphasis on filial piety in Chinese society is revealed in the annual Tomb-sweeping holiday. The national holiday, which fell on April 4th to 6th, is a time when people are expected to visit the graves of their ancestors, leave flowers and gifts, and burn paper money as a means of transferring the cash to the 'other side'.
However, in recent years, the kinds of things people offer their ancestors has developed from more than cash, flowers, and food. Now, paper effigies of designer clothing, houses, and even ipods are what families demand for their deceased.
But the effect of the modern age on China's traditional holiday doesn't end there. With Chinese youngsters being possibly some of the most tech-savvy in the world, Chinese authorities have responded by offering a new digital perspective to this longstanding tradition of ancestor worship.
This year, for instance, those marking the holiday may have noticed some younger people waving their smartphones over tombstones. This is because, worshippers are now able to scan the two-dimensional quick response codes (QR codes) affixed to the monuments. When scanned with modern digital gadgets, these small, square images allow mourners to access a virtual obituary where photos and video clips of the deceased can be found.
Information provided by the codes, normally ranging from names and dates of birth and death, to life stories of the deceased, has made memorials more dynamic and interactive. Cemeteries in a number of Chinese cities have seen a growing number of QR code stickers on headstones, which are usually stuck next to their engraved epitaphs.
Surprisingly, Chinese officials have been advocating this style of 'cyber-mourning', out of concern over dwindling burial space, as well as air pollution and fire risks stemming from the tradition of burning paper "money for the dead.
I have previously touched upon the subject of environmental and ecological literacy. The latest consultation on changes to the National Curriculum once again highlights the issues. Words and numbers are emphasised, as they should be, but teaching about protection of the natural world and the impacts of climate change, is inexplicably downgraded. How will our children be able to understand and deal with the catastrophic damage we are inflicting upon the natural world, if the understanding they need is not treated with equal importance to literacy and numeracy?
The proposals are a betrayal of years of 'Big Society' environmental education work done by many people, not least in the Wildlife Trusts. The Wildlife Trust for Birmingham and the Black Country built the first purpose-designed inner-city environmental education centre (the Centre of the Earth) in Winson Green 25 years ago. In the last year, all over the country, nearly 300,000 children have benefited from Trusts' activities such as Forest Schools. This helps to develop appreciation and understanding of the importance of the natural environment.
Now the underpinning of these activities is being weakened at a time when it should be strengthened. In the consultation it is proposed for instance that children aged 5 to 14 should no longer be taught, or debate, climate change as part of the geography curriculum. There is just a single mention of the subject in the chemistry guidelines. Climate change education is proposed for the 14 plus age group, by which time only a minority of pupils will be taking geography GCSEs. Professor Sir David King, once the Government's Science Advisor, describes this as 'major political interference with the geography syllabus'.
As for nature protection, the current guidelines say that children aged five to seven 'should be taught to care for the environment' and those aged eight to eleven should be taught 'ways in which living things and the environment need protection'. In the new proposals these requirements have gone. They are replaced by a watered-down one for 10 year olds to 'recognise that environments are constantly changing and that this can sometimes pose dangers to specific habitats'.
It appears that the Government is trying to distance the next generation from the causes of so many of the problems they will face. Being able to read about these problems, and interpret the data related to them, will not count for much if a culture of concern, and a basic grasp of the principles which may lead to solutions is not inculcated at an early age. Wildlife Trusts' President Simon King says 'A younger generation equipped to understand and tackle the massive environmental problems we have left them is our only hope for the future.'
You can respond to the consultation until 16 April by going to the link on: https://www.education.gov.uk/consultations/
In the wake of the so-called horsemeat scandal along comes an initiative extolling the virtues of eating insects! Is nothing about our diet sacred anymore? Insects as food is the theme of an event in London in April called, somewhat curiously, Pestival 2013. The subject will also be covered in a forthcoming BBC Television programme. As with horsemeat it turns out that a lot of people in the world eat insects from choice, and we are all, even if unwittingly, consuming them and their products anyway.
In this country the most likely sources of insects in our food are the red colouring cochineal, made from the ground up bodies of close relatives of aphids called scale insects, and honey, a viscous liquid regurgitated by bees. Cochineal was first used as a dye for clothing many centuries ago, it is now used in a range of products including sausages, jams, fruit juices and sweets, as well as in lipsticks.
We also consume with relish a lot of prawns and shrimps, which, whilst not insects, are very closely related to them and have similar bodies. It is also possible to buy preparations of other insects such as ants, crickets and grasshoppers, although these are still novelty foods rather than everyday items in our supermarket trollies. I can remember as a child being told that chocolate-covered ants are popular in some parts of the world.
In a world short of food, and doused in chemicals to produce enough to keep pace with demand, insects are an environmentally sound choice. They are very rich in protein, produce very little methane (unlike larger livestock) and are abundant - someone has calculated that for every one of us there are 40 tonnes of insects. Having said that, it would take a lot of ants to make a burger; the solution in some places is to farm larger insects, such as mealworms, which are beetle grubs, and locusts, which are a type of grasshopper.
My natural history interest is plant galls; many of these contain insects, and produce sweet, honeydew like, exudations. Galls complete with their insect inhabitants have long been offered for sale alongside local fruits in street markets in Mexico and the Middle East, and a common gall found in this country on ground ivy is eaten in France and Sweden. Thanks to reality television programmes we are familiar with the term 'bushtucker'. In Australia this may include a gall, called a bush coconut, containing scale insects and found on a eucalyptus called the bloodwood tree.
If you are not convinced by taste, tradition and eco-friendliness, perhaps you should consider eating insects as payback. It is estimated that up to a quarter of all the food crops in the world are destroyed by insects, about 10% whilst growing and about 15% in storage and transport.
When I was asked to take part in the Chablis Blogger Challenge 2013 I was naturally keen to get involved. What I hadn't expected though was to be asked to match the two wines (both Chablis obviously....) with takeaway food. Chablis? With a takeaway? Really? It somehow felt disrespectful. Shouldn't we be treating the wines to something a bit classier?! Lucky I hadn't already stocked up on smoked salmon and cod roe...
How we British love to moan about the rain. I'm sure once upon a time, I probably moaned about rain, too. Yes, yes, I'm pretty sure I did. With my frizzy hair, a light spattering of water can ruin an hours worth of straightening efforts. But now, how I cherish the odd occasion when rain falls on the arid city of Beijing. You see, rain not only waters the plants and keeps things lusciously green; it also clears the air - adding that wonderful moisture that makes each breath feel like an invigorating flush through your body. It's like Colgate-flavoured oxygen. I miss it. In fact, it's one of the things I look forward to most about going home. After a 12-20 hour flight home, standing outside in the 'fresh' English air is a feeling I cherish
So at this time of the year, while you lucky people back home eagerly await spring time walks in the park and that sort of weather when it's too warm to wear a coat, but too cold to wash the car in your shorts, here in Beijing we are also being treated to a glimpse of springtime. The cherry and plum blossom seasons are upon us, sprinkling blossom onto the streets of the city like confetti. However, with the beautiful and the good, comes the bad and the ugly, as we were reminded last week when Beijing was hit with the first sandstorm of 2013.
I awoke last Thursday morning to see that Beijing had turned sepia overnight. The bleak, yellow-tinged air looked like one of those futuristic movie sets, where man and his love for money had destroyed mother earth, and the remaining humans were going to have to find a new planet to inhabit (and undoubtedly also destroy).
I put my 'overactive' imagination on the back-burner as I did what I'm sure every other foreigner in Beijing did before brushing their teeth that morning - reach for their smartphone and open the Air Quality Index App. Unsurprisingly, the reading was off the charts. With levels of PM 2.5 microns - the stuff that's so small that when breathed it sticks inside your lungs and causes lasting damage, was also dangerously high. So, for this first time since the last Foot & Mouth outbreak, I reached for my facemask. I had the thin, flimsy surgical mask on 5 seconds before I decided that there was no way it was going to make any difference, and pulled my scarf up over my head instead.
By the end of the day, Beijing had also been hit with its first sandstorm of the year. I returned home gasping from lack of oxygen to find my apartment blanketed in a thin sheet of yellow dust - despite having been sure to keep all my windows closed. Its days like these I wonder what I'm doing here.
But as the old saying goes, 'when the world hands you lemons, make lemonade', and I'm guessing that's what the rest of the Beijingers (and their clever designers) were thinking as this latest trend sweeps our polluted city. Love them or hate them, we may have to come to accept that facemasks will become a way of life for us - at least until the Chinese Government manages to bring the pollution issue under control. And so, just because you're wearing a facemask, it doesn't mean you can't be trendy at the same time. Here are just a few of my favourite designs.
But then, just as I'd selected a range of fashionable and fun facemasks to match every outfit and situation, Beijing gave us what may have been the clearest and least polluted day of the year. The very next day after we were ravaged with sandstorms, and lung-bursting air particles, we awoke to an Air Quality reading of 24. Yes, 24! (The previous day the reading had been over 500 - considered very harmful). As I stepped out of my apartment and filled my lungs with what might as well have been air laced with ecstasy, all was forgiven. I love Beijing. I love fresh air too. But then, I suppose nothing and nobody's perfect.