Archive for April, 2010

Fairtrade Flowers And The Volcano – An Update

Wednesday, April 28th, 2010

This is the response I got from Sainsbury’s on Fairtrade Flowers:

“Thanks for your email.  I have looked into the issues you have raised and have found Sainsburys did not directly compensate Fairtrade supliers [sic], or farmers during the Volcanic ash disruption period.

We did however try extremely hard to get the flowers into stores and we looked at every possible travel option to get products into stores.  At the beginning of the flight ban we had flowers flown into south Spain, as the ban didnt apply there and we then drove the produce by truck into the UK.

We thoroughly enquired into every possible supply route to get these items into store.  We are not aware of any products being destroyed due to the flight ban.”

Which conflicts with all the reports about the impact of the ash on Fairtrade flower farmers in Kenya where Benjamin Gatland of South African Fairtrade Network said “Kenyan Fairtrade rose growers alone lost approximately one million flowers a day” – see http://www.ipsnews.net/africa/nota.asp?idnews=51229.

Who’s correct? I think I know who…

That’s No McGuffin!

Tuesday, April 27th, 2010

Is global warming the perfect McGuffin?  I have never really understood what Alfred Hitchcock meant by a McGuffin; for me it always seemed like the cinematic equivalent of the Zen concept of “the sound of one hand clapping”, i.e. there is no sound and the question is stupid, irrelevant, pointless and a red herring or a McGuffin.  But perhaps global warming is really the perfect McGuffin.

What is a McGuffin, then?  Well the best and worst explanation comes from Alfred Hitchcock himself in an interview with Francois Truffaut:

“It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men in a train.  One man says “What’s that package up there in the baggage rack?”, and the other answers “Oh that’s a McGuffin”.  The first one asks “What’s a McGuffin?”. “Well”, the other man says, “It’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands”.  The first man says “But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands”, and the other one answers “Well, then that’s no McGuffin!”.  So you see, a McGuffin is nothing at all.”

So I am racked by doubts – is all this noise and technology and science about climate change and global warming merely an apparatus to trap lions in the Scottish Highlands?  But then there are actually rumours of – while not lions – big wild cats in Scotland like the Galloway puma or the Coulport cougar, so maybe a machine to catch lions would be useful.

But I am still not sure and worry that the joke’s on me and everyone is laughing at me for thinking about it too much, or as R.E.M. sang in Losing My Religion:

“That’s me in the corner
That’s me in the spotlight, I’m
Losing my religion
Trying to keep up with you
And I don’t know if I can do it
Oh no, I’ve said too much
I haven’t said enough
I thought that I heard you laughing…”

So why “Losing My Religion” – well that’s obvious as I come from the viewpoint of believing in global warming, but now I don’t think it’s such a big deal nor am I so convinced that we’ve got the answer quite sharp enough yet.  Yes, temperature has gone up; yes, greenhouse gases have gone up; but all-in-all it’s perhaps by not that much, and why should we change everything on a leap of faith – a computer simulation of what might happen in 100 or 200 years time and something that might be good for loads of people, incuding Britain!

Imagine this.  We are all now living 5000 years ago in Britain.  No cars, no mobile phones, no roads, no Internet, no watches, no telescopes, no science and so on and so on.  We know that every day a bright light goes into the sky and warms the earth but it comes up in different places at different stages and seems to warm at different rates.  We know that a bright white light comes up into the sky and cycles over a shorter period but it doesn’t warm the world, but mysteriously it seems the same period as the oceans move at and women’s menstrual cycles.  But how do we work out what to do and what these cycles are or when to plant crops and harvest them.  There is no time, there are no diaries.

So we construct a whole mythology and superstitions that seem to help us work these cycles all out.  But it doesn’t always work out, as the weather gets warmer and colder dependent on, maybe a volcano in Iceland or El Nino or some other unknown like sun spots.  So we make our mythology even more complex and after these unknowns we make new sacrifices to appease an unknown, slightly random god.  This goes on and on as we create more and more complexity on a construct with weak foundations.

But them someone works out the clock and then come telescopes and diaries and we develop to now.  What was a key and clear set of rules and prediction mechanisms 5000 years ago is now encapsulated in clocks and time and thermometers and weather satellites and diaries etc, and the mystery has gone, the religion gone, even if the randomness and unpredictability is still there.

I feel that we are in 5000BP and cannot see it all clearly just quite yet, and while everyone creates more and more complex computer simulations - just like those people back then built Stonehenge and created their climate mythology - we’re doing the same without the living sacrifices, but certainly with the cash impacts.  I just cannot make that leap of faith yet from a 1oC change in last 100 years to a 2oC or 4oC or 5oC rise in the next 100 or 200 years (but I am still working on getting there), while in the-here-and-now I need to work out how my family can be fed, educated and kept happy and Steenbergs can be developed, and how you can relieve poverty and crime in the UK and help the poor vanilla growers in Madagascar.

We should be frugal and we should try and look after the world, but not this vast cost for a minor god whose decision will be made in the really distant future.  We must change where we look and focus on bigger gods with a firmer reality and then do today’s things and tomorrow’s things as responsibly as possible in terms of our families, our communities and the world.

Recipe For Chicken Breasts Stuffed With Sage And Onion Stuffing

Monday, April 26th, 2010

Thursday last week was a gloriously sunny, late spring / early summer day.  The daffodils are looking gorgeous.  I am amazed anew every year at how the garden comes back to life, while I have been doing nothing to it, after a bitterly cold winter.  Spring is when hope is renewed and the year is fresh of so many new possibilities.  I love it.  And last week the first swallows arrived.

I went to deliver some sample spices to Fodder for their curry night.  Fodder is a lovely farm shop and cafe attached and part of the Yorkshire Agricultural Society in Harrogate, North Yorkshire.  It’s got all sorts of signs in the fields where you park for the Great Yorkshire Show, but somehow it seems hidden behind Sainsbury’s – it may be as simple as most people know where Sainsbury’s is and that’s where the flow of traffic goes.

But everyone should visit it as it’s a wonderful showcase of all that’s good about Yorkshire farmed food and locally prepared foods, from local smoked salmon through to sweets and chocolates.  But they really must get their web site sorted out as it’s still got events for Christmas 2009 and nothing input since.

I was tempted by some chicken breasts from a wonderful Yorkshire chicken farmer, T. Soanes & Son from the Yorkshire Wolds over by Driffield.  The chickens are free range and fed on corn and have great depth of flavour.

I decided that they would make a delicious light evening meal for 4, by stuffing 3 chicken fillets with a sage and onion stuffing, served on a bed of Soba noodles (Japanese noodles made from wheat and buckwheat) and served with steamed asparagus and broccoli.

Chicken Breasts Stuffed With Sage & Onion

Chicken Breasts Stuffed With Sage & Onion

To make the Sage and Onion Stuffing:

Ingredients

1 onion, finely chopped
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tbsp fresh sage, finely chopped
80g / 3oz fresh white breadcrumbs
Some wonderful Steenbergs salt and Fairtrade pepper
1 free range egg, beaten

1. Heat the oil in a heavy frying pan.  Lightly fry the chopped onion in the oil, until soft and translucent
2. Mix together the onion, sage and breadcrumbs and season well
3. Add enough of the beaten egg to bind the mixture together and use to stuff meat or poultry or to roll into individual stuffing balls

Main UK Political Parties On Climate Change And Global Warming

Sunday, April 25th, 2010

There is a general political consensus that climate change is the number one environmental issue and there seems to be general agreement on how to address the problem, now that arch global warming skeptics like Boris Johnson and Nigel Lawson in the Conservative Party have been whipped into line for the election.  However there are definitely differences in emphasis and a big difference in whether nuclear power should be in the mix or not.  Here’s my overview as extracted from each party’s 2010 General Election manifesto.

Conservatives:

CO2 targets: presumably will keep to national targets of reductions of 34% by 2020 and 80% by 2050 on 1990 levels, including 10% in central government carbon costs in 12 months (why not do it for whole of public sector, which would really be something)
Energy mix: 15% by renewables by 2020, but do state that nuclear is key to this as is clean coal, and Feed-in Tariffs for those doing home electricity generation; coal-fired power plants must have carbon-capture-and-storage with 4 already approved to be built; “smart meters” and “smart grid” to help households reduce energy use; allow local authorities to build local heating networks to use waste energy from electricity generation (Combined Heat & Power)
Transport: investment in public transport and looking at building national charging network for electric vehicles
Buildings: £6,500 per household to get home energy improvements paid out of energy bill savings (i.e. consumer pays I think)
Carbon economy: offshore wind farms and Green Investment Bank, but very vague in this area

Green Party

CO2 targets: reduction of 65% by 2020 and 95% by 2030 on 1990 levels, including setting annual carbon budget and allowing trading in carbon units where half of all carbon units are given to adults and rest to industry and public sector
Energy mix: 50% from renewables by 2020 and 100% by 2030; phase out nuclear power and no new nuclear power stations; £20 billion in one Parliament (ie 5ish years) on renewables and create 80,000 jobs; attractive Feed-in Tariffs higher than offered by Labour government for those doing home electricity generation; do not permit new coal-fired power stations; “smart grid, smart meters and smart appliances” to help households reduce energy use; encourage Combined Heat & Power projects
Transport: reduce speed limits everywhere in UK; stop road investment of £30 billion and invest in public transport; renationalise and re-regulate all public transport; congestion type schemes in more places and road user tolls for heavy vehicles; make more food bought locally and so reduce need to shift food around by road;  stop airport expansion to reduce pollution levels; oppose large scale growing of biofuels
Buildings: free insulation for all houses that need it creating 80,000 new jobs and costing £2 – 4 billion a year; introduce incentives for 1,000,000 solar panels on homes
Carbon economy: government intervention to invest in green programmes, some of which mentioned above; green investment bank like other main parties; £5 billion to create 350,000 new trainee positions offering places to 700,000 unemployed people to get people into green energy sector (not sure if these figures are additive or overlapping somehow)

Labour

CO2 targets: reduction of 34% by 2020 and 80% by 2050 on 1990 levels
Energy mix: 15% of energy from renewables by 2020 and keeping nuclear in the mix (they talk about 40% from low carbon sources by 2020 but 25% will come from nuclear and clean coal), and Feed-in Tariffs for those doing home electricity generation; coal-fired power plants must have carbon-capture-and-storage with 4 already approved to be built; “smart meters” to help households reduce energy use
Transport: investment in public transport and looking at electric vehicles
Buildings: through regulating electricity companies, 6 million homes will get insulation by 2012 with every suitable loft and cavity wall insulated by 2015
Carbon economy: creating 400,000 new jobs including development of carbon economy with 70,000 jobs in offshore wind farms by 2020 and £120 million in a Carbon Investment Fund to support wind farms

Liberal Democrats

CO2 targets: reduction of 40% by 2020 and carbon neutral by 2050 on 1990 levels, including push for unilateral move to EU reduction target of 30% by 2020
Energy mix: 40% from renewables by 2020 and 100% by 2050 and no new nuclear power; community owned wind farms encouraged; attractive Feed-in Tariffs higher than offered by Labour government for those doing home electricity generation; coal-fired power plants must have carbon-capture-and-storage; “smart grid” to help households reduce energy use
Transport: investment in public transport, £140 million bus scrappage scheme to replace old buses with new ones; stop 3rd runway at Heathrow and further airport expansion in South to reduce pollution levels; through EU make cars zero emissions by 2040
Buildings: Eco Cash-back Scheme giving £400 back when you install new boiler, double glazing or put in micro-generation kit; £10,000 worth of green home improvements paid for by lower energy bills
Carbon economy: use central government pourchasing power to go for green technologies and products; cut energy and carbon emissions from central government by 30% by 2020
Globally: push for zero net deforestation by 2020, including ban on import of illegal wood into UK for any purpose

Reading the manifestos shows me something interesting – I reckon that New Labour has morphed into the Conservative Party and they are nearly the same thing, however much they argue about the splitting of policy hairs, while the Liberal Democrats have taken up Labour’s place, while the Greens have become the wackier Liberals of the 1970s and 1980s.  It will be interesting what actually happens when people get to vote and whether (because of the expenses scandal) we – the electorate - have the courage to shift from our historic group voting patterns, where we vote by “class” and “background”, ie rural tends to be Conservative and urban is Labour.

My own take on climate change is that the Liberal Democrats have the most practicable and ambitious set of targets, BUT (and it’s a big but), I believe their targets cannot be achieved without the inclusion of nuclear power in the energy mix. 

In some ways, the green movement is to blame for the rise in greenhouse gases because they stopped the growth – and research – in the nuclear power sector, while removal of acid rain gases has bizarrely increased short term potential for global warming, as these molecules have acted as a shield from solar energy – clean fuel will be soon used in global shipping which may result in global warming as their shielding impact is removed, so cleaner air more global warming (there’s always something else, isn’t there). 

So my ideal (from a green perspective) is a parliament that includes the Liberal Democrats with either Labour or the Conservatives, where the Liberal Democrats are given the Environment and Climate Change Portfolio but not the Energy side of things.

Global Warming And Greenhouse Gases

Saturday, April 24th, 2010

We’ve looked at whether there is global warming and there does appear to be global warming albeit not at such a dramatic level as we read about in the press – perhaps more like 1oC rather than 4oC or 5oC. 

I will need to understand how the UK Met Office gets from these historic numbers to a future rise that’s much higher as I worry that it’s because of the computer model, which is a human-based interpretation of long-term weather patterns; as humans, we cannot predict economic performance and have been trying for many years so I remain to be convinced that we will be able to get it right for the weather – UK weather forecasters cannot get it right over a 24 hour period!

The first stage of this is to assess the drivers for global warming.  The key culprit is stated as man and particularly industrial and agricultural pollution.  Of these, the finger is pointed at greenhouse gases where carbon dioxide – or CO2 - is used as the proxy for all the other pollutive gases like methane and nitrous oxide etc.

It is clear that these gases especially carbon dioxide and methane have increased and much of this is due to energy generation from fossil fuels like coal and petrol and diesel and gasoline – but not nuclear or wind or water driven power.  It is also driven by the burning of the rainforests and other natural features like heather and grasslands, while chopping down trees takes away the trees that pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and fix this into carbohydrates and other natural substances.

Great work has been done on this by the Keeling family at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii and graphs from their website clearly show how carbon dioxide has grown and links this back to fossil fuels.  I’ll let their pictures tell the story below.

The Classic Mauna Loa Graph

The Classic Mauna Loa Graph

More Globalised Look At Carbon Dioxide

Carbon Dioxide Over Hawaii and South Pole

Carbon Dioxide Growth Over Time And Fossil Fuel Trend

Carbon Dioxide Growth Over Time And Fossil Fuel Trend

Impact Of Fossil Fuel Growth And Carbon Time Over Long Time

Impact Of Fossil Fuel Growth And Carbon Time Over Long Time

Now how greenhouse gases work is simple.  Solar energy enters the earth’s atmosphere and is either absorbed by plants or objects on the earth or bounces off the earth back into the atmosphere.  Some of this goes out into space but a proportion is reflected back onto earth by water vapour – ie clouds – or greenhouse gases, so the more greenhouse gases and water vapour the more solar energy stays in the atmosphere and the warmer the earth gets (all things being equal).  This can be understood much better in a picture so here’s one I got from Google:

The Greenhouse Effect

The Greenhouse Effect

I don’t doubt that mankind has driven up the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and that these will have had an impact on the temperature.  But the big question is how much warmer the earth gets and are all things equal and (I suppose) does everything need to stay the same and why cannot man adapt or change…

Recipe for Tagliatelli With Mushroom and Truffle Sauce

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

Simple is best sometimes.  Last night, I was struggling as to what to feed the kids now they have gone back to school and time at night has been squeezed ever tighter.  So hunting through the bare cupboards, I found some unfinished mushrooms and the usual flour, butter and milk. 

This is what I came up with – Tagliatelle With A Mushroom and Truffle Sauce, with Smokey Steamed Tenderstem Broccoli and French Beans – sounds exotic but it was so simple.

How to make the Mushroom and Truffle Sauce:

50g / 2oz butter
50g / 2oz plain flour
500ml / 1pt milk
A pinch of cayenne
A pinch of ground lemon pepper
½ teaspoon Steenbergs truffle salt
Handful of chopped chestnut mushrooms

Melt the butter gently without it getting browned.  Add the flour and mix thoroughly.  Carefully and slowly add the milk, thoroughly mixing it in to smooth out the lumps.  Be patient and pour in small amounts at the start and then build it up.  When it’s nice and smooth, add the cayenne pepper and the organic lemon pepper and truffle salt. 

Now fry up the mushrooms in a hot knob of melted butter.  Turning regularly until nicely browned all over.  Add these to the truffle white sauce and stir thoroughly.  Put to one side.

Make the tagiatelle and steamed vegetables:

Cook the tagliatelle until just cooked, i.e. with a slight al dente bite and drain off.  Warm up the truffle and mushroom sauce and mix in with the tagliatelle.  Chop some fresh parsley and sprinkle over the top.  Serve onto warmed plates.

Steam some fresh tender stem broccoli and french beans until just cooked.  Drain and then add a bit of butter or olive oil, a few drops of lemon juice and a decent pinch of Steenbergs Smoked Sea Salt and stir around.  Serve immediately.

Not very difficult.  Not too sophisticated, but great with a glass of cold Chablis (for me not the children).

Fairtrade Flowers And The Volcano

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

One of the consequences of the volcanic ash is that food and flowers from the developing world is not being flown in.  Now I don’t buy vegetables out of season nor do I buy flowers out of season, but I worry about the impact this flying ban is having on the farmers themselves.  One particular concern I have is for the Fairtrade flower growers in places like Kenya – those gorgeous roses are grown to peak just in time but are now either being picked and trashed or going over on the plant, not good enough for sale.

So I say if you care about Fairtrade, start asking the major retailers what they are doing about it?  Ask them are they compensating the Fairtrade flower growers for trashed flowers?  Are they working with the flower growers to find a solution, eg flying into Spain and then road haul?  Will they pick up any incremental costs or will it be passed onto the consumer, ie the retailer never pays for anything really?

Or is Fairtrade just skin deep for them – we’ll (that’s Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Interflora, Waitrose, Interflora etc) love Fairtrade when its on message for our strategy but stuff it when events get in the way!  I’m asking so why not email, blog, Tweet or whatever you fancy to their PR departments and show you care and so should they.

Steenbergs Listed in Rose Prince’s Latest Book

Monday, April 19th, 2010

Rose Prince has been really lovely and kind and listed us twice in her new book – The Good Food Producers Guide 2010 – under Drinks and under Delis and Specialists.  We always feel flattered – and a bit embarassed – when someone so influential likes Steenbergs products and so I thought it best to just quote straight from her book:

” Axel and Sophie Steenberg’s spices and teas are of the highest standard and are available by mail order.  The company was established in 2003 and due to demand for its products has had to move three times.  Now in an eco-friendly factory, they sell Fairtrade spices by mail order and to other retail outlets, as well as from factory gate.  Beautiful packaging; lovely business.”

“I have always liked Axel and Sophie Steenberg’s principled company, which specialises in high quality organic and / or Fairtrade spices, but it would not be fair to leave out their beautiful teas from this chapter of the guide.  They sell a huge range, most accredited by the Fairtrade Foundation, and many in funky-looking tins (great presents) that keep the tea inside nice and fresh.  Choose from some impressive grassy green teas, delicate unfermented, dried white teas and full-on matured black tea.  Herbs are also available. Order online.”

Thank you Rose.

Sanity Check On Global Warming Numbers

Friday, April 16th, 2010

As I have explained in several of my last few blogs, I have been looking more closely at the detail of the case for global warming.  I have analysed global average temperatures as provided by NASA that uses information from the Hadley Centre in the UK and several other sources, as well as looking at fact sheets from the IPCC.  My initial take on the numbers is that the media and the politicians may be overstating the historical case and that global temperature rises exist but may be lower than the PR spin.

Before I decided that that was my final conclusion, I wanted to do a sanity check of the global mean figures against some raw data for different regions around the world.  These are not intended to be definitive but rather to see whether the trend from the global mean data was matched by a variety of on-the-ground raw data from temperature stations.

The raw temperature data that I have chosen is for England, the Antarctic and Australia.  I thought that would give a pretty good cross-section of temperature profiles.  The quality of data varies for each of these, from very detailed as in England which goes back many hundreds of years and uses 3 data points across England, while for Australia and the Antarctic I had to chose a few places that I felt covered sufficient area but also had data that went back at least 100 years, which was supplemented with a few that went back 50 years.

The raw data is available from the following sources, should you wish to do it yourself.  Now it is important to state here that the answer is not intended to be complete or definitive, which they are clearly not, but rather they are utilised to show trends and whether those trends fall within the ranges anticipated from the IPCC work and the dataset that I analysed from NASA.

The data analysed from the above gave the following results:

  1. England temperatures – temperature increase per 100 years = base rise of +0.9oC, with minimum rise of +0.6oC and maximum rise of +1.8oC; the UK Metereologic data series can be seen in full detail at  http://hadobs.metoffice.com/hadcet/;
  2. Antarctic temperatures – temperature increase per 100 years = base rise of +1.1oC, with minimum rise of +0.4oC and maximum rise of +5.3oC;
  3. Australian temperatures – temperature increase per 100 years = base rise of +1.0oC, with minimum rise of +0.3oC and maximum rise of +2.4oC.  If you look at the Australian Detailed Meteorological Office set of detailed anomalies graph it comes with the same answer of +1.06oC and can be found at http://www.bom.gov.au/cgi-bin/climate/change/timeseries.cgi

These results indicate that across a wide range of the world the global warming temperature rises are in line with the averages I previously calculated based on the global mean temperatures.

It is interesting also to note that the figures seem higher than the averages calculated by climate scientists for their global mean averages which suggests that as I would have added extra data points and more accuracy, the mean averages would tend towards a tighter fit line about 0.5oC lower.  Also, Antarctic figures were higher than for England, which is in line with what the climate scientists say, ie that the poles will experience the changes more greatly.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

The base sources I used can be found as follows:

  1. England temperatures – http://hadobs.metoffice.com/hadcet/data/download.html
  2. Antarctic temperatures – http://www.antarctica.ac.uk/met/READER/
  3. Australian temperatures -http://www.bom.gov.au/climate/

My graphs are as below:

Temperature Anomalies for Central England

Temperature Anomalies for Central England

Temperature Differences for Australia

Temperature Differences for Australia

Temperature differences in Antarctic

Temperature differences in Antarctic

Steenbergs As Recommended On Delia Online

Tuesday, April 13th, 2010

Steenbergs Home Bakery range has been recommended on Delia Online as a Good Buy today which is pretty nice really:

http://www.deliaonline.com/news-and-features/cupcakes.html