Posts Tagged ‘ethical’

Cinnamongate: is cinnamon safe to eat?

Sunday, July 19th, 2015

We regularly get asked questions about the safety of cinnamon, e.g. “is cinnamon safe to consume?” or “how much coumarin is there in Steenbergs cinnamon?”  There’s a lot of chatter about this issue in webworld and in blogs.

Cinnamon Quills_02

Cinnamon quills packed into boxes from Sri Lanka

Because of these queries, I thought it useful to investigate the situation and find out the levels of coumarin in some Steenbergs’ products.

In summary:

  • Cassia cinnamon and true cinnamon are very different spices but both are generally sold as “cinnamon”
  • Steenbergs labels and sells true cinnamon as “cinnamon” and cassia cinnamon as “cassia”
  • Cassia cinnamon contains high levels of coumarin, but true cinnamon almost no coumarin
  • Coumarin, so cassia cinnamon, should be ingested in limited amounts:

No more than 1 teaspoon of cassia cinnamon per day, based on EU recommendations for Tolerable Daily Intake (TDI) of 0.1 mg of coumarin per kg bodyweight every day

  • Cinnamon (true cinnamon) is safe to eat in terms of coumarin and your health
  • Coumarin may cause liver damage in some susceptible people, but its effects usually appear to be  reversible and so overeating of cassia for short periods does not usually appear to be a problem

If you need further information, you should consult a doctor.  I have taken the data for this blog from official Government sources and current scientific papers, so it is up-to-date as of 19 July 2015.

MORE DETAIL

What is coumarin?
Coumarin is a naturally occurring volatile oil (benzo-α-pyrone), found in many plants, e.g. cassia, cinnamon, tonka beans, vanilla and woodruff.  It gives that pleasing and heady cinnamon aroma – a direct, sweet, fresh hay character.  It was first isolated in tonka beans in the 1820s and took its name from the old botanical name for tonka – Coumarouna which in turn came from the native French Guianan name for the tonka tree, kumarú.

Where is coumarin found?  As mentioned above, it is found in various spices.  However, the most important route of intake is via cassia or cassia cinnamon and this is the cinnamon that the various studies relate to.

This distinction is very important – true cinnamon (Cinnamon verum or Cinnamomum zeylanicum) contains much reduced levels of coumarin.  At Steenbergs, we only sell true cinnamon as cinnamon.  Also, we only use cinnamon as cinnamon in our blends, and if we use cassia it is labelled as cassia not cinnamon.  We do, also, sell cassia cinnamon (Cinnamomum cassia, a.k.a. Cinnamomum aromaticus or Cinnamon burmanii), but always label this as cassia and never as cinnamon.

You can tell the difference quite quickly – true cinnamon is a light tan and has a subtle woody aroma like box or sandalwood, with hints of cinnamon and citrus, whereas cassia cinnamon is a darker tan and has a more direct, blunter petrochemical aroma that is strongly “cinnamony” and reminiscent of German Christmas biscuits (Spekulatius or Zimtsterne) and Danish pastries.  As an aside, we are sometimes told Steenbergs cinnamon does not taste like cinnamon, but then find there has been confusion between cassia and cinnamon, because this is the more readily-found form of the spice.

The confusion arises because cassia cinnamon is quite legitimately, also, sold as cinnamon and is the cinnamon used in baking – hence, it’s other name “baker’s cinnamon”.

From a chemical view, cassia and cinnamon are noticeably different.  True cinnamon contains eugenol and benzyl-benzoate and no (or trace) coumarin.  In contrast, cassia cinnamon contains high amounts of coumarin.  Both cassia and cinnamon contain cinnamaldehyde.

In terms of levels of coumarin in powder versus quills, cassia quills have coumarin levels 75% lower than the powder.  For true cinnamon, quills have higher coumarin levels than powder, but both are still low.

Why is coumarin a concern? In high doses, coumarin can cause liver damage in small group of sensitive individuals.  However, only some individuals are susceptible to liver issues from coumarin, and those individuals would need to exceed the TDI for more than two weeks before liver issues might arise, then if they do occur the toxicity is reversible.  Maximum daily limits of coumarin have been set in the EU.

This issue originally arose with a report on cassia cinnamon in 2006 by the Bundesinstitut für Risikobewertung (“BfR”), the scientific agency charged with providing scientific evidence for consumer health protection in Germany.  This showed that consumption of foods containing cassia cinnamon can result in the TDI of coumarin being exceeded, because of the high levels of cassia cinnamon used in some recipes.  Consequently, there has been a knock-on impact for bakers of traditional European bakery goods, e.g. cinnamon rolls (Danish pastries/kanelsnegle) and cinnamon Christmas cookies (Zimtsterne) within Europe, and people who use cinnamon to reduce their sugar intake by sprinkling it onto their cereal.

EC Regulation 1334/2008 gives the following limits for coumarin, which specifically excludes spices and mixes of spices, herbs, teas and infusions:

Table 1: Limits for coumarin in particular food categories per EC Regulation 1334/2008


Compound food in which substance is restricted

Maximum level
mg/kg

Traditional and/or seasonal bakery ware containing a reference to cinnamon in the labelling

50

Breakfast cereals including muesli

20

Fine bakery ware, with the exception of traditional and seasonal bakery ware (above)

15

Desserts

5

The best technical information available is found at the BfR’s website.  There is an excellent FAQ that covers pretty much everything you need to know: http://www.bfr.bund.de/cm/349/faq-on-coumarin-in-cinnamon-and-other-foods.pdf, and their latest opinion includes the following on consumption of spices (see http://www.bfr.bund.de/cm/349/new-insights-into-coumarin-contained-in-cinnamon.pdf dated 2012)[1]:

“For cinnamon sticks and cinnamon powder as a spice for household use, no limit values have been defined, however.  If an average coumarin content in cassia cinnamon of 3000mg per kilogram of cinnamon is assumed, the TDI value can be exceeded by consumers who eat a great deal of cassia cinnamon.  For an adult with a body weight of 60kg, the TDI value is reached, if 2g of cassia cinnamon are consumed per day.  For an infant with a body weight of 15kg, this is the case if 0.5g of cassia cinnamon are consumed per day.  Overall exposure can be increased by other sources, for example coumarin-containing cosmetics.  Consumers who frequently and regularly eat cinnamon-containing foods should be aware of this.  The BfR still recommends that cassia cinnamon is consumed in moderation.  Consumers frequently using large quantities of cinnamon as a condiment should therefore opt for the low-coumarin Ceylon cinnamon.”

How much coumarin is there in Steenbergs spice products?  We have had some of our relevant spices tested for coumarin levels by Eurofins Analtytik GmbH, using high performance liquid chromatography.  The results are shown in the table below, together with results from peer-reviewed scientific papers.

Table 2: Coumarin content of cassia cinnamon, true cinnamon and spice blends


Name

Other names

Origin

Coumarin
mg kg-1

Coumarin
%

Cassia Baker’s cinnamon Vietnam

 2 900

0.3 

Cassia [2] Baker’s cinnamon, Chinese cinnamon, bastard cinnamon

4 167

0.4

Cassia [3] Indonesia, Vietnam

3 856

0.4

Cassia [4] Indonesia, Vietnam

2 239

0.2

Cassia [5] China, Indonesia, Vietnam

3 016

0.3

Cassia [6]

3 250

0.3

Cassia [7] Indonesia

4 020

0.4

Cinnamon True cinnamon Sri Lanka

 31

– 

Cinnamon [2] True cinnamon, Ceylon cinnamon Sri Lanka

68

Cinnamon [3] Sri Lanka

nd

Cinnamon [4] Sri Lanka

25

Cinnamon [5] Sri Lanka

nd

Cinnamon [6]

44

Cinnamon [7] Sri Lanka

64

Mixed spice   UK

 670

 0.1

Fairtrade mixed spice   UK

 22

 –

Pumpkin pie   UK

 22

 –

Tonka beans   Brazil

 52 000

 5.2

In conclusion, cassia cinnamon has coumarin levels of 2239 – 4167 mg kg-1, almost 100 times greater than levels in true cinnamon with the range of 0 – 68 mg kg-1.  Steenbergs spice mixes have low coumarin levels at 22 – 670 mg kg-1.  where one of the blends included about one-quarter cassia cinnamon.  In contrast, tonka beans have very high levels of coumarin of 52000 mg kg-1.

What does this mean in relation to safety to eat?  The BfR has issued guidance on the TDI that a person can eat daily over a lifetime without appreciable health risk and this includes those sensitive to liver damage from coumarin[1].  The TDI is 0.1 mg of coumarin per kg bodyweight every day.  An adult of 60-70 kg (9½-11 stone) can, therefore, eat 6-7 mg of coumarin per day safely for the rest of their life.  Further, for a 20-30 kg (3-5 stone) child, the limit is 2-3 mg coumarin.  The European Food Safety Authority has calculated the same levels [8].  Even if this value is exceeded for a short while, this does not appear to pose any health risks per BfR and EFSA.

Translating this into teaspoons, an adult should not consume more than ½-1 teaspoon of cassia cinnamon a day and a child no more than ¼-½ teaspoon of cassia a day.

Another way of thinking about it is that an adult can eat 68-120g of cassia cinnamon biscuits a day (10-24 biscuits) and children 17-30g of cassia cinnamon biscuits a day (4-6 biscuits)[1][5].  For cinnamon Danishes or buns, this is roughly 4 for adults and 1 for children per day.

These levels are relevant through time, so a child who eats his/her coumarin limit twice in a week only reaches 29% of his/her TDI (assuming no other cassia cinnamon is ingested).

In contrast, an adult can consume 55-104 teaspoons of true cinnamon and children 24-45 teaspoons.  Therefore, the levels of consumption for true cinnamon are effectively unlimited in terms of coumarin.

What can bakers do about this?  Ideally, you should get your cassia’s coumarin content tested and determine the final coumarin content of your bakery products.  Also, whenever food authorities have tested for coumarin, quite a number of products seem to exceed the legal limits – probably because people are unaware of the regulations.

However, we have created a practical guide as below.  If we assume the safe limits for coumarin consumption are those listed in the EC Regulation EC 1334/2008, then maximum levels for use of cassia and true cinnamon can be calculated and practical limits determined for bakers and other manufacturers.

Table 3: Practical guide for maximum levels of cassia cinnamon or true cinnamon to meet EC regulations on coumarin for specific food categories


Food category

Max level of coumarin
mg/kg

Max level of cassia(i)
mg/kg

Approximate teaspoons of cassia per kg(ii)

Max level of true cinnamon(i)
mg/kg

Approximate tsp cinnamon per kg(ii)

Traditional and/or seasonal bakery

50

7.9

797.4

399

Breakfast cereals

20

3.2

1

319.0

159

Fine bakery ware

15

2.4

¾

239.2

120

Desserts

5

0.8

¼

79.7

40

Notes:
(i) Maximum levels have been determined as the average coumarin content plus 2.58 x standard deviation; this means maximum amounts will not exceed coumarin content in 99% of cases.
(ii) Based on level teaspoons for cassia of 2.8g and cinnamon 2.0g.

References

[1] BfR (2012), New insights into coumarin contained in cinnamon, BfR opinion No. 036/2012, 27 September 2012, Berlin, Germany (Accessed 12/5/2015)
[2] BfR (2006) Consumers, who eat a lot of cinnamon, currently have an overly high exposure to coumarin, BfR Health Assessment No. 043/2006, 16 June 2006, Berlin, Germany (Accessed 12/5/2015)
[3] Blahová, J., Svobodová, Z. (2012) Assessment of coumarin levels in ground cinnamon available in the Czech retail market, The Scientific World Journal, 2012: 2863851, 4 pp, Available online at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3385612/ (Accessed 12/5/2015)
[4] Lungarini, S., Aurelia, F., Coni , E. (2008) Coumarin and cinnamaldehyde in cinnamon marketed in Italy: A natural chemical hazard? Food Additives & Contaminants: Part A, Volume 25, Issue 11, 31 October 2008, 1297-1305, Available online but not free (Accessed 12/5/2015)
[5] Sproll, C., Ruge, W., Andlauer, C., Godelmann, R., Lachenmeier, D. W. (2008) HPLC analysis and safety assessment of coumarin in foods, Food Chemistry 109, 462-469, 27 December 2007 (Accessed 12/5/2015)
[6] VKM (2010) Risk assessment of courmarin intake in the Norwegian population – opinion of the panel on food additives, flavourings, processing aids, materials in contact with food and cosmetics of the Norwegian scientific committee for food safety (Rep. No. 09/405-2 final), Norwegian Scientific Committee for Food Safety, 12 October 2010, Oslo, Norway, Available online at http://www.vkm.no/dav/271c242c20.pdf (Accessed 12/5/2015)
[7] Woehrlin, F., Fry, H., Abraham, K., Preiss-Weigert, A. (2010) Quantification of flavoring constituents in cinnamon: high variation of coumarin in cassia cark from the German retail market and in authentic samples from Indonesia, Journal of Agricultural Food Chemistry, 2010, 58 (19), pp 10568–10575, Available online (but not free) at http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/jf102112p (Accessed 12/5/2015)
[8} efsa (2008) Coumarin in flavourings and other food ingredients with flavouring properties, Scientific Opinion of the Panel on Food Additives, Flavourings, Processing Aids and Materials in Contact with Food (AFC), The EFSA Journal (2008) 793, 1-15, 8 July 2008, Available online at http://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/scdocs/doc/793.pdf (Accessed 12/5/2015)

Axel’s and Sophie’s quirky guide to running a small business

Thursday, May 1st, 2014

Here’s our list of things we have learnt over the last 10 years of running a small start-up and a guide to the way we do business. It’s all rather homespun and certainly will never find its way into books on how to run a successful business nor in any business school. After all, we are still a tiny business, even though we have been around longer than Facebook and Youtube. While these things might not make you rich, they help us sleep easily at night with a clear conscience and make us happy.

• Never wear a tie or suit
• Like your colleagues
• Avoid meetings
• Living is more important than making money
• Take time out to watch your kids and friends playing sport and music and acting
• Smile, laugh and cry
• Sing, however badly – and we’re really bad
• Never grow up
• Work hard – roll your sleeves up and get stuck in
• Be patient, act swiftly
• Don’t get hung up on sales or profits
• But keep a tight focus on cash-flow and balance sheets
• Don’t do budgets, except if the bank asks for one!
• Always pay your bills
• Avoid customers who are too posh to pay – this is an attitude of mind as opposed to a statement on anything else
• Never become that business or person that talks aggressively about “killing the competition”, just be different to them and do your own thing
• Never become that business or person that lies to get a call taken or to get money off
• Be compassionate – we’re all real people, with real lives
• Be honest to yourself, your colleagues, your customers, your suppliers and everyone else we’ve forgotten
• Reinvent the wheel – it can always be done better
• Break the rules
• Make mistakes
• Admit to your mistakes, understand them, then try not to do it again
• Spend your money wisely
• Spend your money morally and compassionately, doing good things that help make the world a better place
• If you’re not comfortable with it, don’t do it
• Don’t be bullied by customers and suppliers
• Best practice is just average practice with a positive spin
• Don’t trust suppliers who drive flash or expensive cars
• Don’t waste company money on flash cars
• Make teas and coffees for everyone
• Eat breakfast, lunch and tea
• Eat cake, biscuits and pies
• Listen to what everyone has to say – everyone knows more about stuff than you do
• Ask questions, however stupid
• Be fair
• What is fairness? Sharing risk and reward equitably
• Treat people how you would like to be treated
• Try and only deal with people you like
• The customer is not always right
• Never do favours for people you don’t really know, because they are never reciprocated, but bend over backwards for your friends and favourite people
• Shit really does happen
• Everything seems better after a cup of tea and cake, or a bath and a sleep
• Keep on dreaming

Cooking With A Wonderbag

Tuesday, June 5th, 2012

Sophie came across the Wonderbag on the radio and then The Guardian, so one arrived several weeks thereafter.  Basically, a Wonderbag is a modern and green take on the slow cooker and that you find in books as far back as Mrs Beeton’s and even like the traditional way of cooking in a hole in the ground.  It is a highly insulated textile bag that comes in very homely patterns and is filled with insulating balls that you wrap around your boiled pot of food.  The key is to get them really hot and to have a pot that fits the amount of food you are making, rather than one with loads of space.  We have found it a great way of preparing a healthy, wholesome stew in the morning for eating when we get back with the kids after school later in the day; much better than whacking on the microwave for a “ping meal”.  Overall, it is a great and retro way of creating change in the world that works especially well with foods that do best with a slow cooking, for example pork ribs, casseroles and mince.

Wonderbags are so ethical in that for everyone you buy in the UK, one will be given for free to a family in South Africa.  They are so green that they are said to save 30% on fuel bills for those using them in South Africa and we can save here in the UK as well.  They have been hugely successful in South Africa and now are in over 150,000 homes (saving 50,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide) and Unilever is looking to distribute 5 million to people in poverty around the world.

In overview, the way to cook is summed up in the little booklet that comes with the bag:

“Just heat up your pot of food on the stove, kick-starting the cooking process, then place inside the Wonderbag.  Wonderbag’s incredible insulating properties allow food that has been brought to the boil to finish cooking while in the bag without the use of additional energy.”

Pork ribs in sweet sauce

Sweet Pork Ribs cooked in a Wonderbag

Sweet Pork Ribs cooked in a Wonderbag



Ingredients

2 racks of pork ribs
2tbsp vegetable oil
3 cloves garlic, smashed and chopped finely
2tsp cornflour
400ml / 14 fl oz apple juice
2tbsp cider vinegar
2tbsp dark soy sauce
4tbsp dark brown sugar
2tbsp honey
1cm / ½ inch fresh ginger, grated

Prepare the pork ribs:  remove the thin skin on the underside by pulling this off with your hands (for more on this visit Youtube); then chop the ribs into thirds.  In a heavy bottomed frying pan, add the vegetable oil and heat until hot.  Add the pork ribs and fry until browned.  Set aside.

Fry the garlic and ginger in the vegetable oil, then remove then add all the other ingredients, except the ribs and cornflour, and stir together.  Put the cornflour into a small dish or ramekin, add a small amount of the sweet sauce and stir with a teaspoon until thoroughly mixed and without any lumps; add some more of the sauce and stir until you get a thickish paste, then add this to the sweet sauce and stir in.  Now add the ribs.

Put the top on to your casserole dish and bring to the boil.  Simmer with the lid on for 15-20 minutes, then place into the Wonderbag, close up and leave for 6 or more hours – the longer the better.  If you need to reheat it before stirring, simply place bag on the hob and heat to boiling, then serve.

Serve with plain boiled rice and some stir fried vegetables.

Slow cooked mince

Mince Cooked In Wonderbag

Mince Cooked In Wonderbag

Ingredients

1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 carrots, chopped into thin slices
500g / 1lb beef mince
2tbsp olive oil
1 glass of red wine
1 x 400g / 14 oz tin of chopped tomatoes
250ml / 8 fl oz water
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper to taste

Add the olive oil to the casserole pot.  When hot, add the chopped onions and lightly fry for 5 minutes.  Add the carrots and fry for another 2 minutes.

Next add the beef mince and cook until browned all over.

Add the red wine, stir in and let it be simmered off.

Add the chopped tomatoes, water, bay leaf and season.  Bring to the boil and simmer for 10 minutes until the sauce has reduced to your satisfaction.  Put the lid on and simmer for a few minutes to get the lid heated through, then place into the Wonderbag and leave for 2 to 8 hours.  Reheat if necessary on the hob before serving to get it piping hot.

Serve with rice or pasta, or some mashed potato.

Simple rice pudding

Ingredients

100g / 4oz pudding rice
50g / 2oz  caster sugar
500ml / 17 fl oz whole milk
10g / ½ tbsp unsalted butter
1tsp vanilla extract

Firstly, wash the rice in water.

Add the milk to the casserole pot and bring to the boil with the casserole lid on.  When it starts to boil, add the butter, caster sugar and vanilla extract and stir until the butter and sugar have melded in.

Add the pudding, bring to the boil and simmer for 5 minutes with the lid on.

Place into the Wonderbag, close it up and leave for 2 hours.  When finished, grate a little nutmeg over the top, grill for a few minutes to brown off the top, then serve.

Pretty Little Rich Cake

Tuesday, April 17th, 2012

It was Sophie’s birthday the other day.  We went out en famille for a Chinese meal at Sweet Basil in Kirk Hammerton.  Sophie wanted a strawberry cake, so I felt like trying something a bit old-fashioned.  Before Bird and Dr Oetker independently came up with the idea of baking powder to put the fluff into your cakes through a bit of basic chemistry, cakes were made with more eggs and the air was physically put in through some hard grafted whisking.  Cakes were generally less light, but had a lot more body to them.  I also think that these old-fashioned cakes tend to soften over time rather than dry out as much as more modern cakes.

This little cake looks pretty, dressed in fluffy white cream and gorgeous pink strawberries, and is full of that extra rich taste from a profusion of eggs.  I like it much more than your typical sandwich type cake, and it is not much more complicated to make.

Strawberries & Cream Vanilla Cake

Ingredients

125g / 4½ oz / 1 cup organic plain flour
125g / 4½ oz / ½ cup organic caster sugar
4 medium free range eggs, at room temperature
1tsp organic Fairtrade vanilla extract
75g / 2¾ oz / ⅓ cups / ⅔ sticks butter, melted then cooled a bit
2tbsp strawberry jam/conserve
4-6 decent sized strawberries, quartered
125ml / ½ cup whipping cream
½-1tbsp vanilla sugar

How to make

Start by preparing two 20cm/9 inch round cake tins: lightly grease the tins, then line with base with some baking paper.

Preheat the oven to 180C/355F.

Sieve the plain flour then set it aside.

Add the caster sugar, eggs and vanilla extract into a heatproof bowl.  Boil a kettle of water and put into a pan, then reheat it until simmering.  Put the heatproof bowl with egg-sugar mix over the simmering water, using a hand-held electric whisk at the highest level for 5 minutes.  This will increase the volume to around three times the initial level and the colour to a creamy yellow colour.

Scoop about one-third of the sieved plain flour over the egg-sugar mixture, then using a big metal spoon fold the flour into the mixture.  Repeat for the remaining two thirds of plain flour.  Next drizzle the cooled liquid butter into the mix in thirds again, folding in carefully each time.  The key is do the minimal of folding to keep the air in the egg-sugar mixture as much as possible.

Pour the mixture into the prepared tins and then bake for 25 minutes.  Leave in the tins for a few minutes before turning out the baked tin, and allow it to cool down fully.

This cake is delicious on its own, but I wanted to make it into something a bit fancier for Sophie:

  • Firstly, I spooned some strawberry jam onto one of the cakes – not too much, but enough to stick the two cakes together.  Then I put the two cakes together.
  • Secondly, I whipped some cream with the vanilla sugar – pour the cream into a mixing bowl, then whisk until getting harder, when you should sprinkle over the caster sugar; whisk some more until the cream makes soft peaks.  Scoop and smooth over the top of the cake, then arrange the chopped strawberries in the whipped cream.
Strawberry & Cream Cake

Strawberry & Cream Cake

Enjoy on its own, or with a delicious cup of Earl Grey tea or First Flush Darjeeling.

Life So Material

Wednesday, April 11th, 2012

“For too long we seem to have surrendered personal excellence and community value in the mere accumulation of material things.  Our gross national product now is over 800 billion dollars a year, but that gross national product, if we judge the United States of America by that, that gross national product counts air pollution, and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage.  It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for people who break them.  It counts the destruction of the redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic squall.  It counts Napalm, and it counts nuclear warheads, and armoured cars for the police to fight the riots in our city.  It counts Whitman’s rifles and Speck’s knives and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.  Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play; it does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials.  It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything in short except that which makes life worthwhile.  And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”

Life does not seem to have changed much since Robert Kennedy, Jr, spoke these words in Kansas in 1968.  (There really is no speech that has the dreamy, idealistic quality of a good Kennedy speech from the ‘60s.)  In fact, if anything life in Britain is even more monetised than that and we glory more in the size of our GDP, how much we earn and how big our car or TV is?

In a similar vein, Sen argues that many things that cannot be exchanged for money have utility or disutility, so because they have no monetary value they are ignored in economics as “externalities”.  Some try and create a value to bring these into economic analysis, but this is just an artificial fudge that does not really work.  So a gorgeous landscape or sunset, or good friends, or a happy family have no economic value, but give a lot of utility, while crime, pollution and antisocial behaviour generate loads of disutility.  These things matter to people, but are not really captured in economics.  People value manners and cultured social behaviour, not because of some sort of rational economic analysis, but because society values social relationships.  People give their time to teach football, rugby or other sports or play music, creating much of great value to society, but never because of economic analysis and rarely because politicians tell us so.  In fact, the involvement of politicians usually destroys anything that is good like this as it brings power contestation into something that is beautiful in part because it is a safe haven from money and power relations.

Life is so much more than economics, money and politics…Enjoy that sunset, that cake and your friends.

What Is Not?

Saturday, December 31st, 2011

E = mc2 (and so m=E/c2) is the iconic scientific equation. But what happens if you put E = 0, or m = 0, into the equations. In the first, the answer becomes E = 0 and also in the second m = 0. In other words, if there is no mass, there is no energy and vice versa. We are bounded by this idea that matter and mass are just parts of the same thing.

However, is this everything? I wonder whether the equation explains reality and so is complete, or rather whether it indicates the edges of our perception and so what can be observed, experimented on and experienced. It precludes objects that are mass without energy or energy without mass, things that are not both particle and wave. But why cannot there be particles that are particles but not waves, and waves that are just that: waves? The retort is simply that is the way it is, so shut up, deal with it and calculate, because it works. It does actually work.

But still I wonder whether this equation only explains what we can see, and whether there is more out there that we cannot? Are we created to experience only those things with wave-particle duality and mass-energy equivalence, and to be incapable of experiencing those things that are simply not paired up? In physics, for some bizarre reason, everything seems to need a pair, or a partner. But even if this reality is correct, it only explains the 20% (or less) that we can see and observe, but ignores the balance that we cannot see: the dark side, which just like the dark ages of medieval history means the stuff we do not comprehend because we do not have the data.

Perhaps we must accept that our universe is a limited and bounded experience that can only be perceived as things defined by the equations of theoretical physics. However, this feels just so limiting. I cannot believe that more is not possible, and that there is not a reality that exists without us, some equations and maths.

So ask what and where is the energy and matter we cannot define, i.e. dark energy and dark matter? Why can a wave and a particle not separate themselves?  Why cannot there be energy-less matter and vice versa? Why cannot two bodies of mass interact with each other faster than the speed of light? Why don’t planets and stars influence us on earth in real-time instantaneously rather than in astronomical time? And so on…

Sustainability and some final thoughts

Saturday, August 27th, 2011

In the end, politics, economics and perhaps even environmentalism are practical matters dressed up as intellectual theory, following on from my previous blog on the theory behind sustainability.

Economics is good at analysing what happens at the point when things of value are exchanged, but is not much good at anything else.  Real economics cannot tell you how to sustain you or your family.  For example, were you have a budget of £100 to spend on your weekly shop, it cannot tell you what is the best way to spend that money on in terms of your health, or taste or what you have in your cupboards or what takes your fancy as you walk around the store.  It cannot tell you why you prefer one brand over another or why we buy olive oil from one country of origin over another, because none of us really make rational decisions based on utility, however neat a theory.  In fact, many of our decisions are decidedly irrational – for example, it is cheaper and quite easy to cook meals from scratch yet we buy, for example, fish pie or pancakes ready-made rather than make them ourselves.  A rational economist might say that we do this because we can use our labour or time more effectively elsewhere, but how many actually do redeploy that small amount of money or time rationally to optimise their wage earning potential – very few, methinks.

For me, I think the best way to think about sustainability is to think of families rather than economics, or at least money economics.  To keep a family going into the future, you first need to have children, which is rarely an economic decision, because under most cost-benefit analyses there is no rational economic justification in having children, but our desire to continue and sustain our genes into the future simply overrides and ignores any financial considerations.  Then you need to consider how you equip your children to sustain themselves in the future and the key things are to give them the capabilities to navigate their way through their own futures, with all its ups and downs, twists and turns.  So we educate them formally to enable them to open up their minds and get employment, and informally we teach them a moral code of what is good and bad and that hard work, honesty, fairness and good manners will get them pretty much anything they desire in time, or at least laziness, dishonesty, unfairness and bad manners will not get you far in life.  We might try and give them some seed capital to buy a home, but they may not get much financial support until they themselves have had a family and we can bequeath them something after death.  Finally, throughout all of this we nurture and love them as best we can.  And so it is in real life with economic sustainability, we must focus on the means of giving people the capabilities to navigate future generations through future uncertainties rather than get bogged down with numbers, which are but meaningless figures on a page or spreadsheet – one can create almost any set of numbers or scenarios that you desire to justify any position you want but to what useful end.

But while Governments, quangoes and international bodies like the World Bank or the United Nations can help with this in certain areas, they are not the best placed to act as custodians of economic sustainability.  Firstly, they have no long term perspective as their terms of office are short and their times of influence are probably even shorter.  Secondly, Governments are remarkably bad custodians of peoples’ money, even as they need that money as it is their lifeblood.  They tax and spend with impunity because they are dealing with other peoples’ money rather than their own.  Milton Friedman perhaps explained this best as he wrote in his book “Free To Choose” – “There are four ways in which you can spend money.  You can spend your own money on yourself.  When you do that, why then you really watch out what you’re doing, and you try to get the most for your money.  Then you can spend your own money on somebody else. For example, I buy a birthday present for someone.  Well, then I’m not so careful about the content of the present, but I’m very careful about the cost.  Then, I can spend somebody else’s money on myself.  And if I spend somebody else’s money on myself, then I’m sure going to have a good lunch!  Finally, I can spend somebody else’s money on somebody else. And if I spend somebody else’s money on somebody else, I’m not concerned about how much it is, and I’m not concerned about what I get.   And that’s government.  And that’s close to 40% of our national income.”

These capacities of Government to tax and spend are the root of their power and without this ability to take and then distribute with seeming largesse, Governments are nothing.  Hence, sustainability becomes another self-justification for why Governments must tax and spend, even though individuals and private collectives may be better at optimising humankind’s response to sustainability.  This takes the environment out of sustainability and it simply becomes a matter of power and control over capital.  For me, economics and environmentalism are different ways of looking at resource allocation, where money has been hugely successful at getting people to organise themselves to do things they do not want to do for a cash reward and also to exploit the natural capital resources (but note per my previous blog that money does not buy happinness or well-being beyond $10,000, while people will do charity and community projects for little or no finacial reward).  Conversely, environmentalism explains that there are limits to the natural capital available and we must all be mindful of this.  They are different, but overlap where the externalities from the economy degrade nature and where natural capital is available for exploitation.  However, they are not the same thing and do not overlap at all times.  Hence, they are different ways of looking at the world we live in, and we must be careful in merging them together.

So we must keep sustainability away from economists, Governments and politicians and per Ostrom focus on personal and community selflessness over selfishness, and look to our children and future generations rather than just the here and now.  Similarly, I would argue money is economics, and that money and sustainability do not mix.  However, I expect politicians, economists and everyone to argue that they all mix perfectly happily together, so the future will be a great and wonderful place.

Is There Any Need For Sustainability?

Thursday, August 25th, 2011

I have recently read Tim Jackson’s “Prosperity Without Growth – Economics for a Finite Planet“.  It proposes that we refocus how we manage our economies to take into account the limits on the earth, but is rather vague exactly how we should do this – relying on less consumerism, more community-based activities and public ownership, but without answering the central question of how and who pays for all of these things.  He accepts that some of these things are already available and people are involved in community activities, but that they are small parts of society, yet he then brushes over the fact that these are currently a minority precisely because most people do not want to work in their allotment or do yoga.  This core structural issue is at the heart of the problem and is the hardest part to change – we are taxed so we must work, so there is insufficient time available to do many of those fulfilling things in life, so we must consume to make up for the time we do not have and chose a few hobbies for the little spare time we have to keep us sane, yet more public ownership and livelihoods simply increases the tax requirement etc etc.  However, what the book does usefully do is focus on the question itself, i.e. how to have sustainability and continue with a market economy and addresses the concerns posed by the classic book of Meadows et al of “The Limits To Growth”  from the 1970s in a new millennial context, without actually adding much to the basic concept that the earth has limits and while we are still within these boundaries today at some point not very far in the future growth in population and resource use because of economic growth will bring these constraints into play, which arguably is the same problem raised by Thomas Malthus in 1798.  Tim Jackson essentially says we must reduce economic growth, accepting that this runs counter to the way the economic discourse is built.  So what is the issue with sustainability and economics?

Sustainability is a key concern in the 21st century.  The Brundtland definition of sustainability is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (WCED, 1987).  This can be further clarified as the concept that “the current generation does not have the right to consume or damage the environment or the planet in a way that gives its successor worse life chances that itself enjoyed” (House of Lords, 1999).  However, while the understanding of the environment has increased in the last 100 years, mainstream economics as used by policymakers remains based on ideas developed by Jeremy Bentham towards the end of the 18th century, as expanded by John Stuart Mill in the 19th century.  This raises the issue of whether economic analysis needs to change better to address sustainability in environmental policy response.

Mainstream economic analysis is based on utilitarianism.  This assumes that individuals are rational economic actors whose primary purpose is the self-interested pursuit of happiness, or utility, and that the best route to this end is through the purchase of those goods and services they want at rationally negotiated market prices.  Therefore, when considering welfare, policymakers should arguably consider the aggregate effect of these transactions in an economy, together with the market prices paid, and that their policies should ensure “the provision of the greatest happiness for the greatest number” (Bentham, 1789).  Furthermore, while acknowledging that some individuals may suffer or not reap the benefits of the market economy, “it is the price we pay for progress and the general good” (Galbraith, 1987).

The principal measurement used to inform policy is Gross Domestic Product (“GDP”), which is the value of the goods and services flowing through an economy over a period of time.  As consumption provides utility, GDP is a proxy for the aggregate happiness of individuals within an economy and Government policy should, therefore, provide the conditions for growth in GDP/capita.  Other economic methods that follow include cost-benefit analysis and discounting, both of which are used to evaluate the financial impacts of specific projects or policy areas.  However, as discussed below, the goal of sustainability in environmental policy is not adequately addressed by these economic tools.

While it is assumed that the more income consumers earn the more they can purchase in the market, so increasing their happiness, evidence by Richard Easterlin found that increases in happiness become slight or negligible beyond middle income levels (Easterlin, 1972 and 2001), while Gregg Easterbrook found that even though people’s objective well-being was increasing they continued to feel life was getting worse so their subjective well-being would stay unchanged or even fall.  Similarly, Amartya Sen focuses on the capabilities and freedoms of individuals to live the life they chose as being important to well-being (Sen, 1993, 1998 and 1999).  Therefore, what matters is what people are able to achieve or do, rather than the products or services that they consume, so learning at school or university is not a matter of utility but of what people may become from having studied even as governments seek to make it into a commercial contract through Student Loans or similar financial systems.  Economic development, therefore, occurs when there are more opportunities open for people to do things they value, rather than when GDP/capita or individual income has grown.  Whereas, unsustainability occurs when individuals become less capable of doing things over time, for example health deteriorates because of air pollution or toxic waste, or the opportunity to farm is reduced due to salinization of the soil or water shortages, or freedoms are curtailed, for example when decisions are made today that preclude choices being made by successor generations, such as decisions made in this generation that affect the environment over 100,000s if not millions of years, for example nuclear power and related nuclear waste dumps like that at Gorleben in Germany.  People will, also, do things for no financial reason, for example vote in elections, tend the plants in a public space or look after someone else’s children, so we are not solely economic beings even if politicians and sociologists wish to cast us as such; in fact I would argue we are human beings first and economic animals second, third or fourth.  So a economy focussing on the capability to flourish is better than one focussed on our ability to consume, i.e. a world according to Sen is better than one based on Bentham.

Traditional measures for well-being have targeted GDP growth.  However, GDP measures material throughput in an economy and does not provide useful information on sustainability.  For example, GDP is the aggregate of monetary transactions in a country, so it excludes bartering, free and unrecorded cash services such as voluntary work for charities, or domestic activities like cooking and housecleaning.  Furthermore, it is an income and expenditure statement rather than a balance sheet, so does not account for changes in the resources of a nation, whether these are physical like forestry and mineral reserves or intangible like education, health and landscape.  Finally, GDP is a snapshot in time of the activity of an economy in totality, so neither provides information about the future nor the equitable distribution of transactions through a society now or in the future.  Understanding the distribution of wealth in economies is important as poverty can be a driver for environmental degradation, and so sustainability.

Mainstream economic analysis, including GDP, does not properly consider the impact of livelihoods on the environment.  The activities of humans through work and consumption cause changes to the environment, which can be encapsulated in the impact equation: I = P x R x T, which is a rehash of Paul Ehrlich’s impact equation.  This summarises environmental impact (I) as resulting from the scale of resource use (R) consumed by a population (P) through using particular technologies (T).  Mainstream economics treats these impacts, or disutilities, as externalities or market failures either to be ignored or to be borne equally by the whole population and environment, because they do not have direct monetary values that are easily measured.  For example, packaging in the UK is transferred from manufacturer to individuals, then to the wider population and environment when it is sent to landfill, shifting the original environmental cost from the manufacturer to the environment, which must bear the sustainability burden, and the taxpayer, who finances the costs.  However, economics dominates political discourse, because money is power and power is money, so these externalities must be monetised and internalized into economic analysis before they can inform policymaking and bring sustainability onto the political agenda.

Finally, the most complex aspect of sustainability is time and how to evaluate future costs today.  Economists utilise financial models to provide policymakers with analyses of forecasted budget scenarios, so enabling assessments to be made of the impacts of “green” standards and taxes on the economy and the cost-benefit of specific political responses.  However, this sophistication hides the fact that forecasts are based on the past, with its uncertainties, discounted back by the relevant rate of time preference. Therefore, forecasting sometimes becomes a discussion over discount rates.  However, discounting creates an issue, being that the greater the risks and uncertainties involved the higher the discount rate, so the lower the current value of future costs.  This approach is, therefore, neither equitable nor appropriate for sustainability where the well-being of future generations should be considered equally to our own.  The societal discount rate for sustainability should tend towards zero (Anand & Sen, 2000) to prevent policymakers devaluing future uncertain, but large, impacts compared to current known, but smaller, environmental problems.

These analytical problems are highlighted in the Stern report on the economics of climate change.  Climate change occurs over the long-term and contains significant uncertainties in how it might operate over this time period in terms of scale, location and timing.  Arguably, it may impact future generations more than the current one, although as successors will have greater wealth and knowledge, they ought to be better able to finance and develop technology to ameliorate any disbenefits.  These issues create problems for policymakers regarding the equitable distribution of uncertain economic costs over generations and across future global populations, i.e. sustainability in terms of costs, capabilities and freedoms over time.  Stern used an utilitarian approach that focused on “the maximisation of the sum across individuals of social utilities of consumption”, cost-benefit analysis and GDP forecasts run over 200 years discounted back at 1.4%i (Stern, 2006b).  Critics of the report advocate rates of around 3-5½% (Dietz, 2008; Dasgupta, 2006; Nordhaus, 2007; Tol, 2006).  Under Stern, estimates of the costs of climate change were of losing “at least 5% of global GDP each year, now and forever” (Stern, 2006a), but by using the alternative rates the impact falls to 1.4-2.5%i.  Effectively, it becomes an ethical judgement over the value of equity between generations, or sustainability – discount rates close to zero place relatively higher values on future generations, while higher rates place lower values on successors.  Or to be brutal, it uses sophistication to hide the fact that the report hinges on the gut feeling of economists and politicians over what values to place on the financial numbers, as influenced by all the baggage of individual presumptions and political leanings in making these big leaps of faith.  I have no issue with making assumptions and running complex models, but the complexity of the modelling should not be used to hide that the report is but a finger in the air, albeit a very clever one!

Therefore, economic analysis needs to change to address these problems and so better inform policymakers about sustainability.  Here are some quick thoughts on ways that these issues can be addressed.

Firstly, policymakers need to consider a broader range of statistics beyond a narrow focus on GDP.  These indicators should include both financial and non-financial data and cover tangible and intangible assets and externalities of an economy, environmental quality and the well-being of the population.  For example, assets may include values for agricultural land, mineral reserves and woodland, together with estimates for education and health.  Sustainability indicators and externalities may comprise data on biodiversity, greenhouse gas emissions, soil fertility, air and water quality, and waste to landfill.  Well-being could comprise both objective and subjective measurements of well-being, targeting capabilities and freedoms as well as happiness.

In the UK, many of these are already compiled, for example net domestic product (GDP less depreciation) and greenhouse gas emissions, while a new well-being index will include environmental and sustainability measures from 2012.  For example, there is the Happiness Index, which shows the UK’s happiness declined by -10.7% from 1961 – 2005 and that of Australia grew by 21.3% over the same period, or the Human Development Index as developed by Haq and Sen, which currently ranks Australia top and the UK 22nd.  Although these statistics may be measured, sustainability perhaps needs to become central to policymaking.  For example, biodiversity indicators currently have warnings against breeding birds and plant diversity, yet these changes are not driving meaningful policy response (Defra, 2011).  The issue may be that there are too many measurements being compiled versus the relative clarity of GDP, therefore they could be reduced to a smaller number of indicators, for example ecological footprint provides a clear, measureable link between economic activity and environmental burden.  In addition, policymakers should include targets and responses for use when these limits are breached, for example greenhouse gas emissions’ targets are clear and measureable and so policy responses can be proportionate.

However, I fear that sustainability and the environment just do not rank up there against education, health and crime, for example.  This is perhaps because the questions are just too complex and the answers too difficult or wishy-washy for politicians to contemplate, so there is a need for politicians to focus on policy areas that can be addressed within the relatively short term of a political election cycle and are simple enough to be communicable to the media and electorate – a sort of knowledge elitism that goes along the lines of “that’s all a bit too difficult for you, the masses out there, just leave and trust us the politicians and our cronies to sort it out, because we know the best…there, there” with a gentle pat on the head.

Secondly, policymakers must address future uncertainties.  Utilitarianism is reductive and, using projections with suitable discount rates, provides clear choices for policymakers.  However, the environment is entangled and has many unintended consequences, so forecasts based on the past can result in incorrect predictions.  These complexities and uncertainties can cause relatively poor forecasting especially of sudden changes to environmental systems.  For example, policymakers neither predicted the collapse in the Canadian cod fisheries in 1991-1994 (NAFO, 2009) nor the credit crisis that began in 2007, both of which have resulted in significant economic and environmental changes.  No scientist predicted the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, or the Japanese tsunami of 2011 with its devastating human, environmental and economic consequences.  Or to abuse a quote from Harold Macmillan “Events, my dear boy, events” are what make rigid policies tricky.  Therefore, economic analysis should include the effects of high impact, low probability events on sustainability and consider using a precautionary approach to prepare for such eventualities, and even if the responses and policies of those in power does not go down those low probability routes, they should build in sufficient flex into our systems to be able to adjust to new information and haul back systems from potential collapse if and when needed.  We must be wary of committing to routes that are completely fixed in stone, forever, because in a Pythonesque way “noone expects the unexpected”.  Hence, even Rory McIlroy in his amazing golf at the Congressional in the 2011 US Open hit his second shot on the 18th in round two into the lake to give him his first dropped shots and a double bogey – you just never really know what might happen.  In fact, the answer to this issue for economics may be to look at ecosystems themselves and apply understandings of environmental knowledge to financial systems.  This is an approach that Andrew Haldane, the Bank of England Director For Financial Stability, is looking at with Robert May.  They are suggesting that complex systems can be more fragile than simple ones, i.e. the Amazonian rainforest is more prone to collapse than the African savannah or a big multidisciplinary bank is more likely to collapse than, say, a small mortgage and savings focused building society. 

Thirdly, economic analysis should focus on systems and processes rather than financial outcomes.  It is difficult, if not meaningless, to place monetary values on non-instrumental things such as a beautiful landscape or a glorious sunset, or as one of the Pevensey residents said “You can’t put nature on the stockmarket” (Burgess, 1998).  This creates a problem as to get sustainability into the economic discourse and so onto the political agenda, you must monetise it, but this reduces sustainability to choices based on financial values and cost-benefit analyses while excluding non-instrumental values.  An alternative approach is to focus on the systems within economies and how economic processes impact, or are affected by, the environment rather than on the financial outcomes.  For example, these interrelationships between the environment and the economy form the basis for the concepts of the commons and ecological footprints, both of which offer alternative economic models to utilitarianism. So while the original work on the tragedy of the commons by Garrett Hardin was depressing, work by Elinor Ostrom has shown how a decentralised system can manage the commons effectively, together with proposing a framework for how this collective approach can be applied to sustainability in social-environmental systems (Ostrom, 2009).  Therefore, economists could focus on how to provide individuals and communities with the capabilities and freedoms to understand how changes to the environment occur, as well as the tools and powers to respond to change collectively without Government intervention and without pursuing individual, rational goals that may be negative for the common good over the longer term, i.e. selflessness over selfishness.

I see this individualistic, decentralised approach as key to the future.  However, I worry that sustainability, ecological modernisation and the environment will be all used as excuses (or justification) for greater Government and “expert” meddling in peoples’ private and business lives whether through regulation or taxation.

In conclusion, mainstream economic analysis focuses on the maximisation of utility in a population through managing GDP over time.  However, a narrow focus on GDP does not properly address sustainability, because it focuses on consumption within an economy rather than good and bad changes to its asset base, it externalizes the environmental and societal costs of economic activity and it fails to consider the capabilities and freedoms of citizens now or in the future.  Changes are needed to include indicators of changes to intangible and tangible assets, the external costs of human activities and the well-being of individuals or even happiness.  Furthermore, a less monetary approach should be adopted that analyses the processes and systems within economies and how economies, societies and environments interact and can respond to changes in real-time and over longer timescales.

References

Anand, S. and Sen, A. K. (2000) Human development and economic sustainability, World Development, 28 (12): 2029 – 2049, Available from the Internet at http://www.fiepr.org.br/adr/uploadAddress/Anand_Human%20development%20and%20Economis%20sustainability.pdf (Accessed August 2011)

Bentham, J. (1789) An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, Mineola NY, Dover Publications (reprinted)

Burgess, J., Clark, J., and Harrison, C. M. (1998) Respondents’ evaluations of a CV survey: a case study based on an economic valutaion of The Wildlife Enhancement Scheme, Pevensey Levels in East Sussex, Area, 1998; 30.1, 19-27

Dagsupta, S. (2006) Comments on the Stern Review’s Economics of Climate Change, Available on the Internet from http://www.econ.cam.ac.uk/faculty/dasgupta/STERN.pdf (Accessed August 2011)

Defra (2011) UK biodiversity indicators, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, London, 20 May 2011, Available from the Internet at http://www.defra.gov.uk/news/files/2010/05/1905biodiversity.pdf (Accessed August 2011)

Dietz, S. (2008) A long-run target for climate policy: the Stern Review and its critics, Available on the Internet from http://personal.lse.ac.uk/dietzs/A%20long-run%20target%20for%20climate%20policy%20-%20the%20Stern%20Review%20and%20its%20critics.pdf (Accessed August 2011)

Easterlin, R. (1972) “Does economic growth improve the humans lot? Some empirical evidence” in David, D. and Reder, M. (eds) Nations and Households in Economic Growth, Stanford, Stanford University Press

Easterlin, R. (2001) Income and happiness: towards a unified theory, Economic Journal, 111: 465 – 484, Available on the Internet at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1468-0297.00646/abstract (Accessed August 2011)

Galbraith, J. K. (1987) A History of Economics, London, Penguin Books

House of Lords (1999) Management of Nuclear Waste, Select Committee on Science and Technology, Session 1998-99, Third Report, London, HMSO, Available from the Internet at http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld199899/ldselect/ldsctech/41/4101.htm (Accessed August 2011)

NAFO (2009) Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization, Canada, Available from the Internet at http://www.nafo.int/about/frames/about.html (Accessed August 2011)

Nordhaus, W. D. (2007) Critical assumptions in the Stern Review on Climate Change, Science, 12 July 2007. 317: 201 – 202, Available from the Internet at http://nordhaus.econ.yale.edu/nordhaus_stern_science.pdf (Accessed August 2011)

Ostrom, E. (2009) A general framework for analyzing sustainability of social-ecological systems, Science, 24 July 2009: 412 – 422, Available from the Internet at http://www.sciencemag.org/content/325/5939/419.abstract (Accessed August 2011)

Sen, A. K. (1993) “Capability and wellbeing” in Nussbaum, M. and Sen, A. K. (eds) The Quality of Life, Oxford, Oxford University Press, Available online from http://books.google.com/books?id=pJaz1471B68C&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false (Accessed August 2011)

Sen, A. K. (1998) “The Living Standard” in Crocker, D. and Linden, T. (eds) The Ethics of Consumption, New York, Rowman and Littlefield

Sen, A. K. (1999) Development as Freedom, Oxford, Oxford University Press, Available from the Internet at http://books.google.com/books?id=Qm8HtpFHYecC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false (Accessed August 2011)

Stern, N. (2006a) “Summary of Conclusions” in Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, vi – ix, Available from the Internet at http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/+/http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/media/3/2/Summary_of_Conclusions.pdf (Accessed August 2011)

Stern, N. (2006b) “Part 1: Climate Change – Our Approach” in Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change , Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 23 – 40, Available from the Internet at http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20070701080805/http://hm-treasury.gov.uk/media/5/9/Part_I_Introduction_group.pdf (Accessed August 2011)

Stern, N. and Taylor, C. (2007) Climate change: risk, ethics and the Stern Review, Science, 317: 203-204

Tol, R. S. J, and Yohe, G. W. (2006) A review of the Stern Review, World Economics, 7 (4): 233 – 250,

WCED (1987) Our Common Future, The World Commission on Environment and Development, Oxford, Oxford University Press

Charities, The Law And Unintended Consequences

Tuesday, June 7th, 2011

As some of you know, we have been looking as a socially committed but small business to give support to a charity, either Practical Action or Water Aid, and link that back to sales via the web site as a sensible way to work out the donation and also to give our customers a sense of buy-in back to this.  However, as often comes about, the law is not that simple.

Firstly, by mentioning a charity in our order acknowledgements and on our website, this link is viewed as payment for the promotional use of a charity’s brand in generating sales, rather than a gift or extra cost as we had thought about it.  Therefore, we would need to enter into a corporate-charity partnership via a Commercial Participators’ Agreement with a minimum financial commitment of £10,000.  It would be nice if our sales were that high, i.e. well over £1 million, but they are not.  So that is a non-starter.  Water Aid’s FAQs explain this well.

Secondly, VAT would be charged on the payment as it becomes a promotional service, i.e. HMRC can get their mitts onto it, but Steenbergs could not reclaim the VAT through our business as it is outside of our scope of activity and is not for business purposes, so we would get an extra 20% charged on us for HMRC’s charitable benefit.  That is another disincentive from wanting to do the right thing.

So we can donate the money to charity but we will not be able to tell you about it in a way promotionally linked to any charity.  Overall, I am pretty grumpy about the way obstacles are put in the way to prevent small businesses trying to be good.  Is charity such a bad thing?  Why are all laws and regulations created for the benefit of big business to the detriment of smaller enterprises?  Oh and by the way, yes I really am that naive and stupid.

Can come anyone come up with a solution as we still intend to do something like this as it is the right thing to be doing and is all part of who we are and want to be?  My thought is that we state that we will make donations every year at the rate of 20p per order from our website sales, then give a retrospective donation to an “unnamed” charity determined after the accounting year end by our customers.  In this case, we commit to giving the value, but because we do not gain any benefit direct from any link to a specific charity, this cannot be viewed as receiving anything in return by HMRC, i.e. it is not deemed to be a sale.

Alternatively, we could go for a more woolly “Steenbergs is delighted to be supporting WaterAid in 2011.  To find out more about what WaterAid does, visit www.wateraid.org/uk” rather than linking in to sales.

The upshot is, however, that under UK law it looks as if Steenbergs might not be able simply to have a “named” charity linked to our web sales for the year, nor perhaps could we distribute leaflets to our customers about the charities for their benefit etc etc.  How dumb is that!

Neither Sophie nor I will be backing down on our commitment.  We just need to work out how to do this.  All help gratefully received.

Recipe For Axel’s Vegan Mung Bean And Tofu Soup

Sunday, May 29th, 2011

This week is National Vegetarian Week and we have been enjoying new and wonderful vegetarian recipes including Sally’s new recipes for Moroccan Vegetable Stew and Vegetable Fajitas that we have added to the main Steenbergs website. 

Vegetable Curry Powder

Vegetable Curry Powder

Meanwhile, I have developed an organic vegan mung bean soup.  It is really versatile as you can reduce the water used and make it into a dhal with a thicker consistency, then eat with boiled rice for a healthy and balanced vegan main course.  The inspiration for this has morphed significantly from a recipe in an old Madhur Jaffrey cookbook that I find lurking on our bookshelves, Far Eastern Cookery, and hails from the Philippines, Mongo Guisado.  The original is a seafood soup using meat stock, but this version adds some extra flavours and uses tofu and vegetable stock.

Axel’s Mung Bean & Tofu Soup

185g / 6½oz organic mung beans
900ml /1½pts organic vegetable bouillon
3tbsp organic sunflower oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 large garlic clove, finely chopped
1tsp freshly grated ginger
115g / 4oz tofu
Freshly ground organic black pepper, to taste
½ tsp Steenbergs organic vegetable curry powder

Soak The Mung Beans In Water Overnight

Soak The Mung Beans In Water Overnight

Begin by placing the dry mung beans in a bowl, then check through them picking out any that look black or off.  Cover them in water with 2cm (1 inch) of excess water and leave overnight, or do in the morning for the evening.  When ready, place the soaked mung beans in a colander or sieve, drain then run fresh water over them to wash off any dirt.

Put the mung beans in a pan and cover with water some 2cm (1 inch) in excess and bring the water to the boil.  Boil at a roiling boil for about 2 minutes, then take off the heat, skim off any scum then cover with a lid and leave to soak for 1 hour.  Drain and wash with running water as before.

Return to the pan, then cover with the vegetable stock, either homemade or you can use purchased vegetable bouillon powder adding about 1 tablespoon to the 900 ml (1½pts) of freshly drawn water.   Bring to the boil, cover with lid and simmer for 1 – 1½ hours until tender.  Blend with a hand blender or in a food processor until coarsely blended – you can blend it really smooth if you wish, but I prefer a coarser texture.  Return to a low heat or put into a warmed oven at 90C/200F.

Using A Handblender Mush Up The Mung Beans

Using A Handblender Mush Up The Mung Beans

Heat a wok then add the organic sunflower oil until it starts just to smoke when you should turn down the heat.  Add the chopped onions, garlic and ginger and stir fry until translucent.  Add the vegetable curry powder and stir into the mix.

Add the tofu pieces and stir fry for 3 minutes until cooked through.  Season with some freshly ground black pepper, but do not add salt as there is already plenty in the vegetable stock.

Stir Fry The Onions, Garlic, Ginger And Tofu

Stir Fry The Onions, Garlic, Ginger And Tofu

Mix the tofu stir fry into the mung bean dhal and serve. 

Mung Bean & Tofu Soup

Mung Bean & Tofu Soup

We like to eat ours either relatively runny as a soup with bread or thicker as a main course with boiled rice.  To make the thicker consistency, either boil the mung beans for longer to reduce the liquid content or start with 800ml/1¼ pints of stock, but watch over the mung beans to ensure they do not dry through before they get mushy; if they do get dry, top up with a little extra water.