Prawn Cocktail

Shrimp or prawns are one of the world’s most popular type of seafood, but unfortunately are one of the least sustainable.

Shrimp can be farmed or fished for in the wild, and in many parts of the world that means using weighted nets to trawl the seabed, damaging sensitive ecosystems for up to a decade, and scooping-up pretty much everything over a wide area, including turtles, sharks, rays and juvenile fish and invertebrates in huge numbers.

Most of this bycatch is simply discarded dead back into the sea, and can often be up to 80% of the weight of the total catch. In fact although shrimp fishing produces around 2% of the world’s annual fishing production, it produces a third of the bycatch!

Farmed shrimp are little better, with shrimp farms often replacing other sensitive ecosystems, such as mangroves, and being reliant on large quantities of chemical nutrients and antibiotics. These energy intensive inputs, along with the transport, mean typical Asian farmed prawns have a very significant carbon footprint. Even locally caught prawns, from around the British Isles, can have a significant associated carbon footprint, as many are transported to Asia for processing by hand, before being packaged and returned to UK stores.

As with many rapidly expanding forms of cheap labour,  many of those working in the shrimp industry in East Asia work in very poor conditions, with debt bondage, child labour and threats and violence all recently reported by several investigations.

More sustainably produced shrimp is available, though it can be hard to find. Several organisations, such as Sea Food Watch provide detailed buying guides.


Photo by from Ben Sutherland, via Flickr

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An Avoidable Injustice – Not an Inevitable Condition

A guest blog by Natasha Adams, Campaigns and Parliamentary Officer for Concern Worldwide UK. Concern is an international humanitarian and development charity that operates in 25 countries. Natasha works on Concern’s Unheard Voices campaign, which champions the cause of smallholder farmers and works to reduce global hunger.

It’s clear the global food system is in crisis.

We live in a world where an astounding number of people go hungry every night, the latest estimate from the FAO (UN Food and Agriculture Organisation) is that just under one billion people don’t have enough food – one in seven of us.

Even more than this suffer from malnutrition as they don’t have access to properly nutritious food. And these figures don’t take into account acute crises -in the Horn of Africa, more than 13 million people have been affected by food shortages since last year, and now 13 million more are at risk in the Sahel.

We get bombarded with these numbers all the time, yet they’re too big to make sense of.

Even if we stop and reflect that these statistics represent individual people – each with families and hopes like everyone else, the scale of the suffering is still unimaginable. To get my head around it, I try to imagine one in seven of my friends or family members as the ones who don’t have enough to eat. It’s can sometimes be easy to forget about hunger in far away places, but aren’t the values of human lives across the globe of equal worth? We may have got used to hunger in ‘Africa’ (although there are actually more hungry people in Asia), but it still matters and it can be changed.

It absolutely doesn’t have to be this way. We live in a world of plenty – farmers the world over actually produce more than enough food for everyone. As highlighted by Next Starfish, in wealthy countries like the UK, we throw away £20 billion worth of food a year, while one in seven humans go hungry because they either can’t grow enough food, or they can’t afford to buy enough.

Unfortunately, there is no single silver bullet to end global hunger. The problem is complex, and so are the answers, but workable solutions have been found on many levels and these solutions could be implemented if the public and political will was there.

Support to farmers is a good place to start, because ironically smallholders make up more than half of the world’s hungry people. Concern’s report Farming for Impact demonstrates that with the right support , smallholders can grow more, eat more and better food and even go on to employ others, helping their whole communities to thrive. The report also explores how the Rwandan Governments’ commitment to spend 10% of their budget on agriculture helped to increase staple crop production, and to shield the country from the food price rises experienced catastrophically elsewhere in East Africa last year.

The most obvious role the UK can play in tackling global hunger is through continuing to provide important aid.

On May 19th David Cameron will represent the UK at the G8 summit in the US. The previous G8 commitment to provide aid to tackle hunger (the L’Aquila Food Security Initiative) is coming to an end. A new commitment to tackle world hunger is clearly needed, and the UK is in a strong position to push for and follow through on this as we will be hosting the G8 in 2013. This is a good way for the UK to use its wealth and power to try and make meaningful progress towards ending global hunger – by pledging new funds and encouraging other countries to do the same.

If you would like to support Concern’s campaign for a new G8 hunger commitment, you can email your MP with our easy e-action.

But it’s not all about aid.

The UK is still a wealthy country, and because our economy is relatively large the way we do business has a big impact globally. One important driver of global food price rises is increasing food speculation on international markets, much of which is happening in the City of London. The organisation World Development Movement is running a campaign to raise awareness of this issue and support EU proposals to limit financial speculation on food prices.

Another factor driving high food prices is the amount of land turned over to growth of biofuels, and the charity Actionaid are currently running a petition in the UK to try and change UK and EU support on this issue.

I got involved in campaigning professionally to try and play a small role to right some of the world’s wrongs, but you don’t have to be a professional campaigner to help make a change.

By educating ourselves about issues and taking small actions to show you know and care about issue like hunger, everyone can make a difference and help to build political will for genuine change that will transform people’s lives across the globe.

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Community Agriculture in Cuba

As a result of the ongoing US trade embargo, Cuba was largely reliant on imported Soviet oil and food imports during the cold war. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, these imports ceased, pretty much overnight. Without food, fuel for mechanised farming, fertilizers and pesticides, Cuba was forced to reinvent it’s previous large scale collective farming model in order to feed it’s people.

Cuban’s were encouraged to grow food on all available land, both in the countryside, and in the urban areas, and of course without access to fertilizers or pesticides, all cultivation was organic. This explosion of community agriculture were called the organoponicos, and were ultimately successful in feeding Cuba’s population for over a decade, with Havana growing over 90% of it’s own food, until new oil imports became available, mostly from Venezuela.

Cuba’s model of smallscale organic community agriculture has been heralded as a possible model as the world moves to post peak-oil societies. Interestingly, despite predictions, the urban gardens have not disappeared with the greater availability of oil, but continue to thrive.


Photo by Hoyasmeg, via Flickr

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Moving Mountains: Hunger and Waste in an Age of Austerity

Natalie Holmes lives and works in Berlin. She loves learning German, birdwatching and travelling by train, in between working as a  writer. A keen environmentalist, Natalie writes about sustainability and responsible travel on her blog, The Horseshoe Nail. 

One grim irony – and there are many – of the international debt crisis, aside from the obvious problems of limitless growth within finite resources, is that despite global attempts at austerity, waste continues to occur at unimaginable levels.

Italy, for example, whose debt mountain is the second largest in Europe, wastes over 30 per cent of its food, which works out at about $53 million. Reducing waste certainly won’t be the dynamite that blows a hole through that mountain of debt, which is a mind-boggling €240bn this year alone, but it will make a small dent, and surely save as much as some other individual austerity measures already suggested or implemented. It is not just Italy where this happens.  The US wastes the equivalent of 350 million barrels of oil a year in uneaten food.  In the UK, half the food produced on farms is thrown away, amounting to an eye-watering £20bn food mountain.

So why does such waste happen?

Firstly, consumers are led by omnipotent advertisers to believe that appearance is an indicator of quality. The UN Food & Agriculture Organisation advises people to consider safety, nutrition and taste of food rather than the way it looks. An outrageous amount of perfectly edible produce gets discarded daily because it looks ‘off’, or in other words, not the technicolour stuff we’ve become accustomed to seeing in ads (and on the shelves). That freegans can survive almost solely on the contents of skips outside supermarkets is testament to the senseless waste that occurs in the name of aesthetics. In addition, consumers are urged to buy much more than they need, whether it be larger portion sizes in restaurants or two-for-one offers in shops.  Financial efficiency has been so misaligned that it actually became, in many cases, cheaper to waste food than to just buy what was needed.

In the end, of course, just as with homes, loans and everything else, there comes a point when the bubble bursts.

The sudden gaping hole, never invisible but until now ignored,  between the abstract ‘market’ and concrete reality threatens to swallow us all. We can no longer afford to waste. Food, money, resources, time are all precious and we must use them wisely.  This is arguably more important right now than ever before.

Instead of amending or fixing the system that got us into this mess, it seems like those in charge are building it up again identically, brick by brick; taking back their abusive but irresistible lover, hoping this time things’ll be different.

The waste that uncapped capitalism encourages continues, as does environmental degradation and widening social inequality.  That people in Somalia (and across the developing world, for that matter) starve to death in droves while Italy alone wastes  food that could produce 580 million meals a year is nothing short of obscene. “Try asking those people trekking across the Somali wastelands what austerity looks like.” Dan Hodges movingly blogged, asking why, in our modern world,  people can still starve to death. It’s certainly not for moral or logistical reasons, he points out, and if we can fund humanitarian intervention in Libya and other Middle Eastern countries, then why not Africa?

Sadly, I’d argue that it’s because we’re rebuilding a broken machine, one that is self-interested and self-governing.

There is undoubtedly aid ready to go into Somalia, but without governments providing security in this volatile region, there is no way to safely get it to those who need it. The bottomless pockets of cash that were available for Iraq and Afghanistan have mysteriously dried up.

Is it too cynical to assume that this is because Somalia, unlike the Middle East, has few natural resources worth exploiting?

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Photo by Sporkist, via Flickr

Take a Step Towards Fairtrade – But Keep Going

Today is the start of Fairtrade Fortnight in the UK – two weeks of promoting Fairtrade products and the positive benefits for developing world producers.

This year’s campaign is titled ‘Take a Step‘.

The basic idea of Fairtrade is that consumers pay a price premium, which is then fed back to the producer and their communities, to improve local welfare, support education and medial initiatives, provide investment capital, promote sustainable and democratic practices, support price stability, meet minimum welfare standards and provide a living wage for the workers involved.

Products wishing to display the Fairtrade logo, must register with Fairtrade International and comply with the requirements of the certification scheme.

A wide variety of fairtrade products are now available, including chocolate, coffee, tea, cotton, bananas, honey, gold, flowers, rice, sugar, wine and a wide variety of snacks and gifts. And an equally wide variety of celebrities have given their support – including Emma WatsonFearne CottonSteve Redgrave and Harry Hill.

But not everyone is so supportive.

Many of the critics are the usual ‘why should I pay more to help someone else, especially someone in another country’ type – which is a perfectly valid opinion of course, but an entirely personal one, and one I’d expect not too many readers of this blog share.

But some of the criticisms are different.

Many relate to specific practical aspects, such as failures of certification, debate about how the price premium is employed etc – some are more valid than others, and considered collectively they simply illustrate that no large complex system is perfect.

But there is another, more fundamental criticism of Fairtrade, and it’s one I largely agree with.

Can a few extra pence on the price of a jar of coffee really make an outstanding difference to the lives of the world’s poor ?

Are the ambitions of the Fairtrade movement far too low ? Does it risk kidding people into thinking that all they need to do to resolve the significant and multiple injustices of the global trade system, is to spend an extra pound or so a week on the weekly supermarket shop, in order to feel good that they’ve bought the bananas, tea bags, coffee and chocolate with the Fairtrade sticker on them ? Is it perhaps really more about assuaging the guilt of Western shoppers than ‘fixing’ the world ?

Fairtrade IS a fantastic way to get people thinking – to begin to consider the startling differences between their plentiful lives as they wander the aisles of their well stocked supermarket, and those living much harder and meager existences.

There are billions living in real poverty – the world is clearly not fair, and buying a few Fairtrade products will not by itself change this.

Sometimes I wonder how we’d feel if we were a Peruvian hill farmer being paid $5 a day for 10 hours of hard work growing chocolate that our families couldn’t afford to eat themselves, whilst knowing many rich Western companies make large profits selling chocolate to ‘well fed’ rich Western consumers, many of whom eat far more chocolate than is good for them. Would I still be happy with the term Fair Trade ?

Don’t get me wrong, I AM a big supporter of Fairtrade, I know it does make a difference to the lives of many farmers. I buy Fairtrade whenever I can, and encourage others to consider doing likewise, but I feel strongly that we can’t leave it there. We must also do more.

The philosopher and political commentator Slavoj Zizek quotes Oscar Wilde in his illustrated talk below, and discusses the need to address the core problem, “reconstructing society in a way so that poverty is eradicated, and charity is no longer necessary”.

In the meantime we should keep buying Fairtrade, of course – and encourage our friends and family to do likewise. It’s a great first step on the road to a Fairer World – but we mustn’t loose sight of the fact there’s still a long way to go !


Photo by Ian Ransley Design and Illustration, via Flickr

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