8 Tips for Buying More Sustainable Fish

Today, June 8th, is World Oceans Day – a good day to think about what we can do to halt the devastating collapse in world fish stocks.

1              Educate Yourself

Improve your understanding of the over-exploitation of the world’s fish stocks, and what must be done to prevent their collapse. Selfridge’s is working with the WWF, Greenpeace and others to champion Project Ocean, which aims to raise awareness of the threat to world fish populations. Watch the film End of the Line and read the accompanying book. Stare at naked celebrities. Look at an infographic of the extent of the decline. Read why Stephen Fry, Richard Branson, Jeremy Paxman and others are supporting Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstal’s Fish Fight against EU rules.

2              Consult a Sustainability Guide Before you Buy

Not all fish species are currently under threat. Consult one of the variety of available guides to see whether a particular fish and source is considered sustainable or endangered. Guides include Channel 4′s Fish Inspiration or The Marine Conservation Council’s Good Fish Guide.

3              Look For the MSC’s Certification Mark

The MSC’s certification mark shows the fish is sourced from a sustainable and well-managed fishery, with transparent chain of custody to ensure traceability. Watch the MSC’s explanatory video.

4              Ask Where and How the Fish was Caught

Ask your retailer where the fish is from, and whether it is sustainable. Several UK supermarkets have sustainable aquaculture policies in place, Greenpeace currently consider Waitrose, M&S and the Co-Op the best (Greenpeace report).

5              Avoid At Risk Species

Species under pressure include swordfishsharkskatesplaicetuna (except skipjack), monkfish and marlin.

6              Be Careful with Popular Fish

Salmon, cod and tinned tuna are the most popular fish in the UK, and due to their popularity they are under particular threat and we need to choose carefully.

7              Be Careful with Farmed Fish

Several commentators, including Greenpeace, have some concerns regarding intensive farming of a variety of fish species, due to the use of fish meal foodstuffs, disease and pollution issues. Increasingly herbivorous fish such as tilapia are farmed in the UK, which do not require fish based feedstuffs, and are generally considered to be more sustainable.

8              Be More Adventurous with Fish

There are over 50 species of fish caught within UK waters, most of which are not considered under threat, such as herring, pollock, gurnard, coley and especially mackerel.

Photo by Fiona Wilkinson

Wisdom vs Intelligence

Are you wise ?

Are you trying to become more wise ?

What exactly does wise mean, anyway ?

When I was a teenager I used to play a game called Dungeons and Dragons (think World of Warcraft before computers). The basic idea was to play the part of a made-up character, perhaps a wizard, a warrior or an elf, and have fantasy type adventures – fighting monsters, solving puzzles, collecting treasure, and generally generally hanging out with your mates pretending to be Gandalf or Conan.

It worked through a complex series of rules, with dice rolls used to control various outcomes such as magic and combat, and also to define the various attributes of the character you play. For example, your character might have high strength, but poor charisma and dexterity. Two of the game’s other character attributes were intelligence and wisdom, and I was always a little uncertain about the difference between the two, and in particular what was meant by wisdom anyway?

Intelligence seems familiar and straightforward, it’s the ability to solve problems, understand complexity, make connections and recall relevant facts. We sometimes refer to different types of intelligence (such as spatial, verbal and emotional), have recognised ways of measuring it and understand exactly what someone means if they say we’re brainy or smart (or dumb).

Wisdom is harder to pin down.

We see it as being something to do with having good judgement, making good choices and consistently knowing the right thing to do. Various dictionaries define wisdom as incorporating deep understanding, insight, common sense or the ability to discern what is right.

Wisdom also seems to require a degree of self-knowledge, and the ability to control emotional reactions and impulses, and remain consistent with personal principles and beliefs.

There is another key quality to wisdom though: action. Wisdom is largely about being and doing – with outcomes, results and consequences all being an important component. Wisdom could perhaps be described as applied intelligence. In the words of Eleanor Roosevelt: “Never mistake knowledge for wisdom, one helps you make a living, the other helps you make a life”.

The reason I’ve been pondering wisdom and intelligence this week is largely due to my reflecting on the Live Below the Line challenge I did recently . . . I’m intelligent and well-informed enough to know what I should eat on a regular basis in order to make myself healthier, save money and live more in-tune with my espoused principals regarding food justice etc, so why do I so often struggle to do it ?

I’m sure it’s not just me – we all have enough information at our disposal, but we don’t always put it into practice. We seem to have enough intelligence, but we often seem lacking in wisdom.

I don’t think this is a trivial issue.

Imagine if we had the collective intelligence to discover a cure for cancer tomorrow. Think of the premature deaths that would be avoided and the improved quality of life for millions. Many of the world’s best minds are working on developing a cure, with hundreds of millions of dollars at their disposal every year, and I’ve no doubt we will eventually succeed in our aims.

There are other problems though that don’t seemingly require any more intelligence to solve – where all that’s holding us back is our lack of what could be described as wisdom.

Diet related diseases already kill more people prematurely in the developed world than cancer, and this is set to rise further in the coming years as the rate of obesity continues to increase further. Yet we all know what a healthy diet looks like, that exercise is good for us and what our ideal weight is. We have the necessary information – why can’t we sort ourselves out ?

The organisation TED (technology, innovation and design) was founded in 1984 with the aim of spreading and promoting good ideas. Every year they award a one hundred thousand dollar prize to what they consider to be the most promising and important new social project of the year. In 2010 the prize was won by the UK chef and food activist Jamie Oliver for his Food Revolution work. Jamie argues passionately in his TED presentation that we need to change the ‘landscape of food’ around us, to make it easier for us all to make better food choices.


How can we cultivate the necessary wisdom to change ourselves ?

Self-knowledge, self-control and self-development are incredibly important life skills, and we should ensure we are giving them our best attention. Undoing old habits and creating new ones is hard, and we can’t rely on our willpower and best intentions alone. Perhaps if we work to understand ourselves and create surroundings, circumstances and relationships in our lives that make it easier for us to make better choices, more in-line with our beliefs and convictions, then we’ll have more success – whether it’s with not eating too much junk food, reducing our carbon footprint, or being more sustainable and ethical consumers.

There is a well know prayer that asks for “the strength to change the things I can’t accept, the serenity to accept the things I can’t change, and the wisdom to know the difference”.

If you work out how to do this, then please let me know.

Photo by James Bowe, via Flickr

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How Hungry are you Right Now ?

HUNGRY: The painful sensation or state of weakness caused by the need of food.

If you’re still thinking about it, the answer is not very.

Starting this Wednesday my wife and I will be taking part in the Live Below the Line Challenge and feed ourselves on only £1 a day each for five days.


It’s a much quoted statistic that 1.4 billion people in the world are currently living in extreme poverty, struggling to meet their basic needs of food, clean water, shelter, sanitation and education – on less than $1.25 a day.

You might think that perhaps it’s possible to live more cheaply in countries in the developing world, where perhaps $1.25 goes a lot further. If so you might be surprised to learn that the figure relates to local purchasing power, ie: the total equivalent goods and services obtainable for $1.25 in the USA.

The Live Below the Line Challenge is an awareness and fundraising campaign that aims to allow those in the developed world to better understand the daily challenges faced by those trapped in extreme poverty.

Those taking part agree to spend only £1 a day on food and drink –  the 1.4 billion people in the world really living in that situation also have to find drinking water, shelter, fuel, medicine, clothes, transport and school fees from that £1. Of course it’s impossible, and the more I think about this, the more difficult I find it to imagine the very very hard choices that living on such a small amount of money would demand.

As well as feeling hungry, I expect I’ll find the process of  planning, measuring and preparing all my meals pretty time consuming. Like everybody else I’m used to having a range of food available all the time, and not being able to simply go into the nearest shop to buy something when I want is bound to make me feel a little uncomfortable. I also expect it’ll be quite dull – lots of rice, potatoes, beans and soup, but not much sweet stuff, fruit, tea and coffee. There will also be no meet, fish, beer or wine (I know!).

Just to make it extra challenging the kids will be eating normally, and we’ll be preparing all their food . . .

I’m not after any sponsorship, but will be donating whatever we save on food to Christian Aid, one of the participating charities. I’m sure they’d welcome any of your spare cash if you wish, but the main aim is awareness raising.

Most of us could perhaps do with eating a little less, and if you feel inspired to give it a go there’s still time. In fact the campaign suggests that people pick any 5 day period during May that suits them, so you can work around parties and  big  nights out etc.

There’s something else interesting about Live Below the Line – it’s less than one year old.

It was thought-up by two Australian aid workers returning from Bangladesh in 2008, with the first official campaign in August 2010. Less than ten months later it’s one of the fastest growing anti-poverty campaigns across the world, with backing from several large international charities. It is supported by Hugh Jackman and several other celebrities, and seems to be catching the interest of an unusually wide cross section of people, including several Members of the House of Lords.

I’ll post progress reports and photos of my food on Next Starfish’s Facebook page.

I also imagine I’ll be spending a lot of time next week thinking how lucky I am . . .


Photo attribution http://www.flickr.com/photos/dan4th/2215166779/

Michelle Obama and Me

For the last few years Michelle Obama and I have been working on something together – well not exactly together, but we ARE both new organic gardeners.

We’re not alone – more and more of us are rushing to grow our own food again. Ten years ago waiting lists for allotments were virtually unheard of, with many unoccupied, overgrown and unloved. Today the average waiting list for a UK allotment is over two years. In one part of London it is now supposedly a staggering one hundred years. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Landshare scheme, which connects owners of  land available for cultivation with potential growers, has over 60,000 members. Growing carrots is hot !

You may even encounter gangs of roving guerrilla gardeners out there planting-up roadside verges and areas of derelict land, inspired by the Diggers of 350 years ago. The contaminated land officer in me feels obliged to point out this isn’t always going to be a good idea!

The last time the Nation was this enthusiastic about growing vegetables we were singing along with Vera Lyn and ‘digging for victory’, but it’s not just the UK. In the US there is also a significant rise in interest in growing vegetables and self-sufficiency, and it’s a trend right across the developed world.

The obvious question is why ?

The answer seems to be a complex mix. We have an increasing appreciation of food and awareness of issues such as localism, seasonality and pesticides. Various celebrities have also had an important role, but the key factor no doubt is the current economic climate, giving rise to feelings of uncertainty about the future, as well as rapidly increasing food prices.

The second most obvious question is why do I do it ?

I’m new to gardening, I’d never grown anything until five years ago and had never previously had any interest in it whatsoever. I used to watch The Good Life as a kid, but the only thing close to a gardening programme I’d ever seen was Ground Force – and I don’t recall them ever planting vegetables !

When we moved to our current house in the Forest of Dean I was faced with a large garden south facing, including a pretty neglected vegetable patch. I was going to have to do something. The other key factor was wanting my children to have an appreciation for where food comes from and nature in general, and I thought growing vegetables would be a good way to go about it.

Five years later it’s weirdly become a bit of a quiet passion.

I’ve decided to include the occasional gardening article on this blog, so apologies in advance if that isn’t your thing – the photo above shows our vegetable patch. I certainly won’t be giving any ‘green fingered tips’ though, because quite frankly it’s all a bit of a struggle and the most positive but truthful way of describing the extent of my gardening success is to say that every year is a voyage of discovery. When people ask me what I grow, I usually answer weeds – they are the key problem in my garden. In terms of biomass produced they probably exceed everything else put together. There’s plenty of useful books in our bookstore if you’re hungry for gardening help.

I’ve gone for raised beds to make life easier, which is another hot gardening trend apparently. The ones I have now are the second generation. The first ones I built in a very eco-conscious way, using recycled scraps of untreated timber, a bed frame, the back of a piano etc – and needless to say they rotted away in no time! I put my new raised beds together this winter, and they’re a lot more robust, with anti-weed liner and bark chippings between them. The soil is a mixture of the natural soil, which is quite a heavy clay, mixed with the decent loamy topsoil, and our own garden compost.

The theory behind raised beds is that they create better growing conditions; as the soil remains uncompacted and they allow a separate micro-climate to form in the bed, warming the soil quicker. Opportunities for pests are also decreased, but the biggest advantage of raised beds is their ease of management. By having easy access from all sides and being raised off the ground, weeding and plant care are much less of a chore, and so tend to be done more frequently. Additionally by having a number of separate beds, it’s easier to break tasks down and control the space. I find myself spending much more time weeding, watering etc than I did without them – just because it’s more enjoyable. As a result raised beds are generally considered to be much more productive than traditional ground level cultivation in most gardens.

The American horticulturalist Mel Bartholomew proposed a further refinement of raised beds with his square-foot gardening method. By breaking down the beds even further into square foot blocks, they become even easier to micromanage and optimise growth . . . it all seems a little bit too much effort for me at the moment, though I may be converted in the future.

We’re fully organic in the garden, at least in the sense that we use no pesticides and only organic fertilizers (essentially bone meal and seaweed) in addition to our own compost. I like that I avoid adding industrial chemicals to my garden, but I am far from being absolutist about organic. I do think there’s much to recommend an organic approach in a domestic setting, where I’m not relying for my families survival on the success of my potatoes every year. But when it comes to feeding the world I’m unconvinced that fully organic is sufficiently practicable, efficient or cost-effective, though clearly traditional farming does need to lower it’s energy and water inputs, and adopting some organic techniques may help. There are a lot of strong opinions on either side of this debate, so I’ll come back to it in the future. All I’ll say for now is that I feel good that we grow organically, but I’m not too bothered about buying organically.

Successful organic gardening seems to be all about creating conditions to avoid problems before they happen; mulching (I tend to use grass cuttings) to minimise weeds, companion planting to encourage predators and careful rotation to avoid disease build-up in the soil. To an organic gardener if you’ve too many slugs, the real problem is you’ve not enough ducks!

We’ve had a few failures. One year we discovered that vigorous washing didn’t remove ALL the small green caterpillars from broccoli – but not until we were eating them . . . . we don’t grow that much broccoli any more. If anyone’s interested, steamed caterpillar tastes like chicken.

Despite our mixed success, what we have managed to grow has been as fresh and as locally produced as it’s possible to get, with far lower water and energy requirements than commercially grown food. It’s free from pesticides and preservatives, has no packaging, and we’ver been able to select varieties for taste rather than yield. Of course, it’s also been far more enjoyable to eat knowing we’ve grown it ourselves.

Just as importantly the unhurriable process of preparing soil, planting, feeding, watering and then harvesting is extremely relaxing and provides a bit of an antidote to the pace of normal life – slow is the new fast. I often seem to be very meditative when gardening, I don’t know if that’s just me.  It’s also all outdoors and hence tops-up my vitamin D . . . take note Farmville addicts!

The kids have also been involved, though they only enjoy the planting and picking – running away when they’re asked to do any weeding or digging. Watching them pick and eat raw peas out the pod for breakfast during the summer holidays makes it worth it by itself.

I’m not convinced growing vegetables saves us that much money, though it obviously depends on what we grow. We had a phenomenal glut of raspberries a couple of years ago, to the point where we were feeding them to the chickens – I recall they were a couple of pounds a punnet in the supermarket at the time. We’re trying to concentrate on the more expensive crops, and have managed to have armfuls of rhubarb this year, so our economics are improving.

I’d estimate that the last couple of years we’ve managed to grow about 5-10% of our annual fruit and veg. I’m hoping to get closer to 15% this year by having more successional planting and more winter vegetables, but increasing it beyond 20% would require devoting significantly more space to vegetables, a lot more time and effort, and most importantly getting another freezer or two for storage.

We’re not really striving for anything resembling self-sufficiency, so growing 15-20% of our own fruit and vegetables will be enough, and in the event of an unexpected zombie apocalypse I’m sure I could quickly scale it up!


Photo attribution : http://www.flickr.com/photos/kiwanja/254235434/