Biophilic cities

My latest article on Biophilic Cities for The Sustainable Food Trust, is now the Editor’s pick! I worked really hard on it so if you are interested in what is beyond ‘green’ in the urban sustainability movement, please have a read here.

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Now that 80% of the global population live in cities, education and urban environments need to bring children in contact with nature on a daily basis, if future generations are to cherish, know and love the natural world which we survive off. Have a look at the benefits of growing up on a farm for young children in this new documentary called Free Range Child sneak preview. Or sign up to Project Wild Thing for new ideas of how to get your kids away from screens and back outdoors.

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A brief update on the ‘Vanishing of the Bees’

The documentary was released in 2009 but the issue is on-going. UK and US bee populations have declined by 50% in the last 25 years. Honey bees are responsible for pollinating at least 80% of the world’s crops. Without their industrious services, pollinating up to 18,000 plants in a day, food prices would soar dramatically. Therefore farmers are reliant on bees, yet the pesticides they use are considered one of the main causes of the widespread phenomena, Colony Collapse Disorder, that has hit the States most significantly from 2006.
Independent academic research in the UK and France has found that ‘neonicotinoids’ in pesticides, are harmful to bees nervous systems effecting their memory and mobility. Results from the research showed that a third of the colony exposed to neonicotinoids were unable to find their way back to the hive, as well as an 85% decline in the survival of the Queen Bee each year.
This research has not been validated by the current UK government who are propping up insecticide manufacturers Syngenta and Bayer CropScience findings, which conclude that ‘neonicotinoids do not pose an unacceptable risk to honeybees’. None of this research has been publicly disclosed for review.
Last year the EU enforced a two year suspension on the use of neonicotinoids, although the UK were against the ban. This decision will be up for review again at the beginning of 2015.
Protecting pollinators and our food from these damaging chemicals is far from accomplished.

WHAT WE CAN DO IN THE MEANTIME:
In the meantime grow more bee-friendly plants to increase bee habitats.
Buy fruit and vegetables from The Co-operative and Waitrose who are both committed to sourcing their fresh produce from suppliers who do not use harmful pesticides.
Or start learning how to become a beekeeper through a local mentoring programme or by doing a course.

One of the most striking things I took away from the documentary were the numerous (some perhaps a bit far-fetched) parallels between problems afflicting bees and our own human plight.
– Commercial bees are fed on sugar syrup rather than being allowed to feed on their own honey, much like our reliance on manufactured sugars rather than natural sugars we have grown ourselves.
– We both suffer from the sprays we put on crops, which have transmitted various diseases into the food chain.
– The female role of queen bee is undermined as commercial bee keepers replace them with new younger, more efficient queens each year. A reflection of how women are commonly upgraded today, and how female qualities are often undermined in the workplace. ( the disempowerment of the sacred feminine at large in society)
– Bees are now farmed and exported miles overseas to pollinate crops far from their natural habitats, which disorientates them and makes them less effective. Similarly the human mass-migration we are witnessing in the last century, of displaced communities and enclaves of people uprooted from their indigenous landscape, has effected peoples coping mechanisms and livelihoods, estranged and far from their home culture.

Simply observing the bees appears to be the key to understanding what is wrong and what can be done. One academic even said that from observation it is clear the bees have all the answers and reflect that the problem is far more multi-faceted and complex than first appears. It is not simply about eliminating the use of neonicotinoids but changing the whole complex system by which we are currently sustaining life on planet earth.

Chugging shouldn’t feel like charity mugging… A bit of rant

I have done cold calling for a spell but I haven’t been a street fundraiser or chugger as they are referred to these days (charity mugger or hugger – which ever you prefer!) However I have been on the receiving end enough times to consider how I might be more inclined to stop.

It is not that I (and many passersby) don’t care, albeit being a highly de-sensitised society in general. I think it is more often due to the rehearsed nature of what ensues and that overwhelming sense of being caught in a web of strategies geared towards easing money from your pocket.

Being spieled at is off-putting. It feels contrived and anonymous, and with anything these days people want individual bespoke attention. Perhaps it is better not to prep fundraisers too much on the amount of facts to stuff in people’s ears or engaging ways to reach out, allowing for some natural flow of conversation where the fundraiser responds to people and listens to their questions rather than reeling off the charity line. The fundraiser needs to offer more options to suit any kind of time constraints or inquiry and less tools to trap you in conversation. A flyer with info on how to donate via text, so people can sign up to a monthly donation via a series of text instructions when they are on the bus/train later with time to consider it properly.

I think the one-off texts to donate are a really good idea – non-committal and conveniently fast to do. However the follow-up calls to applaud your generosity, pandering to your willingness to give, might make me think twice about doing it again. Being persistently told how generous I was after giving £2 to Oxfam seemed a bit over the top. Of course this only led to being asked to sign up to giving a monthly donation. After saying no once, you should not then be asked to sign up to a smaller donation each month unless the person asks if this is possible. It is hard enough saying no once but then to have to persistently explain why you can’t cough up, makes you more likely not to bother being troubled again next time.

I can’t imagine there are many people who enjoy walking past street fundraisers, sometimes outrightly ignoring their pleas and yet we all have to do it. There must be a more effective way of fundraising in this hyper-digitalised age. More and more people are able to select online where they would like to donate, in their own time, that relate to their own experiences and passions. Surely this way of donating needs to be encouraged rather than spending money on chasing and convincing people to give.

Documentary – real embedded journalism

Last week I went to see Slingshot Hip Hop, a documentary on the Palestinian hip hop movement at the monthly documentary screenings in the Art House Cafe, Stokescroft. It has become an emotive vehicle for the younger generation in Palestine to express themselves in a peaceful but powerful way, a form of liberation from oppression through one of the few basic human rights they are free to exercise – freedom of voice.

It was a really inspiring and high-energy documentary, the music bringing lightness to a medium which can often drag heavily through a deeply-rooted issue. However this was weighted by the back-drop of bombed buildings, wastelands of debris and dereliction, colourless streets and random gun fire conveying a landscape void of opportunity and enterprise. As one of the musicians remarked, too many young growing up in Palestine today are bored and resort to drugs.

Briefly, the most striking things about the documentary were
# Arabic hip hop is really good – even without the subtitles to understand what it means I’d listen to it
# The number of checkpoints are absurd – Palestinians may have to queue up to 7 hours just to travel from one neighbouring city to the next, usually only a 15 minute drive.
# The fear of the Israeli’s – despite being heavily armed, policing and patrolling the walls and the settlements. One of the rappers was stopped on the street and hostilely ID’d because he was speaking his first language Arabic rather than Hebrew.

I came away very happy to have re-connected with an issue I used to be very active on, but equally frustrated at how the the prospects for young people growing up in Palestine have hardly progressed.

It also raised another particularly interesting question about the ineffectiveness of news today to initiate change and propose solutions to on-going problems. I feel it has become more like a drone that simply props up the ‘business as usual’, ‘this is reality-deal with it’ line.

This is were independent documentary as a form, over and above news, fills a gaping hole, since embedded investigative journalism and feature articles appear to be a dying breed. They should be given far more airtime, broadcasting licenses, than most of the stuff we chose to distract ourselves with today. Documentary is embedded investigative journalism at its most visually compelling, leaving a lasting impression on the mind which might, just might, be enough of a call to action.

but what can we do?

At the end of last year I read The State of Nature Report, and was incensed by a need to do something. It urged a Call to Action, to prevent a further decline of UK species, which have fallen by 60% on average over the last 50 years.

Often after reading up on an issue that particularly grabs me, the most I might do is subscribe to a few relevant organisations newsletters to keep me up to date with the issue, sign a petition, blog about it or at best hand write a letter to someone in a position of influence.

N.B. In the end I decided to write to the Queen. The idea was to suggest she should mention this matter in her Christmas speech, but of course that had probably been written months before. It ended up being more of a Christmas card suggesting she might be interested in reading the report if she hadn’t already and perhaps mentioning it at some point. (Her lady in waiting did reply that the queen was very interested to hear my views on the environment!) The plan now is to send her a drawing or painting of one of the species on the Watchlist Indicator throughout the year – but we shall see – I’m not that confident with my drawing skills.

But still none of this ever feels satisfactory. Even if she was to mention the benefits of becoming active in conservation efforts to protect biodiversity in our wildlife and the sense of well being that reconnecting with the natural world can bring an individual, it’s an entirely different thing to take the time to act on it.

And here we have a common problem faced by most current issues of the day – how can the individual be mobilised to act on information in impactful ways? From personal experience, at best I might join a community group to become more active in this area, but as a volunteer this usually falls by the wayside as simply another fad I was involved in for a while.

Should this green finger knowledge have been passed down from parents? Should school lessons have been more orientated around the land that sustains us? At the moment, aged 28, learning about the natural world and all the species that populate UK soil feels like learning to ski or play an instrument too late on in life – it is a self-conscious attempt to do something I feel I should or will better me in some way rather than being naturally enthralled. Of course this is not true for everyone. I’ve met inspiring people who have read an article on a particular issue and set up a community enterprise in response.

It seems that to make the changes that are necessary for a healthier planet, people who consider themselves communicators or voices for change, need to be aware that it may not be enough to tell people about things anymore. Perhaps it is a matter of showing not telling and being the change you want to see in the world on a much more fundamental level – internalising those values you stand for – which in a perfect world would be intuitive to us from a young age if parents and educators were enabled to bring up children more holistically.

Ubuntu – “I am because of you”

I found it hard to surmise the life of such an impressive man, whose actions bettered the lives of so many, so in reflection I ended up painting –

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A butterfly is a lovely symbol of the soul and transformation, like the ripple in the ocean, they may be small in the grand scheme of things but they are mighty insects that migrate tremendous distances in their short life spans.

As touched on in this brilliant TED talk I feel that one of Mandela’s greatest achievements was his own very personal transformation which took place while in jail. Holding steadfast to his values he underwent a long introspective process of the interior self, which enabled him to internalise the values he stood for externally, so they became the walking undeniable fabric of his being – unusually freed from the fears and tremors of the ego power play we see many leaders struggle with today. This gave him true resiliency in the worst of times, and profound widespread respect for his unfaltering lead by example. An example of how one person’s actions can make an enormous difference.

As my human rights professor told me once – “live by your dreams”
Don’t slave for them in some distant future on palm-tree lined shimmering shores but try to embody your values, all that you love and hold dear now, each and every moment.

Mood Foods

It seemed very apt that, prior to an evening hosted by one of Bristol’s ‘know it alls’ when it comes to what not to eat and what to eat, I was up-ended in the loo having a violent reaction to a mixture of what I had consumed that afternoon.

Wild Oat’s Michael Abrahams hosted an evening called Mood Foods which incorporated a talk from nutritionist Jamie Richards who in short advocated reducing meal frequency and increasing movement (exercise). Nothing new, in our society in particular, where being overweight is widely known to be a major clinical issue and precursor for disease. However his argument against the ‘little and often’ line was that the most abundant amino acid in the body, glutathione, breaks down to form gaba which in actuality serves to sedate the body. Whereas if we effectively starve the body until it feels hunger, glutamine breaks down into glutamate which speeds up bodily functions making you more pro-active and clear-headed. Hence why he advises businessmen to serve a huge lunch before sealing a deal, or to minimise consumption prior to presenting.

A second reason for not eating regularly is that each time you eat the pancreas effectively breaks down to cope with the food intake and needs up to 5/6 hours before it is ready to aid digestion again. Ultimately he reasoned that to avoid the food coma’s and the need for coffee to catapult us into the morning, we should be eating nutrient dense food (quality) rather than energy dense food (quantity). Along with the right supplements in our diet and enough exercise we should be able to get a lot more done in our day, on far less.

Other useful tips shared were –
Turmeric, fresh if possible, should be a daily supplement as it contains curcumin which benefits the immune system, liver function, bone strength and skin!
Water should be taken like food, all in one go and at prolonged intervals. You waste energy consuming water if sipping on it throughout the day.
Expressive free writing in the morning aids a more balanced mood throughout the day.

Some of these ideas seem contrary to popular assumption so I thought it was interesting to share – at least some more food for thought.

One more thing – our brain size is shrinking. In the last 10,000 years our brain size has decreased by 10%, and more noticeably since Nixon introduced high fructose corn syrup in 1976

Soil is so cool

Dirt, mud, the earth from where all life has sprung is miraculous stuff, and perhaps where a lot of the answers to the mysteries of the universe reside. It often takes repeated exposure to what sometimes appears very mundane information, until there is suddenly a light bulb moment which permanently alters your perspective. I had one of these moments today which has finally rammed home a deep, profound respect for plain and simple soil.

I had already heard that 5g/1tsp of healthy soil contains more living organisms than humans on this earth. But I hadn’t really considered the implication of this until I saw a 3D graphic image of 1g of soil spinning round on a big screen, illuminating all the porous spaces (said to contain up to 10,000,000 cells, 5km of fungi, 10,000 different species). It was a wake-up call to visually see how much life is simply taking place under our finger nails! (soil traceability being a very important part of forensic evidence in criminal investigations)

Helen Browning of the Soil Association introduced the speakers at the Soil Symposium this year, with some astonishing facts. No news to the organic farmers and growers present but perhaps of interest to people like myself who don’t come into daily contact with soil and aren’t conscious of its vital importance to our survival.

  • It takes 500 years or so to create an inch of fertile top soil and only a decade or so to deplete it
  • Worldwide we have damaged over 15% of our land, destroying soils 10 times faster than creating them
  • In the UK 2 million tonnes of soil is lost each year, which is £150-250 millions worth of soil damage

The talks that followed all upheld the importance of bio-dynamic farming, which use organic methods in soil cultivation to essentially feed the soil and maintain high levels of bio-diversity, creating more nutritionally dense, fertile and high yielding soils.

Professor Dr. Urs Niggli from the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture, advocated a new approach for farmers to prevent soil depletion called ‘eco-functional intensification’ rather than the over-used meaningless term ‘sustainable intensification’. In 2002 a report showed how this sort of farming, using reduced tillage and organic fertilisers, doubles the physical and microbial properties of soil – data which even the pro-GM Avery clan of this world couldn’t refute. The soil becomes more porous-retains more water, carbon and biomass which creates healthier, high yielding soils.

The underlying truth to highlight is that much like the universe, our brains, uncharted ocean depths, we understand very little about the life of soil at the microscopic level. It still remains to be discovered but one thing is clear that biodynamic farming is the way forward to ensure a thriving planet that can sustain us.

Dragonflies & Damsels were once as big as birds

Most people know what a dragonfly is but not everyone knows what a damsel looks like? We’ve all heard the saying ‘damsel in distress’ and I thought that it must be a flower, perhaps because the damsel is classically identified as a woman.

Last Friday I learnt that a damsel is the thinner, smaller version of a dragonfly that we see flying around. It was the electric blue flash of such creatures darting around me in Guatemala that made me so curious about the species, to the point I almost got a tattoo of what I thought was a dragonfly on my foot. That could have been an incorrigible error!

There are many intriguing things about these insects, which made me inquisitive enough, to drive half an hour, get stuck in traffic and very lost to arrive late at the folk hall in Portishead and listen to a talk, where I was the only one without a head of grey hair.

The talk was particularly academic and dry in this respect, different from what I hoped. In my flight of fancy I thought we’d hear wondrous tales that really brought to life these mysterious ancient insects. However the evening had its insights –

Did you know:

  • Dragonflies pre-date dinosaurs and used to be as big as seagulls, but still invertebrates. This could not happen now because the oxygen in our atmosphere has become so diluted they could not survive as insects this size.
  • The way dragonflies and damselflies mate is very unique and was the focus of the majority of the talk and slides. They form this loop called ~ “the wheel” – where the male clasps the head of the female with the end of his tail and she bends her abdomen to connect with the accessory area near the front end of the male where the sperm is. Prior to this the male has to transfer the sperm from the tip of his abdomen into the accessory area. It is quite a display and can go on for up to an hour.
  • The female will then go and deposit the fertilised eggs in a river bank or near an area of water. The rump of a dog lying by a river is not overlooked, apparently! Often the male will not let go of the females head until she has deposited the eggs somewhere in case another male interferes. And often they will scoop out any residual male sperm before beginning to reproduce – a very thorough procedure from beginning to end!

I’m not sure why I am fascinated by dragonflies but I guess it is just one of those personal things that doesn’t really require an explanation. Up close they aren’t particularly attractive and look extremely alien. The fact they have remained on earth so long is particularly worthy of note, impressive and as striking as their colours. Who knows, maybe they will out live us too, the way we are continuing to turn environments and oceans into a human rubbish dump.

Seeking Slow – a food & art mash-up

The theme was the future of food and our relationship with technology – slowing down might be the desire of many when it comes to food and technology but the size of these topics are of another extreme – enormous.

Despite the days best intentions to bring people together across the food supply chain to begin a slow-revolution, the event did bring a good mix of people to Testbed1 art space to enjoy chef Mark Jankel’s delicious food from The Street Kitchen, and perhaps start new unlikely collaborations or at least share different insights and ideas.

There were guests from Volcano Coffee Works, Lalani & Co tea and La Fromagerie cheese who ethically source from small independent farmers and producers. Guy Watson of Riverford Organic Farms and Simon Palfry from Laverstoke Park Farm represented the farming industry and dispelled any romantic notions anyone may have of the farming life. In the evening we enjoyed Dodd’s gin cocktails courtesy of The London Distillery Company, incorporating The London Honey Company’s harvest and The New Dawn Traders brought a whole new level of slow to the event. We heard how they were about to embark on a seven month voyage by sail to Brazil, to highlight a highly oil dependent freight trade industry that is neglecting to exploit wind and solar power with new technologies to green-up food trade.

Workshops held during the day helped you learn how to better nourish yourself mentally and physically, from The Stranger Collective and The Viva Mayr diet respectively. The Stranger Collective dedicate every tenth working day to creative nourishment which will in turn lead to better productivity and inspired ideas for their clients. Dr Stossier of the Viva Mayr diet advocated simple remedies like chewing your food longer and really tasting the flavours to aid digestion, as well as a glass of bicarbonate of soda in the morning or evening to reduce acidity in the body, a pre-cursor for many diseases – and most importantly ‘nothing raw after four’ to prevent fermentation in the body.

The whole event took place amongst an Our Autonomous Nature temporary art-installation, featuring an array of nature-inspired art work, creating the perfect back-drop to dinner with talks around the environmental impact of our consumer lifestyles.

The event had a different atmosphere to most conferences and convergences that often preach to the choir, with those who played a part in making it happen as much in attendance, as outsiders. In fact everyone who attended had some connection to collaborators giving it a lovely, relaxed atmosphere that supported everyone’s pursuits and passions, and encouraged a cross-collaboration and pollination of ideas!

Thank you House of Devon and The Doodle Bar for hosting the event.. more like this please : )