Hyper Normal Cows

hyper normal cows

This picture is from the 19th century. At the time there was a trend to breed larger livestock and over-feed them, as the chap is doing in the picture, to produce excessively large cows. It has been suggested that this was for little more than as a status symbol, the bigger your cow the higher your status as a farmer. However they were not normal cows, they were not healthy cows and would have had obscenely high levels of fat.

One of the big televisual events of this week was the airing of George Monbiot’s “Apocalypse Cow” a documentary to raise awareness of the lack of sustainability of rearing cows for food, looking specifically at Britain. My social media has erupted yet again with farmers upset at seeming to be targeted as the bad guys. This perception is bolstered by aggression directed towards the farming community by those demanding sustainability, largely extremist vegans. In reality, this is a false perception, so it was disappointing that Mr Monbiot failed to ensure this was not the ‘take home message’ of the programme. I think it’s all to do with hypernormalisation.

As a man, I shave my face. When I started shaving I experimented with various methodologies and concluded that what worked best for me was wet shaving using a traditional brush and a soap block. However, over the years getting hold of reasonable quality block soap for shaving on the high street has become ever harder. Harder because most people who wet shave purchase cans to produce their shaving foam. This is surely an inferior way to shave for several reasons:

1/ the quality of the foam isn’t as good. 2/ It’s environmentally damaging as a single block of soap will last longer then several cans 3/ the cans are much more expensive.

It seems that most men are not making the optimal choice, particularly financially. This may because of marketing. I have never seen an advert for block shaving soap, but I have seen countless adverts for cans of shaving foam on the telly and in magazines as the only way to be a “Real Man”. The reason for that is likely because the soap makers  and the retailers make more money from selling multiple quantities of the more expensive cans. Use of cans is now regarded as the normal way to shave. The whole process of how society shifted to an inferior product is an example of hypernormalisation, normalisation of something that rationally is abnormal. Everyone kind of knows that this situation is bad, yet continue to buys cans of shaving foam. It is also partly this desire to conform, to not be the oddball who buys block soap like their ‘old-fashioned’ grandfathers did.

The conspiracy theorist in me has a theory about this. In most supermarkets, you are lucky if there is one shaving block soap. If there is only one it is usually Wilkinson Sword shaving soap, this has to be the worst shaving soap ever produced; it is very difficult to get a decent lather with it. Every other block soap brand produces a good lather.  Anyone who experiments with block shaving soap is likely to trial it with Wilkinson Sword soap, so they conclude that it’s a poor way to shave and go back to the cans. It is entirely possible that Wilkinson Sword simply produce poor soap to encourage people to buy canned foam to boost their profits. This is perhaps the inherent weakness of modern capitalism.

This hypernormalisation also happens with cows. Society has become accustomed to generally buying cheap, intensively produced meat through this process of hyper-normalisation. As household food budgets are squeezed, the idea of spending more to get sustainable local produce seems crazy, let alone the hassle of queuing at the butchers on a Saturday morning. There is the idea that it is only oddballs that obsess about only buying sustainable meat, have become vegans, or indeed do really mad stuff like learn to speak Welsh as an adult.

These conventions of habit and hypernormalised thinking need to change if humanity has any hope of averting the looming climate crisis. There was a very poignant example of this in Apocalypse Cow.

One segment of the programme involved Mr Monbiot visiting a pasture based cattle farm. Mr Monbiot was accusing the farmer of not being sustainable. The farmer was visibly upset by this accusation as hers was a traditional, extensive, pasture -based farm and she was carrying on the long proud tradition of cattle farming on that farm, how was she not one of the good guys? Mr Monbiot then delved further about the feed supplements that she used, which contained unsustainable palm oil. To feed her traditional cows she was playing a part in the destruction of primary forest to release land for production of palm oil. Hence, her farm was not as sustainable as she thought. She had believed that her farm was sustainable through hypernormalisation. Both the farmer, the shaver and everyone else are victims of hypernormalisation leading to unsustainable situations like the world is in now. Everyone else buys these sacks of animal feed, it is normalised.

These myths are so easily entrenched, most of us exist in these self-confirmatory social bubbles, telling us that we are the good guys and the baddies are elsewhere. The uncomfortable truth is that we are kind of all the bad guys when it comes to the environment, our intentions are good, but we have been misled through hypernormalisation. The vast majority of farms in Wales fail to achieve sustainability, even the hill farms I grew up around.

I’m currently reading John Davies’ ‘History of Wales and here are some quotations from the book:

“Welsh rural communities experienced greater changes in the thirty years following the Second World War than they had in the previous three hundred years. The key change was mechanisation… Between 1950 and 1970 the number of sheep in Wales increased from 3.8 million to 6 million, cows from 369,000 to 528,000 and a decrease in hectares under grain by 45%”

That is a substantial change. If we imagine the  practises of my grandfathers’ farms compared to them now the differences are substantial, but aren’t at first glance. I think it is reasonable to suggest that those farms were sustainable; they grew fruit, vegetables and grain for human consumption and as winter supplements for their herds, didn’t use pesticides and fertilisers as has now become normalised and probably had greater areas of the farm as nature refuges, such a trees and hedgerows, where the soils had time to recover from grazing, to get the nutrients back into the grasses. Those processes are likely now reduced due to modern practises, they may have passed a tipping point on many farms.

It can be understood that through these changes we have made Welsh farming unsustainable. We are losing biodiversity and the ecosystem services provided to keep the soils, plants and animals healthy and full of quality nutrients at a rapid rate. Where Wales is fortunate is that to develop sustainable agriculture should not involve major changes to our farms. Welsh farms can be sustainable with relatively minor changes to practises compared to much of world agriculture. We do kind of need to return to the ‘Child’s First Farm Book” with a pictures of cows and sheep, a couple of pig sties and chickens pecking around the farm yard, surrounded by abundant wild birds, because it it is mixed farms that are the most sustainable and productive.

My other criticism of Apocalypse cow was the suggestion that all of the UK under pasture can be rewilded and we can eat instead food from bacteria grown in vats. The problem with academics or ideas people is they ask the “What if?” questions. Attempting to answer those questions leads to some big useful numbers, so we can predict how much carbon is stored in the remaining parts of the Amazon rainforest. However this scientific, big picture thinking doesn’t break through very well to the general public, it doesn’t relate to our understood reality or the farm next door.

We may indeed as a species need to grow food in vats to get us through this environmental crisis. However we are still going to need some fresh fruit and veg and the most sustainable way of doing that is to also rear some animals on the land to facilitate nutrient cycles. It is often said we need to ‘Think global, act local” however this message makes it look here as though farming itself is to blame, rather than the broken system of capitalism at work that is responsible for all this hypernormalisation of unsustainable practises.

We are all the bad guys. We all know it’s wrong to buy so much plastic, so much food from the other side of the world and many of us non-farmers in the developed world drive to work. we kind of know this commuting is wrong, but we have to do it to have a job, we have little choice, so we can buy food to put on out tables and only have time to visit supermarkets in the evenings when the butchers is closed. Farmers are no more to blame than the rest of us, so we should not pick on farmers as being the bad guys here.

The real bad guys I suppose are the beneficiaries of our broken system of capitalism, the fat cats of big ag’, multi-national corporations and corrupt governments run by people far removed from the land and the everyday life for regular people. The people who allowed it to be decided that promoting cans of shaving foam, sourcing animal feed from primary forests was an okay idea and not tackling the housing crisis forcing so many of us to not live where we work.

So, how do we resolve all these problems? They are big and complicated and they are powerful vested interests in not changing them. I believe that what we need to do is work together, gather data, share ideas and best practise, and support those making an effort. What will hinder us is the divide and rule of the rich and powerful, who will set Farmer against Vegan , Brexitier against Remainer, Town against Countryside, Welsh against the English. If we can get beyond that and work together we can have a better quality, more sustainable quality of life, with wonderful productive farms with the highest animal welfare standards so that even those who believe it is morally wrong to rear animals for meat can accept those farms providing a service for those that don’t believe so.

We have to get beyond this black and white, good guys and bad guys, the reality is always more complicated.

The Good Guys and the Bad Guys

On a personal note, I think the best way to achieve this is stronger democracy and more local government by people who live in and understand our communities, from the bottom-up  rather than the top down. That is why I support Welsh independence.

 

 

 

Happy Veganuary/ Regenuary !

I’ve seen some slanging matches going on on Social Media, with Vegans and Livestock farmers spitting acid at each other. It’s so wrong and unnecessary, it really isn’t a black and white issue and in fact diverts energy from finding sustainable solutions. This whole argument of ‘you’re not perfect so why should I change my ways’ thing. None of us are perfect, but we desperately need to tackle climate change and that includes developing sustainable agriculture.

We should all be celebrating Veganuary, so Happy Veganuary folks. There are two main reasons. Firstly that vegans are doing a lot to help make living on this planet more sustainable  and for those thinking about transitioning to a vegan diet a month to try it and for support to be available is great. Secondly,  the vast majority of meat eaters, like 99.9% of people should substantially reduce their meat consumption. To do that people need to learn how to make vegan meals and that isn’t easy. Yes, we also need to cut out flying and using cars so much, but we all have to eat.

If, like me, you grew up in a traditional “meat and two veg'” home it is quite a transition. Most of my meals when growing up where meat based, so removing this central feature of meals is a challenge, it’s about finding combinations of tastes and textures to produce enjoyable vegan meals. From there comes a need to ensure a balanced diet and that involves quite a bit of knowledge about nutrition, that most people don’t have to start with. It takes a lot of effort.

Beyond that there is the social elements, where people disrespect your dietary choice and the fact that eating out with friends is always a pain in the arse, though it is a lot easier these days. People should not be attacking vegans for being pioneers in food sustainability as vegans do a lot more ethical shopping than most people do, even if occasionally the world isn’t perfect and they need to import soya beans from some rather unsustainable sources.

On the other hand, there are some from a more extremist angle who are activists who protest at farms and hassle farmers, but they are a minority and actually are symptoms of the main problem. The main problem being that since probably the Second World War, there has been a growing disconnect between food producers and consumers. Agriculture rapidly industrialised, without social consent for some of the developed practices  and we now live in world where the majority of people buy almost all their food pre-packaged in the supermarket, often with little idea about how that food got to be there.

Yet, these farm-gate protesters are also at fault. Farmers are not to blame for this whole mess. Most farmers care about the land they farm and want to farm in as sustainable way as possible. However they need to earn a living and to do that they have to do whatever the broken food market tells them to do, which has been to intensify, despite all the environmental damage that causes. Farmers, Vegans and the rest of us shouldn’t be fighting each other but instead work together to sort out the broken food market and support anyone who is taking things forward in a positive direction.

Recently, finally, at long last, we are starting to see some promotion of sustainable meat production. The problem is sustainable meat production has been neglected for so long and is so far behind the vegan movement, which has it’s own labelling systems, supply chains and support groups, which sustainable meat lacks.

I grew up in rural Wales, surrounded by upland sheep farms and yet became vegetarian at the age of 15, not because I thought the farmers who were my classmates were terrible people, they are certainly not. It was my discovery of factory farming and a realisation that this was simply wrong in animal welfare terms and sustainability and finding a way of only eating local sustainable meat seemed far to challenging to me at 15, so I went Veggie. I’ve never been vegan for more than a few days at a time (I just have a serious blue cheese fetish), but about fifteen years ago I decided to eat meat again, as I felt educated enough to make informed decisions about sustainable, ethical meat sourcing and it’s been incredibly hard work. I should point out that I’ve never thought that rearing animals for food is morally wrong, though I respect people who have that view. It may be that a lot of people are tempted to veganism because of concerns about animal welfare, health or sustainability and there is a sensible compromise to consider for these people who don’;t have the moral imperative to go 100% vegan, but it needs better support.

Yet with no ready made framework, no labelling system and no-where to go to for support. Purely to make my life easier, my initial rule was organic meat only as it was and regrettably still is the only reliable labelling system for ethical meat consumption. It means meat is very expensive, so you can’t eat much of it and really the price makes it a genuine sustainable market, rather than the generally broken food market.

From there I worked out when I could eat locally produced reasonably sustainable lamb and beef from butchers and very very occasionally get hold of a chicken. Why is eating sustainable meat important? Because if we want to maximise sustainability and look after the soil, which is degrading horribly in almost all agricultural systems, some livestock farming is sustainable and supports soil sustainability and low consumption of meat may actually be healthier. Recently there has been a growing awareness of how bad processed food is for us, yet fresh meat doesn’t seem to have such issues with it from a health point of view.

We are blessed in Wales with land that isn’t great for arable farming, but is great for ruminants, cows and sheep and to move to a fully sustainable system I don’t think there is a necessity for a single farmer to stop lamb or beef production or for such radical change that is needed elsewhere on the planet. However flocks may need to be a little smaller and the land managed in new ways (or a rediscovery of old ways). The food market is broken in much the same way the housing market is, we need to pay more for our food and less for our housing and in that way create a real food market and a real housing market, which maintains farming traditions, rural incomes and gets Wales to be sustainable.

It is crazy for people who eat meat every day to complain about vegans as that diet choice of everyday meat (and often processed meat at that) is far less sustainable. As I’ve said to get to sustainability, as a species we need to eat a lot more local, seasonal, sustainably produced food. Some have suggested having “Reganuary”, where sustainable regenerative agricultural practises are supported. Why not combine the two, start making vegan meals and then reward yourself with some local sustainably produced meat, that will actually taste a lot better and have more nutrients in it!

It’s just been so challenging over the years to be ‘holding the fence up’ with one wellie in a muddy field and a sandal in a vegan shop. I get so frustrated with vegans and farmers attacking each other when we need come together and share ideas to find solutions to create sustainable communities and ways of living that don’t wreck the one planet we live on.

Like so many arguments these days, we only hear from the people at the extremes, the livestock farmers and the rearing animals is wrong vegans, whilst the majority of people with no axe to grind struggle to get listened to ast all. This happens with the Brexit debate too.

Ethical meat and good things to come from Brexit

One of the consequences of the UK EU referendum, is that the Prime Minister, David Cameron, resigned leaving the government without any leadership on post-brexit and no brexit plan. Furthermore  the opposition Labour also choose this time to enter into their own leadership debate. This has left the confused divided UK with no clear idea how brexit is to proceed, so many of us have ended up speculating and talking about possible solutions, as I have done on this blog.

I kind of wanted to return to discussing more random things, but the real world is often hard to ignore. My most popular post on this blog has been about ethically sourced meat. I think the popularity of this post is due to it being a topic people are actually interested in and also that there is not a plethora of articles about this subject. It’s kind of a taboo subject, perhaps because the meat industry doesn’t really want people thinking about it’s practices, as it could hit it’s profits. However I think it is deeper than that as it is a topic that resonates with the issue of what it means to be human and how to morally live our lives.

In the last few weeks, I have heard from a lady whose friend read a book that convinced them to become vegan. She then read the first quarter of this book and chose to abandon it because she felt that if she did get to the end she would also become vegan and she didn’t like the idea of stopping eating meat. I was also in conversation with a gentleman in the pub who said he hated the idea of thinking about eating animals though he ate meat regularly, that he hated being given fish to eat with the head still attached as he didn’t like seeing it’s eyes. He eats meat but prevents himself from thinking about it.

Perhaps generally, people do not like the idea of radically changing their lifestyle. Becoming an ethical meat eater, a vegetarian (veggie) or a vegan is not easy. Taking this plunge means you need to think carefully about what you can and cannot buy and re-arranage the balance of meals. Eating out becomes a chore, unless our are lucky enough to be going to a vegan restaurant. In the UK, we are lucky that every restaurant does cater for veggies, but usually the offerings are tired and bland and not worth the price tag, you could make something tastier at home for a lot less money. Nonetheless sometimes we are go along to social eating events with no appetite for enjoying the food.

Last weekend I was in another discussion about a post-brexit Britian; it is even getting tedious for political anoraks like me. An interesting question was asked to everyone: Name one positive thing that can be achieved post-brexit. My answer was agriculture.

Basically, being in the EU, our agricultural industry is subject the rules and subsidies of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The problem with this is that it is an example of a ‘one size fits all’, with the idea of that all farming in the EU is subject to the same rules, so no region can change it’s rules to create a competitive advantage. This is a problem as there is a lot of diversity in agricultural production across Europe and this common policy inevitably  advantages some forms agriculture over others anyway. Indeed, one of the major criticisms of the EU is that it’s regulatory systems and associated compliance (red-tape) tend to favour larger businesses as smaller businesses spend a greater proportion of their time in coping with compliance. So, the benefit of leaving the EU, means we would no longer be subject to the CAP. Then more sustainable, better systems can be implemented, ideally reducing farming subsidies and making agriculture profitable without subsidy.

There is a big issue with this, which is why so many ‘Remainers’ fear brexit. It’s all very well to have the potential to create better systems, but the likelihood with the  defunct political system of the UK, that we would more likely end up with a system that is even worse than the CAP. That instead of Brexit benefiting small and medium enterprises, we may end up with systems that further advantage large businesses.

What is wrong with large businesses? In agriculture, big specialised, industrial farms are favoured and supported by large subsidies, whilst small family farms receive much less subsidy, particularly upland farms of Wales. Welsh hill farms, produce a fantastic product, Lamb, however it is not marketed well; I was told this week that most of the lamb sold in California comes from New Zealand, even when it’s not in season, yuck! Hopefully the Welsh government will take over Welsh agricultural policy and rectify these problems, because I doubt the UK government will do so. In terms of sustainability, large scale agriculture is costly, it isn’t actually more efficient.

Organisations such as the National Farmers Union (NFU) do not like the idea of product differentiation (so you can know how and where food was produced), for example free range milk, most UK agricultural produce is not labelled to tell you where and how it was produced. In UK shops, you just buy ‘British milk’ without any idea how or where the cows were, or even if it’s British at all (as country of origin labels can be applied if only one stage of production occurred in that country). This lack of consumer choice favours the big industrial producers, the consumer does not have a choice between free range and industrially produced milk, there is no true market in milk in the UK.

My answer to the question of how to ethically source meat is simply buy locally from small producers and usually via a traditional Butchers shop (if you are lucky enough to still have one!). There are many advantages to doing this: The food will generally be tastier and of higher quality. It is likely to have been ethically produced and you can ask about this, because even though there is no label, the butcher will know which farm it came from and they  will want to keep your business; it also means purchasing food involves talking to a human being rather than a computer, which is preferable! It will be more sustainable, both in production and in having vastly reduced packaging and have far fewer food miles from an efficient local distribution system.

The other good thing to come from Brexit, is increased political discussion and a realisation of how messy distribution systems are. Industrialisation has done many great things: We can drive cars, have computers and order stuff from all around the world. However it seems we have reached a point where people try and industrialise everything, even when there is no societal advantage of doing so or efficiency advantage.

 

Fear of Ideas

All people fear new ideas to some extent, a fear of change and the unfamiliar.  Such fears are natural, but often embracing new ideas or ways of thinking can be immensely positive. The familiar, the status quo, seems safe, so why even consider change? Well, sometimes the status quo is bad for people as individuals and wider society. sometimes it is easy to forget that everything is a journey, we can take small cautious steps, we can always turn and go back or in a different direction. Such a steady cautious approach is safe, rather than leaping crazily across to another place, a place that is strange and unknown. Accepting new ideas doesn’t change who you are but can make you a better person, just take small firm steps.

I have written much on this blog about my overcoming anxiety. Making such a change was scary, there was a fear of my personality changing, a change in my values, a change in how I think. I think this was why I rejected, like many other anxious people, the calls of people to just let go of yourself or to just not be anxious, this is taking that giant leap into the unknown. Better advice to the anxious is to take cautious steps, allow people to reflect that the direction they are going in is one they are happy with.

This process of change, of alleviating fear, occurs in many areas of life and realising this, has helped me understand why other people are cautious of other ideas. For example, my becoming a Christian.  When I was young, I lived in a traditional Christian community in rural Wales. My generation were highly sceptical of religion, we regarded it as a load of nonsense. We regarded religion as scary irrationality. Growing up there seemed to be this maniacal street preachers, evangelicals waving their arms around as if possessed by spirit, a seemingly very conservative culture that stifled innovative ideas. Then one day i was exposed to the joy and wonderful music of renaissance polyphony and the choral works of J.S. Bach, this music helped me understand some of the core ideas of Christianity, that they were good, open ideas, that the complexity and suffering of human existence, could be understood as a whole, that it was okay to accept this and that doing things to make the world a better place was a righteous thing to do.. This music led me onto a journey of discovery of the Christian faith and along the way I became a Christian. Becoming a Christian was not scary, it didn’t change how I am, or my other beliefs, it simply helped me become a better person. It has helped me appreciate that there are no easy answers, no single mantra to base your life on, that faith, like anything else is a journey.

Another issue, I am passionate about and  often write about is food. I became a vegetarian at the age of 15 because I became aware that many animals reared for the meat I ate were kept in inside with restricted space, this seemed cruel and wrong on animal welfare grounds. I now ethically source meat, I don’t believe it is wrong to rear animals for meat, but in rearing animals there is a contract that the animals should have a reasonable quality of life and be able to express natural behaviours. What I have come to realise is that there is a wonderful synergy that can be achieved with animals welfare, sustainably looking after agricultural land and the wider environment, sound economics, healthy food and a greater enjoyment in eating. Though it seems there is a fear of changing diet and shopping habits, even with such positive outcomes. Though i appreciate I arrived at this synergy by taking slow steps and consideration of each step. I used to fear that having high animal welfare standards may mean that it was not possible to feed all the humans on the planet by farming in such a way and may cause environmental damage. I was so pleased to realise that this isn’t the case, positive change benefits other areas. My message on food is that only eating meat as a treat and not everyday is healthier, cheaper, more sustainable and maintains animal welfare. Meat from animals that can range freely and are fed in a sustainable way, develops muscle, which makes the meat tastier and increases nutrients in the meat, making it healthier for the animals and the consumers. Rearing animals, working with nature, rather than against it, not only seems better, it is also better economically. So, I would encourage people to ethically source meat and save money by cutting out eating low quality meat in every meal, ultimately it’s cheaper and more enjoyable.

I think the idea of being open to new ideas and ways of being is so important, to better ourselves individually and wider society. However it is important to journey slowly and carefully, keeping our feet firmly on the ground as we do so.

This is why I was upset by the words of Donald Trump this week. Often politicians and other orators need to be regarded cautiously, they appeal to core conventional beliefs of a culture, then can take great leaps into the unknown, without questioning, without scrutiny. using Trump as an example, he states that there is a fear in Western societies of terrorism and in this most people will agree. However then Trump leaps onto blaming Muslims moving into the US as part of the problem, when there is no rational basis for this belief, it simply plays on fear and encourages fear, when fear is the actually the enemy. If Trump was a great expert on the history and politics of the Middle-East, then he may be worth listening to, however Trump himself has stated that he knows little of the history or politics of the Muslim world, thus he is not qualified to make meaningful comment. We are perhaps fortunate in Wales to have a significant Muslim population, there are a part of our communities, our workplaces, so it is clear that they are as decent people as any other sub group. The knowledge that the family down the street are ordinary decent people and are not secretly plotting the overthrow of civilisation, to think that they were would be extreme paranoia. However where there isn’t a normal family living in your locale it is much easier to play on the fears of the unknown.

Ethically Sourced Meat

I was a vegetarian for 15 years because of concerns over animal welfare and my inability to ethically source meat as a teenager. Having lost an argument over dairy products (I was being inconsistent), I decided to take up ethically sourcing meat and dairy products and became mostly vegetarian. I often explain my position to people and often people find my position appealing, they then ask ‘Is it easy?’ to which the answer is sadly ‘no’. Ethically sourced meat is basically meat from animals that have been reared in a traditional manner, where animals can express natural behaviours, generally grazing outside during the warmer months.

Ethically sourcing meat isn’t easy for two reasons. Firstly there is a lack of a clear labelling system. In the UK food labeling is a bewildering array of labels and standards, whether publically regulated (state level) or independently regulated (where you have to trust the labeling body). The second issue is a lack of direct connection between the consumer and the farmer, it is difficult as an individual consumer to monitor welfare levels at each farm, hence the need for labeling). Basically it all comes down to trusting the source

So, my solution has been to take a precautionary principle, sources of meat are investigated and then personally approved. Then the products have to pass a more important second test, this is a visual test of the meat itself, as free range meat looks and tastes differently to intensively produced meat. This second test involves identifying the quality of the meat by the presence of marbling (deposits of fat in the muscle which is indicative of an active life) and colour (active muscles are generally a darker hue), these qualities are then confirmed by the taste test.

My system is actually fairly inefficient, as I have to invest time and effort when sourcing meat products. Indeed, occasionally i consider going vegan for a simpler life! Really a proper labeling system would be more efficient, instead of every individual consumer conducting investigations, a single body can do the job for everyone, which would be much more economically efficient.

The system sometimes fails due to geography. In rural areas it works fairly easily, as relationships are built up with suppliers such as local butchers and other independent stores, who can state where and how the meat was reared and it is possible to check up on claims, so trust is established. In urban areas it gets a lot more complicated, as any followers i may have are aware, I was living recently in an urban area of Southern England, which had no local butcher shops and only supermarkets were available within convenient shopping distance for a weekly shop. what happened was that my meat consumption dropped to barely one meat containing meal a week. The issue was that the supermarkets only had a very limited range of ethically sourced meat and generally charged a very high premium for it. I could have ordered meat online, but being available for delivery of  a refrigerated product was overly burdensome.

What it is is that the British public do tend to want ethically sourced meat, but are constrained from doing so, by the post-industrial way our society is organised. Since free-range eggs have been labelled and regulated  consumption has increased from 2% to over 50%, the demand is there. Economic efficiencies of scale enable urban living and diversity of industry, yet with meat the industry has developed without popular consent for welfare standards and to have industrial efficiency in meat production and distribution requires labelling. Sadly the state, the UK and EU governments have failed to develop a comprehensive food labelling system that the consumer can trust. This lack of economies of scale hits farmers, where farmers do produce a high welfare, sustainable and tasty product, as individual small businesses, it is very difficult to get their produce to the the market for higher quality produce. Local farmers to me, sell on their high quality product in the same way as producers of low quality produce, because once the animals are sold at market, the high quality status is lost into the vast pool of meat that goes off for export to England and beyond.

Another question to address is will a comprehensive labeling system ever come about? There is a desire from politicians in both the Welsh, UK and EU government to implement a system. However, there are hurdles in place caused by international trade laws and there is potential under the proposed TTIP trade treaty for this process to become more difficult. Far from promoting free trade, these international laws stifle free trade by blocking regulatory systems, as states cannot breach these laws by implementing ‘non-tariff barriers’, by which having a local labeling system is difficult as it favours local businesses over foreign ones who can’t readily buy into the labeling system. Potentially TTIP will require a common labeling system to cover all of the EU and all of North America, it may take a very long time, if ever to reach a consensual agreement.

So, potentially, this leaves the consumer to regulate themselves, develop individual relationships with producers. This seems to be a failure of laissez-faire capitalism, where once economies of scale were thought to come from increased international trade, these economies are actually prevented by the system itself as consumers increasingly resort to local level solutions, rather than industrial solutions. It seems that no longer can individuals trust their local state democratic apparatus to regulate markets and thus free up there time to be more economically productive, there is no longer perhaps a ‘once size fits all’ approach, everyone has to do everything themselves, it does increasingly feel like it!

Proper Milk and Happy Farmers!

Cows-skipping

At last, an opportunity to celebrate and promote good news! I may come across as some weirdo milk obsessive (not that this isn’t entirely untrue), my grandfather did grow up on a dairy farm in Carmarthenshire, so I have a connection to dairy farming, (milk is in my blood <sic>).  I have despaired about modern society rejecting the value of good quality produce. A new dairy initiative has been set up to promote and distribute traditionally produced milk from cows that graze on grass (as indeed they should), check out  and look out for freerangedairy.org.

So, why am I so excited about this? I have been saddened as small dairy producers have fallen by the wayside as the supermarkets demand lower and lower unsustainable farm gate prices for milk. The mega-dairies have arose with cows never seeing the light of day in giant factory farms. I have found this particularly annoying, as such production methods are not as sustainable, or even efficient as pasture based systems. Basically more labour is involved in looking after the cows and harvesting grasses (or worse grain) to bring in to feed the cows, this system is really inefficient though economically cheaper only because of a distorted market.

I only buy organic milk. Well almost… not all of the cheese I buy contains organic milk, I love cheese and I wish I had better access to decent cheese made with sustainable milk,  cheese it the one compromise I make in ethically sourcing food. I digress, like intensive chicken meat, organic milk makes up 2-3% of the market in the UK currently. It has always puzzled me why free-range eggs make up >50% of the market and not chicken. I remember seeing in the supermarket a ready meal containing intensive chicken, and the label was promoting the fact that the sauce contained free-range eggs, did no-one else see the irony?

Perhaps the reason for this is simply price. People will happily pay a few pennies more for ethically sourced eggs, but not a few pounds more for a free-range chicken. Conscience, it seems, does have a price for the majority of people. So, I’m excited by this new scheme as without having to jump through the expensive hoops to certify as organic, free-range milk will only be a few pennies more than intensive milk, it can win, our environment need not be blighted by ugly smelly mega dairies.

Another thing that has frustrated me is that the family farms of upland Wales, the area where I grew up and the area I call home, are relatively poorer than farmers elsewhere in the UK. Basically because the land is less productive, however they produce a superior product in free range lamb, yet have often been unable to command a superior price for their superior product. I may be bias but i think it is true that Welsh lamb is sweeter and more flavoursome than lowland English or New Zealand lamb. Actually, the best lamb I have ever tasted came from Scotland (and it does pain my Welsh heart to say that).

Also recently, I’ve discovered a way to describe my food requirements in a way that doesn’t offend people but makes clear what to offer me. I am ‘mostly vegetarian’. The phrase is apparently widely used in India to describe Hindus who aren’t entirely strict with their vegetarian diet, yet haven’t entirely abandoned the traditional Hindu diet. The phrase ‘mostly vegetarian’ works to describe people like me who only eat free-range, traditionally produced meat products as an occasional treat (due to pricing). No longer will I have to explain myself in restaurants for taking the veggie option, then chomping through a rare steak of lovely Welsh beef at home. Basically I have often had a hard time explaining to people that I don’t eat intensive meat and some homes I’ve visited have been offended by this, so I’ve longed for a way to describe it.

I wish this scheme every success, and hopefully someone will read this and buy a pint of proper free-range milk?

Fighting Against Evil Supermarket Bread

I love bread! I love making it, baking it, the smell of it, eating it and spreading it with jam! It is the most wondrous stuff and the staple of European food. To an outside observer it would seem that the British in general have ended their love affair with bread. The story is a rather middle-class first world problem, but also illustrative of creeping value loss.

I was lucky to grown up in a small rural town, isolated from the early wave of the supermarket takeover of the British high street. The town had a bakers shop, mainly baking bread for the townsfolk and local businesses such as hotels and restaurants. We had several butchers shops, a fishmonger at the weekly market and several greengrocers. We also had a local independent supermarket , which sold one of everything, basically all dry goods, it even had a cheese counter. Shopping meant walking from shop to shop to purchase your provisions.

Nowadays the town has a rather poor chain baker, is very fortunate to have retained a butcher and convenience shops (which are basically only good for alcohol and snacks). There is a huge supermarket, 7 miles away in the next town, a drive or a bus journey. Time wise, weekly shopping now actually takes much longer. How did this happen? How is the only way of getting a decent loaf of bread to travel 7 miles to buy flour and bake it yourself, indicative of a more modern efficient society?

Supermarkets came about as they offered a more efficient distribution network, offering lower prices, more choice and exotic goods. There were supermarkets in the big cities first. My family used to drive to the city (a three hour round trip) once a month or so, for shopping: books, LPs, clothing and anything else we desired. On the way back we would visit the supermarket to stock up for the month on dry goods, such as rice, as this was much cheaper and to be able to buy foods we couldn’t get at home.

Most people in the town did this kind of shopping (in those pre-internet times). This did impact on the local shops. However the bakers survived as, fresh still warm bread is something very special, to be picked up from the local shop and delivered to the breakfast table. As time passed, local bakers declined. The supermarkets sold the soggy crappy ‘Chorleywood’ sliced, plastic bag bread, only good for toast, at rock bottom prices. So people bought this cheap crap and didn’t eat as much of it, instead people ate more and more of the other things the supermarket provided to replace bread (which they made more profits on),  bread declined. Occasionally people missed fresh bread, the supermarkets provided ‘in-store bakerys’, producing bread any real baker would be ashamed of. However, this made those who only used a supermarket to think that this was what real bread tasted like, it was no longer seen as something very special.

The supermarkets won and killed off real bread as an everyday staple. Bread is now seen as an artisan, luxury product, and often priced accordingly. This is very sad. Many place the blame on the ‘evil’ supermarkets, exploiting the British consumer. This is a rather reactionary view and is indicative of how extremist views can arise, whether they be on bread, meat-eating, political creed or religion. A blame culture, blaming others for a failure to act responsibly. Are the supermarket bosses really that evil, do they drink the tears of virgins with glee?

No. The supermarkets have simply followed the path of maximizing their own profits, without regard for their impact on society. The town planning system failed in holding back their growth.  They are not evil in the sense that they set out to destroy peoples enjoyment of bread,  A consequence of this is loss of bread and a loss of appreciation of the value of various foodstuffs. People are not evil, they simply follow convention and seek cheap food. This explains why bread demised, why the disgusting factory farming of animals proliferated, why people vote for political parties that superficially make the right noises.

Those of us who have invested the time to research, investigate and think have understood this. but the majority don’t. So, for those who understand, can see the situation as one where people just need to be told the truth, to be educated and they will form the same conclusions as these early seers. However, the majority appear not to listen to this vocal minority. They don’t listen because surely a minority of wierdos can’t be right, they must be extremists. So, all these dedicated minorities become tarred with the extremist label, whether they be religious converts, animal rights activists or political activists. The minorities respond by becoming exasperated, so shout louder and sometimes start acting immorally themselves ‘for the greater good’. Moral principle is lost, as well as access to a decent loaf of bread.

Corporate culture has killed off many things precious to ordinary folk. Not because pursuing a profit or greater efficiency is evil, but by taking the idea too far, without control, trying to be all encompassing. It is often heard that people don’t have the time to enjoy kneading there own loaf of bread, yet people have the time to sit for hours everyday in a traffic jam on the way to work and queue in the supermarket. It is very curious indeed how people don’t seem to take responsibility for there own lifestyles anymore in this ‘need’ to comply with contemporary economic theory.

Personality Spectra

Throughout this blog I have often touched upon my pet theory of personality spectra. The theory that peoples personalities and opinions exist on a multitude of various spectra. Sometimes I imagine that these spectra have distributions, that there may be a common or indeed universal distribution; whether flat, normal or exhibiting extreme bias.

I have a waryness of extremes. Because extreme views or positions are perhaps unhealthy and stem from taking an idea to ludicrous conclusions. However adopting extreme positions are often easier and logically easier to defend. I generally advocate balance and not being focussing too much on one thing, being a generalist and open to ideas form all over the place.

Two spectra, that I have discussed are animal welfare and sexuality. I have argued that there is a clustering of views on animal welfare at the extremes. For example, no rearing of animals, the vegan position. I have also argued that this clustering is easier. To believe, as i do that rearing animals for food is acceptable if certain animal welfare conditions are met. This is often hard to define and apply consistently in a world that doesn’t readily provide information on welfare criteria. You do feel, neither one thing or another and find few fellow advocates of your own personal stance.

If, the same logic is applied to sexuality, a similar pattern emerges. People generally cluster as either homo or heterosexuals. I have often thought that there should be more bisexuals than there seem to be. Perhaps bisexuals are those really close to the centre of this distribution. Perhaps we are all bisexuals, but during our individual exploration and development of our sexualities,we simply find it easier to adopt a one or the other approach.

I identify as heterosexual. Nonetheless i do experience the odd occasional ‘man-crush’. What is a ‘man crush’? I admire and respect various men and women without any sexual attraction, that isn’t it, though it is often associated with it. It’s not that I desire a relationship of any kind with my crushes. I think it is simply a mild form of attraction. Maybe, if I let myself loose of my personal rules and regulations, lived a completely free existence, I would have the odd rare relationship with a man. I don’t though, probably because, socially, it would be awkward and the chances of reciprocation slim indeed. Maybe such things are not worth the effort of pursuing. The decision to be rigidly heterosexual stems from a  simple cost-benefit analysis.

So, do these spectra have a three hump distribution? the two extreme ends and a bump in the middle? Obviously to test this fully, a large data set would; be required, for now I’ll explore a ‘random’ spectra. Abnegation to Selfishness. On such a spectra I would be a centrist, i believe it is important to help other people and society in general, however I need my own space and my own ideas (I am an introvert after all), so a balance is what I seek. There would be some extreme clustering, there are entirely selfless and entirely selfish people, perhaps more than I imagine. Again, there is the suggestion that the extremes are unhealthy? So, yes a three humped distribution again. This idea does require further analysis.

A furry generation

In the news today was an article on the resurgence of people buying fur coats in Britain. I was surprised by this as in the 1980s and 1990s there were massive campaigns against this cruel, abominable trade. New fur clothing became taboo, the animal welfare argument in this arena had seemed to have been won, only for the issue to come around again,  Why?

The article was published in a British newspaper, which contained a lengthy comments section which was filled with criticism of this phenomenon on animal welfare grounds. The comments section was later taken over by trolls. Internet trolls have been around since the early days of the internet, I’ve never quite seen the point of deliberately creating arguments and seeking to rile people up, when this surely has a negative effect on the trolls well being.

In the comments section, there was also genuine debate. Having dabbled on internet forums, these are often places where much misunderstanding occurs anyway, even without the trolls. I think that this is due to people not knowing the background of the commentators and many false assumptions are made. Perhaps especially in a generally British forum where sarcasm levels run very high, which is harder to detect in a solely written format. These misunderstandings are perhaps due to different positions on spectra.

The spectra of opinions on animals welfare are perhaps much like any other spectra. You have the two extreme ends, with small but passionate minorities: Those that believe all farming of animals is wrong and those that support all animal farming with no regard for animal welfare. Both of these extreme positions are coherent and defensible as creeds and you can respect adherents for the moral consistency. However the majority of people, probably, like myself, lie somewhere in between. Unlike a normal bell curve distribution, there are peaks at the two extremes. So when those in between people debate without knowing each other misconceptions arise. It seems that people adopt lifestyle positions without researching the facts, how they act and what they believe become different, which is much harder to defend in an argument.

In the case of fur, it has many similarities with the meat and dairy trade. There is traditional hunting of animals for their pelts to provide clothing for those who live at high latitudes, from sustainable populations of prey animals. I personally approve of this, but with the wildernesses of Russia, Canada, Scandinavia and invasive possums in New Zealand, it cannot provide enough fur to satisfy the demands of the world fashion market. Fake fur has been developed, so this should be the mainstay of the market. Fur lasts a long time, so I think vintage fur clothing can be re-sold. What I strongly object to is the intensive farming of animals for their pelts, in cages where often the animals can’t even turn around. The issue is that the farmed fur trade is very much near the extreme end of low animal welfare and one the vast majority generally find unacceptable.

A difficulty for my position is distinguishing ethically sourced fur from the cruel stuff, again much like the meat and dairy sector. This was the argument in the 80s and 90s; As you couldn’t source the fur, you had no idea if people were openly supporting cruelty to animals or not, so the argument ran that it was better not to wear real fur at all, rather than risk offense.

Some would argue that it is simply the fashion industry. This being the industry that profits from people buying more clothes than they need, made affordable to those in the Western world by being manufactured in sweat shop factories, akin to the Victorian mills of the industrial revolution in the 19th century. Has models who are unhealthily thin to be coat hangers and tell young women that making yourself thin is somehow acceptable. This is one of the reasons I’ve never really been into fashion and happy to wear somewhat raggedy clothes on an everyday basis. Really, I don’t understand why there aren’t more charity shops for exchange of clothes, as much fashion clothing is often only worn a couple of times. Being a chap, my choice in charity/ vintage cloth shops is relatively poor.

is it perhaps a generational thing. I wouldn’t suggest that the younger generation are less moral, but maybe how morality is expressed has changed. I am often disappointed with my generation in failing to achieve all that much progress in moral issues against corporate power. However what my generation did perhaps achieve was the acceptance of individuality. My generation cherish individuality, the freedom to pursue our dreams and to be ourselves. Listening to people in their late teens and early 20s, I am so impressed with their acceptance of other peoples sexuality and diversity of lifestyles, they seem to feel less obliged to do things they don’t want to. To some extent this only came about because my generations challenged traditional views and those people that rigidly adhered to them.

Perhaps this individuality has been taken to an extreme beyond the motivation behind it’s development.  my generation did view the world as a society, there was a feeling that we wanted to make the world a better place, here we failed.The younger generation have come to accept more that the world/ corporate power can’t be changed. There is less a sense of the possibility of the mass of the democratic public simply saying no to something in sufficient numbers with enough vigour to bring it about. That people feel that there is no longer a society to look after if you are able, a sense of local and international community. That one can perhaps only act at an individual level or within a peer group. Hence, whilst there may be as much despair at people wearing fur, people are perhaps less willing to challenge people who wear it. With the powers that be, monitoring us all on the internet and in our daily lives with CCTV, everyone is perhaps too afraid to challenge immorality.

What happens if no-one challenges immorality, if there is no cost to anti-social behaviour. I believe in animal welfare because I believe how people treat other sentient beings reflects on how we treat each other. It is only a small step between keeping an animal in a cage to having no qualms about a child being injured whilst working for a pittance in a factory on the other side of the world. Isn’t it time society stood up again for something? Fashion should be about fun, style and looking good, not draping yourself in the skins of mistreated animals.

Meaty Intolerance

Sometimes, I find it a challenge to be tolerant of people who are intolerant of vegetarians. Particularly such arguments as: Humans are omnivores, it’s ‘natural’ to eat meat. These arguments smack of the highest hypocrisy as the implication is that industrial intensive farming, rearing animals in cages on high growth diets is somehow ‘natural’, it isn’t, To many it’s intolerable. Yet veggies are labeled as being awkward people.

I grew up in rural Wales, in a community of small family farms, rearing animals in a traditional free range way. When I was fifteen I discovered that much of the meat I was eating was from intensive factory farming. I found this intolerable and became a vegetarian. Many years later I felt able to ethically source free range meat. This means I now eat meat once, maybe twice a week. Actually the traditional pre-industrial diet.

It annoys me sometimes that people still regard me as ‘awkward squad’ as I don’t eat meat at restaurants. when I first meet people I identify as practically vegetarian to not cause offense, until people get to know me better. The thing is that when I explain my food preferences to people, or expose urban people to the reality of food production, they tend to agree with me, but don’t act. Two reasons are often given:

1/ It’s too expensive. Well yes, but you don’t have to eat meat in every meal, meat should be a treat, not an everyday thing. It seems people are not prepared to make the changes in how they shop or cook.

2/ It’s too difficult to ethically source meat. This is true for the majority of places in the U.K. But if no-one doers this, there is no market pressure put on food production systems, so abuses of animals welfare perpetuate.

Really, it comes across to me, that people are intolerant of vegetarians yet when forced to think about it  they agree, but are simply not prepared to follow through on these convictions. I appreciate how how odd it is to go to a supermarket and ignore the vast majority of the meat section and all the products containing meat, to be lumbered with feeling an irritating sense of superiority in such stores, to feel like an outsider. But really, there is nothing wrong with being right, honest with yourself and true to your convictions. Being not true to yourself to support industries you find intolerable, is to me one of worst ways of living.