mama and baby hippo swim

December 19, 2008


I swear that despite this photo and this post, I don’t have a hippo thing going. But this series of photos of Berlin Zoo’s latest addition taught me more than I ever knew about how these creatures make their appearance on earth. This three-week old baby is not as stuffed-toy cute as Knut was, but then again that did all end very sadly.

What I learnt:

Weighing in at 40kg, the baby hippopotamus swims alongside her mother, Kathi. The calf is Kathi’s second baby and the first hippo to be born at Berlin Zoo in three years. Female hippos reach sexual maturity at five to six years old and have a gestation period of eight months. Baby hippos are born underwater and must swim to the surface to take their first breath. Calfs rest on their mother’s back when in deep water and swim underwater to suckle.

climate change refugees

September 28, 2008

The Guardian ran a fascinating article on who they claim to be the world’s first climate change refugees (even though Sarah Palin doesn’t seem much convinced). Certainly the Yup’ik Eskimos of Alaska are losing their village to the sea, due to the disappearance of the foundation permafrost.

Their remoteness is only apparent, having had contact, over the years, with Russians, missionaries and bureaucrats. Their culture adapted in response but remains their own, as shown in this unique photo reportage by Brian Adams. Such as Lucy, seen above after hanging her clothes out to dry in the wind-swept landscape.


April 15, 2008

Here’s something else to toss into the great organic food-biofuels-poverty debate. That’s a lot of issues all in one, but that’s exactly the kind of joined-up thinking we need to be aiming for more than ever before.

A food recession is under way. Biofuels are a crime against humanity, but – take it from a flesh eater – flesh eating is worse.

by George Monbiot, The Guardian, Tuesday April 15th 2008

Never mind the economic crisis. Focus for a moment on a more urgent threat: the great food recession that is sweeping the world faster than the credit crunch. You have probably seen the figures by now: the price of rice has risen by three-quarters over the past year, that of wheat by 130%. There are food crises in 37 countries. One hundred million people, according to the World Bank, could be pushed into deeper poverty by the high prices.

But I bet that you have missed the most telling statistic. At 2.1bn tonnes, the global grain harvest broke all records last year – it beat the previous year’s by almost 5%. The crisis, in other words, has begun before world food supplies are hit by climate change. If hunger can strike now, what will happen if harvests decline?

There is plenty of food. It is just not reaching human stomachs. Of the 2.13bn tonnes likely to be consumed this year, only 1.01bn, according to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, will feed people.

I am sorely tempted to write another column about biofuels. From this morning all sellers of transport fuel in the United Kingdom will be obliged to mix it with ethanol or biodiesel made from crops. The World Bank points out that “the grain required to fill the tank of a sports utility vehicle with ethanol … could feed one person for a year”. This year global stockpiles of cereals will decline by around 53m tonnes; this gives you a rough idea of the size of the hunger gap. The production of biofuels will consume almost 100m tonnes, which suggests that they are directly responsible for the current crisis.

On these pages yesterday Ruth Kelly, the secretary of state for transport, promised that “if we need to adjust policy in the light of new evidence, we will”. What new evidence does she require? In the midst of a global humanitarian crisis, we have just become legally obliged to use food as fuel. It is a crime against humanity, in which every driver in this country has been forced to participate.

But I have been saying this for four years, and I am boring myself. Of course we must demand that our governments scrap the rules that turn grain into the fastest food of all. But there is a bigger reason for global hunger, which is attracting less attention only because it has been there for longer. While 100m tonnes of food will be diverted this year to feed cars, 760m tonnes will be snatched from the mouths of humans to feed animals – which could cover the global food deficit 14 times. If you care about hunger, eat less meat.

While meat consumption is booming in Asia and Latin America, in the UK it has scarcely changed since the government started gathering data in 1974. At just over 1kg per person per week, it’s still about 40% above the global average, though less than half the amount consumed in the United States. We eat less beef and more chicken than we did 30 years ago, which means a smaller total impact. Beef cattle eat about 8kg of grain or meal for every kilogram of flesh they produce; a kilogram of chicken needs just 2kg of feed. Even so, our consumption rate is plainly unsustainable.

In his magazine The Land, Simon Fairlie has updated the figures produced 30 years ago in Kenneth Mellanby’s book Can Britain Feed Itself? Fairlie found that a vegan diet produced by means of conventional agriculture would require only 3m hectares of arable land (around half Britain’s current total). Even if we reduced our consumption of meat by half, a mixed farming system would need 4.4m hectares of arable fields and 6.4 million hectares of pasture. A vegan Britain could make a massive contribution to global food stocks.

But I cannot advocate a diet that I am incapable of following. I tried it for about 18 months, lost two stone, went as white as bone and felt that I was losing my mind. I know a few healthy-looking vegans, and I admire them immensely. But after almost every talk that I give, I am pestered by swarms of vegans demanding that I adopt their lifestyle. I cannot help noticing that in most cases their skin has turned a fascinating pearl grey.

What level of meat-eating would be sustainable? One approach is to work out how great a cut would be needed to accommodate the growth in human numbers. The UN expects the population to rise to 9 billion by 2050. These extra people will require another 325m tonnes of grain. Let us assume, perhaps generously, that politicians such as Ruth Kelly are able to “adjust policy in the light of new evidence” and stop turning food into fuel. Let us pretend that improvements in plant breeding can keep pace with the deficits caused by climate change. We would need to find an extra 225m tonnes of grain. This leaves 531m tonnes for livestock production, which suggests a sustainable consumption level for meat and milk some 30% below the current world rate. This means 420g of meat per person per week, or about 40% of the UK’s average consumption.

This estimate is complicated by several factors. If we eat less meat we must eat more plant protein, which means taking more land away from animals. On the other hand, some livestock is raised on pasture, so it doesn’t contribute to the grain deficit. Simon Fairlie estimates that if animals were kept only on land that is unsuitable for arable farming, and given scraps and waste from food processing, the world could produce between a third and two-thirds of its current milk and meat supply. But this system then runs into a different problem. The Food and Agriculture Organisation calculates that animal keeping is responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions. The environmental impacts are especially grave in places where livestock graze freely. The only reasonable answer to the question of how much meat we should eat is as little as possible. Let’s reserve it – as most societies have done until recently – for special occasions.

For both environmental and humanitarian reasons, beef is out. Pigs and chickens feed more efficiently, but unless they are free range you encounter another ethical issue: the monstrous conditions in which they are kept. I would like to encourage people to start eating tilapia instead of meat. This is a freshwater fish that can be raised entirely on vegetable matter and has the best conversion efficiency – about 1.6kg of feed for 1kg of meat – of any farmed animal. Until meat can be grown in flasks, this is about as close as we are likely to come to sustainable flesh-eating.

Re-reading this article, I see that there is something surreal about it. While half the world wonders whether it will eat at all, I am pondering which of our endless choices we should take. Here the price of food barely registers. Our shops are better stocked than ever before. We perceive the global food crisis dimly, if at all. It is hard to understand how two such different food economies could occupy the same planet, until you realise that they feed off each other.

which way to extinction?

April 14, 2008

What happens when you are a bird species that needs to migrate and mate to survive, but you hate flying and have no sense of direction? It’s not even a joke to the poor bald ibis…

Bernhard Warner, The Guardian, Monday April 14 2008

Aurelia, a female waldrapp ibis who turns four this spring, has had a tough year. In September, somewhere south of the Austrian Alps, she lost her two offspring and her mate while migrating south. It was a major blow to one of Europe’s most precarious bird species and to the team of researchers trying to increase their numbers.

Then, last month, she left a bird sanctuary on the Tuscan coast in central Italy along with a male bird, Medea, embarking on the arduous 930km return journey that, if followed properly, would take them north-east over Italy’s Apennines, along the Adriatic coast, up and over the Venice lagoon and then steadily north-north-east into Austria. At the end of the line, the two would be able to breed again. For a tense week, the whereabouts of the birds were unknown until last Monday, when Dr Johannes Fritz, an Austrian biologist specialising in animal behaviour and head of the waldrapp research team, received a phone call from an excited bird enthusiast who came within two metres of Aurelia, solo, in a valley in the Austrian Alps, about 30km off course. She was lost in the same spot as last year, about 140km southeast of the final destination, Scharnstein, Austria – so Dr Fritz’s team collected her and drove her the rest of the way. She is now safely at the breeding ground; unfortunately, there is still no sign of Medea, her intended mate.

If they are to survive, the waldrapp ibises, also known as northern bald ibises, need more human assistance than the average bird. The northern bald ibis is one of the rarest bird species on the planet. In the wild there remains just one large colony, of about 350 birds, on the Moroccan coast; less than a dozen more are scattered in a small community in Syria. They are on the World Conservation Union’s “red list” of threatened species. As Fritz says, any combination of factors – a nasty virus, an unscrupulous resort developer, a sudden depletion of fresh water or food supplies – would mean instant extinction in the wild. The birds disappeared from southern Europe about 400 years ago, hunted out of existence by the locals, who developed an appetite for these poky flyers. Aurelia and Medea are two of a small number of hand-reared ibises that Fritz’s team is attempting to reintroduce to their former habitat.

To be sure, the birds have not evolved well. If they don’t take flight in the first autumn of their life, they usually settle into a sedentary existence. And even the mobile ones are far from fleet. When they are motivated to take flight, they need almost ideal conditions to get anywhere. A stiff tail wind is best; a headwind is a deal-breaker. Generations of poor self-motivation and even poorer stamina (their top speed is 35 kph, and during migration the young require ample recuperative days off) seem to have robbed the birds of one crucial instinct: an innate sense of direction. They still have a powerful migratory instinct; they just cannot be counted on to find their way. “Early attempts to study their southerly migratory patterns were a disaster,” says Fritz. “We had reports of them showing up in the Netherlands, Poland. One made it as far as St Petersburg.”

The birds seem completely at home on the ground, loitering in one spot, pecking at the occasional grub. Their jet black plumage, growing spiky and unkempt on top, gives them a distinctly punky, adolescent appearance. Convincing them to take flight appears to be a major challenge; even the most devoted conservationist would be tested by the northern ibis’ slacker disposition. Not surprisingly, while this species is dying out in the wild, it is thriving in zoos around Europe. “In general, zookeepers have more of a problem getting rid of them than they do in obtaining them,” says Fritz.

Key to the reintroduction in Europe is teaching a dozen or so young ibises to follow the near-1,000km route that their ancestors may have taken centuries ago, south from the Alps to Orbetello on the Tuscan coast. The idea is to program into each generation a migratory route, plus a place to breed, which they can then pass on to the next generation. If they don’t learn to migrate safely, they will never reach the breeding area and reproduce.

Aurelia and Medea were retracing a route they learned in summer 2004. At the time, they had help. They flew south alongside Microlight aircrafts navigated by Fritz and his team. It was one of the first successful human-assisted migrations covering such a vast distance. This spring is the third time Aurelia has completed the northerly journey unaided. Well, almost.

Fritz and his team fly at roughly the same altitude and at the same deliberate pace as the birds to guide them along the chosen course, which last year started at Burghausen on the German-Austria border. The odd sight of a small flock of northern ibises trailing behind Microlights is now visible from some of the Adriatic’s beach resorts in late August and early September; last year the migration included a low-level fly-over of the Lido during the Venice film festival.

The migration is supposed to take about three and a half weeks; last year it took closer to seven. The majority of the class of 2007 was unfit for the journey. Fritz started with 17 young ibises, all born last spring at the waldrapp team’s sanctuary in Austria. Just five completed the journey. The others had to be driven to Tuscany.

Another casualty was one of the aircraft. During the journey, Fritz’s Microlight caught a tricky wind and crash-landed in a field outside Arezzo just after the birds had completed one of the most arduous parts of the journey. While Fritz tended to his Microlight, he watched in dismay as the birds, showing an uncharacteristic burst of energy, broke free of their human handlers and flew back over the mountains they had just crossed, to settle close to where they had started. The 300km day exhausted them; the team collected the birds in their van the next day and drove them back across the mountains to resume the final leg, after another day off.

Despite the delays, a cost overrun of a few thousand euros, the wrecked Microlight, and the fact that the majority of the ibises watched the migratory route from the back of a van, the waldrapp team regards last year’s migration as an undisputed success. It is, they point out, how Aurelia learned the route.

Last week, three more ibises started their northerly migration journey from Orbetello. This time, the birds are equipped with GPS anklets to track their progress. “It’s a much better start,” Fritz deadpans.

fresh but not so easy

April 8, 2008

Tesco has taken the plunge and the huge gamble of playing the great American supermarket game with its convenience store-format shops, Fresh & Easy ‘Neighbourhood Markets’. Silly name aside, the British superchain had ploughed a huge amount of money and research in the hope of breaking into the US market with ready-made meals, fresh ingredients and a high density of stores (aiming at two per mile!). The article below is from the Economist last summer.

Fresh & Easy also seem to be playing up the ‘local’ appeal, both with the name, and handing out $1000 to the local neighbourhood every time they open a new store. The critics are all lined up to take pot shots and the reviews are mixed but the game is far from over. I’m very curious to see how this will pan out. Have any of you been yet?

Fresh, but far from easy

From The Economist, June 21st 2007 | LONDON AND PHOENIX

Armed with powerful retailing science, Britain’s most successful supermarket is making an audacious bid to change the way America shops and eats

A FORLORN shop facing a dusty car park in one of the poorest parts of Phoenix, Arizona, is an inauspicious place to start a closely watched experiment in global retailing. Yet this is where Tesco, Britain’s biggest supermarket group, will seek to establish its beachhead in the world’s richest grocery market.

Later this year Tesco will open at least 21 stores in this arid city and plenty more—it will not say how many—in Las Vegas, San Diego and Los Angeles. It plans to pepper some of America’s fastest-growing states with Fresh & Easy local groceries at a rate of three a week. Tesco has identified as many as 100 sites to begin its £250m a year ($500m) campaign. Rumour has it that a new warehouse just east of Los Angeles could alone supply some 400 stores. Read the rest of this entry »

earth, wind and fire

February 27, 2008


The elements have been making themselves very much felt the last few days. Most excitingly, while I was reading just before going to bed last night, I experienced an earthquake! The room and house I was in rumbled and shook for about 10 seconds. Nothing more serious than that, and nothing fell on top of me, so a very innocuous way to experience the earth moving under my feet. More than anything, I was just puzzled for a good few minutes before deciding on what had just happened. This morning’s news (and the office chatter) confirmed Britain’s strongest quake for 25 years measuring 5.2 on the Richter scale, with its epicenter just 70 km away.

Apart from that I have been getting reacquainted with the wind, we’ve been missing each other since I left the Lowlands. The Peak District is visible from where I am working this week, and I suspect the gusts that catch me every time I turn a corner must continuously be rolling down from there.

Finally, last night for the second time in a month I ate at a converted fire station. The first, pictured above, had many of its original structural details from 1912 still intact, including a pressed tin roof and green glazed Italian tiles that came back to the US as ballast on empty ships. Last night’s restaurant had a more cryptic name, and despite being less ornate had lots of warm-looking exposed red brick. They also get top marks for hosting quirky events including jumble sales, knitting evenings and on-the-spot haircuts to accompany your pint. And why not.

chase on high seas

January 18, 2008


As a coincidental follow-up to the Japanese sea-drifters and whaling ships that rescued them, yesterday I read about an incredible chase on the high seas of the Antarctic that two environmental groups’ ships have launched on Japanese whaling vessels. One of these, Greenpeace’s MY Esperanza, is shown in the photo above. Setting the question of whaling itself aside, the details of the bickering and wild goose trail setting seemed quite absurd. Even more unbelievably, this seems to be turning into an annual event, although running off with hostages seems to be a new high for the whole debacle.

A case of sensibilities gone mad? Or crucial action to protect the core beliefs of certain groups?

carbon myth busting

January 8, 2008

footprint.jpgIt seems many people are at least thinking about their carbon footprint these days, if not reducing it actively. Every measure has its the pros and cons, from biofuels and carbon credits to recycling and organic food. I learn a lot from the Guardian’s Ethical Living column, and use what I read to try and inform my decisions and opinions. The article below was illuminating in critically weighing measures up against each other, something that I rarely see despite every individual step being a choice. And busts the plastic bag myth once and for all!

By Chris Goodall, from The Guardian, December 13th 2007

Carbon myths

The global warming consequences of our personal actions are usually invisible to us. We have no easy means of knowing how our way of life generates carbon dioxide and other climate-changing gases. It is far from obvious that it takes more energy to produce a paper bag than its plastic equivalent, or that extra loft insulation usually reduces gas consumption more than solar panels. Unsurprisingly, this means that most of us are ignorant about what really matters, which makes us vulnerable to comforting half-truths. These myths are a problem in themselves because they discourage us from addressing the important sources of emissions. But our ignorance also encourages businesses to promote goods and services that offer little or no carbon-saving. Read the rest of this entry »