The bravest fishermen

December 2013: I spent a night with the Gaza fishing fleet, trying to catch sardines under the guns of the Israeli navy… the words and Gianluca Panella’s stunning pictures were published in the Observer magazine.

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Sometimes the sea calms at sunset: and so it is here in the bottom corner of the eastern Mediterranean. The little fishing boat has been tugging on its anchor rope like an excited puppy. But now, as the waves ease, the deck steadies.

We’re going to catch sardines. It’s an all-night trip. So in the afternoon we’d loaded the boat with £190-worth of diesel, sweaters, lots of cigarettes, water, pitta bread and some nuts and dates. That’s it, I asked? No VHF radio? No safety equipment? No lifejackets?

The fishermen laughed. “Lifejacket? In Gaza, there’s no need for a lifejacket!” That’s the kind of joke that goes down well here. Skipper Abu Nayim, big, sun-dried, smiling, sniffed the wind. “It’s from the north. Good for sardines,” he said. “Yalla! Let’s go.”

Now we are waiting. The generator chatters, powering a string of arc lights hung around the boat. These will dazzle and seduce the fish; in six hours we’ll drop a net to gather them in from under the keel. The crew relax on salt-crusted rugs – eating dates, teasing each other, smoking. Two of the men step up to the foredeck to prostrate themselves and pray.

It’s nearly dark. A couple of Israeli F-16 jets make twin scratches across the glow in the southeast, above the Egyptian border. “They own all the world,” mutters old Abu Nayim. But, for now, this feels like the most peaceful place you could find on this crowded coast, where there live some of the most disputatious people in the planet. There’s not much to tell you that this is a very risky way to catch fish…

Read the rest of the story here

The real horse meat scandal…

… is that our greedy, ruthless supermarkets have got off scot-free

September 2, 2013: op-ed for the Daily Mail

Now, six months after the worst scandal in the history of our supermarkets, the biggest joke of all has emerged. And it is the shops and food manufacturers that are having the last laugh. 

The big stores and food suppliers that, for years, have let horse, donkey, pork and who-knows-what other foreign substances into cheap burgers and ready meals have been told what penalty they will face. The answer is precisely none. No prosecution, no fines, not even any new regulation to prevent them pulling the same revolting stunt again.
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2409371/ALEX-RENTON-The-real-horsemeat-scandal-greedy-ruthless-supermarkets-got-scot-free.html#ixzz2k3VXVrYO

 

In search of baskers

The Observer Magazine, October 2013:

The basking shark returns to British waters

Basking shark feeding of the Cornish CoastlineAs big as a yacht and with jaws so large it could swallow you whole – it’s little wonder terrified sailors hunted basking sharks almost to extinction. But now they are being seen in growing numbers from Donegal to Cornwall. Alex Renton goes in search of a gentle giant

This summer, on the western edges of Britain and Ireland, was a time of gentle monsters: great black fins parading sedately off the beaches, leviathans floating in warm sea as docile as Granddad on a lilo. From Cornwall to Donegal, local papers ran stories of swimmers’ and kayakers’ encounters with sharks “Bigger than Jaws!” “The size of a bus!” But most of the reports went on to say that the fish – which can indeed grow to 11m, a double-decker’s length – were strangely blasé about the panicky, flapping humans. In fact, they didn’t seem interested at all.

The basking sharks (or the cearban, the muldoan, hoe-mother, the brigdie… every Atlantic coast has its name for them) were back. They were late this year because the sea was colder than usual. They usually appear from May in the southwest, June in the Isle of Man and July in the Hebrides. But when they did turn up it was in great numbers. By August the sharks were swarming up the Scottish coast. Fishing boats and Ribs reported near-misses. On the Oban to Barra run, the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry had to keep a special lookout so the ship could avoid schools of giants cruising the seas at a sedate 3mph. TheShark Trust, which logs sightings, announced record-breaking numbers for Scotland.

Basking sharks are Britain’s elephants, our biggest animals. They’re also our most mysterious. They arrive in herds and then all but disappear for decades. For long periods in the 80s and 90s it was thought they had been fished nearly to extinction. (It wasn’t until 1998 that hunting them was outlawed.) Behind most of the Atlantic coast’s myths of water monsters and sea snakes lie basking sharks, with their weird snouts and confusing skeletal remains. The long claspers – the male sexual organs – can look like a pair of legs, and decomposing baskers fooled several 19th-century naturalists into announcing the discovery of new species.

Read the rest of this article  at Guardian Online (free)

Red meat. The real killer?

The Times (UK) Magazine, 28 September 2013:

Should red meat carry a health warning?

ImageAlex Renton investigates the link between what we eat and the increased risk of diet-related cancers

We’re hard-wired to eat meat: all we can get of it. Research shows that if you give a diet of unlimited meat to omnivorous animals, whether a fly, a mouse or a chimpanzee, they will go on gorging until they are fat and ill. And that is precisely what has happened to humans.

For most Britons meat is cheaper than at any time in history, and we have tucked in. Annually, we consume more than our own body weight in animal flesh: nearly twice as much as health guidelines say we should. But that’s still puny compared with the meat feast going on in Australia and in the US. There, each person eats 120kg or more a year. It is not doing any of us any good.

In fact, long-term studies of hundreds of thousands of people in rich countries now show that the more meat, especially red and processed meat, you eat, the shorter your life will be. One of the key diseases associated with meat eating – bowel cancer – has risen swiftly to be the second or third biggest killer in most developed countries. Even the most conscientious carnivores can’t dodge the statistics: the new dietary killers don’t give any credit for shopping organic. The chemicals in bacon will get you even if the pig was bred by the Prince of Wales himself. And the dangerous proteins in economy beefburgers are just as present in the most expensive grass-fed, rare-breed beef steak.

Read the rest of this article – including the sceptical bit! – on The Times website (£)

Tackling Big Sugar – the next great health war

Image - copyright, The ObserverMy Observer magazine story and an editorial calling for government action on sugary drinks gathered lots of interest: 170k web hits, 850 comments and a feeble response from the British soft drinks industry.

The tin of 7UP rolls to a stop at my feet. I pick it up, scowling at the kid on a bike who’d tossed it and missed the litter bin. The can is green and shiny: “Put some play into your every day,” it says. “Escape to a carefree world… Don’t grow up. 7UP.” And underneath, in tiny print, the real info (though you need a calculator to get to the truth): the lemon- and lime-flavoured drink contains a trace of salt, no fat, no fibre and 34.98g of sugar – eight teaspoons. The sugar delivers 135 calorie; enough energy for about 15 minutes’ cross-country running. It’s cheap, too. Half the price of milk.

If the stats are right, this teenager in Leith, who threw the empty tin, drinks 287 cans, or the equivalent, a year: more sugary drinks than any other child in Europe. Not to mention a whole lot more sugar, in breakfast cereals, bread, and even chicken nuggets. That is in part why Scottish children’s teeth are the same quality as those of children in Kazakhstan. And perhaps why a 2010 survey of 17 countries found that only Mexicans and Americans were fatter than Scots.

Hunger, child nutrition and eight ways to feed the world

Wrote three stories for the Observer (links to each one below) this weekend around the G8 discussion on food security and child hunger. Interesting comments, particularly on the piece on the Gates Foundation’s work; boy, do some Guardian Online users hate the corporates. Often with good reason.

But when government has done so badly at tackling hunger among the poorest, we’re not in a position to refuse any ideas. Don’t you think? According to new research, 3.1 million children are dying every year, largely because of malnutrition – in a world with more food than it needs.

Here’s a good Economist note on the problems around using the likes of Nestle to tackle child hunger.

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Eight ways to solve world hunger

Millions of people are starving, despite the world producing more than enough to feed everyone. What can we do about it? Read more 

How lack of food security is failing a starving world

Starvation is a symptom of a larger problem involving land, health, power and ecological damage, say experts. Read more

Bill Gates: UK leading the way in tackling world hunger

Microsoft mogul addresses London rally to praise British efforts on fighting starvation

Read more

How to feed the world (book review)

mcmahon book cover

Feeding Frenzy – The New Politics of Food, Paul McMahon

New books by Paul McMahon and Jay Rayner. Published in The Observer, 3 June 2013

Food got bigger than DIY about a decade back, but publishing took a while to hoist its tired old frame on to the bandwagon. Now the food books tumble out, unstoppable, in a startling range of sub-genres. There’s the cookbook with jokes. The memoir with recipes. The polemic about food system apocalypse. The cookbook (with gardening tips) for that apocalypse. The part-time vegan diet book with anti-capitalist polemic, recipes and jokes (just reviewed that one, actually). And all of the above, with celebrity attached.

Paul McMahon’s is a straight food apocalypse book, no jokes, one recipe: a four-ingredient plan to feed the planet. McMahon admits that there are an awful lot of books in his genre. Since the food price spikes of 2008, he’s seen many titles “all warning of an impending food collapse”, including The Coming FamineThe End of FoodWorld on the Edge and Climate in Peril. (My shelf is even bleaker: So Shall We ReapEat Your Heart Out and Food Wars– and, full disclosure, I’m writing a little one myself.) But gloomy though his own title is, McMahon wants to put distance between him and the “professional doom-mongers”. He wants to offer some hope and so, with 100% more jokes, does this paper’s restaurant critic, Jay Rayner. Continue reading

The future of fish farming?

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Alastair Barge with one of his (smaller) halibut

May 24, 2013: Here’s my Guardian  story on Gigha Halibut, the onshore farm producing gorgeous, chemical-free fish –  at a premium – on Scotland’s West Coast.

It got interesting reaction from the salmon-farming industry. Some of it not even rude. See below.

There are stealth bombers cruising through the huge swimming pool, flat-fish the size of doors, changing colour as you watch, from matt black to pebble-and-sand. Fish farmer Bob Wilkieson pulls one up in a net. It is 7kg of dense, thrashing muscle, utterly alien with its twisted face and deltoid wings.

These are four-year-old Atlantic halibut, and they may be the future of fish-farming: raised onshore, without chemicals and on organic feed. Unlike the flabby, slimy stuff we have come to accept as farmed salmon, this halibut is lean and far better to eat – in terms both of ethics and taste – than its wild brothers.

I went to Gigha, a little island off Kintyre, for a taste. Smoked Gigha halibut, which has kept popping up on menus since its launch 18 months ago, is worth the trip. Sliced thin, with a little lemon, its sweet, gently oaky taste (Gigha’s smoke-recipe using whisky-barrel chips was designed by the acknowledged master, Allan MacDougall, late of the Loch Fyne smokery) has high-end chefs queueing up for some of the strictly limited production.

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3 good reasons to buy British lamb – so why ship it from New Zealand?

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I can’t imagine Easter without a slow-roast leg of lamb. As crucial as a Cadbury’s Creme Egg. The tradition comes from the Old Testament, but this year there is a more contemporary reason to buy lamb: British sheep farmers need our support. After a season of terrible prices, they are now trudging through a second winter, in the middle of lambing. On Tuesday a Cumbria farmer told BBC Radio 4 of having to dig pregnant ewes out of snow drifts and of many new-born lambs dying from hypothermia. “Buy our lamb to help us through this,” Alistair Mackintosh pleaded.

So I went shopping. But there was no British lamb at all in the Co-op, only the stuff that’s shipped frozen from New Zealand. At Waitrose – a shop that loves to boast of its “commitment to British farmers” – there were a few bits of Welsh lamb (I live in Scotland) on the meat counter but the fridge was filled with Kiwi sheep, too.

Waitrose’s rack of New Zealand lamb – the luscious section of upper ribs and fillet – was priced at an amazing £30.99 a kilo – £10 more than the Welsh. British sheepfarmers were recently getting not much more than that for the whole animal. For the shops, the best thing about lamb at Easter and Passover is the fact that you can make so much money from it.

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