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)

Nine things to do today to solve world hunger

As requested… I went to an Action Against Hunger Love Food Give Food event this week to speak on social media and hunger: publicised as “Can bloggers end child hunger?” Which is what you might call a big ask. However… it all came out rather hopeful. Blogging won’t end hunger – but there’s an awful lot we can do. Today. Culled from all the meetings like this I’ve been at recently, here’s nine ideas, and a brief (and skippable) introduction:

There is frustration and horror that this crisis has happened again, so soon. That, despite the bloodshed and the anguish of 2008-2010 crisis nothing has happened to address our broken food economy. But there is hope. Lots of it. For one, no one thinks there isn’t enough food or any prospect of it running out, despite the pressures of changing climates. As ever, we just need to distribute it better. ( In this video, hear economist Raj Patel’s excellent explanation of how a few corporates have gained control of global food distribution.)

Corporations can be brought to order: the answer lies in political engagement. It’s still true, as the Nobel-winning economist and philosopher Amartya Sen stated 30 years ago, that there has never been a famine in a democracy. The recipe: get involved in the politics and get involved in your food. Eat better, shout louder, be happier!

  1.  Campaign to stop the speculators. Regulation of the commodity markets to stabilise food prices is crucial in the fight against hunger – some analytsts say that the bankers betting on food prices since 2008 has caused more hunger than climate change. Sign up to World Development Movement’s campaign ahead of this October’s crucial meetings of finance ministers. http://www.wdm.org.uk/action/food-speculation-photo-petition
  2. Eat less meat. Raising meat is depleting food resources and water unsustainably: 20% of greenhouse gas is the result of industrial meat production. Try holding Meatless Mondays. If you love your bacon sandwich, buy half as much bacon, but spend twice as much on it. You’ll get a tastier sandwich, and support a farmer who treats his animals more decently. More on the”flexitarian diet.
  3. Supermarkets are part of and a cause of the broken food economy, in UK and abroad. You don’t have to give them up– though it would certainly help. But, once a week, or when you can, get the groceries at an independent shop – especially one that supports local food systems – and give yourself a pat on the back.
  4. In the shops. Question what’s going on. Suspend your trust. Tell managers you don’t like excess packaging, or imports that are dubiously sourced. Bargains like BOGOFs are usually paid for by the ever-squeezed producers and farmers, not the shop. Choose food that’s local and in season.
  5. Reclaim the land. Brown-field sites all over our cities are there to be occupied, restored and planted with crops. http://www.reclaimthefields.org.uk/
  6. Reduce your food waste – in UK we throw away 30% of usable food, and that’s putting up prices across the planet. Tips here at http://www.myzerowaste.com. And support campaigns to keep food waste out of landfill:  like the movement to get spare and discarded food from commercial outlets used as pig feed again.
  7. Resist hi-tech solutions – they won’t feed the planet, most scientists agree, just corporate profits. We can keep GM out of Europe, if we fight.
  8. Get to know the food system. We need to return to an understanding of the land, rebond with the farmers and producers, and see how we can be take part in keeping the world fed. See the Soil Association’s Community Supported Agriculture site for schemes near you that are ready to welcome adults and children.
  9. Publicise and donate to Action Against Hunger’s Love Food Give Food appeal on acute child malnutrition: new methods mean children seriously ill from lack of food can be treated in their own homes. Vastly increasing the numbers who can be reached, while lowering the cost. Do share the link.

Any more? Leave a message here.

  • The nine ideas: gathered from people at events organised by World Development Movement, Action Against Hunger and the Take One Action film festival in Scotland.

Word of Mouth: Britain’s first milk factory

2nd March 2010 The Guardian Online

cows in a cowshed

Photograph: Rex Features

Is the plan to open an industrial feed-lot in Lincolnshire another unavoidable nail in the coffin of the British dairy industry?

The move by a group of English farmers to open the UK’s first American-style industrial dairy feed-lot – where 8,100 cows will be fed on maize and Lucerne, a form of alfalfa – was desperately predictable. The evidence has been mounting – for the want of a couple of pence on a litre of milk, we’ve destroyed our traditional, and highly efficient, dairy industry.

Britain has had a dairy industry based on cows fed on grass and kept for most of the year in fields, for millennia. You may have noticed – much of our countryside was shaped by it. It worked. It employed lots of people, and provided cheap protein and fats to the entire population.

Read the rest here via Guardian Online

Word of Mouth: Will turning vegetarian save the planet?

24th February 2010, The Guardian Online

Even committed carnivores can’t dodge the facts: we’re going to have to cut down on the red stuff. A bit.

“If one cares about the environment, one must care about eating animals … Someone who regularly eats factory-farmed products cannot call himself an environmentalist without divorcing that word from its meaning.”
Jonathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals

The numbers look pretty unarguable. So much so that – as a senitive meat-eating, trying-hard green – I have to ask if Safran Foer is being too soft: can any meat-eater at all call themselves an environmentalist?

Livestock agriculture produces more greenhouse gas emissions than every train, truck, car and aeroplane put together. The resources consumed by one average omnivore in pursuit of animal protein would nourish as many as 10 vegetarians (there’s lots of argument about this stat – some would put the ratio higher). So, shift people’s diets and the planet can support more people – in fact, it will quite easily deal with the 9.2 billion at which population is currently forecast to peak in about 40 years’ time, even with the threat to agriculture that climate change poses.

Read more here at The Guardian’s Word of Mouth blog