Japan unveils draft energy policy in wake of Fukushima
Tokyo says nuclear power remains important source of electricity and reactors should be restarted
Associated Press in Tokyo
theguardian.com, Tuesday 25 February 2014 03.32 EST
Japan has unveiled its first draft energy policy since the Fukushima meltdowns three years ago, saying nuclear power remains an important source of electricity for the country.
The draft, presented to the cabinet on Tuesday for approval expected in March, says Japan's nuclear energy dependency will be reduced but that reactors meeting new safety standards set after the 2011 nuclear crisis should be restarted.
Japan has 48 commercial reactors, but all are offline until they pass the new safety requirements.
The draft of the Basic Energy Plan says a mix of nuclear, renewables and fossil fuel will be the most reliable and stable source of electricity to meet Japan's energy needs.
The government had planned to release the draft in January but a recommendation submitted by a panel of experts was judged to be too pro-nuclear. Tuesday's draft added more emphasis on renewable energy.
The economy, trade and industry minister, Toshimitsu Motegi, told reporters that "in principle, the direction has not changed". He called for additional efforts to accelerate the development of renewable energy over the next few years.
The draft says Japan will continue its nuclear fuel recycling policy, but adds there is a need for flexibility for possible later changes to the policy.
Japan has tonnes of spent fuel and a stockpile of extracted plutonium, causing international concerns about nuclear proliferation. Officials have said the most realistic way to consume and reduce the plutonium is to restart the reactors to burn it.
The previous energy plan in 2010 called for a boost in nuclear power to about half of Japan's electricity needs by 2030 from about one-third before the Fukushima disaster.
China's toxic air pollution resembles nuclear winter, say scientists
Air pollution now impeding photosynthesis and potentially wreaking havoc on country's food supply, experts warn
Jonathan Kaiman in Beijing
theguardian.com, Tuesday 25 February 2014 16.00 GMT
Chinese scientists have warned that the country's toxic air pollution is now so bad that it resembles a nuclear winter, slowing photosynthesis in plants – and potentially wreaking havoc on the country's food supply.
Beijing and broad swaths of six northern provinces have spent the past week blanketed in a dense pea-soup smog that is not expected to abate until Thursday. Beijing's concentration of PM 2.5 particles – those small enough to penetrate deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream – hit 505 micrograms per cubic metre on Tuesday night. The World Health Organisation recommends a safe level of 25.
The worsening air pollution has already exacted a significant economic toll, grounding flights, closing highways and keeping tourists at home. On Monday 11,200 people visited Beijing's Forbidden City, about a quarter of the site's average daily draw.
He Dongxian, an associate professor at China Agricultural University's College of Water Resources and Civil Engineering, said new research suggested that if the smog persists, Chinese agriculture will suffer conditions "somewhat similar to a nuclear winter".
She has demonstrated that air pollutants adhere to greenhouse surfaces, cutting the amount of light inside by about 50% and severely impeding photosynthesis, the process by which plants convert light into life-sustaining chemical energy.
She tested the hypothesis by growing one group of chilli and tomato seeds under artificial lab light, and another under a suburban Beijing greenhouse. In the lab, the seeds sprouted in 20 days; in the greenhouse, they took more than two months. "They will be lucky to live at all," He told the South China Morning Post newspaper.
She warned that if smoggy conditions persist, the country's agricultural production could be seriously affected. "Now almost every farm is caught in a smog panic," she said.
Early this month the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences claimed in a report that Beijing's pollution made the city almost "uninhabitable for human beings".
The Chinese government has repeatedly promised to address the problem, but enforcement remains patchy. In October, Beijing introduced a system of emergency measures if pollution levels remained hazardous for three days in a row, including closing schools, shutting some factories, and restricting the use of government cars.
According to China's state newswire Xinhua, 147 industrial companies in Beijing have cut or suspended production. Yet schools remained open and government cars remained on the road.
One person not put off by the smog was President Xi Jinping, who braved the pollution to make an unannounced visit to a trendy neighbourhood popular with tourists.
Dressed in a black jacket and trousers – and no facemask – Xi made a brief walkabout in Nanluoguxiang district last Thursday morning. The visit prompted approving coverage in Chinese news reports, but also mockery on social media sites. "Xi Jinping visits Beijing's Nanluoguxiang amid the smog: breathing together, sharing the fate," said a Xinhua headline.
Photos and shaky video footage apparently of Xi's visit ricocheted around Chinese social media sites. "Why isn't he wearing a facemask?" asked one Sina Weibo user. "Isn't it bad for his health?"
This week Chinese media reported that a man in Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei province near Beijing, had sued the local environmental protection bureau for failing to rein in the smog. Li Guixin filed the lawsuit asking the municipal environment protection bureau "perform its duty to control air pollution according to the law", the Yanzhao Metropolis Daily reported.
Li is also seeking compensation for the pollution. "Besides the threat to our health, we've also suffered economic losses, and these losses should be borne by the government and the environmental departments because the government is the recipient of corporate taxes, it is a beneficiary," he told the Yanzhao Metropolis Daily.
Li's lawyer, Wu Yufen, confirmed the lawsuit but refused to comment because of the sensitivity of the case. He said: "This is the first ever case of a citizen suing the government regarding the issue of air pollution. We're waiting for the judicial authority's response."
Severe pollution from chemical plants Diseased vegetables said to be caused by pollution from a chemical plant. Photograph: How Hwee Young/EPA
Li told the newspaper that he had bought an air purifier, masks and a treadmill, but none had helped him to overcome the pernicious health effects of the smog. He is seeking RMB 10,000 (£1,000) in compensation. "I want show every citizen that we are real victims of this polluted air, which hurts us both from a health perspective and economically," he said.
Li Yan, a climate and energy expert at Greenpeace East Asia, said the case could bring exposure to polluted cities outside of Beijing, putting pressure on provincial officials to prioritise the problem. She said: "People … who live in Beijing are suffering from the polluted air, but we have the attention of both domestic and international media. Shijiazhuang's environmental problems are far more serious, and this case could bring Shijiazhuang the attention it has deserved for a long time."
Brazilian beans and Japanese barley shipped to Svalbard seed vault
Some 20,000 plant species from more than 100 countries and institutions will be added to the global seed bank in Norway
theguardian.com, Wednesday 26 February 2014 06.00 GMT
A Noah's Ark of 20,000 plant species will unload this week at a remote Arctic port to deposit humanity's latest insurance payment against an agricultural apocalypse or a man-made cock-up.
Brazilian beans and Japanese barley are among the botanical varieties that are carried aboard the ship that is shortly expected to dock near the Svalbard global seed vault, that celebrates its sixth anniversary this week.
The facility, which is bored into the side of a mountain by the Barents Sea, is primarily designed as a back-up for the many gene banks around the world that keep samples of crop diversity for agricultural businesses.
But its operators, the Global Crop Diversity Trust, say the "Doomsday Vault" could also help to reboot the world's farms in the event of a climate catastrophe or a collapse of genetically modified crops.
Built to withstand a nuclear strike, a tectonic shift or rising sea levels, the vault has the capacity to store 4.5m different seed varieties for centuries.
Currently, it holds 820,619 samples of food crops and their natural relatives, but this is steadily increasing with one or two shipments each year, according to the trust, which maintains the seed vault in partnership with the Norwegian government and the Nordic Genetic Resources Centre.
The latest shipment contains deposits from more than 100 countries and institutions, including the International Potato Centre, the Australian Tropical Crops Collection and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre.
A first collaboration with the Barley Germplasm Centre of Okayama will see the addition of the plant widely used for Japanese whisky and shochu. The Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation is sending 514 samples of "the common bean" which is the primary ingredient in the national dish of feijoada.
Eventually it is thought that the vault may serve as a repository for every plant species used by humans.
"Each and every single deposit into the vault provides an option for the future," said Marie Haga, the Crop Trust's executive director. "At a time of unprecedented demands on our natural environment, it is critical to conserve plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. This will guarantee farmers and plant breeders continued access to the raw materials they need to improve and adapt crops."
Report hails international progress on climate change laws
Study shows 64 out of 66 countries had put in place or were establishing significant climate or energy legislation in 2013
theguardian.com, Thursday 27 February 2014 11.27 GMT
Almost 500 laws to tackle climate change have been passed in countries which account for nine-tenths of global emissions, a study has found.
Much of the action in the past year has been taken in emerging economies, including China and Mexico, while "flagship legislation" has been passed in eight countries, most of them developing nations such as Bolivia, El Salvador and Mozambique.
A further 19 countries are considered to have made progress in 2013 on climate laws in the latest Global Legislators Organisation (Globe) study, although two countries - Japan and Australia - have "backslid" and started to reverse climate legislation.
The fourth annual Globe study, co-authored by the Grantham Research Institute at the London School of Economics, covers 66 countries, up from 33 in the last report, accounting for 88% of the world's emissions.
It found that 64 out of 66 countries had put into place or were establishing significant climate or energy legislation.
Whether the legislation has been inspired by the need to tackle climate change or energy efficiency, energy security or competitiveness, the laws are achieving the same end - better security of energy supplies, more efficient use of resources and cleaner, lower carbon growth, the report said.
National legislation does not yet add up to enough action to meet the goal of limiting temperature rises to no more than 2C to avoid dangerous climate change, but it is needed to form a basis for a global climate treaty which it is hoped can be negotiated by the end of 2015, Globe said.
Previous attempts to agree a binding global deal on tackling climate change failed in Copenhagen in 2009.
Globe said there was an urgent need for countries which have not passed legislation to tackle climate change to do so.
The organisation's president, Lord Deben, who is also the chairman of the UK's Committee on Climate Change which advises the government on the issue, said: "It is by implementing national legislation and regulations that the political conditions for a global agreement in 2015 will be created.
"We must see more countries develop their own national climate change laws so that when governments sit down in 2015 they will do so in very different political conditions to when they did in Copenhagen."
Baroness Worthington, Globe vice-president, said: "Overall it's been an encouraging period. On the international discussions side of things, there hasn't been a huge amount of progress, but the study shows that on the national level people are making progress."
In the US, one of the world's biggest polluters, Congress has not passed significant national climate change legislation, but Baroness Worthington said it was hoped that as the impacts of global warming got worse, the US would take more and more action at a city, state and federal level.
And she said: "Our study shows there's a growing body of countries taking this seriously."
As a result, clean technology development was set to continue to grow, creating a "lobby on the side of the angels" which opposes those, including in the UK, who fight against action to tackle climate change, she suggested.
Globe is launching a new international initiative, the Partnership for Climate Legislation, to help legislators across the 66 nations develop, advance and implement climate change laws.
As Antarctica opens up, will privateer explorers be frozen out?
The dramatic rescue of 52 people from a ship in the Antarctic has raised questions over who can explore the continent. Alok Jha, who was on the vessel, reports
Friday 28 February 2014 09.00 GMT
Antarctica is the Earth’s last pristine, untouched and most epic wilderness. A key area for the world’s climate and wildlife, it is, for now, also a place of unparalleled international co-operation and negligible commercial exploitation. It has enjoyed more than a century of peace, since explorers first discovered it.
But the Antarctic is also a place of great danger, a remote location where humans are almost never in control, where nature’s rule is absolute. On Friday, making exploration of this part of the world safer is high on the agenda of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO). Its members will come together to discuss the adoption of a polar code to ensure that expeditions to the extremities of the world abide by a set of technical and operational standards.
Fresh in the minds of those attending will be the stranding of the MV Akademik Shokalskiy, a Russian research vessel that was trapped in the ice off East Antarctica for 10 days over Christmas and the new year, with more than 70 people on board, while operating an expedition for the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE). A series of icebreakers tried, and failed, to break a path to free the stricken ship and this international rescue effort – five nations working together amid the harshest conditions in one of the most isolated areas on Earth – caught the world’s attention. The story led TV news bulletins and filled newspaper front pages.
The Akademik Shokalskiy incident has exposed differences in the scientific community; some researchers criticised the expedition as a glorified tourist trip that had seriously dented real scientific research in the region. The event also highlighted gaps in how expeditions to the Antarctic are permitted by national authorities.
At the heart of all the discussions are fundamental questions about who owns access to Antarctica and what activities should be allowed there, now and in the future.
Research programmes in the Antarctic are mostly controlled and supported by government-funded agencies, such as the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) and the British Antarctic Survey, which also maintain a network of permanent bases around the continent. But the summer AAE trip that the Guardian joined was not a typical scientific expedition to the polar region.
The Akademik Shokalskiy had 22 crew and 52 passengers, half of the latter group being scientists, the other half members of the public who had paid to go on the trip as science assistants. The AAE, led by Chris Turney, a climate scientist at the University of New South Wales, was funded from private sources, including the passengers on board, and the science case was built up and reviewed, over several years, by Turney and colleagues at UNSW.
Though the AAD assessed the environmental impact of Turney’s expedition, it had no role in funding or assessing its scientific goals. A century on from the first AAE, on which the British-Australian explorer and scientist Douglas Mawson visited and mapped large parts of East Antarctica for the first time, the new expedition aimed to record how this part of the world had changed in 100 years.
The private funding model is not a new one. During the heroic era of Antarctic exploration, led by Scott, Shackleton, Amundsen, Mawson and others, much of the money came from patrons. They also engaged public attention in newspapers and with images and films, to raise the money to explore the then unknown south.
But time has moved on from the era of the great explorers: the roots of the modern Antarctic era began half a century after the expeditions of Scott and Mawson. In 1957-58, scientists held the International Geophysical Year, the first serious effort to carry out a concerted programme of research on the continent. That led, in 1961, to the Antarctic Treaty – signed by 12 nations at first but now more than 50 – under which countries agreed to use the Antarctic regions only for peaceful and scientific purposes.
There were, and still are, territorial claims to the continent – from the UK, Argentina and Australia, among others – but none is officially recognised by the international community. In 1991, with the Madrid Protocol, the treaty expanded to include a ban on mining for minerals on the continent. Treaties, however, do not last forever. Nations are already positioning themselves for the long term, when they will be able to do much more on the continent than just scientific research.
Nowadays, scientists carry out a vast array of work, relating to everything from climate change and ecology to cosmology, on and around the bases in Antarctica. This part of the world is important, for example, in understanding how the climate will change over the next century – around its coasts are the engines for many of the world’s ocean currents and there is enough ice sitting on the continent to add 60 metres to global sea levels, if it all melted.
“Along the [West] Antarctic peninsula, it’s one of the regions that’s warming quickest on the planet and there’s potential for a few metres of sea level there,” said Mike Sparrow, executive director of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research.
Countries have maintained a permanent presence in Antarctica during the past half-century by building bases, in what is arguably the last colonial scramble on Earth. The US has six bases scattered around the continent, including one at the south pole. The UK has two bases, Australia has three and China has four. Maintaining a presence in Antarctica is a bit like having a space programme – it shows that a country is technologically advanced and can project economic and political influence.
But carrying out work safely in this remote part of the world requires a rigorous planning and logistical operation. At the British Antarctic Survey, which is typical of many national Antarctic programmes, most scientific projects have a lead time of at least two years. Major projects involving several countries and many Antarctic locations could take five or six years of planning. Even the annual resupply of the main British bases, Rothera and Halley, is so logisitically complex that it requires ships to leave the UK in the autumn.
The James Clark Ross, primarily a scientific research vessel, leaves around September every year and the Ernest Shackleton, used mainly for cargo, leaves in November. “Both ships are full to the gunnels with fuel, food, cargo, scientific equipment,” said John Shears, head of operations and engineering at BAS. “We try and ship everything we need for all the stations and scientific field parties in the two ships.” By the beginning of April, which marks the end of the annual Antarctic summer season, the ships will have unloaded their cargo, finished their scientific work and begun the long journey back to the UK.
This resupply and work cycle is carefully planned and even slight disruptions, such as having to divert to rescue a ship in distress, can be a big problem. “It’s very intimately linked – operations, logistics and science programmes,” said Tony Fleming, director of the Australian Antarctic Division. “The ripple effect of any delay will magnify throughout the season.”
The Akademik Shokalskiy got stuck in sea ice just over two weeks into its month-long voyage. After leaving the Antarctic coast on the evening of 23 December, the ship’s captain, Igor Kiselev, found his vessel surrounded by thick pack ice. It was far too dense for the ship to break through and, as the authorities would discover in the coming days, also too dense for even bigger icebreakers.
Kiselev issued a distress call on Christmas Day and the subsequent rescue effort, co-ordinated by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority in Canberra, involved diverting icebreakers from the Chinese, French and Australian Antarctic programmes. After almost two weeks stuck in the ice, the ship’s passengers were evacuated by the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long’s helicopter, to the Australian icebreaker Aurora Australis.
In the days after the rescue, many scientists criticised the AAE and its leaders for the impact they had had on the scientific research programmes of the nations that had gone to help them. Yves Frenot, director of the French Polar Institute, told Agence France-Presse that sending the French icebreaker L’Astrolabe to assist in the early stages had caused his scientists to scrap a two-week programme of oceanographic research. “But we are relatively lucky,” he said. “The Chinese have had to cancel all their scientific programme, and my counterpart in Australia is spitting tacks with anger, because their entire summer has been wiped out.”
The Aurora Australis was called to Commonwealth Bay to rescue the Akademik Shokalskiy’s passengers when it was halfway through the resupply of the Australian Antarctic base, Casey. “There was a programme looking at remediating soil [near Casey], so working on taking contaminants, historic contaminants out of the soil,” said Nick Gales, AAD’s chief scientist. “Another project looking at the effects of carbon dioxide on the animals and plants that live on the coastal ocean floor, and another project that looked at collecting the hydrography around the area, were all affected to various degrees by the delay.”
None of the critics of the AAE had any issues with the rescue itself – it is a principle of the law of the sea for ships to aid each other in times of distress.
“My personal feeling was that [the criticism] was perhaps because there was feeling that the [AAE] was claiming to be primarily a scientific expedition and I think that probably put some people’s noses out, particularly perhaps the Australian Antarctic Division,” Sparrow said.
Turney disputed the repeated claim that the AAE was not a scientific expedition. “Half the team were fulltime scientists, looking at the full range of natural and physical sciences, and they were going to be doing work almost from day one,” he said.
He pointed to a 40-hour series of observations of temperature and saltiness of the Southern Ocean, using hi-tech probes, around the Antarctic convergence – where the tropical seas give way to polar waters – made by oceanographers on the AAE. “That’s an amazing experiment – no one had actually done that in the Southern Ocean before, crossing a major ocean boundary.”
Professor Chris Turney, leader of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, talks to the media from the top deck of the stranded Akademik Shokalskiy. Professor Chris Turney, leader of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, talks to the media from the top deck of the stranded Akademik Shokalskiy. Photograph: Reuters
In the short term, arguments over whether or not the AAE was a scientific expedition will be settled by its outputs. Longer term, persuading the scientific community that projects not funded by national agencies can still do good science could be a long, uphill struggle.
On the logistical side, international authorities have also been rehearsing their thoughts on how to learn from the Akademik Shokalskiy incident. The AAD will issue a report about the rescue at the annual Antarctic Treaty meeting, due to be held in April in Brasilia. The issue under general discussion will be whether or not the permitting systems of different countries are robust enough to avoid incidents, such as the Akademik Shokalskiy’s, having such a big impact on their Antarctic programmes.
The Antarctic Treaty requires all expeditions to be authorised by government authorities but countries differ in how they implement the rules. For example, British citizens, planes or vessels going to Antarctica are assessed on environmental grounds, whether the expedition will be operated safely and if it is properly insured. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) adds that the UK examines whether or not a proposed expedition is self-sufficient, not just in terms of food and fuel but whether or not the people can get themselves out of trouble without relying immediately on help from a national Antarctic programme.
In contrast, the Australian system only looks at the environmental impact of a proposed expedition, not an expedition’s safety or self-sufficiency. The configuration of the AAE, which was not part of a national Antarctic programme but also not a tourist trip registered with the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), was uncommon and it has tested the Australian authorisation system. The FCO said there will be pressure from other countries for Australian authorities to re-examine their procedures in light of the incident.
The Akademik Shokalskiy’s stranding demonstrated that, if something goes wrong on a country’s watch, it could have a significant scientific and financial impact. The AAD’s director, Tony Fleming, estimated the total cost of the rescue to be between A$1.8m and A$2.4m (£960,000-£1.29m) and he and government ministers have said in recent weeks that they will be doing their utmost to recover the money from the AAE and Akademik Shokalskiy’s insurers.
The IMO’s polar code is an important step in improving the safety of Antarctic expeditions. Agreeing new regulations, though, are always a delicate process, due to inevitable international sensitivities. When the Akademik Shokalskiy rescue was first formally discussed by the IMO, at a meeting on ship safety in January, there were rumbles of disagreement (albeit polite) between the Australian and Russian delegations.
The Russian delegation insisted that the Australians’ assessment of the ship’s predicament around Christmas – that there was a serious threat to both humans and the environment – had been too pessimistic. “The vessel was ready for this situation, including its equipment, housing and crew. And as subsequent events showed, almost immediately after the evacuation of passengers the weather changed, and favourable wind blew the ship on their own, without assistance proceeded to sea,” they argued in a statement. The ship broke free of the sea ice a few days after the passengers were evacuated and arrived in New Zealand on 14 January.
Disagreements like this are relatively tame, but they could be a sign of things to come. An increasing number of countries are asserting their presence in Antarctica and jockeying for political and economic power over the Earth’s last great wilderness.
Though the Xue Long got stuck in its attempt to rescue the Akademik Shokalskiy’s passengers, its subsequent helicoper evacuation of those on board was hailed a great success by political leaders back home. China has built up its presence in Antarctica quickly over three decades and shows no sign of slowing down – the Xue Long was on its way this year to scout locations for a new base, its fifth, at Terra Nova Bay, and a second icebreaker, bigger and more powerful than the Xue Long, has already been commissioned. President Xi Jinping is a supporter of exploration at the poles and wants China to be ready to exploit the ecomomic potential of these regions.
The Antarctic Treaty already allows some commercial activity as well as the scientific work – fishing is permitted in certain areas of the Southern Ocean and tourists can also visit the continent, as long as their expeditions are approved by their national Antarctic programmes.
But the rules will not last forever. Disagreements between countries about commercial rights to the continent are bound to increase in future, as the renewal date for the Madrid Protocol, due in 2048, approaches. The UK’s continuing diplomatic tensions with Argentina over the Falkland Islands, for example, are in no small part due to the countries’ overlapping claims to Antarctic territory.
In defiance of the spirit of the Antarctic Treaty, the UK made a submission to the United Nations in 2007 for sovereignty of around 1m sq km (386,000 sq miles) of sea bed off Antarctica; it is too difficult to extract any useful minerals from that area at the moment, but technological innovations and environmental changes due to climate change in the Southern Ocean could make drilling an economically viable activity within a few decades.
“Some fear that countries are subtly working to position themselves for that moment in 2048, when the consultative parties may let go of the Madrid Protocol,” said Claire Christian, director of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition, an umbrella group for more than 150 NGOs with an interest in the polar region. “One need only look to China, which has already built four Antarctic research stations and has scouted the construction site for its fifth.”
AAE leader Turney said he had learned lessons but had not been discouraged from working on ways to bring private money to future research expeditions to Antarctica. “The AAE was a science expedition, there were volunteers who had paid to go along. It is a different model of doing things but it would be disappointing for people to turn around and say, unless you’re government-logistically supported and/or government-funded completely, that you can’t do science. That would be a real shame.”
The scientists agreed there would be work to do in persuading the wider scientific community that the research aims of any future private expeditions were robust. Turney’s research team on the AAE was composed of scientists who were long-term researchers on climate research and he said the AAE’s science case had been built carefully. So he was surprised by the criticism from colleagues in the climate science community. To mitigate such criticisms in future, Turney suggess that private expeditions could seek endorsement from an independent scientific panel, perhaps overseen by a learned society, which ran in parallel with their logistical planning.
But whatever the problems of the Akademik Shokalskiy’s expedition, Turney said he believed funding science through public interest had big potential. “If we hadn’t got caught by that sea ice, and that was an extreme event, we’d achieved almost everything we’d set out to do,” he said. “And that’s the frustration because this model potentially works so well. There is an innate interest in Antarctica, and I believe an innate interest in science. And people want the excitement of going to this environment, where they can actually help and work, and I actually think working between the public and the scientists to actually fund research and expeditions is an incredibly exciting way of going forward.”
Hundreds of foods found to contain hazardous industrial plastics chemical: report
Thursday, February 27, 2014 10:08 EST
By Carey Gillam
(Reuters) – Nearly 500 foods found on grocery store shelves in the United States, including many foods labeled as “healthy,” contain a potentially hazardous industrial plastics chemical, according to a report issued Thursday by a health research and advocacy group.
Azodicarbonamide, also known as ADA, was found as an ingredient in breads, bagels, tortillas, hamburger and hot dog buns, pizza, pastries, and other food products, according to a report by the Environmental Working Group, based in Washington.
Some consumer groups have called for the removal of azodicarbonamide from use in foods. Fast food chain Subway said earlier this month that it was removing the chemical from its products, but stated that ADA is a safe and widely used ingredient for many foods.
Azodicarbonamide is fully approved for use in food by the United States Food and Drug Administration and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. But ADA is banned as an additive in Australia and some European countries.
As a food additive, azodicarbonamide is used as a flour bleaching agent and as an oxidizing agent in dough to improve its performance for bakers. It is also used in plastics to improve elasticity and can be found in yoga mats and shoes.
The World Health Organization states that epidemiological studies in humans and other reports have produced “abundant evidence that azodicarbonamide can induce asthma, other respiratory symptoms, and skin sensitization” to people working with the chemical.
The Environmental Working Group said manufacturers should immediately end the use of ADA in food. U.S. Senator Charles Schumer, a Democrat from New York, this month called on the FDA to ban ADA from foods.
The FDA states that azodicarbonamide can be used safely if the amount in flour does not exceed 2.05 grams per 100 pounds of flour or 45 parts per million.
(Reporting by Carey Gillam in Kansas City; Editing by Phil Berlowitz)
Marine mining: Underwater gold rush sparks fears of ocean catastrophe
By Suzanne Goldenberg, The Guardian
Saturday, March 1, 2014 23:54 EST
Mining metal and minerals in ‘ecosystems we hardly understand’ poses grave threat to marine life, warn environmentalists. Suzanne Goldenberg reports
This is the last frontier: the ocean floor, 4,000 metres beneath the waters of the central Pacific, where mining companies are now exploring for the rich deposits of ores needed to keep industry humming and smartphones switched on.
The prospectof a race to the bottom of the ocean – a 21st-century high seas version of the Klondike gold rush – has alarmed scientists. The oceans, which make up 45% of the world’s surface, are already degraded by overfishing, industrial waste, plastic debris and climate change, which is altering their chemistry. Now comes a new extractive industry – and scientists say governments are not prepared.
“It’s like a land grab,” said Sylvia Earle, an oceanographer and explorer-in-residence for National Geographic. “It’s a handful of individuals who are giving away or letting disproportionate special interests have access to large parts of the planet that just happen to be under water.”
The vast expanses of the central Pacific seabed being opened up for mining are still largely an unknown, she said. “What are we sacrificing by looking at the deep sea with dollar signs on the few tangible materials that we know are there? We haven’t begun to truly explore the ocean before we have started aiming to exploit it.”
But the warnings may arrive too late. The price of metals is rising. The ore content of the nodules of copper, manganese, cobalt and rare earths strewn across the ocean floor promise to be 10 times greater than the richest seams on land, making the cost of their retrieval from the extreme depths more attractive to companies.
Mining the ocean floor of the central Pacific on a commercial scale is five years away, but the beginnings of an underwater gold rush are under way The number of companies seeking to mine beneath international waters has tripled in the last three or four years. “We have already got a gold rush, in a way,” said Michael Lodge, deputy secretary general of the International Seabed Authority, which regulates the use of the sea floor in international waters. “The amount of activity has expanded exponentially.”
The Jamaica-based agency has granted 26 permits to date to explore an area the size of Mexico beneath the central Pacific that had been set aside for seabed mining – all but eight within the last three or four years.
Britain is leading the way in a project led by Lockheed Martin, but Russia, China, Japan, and South Korea all have projects in play. This year alone, companies from Brazil, Germany and the Cook Islands have obtained permits to explore tracts of up to 75,000 sq km on the ocean floor for copper, cobalt, nickel and manganese, and the rare earth metals that help power smartphones, tablets and other devices.
Other areas of the Pacific – outside international waters – are also opening up for mining. Papua New Guinea has granted permission to a Canadian firm, Nautilus Minerals, to explore a site 30km off its coast for copper, zinc and gold deposit worth potentially hundreds of millions of dollars.
Lodge expects the pace to continue, with rising demand for metals for emerging economies, and for technologies such as hybrid cars and smart phones. Extracting the metals will not require drilling. The ore deposits are in nodules strewn across the rolling plains of sediment that carpet the ocean floor. Oceanographers say they resemble knobbly black potatoes, ranging in size from a couple of centimetres to 30cm. Mining companies say it may be possible to scoop them up with giant tongs and then siphon them up to vessels waiting on the surface.
The problem is much remains unknown – not just about what exists on the ocean floor but how ocean systems operate to keep the planet habitable. The ocean floor was once thought to be a marine desert, but oceanographers say the sediment is rich in marine life, with thousands of species of invertebrates at a single site.
“It’s tampering with ecosystems we hardly understand that are really at the frontier of our knowledge base,” said Greg Stone, vice-president for Conservation International. “We are starting mining extracting operations in a place where we don’t fully understand how it works yet. So that is our concern – disturbing the deep sea habitat.”
Most of the models rely on being able to produce 1 million tonnes of ore a year. Stone said the seabed authority was putting systems in place to protect the ocean floor, but other scientists said there still remained enormous risks to the sediment and the creatures that live there.
“It is going to damage vast areas of the sea floor,” said Craig Smith, an oceanographer at the University of Hawaii who served as an adviser to the International Seabed Authority. “I just don’t see any way [in] mining one of these claims that whole areas won’t be heavily damaged.”
Earle expressed fears about how mining companies will deal with waste in the high seas. “Mining is possible,” she said. “But the 20,000ft question is what do you do with the tailings? All of the proposals involved dumping the tailings at sea with profound impacts on the water column and the sea floor below. The Seabed Authority initially proposed to set aside 1.6m sq km of the ocean floor as protected areas, or about 20% of its territory. But those reserves are under review. As economic pressures rise, there are fears that commercial operations would begin to erode those protected areas.
“I think it is certain that within a year or two there will be more claims covering these areas and there won’t be enough room left to develop these scientifically defensible protected areas,” Smith said.
Some have argued that with all the unknowns there should be no mining at all – and that the high seas should remain out of bounds for mineral extraction and for shipping.
José María Figueres, a former president of Costa Rica and co-chair with the former British foreign secretary, David Miliband, of the Global Ocean Commission, an independent entity charged with developing ideas for ocean reform, suggested leaving all of the high seas as a no-go area for commercial exploitation (apart from shipping).
“Do we know enough about the seabed to go ahead and mine it?” said Figueres. “Do we understand enough about the interconnection between the seabed, the column of water, the 50% of the oxygen that the ocean produces for the world, the 25% of the carbon that it fixes in order to go in and disrupt the seabed in way that we would if we went in and started mining? I don’t think so, not until we have scientific backing to determine whether this is something good or bad for the planet.”
World leaders are now mobilising to address concerns, not just about seabed mining, but about how to safeguard ocean systems which are increasingly recognised as critical to global food security and a healthy planet.
US secretary of state John Kerry, in a video address delivered to a high-level ocean summit hosted by the Economist and National Geographic last week, invited leaders to a two-day summit in Washington that will seek ways of protecting fishing stocks from overexploitation and protecting the ocean from industrial pollution, plastic debris and the ravages of climate change.
The stakes have never been higher, scientists said. The oceans are becoming increasingly important to global food security. Each year more than a million commercial fishing vessels extract more than 80m metric tonnes of fish and seafood from the ocean. Up to three billion people rely on the sea for a large share of their protein, especially in the developing world.
Those demands are only projected to grow. “If you look at where food security has to go between now and 2030 we have to start looking at the ocean. We have to start looking at the proteins coming from the sea,” said Valerie Hickey, an environmental scientist at the World Bank.
That makes it all the more crucial to crack down on illegal and unregulated fishing, which is sabotaging efforts to build sustainable seafood industries. Two-thirds of the fish taken on the high seas are from stocks that are already dangerous depleted – far more so than in those parts of the ocean that lie within 200 miles of the shore and are under direct national control.
Estimates of the unreported and illegal catch on the high seas range between $10bn and $24bn a year, overwhelming government efforts to track or apprehend the illegal fishing boats. The illegal fishing also hurts responsible fishing crews.
Figueres and Miliband suggested fitting all the vessels operating on the high seas with transponders to track their movements. That would single out rogue fishing vessels, making it easier for authorities to apprehend the vessels and their catch. It’s not a perfect solution. A diplomat who has negotiated international agreements to control illegal fishing said captains – already cagey about revealing their favourite fishing routes – would simply flip off the transponders.
United Nations officials were also sceptical of the idea of a high-seas police force. “It sounds a little bit like science fiction for me at this particular moment,” said Irina Bokova, the director general of Unesco, which manages 46 marine sites. “What kind of police? Who is going to monitor? How is it founded? It’s a very complicated issue.”
But the debate was a sign of growing momentum in an international effort to protect the oceans – before it’s too late.
When it comes to the ocean floor, that process is at the very early stages. But given the multiple disasters humans have made with the ocean so far, the stakes are high for getting it right.
“There is no doubt there are huge mineral resources to be extracted at some point in the future,” Lodge said. “It’s also true we don’t know enough about the impact on biodiversity and the impact on marine life once the mining takes place.”
As the ultimate custodian, said Michael Lodge, the International Seabed Authority had two responsibilities; making sure companies access that vast mineral wealth in an environmentally responsible way, and then sharing it out equitably. “We have a huge challenge to devise a fiscal regime so that humankind as a whole gets a fair share. That’s an enormous challenge, he said. “If we end up giving it away to industry, then we have failed in our missions.”
And the costs of such a failure are already becoming painfully evident in the greater ocean.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2014
Bikini Atoll nuclear test: 60 years later and islands still unliveable
Marshall Islanders unable or unwilling to return to traditional home, scene of huge US hydrogen bomb test in 1954
Agence France-Press in Majuro
theguardian.com, Sunday 2 March 2014 03.49 GMT
The Marshall Islands are marking 60 years since the devastating US hydrogen bomb test at Bikini Atoll, with exiled islanders saying they are too fearful to ever go back because of nuclear contamination.
Part of the intense cold war nuclear arms race, the 15-megatonne Bravo test on 1 March 1954 was a thousand times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. It exposed thousands in the surrounding area to radioactive fallout.
Bikini islanders and their descendants have lived in exile since they were moved for the first weapons tests in 1946. When US government scientists declared Bikini safe for resettlement some residents were allowed to return in the early 1970s. But they were removed again in 1978 after ingesting high levels of radiation from eating foods grown on the former nuclear test site.
The Marshall Islands Nuclear Claims Tribunal awarded more than $2bn in personal injury and land damage claims arising form the nuclear tests but stopped paying after a compensation fund was exhausted.
As those who remembered the day gathered in the Marshall Islands’ capital of Majuro, along with younger generations, to commemorate the anniversary, many exiles refused to go back to the zones that were contaminated despite US safety assurances.
“I won’t move there,” said Evelyn Ralpho-Jeadrik of her home atoll, Rongelap, which was engulfed in fallout from Bravo and evacuated two days after the test. “I do not believe it’s safe and I don’t want to put my children at risk.”
People returned to live on Rongelap in 1957 but fled again in 1985 amid fears, later proved correct, about residual radiation. One of the more than 60 islands in Rongelap has been cleaned up as part of a US-funded $45m programme.
US nuclear experiments in the Marshall Islands ended in 1958 after 67 tests. But a United Nations report in 2012 said the effects were long-lasting. Special rapporteur Calin Georgescu, in a report to the UN human rights council, said “near-irreversible environmental contamination” had led to the loss of livelihoods and many people continued to experience “indefinite displacement”.
The report called for the US to provide extra compensation to settle claims by nuclear-affected Marshall islanders and end a “legacy of distrust”.
It is not just their homes that have been lost, said Lani Kramer, 42, a councilwoman in Bikini’s local government, but an entire swathe of the islands’ culture. “As a result of being displaced we’ve lost our cultural heritage – our traditional customs and skills, which for thousands of years were passed down from generation to generation,” she said.
“After they were exposed like that I can never trust what the US tells us [about Bikini],” said Kramer, adding that she wants justice for the generations forced to leave.
Also attending the week-long commemorations was 80-year-old Matashichi Oishi – one of 23 fishermen aboard the Japanese boat Daigo Fukuryu Maru (Lucky Dragon), which was 60 miles from the bomb when it exploded. “I remember the brilliant flash in the west, the frightening sound that followed, and the extraordinary sky which turned red as far as I could see,” he said.
The plight of the crew is well known in Japan and on Saturday nearly 2,000 people marched to the grave of Aikichi Kuboyama – the chief radio operator of the boat – in the port city of Yaizu to mark the anniversary. Kuboyama died of acute organ malfunction nearly seven months after the test, while 15 other crew members later died of cancer and other causes.
The Marshall Islands’ president, Christopher Loeak, called on the US to resolve the “unfinished business” of its nuclear testing legacy, saying compensation provided by Washington “does not provide a fair and just settlement” for the damage caused.
The US ambassador Thomas Armbruster said “words are insufficient to express the sadness” of the 60th anniversary of the nuclear test, adding that the US was continuing to work with the Marshall Islands to provide healthcare and environmental monitoring of several affected islands.
The US embassy in Majuro said on its website: “While international scientists did study the effects of that accident on the human population unintentionally affected, the United States never intended for Marshallese to be hurt by the tests.”
Pizza Hut’s 2,880-calorie monster: a taste of a burgeoning global food crisis
By Jay Rayner, The Observer
Sunday, March 2, 2014 0:13 EST
We throw away 1.3bn tonnes of food a year, and eat more than is good for us. Greed, says Jay Rayner, is creating a food security crisis that is endangering billions
A chilly late autumn day in 2013 and I am sitting in a central London branch of Pizza Hut trying not to be noticed. I wanted a table towards the back but they directed me instead to one here, in the window. I turn my body away from the glass, but it makes no difference. I am well over six foot, have a chest so big there are plans to build a high-speed rail link between my nipples, and have hair like an unlit bonfire. Plus I whore about on television. Sitting in a public place inconspicuously is not part of my skill set.
Quickly someone tweets that they have spotted me. Oh God. I fear my carefully honed reputation as a paragon of good taste is about to be destroyed. I feel like some Bible-bashing Republican senator who’s been caught strapping himself to the wall bars in a secret torture garden, my appalling morals revealed. And so I am forced to explain. Pizza Hut UK has just launched a new product; an item so terrifying, so nightmarish, so clearly the product of a warped and twisted mind in matters edible, that I feel I have no choice but to try it.
I am doing this so others do not have to.
Most of the diners here today are going for the £6.99 all-you-can-eat buffet deal. Not me. I am ordering a large double pepperoni pizza with cheeseburger crust. I am consigning myself to my very own grease-stained, cheese-slicked gastronomic hell. I am doing this to shine a light on the way a deformed model of nutrition has come, in the past year, to play a key part in the debate around global food security.
Quickly it arrives. It’s certainly not misnamed. The middle is standard Pizza Hut: a soft doughy base as sodden and limp as a baby’s nappy after it’s been worn for 10 hours. There is a scab of waxy cheese and flaps of pink salami the colour, worryingly, of a three-year-old girl’s party dress. What matters is the crust. Each of the 10 slices has a loop of crisped dough and in the circular fold made by that loop there is a tiny puck of burger, four or so centimetres across and smeared with more cheese. It looks like a fairground carousel realised in food.
When I prise out one of the mini burgers, the greasy, insipid dough beneath looks like the white flesh of an open wound that’s been hidden under a plaster. Do I need to tell you that the burger is a sweaty, grey orb of deathly protein? It is advertised as 100% British beef, but origin is irrelevant after this has been done to it. Those poor, poor animals. Surely they could have reached a more dignified end, perhaps by cutting out the trip to Pizza Hut altogether and going straight to landfill?
As I bite down on the meat, hot salty water leaks into my mouth. There is the fat-soaked dough, the wretched insult of the cheese sputum, and a general air of desperation and regret.
Pizza Hut UK admits that the cheeseburger crust pizza is 288 calories a slice, or 2,880 for the whole thing, well above an adult male’s recommended daily calorie intake and above the previous Pizza Hut big dog. That was the BBQ meat feast stuffed crust, its doughy edges suppurating with cheap cheese, at 2,872 calories. Extrapolating from figures for that BBQ meat feast stuffed crust monstrosity, the cheeseburger crust has north of 120 grams of fat; the recommended daily limit for men is 95 grams. That could be mitigated only if the person who desperately wanted the cheeseburger crust pizza could find a friend with whom to share it. Or quite a few friends. That might prove a challenge.
What’s most peculiar about all this is that in March 2011, Pizza Hut, along with many other big players in food retail, signed up to the British government’s Responsibility Deal, an attempt to co-ordinate efforts by the food and drink industry to encourage healthier lifestyle choices by the public. One of the core pledges to which Pizza Hut signed up was: “We will encourage and enable people to adopt a healthier diet.” And yet here they are, two years later, introducing to their menu an item that looks like it could clog an artery at 20 paces.
The head of the food industry division of the Responsibility Deal is the nutrition expert, Dr Susan Jebb. She declined to comment on Pizza Hut’s gastronomic delights, having not had them inflicted upon her. However, between deep, weary sighs, she did say that “if we are going to support people in making changes to their diets then the food choices they are offered are a crucial and critical element”. Indeed.
It’s easy to dismiss the wretched cheeseburger crust pizza as a mere food curio, a tragic example of the terrible things done to perfectly innocent ingredients by those operating at the bottom end of the market. And it’s certainly that. But it’s also something much bigger: a rallying point for those talking seriously about the challenges of food security in the 21st century.
For years the debate has been solely around improvements to agriculture; about ways to increase yield and productivity while reducing impact on the environment. It has been about what sustainability actually means, and the need to revolutionise the way we make food or, as it’s known, the supply side. Nothing has changed. That agenda remains firmly in place. The impact of climate change on our ability to feed ourselves really is going to be huge, and we need to be serious about taking measures to mitigate that.
Waste food adds 3.3bn tonnes of greenhouse gases to the planet’s atmosphere and uses 1.4bn hectares of land – 28% of the globe’s agriculture area
In the past year, however, a second debate has come to the fore, and this one is all about the demand side. It’s not just about how we produce the food we eat; it’s about how much of that food we’re consuming – or not actually consuming, as the case may be. In the past year, for example, the volume of the debate around food waste has been turned up and up. In September 2013 the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization released a report, Food Wastage Footprint: Impacts on Natural Resources [PDF], which revealed that the 1.3bn tonnes of food wasted globally each year caused $750bn worth of damage to the environment. The water wasted is equivalent to the entirety of the flow of Russia’s Volga river. The waste food adds 3.3bn tonnes of greenhouse gases to the planet’s atmosphere and uses 1.4bn hectares of land, or a full 28% of the globe’s agriculture area. All to grow food that will never be eaten.
In November 2013 a report by the British government’s waste advisory body, the Waste Resources Action Programme stated that Britons were still throwing away the equivalent of 24 meals a month, or 4.2m tonnes of food a year. Every day UK homes were chucking away 24m slices of bread, 5.8m potatoes and 1.1m eggs.
But there is another kind of waste, summed up by the Pizza Hut cheeseburger crust pizza, and that’s overconsumption.
Eat food you really don’t need to eat and that too has been wasted. Joining the middle classes, as millions across China, India, Brazil and Indonesia have done, provides access to loads of cool things like education, flat-screen TVs and karaoke machines. It also provides access to eating opportunities which might not be for the best. Like cheeseburger crust pizzas.
A full 18 months before it was launched in the UK, the cheeseburger crust pizza made an appearance in the Middle East. It’s no surprise Pizza Hut chose to trial it there. Of the top 10 countries in the world for prevalence of type 2 diabetes, six – the likes of Kuwait, Lebanon, Qatar and Saudi Arabia – are in the Middle East, where it affects a whopping 11% of the population (compared with around 5% of the population in the UK). How better to decide where to launch the worst kind of junk food than by identifying the part of the world with the highest prevalence of an obesity-related disease? All these people who are developing type 2 diabetes – the kind related to lifestyle rather than the non-lifestyle related type 1 – will surely be total suckers for a pizza freighted with cheeseburgers.
Clearly, Pizza Hut now needs to focus its efforts on the boom lands of China. In September 2013, just as the cheeseburger crust pizza was arriving in Britain, a new study into the disease in China was published by the China Noncommunicable Disease Surveillance Group, based on a survey of nearly 100,000 people. As a measure of economic advancement, of an exploding middle class shamelessly demanding to eat as their equivalents in the west do, you couldn’t hope to find much better. In 1980 less than 1% of the Chinese population was diabetic. By 1994 the figure was 2.5%. By 2001 it was 5.5% and six years later 9.7%. The report revealed that 11.6% of the Chinese population is now diabetic, with a staggering 50% showing signs of being pre-diabetic. Even the USA, that stadium for all things lardy and obese, the outright winner of the biggest-arses-in the-world contest, can only manage a diabetes rate of 8.3%. China has well and truly won the global competitive over-eating contest. As treating each diabetic costs around £900 annually in the UK, the financial implications of the disease are huge. If just a third of the pre-diabetics in China went on to develop the full-blown disease, in just a few years China could be facing a bill of around £300bn a year.
But there is also the simple issue of resources. As I was told by Professor Tim Benton, the co-ordinator of government and academic work on food security in the UK, if we all ate like the Americans we would need four planet Earths. We are all moving towards eating like the Americans. We are suckers for cheeseburger crust pizzas. And the last time I looked we didn’t have four planet Earths.
How do we solve this problem? If we study the numbers it all looks very simple. Along with the cheeseburger crust pizza, and the Chinese diabetes statistics, September 2013 also saw the publication of a study that weighed the benefits of techno fixes to agriculture to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, against simply fixing the world’s diet. The report, written by Pete Smith of the Institute of Biological and Environmental Sciences at the University of Aberdeen, along with many other academics worldwide, concluded that if every single techno fix was introduced – renewable power generation, lower carbon methods of tilling, waste recycling and so on – it would reduce CO2 emissions by between 1.5 and 4.3 gigatonnes (a gigatonne being a billion tonnes). However, if the world changed its diet and went completely vegan, emissions would drop by 7.8 gigatonnes (though that ignores the positive impact that well managed ruminants have on the landscape and their ability to eat waste from agriculture).
There are many people who advocate just that. They say that if we all went vegan everything would be fine. And I’m sure they feel a warm glow of self-righteousness as they deliver these claims. There is nothing more empowering than making airy proclamations about the way forward, when you have no power whatsoever to make it happen. It’s worth repeating: certain social groups in Europe and the US may wish to make these changes, but who fancies telling the newly emerged middle classes in China that they can’t now eat like us? It’s also true, of course, that if we stopped living in the 21st century everything would be fine. If we hadn’t had an industrial revolution everything would be fine. Best of all, if, as a species, we hadn’t been so damn successful, and we didn’t keep being born and living longer, everything would be completely fine. There’d be fewer of us and, as a result, enough resources to go round. The fact is that, as the Smith report acknowledges, the world is not going vegan any time soon. That said, an optimal diet, as defined by the Harvard Medical School, which reduces the intake of animal proteins in rich countries and raises it in poor countries, would lead to a reduction in emissions of 4.3 gigatonnes. If that could be combined with advances in agricultural sustainability and improvements in yield, we might be getting somewhere.
According to Tim Wheeler, professor of crop science at the University of Reading, who is both deputy director of the Centre for Food Security and deputy chief scientific adviser for the British government’s Department for International Development, it’s only very recently that the debate’s opposite parties have finally started talking. “Longstanding concerns with supply of sufficient and nutritious food to a growing population have spurred new ways of thinking about the links between agriculture and nutrition,” he says. “What have traditionally been two separate schools of thought on food production and on nutrition have started to come together to tackle global food security challenges.”
As he says, the dialogue can’t come too soon; the over-nutrition issue is not something that can simply be dismissed as a “first world” problem. “Even in countries where stunting among children persists due to under-nutrition,” he says, “there are fairly high and growing levels of adult overweight rates in urban and rural areas, with child overweight rates also rising rapidly in Latin America.”
There are, it seems, an increasing number of places around the world where Pizza Hut could make a serious splash with that £17.25 cheeseburger crust pizza.
In the early summer of 2013 I was approached by a senior press officer at Tesco plc. Would I like to have coffee with Philip Clarke, the chief executive? Apparently he wanted to hear more about my views “as a food expert, on our commitment and our ideas on how to achieve it”. How very flattering.
And how very, very odd. Historically, Britain’s biggest retailer had also been Britain’s most bolshy. Generally press inquiries about their business were met with a curt “no comment”. They sold stuff, lots of stuff, and they didn’t see why they should have to explain to filthy journalists how they sold that stuff.
Then a cheap, own-brand Tesco burger was found to be 29% horse, and everything changed. The discovery of horsemeat in four Tesco products, announced by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland on 14 January 2013, cast a long shadow over the year which has not yet receded. Their ups and downs have, in many ways, mirrored the debate around global food security and the role of large corporations in it.
Other food retailers in Britain including Iceland, Aldi and Lidl were implicated in the horsemeat scandal, but Tesco was the biggest player by far. The scandal was described as a wake-up call for mass retail. The question is will they all doze off again, given half a chance?
Within a few weeks of the discovery Tesco was taking out full-page adverts in newspapers to declare that they understood they had screwed up. They insisted that they had “changed”. Shortly after that, the initiatives began. In early May they announced they were going to help their customers to waste less food. Which was nice. A week later, they announced they were going to help their customers to eat more healthily. Each time they made these announcements in radio or television studios they came up against a big man with a goatee beard, sideburns and a book to sell: me.
On waste food I asked why they didn’t just stop doing the buy-one-get-one-free deals, the famed “bogofs” that encourage shoppers to buy more than they need?
Why didn’t they stop selling bagged fruit and veg, with their unnecessary use-by dates, which infantilise customers and make them throw away food that is perfectly edible?
Tesco insisted that most of the waste was either in the field or in the home and not in store. This seems more than a little disingenuous. A lot of waste in agriculture is a direct result of supermarkets cancelling orders, or refusing produce on spurious quality grounds. Sure, it never reaches the supermarket shelves to be wasted there, but that doesn’t mean the supermarkets aren’t responsible for it.
Their initiatives on healthy eating were even less robust.
They admitted that the plan, which involved looking at their customers’ eating habits via Clubcard information, required those customers to opt in to the programme. Anybody who opts in for healthy eating advice is probably not the person most in need of it. Demolishing Tesco’s publicity-seeking initiatives, their attempts to recast themselves as the good guys post the horsemeat scandal, really didn’t take much effort.
Hence the email requesting I sit down with the chief executive to explain what I thought they should be doing. I declined, and not very politely, because I really do have appalling manners. I told them I wasn’t really up for acting as a free consultant to a multi-billion-pound company. Far better, I suggested, that I stick with being a journalist and they stick with being a supermarket.
I suggested we do a face-to-face interview with the boss of the company, all on the record. To my surprise, they agreed.
Philip Clarke’s predecessor as chief executive, Terry Leahy, had been businessman as rock star, the buccaneer who wielded a well-cut suit like it was a lethal weapon. Clarke presents as the comfortably upholstered grocer. And it was the sweet-natured, local grocer who was there to meet me in his sleek boardroom in the heart of London’s St James’s. Tesco, Clarke said, was not just a retailer. It was a custodian of the food chain. “When you have 30% of the retail trade it comes with responsibilities. And I bitterly regret that four of our products were laced with horsemeat.” He accepted that the deals they had done with producers had been too tough, that they needed to be in partnership with them. He acknowledged that the global marketplace had changed, that they couldn’t just assume they could buy in food from all over the world because the emerging middle classes of China, India and Brazil may have got to them first. In what was a remarkable admission for the man who runs one of the UK’s biggest food retailers, which competes furiously on price, he acknowledged that food was simply sold too cheaply for farmers to get the sort of return they needed to invest in the agricultural base.
“Because of growing global demand, it is going to change,” he said. “There’s going to be more demand and more pressure. Over the long term I think food prices and people’s proportion of income may well be going up but we’ll be doing our bit. Unless more food is produced prices must go up. It’s the basic law of supply and demand.” Philip Clarke had said the unsayable.
In the days that followed, Clarke’s admission on the need for food prices to rise would make headlines.
He finished by admitting to me that Tesco had a big part to play in cutting down on waste, by not reneging on contracts and forcing farmers to dump crops. “There will have to be an end to that,” Clarke said. Tesco would have to become better at forecasting their needs. And where they had ordered too much they would have to take responsibility “for selling them on the open market for a lower price than we contracted to pay”. Unsurprisingly a lot of this openness and commitment to change was met with scepticism by both industry and consumers. After all, this was big, bad Tesco we were talking about. Surely they didn’t actually mean it?
In October 2013, Tesco’s report on waste within its own food supply chain showed that in six months it had wasted almost 30,000 tonnes: 21% was fruit and veg; 41% was bakery items
But still the initiatives came. In October 2013 they issued a report on waste within their own food supply chain. In the first six months of the year they had wasted almost 30,000 tonnes of what could have been lunch; 21% was fruit and vegetables, but a vast 41% was bakery items. They were filling their shelves with bread that nobody ever bought, let alone ate. Tesco estimated that across the UK food industry as a whole, 68% of all bagged salads were never eaten.
And so they started making commitments: where possible, food that had not been bought would be distributed to charities like FareShare, for redistribution to community projects and food banks. Bogofs on large bags of salad would come to an end, in-store bakeries would put less bread on display and they would remove display-until dates on bags of fruit and vegetables, which consumers said they found confusing. It’s not the same as removing bagging altogether, but it is a start.
How seriously should all this be taken? Can a company like Tesco really be part of the solution? The honest answer is that we can’t afford for them not to be. Mass retailers are a part of the landscape whether we like it or not. A privileged few may have lifestyles that enable them to avoid multiples altogether, but the majority will continue to shop there. We need Tesco to take seriously the challenges of food security. The real question is whether they can continue to do so in the face of pressure from shareholders. As 2013 came to an end, Tesco plc was faced with some truly horrible trading results. UK sales were down 1.5% in the third quarter. In Ireland they had plummeted 8.1%. The rest of Europe was down 4%. A year that had started with the company discovering there was some horse in its burgers ended with Tesco looking like a bit of an old nag.
It wasn’t just the big food retailers who spent 2013 struggling with their responsibilities. In June, David Cameron, convened a “hunger summit” of world powers to thrash out a new international plan to combat malnutrition. He would have been forgiven for being a little disappointed by the turnout. He was the only actual leader to attend; the rest were mere ministers.
Around £2.7bn was pledged that day to tackle the problem, though it was pointed out by critics that in 2009, at another intergovernmental meeting in L’Aquila, Italy, nearly £15bn had been pledged, and very little of that money had ever been released. In any case, much of that turned out to be cash already pledged as part of other international aid initiatives.
During the hunger summit a 45,000-strong crowd gathered in Hyde Park, London, at a rally staged by the Enough Food for Everyone IF campaign, which argues that the issue isn’t one of lack of food, but of lack of equal distribution and unfair taxation and aid regimes. It was proof, if proof were needed, that the issue had moved far beyond the tight world of policy wonks and academics. Food security was now officially part of the political agenda. That same week a report [PDF] in the medical journal the Lancet revealed that there had been a miscount. Previously it had been thought that somewhere north of 2 million children under five die globally each year of conditions they might otherwise survive if they weren’t malnourished. The statisticians had redone their sums and discovered that the number was actually north of 3 million.
In November, a leaked draft of a new report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, due for publication this spring, revealed that fluctuations in weather are already having an impact on global agricultural yields. It predicted that worldwide food production could drop by as much as 2%, while both population and demand continue to rise.
In short, the food security forecast during 2013 was gloomy and troubling, with possible outbreaks of calamity. But not everything was misery and disaster. Because in London that fine company Pizza Hut (UK) Ltd had decided that precisely the right moment had arrived for the launch of a £17.25 pizza boasting a crust containing 10 mini cheeseburgers, with an overall calorie count of 2,880. Many will tell you it’s hardly the end of the world. It’s just a pizza. And they would be right.
By itself, it isn’t the end of the world. But it has the potential to make a bloody good contribution.
This is an edited extract of a new chapter from A Greedy Man in a Hungry World by Jay Rayner
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2014
French scientists revive 30,000-year-old virus locked in Siberian frost
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, March 3, 2014 16:09 EST
French scientists said Monday they had revived a giant but harmless virus that had been locked in the Siberian permafrost for more than 30,000 years.
Wakening the long-dormant virus serves as a warning that unknown pathogens entombed in frozen soil may be roused by global warming, they said.
Dubbed Pithovirus sibericum, the virus was found in a 30-metre (98-foot) -deep sample of permanently frozen soil taken from coastal tundra in Chukotka, near the East Siberia Sea, where the average annual temperature is minus 13.4 degrees Celsius (7.8 degrees Fahrenheit).
The team thawed the virus and watched it replicate in a culture in a petri dish, where it infected a simple single-cell organism called an amoeba.
Radiocarbon dating of the soil sample found that vegetation grew there more than 30,000 years ago, a time when mammoths and Neanderthals walked the Earth, according to a paper published in the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
P. sibericum is, on the scale of viruses, a giant — it has 500 genes, whereas the influenza virus has only eight.
It is the first in a new category of viral whoppers, a family known as Megaviridae, for which two other categories already exist.
The virus gets its name from “pithos,” the ancient Greek word for a jar, as it comes in an amphora shape. It is so big (1.5 millionths of a metre) that it can be seen through an optical microscope, rather than the more powerful electron microscope.
Unlike the flu virus, though, P. sibericum is harmless to humans and animals, for it only infects a type of amoeba called Acanthamoeba, the researchers said.
The work shows that viruses can survive being locked up in the permafrost for extremely long periods, France’s National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) said in a press statement.
“It has important implications for public-health risks in connection with exploiting mineral or energy resources in Arctic Circle regions that are becoming more and more accessible through global warming,” it said.
“The revival of viruses that are considered to have been eradicated, such as the smallpox virus, whose replication process is similar to that of Pithovirus, is no longer limited to science fiction.
“The risk that this scenario could happen in real life has to be viewed realistically.”
Big Changes in the Deep North Atlantic May Erode Defense Against Global Warming
By Ken Branson for Rutgers Today
An international team of scientists has discovered that the circulation pattern of deep water in the North Atlantic may be more fragile than previously thought due to a rapid addition of fresh water to the ocean’s surface waters. Their paper has been published in the online edition of the journal Science.
Scientists believe changes in this circulation — called thermohaline circulation — may dramatically accelerate global climate change. “The formation of deep water exerts a large influence on the temperature difference between the Arctic and the equator,” says Yair Rosenthal, professor of marine science in Rutgers’ School of Environmental and Biological Sciences and a co-author of the paper. “It also influences atmospheric circulation and affects the major climate systems of the far northern hemisphere. In the past, such changes have been implicated in changing precipitation patterns near the equator, and that can mean longer, more severe droughts in places like Africa’s Sahel.”
Rosenthal and his co-authors say such changes could affect carbon sequestration — the process by which carbon dioxide is taken out of the atmosphere and stored in the deep ocean. Carbon dioxide is more soluble in cold water than in warm water, so the warmer the water becomes, the less efficient sequestration becomes. Finally, regional sea level may rise because of the extra water from increased precipitation, the reduction of polar icecaps and the melting of glaciers in the high latitudes.
The researchers found no evidence of a massive cooling leading quickly to the next ice age, however, as was depicted in the movie The Day After Tomorrow.
The formation of deep water in the North Atlantic and its circulation around the world, depicted in this image from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
The formation of deep water in the North Atlantic and its circulation around the world, depicted in this image from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
“Our study shows that deep water formation can be disrupted by the freshening of regional surface water, which might happen under increased precipitation and the melting of glaciers and reduction of polar icecaps,” Rosenthal says.
Eirik Vinje Galaasen, a graduate student at the University of Bergen in Norway, is the lead author. The other members of the team are Ulysses Ninnemann and Helga Klieven, Galaasen’s advisors at the University of Bergen; Nil Irvali of the Bjerknes Center for Climate Research in Bergen; Catherine Kissell of the Institut Pierre Simon Laplace in France; and David Hodell of the University of Cambridge.
Rosenthal explains that surface water in the far North Atlantic becomes colder and denser in the winter time, sinks to the bottom, and circulates all through the North and South Atlantic, finds its way to the Southern Ocean, and then the Indian and Pacific oceans. Eventually the water that sank to the bottom of the North Atlantic rises toward the surface in other parts of the world, still relatively cold and rich in nutrients.
Scientists had thought thermohaline circulation was stable during periods between ice ages, but Rosenthal and his co-authors suggest that was not the case 125,000 years ago, during the last interglacial period.
“At that time, there was a series of sudden, large reductions in the influence of these North Atlantic waters in the deep ocean,” Galaasen, said. “These deep water reductions occurred repeatedly, each lasting for some centuries before bouncing back.”
The researchers used the shells of tiny single-celled, bottom-dwelling animals called foraminifera, found in marine sediment in the northern North Atlantic Ocean, to reconstruct the surface ocean conditions and deep ocean circulation of 125,000 years ago. The North Atlantic was warmer and fresher and the sea level higher than it is today.
“While the climate of the last interglacial period is not exactly what we will face in the future, it does share some features, including being fresher and warmer in the North Atlantic,” Rosenthal said. “And if models can capture the kind of changes we see in the past, they may also do a good job of predicting our future.”
Iceland environmentalists protest as China joins Arctic oil race
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, March 5, 2014 13:38 EST
An Icelandic environmental group poured cold water over the Arctic nation’s dreams of becoming an oil-producer Wednesday, following the approval of a Chinese-led exploration bid off the country’s north coast.
“Iceland should not bet on oil at a time when it is doubtful that humanity can reach its (greenhouse gas) goals,” Arni Finnsson, chairman of Iceland Nature Conservation Association, told AFP.
“There are few indications that production of oil in the Dreki Area will be cost-efficient,” he added, echoing speculation from industry analysts that Iceland’s venture into the offshore oil business could be fraught with difficulties.
China’s state-owned oil company CNOOC International obtained an Arctic exploration licence in January for the remote Dreki Area, 125 miles off the north coast — the third licence granted since bids were invited in 2009 — along with Icelandic firm Eykon Energy and Norway’s state-owned Petoro.
Iceland, still recovering from the financial crisis of 2008-2009, hopes to follow in neighbouring Norway’s footsteps and build a lucrative oil industry.
“That is the hope,” said Thorarinn Sveinn Arnarson, who heads the hydrocarbon licensing department at Iceland’s national energy authority.
“If something is found that is economically viable there would be tax benefits and of course all the other things, job creation and technical capacity like we’ve seen in Norway and in the Faroe Islands.”
But that vision could be some way off, if it ever materialises, said Dag Claes, a leading oil and gas expert at the University of Oslo.
“The Icelanders have been pushing for this as a result of their financial crisis but we’re a bit reluctant about the area — it’s quite remote,” he said.
He cited “pretty strict” environmental rules on construction on Jan Mayen, a strip of Norwegian-owned volcanic rock north of Iceland where investors might want to build airstrips and other facilities.
“Infrastructure development would probably have to be on the Icelandic side … But they’re starting from scratch. It’s an enormous challenge to develop an oil industry. It would take at least ten years,” Claes said.
However that will not stop Iceland from trying its luck.
“We don’t know if there’s oil there but we’re exploring and the licensed companies are taking the risks. The Icelandic state isn’t taking any financial risk in this,” Arnarson said.
According to a study by the US Geological Survey from 2008, the Arctic could hold 13 percent of the oil and 30 percent of the natural gas still to be discovered in the planet.
The melting of the ice cap also offers shorter shipping routes between the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans.
This has attracted the interest of countries like China which has sought closer ties with Iceland in recent years and maintains a large embassy in the country’s capital Reykjavik.
Researchers forecast scorching summers ahead for Europe
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, March 6, 2014 20:00 EST
Europe is headed for scorching summers with temperatures well over 40 degrees Celsius (104 deg Fahrenheit) and droughts in the south within the next 40 years, climate scientists said Friday.
Europe is expected to witness some of the most dramatic climatic changes due to global warming, according to research published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.
As well as hotter summers, Europe’s north should see considerably milder winters — some 5 C to 8 C warmer in Scandinavia and Russia.
“Most of Europe will experience higher warming than the global average” of 2 C, said the team.
UN negotiators are aiming to keep global warming at only 2 C above pre-Industrial Revolution surface temperatures, saying that it threatens rising sea levels, more droughts and floods, and an increasing spread of disease.
If only “moderate actions” are taken to curb Earth-warming greenhouse gas emissions, the 2 C warming will already have been reached by mid-century, the team said, and even sooner if current trends continue.
“Even the achievement of the 2 C goal will be accompanied by a significantly changed climate from today, and will necessitate adaptation,” they wrote.
A global increase of 2 C will mean particularly large increases in Europe, except for the UK which will have lower relative warming.
In summer, daily maximum temperatures could be 3-4 C higher over southeast Europe and the Iberian Peninsula “and rise well above 40 C in regions that already experience some of the highest temperatures in Europe, such as Spain, Portugal and France,” said the statement.
“Such higher temperatures will increase evaporation and drought”, and increase heat stroke risk.
In winter, maximum daily temperatures could be 2-3 C higher in central and southern Europe, and 5-8 C in Scandinavia and Russia.
“The higher winter warming in Northern Europe will have a mix of positive as well as negative effects, including reduced winter heating” and a drop in cold-related deaths, said the study.
It would negatively impact winter tourism and ecosystems.
Rainfall may decline by up to 10 percent in southern Europe on average, and increase by the same margin in the north, said the study.
“Most of the continent will experience an increase in instances of extreme precipitation, increasing the flood risks which are already having significant economic consequences,” such as in England at the moment.
The team used climate models to simulate changes under a warming scenario of rapid economic growth and moderate greenhouse gas emissions.
The average global temperature has already increased by 0.8 C on pre-industrial levels.
According to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), it could rise an added 2.6 to 4.8 C by the end of this century, on a high-emissions scenario.
Scientists warn mysterious ozone-destroying chemicals slowing ozone repair over Antarctica
By Damian Carrington, The Guardian
Sunday, March 9, 2014 17:18 EDT
Dozens of mysterious ozone-destroying chemicals may be undermining the recovery of the giant ozone hole over Antarctica, researchers have revealed.
The chemicals, which are also extremely potent greenhouse gases, may be leaking from industrial plants or being used illegally, contravening the Montreal protocol which began banning the ozone destroyers in 1987. Scientists said the finding of the chemicals circulating in the atmosphere showed “ozone depletion is not yesterday’s story.”
Until now, a total of 13 CFCs and HCFCs were known to destroy ozone and are controlled by the Montreal protocol, widely regarded as the world’s most successful environmental law. But scientists have now identified and measured four previously unknown compounds and warned of the existence of many more.
“There are definitely more out there,” said Dr Johannes Laube, at the University of East Anglia. “We have already picked up dozens more. They might well add up to dangerous levels, especially if we keep finding more.” Laube and his colleagues are in the process of fully analysing the dozens of new compounds, but the work completed on the four new chemicals shows them to be very powerful destroyers of ozone.
Laube is particularly concerned that the atmospheric concentrations of two of the new compounds, while low now, are actually accelerating. “They are completely unimpressed by the Montreal protocol,” Laube told the Guardian. “There are quite a few loopholes in the protocol and we hope some of these are tightened. But the good news is that we have picked up these [four] early.” The chemicals take decades to break down in the atmosphere, meaning their impact on ozone and climate change is long-lived.
“This research highlights that ozone depletion is not yesterday’s story,” said Prof Piers Forster, at the University of Leeds, who was not involved in the study. “The Montreal protocol – the most successful international environmental legislation in history – phased out ozone-depleting substances from 1987 and the ozone layer should recover by 2050. Nevertheless this paper reminds us we need to be vigilant and continually monitor the atmosphere for even small amounts of these gases creeping up.”
The new research, published the journal Nature Geoscience, analysed air samples captured since the mid-1970s in several ways. Air bubbles trapped in snowpack in Greenland, samples taken by scientists in Tasmania and others collected by aircraft flying 13 miles above Europe were all analysed. The team found three new CFCs and one HCFC, none of which had been identified before. “I was surprised no-one had picked these up before,” said Laube. At least 74,000 tonnes of the four newly discovered chemicals have been emitted, the scientists estimate, although in the 1980s one million tonnes of other CFCs were pumped into the atmosphere every year.
Despite the production of all CFCs having been banned since 2010, the concentration of one – CFC113a – is rising at an accelerating rate. The source of the chemicals is a mystery but Laube suggests that CFC113a may be being used as a feedstock chemical in the production of agricultural pesticides. “But we can’t rule out illegal sources,” he said.
CFCs and HCFCs were used mainly in refrigeration and aerosol sprays but, in 1985, scientists discovered the Antarctic ozone hole. It grew in size from almost nothing in 1979 to a peak of 26.6m sqkm in 2006. As the Montreal protocol has taken effect, it has recovered slowly, shrinking to 21.0m sqkm in 2013. Ozone screens out harmful ultraviolet rays from sunlight that can cause cancer in humans, as well as damaging marine life, crops and animals.
“Although these new emissions [of the four chemicals] are small, for the Montreal protocol to continue to be successful it is necessary to understand whether it is being strictly complied with,” said Prof William Collins, at the University of Reading, and not part of the research team. “This study provides useful new information on policing the protocol, tracing sources of new CFCs that are possibly arising as the by-products of manufacturing other chemicals.”
In December, Nasa researchers revealed the discovery of a new greenhouse gas that is 7,000 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at warming the Earth and which has been in use by the electrical industry since the mid-20th century. The four newly identified compounds are also expected to trap heat thousands of times more powerfully than CO2.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2014