Monday, 29 November 2010

Grow Sites Update

Winter has now well and truly set in across Birmingham, but last week I braved the cold and went along to the third meeting of the Tenby Cottages Community Garden Group, or rather the Poplar Community Growing Space as it has now been renamed.

Preparations for the site, based in Lozells, are coming along in leaps and bounds, with the majority of the planned 20 raised beds now in place. CSV Environment, the organisation responsible for setting up the grow site, are hoping to have it completed before Christmas. I went along for a look myself today and took a few photos to give you a better idea of what the site is all about.

As you can see, despite the graffiti (which the organisers are looking into getting removed), this is a nice, well sized site, which will be perfect for the residents currently on the waiting list for a bed. The residents have been very organised in setting up the group, and have appointed people as Chair, Secretary and Treasurer already, so once the site is completed and the funding has arrived they will be ready to go.

All that is left to do is to secure a water supply, and install benches and a shed for communal tools. I for one am very excited to see the site in March at the start of the growing season, and hopefully I'll get to sample some of the produce at the end of the summer! Watch this space for further updates...

Elsewhere in food related news, there is seed swap at the Northfield Eco Centre on Thursday December 9th which is open to anyone interested in sharing, or indeed acquiring, all sorts of seeds. If you are interested be sure to book a place now with this link.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Ding Dong Definitely Don't Buy

Well, the holiday season is almost upon us. It's nearly time to drag the tree (complete with a bonus 12 months-worth of dust) out of the loft and to listen to the delightful chorus of... your significant other and your dad cursing between one another, as they search in vain for the faulty bulb in the fairy lights which is preventing them from switching on. I suspect that the cynics amongst you will say 'But Erica, there's another month to go until we can experience those simple joys!' On the contrary my friends; now is precisely the time to start thinking creatively about Christmas.

Did you know that every single Boxing Day, us Brits throw away an estimated 83 square kilometres of wrapping paper, and that 1 billion of those cards that you carefully picked out and hand-wrote end up in the bin? Yes, that's right. Your auntie Sue threw away your carefully chosen holographic, so-shiny-its-seizure-inducing Christmas card practically as soon as it came through her letterbox. Collectively, we produce an estimated 3 million tonnes of waste over the holidays. But there is a better way! There are a number of ways you can keep Christmas fun (in fact, make it even more fun) and make it healthier for the environment (as well as your pocket). All it requires is a bit of creativity. So, here are three fun, eco-friendly solutions to your Christmas woes.

1. Handmade Christmas
The Objective: Make your Christmas presents from scratch. You could paint a picture for a friend who's just moved house, or knit an iPod cozy for your significant other. If you think creatively about what your loved ones might want, you can get their present just right. You can also make your gifts out of recycled materials, such as a patchwork quilt constructed from much-loved but now too-worn to wear t-shirts. Handmade Christmas is the best way to give your friends and family something unique, personal and made just for them! What could be more heart-warming and Christmassy than that?

Pros: Making things is fun and the gift you give will be totally one-of-a-kind.
Cons: It takes TIME, so start thinking and then get crafty ASAP!

2. Charity Christmas
The Objective: All gifts bought must come from a charity shop. Ideally there should be some sort of price limit set (£5 per gift is usually about right), but how you set that is up to you. In my family, my mom gives a prize-present for the best (most funny, perfect or unique) gift given. When she let slip that this year's prize was going to be a goat I dimly asked “Ooh, could we have chickens instead? Free free-range eggs!”. It turns out that she meant a goat to be given to an African family, which is much more fitting for Christmas which is, after all, about caring for each other.

Pros: The money you spend will go to charity, it will cost you less and requires ingenuity.
Cons: Charity Christmas is becoming more and more popular, so make sure you start browsing early. You don't want to start looking on Christmas Eve when all of the good stuff will already be sitting, wrapped, under someone else's tree.

3. Recycled Christmas
The Objective: All gift-wrapping must be done with creatively collected recycled (and preferably recyclable) materials. I don't mean buying new rolls of paper made from recycled material, I mean ribbon made from pairs of laddered tights or newspaper upon which you've stamped, drawn or painted a pretty, festive design. It doesn't matter if the wrapping doesn't sit flush or isn't immaculately folded; you can really get creative with wrapping presents this way and your household clutter will be getting a final hurrah. All in all, you will lose far less waste and gain a free-reign to get creative this Christmas.

Pros: You're creating less rubbish and having more fun with your gift-wrapping (and opening)!
Cons: Make sure you don't go cutting up your mom's curtains for ribbon; she won't thank you for that.

It seems that every year there is an increasing number of people bemoaning the degeneration of Christmas. Along with the festive joy there is a feeling of sadness, that it has become something only worthy of celebration for those in the retail industry. Richard Wilkinson, co-author of the book 'The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better' thinks that materialism is not about the gifts that we buy and give, but more about what those things say about us to the person receiving. Wilkinson explains that “It's not material self-interest, it's that we're so sensitive. We experience ourselves through each other's eyes - and that's the reason for the labels and the clothes and the cars”. The fact is that those who love you don't care how much money you have to spend on their gift; what matters to them is what that gift means. Handmade, Charity and Recycled Christmas are all things which bring Christmas back to the people; where we can stop frivolously spending and consuming (often beyond our means) and really show our loved-ones how much they mean to us.


“Cutting Down on Christmas Waste”:

“Throwing Away Christmas Rubbish will cost 78m”:

“Equality and the Good Life: Interview with Richard Wilkinson”

Take Action! (Here's some inspiration to get you started):
“A Community for Crafts and DIY Projects”

“Sew, cast, carve, solder, sketch, cut, go!”

“Recycle Now: Furoshiki Japanese Wrapping”

Erica Bromage

Monday, 8 November 2010

What the Green Movement Gets Right

It is of course no surprise to anyone in the environmental movement when Channel 4 gets things wrong about us – after previous inflammatory documentaries like Against Nature and The Great Global Warming Swindle, very few can have expected much from What the Green Movement Got Wrong (shown last Thursday, and available online here). We weren't disappointed, and while it sometimes feels a bit like beating your head against a brick wall, it's worth discussing some of the problems with the positions taken in the film.

The main target of my ire was the section on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which seemed to be based on two questionable assumptions – firstly, that we need genetically modified food to feed the world; and secondly, that the environmentalist argument against GMOs is simply the 'precautionary principle' – that if there's even a slight amount of unknowability about the consequences of GMOs, we shouldn't go ahead with them. The programme's conclusion was that 'the greens' should simply grow up and accept the risks involved in using new technology to provide food for the world's population.

In reality, much of the opposition to GMOs today comes not from a fear of what might go wrong, so much as a knowledge of what does go wrong when GM crops are introduced, taken from the experience of those countries that have invested heavily in GMOs – most notably the US and South American states like Brazil and Argentina. The US is by far the world's biggest producer of GM crops by volume, while almost half the crops grown in Argentina are genetically modified, and a similar amount is grown in Brazil (all of these details can be found in the 2009 version of Friends of the Earth's excellent annual report Who Benefits From GM Crops?). These countries, which have already plunged into the GM experiment, provide numerous examples of why environmentalists are really so anti-GM.

From a climate justice perspective the problem is not just one of uncertain science, but of corporate power and the rights of the poor, the powerless, and the indigenous. A full list of the social and environmental problems caused by GMOs would take up far more space than a single blog post, but a quick run-down would have to include:

  • Genetically modified food technologies are concentrated almost entirely in the hands of five multinational corporations, and of those, Monsanto is responsible for 80% of the total area of farmland planted with GM crops worldwide. Giving this much power over the control of our food supply to just a few companies would be misguided even if the likes of Monsanto were model corporate citizens. But they're not. Like other corporations, Monsanto and their biotech colleagues care exclusively about profit, which is why they have been accused of developing 'terminator' GM technology to ensure the seeds they sell are sterile – this means that farmers are unable to save seeds from the crops they grow, and have to go back to Monsanto on a yearly basis to buy more.

  • GM crops encourage intensive pesticide use, as they are often genetically modified to be highly resistant to herbicides and pesticides. They can then be machine sprayed (taking away pest and weed control jobs that would otherwise have been performed by local farmers) indiscriminately with these chemicals, which are often produced by the same biotech companies, further strengthening their oligopoly on the market. As well as the health issues for people living near to large GM plantations, this is encouraging resistance to herbicides amongst the very plants it is supposed to kill (Who Benefits From GM Crops 2009, pp. 25-27).

  • They also lead to deforestation and land grabbing in South America, where 200,000 hectares of native forest are disappearing in Argentina each year, and social movements like La Via Campesina have documented the struggles of peasant and indigenous communities who have been displaced from their land and persecuted for resisting the encroachment of GM crops (Who Benefits From GM Crops 2010, p. 23).

  • GM crops are not even being used primarily for the noble purpose of feeding the starving, because it remains much more profitable to sell them as biofuels or animal feed for the benefit of the wealthy and well-fed. Significant amounts of existing GM crops are being grown as animal feed or biofuels – up to 90% in the case of GM soya beans – while there are no commercially available GM varieties of crops like rice, wheat, potatoes and fruit and veg that could feed people rather than animals and engines. Research into these strains of GMOs is simply not profitable enough for the companies in control. (Who Benefits From GM Crops 2010, p. 6)

Perhaps the most important thing though, is that the film's supposedly 'eco-pragmatist' thesis – that regardless of all the other problems they cause, we need to support GMOs if we are to feed the world – is faulty in itself. We are already capable of growing and distributing enough food to feed all the people on this planet, without the need for technological 'miracles' like GMOs – the EU itself is famous for the huge amounts of surplus food its agricultural subsidies have created. What we need is the political will to grow food rather than feed, and to put people before profit. It's this that environmentalists and other social movements around the world are calling for under the banner of social and climate justice, whatever Channel 4 thinks.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Dream scheme Longbridge?

Confused by the big roadworks scheme on Bristol Road South A38 at Longbridge ? Birmingham City Council planning application explains all. Documents in 2008/02787/PA explain how the vision of a new Longbridge, a process in which public involvement was invited, is translated into bulldozers on the ground.

One drawing in the pack, ‘Proposed Highway Works Phasing’, helpfully explains the land ownership serving the Longbridge site. Serving the site, or cutting through it, is a railway formation that from Longbridge Station to Bristol Road South is owned by English, Welsh, and Scottish Railway (owner of a fleet of freight trains). The railway, that would in some cases be seen as an asset, is part of the Longbridge to Frankley railway. The potential railway sits alongside the construction training college as assets earmarked for removal.

The gain from the pain is planned to be a better road alignment; a smooth curve with traffic signals at the junction rather than the current roundabout that has sent many a visiting motorist towards Lickey Hills rather than the M5. The planned new junction sets up the start of the Longbridge to M42 route (a route that has failed to gain approval) and firmly places the Longbridge Vision as one where continuing and expanding road transport is a given.

The scheme, in its enthusiasm, bypasses itself by having a new two-ended road to and from Bristol Road South; one end lies opposite the much widened Longbridge Lane.

Developer of the site, St Modwen, are going through a stormy time with Birmingham City Council. In May, City Planning Committee chairman, Councillor Peter Douglas Osborn, accused St Modwen of behaving in a cavalier fashion when trying to force through the ‘Longbridge Tombway’, an underground access to the proposed shopping centre. The Tombway was described by city planners as off-putting to pedestrians. Stung by criticism St Modwen grudgingly dropped the idea (Birmingham Post May 20th).

Ripping on with the project in a changed economic environment might raise the hackles of the Taxpayers Alliance. From the money spent, there might be a good outcome in the fantasy tarmac league, but a physical asset that is worthless or even a liability. The Longbridge site, given breathing space, might be devalued by having a road across it whereas it might otherwise be a new manufacturing site or a new home for Pinewood Studios.

To top and tail the sorry story, the developer had been expected to pay some of the infrastructure costs (a £35m contribution) but opted out (Property Week, 31 March 2009). The public foots the bill.

This then is the reality of Birmingham: an authority laying off staff and struggling for money, relentlessly pushing ahead with a project that may well be obsolete. The elected and employed people making up Birmingham City Council have a great deal of talent and that is needed now – Longbridge needs a rethink.

John Hall

Thursday, 4 November 2010

One Week (and One Day) To Go!

I thought I'd post just a quick (gentle) reminder to anyone who hasn't contacted their local MP yet regarding next Friday's Sustainable Livestock Bill. For those of you who are unaware of the bill, which calls for the improvement in sustainability of all processes associated with livestock, more information can be found here.

Basically, we need you to get in contact with your MP and get them to commit to attending Parliament on the 12th of November to vote for the bill. There are three ways to do this. Firstly, you can write to your MP. Friends of the Earth have created a draft letter which you can email, post or fax to your MP after entering a few details of your own, and this can be accessed here.

Secondly, you can call your MP. Once again, Friends of the Earth have created a video to guide you through what to say, and that can be seen here.

Finally, you can request a face to face meeting with your local MP, which is a great way to ensure you will speak to them directly (and to use your best powers of persuasion!).

I will be reporting back after next Friday on whether the bill was successful or not, so that leaves a week to get your MP to commit to attending! I'll be keeping my fingers crossed...

Don't forget to Join the Moovement!