Huffin’ and puffin

Fish for lunch…

From the soaring concrete cliffs of Brussels there is an impending explosion of anger. The reason? Look at Charles Sharp’s impressive picture of a puffin, just about to enter the home burrow with a beak full of sand eels. It is the fish, not the bird,  that is fanning the flames, by the way.

For all its comical looks, the puffin is an important indicator in the monitoring of the marine environment around the British Isles. Researchers are particularly interested in the fish stocks that support this distinctive seabird. The  term sand eel is a generic label for a group of about 200 fish species that resemble eels but are not related. They burrow into sandy seabeds and hide from predators while keeping an eye out for their own lunch. Hard to catch in open water, they are easy to scoop up in a dredge, as Danish fishermen have done for centuries.

Puffins are far from being the only bird species to be tracked by scientists. It just happens to be the cutest one of the bunch. The puffins’ lunch, by the way,  is at constant risk of damage from bottom trawling, that is to say beam trawls or dredgers and other devices. Scallops is one species to be caught in dredgers, while cod is a target species for many beam trawls.

Back in January this year, the UK government announced a ban on dredging for sand eels in UK-controlled Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). For the record, bottom trawling is allowed across 98% of the MPAs concerned, suggesting that the state of the seabed has not been a political priority for years. In the North Sea, with its sandy sea floors, there are still  beam trawlers fishing demersal species and small number of Danish dredgers who, between them, hold about 90% of the 160,000 tonne sand eel fishing quota. (UK and EU total) 

The origins of the Danish sand eel fishery go back to the soaring livestock holdings of the late nineteenth century, which set the Danes looking for cheap ways of feeding animals. Initially, small dredges were fitted to inshore boats, scaling up in the early twentieth century to purpose-built diesel powered vessels with an ever greater range. For some reason, as with a number of other fisheries, nobody imagined that the fish stocks would ever decline: until, that is, the catches started to drop. With growing numbers of animals on livestock holdings, the potential earnings from sand eels rose, as did the pressure on the fish stocks. Sand eels, along with other oily fish and suitable bycatch, are the ingredients of fishmeal, an industrial end product turned out in large quantities by refineries that earned a living clearing up after the high value fish processors in fishing ports. 

In the early days of indoor livestock, fishmeal was added at two thirds to one third cereals. As researchers extended their knowledge of livestock nutrition,  the proportion of fishmeal was reduced, making animal feed more profitable or cheaper, depending on your involvement in the process. To ensure an illusion of sustainability for food production in the late twentieth century, the European Commission devised the Common Fisheries Policy, which used its budget to subsidise a rise in the European fishing industry’s tonnage and horsepower, ensuring an ever more unstable fishing industry. 

Fast forward to 2024, and the European Commission is threatening to trigger a dispute procedure under the EU-UK Trade and Co-operation Agreement (TCA). The Commission is acting on behalf of Danish sand eel fishers with fishing vessels to maintain. If agreement is not reached by mid-June, the Commission  can request a judgement on the UK’s  action. While any hearings may be carried over into September, the European Commission is calling for an “evidence-based, proportionate and non-discriminatory” approach to protecting marine environments.  

“The UK’s permanent closure of the sand eel fishery deprives EU vessels from fishing opportunities, but also impinges on basic commitments under the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement,” warned commissioner  Virginijus Sinkevičius. “Measures are already in place to protect this important species, including by setting catches below the scientific advised levels and closed areas for protecting seabirds,” he added. London responded, saying that DEFRA had not authorised any sand eel quota for British vessels for the past three years. Marine protection NGOs across Europe have launched a campaign to end bottom trawling, which is still allowed in 90% of the EU’s marine protected areas (MPAs). Last year Europe agreed to an EU Marine Action Plan that phases out bottom trawling by 2030. This has some way yet to go.

According to the European Market Observatory for Fisheries and Aquaculture Products (EUMOFA) the EU produces between 10% to 15% of the world’s fishmeal and fish oil output. Tonnages of EU fishmeal range from 370,000 tonnes and 520,000 tonnes, while fish oil ranges between 120,000 and 190,000 tonnes. Denmark accounts for nearly half the EU’s total output. In addition to sand eels, EU processors use small pelagics, such as sprats, whiting or herring, all regulated with quotas and topped up with trimmings from fish processors. EU demand for fishmeal has dropped in recent years and is currently hovering around 450,000 tonnes/year. 

Every one of them is different

Sky News is currently streaming an overview of British farming (https://news.sky.com/story/it-keeps-me-awake-at-night-can-british-farming-survive-13132220) which raises a number of questions that have been dodged for years and are coming home to roost with a certain inevitability. They are as predictable as ever, as intractable as ever and demand answers as urgently as ever. The only certainty is that the farming sector faces a crisis which has been ignored for years and will no longer wait in an orderly queue.

The first thing that needs to be made clear at the outset is that there is no such creature as an average farmer. The Sky presentation is very careful to choose visually tame representatives of a sector that  is universally misunderstood. Sky’s lead journalist on this reporting, the west of England and Wales correspondent Dan Whitehead, would doubtless agree that despite the rapidly falling numbers of farmers in Britain, there is no such creature as an “average” farmer anywhere in the world.

The industrial world develops and markets a range of specialist vehicles and technology for a sector that has as many solutions for its many technical challenges as it has practitioners. The general public, in Britain and further afield, has no problem synthesising a stereotype notion of a nonexistent rural world. In the process, any suggestion of  a viable business model  runs counter current to the town dweller’s vision of a rural idyll.

It would not be productive to imagine that rural businesses are complementary to industrial or urban economic structures. Nor can the transport and distribution networks that link urban consumers to an imagined rural hinterland ever ensure that each business gets what it needs in a timely manner.

A frequent town dweller’s  notion of a farm is more like a zoo than a production unit. Go back a century or so to George Orwell’s Animal Farm and you encounter a group of anthropocentric livestock: hens, pigs, cattle and heavy horses. Truth to tell, if it ever existed, this diverse community of livestock was a casualty of the first world war. The two million British equine casualties had a greater impact on warfare and industry than the loss of several millions of military personnel or civilians killed in air raids elsewhere. British army officers were required to supply a horse’s  front hoof when reporting an equine casualty, whereas they did not need to furnish any such grisly evidence for human casualties among their ranks.

The wartime massacre of draft horses was beyond the breeding capacity of the northern hemisphere and cleared the way for mechanisation in both rural hinterlands and metropolitan centres alike. The British army bought in horses from as far away as North America, but they were ill-suited to military requirements.

Both agriculture and industry have exhibited huge appetites for energy during the past two centuries. The combined effects of converting the plains of North America into a grain exporter on a continental scale. This was accompanied by the relentless westward advance of the railroads through the 1850s and 1860s, hauling wheat back to the east coast and shipping it on to Europe. 

The age of steam put bread on the tables of starving cities. It may even have given urban populations a passing curiosity as to where food comes from and what sort of people might produce it. But the only people that ever had contact with producers and consumers were traders with a limited interest beyond crop forecasts and spot prices. It is hardly surprising that during the intervening decades, a parallel web of dreams fed on pictures in books and magazines should inhabit part of the cultural vacuum between town and country. 

Dan Whitehead’s rural narrative assembles facets of the  agricultural world as a kaleidoscope might do. He starts by talking to Welsh sheep producer Rhodri, who has seen a 40% cut in his income, now shorn of subsidy. He is worried that his school age son will not inherit the family farm.

Outdoor pork producer Jeff laments the supposed passing of the British pig industry. Like many British pig producers, he believes his European counterparts are subsidised as generously as they have ever been. He can’t go into a supermarket without spotting foreign meat: pork chops from Spain, chicken from Poland and Brazil. He can sum up Brexit in one word: “atrocious”. From his farm in Kent,  Jeff drove a tractor up London for a city centre protest. Like many in the pig sector, he is adamant that breeders have been thrown under a bus by a government that doesn’t care. “There’s an  unfairness in British agriculture,” he argues. Looking at the deals the UK government signed with Australia and  New Zealand, he might have a point.

Nearby, fruit grower Tim has built up a strawberry business valued in tens of millions of pounds. He needs a workforce of 2000 to pick thousands of tonnes of strawberries. Most of his recruits are from EU member states. When the UK was in the single market, workers could move  freely with no time limits. Now they are limited to six months and have to move on regardless of whether or not they are a net gain or a net drain on their employer. Tim is frustrated because he cannot negotiate prices for his crop from a solid position. 

There are plenty of British pig producers who will argue that foreign pigmeat is hindering domestic producers, but the story is a little bit more subtle than that. If British producers could earn a living off the sales of pork loins, they would cheerfully do so. Since loins are used for roasting joints or bacon, there will always be buyers for this cut. This often leads to a situation whereby British loin are sold through for roasting joints. Meeting demand for bacon packers, there is a steady trade in pigs from Dutch and Danish units. These have been raised to British standards for decades and are effectively competing on a level field, even if their British counterparts see it differently. The key to staying in business is referred to as balancing the carcase, ensuring that every saleable part of the carcase is sold. Hams or gammons are straightforward to prepare for the retail market and represent a good return. What British pig breeders often overlook, however, is that they will routinely export forequarters to cutting halls in northern Europe, which have skilled workforces that make short work of the technically challenging forequarters. These are home to the animal’s powerful jaw muscles. If a pig bites your hand, count your fingers as soon as you’ve stemmed the bleeding.

Coincidental good fortune

A recurring theme in Chris Packham’s series Earth is the timely coincidences that came with planetary events. Having just re-watched the third of the five part series, it is striking how the twin-track development of what later evolved into plants depended on some shared resources with what later became fungi. The proto-fungi extracted minerals from bare rock that nourished evolving plants, while the early plants gave glucose to their fungal partners. Without this quantum step in evolution, we would not exist today.

Unbearable pressure

Town dwellers in Japan have faced a rising tide of attacks from black bears, which are driven by a lack of food to venture into what were previously uncontested spaces. A story in The Guardian puts the number of casualties since April at 158 as well as two lost lives. Unlike the United States, where black bears are a constant risk for human misadventure, there is strong evidence to suggest that the bears are being driven by disruption to their normal food supplies rather than selecting centres of human activity as easy pickings for a quick meal.

A museum reconstruction of the Sankebetsu bear confrontation over a century ago. Pic: Wikimedia

Human fatalities arising from attacks by bears have figured in Japanese history for years. The museum reconstruction of the Sankebetsu episode on Hokkaido in the early twentieth century is pictured here. It came about after human incursions into virgin jungle. A conflict of interest with the formerly unchallenged top species was resolved on human terms. The current spate of bear attacks has broken a previous record high recorded in 2020, with many incidents being logged in Honshu, the largest island in Japan.

Unofficial estimates of Japan’s bear population range up at 44,000, nearly three times the 15,000 recorded officially in 2012. Without a corresponding increase in territory and food sources, there is no avoiding a state of constant conflict between species.

Autoclaves and retorts

Autoclave and retort are two names for pressure cooking vessels used in food manufacturing to sterilise canned food and in later versions by engineering firms to cure rubber tyres. The starting point was known as a steam digester, attributed to French scientist Denis Papin, in 1679.

The hazards of working with steam under pressure very quickly became apparent and Papin devised a safety valve to mitigate the risk of explosion, leading many to refer to it as the Papin digester. It was called a digester because it was generally used to apply heat and pressure to bones, leaving cooked bones soft and friable for bonemeal. Other processes were developed for this piece of equipment, from which Papin developed a prototype steam engine. This was subsequently developed into the static steam engines built by Thomas Newcomen.

Chevalier-Appert, a nephew of Nicolas, invented the first reliable pressure gauge for retorts and autoclaves in 1852. This was an essential accessory to prevent explosions and standardise the process. Early retorts comprised a steel vessel, with a metal basket to hold filled bottles or cans. Later versions were fitted with systems that allowed product to be rotated as it cooked, reducing the cooking time. To start a cooking cycle, the vessel is loaded and the door closed. Steam is brought into the cooking chamber and the contents cooked for the required time at the necessary temperature. Once cooked, the steam was turned off and the retort allowed to cool.

A cooking cycle can last for hours, not finishing until the centre of the load had been subjected to a predetermined temperature and for a set period of time. The result is overcooked product on the outside to be sure that the centre cooked properly. Later refinements include automated loading, a key advance to raising throughput.

The Shaka principle

The next milestone, in the late twentieth century, was reached by Richard Walden, a process engineer working for Carnaud-Metalbox. Convinced that it was time to make retorts more efficient, he devised what is now referred to as the Shaka retort, which shakes its load backwards and forwards, driven by a reciprocating actuator at speeds of more than 100 cycles per minute.

Richard Walden

It was clear from the outset that when the prototype reached a certain speed, the load underwent a quantum cooking effect, a “sonic boom” for food, so to speak. Depending on the consistency of the product, cooking time went down dramatically. Further details are available here: https://shakaprocess.wordpress.com/what-is-the-shaka-process/

Walden fixed the amplitude on the prototype at around 150mm and varied the speed or rpm on reciprocating arm. For any given product viscosity, Walden could identify a threshold at which a quantum heat transfer took place in the cooking vessel. Further increases in the rpm had no significant effect on cooking times.

John Emanuel signed up manufacturers

Shaka is an undisputed milestone achievement, but has yet to persuade mainstream food manufacturers to scale down their investments in energy-hungry retort lines. The technology has been licensed to two retort manufacturers, Steriflow in France and Allpax in the USA. Prototype, pilot and production models are all available. Although the Shaka units are smaller than their conventional counterparts, they can achieve the same throughput with multiple shorter cooking cycles.

Measuring progress

On Your Farm presenter Charlotte Smith and Archers’ actor Lucy Speed open the programme from the middle of Devon by explaining that they are looking for a farm but are surrounded by large sheds and outwardly industrial structures. Somewhere in this seemingly inappropriate setting, they are expecting to meet Andy Gray, a possible finalist for one of the programme’s annual awards.

Andy’s business bridges the gap between livestock farmers and end users of meat. He operates the large food grade cutting and packing lines that they saw on arrival. As well as selling dog food, he also farms 150 hectares of arable crops, as well as keeping a herd of deer and a herd of cattle. Other business activities in his eclectic business include a quarry for heritage building stone.

During the visit, the conversation turns to remedial best practice for soil and the new funding schemes for English farming, based on the provision of a public good such as healthy soil. Rothamstead soil scientist Andy Neil is on hand to discuss some of the vital detail. Charlotte Smith is impressed that Andy should have engaged a Rothamstead professional to measure the recovery of former arable fields. Andy, on the other hand is pragmatic: if he can’t quantify the improvements he is making on his land, he won’t get any government cash. Gotcha.

Milestone or millstone?

This week the UK delivered the world’s first fully digitally documented consignment of goods. Burnley engineering firm Fort Vale became the first UK exporter to put electronic documentation on an equal footing with paper forms. This was made possible by the Electronic Trade Documents Act (ETDA), which came into force on Wednesday. To be sure, the goods involved were not food products, but Urban Food Chains wanted to mark the occasion anyway. Here’s a link to the gov.uk statement.

Meursing numbers in practice

Highly processed foods are a technical challenge for customs valuations, requiring standardisation and accuracy. In the EU the task of establishing a core element in the customs valuation is carried out by using a set of laboratory protocols to establish the precise proportions of dairy fats, dairy proteins and sugars.

The purpose of Meursing numbers is to provide a reliable way of calculating the duty on ingredients in highly-processed foods. The protocols cover the required procedures for measuring four ingredients: milk fat; milk protein; sucrose and invert sugars. These values are then read off a Meursing table, which has 32 rows for the possible combinations of the milk components and 19 columns for the sugars. The three figure codes in the tables are transferred to the customs documentation, preceded by a 7, flagging it as a special additional code.

Most third country exporters of biscuits and bakery goods face a lengthy documentation process. The UK, however, has not been required to use Meursing codes since April 2021. Not that this has stopped folk from feeling hard done by.

Hard cheese

Irish dairy farmers are seeing huge falls in demand and output in the wake of Brexit. The Irish Creameries’ Suppliers Association ICMS this week revealed that this was an ongoing situation and not a passing phase. Not surprisingly, the ICMS has some very substantial members who between them exported more than 80,000 tonnes of block Cheddar a year to the UK. Allow 13 tonnes of milk to make a tonne of Cheddar and store it for a year or two at a creamery, and it adds up to a significant business commitment.

Those with long memories will remember former farm minister Liz Truss regaling the 2014 Tory party conference with a hatchet job on British cheese imports. Surprisingly little change from today’s outbursts, really. Shows how little she learnt at DEFRA.

For a future reading list

Pic: Canongate

In a few decades, once political sensitivities have healed, there may be a generation that seeks to make sense of the current chaos. Former public policy editor of the Financial Times, Peter Foster, has written a contemporaneous account of the poor policy making that has dogged the Brexit negotiations and beyond. What Went Wrong With Brexit is published by Canongate. Visitors to Google Books will also find a sample chapter and a download link for purchases.