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.

So strange, yet true

The British government’s plans really are as mad as they sound. Try this example for size:

Fresh produce importer PML Seafrigo runs a private BCP at Lympne, near Dover. Company director Mike Parr picks up the story:

“PML Seafrigo has its own 24/7 border control post at Lympne, which is the closest point of entry to the Port of Dover (closer than Sevington), we have a dedicated transport and logistics hub for imported goods and yet our customers will still be charged the CUC even though they will not be using the Sevington facility. 

“The government is effectively asking businesses such as ours to collect taxes on their behalf. And the fact that this fee will be reviewed and updated annually by Defra is itself worrying, it could easily be increased in 12 months’ time. 

Parr is outraged by the casual way the government is abusing the trust of the country’s traders.

“The common user charge (CUC) is effectively another business tax that will be applied to each commodity line in a Common Health Entry Document (CHED). Although fees are capped – £145 for every consignment arriving via the Port of Dover or Eurotunnel –this is another expense for importers and retailers to bear, which will of course be reflected in further delays at the ports and another price hike for essential food items.

“What is particularly frustrating is that the fee is being levied for all fresh produce / plants goods passing through Dover or Folkestone – even if they don’t pass through the government controlled inspection post at Sevington.”

The question that most people would want an answer to is “WHY is the British government waging war on the very people that it claims to support? Any ideas, please add as a comment.

245% duty shock for UK cheese

British cheese exports to Canada will face duty of 245% next year, once the third country duty-free quota is exhausted. Some 95% of this quota is already taken by products arriving from Norway and Switzerland, leaving very little for shipments to any other third country.

This slap in the face for British cheesemakers comes as Canadian negotiators came amid talks on the implementation of the much-vaunted bilateral trade deal. Refusing to roll over previous extensions to zero percent duty available under former EU terms, the so-called cheese letters, the decision vapourises pre-Brexit claims of extensive growth in UK food exports. These will in fact be treated like any other third country products, in the absence from specific terms agreed during the framework negotiations. Last year, the UK exported cheese worth nearly GBP 19 million to Canada.

Growing concern

Hundreds of acres of cultivable farmland will be cleared to make way for houses as far as the eye can see. In the coming months, Mid Sussex District Council will hear applications from developers wanting to build 1500 houses between the villages of Ansty and Cuckfield. As well as residential properties, there will be shops and amenities in addition to a headline-grabbing 30% allocation of social housing. Whether or not the developments will ever release as much as 30% for social housing remains to be seen, but it needs to be there at the outset..

This major development plan faces problems, however. To begin with the new homes will generate additional demand for water in a part of the world where demand for water is already comparabl;e to desert regions.The loss of 250 acres of farmland is nothing short of disastrous: the UK cannot afford to throw away productive land.

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.

Sharing the Earth

The final episode of Chris Packham’s series Earth was the cue to wrap up a long awaited prognosis for the planet. Pulling no punches, Packham expressed his belief that humanity would either resolve the many threats the planet faces or disappear into planetary oblivion. Packham’s uncompromising position is completely logical: what we refer to as “the natural world” or “the industrial world” or even “the industrial world” is in reality a single space that is shared by competing interest groups. The problems we face arise from the planet’s collective inability to find ways of sharing one space. For instance society’s habit of staying up after dark created an economic demand for lighting: the routine use of oil lamps to light houses in the 18th and 19th centuries drove whales to the brink of extinction.

Click screendump to visit BBC website

It is easy to talk about nature as though it exists in nooks and crannies that are somehow unsuitable for human economic activity. Humanity’s industrial intakes come from space that could just as easily be supporting other life forms. Industrial farming generates mile after mile of unvarying monoculture. There is no sustenance for wildlife such as orang utans in palm oil plantations. Yet the apes are ruthlessly hunted and killed for being a “problem” when they search for food among the serried ranks of trees that offer no suitable food for their species.

By making nature, industry, urban and rural environments aggressively mutually exclusive, the scene is set for all-out war. It is not difficult to see that if industry is allowed to declare war on nature, for instance, or for rural resources to be diverted into urban areas, the result will do more harm than good. The challenge of Chris Packham’s outlook is to identify and rationalise shared interests in such a way that life can evolve productively. The BBC Earth series is currently on iPlayer: click the screen dump to access the BBC website.

Datacrumb 5

India has this week slapped an export tax of 40% on shipments of onions leaving the country. Poor growing conditions have contributed to a seven-fold rise in tomato prices, onions are 32% dearer year-on-year and rice is up by 22%. The onion export tax will stay in force until the end of the year. Government elections will be held in 2024 and food prices are a sensitive issue.

Mind the gap

 International olive oil packers face a very real threat of gaps in stocks of olive oil before this year’s harvest comes onstream. There is reason to believe that without any carry-in stocks, the scenario will be repeated next year. Prices have been high for months, as dwindling tonnages have been shipped from emptying tanks. Costs are not expected to ease before May 2024. This is an unprecedented situation, even to the industry veterans who remember the 1990s.

The Turkish government has banned bulk shipments of olive oil until November 1, as Italian and Spanish packers scoured the markets for available tonnages. The 2021-22 crop year came close to 230,000 tonnes of olive oil in Turkey, while official sources are predicting a record 400,000 tonne crop for the current crop year. The country has a large table olive sector, which is also expecting a bumper crop of 700,000 tonnes. The way the two harvests are managed reflect the different product requirements, but variables such as oil content and moisture content have a degree of wriggle room. Table olives are fragile and demand very careful handling to remain visually perfect, while olives bound for the pressing mill need to be intact but not necessarily pristine.

Turkey also produces three quarters of the world’s hazelnuts, with average crops of around half a million tonnes inshell equivalent in recent years. There are lingering memories among olive oil traders of instances when consignments were topped up with hazelnut oil, which is very hard to detect when mixed with olive oil in small quantities. Such adulteration introduces a nut allergy risk, proportional to the percentage added. It requires specialist laboratories using either chromatography or spectroscopy to detect it. The confident predictions of record olive oil tonnages in Turkey’s current crop year may not be completely fortuitous.

In June, Portugal’s producers were predicting a trend-busting crop topping 100,000 tonnes, maybe even a record 126,000 tonnes. Whether it turns out to be a record harvest or not, it will all sell through in very short order. There is reason to suppose that the country is benefiting from its extensive Atlantic facade, even though Portugal is not a major producer.

Normally a net importer of olive oil, the southern hemisphere olive oil producer Ecuador is preparing to empty both its harvest and its reserves into a transient seller’s market. In terms of tonnages, this is unlikely to top 3,000 tonnes The southern hemisphere crop is in its final stages this month and every tonne harvested has a number of potential buyers in Europe.

The growing concerns over olive oil supplies are surfacing in many different ways across southern Europe. Croatian olive oil producers are critical of the restaurant trade’s insistence on putting cheaper imported olive oils on tables, while local specialities are promoted on the menu. Award-winning olive grower Ivica Vlatkovic put the cat among the pigeons by urging restaurateurs should sell 100 millilitre bottles of good quality olive oil as part of the cost of a cover.