Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Saving the world, one meal at a time

So much debate about food right now, in fact Australians are obsessed with food, but has it improved our lives?

I don't think so.

  • We have more TV chefs and celebrities but don't cook or eat any better.
  • We have more information about food on packets but still have one of the world's highest levels of obesity.
  • We have access to some of the best food in the world and throw a huge percentage of it away.
  • We know sugary foods contribute to diabetes but we still have one of the highest levels of Type 2 Diabetes in the world. 
  • We're obsessed with diet and cook books – but we still seem incapable of following a basic balanced diet or getting enough daily exercise.

I could go on.

And I think most of us are aware of those contradictions – which is why book such as High Sobriety, about Jill Stark's year without booze, and the 5:2 diet book are alongside Julie Goodwin's Gather cookbook and all the other gorgeous gorgeous foodie delights.

But at what point did we lose the common sense our grandparents and parents seemed to have about sensible eating? Or is that a myth, too? After all, there wouldn't be so many modern families struggling to find a sensible lifestyle if their parents had shown them the way, would there - isn't that where we learn most of our cooking and lifestyle habits?

Or did the baby boomers and flower power generations become so rebellious that, while they knew the secrets themselves, they chose to bring their children up differently, embracing every fast-food option and modern convenience that came their way?

My gran certainly loved any energy saving or modern device and held no nostalgia for the 'Olden Days'  when she had to get up a dawn and milk the cows then churn the butter. But even her Fish fingers, mash and peas that was our staple diet on holidays with her looks healthy compared to some items in supermarket freezers now.

And there's at least two 'Granny's cooking'-style books in the bestseller lists, I notice.

So, two things from this. More if I allowed myself to go off on tangents but I'll try to keep it contained.

I've been Living Below the Line this week, doing the challenge to buy five days' worth of food for $10, in order to raise money for educational opportunities where that sort of budget is a daily reality, not a cute event. It's made me realise not only how tough and tedious it is but also how much money and food we waste normally. And I don't just mean at big events where food has to be thrown out because it's been out for too long to keep, but at home when we buy too much because we can then it goes off before it's eaten, or our fridges are so full stuff gets lots at the back until it starts growing mould. Or we just can't be bothered finding a way to use leftovers, so we buy more.

Secondly, this wastefulness with food has become a disease that's spread across all aspects of life, from upgrading our phone just cos the new one looks cute, to turning up the heating rather than putting on a jumper when it's cold.

Again, I think most of us are aware that Australia is pretty greedy in terms of using the world's resources – or our own, for that matter, but how many of us doing anything about it? It might not be fun to live through war-time or depression-induced constraints, but surely we can show some sort of self-imposed restraint if we're so worried about the economy.

But somehow it all becomes the government's problem, or the fault of the opposition, or the local council's fault or the school/businesses etc.
It's true that, as a total amount, the same percentage of waste is naturally going to be larger for a bigger organisation, but all of those companies and departments and schools and groups are run by individuals who make individual choices.

And if we're not in the habit of thinking about waste at home, then it's certainly not going to happen at work, is it?

So I think the only solution is for every one of us to start thinking, and living, much more simply. To be satisfied with less. To be willing to put in the effort it takes to be less wasteful – because it is mostly the effort that puts people off – and maybe we can surprise ourselves with how much we can save.

Some further reading: Is there such thing as the 'priviledged poor'?
My LBL blogs:

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Cycling in Buenos Aires

Good news story on how you can turn around a city's transport habits.

Bicycles No Longer Mere Recreation in Argentine Capital, Inter Press Service, Sunday, December 30, 2012 (posted by Global Issues)

Monday, April 22, 2013

A fast way to live longer

This morning I read in The Age how a major component of our budget deficit was due to the huge cost of providing health services to an ageing population that uses record amounts of treatment.*

It seems Q&A is focusing on the health topic again tonight, from the sound of its promo.

Australians - especially those over 60 - are taking more drugs than ever before. 
But in between aired the brilliant documentary by British journalist Michael Mosley examining the theory that fasting increases your life expectancy – and dramatically improves your health in the process. He found some amazingly successful results.

None of these are new ideas but the timing and juxtaposition of these reports raises some interesting possibilities: Would a program of fasting work better than a diet of blood pressure and anti-cholesterol drugs, to say nothing of Beta Blockers and diet pills. And if fasting becomes the latest fad, will it save us some money, not just in subsidised drugs but in unnecessary surgery and cancer treatments?

The idea of eating less to live longer has been discussed since 1934 at least, when Mary Crowell and Clive McCay of Cornell University observed that laboratory rats fed a severely reduced calorie diet while maintaining micronutrient levels resulted in life spans of up to twice as long as otherwise expected.

In 1993 the Calorie Restriction Society International was established in the US. It promotes the idea of eating smarter, getting maximum nutrients from minimum calories – which echoes diets such as those promoted to keep cancer patients healthy when their appetites were low.
SO - lots of vegetables, avoid fats and sugars and processed foods, and carefully selected proteins, both in terms of type and volume.

Pretty common-sense, really.

Much of the society's inspiration was drawn from Brian M. Delaney, who wrote a biography of Roy Walford, who was a pioneering advocate of calorific restriction. Delaney was so impressed he also cut his calorie intake by 20%.

In 1989 the University of Wisconsin began work on a 20-year study on rhesus monkeys, feeding one group up to 30% less than the control group; they found those eating less lived longer. However, while these results were met with positive interest in 2009, by 2012 the relevance of these finding for humans was being questioned.

However, in India, people have been eating like this for centuries – and I'm not just talking about the poverty. I remember meeting several people who told me they fasted on a regular basis and felt much better for it; it was party a religious experience, but they were well aware of the health benefits, too.

Michael Mosley's program first aired in the UK last August (2012) and has run in the US too.

He compared a few methods of reducing calories:

  • A restrictive diet, when 'empty' calories are avoided; 
  • Fasting for 3-4 days at a time
  • Alternate-day fasting, when you only eat a light lunch (500 calories) on every other day.
  • The 5:2 diet, when you reduce your calories on two days and eat normally for the other five.
Eating less - without malnutrition - has major health benefits.
All had benefits that included reduced blood-sugar levels (so cutting the risk of diabetes); lower levels of an indicator that can increase your risk of cancer; lower cholesterol and a reduction in both body weight and body fat.

So for him it was simply a matter of choosing one that suited his lifestyle.

As one review of the program described it, it was a bit of a Goldilocks adventure to find a fast that was 'just right': a four-day fast wasn't sustainable for the long-term, and an alternate day fast cramped his social life. 

His personal favourite was the Homesis theory from Dr. Mark Mattson at Maryland's National Institute on Aging, which advocates a balance of fasting and eating normally.

Hormesis, Mosley writes in his book The Fast Diet, is "the idea that when a human … is exposed to a stress or toxin, it can toughen them up."

So, much like exercise causes small tears in muscles that eventually make them stronger, short periods of fasting can also do a body good, Mosley claims.  Evidence from his research suggests that this form of dieting can not only help with weight loss, but can also turn on "repair genes" that reduce the risk for heart disease, diabetes and some forms of cancer.

It can even help repair brain cells, as research on rats has found their brain cells rejuvenate faster when they are, well, fasting.

It can even make you feel happier.

Dr. Mark Mattson, a professor of neuroscience at John Hopkins University in Baltimore, discovered that after a 'feast or famine' eating pattern, the body and brain respond to each other in fascinating ways.

"What they found in rats is when they are deprived of food their brains start producing a protein called brain derived neuro-traffic factor," Mattson said. "What this does is it makes you feel happier and what it also appears to do is make you smarter."

As many mothers would tell children nagging for their dinner, it's OK to be hungry for a little while.

"Your body needs periods of time when you're not eating," he said. "It's during the times you're not that your body gets on with the spring cleaning. Six to eight hours of not eating isn't a bad thing every so often."

You might think that after a day or so of not eating, people would binge, but those who tried it found their appetites had dropped and they tended to just eat normally again. Although the shots of him gorging himself on burgers while researching this in the US might suggest otherwise.

When the program was made, Mosley had settled on a pattern of fasting for one day a week, and make it clear that the plan wasn't for everyone: pregnant women, diabetics, or anyone with a history of eating disorders, for example.

But for him – a 50-something with a medical background who was told at 53 he had the same risk as a 60-year-old of getting diabetes – it's working well for now, at least.

And, Mosley said, he wouldn't push something he didn't feel was safe: "I'm extremely cautious about this stuff."


Follow-up blogs:

A family tries the diet out and keeps a blog on the experience:

A 75-year old teacher of bread making (!) also writes about his trials in his blog:

The facebook page:

* Grattan Institute chief executive John Daley: "The big driver, costing $30 billion, is extra spending on health. Contrary to popular belief, the extra spending isn't being driven by ageing. It's that compared to 10 years ago today's 60-year-olds see the doctor more often, have more tests, face more operations and take more drugs." SEE: Full report in The Age.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Going underground

It's amazing how much time you can spend in a place and know nothing about it at all.

I lived for years in London and often used the Underground every day, but it wasn't until reading the book London Under by Peter Ackroyd that I realised it is the oldest underground rail system in the world. Makes sense really, but I never thought of it.
Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde used the tube to travel from Sloane Square to his job on Woman's World at the bottom of Ludgate Hill – which is a stone's throw from where I was based in London.

Its instigator, Charles Pearson, came up with the idea in the 1830s because of congestion. (There had been other major subterranean explorations, including tunnels under the Thames that were barely used and became a hang out for ne'er do wells, so it wasn't a totally original idea.)

His first plan was to link King's Cross with Farringdon Street. Jokes were published in satirical magazine Punch as a result, but more serious objections included the risk it would be used by Fenians and other terrorists; which it was, of course. But not just on July 7, 2005 – the first was in 1881.

Still, Pearson persisted and the first shafts were dug at Euston Square and Paddington in January 1860. Because a 'cut and cover' process was used, whole streets were closed to traffic. Later tunnels were bored beneath the earth, but they still generally followed the road plan so as not to compromise the foundations of old buildings.

Following the path of the buried River Fleet – by then a running sewer – presented a few problems, with heavy rains causing a whole section to collapse. But that was nothing compared to the destruction caused by the project itself; about 1,000 homes were destroyed along the Fleet valley, displacing some 12,000 people, none of whom received any compensation.

Chancellor of the Exchequer William Gladstone and his wife were among those invited to inspect progress in spring 1862 and on January 9, 1863, the railway was formally unveiled.
Charles Pearson

Pearson died a few weeks before the event.

Ventilation was a major problem in the early days and on its first day of being open to the public, two were hospitalised lack of oxygen. Later guards and porters petitioned the company, asking they be allowed to grow beards as a protection against sulphurous deposits.

Still it was a major success, carrying about 30,000 passengers a day, so trains were lengthened and intervals decreased.

First class carriages had mirrors and carpets.

The first fatality was in 1864, when a woman, who'd been drinking, rushed down the steps to catch a train and fell on the line.

Soon London was consumed with underground fever; 53 projects were put forward. The different names of lines relate to the company that built each line – i.e. Great Western, Great Northern, Great Eastern railway companies; another revelation!

Ackroyd's research on the subject (and throughout the whole book) is meticulous; he managed to track down a report by Henry Mayhew in 1865 after he travelled on the Tube interviewing passengers. He spoke to one labourer who used to walk 6 miles a day to work; now he could travel in comfort. He lived in Notting Hill 'almost in open country' and thereby saved himself two shillings a week (10p) in rent.

Guards used to stand at the ends of carriages to announce station names and call out warnings, such as: "Beware of card sharks on this train!" and "It is forbidden to ride on the roof!"

The trains on the Stockwell Line of 1890 were the first to be powered by electricity – and the first without different class carriages. When the Central Line was opened in 1900 it was known as the "Twopenny Tube" because of the flat price of tickets. Other persisted with luxurious extras, and in 1910 a sixpenny ticket got you on the first class Pullman cars of the Metropolitan Railway, with morocco armchairs, mahogany wall, electric lamps on side tables and green silk blinds covering windows. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were served.

In 1911 the first escalator was introduced at Earls Court station. A man with a wooden leg was employed to ride up and down the escalator to show nervous passengers it was safe. Apparently the promotional literature boasted: "A boon that the mere man will appreciate is the fact that he will not be prohibited from smoking, as in the lift, for the stairlift is made entirely of fireproof material." Hmmmm - tell that to the families of the 27 people who died in the escalator fire in King's Cross in 1987.

Using a rotary excavator to dig tunnels was faster but created its own problems, such as high atmospheric pressure, so that workmen actually suffered 'the bends', more normally associated with deep-sea divers. With lines up to 221 feet below the surface, heat has become an issue over the years, too. Ventilators are used but even so the average temperature of the deep-level tubes is now 30 degrees Celsius. To protect the Tube from the constant threat of flooding, many hundreds of pumps discharge 6,600 thousand gallons of water each day.

But the lines continued, and even now the Tube only closes between 1am and 5am.

When the Inner Circle was completed, it took 70 minutes to journey around the circuit by steam train; 100 years later the trains are only 20 minutes faster.

The official name The Underground' was chosen by the companies involved in 1908 (other options were Tube and Electric) and the bull's eye logo was first used.

The Victoria Line came later – in the 1960s – and in the course of its construction fossils buried 50 million years before were discovered. It was followed by the Jubilee Line; in 1999 excavation for its southern extension uncovered pieces of Neolithic pottery and Roman tiles, a 12th Century quay, a 13th Century gatehouse and a 14th Century wool market. Under Southwark High St it found an older street, dating from AD 60, lined with houses of clay or timber; ruts were found in the street, made by carts and chariot wheels.

When the line went out to stratford it unearthed an Iron Age settlement and a Cistercian monastery of the 12th century. "It's chaotic down," the architect of the Jubilee Line extension said. "You can't believe what's going on."

In 2007 the system carried 1 billion passengers, all following the crazy Tube map, which was created by Underground employee Henry Beck in 1931, probably inspired by his work devising circuit in the signalling department.

So much history and fascinating trivia – and that's without even touching the above-ground stations.....

London Under, Peter Ackroyd. Published by VintageBooks/Random House in 2012. 

Monday, March 11, 2013

Money for nothing, or clicks for free?

A grumbling storm about the value of words – and wordsmiths – hit a touchstone this week when a blog by an American veteran writer sparked a heated, emotional online debate.

Traditional journalists, modern-day bloggers and apprehensive students exchanged ideas and insults over how the industry should work, how work should be compensated – when, why and by whom – and where the future for the industry lies.

Much of the anguish is an outpouring of grief from those who remember "the good old days" and are underwhelmed by the new world order. Others embrace the future, but describe it as an alien land that some find shallow and crude.

While journalists have never enjoyed a rock and roll lifestyle, up until the 1990s life was fairly sweet and secure in the publishing industry.

Then the internet came to town and every man and his blog decided this was a game anyone could play.

Newspaper sales were decimated, newsrooms are working with a fraction of previous staff levels, sub editing has been contracted out – sometimes to overseas factory farms – and one-size-fits-all copy is syndicated across towns, states, even countries.

Freelancers are in an even more complex situation, trying to find a point of difference in ever-competitive markets chasing shrinking newspaper and magazine space and the ongoing challenge to make money online.

Flashing or exposure?

The most recent catalyst for debate was a blog post by veteran American foreign correspondent Nate Thayer, who uploaded an email conversation he'd had with the (apparently inexperienced) global editor of Atlantic Magazine in which she approaches him wanting to reproduce an article he'd written for the Korean-based publication

All fine and polite until she admits she cannot pay him for its use (they only ever pay US$100 per ORIGINAL story and she'd already used up her presumably small budget for the current month) but she hopes he'll be happy to benefit from the 'exposure' this will bring him.

Now the poor girl should not be made the scapegoat in this issue – assuming she doesn't choose her budget, just has to work within it – but it would be interesting to know if she approached Thayer because he was a 'name', or if she had no idea who he was. Personally I think you'd have to be fairly daft to expect a freebie from someone of his calibre – he scored the world's first interview with Pol Pot and has won dozens of awards for his reporting from Thailand and Cambodia, for starters. However others recognised the approach – re-using second-hand work from quality writers – as a regular ploy for obtaining cheap copy.

Most of the comments responding to Thayer's understandably indignant blog were sympathetic and many cited simlilar experiences of being asked to write for free.

Not a few despondent journalism students expressed frustration at the industry they'd hope to join.

But a surprising number took the view that Thayer was not only 'agitated', 'whining' and unprofessional by publishing a private conversation (possibly a fair comment), but that he was out of touch with the ways of the publishing world.

"Nate Thayer’s agitated response clearly shows that he does not know about the difference between the print version of a news publication and its website," wrote one Sevket Zaimoglu. "Due to the way internet has evolved, newspapers and magazines were mostly forced to offer their “products” for free on the internet."

Notwithstanding that Thayer was presumably paid for the original article, which appeared on a website, is it now accepted practice to expect online copy to be free?

And, bearing in mind that the Atlantic's editor proudly announces her publication reaches 13 million readers a month, surely they are badly mismanaging their product and market if they can't raise enough revenue from that to afford to pay freelancers more than $100 a story.

'You journalists are ridiculous'

One particularly harsh comment came from John, who later admitted to being a copywriter, proud that his words brough direct profit/benefit to his bosses.

"You journalists are ridiculous," he says.

"No one is obligated to pay you a single penny. Your rates are determined by the ROI [return on interest] that you produce. Anything beyond that is wasteful. Profit is the name of the game. If you want to get paid more, then find ways to generate more profit for the companies you work for.

"If you don’t like this idea of working to generate more profit, move to a country with a socialist government."

While less harsh in his criticism, another copywriter, Nick, agreed: "I freelance copy write now for money and I write food and travel articles on the side for websites and some magazines. I don’t get paid for the latter but I get free food and travel and see the world in some style.

"Tell me why I should stop? Because ‘professional freelance journalists’ are losing money? Sorry but that isn’t my problem, it’s theirs. The world has changed and the genie is not going back into the bottle. I don’t want to sound as harsh as John, but the message here really is ‘tough luck’."

My answer to that is that many website owners already recognise the value a story can bring its site, and measure it in terms of clicks per page; journalists are paid according to the amount of traffic they bring to the site – and its advertisers. Others offer bonuses if writers manage to organise a link from another site, which naturally brings more traffic again. Both expect the writers to provide the copy virtually free upfront, though, with the expectation that the 'clicks' will determine your pay.

Fine if writing is a hobby; a bit harder for those who hope to make writing your main income stream, but it's certainly an 'open market' solution.

Countless shades of grey

Having said that, I'm also guilty of doing some writing for free, but nearly all of it is for not-for-profit groups.

The only exception is the occasional review I do for Australian Stage website, which is gradually building its presence in the industry and may one day be profitable, but is really more of a service to the arts at the moment; I'm happy to get free tickets to shows I would not otherwise see for the small price of 1-2 hours' work writing a review on it afterwards.

Another grey area is writing travel pieces on trips where I have paid my own way; I recover some of my costs from selling articles afterwards (most of the time; not every idea sells) and I try not to incur extra costs on top of what I would spend on the trip anyway, although I do spend extra time researching aspects I might not otherwise have bothered with.

However, as a freelancer, I see this as me finding a business model that suits me, and that model will be different for virtually every freelance writer there is.

Nearly everyone I've spoken to finds some sort of 'bread and butter' income, often from a job that may not be super-interesting, in order to pay the bills and earn the time and luxury to write on more interesting subjects; many admit to getting paid considerably less for the 'good' stuff.

Shrinking markets, but people still read

However, finding places to sell even a bit of the 'good' stuff is getting harder.

In Australia alone, more than 1000 journalists were made redundant last year, mostly from the leading metro dailies, so that's a lot of extra people out there trying to make a living by their writing wits.

Combine this with the two Fairfax dailies The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald going tabloid (sorry - compact) and having their freelance budgets severely hacked, and there are fewer options around, too.

Magazines are experiencing their own issues, with increasingly niche markets appearing; sales overall may be constant, or even growing in some areas, but the numbers are now shared between an increasing number of titles. Long gone are the days when even leading women's magazines sold one million or more per issue; in 2012 Women's Day dropped 6.5% to 360,409 with New Idea fell 1.6% to 303,264.

The response of the bewildered publishers has been to try and squeeze more for less from their contributors. While few have many in-house staff, they still want a staff-level of dedication and flexibility from freelancers.

So instead of freelancers owning their copyright and getting paid per use, many publishers are now asking writers to sign contracts handing over all rights to their material, so it can be published as many times as liked, on as many platforms as needed, for no extra cost. Some insist freelancers not contribute to a long list of 'rival' publications (which sometimes includes anything not owned by them), and many will only accept photos/words from freelancers who provide their own public liability and professional indemnity insurance, instead of taking responsibility for whatever they publish.

The jury is out on whether this is a free market between supply and demand or simply large corporations bullying sole traders.

Sign of the Times

It's safe to say that the transition to new media has not been publishers' finest hour. Many were caught napping, some refused to accept any change was needed, and others made half-hearted changes that left them in a nether world between print and online, without addressing either particularly well.

Now the dust is starting to settle and a clearer picture of different landscapes has emerged, although publishers and creatives alike are still very much at the mercy of two uncontrollable forces: new technology and The Reading Public.

In his review of this whole Nate Thayer discussion, Paul Carr of PandoDaily (part of NSFWCorp = Not Safe For Work Corp) believes publisher have two future choices:

  • One is to follow the Atlantic route, which he describes as a content farm: going for the high SEO, high traffic levels and earning most of its living from advertising. He believes the survivors will earn lots but be hellish places to work.
  • The other option is to go for quality over quantity, which means paying journalists, providing a supportive work environment, and hoping its value is rewarded with a solid subscription income.

The former, Carr says, will earn mega-bucks for some but be a hellish place to work.

Naturally the latter is a more attractive option for journalists, but will the market support it?

Carr explains his simple logic for paying writers well: "We do this not because we’re benevolent, but because we’re selfish. I want our writers spending all of their time writing for us. When they get a scoop, I want it on our pages. Paying good salaries goes a good way towards ensuring that."

However, it comes with a caveat that this model has yet to prove itself.

"None of this guarantees success," Carr writes.

"After we announced the Print Edition, lots of usually cynical editors and journalists Tweeted us as an example of a business that’s “proving” you can pay for great journalism and make money. We haven’t proved a damn thing. Between now and the end of the year, a thousand things could go wrong. Our print edition could flop, our digital subscriptions could tank, our writers could all flee for some even better funded startup. We could get sued into oblivion. For NSFWCORP to be a sustainable business, protected against all of those risk factors, we need to be generating at least a million dollars in revenue a year. Then we’ll have proved something."

Working titles

A couple of titles are showing early signs of success.

One is the New York Times, which, led by its interactive editor Aron Pilhofer, has recognised the need to include IT nerds in its editorial team, has a user-friendly web layout, and makes the most of technology by offering readers interactive feedback, setting new world standards for breaking news such as election coverage (a model they have sold as a franchise overseas), and offering innovative approaches to journalism, for example running a project to measure the impact of news online.

As a result, its digital readership last year tripled to 380,000 and, after launching a 'soft' paywall in March 2011, was on its way in late 2012 to achieving the unthinkable – of earning more from subscriptions than advertising.

Readers can still access 10 articles a month for free before being asked to subscribe, and free links can still be made to articles via Facebook and Twitter.

Can you dig it?

In 2012 UK gardening magazine Gardeners World also saw its website go into the black for the first time, covering its costs through a mixture of advertising, merchandise sales and by offering its magazine subscribers extra value, which has increased subscriptions and made the printing process more profitable (print runs can be predicted more accurately, reducing waste, and most copies are thus paid for in advance).

Both offer hope for the future and most believe journalism will survive in some shape or form – but how long will it take the market settle to down, and, most importantly will there be enough experienced journalists left to guide the way for the new generation when it does?

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Meat and emissions: can vegetables save the day?

Becoming vegetarian will not help climate change, and it would create many new problems, claims an American professor in animal science.

Despite the widely held belief that animal farming causes disproportionally high levels of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the concept of vegetarianism as a solution to reduce emissions was challenged by Dr Jude Capper in her address to the Climate Change Research Strategy for Primary Industries conference in Melbourne in November.

An Adjunct Professor of Animal Sciences in the Department of Animal Sciences at Washington State University, Dr Capper describes herself as a “livestock sustainability consultant” who is “passionate about sustainability issues and the role of animal agriculture in helping to feed a hungry world”, so it perhaps not surprising that she supports eating meat.

“Whole-scale vegetarianism is not a solution that will mitigate GHG emissions, but simply a panacea offered at the expense of consumer choice and dietary diversity,” she said.

She paints a picture of a world in which the only livestock would be found in zoos or conservations parks; points out that other resources would be needed to make by products such as leather, fertiliser, tallow and pharmaceuticals, and even asks how we would feed Australia’s 5.75 million pet cats and dogs.

As an extreme side effect, Capper says that, by feeding on the “leftovers” of plant farming, animals convert this to useful protein; without this, the organic material would go to landfill and produce methane (although arguably the biogas from anaerobic decomposition could be collected for use as biogas, or it could be used to make aerobic compost).

The most common argument for reducing meat production stems from calculations that attribute 18% of GHG emissions to animal agriculture [Livestock’s Long Shadow, UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, 2006]. Capper points to admissions by the report’s author that this figure needs recalculating, however she agrees: “enteric methane emissions are an invariable consequence of ruminant livestock systems, and manure from both ruminant and monogastric animals is a significant contributor to atmospheric methane and nitrous oxide”.

In the USA and elsewhere, ‘Meatless Mondays’ is being promoted as a way of reducing the impact of animal agriculture, however Capper says the “claims for a significant improvement in environmental impact appear to be over-exaggerated”. One claim is by researchers from Carnegie-Mellon University concluding that: “Switching less than one day per week’s worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs or a vegetable-based diet achieves more greenhouse gas reductions than buying locally-sourced food”.

By Capper’s calculations, based on US EPA figures that red meat and dairy production contributes 3% of annual GHG emissions, if all Americans avoided meat and dairy once a week, this would cut America’s national GHG emissions by just 0.42%, or less (0.29% if only meat was omitted).

The savings could be potentially much higher in Australia, where animal agriculture accounts for 11% of GHG, but 60% of this is exported.

Asked to respond, Sydney PhD student Judith Friedlander, who is researching food sustainability and the media, said that choosing to eat less meat is something effective that consumers can do easily.

She said there was enough evidence to show that meat and dairy production have a substantial impact on emissions and that, while these industries are working to become more efficient, the potential for reduced emissions through technical mitigation options is estimated to be limited to 15-20% (Weidema et al 2008 and Wirsenius and Hedenus 2010): “So a reduction in consumption of livestock and meat products is also vitally important to cut emissions."

Capper disagrees. Despite Stockholm International Water Institute findings that there is not enough water to support the predicted increase in population and that meat consumption will be need to be cut, she points out that dairy production in the US has reduced GHG by 63% and water use by 65% per kg of milk since 1944, while GHG emissions and water use per kg of US beef have dropped by 16% and 12% respectively since 1977.  

Environmentalists often claim that it takes 10, 20 or even 30kg of grain to produce a kilo of beef, Capper resorts to a rather specious argument that corn only accounts for 7% of the feed used to produce a kilo of beef in the USA and, anyway, who wants to eat feed-quality corn? Unfortunately she does not compare the equivalent land use of producing protein-rich chickpeas or soya, although she does make the relevant point that only a small proportion of grazing land is suitable for growing crops. And she highlights the point made by Fairlie (2010) who compared resource use for various diets, that more land would be needed to feed 7 billion people on a vegan diet, due to the lack of animal fertilisers, and the need for more oil-producing plants to replace animal fats.

“Both dairy and grass-fed beef cattle produce a greater amount of human-edible food than they consume,” she argues.

Take the amino acid balance and protein quality of animal proteins compared to plant-based foods, and Capper says: “this strengthens the rational for maintaining omnivorous diets”.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Truth beats fiction in the crazy world of Sheriff Joe

Last week I was sent one of those gung-ho emails about a US sherrif who had solved the problem of stray dogs in his district by getting prisoners to care for them, thus saving the county money (costs fell from $10m to $3m a year, it claims), providing care and an adoption scheme for the strays, and training prisoners in animal care. 
The email says his policies are so popular, he keeps getting re-elected, term after term (by a 83% majority last time, it claims).
It goes on to praise another scheme whereby prisoners grow their own food and earn income via a farm, which also produces fertiliser for a Christmas tree nursery, which, in turn, creates more income.
All sounds perfect.

Too good to be true, in fact. 

So I thought I'd check a few facts, to make sure it wasn't all fantasy.
Search for "Joe Arpaio" or "Maricopa County" and you'll find he's real enough – but there's much more to the story than that.
Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Picture: Rolling Stone magazine
Republican Sherrif Joe, now 80, is of Italian heritage and was born in Springfield, Mass., and has been head of law enforcement of Maricopa County, Arizona, for nearly 20 years. Before that he served in the US army and was a Fed with the DEA, serving overseas as well as in the US.
Sadly he undermines my theory that Americans who travel are more moderate than those who spend their whole lives in the US.
First elected in 1992, his eccentric tough stance has gradually been overshadowed by claims against the Sheriff’s Office of discrimination, corruption and financial irregularities.
              In 1993 he launched the idea of a tent city for inmates to solve overcrowding problems, leading to complaints of breach of human rights as temperatures in the remote Arizona desert setting topped 100ºF (38ºC+) and often reached 120ºF (49ºC). He told them to suck it up – if it was good enough for US forces defending their country, it was good enough for convicts. Tours of Tent City can be booked; apparently all 2,126 inmates have been checked to ensure ‘dangerous and predatory individuals’ are not placed there, so apparently this is the ‘soft’ option.
              He stopped prisoners’ access to coffee (saving $150,000 a year, he claims), cigarettes, hot lunches, TV (except for education broadcasts in the evening) and banned porn.
              He makes prisoners pay for meals. According to Arpaio in 2003, it cost $1.15 a day to feed each guard dog, and 40c a day to feed each inmate.
              Convicts must also pay $10 for each visit to a nurse.
              If they want to write to their families they have to use special postcards with the sheriff’s picture on them.
              In 1995 he reinstated chain gangs, initially in striped uniforms with pink underwear.
              In 1996, to make it fair, he included female inmates too. Burial duty at the local cemetery was one regular task for women.
              He later launched a supposedly world-first juvenile volunteer chain gang, in which volunteers can earn high school credits towards a diploma.
              Inspired by the pink undies idea, in 2007 he forced men convicted of drunk driving to clean up the city in pink jail suits.
              The animal adoption sanctuary is housed in a former jail. Animals are supposedly rescued for abusive situations – a scary number of pit bulls are up for adoption, and a few seem to have dodgy temperaments, according to their details..

However attractive some of those ideas may be, critics find plenty to complain about.

Tent City, as it's called on  
Does the tough regime work? When inmates complain, Arpaio loves to retort: "If you don't like it, don't come back." But, according to CNN, jail spokeswoman Lisa Allen McPherson said that 60 per cent of inmates did in fact come back for more than one term.
Does it save money? Running costs have certainly dropped, but the legal bills have been hefty. Among the hundreds of inmate-related lawsuits, and at least $43 million paid in settlement claims, $8.5 million was paid to the family of Scott Norberg who reportedly died of asphyxiation as he struggled with guards in 1996; $2 million to the family of a blind man who died after being beated in jail, and $1.5 million was awarded to an inmate denied medical treatment for a perforated ulcer (he was arrested for driving with a suspended license). In several cases, it was alleged Arpaio’s office destroyed digital video evidence.
Do the chain gangs work? Catholic priest Father Bill Wack, who receives help from female prisoners in burying those too poor to pay for funerals – often babies and itinerants – told CNN: “It’s free labor and it’s undignified. How is this helping to rehabilitate anyone?”
Prisoners’ calories have been cut from 3,000 to 2,500 a day, but some complain that food is rotten, with spots of mould on meat and cheese.
Does the office protect and serve? “Integrity, accountability and community” is what is plastered across Arpaio’s website,, which encourages citizens to vote for the “mugshot of the day” and ranks lists of ‘deadbeat parents’, ‘sex crimes’, alongside boasts of how many illegal migrants have been detained. Trouble is, the mugshots are of people booked within the last three days, not those necessarily found guilty of any crime. While the page declares the caveat ‘Pre-trial inmates are innocent until proven guilty!’ one wonders how much mud sticks. Or if juries can truly claim to be impartial (and how can seven people have been charged with kidnapping in one day!?)

There are a whole host of accusations that have been leveled against Arpaio over the past 20 years.

Immigration issues hit
Arpaio, never one to shrink from publicity, also hit headlines more recently when he challenged Barack Obama about his US-citizenship, demanding to see his birth certificate.
His campaign against illegal migrants has led him to fighting two sets of legal action as a result of his so-called “crime suppression sweeps” that have led to complains of police targeting Hispanics for ID checks, traffic stops and detention. In December 2011, the US Justice Department said it had found cause to believe the sheriff’s office “has engaged in a pattern of misconduct that violates the Constitution and federal law” and launched civil action against him.
He is also facing a class action of racial discrimination brought by a number of Hispanics in Arizona, a battle that has been simmering since at least 2009.

Joe and Ava Arpaio in 2011. Picture: Gage Skidmore
Millions mis-spent
If that was not enough, there’s the accusations of misspending millions of dollars in taxpayer money.
Complaints laid in 2011 after a county budget office audit found Arpaio had used about $100 million designated for jail funds to pay deputies’ salaries.
Calling the findings a “payroll discrepancy issue”, Arpaio pledge to fix the problem internally and resisted calls for him to resign.
Other accusations were that there were frequent errors in managing inmate’s cash accounts, with deficits of hundreds of dollars in some cases; that the office spends 3-to-6 times more that other jurisdiction for extraditions; that outside bank accounts prevented county officials from monitoring transactions; and that sheriff’s officials charged “unusual expenses” to county -issued credit cards, including first-class upgrades to flights, entertainment, and stays at luxury hotels.

But wait - there’s more!
In late 2010 Arpaio's 2012 re-election campaign committee was fined for sending out flyers deemed illegal by the county election department's finance committee because they sought the defeat of a political opponent.

Don’t forget the steak knives!

For about four years the US Justice Department has been investigating Arpaio and his former chief deputy, David Hendershott and former County Attorney Andrew Thomas and his deputy Lisa Aubuchon. While the exact nature of the investigation was ever revealed, Thomas and Aubuchon were both disbarred earlier in 2012.
The gist of the proceedings is that those officials used their positions and power to press criminal charges against their political enemies: four judges were accused of racketeering by Thomas and Arpaio in December 2009, plus other cases.
However, in September the US Attorney’s Office in Phoenix announced it would not be filing federal or state criminal charges.
It seems there are no federal statutes that cover the alleged actions, and both sides complain the action (or lack of) is politically motivated.

Embezzlement charges
Previously Federal prosecutors ran an investigation in the late 1990s into allegations that David Hendershott (Arpaio’s deputy) embezzled funds from the sheriff’s office's pink-underwear sales and ordered surveillance of the sheriff's political enemies, including the former county attorney.
That probe ended with the U.S. Attorney's Office sending a letter to Hendershott clearing him of wrongdoing. The letter was issued in part because of the media attention the investigation received at the time.
On the Arizona Central website next to this story, Arpaio’s campaign team is running an advert offering a link to the true story.

Civil rights abused?
Locally he is loved. He boasts a “posse” of 2,500 ‘volunteers’ (vigilantes?) who go after prostitutes, graffiti artists and criminals at shopping malls (says CNN).
In charge of 7,500-10,000 inmates, he employs more than 3,400 staff, making Maricopa the nation’s third-largest sheriff’s department.
In April 2005, Arpaio's deputies arrested an Army reservist who held at gunpoint a group of Hispanics whom he believed were undocumented immigrants (writes the Huffington Post). The sheriff said the reservist had no right to take that step. The reservist was never prosecuted.

But others believe the degrading treatment breaks international treaties protecting human rights, which supposedly bind all US officials.
"The intent is humiliation of the inmates and political grandstanding for the public," said Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project, a Washington think-tank that promotes reduced reliance on incarceration in the justice system. “It makes the sheriff look tough and that's all it does.”

Either way, it’s makes for great media.
Two Phoenix New Times editors were arrested by Maricopa deputies after a run-in with Arpaio; the case was dropped the next day and the prosecutor fired.
Another local paper, the East Valley Tribune, won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of five articles run in 2009 criticizing the decline in regular police protection due to the increased focus on arresting illegal immigrants. A series of sex cries are among those his agency allegedly failed to investigate.

So at 80 will he stand again for election? You betcha, although it’ll be his toughest campaign. According to the Huffington post, he has $4.2 in his campaign fund, and is still favourite, The AzCentral website puts his fundraising at more than $7.5 million, mostly for out-of-state donors, while his main opponent, former police Sgt. Paul Penzone is battling him with about $72,000.