What is Land For?

18 10 2008

Free public lecture series at Birkbeck, University of London.

Last night I was fortunate enough to attend the first in a series of six lectures around the theme of how our land is used and how it should continue to be used. The principle focus was on sustainable rural UK land use, (which is not getting as much attention as sustainable urban development) with some international elements touched upon.

The first lecture was entitled ‘Whose Land is it anyway? And how can government policy reconcile competing demands on it in an era of climate change? By Professor Philip Lowe OBE, Director of RELU, based at Newcastle University.

Philip Lowe is at the forefront of current research and ideas about long term sustainable land use, he headed up an online land use debate, the Great Debate, (inviting some 4,500 members of the public to discuss how they feel our land should be used). His views and opinions are well respected in the environmental movement and indeed were very well received last night, a cracking start to this lecture series!

There was not a seat to spare in the main lecture hall at Birbeck College, a sign that people from students to conservationists, farmers to NGO directors are electing  to broaden their understanding of this subject, bring new ideas to the forum and discus those issues which concern them.

On a personal level, I must confess I have never been introduced to so many new concepts and ideas in the fifty or so minutes Philip talked for, (he made our course director Howard Lee’s delivery look slow in comparison, sorry Howard but the ideas presented in Tuesday’s soil science lecture was the most intense download I’ve received to date!) I feel in no position to represent all of Philips points here, however some key ideas and terms stuck in my head as follows:

•    Mitigation versus Adaptation
•    Dig for Victory, echoes of.
•    Smart production
•    Precision farming
•    Whole Farm Approach
•    Buffer Zones/Strips
•    Minimal Tillage
•    Carbon Accounting
•    Landscape Engineering
•    Reorientation of production incentives (in relation to CAP).
•    Environmental Cooperatives.

I am a cooperative kind of girl and when I heard Philip mention Environmental Cooperatives (a new term for me), my radar was on full power!  The Netherlands is a hotbed for these cooperatives (aren’t the Dutch much more forward thinkers/doers than us). They have both farmer and non-farmer members and collective environmental contracts help management at landscape scale. The cooperatives recognise it’s all about getting the right people, in the right place at the right time.

Minimal tillage was something discussed in our Crop Production lecture very recently, and I believe this is important to adopt on agricultural land (where possible) to reduce farming costs, fossil fuel dependency whilst maintaining the integrity of the soil’s fertility and long-term sustainability.

In the debate afterwards, the term precision farming was discussed at some length. It was interesting to hear what people thought the concept was, someone thought it may involve lots of part time farm workers managing the land in a specific way and someone else asked if it was inclusive of GM crops. What Philip had to say was that his use of the term related more to ecological engineers, indeed he went as far as saying he felt a new breed of people with these skills was required.

Finally there was a phrase Philip mentioned that really summed up the evening nicely for me:

‘Think globally,  Act locally’

Now I, (just like my fellow Hadlow students I’m sure) will be very keen to find my niche within the frame work of the good old Dutch cooperative saying ‘Get the right people in the right places doing the right thing!’

Watch out world, there’s another facet of the diamond preparing to sparkle, er Howard can you just dust me off a bit more behind the ears please ☺

Enjoy, engage, debate, discuss, enthuse and you will change the environment, your environment☺


Time to go against the grain

7 11 2008

Oil-dependent production of cereal crops could be replaced by a traditional method of farming that is cheaper, greener and safe

Posted by Richard Masson, originally from The Guardian

As Gordon Brown’s war cabinet struggles to keep the economy afloat, ministers will be relieved to see that food price inflation appears to be on its way down.

On commodity markets, the price of wheat is barely half what it was a year ago. And as it falls, more food prices look set to tumble. But before cracking open the Bollinger, the Brown cabinet would do well to ponder the implications of having food prices so closely bound up with commodity movements.

Our food supply is now more dependent on globally traded grains than at any time in our history. This makes it inherently unstable and vulnerable to the kind of catastrophic meltdown that threatened the banking industry. First, there’s the danger of extreme weather events, worsening as a result of climate change. Grains are at risk both from heavy rainfall and from drought, and this year’s rain-drenched harvest was saved only by a fine spell in September.

Then there’s the reliance of wheat farmers on oil. To grow the crop, they need diesel to power their giant machines, whose very manufacture requires barrels of the stuff. Then there’s the oil contained in the chemical fertilisers and pesticides, without which their over-worked soils would scarcely grow a thing. Little wonder, then, that wheat price movements reflect almost exactly the rollercoaster fluctuations of the oil market. Finally, our grain-based food supply is largely controlled by commodity traders and brokers – speculators now dictate the price and availability of many foods on our supermarket shelves.

In the early days of the second world war, prime minister Winston Churchill called on Britain’s farmers to boost our supply of homegrown food. Today, they would be unable to respond even if they wanted to. First they would have to negotiate prices for fertilisers and pesticides, then await shipments of oil.

Wartime farming was powered not by fossil fuels but by the sun, and at the heart of Britain’s food production was grassland. Most of Britain’s food animals were raised on it – cattle, sheep, poultry and pigs in a genuinely sustainable production model. Grasslands do not need chemical fertilisers or pesticides, particularly when they contain nitrogen-fixing clovers and deep-rooting herbs to tap soil mineral reserves. Supplemented by cereals and root crops, pastures produced most of our beef, lamb, pork, dairy, eggs and poultry for little more than the cost of the farmer’s labour.

Grasslands produced most of our grain crops, too. Cereals such as wheat and barley were grown in rotations which included two or three years of grass. Undergrazed pasture soil rapidly builds fertility as plants and soil fauna decay. When the grass is ploughed and sown with a cereal crop, the plants make use of the recycled nutrients.

This kind of sustainable mixed farming was still common in the 1960s. Yields of individual crops were generally lower than today, but since farmers bought few inputs, they made more money out of what they grew. And taking the farm as a whole, the food output per acre from a well-run mixed farm was often higher than today’s intensive chemical operation.

Powering the whole system was grass. The pasture field acts as a vast solar panel, capturing solar energy in the chloroplasts of leaves and using it to build sugars from atmospheric carbon dioxide. Not only did grassland produce copious amounts of food, it removed carbon from the air into the soil and slowed climate change.

Agribusiness interests – generously supported by western governments – all but destroyed this system. In place of pastures they have substituted internationally traded grains. For Britain, wheat has been the means of globalising production and taking away our food security.

For more than three decades, governments – particularly those of the US and the EU – have used the subsidy system to maintain a near-permanent surplus of wheat on world markets, sweeping away pasture systems and making it more profitable for farmers to confine their animals to sheds and feedlots.

The grain-based system wouldn’t survive without public subsidies. Spending under the common agricultural policy still amounts to £40bn across EU member states. British farmers receive £2.7bn. The main beneficiaries are large-scale arable growers and commodity companies.

Where I live in west Somerset, many country lanes run red during the deluges we experience ever more frequently. This is silt running from fields whose fertility and organic matter have been depleted by too many grain crops. Higher levels of organic matter would end the erosion and protect our towns against flash floods.

What’s more, efficient use of grasslands would go a long way to meeting the challenge of climate change. The Royal Society has estimated that better management of the world’s farmlands could capture as much carbon as is accumulated in the atmosphere each year. A US group, Carbon Farmers of America estimates that returning the US prairies to the soil organic matter levels of the original prairie grassland would return global carbon dioxide counts to pre-industrial levels.

As in wartime, the countryside could once again be at the heart of a national revival. It’s time to bring our food supply back home.

• Graham Harvey is author of The Carbon Fields, published last week by Grassroots, price £6.99. grassrootsfood.co.uk


31 10 2008


POSTED BY Richard Masson

Scientists refute sceptics by proving that human activity has left its mark on the Arctic and Antarctic

By Steve Connor, Science Editor
Friday, 31 October 2008

The Antarctic's Wilkins ice shelf breaking up. Research proves it is due to human activity


The Antarctic’s Wilkins ice shelf breaking up. Research proves it is due to human activity

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Changes to the climate due to human activity can now be detected on every continent, following a study showing that temperature rises in the Antarctic as well as the Arctic are the result of man-made emissions of greenhouse gases.


It is the first time scientists have been able to prove the link between the temperature changes in both polar regions are down to human activity and it also undermines climate sceptics who believe the warming trend seen in the Arctic in recent decades is part of the climate’s natural variability.

The findings contradict the 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which said that Antarctica was the only continent where the human impact on the climate had not been observed.

The new study shows that Antarctica has been caught up in the changes to the global climate over the past 60 years and that this warming cannot be attributed to natural variations.

Using four computer models and data from dozens of weather stations sited around both the North and South Poles, the study conclusively shows that humans are responsible for the significant increases in temperatures observed in the Arctic and the Antarctic over the past half century.

“We’re able for the first time to directly attribute warming in both the Arctic and the Antarctic to human influences on the climate,” said Nathan Gillett of the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, who led the study, published in the journal Nature Geoscience.

The analysis has also shown there is a significant change to the Antarctic climate caused by human activity.

Peter Stott of the Met Office Hadley Centre, who took part in the modelling analysis, said: “In both polar regions the observed warming can only be reproduced in our models by including human influences – natural forcings [increases] alone are not enough.

“For a long time, climate scientists have known that Arctic areas would be expected to warm most strongly because of feedback mechanisms, but the results from this work demonstrate the part man has already played in the significant warming that we’ve observed in both polar regions.

“There was a clear detection in both the Arctic and Antarctic regions of a human influence on the climate. We had shown we had detected the human fingerprint in both regions.”

In the Arctic, the most visible effect of warmer temperatures has been the disappearance of the sea ice which floats on the Arctic Ocean. In 2007, the sea ice reached an all-time summer minimum, which was nearly reached again this year.

In the Antarctic, global warming has had the greatest impact on coastal areas and the Antarctic Peninsula, which has seen the greatest increases in average temperatures in the region, leading to the disintegration of ice shelves and the speeding up of the flow of glaciers to the sea.

The picture in the Antarctic has also been obscured by the effect of ozone depletion, which has tended to lower temperatures and so counteract the effect of global warming within the region. However, with the recovery of the ozone layer, scientists are expecting to see even greater increases in Antarctic temperatures in future.

Andrew Monaghan of the US National Centre for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, said the study clarifies human impact on two regions that are notoriously variable in terms of climate. “The polar regions exhibit the largest climatic variability on Earth, so detecting and attributing climate changes has been more difficult than elsewhere,” Dr Monaghan explained. “The study is important because it formally demonstrates the human contribution for the first time.”

The Price of Land

30 10 2008

Farmland in Wales most expensive in UK

Posted by Richard Masson

It could be argued that the only material assets of any REAL value in the world is food bearing land and clean fresh water….

AGRICULTURAL land in Wales has become the most expensive in Britain as farmers scramble for dwindling supplies.

Prices quadrupled in the past five years with Wales overtaking the south east of England as the most costly area to buy farmland.

An acre of Welsh land now fetches an average of £7,669 – 14% above the average for England and Wales of £6,709.

Earlier this year farmland exchanged hands for some of the highest prices ever recorded in North Wales when a council auction provoked a bidding frenzy.

Grazing land fetched almost £14,500- an-acre in the piecemeal sale of 128-acre Faenol Farm, Pentre Celyn, near Ruthin.

Livestock producers are under pressure to expand their holdings to achieve economies of scale amid falling profits.

But Huw Alun Evans, of 300-acre Hengwrt Uchaf Farm, Rhyd-y-main, said many farmers despaired of ever acquiring extra fields.

“Land around here is often not available, and when it is, it’s too expensive,” said Mr Evans, NFU Meirionnydd county chairman.

“And the best low-lying land for over-wintering is some distance away on the Lln, Anglesey or in Cheshire, so the economics of renting are doubtful.”

The average land value of a farm is almost £1m (£992,952).

However farms in Wales are still among the cheapest at £759,078, reflecting their relatively small sizes – just 99 acres on average.

Supplies of agricultural land have fallen since the reform of farm subsidies in 2005, while lifestyle buyers, City investors and overseas farmers have also driven up prices.

Martin Ellis, chief economist at Bank of Scotland, which compiled the farmland survey, said this year’s boom in commodity prices had also sparked a scramble for land.

He said: “Whilst farmland values will not be immune from the slowdown in the wider economy, the benefit of inheritance tax relief on agricultural land will help to maintain the attractiveness of investing in farmland.”

In the past year alone, agricultural land prices in England and Wales climbed 30% on average.

Arable farmland is still the most expensive at £7,398 per acre, but hill farmland has seen the biggest rise since 2003 with prices soaring 172% – much more than any other sector


22 10 2008
This is part of speech by a BP Oil chief executive of Exploration and Production to a university in the USA that BP Oil has ties with.
It is interesting that no environmental factors are mentioned.
It is not clear if demand can be met – in the future – based on current demand or if the new huge demands
from China and India are included.
Anyway, it is a top “Oil-mans” thoughts.
Note: The rest of the speech is all about recruitment etc
Posted by: Richard Masson
The Changing of the Guard – a speech by Andy Inglis, chief executive of BP Exploration and Production
Speaker: Andy Inglis
Speech date: 14 October 2008
Venue: Rice University
Title: The Changing of the Guard
Office: Exploration and Production

In our industry, these strategic challenges come and go and we usually conquer them in the end. For that is what we do. We manage risks, whether they be technical, geological, commercial or political. And today, near the top of that list is capability.

The really big strategic issue for all oil and gas companies is matching the earth’s resource endowment on the one hand, with the capability – technology, skills and know-how – required to bring those resources to market on the other.

I think it is true to say that we may have reached a period of ‘Peak Capability’, at least in the short term. As far as I am concerned, Peak Capability bears a far closer relation to the facts than so-called “Peak Oil”.

The days of ‘easy oil’ are well behind us. For International Oil Companies, and increasingly National Oil Companies too, new resources are harder to reach and tougher to produce. Resources are now found in reservoirs which lie at greater water depths, at higher temperatures and pressures and require complex drilling and completion designs. Bringing them into production is going to be difficult. It will require that Capability Gap to be filled.

Today I want to start by briefly discussing the global industry context. I’ll then go on to look at the capability challenge as it confronts the whole industry. I then want to finish by talking a little bit about how we in BP are specifically addressing that challenge.

The global context

Recent developments in financial and commodity markets are just the latest reminder that we are definitely living in interesting and changing times.

In the current chaos it is easy to focus on the short term, literally the last hour of trading, but today I want to maintain a longer term perspective. Despite recent falls, the oil price remains high and volatile by historical standards, as the chart shows. I contend that prices are not being driven by a lack of resource, because there is plenty of oil and gas around.

In fact prices are being driven by a confluence of factors. The first of these is the recent period of exceptional worldwide economic growth. Although the short term outlook for worldwide economic growth is evidently deteriorating, the fundamental drivers of long term growth in demand for energy remain in place. We have entered a new phase in global industrialization, led by China and India.

When Europe industrialised, it involved 50 to a 100 million people moving from a rural to an urban way of life. The US industrialisation involved 150 to 200 million people. And those changes took centuries. But in the next decade, in China and India alone, over 1 billion people will be moving from a rural to an urban way of life. This will result in a dramatic increase in energy consumption – to provide light, heat and mobility.

According to the IEA, by 2030, world energy demand will be 50% higher than today and non-OECD countries are expected to contribute 85% of the total world energy demand growth between 2005 and 2030.

Contrary to what you may hear from some quarters, there are more than enough resources to meet that demand.

At the end of 2007 total remaining proved oil reserves stood at around 2.3 trillion barrels of oil equivalent.

At today’s consumption rates, we believe we have around 40 years of proven oil reserves, 60 years of natural gas, and 130 years of coal.

And let us not forget that enhanced capability would improve that resource-to-production ratio further. For instance, the worldwide average recovery factor for conventional oil reservoirs is around 35% of oil in place. If, as an industry, we can raise that by just 5%, it would add around 170 billion barrels to world reserves, enough for five years supply.

The task facing the industry is to ensure supply rises adequately to meet demand by bringing this oil and gas endowment to market. These resources are found in increasingly challenging environments – in the deserts of the Middle East and North Africa; in the deepest waters of the Gulf of Mexico, West Africa and Brazil; and in the Alaskan and Russian Arctic. Furthermore, many of these resources are controlled by NOCs which do not always have the same capability at their disposal as IOCs.

Group pics from the study tour

7 09 2008

Here’s a group pic of us at the CAT and another at the Hostel.

Grand Day Out

4 09 2008
students standing by the reed bed at Sheepdrove Organic Farm

students standing by the reed bed at Sheepdrove Organic Farm

Invited by Jason Ball of Sheepdrove Organic Farm, to contribute to an online community at Nature Head, I have decided to dip my toes into the world of online blogging. It appears people already working in various sectors of sustainability are really keen to hear about our course and the direction we are taking. With this in mind, I feel it appropriate to provide a little background info, my personal vision of a sustainable future and the general views and direction of my fellow students.

Since signing up for the pioneering foundation degree course in Sustainable Land Management at the University of Greenwich, I have noticed the word sustainable used in increasingly diverse ways. No longer confined to the realms of the environmentalist movement, this new eco buzzword has spread into new realms, its frequently used by the media, by politicians and educational establishments to name a few. In terms of degree courses for example, there are courses currently being offered in Sustainable Design, Land Management, Waste Management and the environment.

What it shows is there is now a growing movement within society to take more of a long-term view in our use of natural resources, great! Some might say it’s too little, too late, others like myself choose the route of Ghandi ‘Be the World you want to be’. There’s something in that saying about leading by example, but more importantly it’s about taking responsibility for the future, our future and that of the generations to come. This is the underlying principle for my choosing to take this course and from what I’ve come to understand, many of my fellow students are choosing to walk their talk in this way as well.

Most of the other students on the course (it’s only in it’s second year) are prioritising sustainable working principles over earning shit loads of cash when it comes to considering career paths. Like most of them, I’m trying to combine a full time degree whilst trying to juggle (a nearly full time) job. I realise I have to balance the needs of my employer, with my needs to acquire new skills and tools, with the needs of mother earth; a delicate art not unlike that found throughout nature with her precariously balanced ecosystems, each one supporting and sustaining the other. Parallels can be drawn too with sustainability; the first step (as with any project) being financial in nature, where attempting to self-fund my studies is the first step of many towards self-sustainability.

As Gary Snyder says in his book The Practice of the Wild, ‘We need a civilisation that can live fully and creatively with wildness. We must start growing it right here in the New World’. It is with that sentiment in mind; one is led into a world filled with pioneers and visionaries. Take for example the philanthropists Peter and Julia Kindersley, of Dorling Kindersley fame, owners of Sheepdrove Organic Farm in Berkshire. Some thirty years ago, their vision was to recreate the original downland landscape free from polluting pesticides. Theirs was the vision, but it’s the likes of Biodiversity Officer Jason Ball, who was bought in to manifest this vision in diverse areas throughout the farm. Issues such as land use, waste management, preservation of eco-systems and sustainable energy all come under Jason’s wing.

In contrast, there are cutting edge solutions being implemented within waste management. The UK’s first dual plastic recycling plant Closed Loop Recycling is preparing to go into full plastic recycling production in Dagenham, Essex. Operations Manager, Duncan …….. demonstrated the cutting edge technology deployed at this brand new plant situated on an eco friendly business park. Separating HDPE and PET plastics found in milk containers and clear plastic drinks bottles on one production line, a UK first, results in the output of plastic chips pure enough to reach tough EU food grade standards. Not bad for a bunch of old milk containers. Duncan explained the incentives the government is offering to recycling companies; a small payment is made for every tonne of plastic diverted from landfill.

These are amongst the sorts of openings that will be increasingly available to those of us taking the course as our tutor Howard Lee keeps assuring. Equipped with a broad range of skills to implement sustainable policies and working practices, businesses in diverse sectors from land based to the oil industry, local and regional government will be chomping at the bit to employ his crop of self-sustaining graduates.

We are the pioneering students who are laying the foundations for a brighter future, because we believe in our future and in your future, so watch this space to hear more of what we discover and where we are heading!