Friday, 30 September 2011

Growing My Own

It's Friday and that means a new veg box arrived yesterday!

This week my vegbox was

  • Onions
  • Carrots
  • Potatoes
  • Salad leaves
  • Red peppers
  • Leeks
  • Cauliflower
All of the veg is UK grown except the peppers which come from Spain. My UK veg comes from Home Farm in Yorkshire and is grown by Peter Richardson and his team of farm workers. The farm was converted to organic in 1996 and Peter clearly feels it gets them closer to both their crops and customers. On the Riverford website he says
"You feel more of an intimate relationship as you weed the crops, rather than just going across with a sprayer. "
"There’s a closer connection with the customer, there’s no two ways about it. "
He has a closer relationship with customers because, unlike before, the veg is now packed on the farm. He can see what is being sold each week and it leaves the farm exactly how it arrives on my door. Previously the veg left the farm to be packed and then sent on to be sold.
Another benefit is that, unlike for the supermarkets, there are less restrictions on size and shape of the vegetables, just taste and quality matter. For the supermarket packaging courgettes had to be less than 21cm, now they just have to be delicious and ripe.

Looking forward to cooking up some yummy meals with all this. Last week I used the sweet potatoes, carrots, potatoes and onions to make soup. It was great and very orange. We used four portions up after we cooked it and I've frozen another 5-6 in the freezer. All I did was fry/roast the veg, blend it all and add about a pint of chicken stock and some spices.

Lettuce on the left and middle, chilies on the right where you
can see the cardboard sticks they were planted next to.
I've been growing some food of my own too. Three weeks ago I planted some very old lettuce and chili seeds in a box on my kitchen windowsillNow they've started growing and soon the lettuce will be ready to start picking and chilies will be ready to be planted up into separate pots. I love having nice green leaves growing in the house while everything outside is dying back. It was so easy, as long as I don't forget to water them every few days!

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Planning Ahead

The biggest environmental news story in the past month has definitely been about planning. Way back in July the UK government  released a draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) which outlined proposed changes to planning policy. Since then environmental NGOs have repeatedly raised concerns over the new plans and over the last two weeks a row has broken out, mainly between the National Trust and the Government but other NGOs have been getting involved too.
So what is it all about?
First let look at what the changes actually say. The current system tells local authorities to oppose any development that damages sites of particular environmental or scientific importance. This includes sites protected by UK, European or international laws (e.g. SSSIs, protected species, protected habitat). The only way this sort of development can be approved is if the site isn't specifically protected under law already (if it is you really can't damage it) AND if the benefits of the development outweigh the negative impacts it will have. That seems like a pretty sensible system. You must prove that you won't damage the environment, and if you do the benefits are much much better than the damage.
The new NPPF now puts much more emphasis on the importance of economic growth. It says that local authorities should support developments "unless the adverse impacts of allowing the development would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits". Now this sounds quite similar to above, if the damage is greater than the benefits then you can't build, but it's more subtle than that. I read a good explanation on another blog, the difference between the old and the new policy is the difference between innocent until proven guilty and guilty until proven innocent.
This is a HUGELY simplified version of the debate. There is lots of case-law, legislation and previous protection to be taken into account and how the policy will be used will vary from place to place so it's not simple. But the above seems to be the key issue people are fighting about.
Now, whose actually fighting and on which side?
On the Yes side: The Government (Bob Neil the minister for Communities and Local Government, George Osbourne, Eric Pickles and even David Cameron have all spoken on the issue) and some developers and business (although I can't find any specific names anywhere on the internet at the time of writing!)On the NO side: Environmental NGOs (The National Trust in particular as well as RSPB, Woodland Trust, Friends of the Earth, Buglife and others) and the lobbying group 38degrees.
This gives quite a clear image of whose fighting for which issue. Those saying yes are looking to improve the economy first and worry about environmental sustainability second. George Osbourne even said “No one should underestimate our determination to win this battle.” While the environment charities are doing what it's their job to do- raise awareness of possible threats to our ecosystems, wildlife and environment that doesn't have a voice of its own. And to be honest, the seem to be making their points a lot more calmly and rational than government.
Both environment NGOs and business are fighting for their specific interests, but surely government shouldn't be fighting. Government should be listening to all sides then deciding what's best for the country, both in the short and long term. Yes, that might mean arguing point out with people but not actively going out to fight specific groups.
This one blog doesn't contain enough information to draw conclusions about the new planning policy. If you want more information have a look at this, this, this and thisThere are several campaigns and petitions you can sign if you want changes to the current proposals. You can find them here and here. Also there is the official government consultation website here. Get involved and have your say, either on this blog, oen of the petitions or the government site.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Shades of Green

Lots of the words in yesterday's list are used for people and lifestyles rather than products. Light, dark and bright green all fall into this category and describe three green philosophy types. I've read these terms often but didn't really know what they meant. A great article which explains all is this one by Alex Steffen (who coined the term Bright Green). Here's a quick guide:

Light Green environmentalism is the belief that changes on an individual level are the main solution to environmental problems. Lots of people making lots of little changes will snowball and all together will begin to make a big difference. It also relies on people demanding change as consumers which will push the markets towards more environmentally friendly products. This form of environmentalism has helped spread the environmental idea and made it a fashionable lifestyle choice, but it also generates a lot of "green fatigue" as you often feel that your little changes don't have an impact in the grand scheme.

Dark Green environmentalism focuses on community action. More campaigning, activism and a move away from our current consumer lifestyle, back to a more local, community one. The idea is that small communities producing locally will have short supply chains and allow individuals to take control of their impact on the environment. This involves making bigger changes and commitments, not just remembering to recycle each week. The Dark Green philosophy has been taken up in particular by transition towns where communities prepare for the dual challenges of peak oil and climate change by reducing their fossil fuel reliance. This focus on community action works well and does a lot of good. However, it's often associated with the doom and gloom side of environmentalism, with messages of imminent disaster, which often puts people off doing anything green at all.

Bright Green is the newest of these terms. It's philosophy is a belief that sustainable innovation and design are key to a sustainable society. To fix environmental problems we need an economically strong green industry. We need industry to redesign systems and rethink infrastructure to make integral changes to how society works. This is how the biggest changes happen and while you can agree with this philosophy, unless you're an inventor or in charge of major infrastructures it doesn't leave much room for individual action.

 In reality most environmental issues require a mix of the three types of green. Recycling is a good example. You need individuals to recycle but you also need the community to have facilities to recycle, like collections or bins. On top of this you also need manufacturers to create the procedures for recycling and for creating new products.
Mos environmentalists would describe themselves as some shade between these greens and I think that's better than just being one. We need to use all the ways of changing our lifestyles and society for a greener future, not just stick to one because we like the label. At the moment I'm probably more light green than anything else but I'm really interested in getting involved in more dark green projects in my community and I think more environmental inventions and changes to industry would be great.

What colour green are you? What do you think about all this labeling?

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

What's In A Name?

Light Green, Dark Green, Bright Green, Sustainable, Eco-friendly, Environmental, Ethical, Fairtrade, Organic, FSC, Rainforest Alliance certified, Responsibly sourced, Local, Free range...

The list seems endless but what do all these labels stand for? If I'm going to green my life first I need to decide what that actually means.

To start with, the list can be split into two groups. Those which guarantee the product meets certain minimum conditions and others which sound nice but don't guarantee anything.

The five which do guarantee standards are:

Fairtrade - If a product has this label then it satisfies a list of social, economic and environmental standards set by the Fairtrade International Organisation. These standards include a fair wage for the producers, investment into development for the community and long term contracts so that growers can plan securely and sustainably.
Organic - Being organic tends to mean no chemicals, pesticides, genetic modification or other synthetic inputs. Any product that is labelled organic must meet strict UK, European and international standards. The most common organic certification is the Soil Association's. This exceeds the minimum requirements and assures that farms have high animal welfare standards, promote wildlife, don't use genetic modification or pesticides/chemicals and pursue sustainable farming techniques.
FSC - This stands for Forest Stewardship Council. The FSC logo appears on products that have come from well managed forests, so you can be certain you aren't contributing to the further destruction of global forests. These products range from furniture to toilet paper!
Rainforest Alliance certified - Similar to Faritrade (as far as I can see) this label guarantees that farms meet the standards of the Sustainable Agriculture Network. This means the farms use sustainable farm management and are also working towards improving local social and environmental standards. This label focuses more on sustainable farming than fair pay but still aims to promote economically sustainable farming methods so farmers have security too.
Free range - This is only a binding term for poultry and eggs in the UK. So if it says free rage on any other meat products it doesn't guarantee anything, although it's probably a good sign.
For chickens free range means continuous daytime access to open-air runs for at least half their lifetime. It also guarantees a slaughter age of at least 56 days, just less than two months! There are a few different standards for chickens and it's all a bit confusing. I'll do another blog on this another time once I've figured it out!
For eggs, free range means the hens have had continuous access to outdoor runs "mainly covered with vegetation" but sheds are often used where the hens have less than a square foot each. Again, there are lots of similar labels and I'll discuss this in more detail another time.

There's another way to split the labels too. Those which correspond to products such as food, furniture, appliances, and those which describe people and lifestyles such as light, dark and bright green. I'll talk more about these people labels tomorrow.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Stop, Look, Listen

When I'm bored the first thing I normally do is turn the TV on, even when there's nothing in particular I want to watch. Watching the TV when I'm on autopilot can't be good for me and definitely isn't good for the environment. It's a habit I'm trying to break, replacing it with different habits. I'm swapping one hour of TV a week for a walk along my local canal. I'm going to try and really pay attention to where I'm going, what I hear and what I see, rather than wandering along wrapped up in my own thoughts.

Walking is great. It's good exercise, can reduce the risk of some cancers and helps with metal health too. In 2007, Mind (the mental health charity) carried out studies into how walking affects people. After a country walk 94% of people felt their mental health had improved. The study also showed that walking around a town or city shopping area tends to depress people. So walking through nature is a free way to improve fitness, health and mental well being. Fantastic! Definitely sounds better than sitting in front of the TV not watching. Don't forget that even in big cities you can always find tiny pockets of green in parks or along rivers or canals.

I started today. As soon as I got down to the canal the sound of traffic lessened and the sounds of pigeons and sparrows surrounded me. The canal still looks quite summery, especially today when it was sunny and warm. On my walk, as well as sparrows and pigeons, I saw mallard ducks, moor hens, swans and signets, long tailed tits, coal tits, a blue tit, a spider, two white butterflies and a dragonfly. All within a short walk of my city house.

Not having my headphones in (another habit I'm trying to break) also meant I heard far more than normal. Walking past hedges I heard birds cheeping an so I stopped and looked. Doing this helped me find lots more birds and pausing on the bridge to actually look at where I'd walked and was going meant I stayed still enough to see the butterflies and dragonfly.

Other than birds, spiders and insects I also looked at the plants around me. I found blackberries (almost all picked or under ripe), oak trees, haws (the lovely red berries from hawthorn trees!) and also lots of Himalayan Balsam. This last one is also know as Policeman's Helmet and Kiss-me-on-the-mountain, it's an invasive non-native weed in the UK. It has very sweet, strong smelling flowers which are a beautiful purpley pink. You'll have seen it around rivers or boggy ground but did you know their seed pods explode? I didn't. This plant has swept across the UK and is out competing other, native, species, which isn't great for them. One positive, however, is that bees really like the flowers and it seems to be helping increase the dangerously low UK bee population.

At the moment going for an hour walk is easy. The weather's still quite mild, it's nice and light and it wasn't raining today. It will get harder, I'll be much less enthusiastic when it's dark, rainy and cold in November. But starting now will hopefully mean it's a habit by then and that will make it easier. One thing I'm particularly interested in is how familiar places change over the seasons. Each week I'll take a photo of the canal to capture how it changes as the months pass.

What's around the corner near you? Comment and let me know!

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Hungry Sparrows

Yesterday I wrote about what makes me notice Autumn. More jumpers, darker evenings and higher gas and electricity bills are probably the main differences in my home life. But the colder weather has a much greater effect on the lives of the animals outside.

The house martin nest on my friend's roof.
By the end of September thoughts of swallowsswifts and house martins are normally long gone. But this week some friends found what we think is a house martin nest on their new house. The nest still has young birds in. They look very cute from the street below but I hope they grow up before it gets too cold.
In September and October these birds fly south over the Mediterranean Sea, across the Sahara  to Southern Africa, not bad for birds that are only 13-15cm long. And after a warm winter breeding, they fly all the way back and build mud nests for their own young. 

In the small backyard of our terrace house we encourage visits from local birds. We have four bird-feeders, two with sunflower seeds and two with peanuts. One of each are stuck to the kitchen window. At the moment the local sparrows seem to love the sunflower seeds, but only in the feeder away from the window. Tomorrow I'm going to swap the feeders around to see if it makes any difference. It's great to look out the window and catch a glimpse of five or six hungry sparrows nibbling at the seeds.
The RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) has some great tips on how to look after the birds in your garden throughout the year. They even have a special day when they ask everyone to put out food for birds in their garden. 
Feed the Birds Day this year is on the 29th October, so you have just over a month to get ready for it!

Saturday, 24 September 2011


Today is the Autumn equinox, so it's longer days and shorter nights from now on. There are plenty of other signs around that the seasons are changing; that familiar chill in the air, blackberries in the hedges and the changing colour of the leaves.
It's easy to miss the gradual changes when we're tucked up in our houses and away from the countryside. Today I went looking for a feel of autumn, I visited Beacon Fell Country Park for the first time, and it was great! It's a wood on top of a hill full of  wildlife, quite a few people and (today) rainy fog.
Walking around there were great views of the surrounding countryside and it was an autumnal picture of fields, moors and, in the distance, the sea. The distant shoreline was particularly interesting as you could pick out Blackpool Tower and pleasure park, an onshore wind turbine and the offshore wind farm just outside Morecambe bay. I've never seen an offshore wind farm before. I quite like how they look, dozens of tall points on the horizon, almost like they're standing guard on the coastline.
I wasn't just looking out from the hilltop though. There was lots to see in the park too. Within minutes of getting out of the car we passed some people looking at a shrew they'd found and among the birds we saw were:

It was great to get outside and into Autumn. It's an exciting time, whether you're kicking up colourful leaves on a walk, picking yummy fruit for crumbles and pies or using it as an excuse to snuggle up in lots of jumpers and blankets rather than turning the heating on. Autumn shouldn't be thought of as the sad end of summer. It's a brilliant time of year.

What tells you it's Autumn? 

Friday, 23 September 2011

Food For Thought

Where does your food come from? Local food isn't a new issue but it's one that's easy not to think about and might seem hard to do something about.

When I started university my answer would have been Tesco. After a closer look at some plastic packaging I could probably have managed a country of origin or production for some foods. It's an interesting exercise. Pick a selection of foods from your fridge and cupboards, guess where they come from, then see if you're right. I got a shock when I found my apples had been flown in from Chile when I could see fresh, ripe apples growing outside in England.

Now, at least for fruit and veg, I've grown used to knowing country and county (even farm most of the time) before the food arrives home. I think that makes me quite unusual. No, I don't wander the supermarkets making lists of where each apple comes from. The key to my food knowledge is my veg box, which arrives fortnightly or weekly depending on how much I use/need each week.

My parents started having a veg box at home when I was a teenager, so I've grown up with the idea. But if you haven't heard of it before this is how they normally work:
  1. Order your box online or by phone
  2. Enter your delivery address and payment details
  3. Receive your veg box to your door
About as easy as ordering something from Amazon and just like Amazon once you set up your details and first order it just gets easier (isn't it interesting that things get easier when people want your money?). You can set up a regular order, so you don't have to do anything except receive your box each week, or you can add, change or cancel your order each week. You don't even have to be home when they deliver with some box schemes.

A quick search online brings up more than 10 different veg box schemes in my local area. I use Riverford Organic Veg which is quite a large scheme but has kept it's produce local by splitting into regional farm areas. This week my mini box (£9.85) contained (and came from):

  • Onions (UK)
  • Carrots (UK)
  • Broccoli (UK)
  • Sweet Potatoes (UK)
  • Cabbage (UK)
  • Lettuce (UK)
  • Cherry Tomatoes (Spain)
As well as only selling organic produce Riverford never airfreight their food, they ship it by boat or lorry which has a lower carbon footprint. My mini box claims to be suitable for 1-2 people for a week (for me often two weeks), usually includes potatoes, carrots and onions and always contains 7-8 different types of veg. The thing I love is that it changes every week. There's no wandering the supermarket deciding what to pick this week, you get whatever's ripe, in season and at its best.

I'll talk more about my veg box in the future; about how ethical/environmentally friendly it is or isn't, price comparisons with the supermarkets and what I'm getting each week as we head deeper into Autumn. Maybe even some recipes!

I'd love to hear your thoughts on my blog. So if you're reading this please comment, even if it's just to say "Hello!"

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Hello World

This is my first blog and I'm sure it will be the hardest. What should I say to you, whoever you are, reading my first blog for the first time?

Lets start with why I'm writing this blog. Mainly it's to help me take a closer look at my life. To explore the impact I have on my environment and whether being green means losing out or whether it can actually mean improvements for me. People start blogs when they start the gym to help them keep it up, and I'm hoping that writing a daily blog about me and the environment will encourage me to think more and green up my life. If you stick with me and keep reading you'll discover if I manage it!

I am 22 and live in Preston, Lancashire. Having recently graduated I've decided to spend 6-12 months working part time and volunteering for environment charities in my free time to gain experience in the environment sector. I can't claim to be new to environmental living, any of my previous housemates can vouch for my recycling obsession and tendency to follow people around turning lights off after them. However, having recently left home, this is my first chance to be in complete control of my life and how I choose to live it. So now comes the decisions between ready meals in plastic packaging or home cooked organic soups, between walking upstairs to get a jumper and a blanket or turning the heating up.

Each day I'll talk about an aspect of my day, environmental news story I've seen or general green topic. How it effects individuals, what the wider issues are and what we can all do to make our lives more sustainable. So if you're interested (or if I haven't got you hooked yet-maybe I will tomorrow!) keep reading.