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Age and Ageing

“I’ve changed my attitudes about what it means to age. Sometimes people decide

it’s their lot in life to be old, but people like Grandma bring colour and excellence to their lives.

That’s what I’ve tried to do too. I’m looking forward to the next stage.”

Cloris Leachman

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This Week in the News: Week Beginning 11/01/2010

On Wednesday, I picked up The Telegraph and was met with the front page title, ‘Immunity for MPs who repay expenses‘. The article informed me that the Government had made secret Parliamentary deals to protect MP identities involved in the ‘expense fraud’ shenanigans from being divulged to the public; MPs involved would be expected to pay back any inappropriately requested expenses and privately apologise to the Committee of Standards and Privileges.

Whilst I agree that this method is apt where, as John Lyon of the Committee reported in the above article, “there was no clear evidence that the breach [of Commons rules] was intentional and it was at the less serious end of the spectrum”, I also believe that MPs, as with other public services, have a responsibility to their constituencies to act in a transparent way where public funding is concerned.

I am not alone in this assertion. Apparently, Gordon Brown thinks so too – at least in the name of garnering allies in the populace. Regardless, back in April of 2009, Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Commons leader, Harriet Harman announced plans to reform the expenses rules and allowances in exchange of a more simple and less generous system in a bid to return trust to the public and portray an image of openness. The proposals can be viewed respectively, here and here. As result of these proposals, MPs are required to publicise their financial allowances on the Parliament website and future breaches of expense rules promise imposed fines, prison time and penalties. This was a positive move by the Government towards good practice and learning their lessons, but if this breaking news of immunity is the case, it threatens to undo the positive progress made and to undermine our democracy.

In other news, disaster struck the Republic of Haiti on Tuesday 12th when a 7.0 Mw earthquake hit before 17:00 (local time) along with six recorded aftershocks. This has caused major damage to many buildings – including the National Palace and local infrastructure – and numerous deaths. The full scope of the disaster is unknown at this time with regards to the death toll. This is being assessed by authorities and volunteer aid. Unfortunately, it looks to be anywhere from 50,000 to 500,000 people dead.

Children are without parents, local prisons have collapsed increasing danger to the vulnerable and many are still trapped under buildings. Those who have survived the ordeal walk and sleep in the streets of Haiti, fearing loss of building structure following the disaster. Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world and so the disaster has also meant a substantial blow to their economy. The nation are currently relying heavily on Humanitarian efforts such as donations from other countries and assistance in the form of volunteers to deliver supplies and to move building debris to recover survivors. Many of the main roads are also blocked by the debris, and so food, water, medicinal and shelter materials are slow to filter through to those who need it, not helped by looters who have reportedly been carjacking the supplies which have been able to make their way through to survivors. Troops from around the world are being deployed to Haiti to ensure the country maintains order.

With that in mind, to donate towards the Haitian “relief assistance”, you can follow one of the links located on the lower half of the Haiti ‘Earthquake Information and Emergency Response’ page, here, through Americares, DEC, Oxfam, MercyCorpsThe Salvation Army, Care, Doctors Without Borders, IOCC, UNICEF, PIH or via Google (thanks to NY Times, Haiti officials and Google for providing this comprehensive list of contributors). Alternatively, if you would like to use your love of things to benefit those in need, you can now buy items on Etsy from participating sellers and have the proceeds donated towards the Haiti disaster – at last, Capitalism without the guilt! Seriously though, please do help if you can.

A Brief Look Back: Transport

In 2003, when I was 18 years old, I moved from Essex to London to pursue a degree in Music and Arts Management. At 21, I had graduated and decided the prospect of returning was not a desirable one, and so I stayed. In my time here in London, and comparing it to where and what I came from originally, I have found myself amidst a set of quaint rules and systems which have produced interesting stories. I shall attempt to share them now:

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This Week in the News: Week Beginning 21/12/2009

I was between three and seven years old when I first remember encountering snow. Read more…

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This Week in the News: Week Beginning 14/12/2009

This week, on Wednesday 16th, people were ‘up in arms’ about an advertisement for face cream promising the world. Lead model, Twiggy, was airbrushed to give the impression that the cream works miracles and people complained that this was dishonest. Well, let me tell you something:

Obviously, I don’t condone this, but I also know there is no such thing as a miracle cream or indeed a miracle product. At least not one that doesn’t cause heart failure or the spontaneous loss of skin. Some people, however, just want to be lied to.

The beauty industry have been doing this to us for years. You can see it, for instance, in mascara advertisements which promise to produce thickening results. However, the models can be visibly seen to be supplementing their luscious eyelashes with fake additives. Or you can see it in the man moisturiser ads that use words such as ‘technology’ or ‘booster’ to draw in males uncomfortable with caring about their skin for fear of being called ‘gay’.

Turbo booster, by any other name is still just moisturiser.

I don’t know what makes me sadder: that we are being lied to, know it and have come to terms with it; or that there are some people out there who think their complaints will make a difference to an industry based on misleading. I’m just waiting for the day when some beauty provider tries to sell a product with the slogan, ‘Old age and flab are a drag, but there’s HOPE – now in a cream!’ I imagine it would sell because ultimately, that’s all people want, isn’t it…

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This Week in the News: Week Beginning 02/11/2009

Two interesting stories in the news this week. Firstly, Alan Johnson and his intolerance of Nutts. Secondly, a high profile case of bullying in the tower.

By Monday 2nd November, it was made clear that Professor David Nutt, Government Adviser from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs had been sacked by Alan Johnson. This is what happened, to put it in a ‘nuttshell’:

It seems, to me at least, that it’s the politicians who are sending the mixed messages here. Fair enough, if you think there is a case and a purpose for making certain drugs a higher or a lower class, then it is your prerogative to do so. You are the decision makers after all. However, don’t sack one of your leading advisers because he advised against it on a basis of harm. And certainly don’t say, in response to why you have made a class decision, ‘why? well, because’. I’m afraid it’s just not enough, Mr Brown.

In other news, it was reported on Monday 2nd November that The Tower of London’s first female ‘Yeoman Warder’ – or Beefeaters as they are more famously known – Moira Cameron, has been met with two counts of harassment and one of bullying by three fellow colleagues since her induction in July 2007. The Tower of London released a statement regarding the issue today, commenting that, “we can confirm that three Yeoman Warders are under investigation in response to allegations of harassment. Two have been suspended. We take such allegations very seriously and our formal harassment policy makes it clear that this is totally unacceptable.” They further made comment that “we believe everyone is entitled to work in an environment free from any form of harassment, a principle that we expect all our staff to value and uphold”.

This isn’t the first time Cameron has received negative attitudes towards her previously male-dominated role. Back in 2007 when she began her position at the Tower, Cameron commented, “I’ve had some comments. I had one chap at the gate one day who said he was completely and utterly against me doing the job. I said to him, ‘I would like to thank you for dismissing my 22 years’ service in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces’.”

Yeoman Warders act to protect the boundaries of the Tower of London and its grounds, which currently house the Crown Jewels. Most recently, their role has played more of a tourist attraction for the millions who visit London every year. The Beefeaters, noted as such for the rations of meat, particularly beef, that they were famously apportioned from the “King’s table”, live on the premises of the Tower. Only individuals – previously only men – who had served a minimum of 22 years in the Armed Forces and hold a ‘long service and good conduct medal’ can compete to be one of 35 Warders. Cameron beat five men to gain her position.

The outcome of the investigation will be known in two to three weeks.

I thoroughly appreciate the action that the Tower of London have taken with regards to the above incident. It seems that by introducing Cameron in 2007, the powers that be wanted to show that it wasn’t necessary for the warders to be male-centric, or perhaps she was just more qualified for the job than her competitors. Regardless the reason for choosing her, by doing so, they presented a very clear message that she was qualified for the role and they are not discriminatory towards gender and whether she’s qualified for the role isn’t for the public or the warders themselves to decide. I hope this is the start of changing attitudes in the public as well.

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How organic is organic food, really?

It was the summer of 2006. I had just graduated from university. Like a lot of university students, the period spent seeing the world with different eyes made me decide that it was time to change my diet to mirror my devout animal rights beliefs. I was to become a vegetarian.

I was never pegged as someone who would make such a choice. For instance, I remember staying at a friend’s abode one evening when we were teenagers and having to be coaxed into eating the lentil soup her mother had cooked. I wasn’t normally a fussy eater but I took one sip and decided at that moment that it wasn’t for me. When I told my best friend about my choice, she asked, “aren’t you the same girl who used to chase me around with Chicken McNuggets when I was a vegetarian?” “Erm,” I paused, guiltily, “who can recall such things…”

At the same time, likely due to a heightened ‘healthy foods’ mindset that my new diet brought to me, I began to notice that the words ‘organic’, ‘ethical’, ‘natural’ and ‘healthy’ could be seen in tandem popping up all over the place – these were often mentioned together, implying that they were linked somewhat.

Organic farming originates from Lord Northbourne in 1939 book, ‘Look to the land’. Northbourne referred to “the farm as [an] organism” and that chemical farming “cannot be self sufficient nor an organic whole.” It was then picked up as a concept by small, independent farms and shops around the world selling locally. They would grow their crops, “making use of crop rotation, environmental management and good animal husbandry to control pests and diseases.” Sales relied on a basis of trust, formed from a direct relationship between the consumer and the farmer. This would be complemented further by the farmer inviting people to witness the naturalistic methods used, further driving home that their methods were indeed organic.

In the 1990s, organic food had a surge in popularity as health and wellbeing became more fashionable – and likely a reaction against incidents in farming such as ‘Mad Cow Disease’ which occurred through erroneous methods of feeding livestock. Health food chains began to boom and the world organic industry made yearly growths of 20% per year, growing more rapidly than the rest of the food industry.

However, with the popularity, independent providers now had to compete with supermarket chains who saw this opportunity to increase their revenue. This meant trust was replaced with organic certification. In the UK, this is overseen by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and the Food Standards Agency (FSA), along with a number of certification bodies – the UK’s two leading bodies are Organic Farmers and Growers (OF&G) and the Soil Association (SA).

The organic industry has some great ideas that are genuinely ethical which I commend as someone who cares very much for the welfare of animals and the environment. For example:

  • By not using chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers, the ecosystem and marine life which can normally be destroyed by chemical run off are not as organic pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers are derived from plants – this also increases biodiversity;
  • In addition, not using said chemicals makes for healthier soil, particularly for developing countries where drought plays a part
  • As there is little use of additives in organic foods, this is good news for many people with allergies;
  • Organic Farming focuses on Animal Welfare. The term ‘organic’ has now evolved to include ‘free range’ so not only are livestock not allowed to be injected with hormones or have prolonged – or unnecessary – use of antibiotics, but they are also increasingly being treated more humanely in the UK;
  • There is some evidence to suggest that organic versions of some foods has its nutritious benefits, e.g., omega 3 fats in organic milk which are good for the heart;
  • Good emphasis on locally grown foods means that UK farmers benefit as does our economy.

My concern in all of this, however, is how organic is organic food, really? Furthermore, what does the future look like for organic foods?

The problem is that whilst the word ‘organic’ requires set standards as outlined by the country in which the food would be sold – either by government or third party organisations – this doesn’t mean that any particular crop is entirely organic. Certification bodies suggest a 95% rule applies. For instance, in 2006, SA were criticised for allowing organic accreditation to chicken farms who trimmed the beaks of their chickens to ‘stop them from pecking one another’. This goes against the animal welfare stream of the organic system. So, if you are buying organically, expecting it to be 100% organic, it might be better if you grow your own foods. Then you can be sure. Or, simply ask your provider about the process. In addition, even though the rules suggest no chemicals, they can be used as a ‘last resort’ and not all synthetic fertilisers have been ruled out. Furthermore, there is concern that accreditation bodies are under pressure to be even more lax with their standards by big supermarkets and that the original organic ethos is being lost.

Secondly, whilst the word organic might have set standards, words such as ‘natural’ do not. This is currently a grey area in food regulation and means that companies marketing food as natural tend to pick up the consumers who mistook them as a part of the organic group. In other words, generic-named-soup might include ‘all natural ingredients’, but that in no way means the ingredients are organic as the very use of the word organic means a fee.

Again, organic certification costs money. This drives out independent groups and farmers who cannot afford the fees certification bodies ask of them. Big chain supermarkets can, so for the unlucky ones who haven’t teamed up with a supermarket as provider, not only do they pay the fees to sell their organic produce, they also have to pay to market their produce more and lower their produce prices as supermarket own-brand organic ranges become more popular.

Yield in organic farming is said to be up to half that of conventional farming – depending on who you ask – and is criticised as not being substantive to supply the world’s population the food it needs. Supermarkets are not able to source all their produce from one country and this racks up ‘food miles.’ Ultimately, for all the talk of organic foods being better for the environment, how much better can they be for the earth if you have to use so much fuel and spread forth so many Carbon Dioxide emissions to transport them over international waters?

This could be solved if governing bodies in Europe were to lift its ban on Genetically Modified (GM) foods, but they do not based on largely limited evidence that this might be harmful to the earth and for human consumption. This is despite various studies that have found there to be no adverse health effects on eating GM foods and despite, as a 2008 review by the Royal Society of Medicine rightly noted, GM foods have been eaten by millions of people in the last 15 years without report of ill health. Just ask Norman Borlaug, referred to as the father of the ‘Green Revolution’. Penn and Teller, magician-cum-TV-presenters, featured Borlaug in their show, Penn and Teller’s Bulls**t in an episode discussing environmentalism. They called him the “Greatest Human Being That Ever Lived” in reference to Borlaug having created high-yield, disease resistant wheats that is estimated to have saved “one billion lives worldwide.” In reference to the opposition to GM foods, Borlaug said: “some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They’ve never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they’d be crying out for tractors and fertiliser and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things.”

In addition, a lot of the foods we eat nowadays has been modified scientifically for our convenience. For example, seedless fruits such as watermelon and grapes. It is fair to suggest more research needs to be done on GM foods and its long term effects, but what of the last fifteen years? Doesn’t that count?

Finally, a lot of providers suggest that organic food is healthier, using that as a marketing point to sell their foods. However, how ethical is it to suggest to people that eating organically is healthier when no proof of such exists?

The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) recently released results of an organic review in August 2009 as commissioned by the FSA. This was a study of all literature in the last fifty years with regards to health benefits of organic food in comparison to food produced through conventional methods. They concluded that: “a small number of differences in nutrient content were found to exist between organically and conventionally produced crops and livestock, but [that] these are unlikely to be of any health relevance. Our review indicates that there is currently no evidence to support the selection of organic over conventionally produced food on the basis of nutrition.” However, Peter Melchett, Policy Director of SA has publicly criticised the review that “positive differences” were rejected as “too variable to be statistically significant”, and for not addressing health as affected by pesticide toxin levels.

Regardless, the organic industry continues to rise. Which industry is better? This is not clear. It is clear, however, that more research needs to be done into the long term effects of conventional and organic farming. In the meantime, I encourage consumers to be more savvy and to ask questions about their food. That way, they can make informed choices about the foods that they eat, rather than to be compelled to eat a certain way simply because someone has said so. I will leave you with this quote from Professor Ottoline Leyser of York University: “People think that the more natural something is, the better it is for them. That is simply not the case. In fact, it is the opposite that is true: the closer a plant is to its natural state, the more likely it is that it will poison you. Naturally, plants do not want to be eaten, so we have spent 10,000 years developing agriculture and breeding out harmful traits from crops. ‘Natural agriculture’ is a contradiction in terms.”

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