Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Re-Wilding the UK?

It has been calculated that farmed land in Britain must increase by 28% if it is to supply the growing demand for food by 2050.

Farming intensively to increase yields while turning over much larger areas of farmland to wildlife could – if combined with measures to cut food waste and meat consumption – would meet Britain’s food needs and more than double the populations of breeding birds.

Increasing yields is controversial among some conservationists who argue that intensive farming is unsustainable. Upland farmers also object because they fear land sparing will force them to give up farming and rewild their hillsides, while the fertile lowlands are intensively farmed.

A team of researchers studied food production and birdlife on the Cambridgeshire Fens to model how a far greater area of farmland could be devoted to wildlife.

By halving food waste and meat consumption, the UK could farm less intensively – in a more wildlife-friendly way – on the current farmed area while retaining the 5% of land “spared” from farming and given over to nature reserves. If this was done, the populations of 101 British bird species would on average increase by just under half.
But if yields were increased on a quarter of farmland to the highest levels presently found on the Fens and, alongside demand-reduction measures, another 25% was farmed in a nature-friendly way, this could also meet future food demand. This would allow half the remaining land to be devoted to wild nature.
By dramatically increasing spared land from 5% to 50%, bird populations soared on average by approximately 250%, with species such as bitterns and bearded tits prospering on rewilded fenland. The quarter of land cultivated by traditional, low-intensity farming was important for conservation too: this helped bolster farmland species.
“We’re not arguing for business-as-usual industrial farming but we have to be mindful of yield,” said Balmford. He said: “We need a twin-track where we get serious about using some of our landscape in a way that’s much better for biodiversity and ecosystem services but that must be linked to incentives enabling some farmers to be productive in sustainable ways on remaining farmland. If we don’t, it’s a sleight of hand – we’ll just buy our food from somewhere else and offshore the problem.”
While organic farmers and most conservationists fear raising yields would lead to more environmental damage such as greenhouse gas emissions and increased nitrate pollution, recent research by Balmford and colleagues found that in four types of farming, including European dairy farming and wheat production, intensive systems were often less polluting per unit of production than organic and low-intensity agriculture.
Dafydd Morris-Jones, a Welsh hill farmer who said land sparing was quite attractive if you were a large-scale grain farmer, “because it’s your land that will be concentrated on to be productive and our land that won’t”. Morris-Jones said he would prefer to see land sparing used within individual farms. “With better conversations, more nuanced thinking and a great deal more data, the uplands would be able to provide sustainable food while providing ecological and environmental benefits. I don’t think they are in conflict.” Morris-Jones accused rewilding of being “eco-colonialism” forced upon Welsh upland farmers by the English, pricing out locals and eroding their landscape, culture and community.





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Syria - the agony carries on

The Syrian War may well be drawing to a close but the suffering continues.

“Extreme cold and the lack of medical care, for mothers before and during birth and for new infants, have exacerbated already dire conditions for children and their families,” said Geert Cappelaere, Unicef’s regional director. “The lives of babies continue to be cut short by health conditions that are preventable or treatable. There are no excuses for this in the 21st century. This tragic man-made loss of life must end now.”
At least 15 children have died in Syria because of a lack of medical care and inadequate living conditions for displaced people amid freezing temperatures, the UN has said, warning that more deaths are likely to follow. Eight babies in the Rukban camp on the Jordanian border had died from hypothermia in the last month, a statement from the UN children’s fund said on Tuesday. A further seven children, mostly under one year old, had died from the cold in recent weeks as their families fled the battle for Hajin, one of the last areas held by Islamic State in eastern Syria.
The freezing winter weather has piled pressure on the already inadequate infrastructure for the estimated 6 million Syrians who have been displaced within the country’s borders over the last eight years of civil war, and for the estimated 4 million living in neighbouring Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. At least 22,000 refugees in Lebanon have lost tents and belongings in recent storms and snowfall that have flooded hundreds of informal camps. Forecasts indicate the cold snap is set to worsen, bringing more snow, strong winds and plunging temperatures.
People in Rukban camp in particular have suffered. Although home to 50,000 people, 80% of whom are women and children, the area in the demilitarised zone between Syria and Jordan has fallen victim to the struggle for control of the border, becoming cut off from doctors and aid shipments. No aid supplies have reached Rukban since November, forcing residents to rely on smugglers for food and medicine. In 2018 at least 12 people died of malnutrition and complications arising from a lack of appropriate medical care.
Mahmood al-Hamil, who works at the camp, said, “I believe if we receive no help, especially in this cold winter, we will witness suicide attempts – people are so hopeless and desperate here,” he said. “Rukban camp is a death camp with all roads blocked.”
“Without reliable and accessible healthcare, protection and shelter, more children will die day in, day out in Rukban, Deir ez-Zor and elsewhere in Syria. History will judge us for these entirely avoidable deaths,” Cappelaere said.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Cutting the Pension

Poorer pensioner couples will lose more than £7,000 a year, under a cut “sneaked out” while MPs are preparing for the showdown Brexit vote. Ministers have been accused of attempting to bury the impact of the change to pension credit, which tops up the incomes of hard-up elderly people.

It means couples where only one partner is over the state pension age, which is now 65 or for both men and women depending on when they were born, will no longer receive the extra benefit. It will take effect from 15 May, when the partner below the pension age is required to make a claim for universal credit, which merges six working-age benefits into a single payment.
“This change to the benefit rules means that some couples could lose thousands of pounds depending on whether their claim falls a day before or a day after the May deadline,” warned Sir Steve Webb, a former pensions minister. "People who may be affected deserve to know about this change and not have it sneaked out on a day when ministers were no doubt hoping that everyone’s attention was directed somewhere else.” He said a couple expecting to receive £13,273 in the 2019-20 financial year from pension credit would see that figure fall to just £5,986.68 under universal credit.

Oil Industry Safety Rules Loosened

Years after investigators found that lax regulatory oversight was one of the leading culprits behind the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, the worst environmental catastrophe in US history,Trump is expected to give BP and other big oil companies more power to self-regulate their offshore drilling operations.

The intention to relax new rules that were put in place by the Obama administration after the BP disaster, which killed 11 workers, spewed 4m barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, and cost BP $65bn, comes as the White House is seeking to open offshore oil and gas drilling to the vast majority of US coastal waters, including in the Arctic.

The proposed revised rules, which most experts believe will be finalised despite heavy opposition from environmental groups, include a change that would allow oil companies to select third party companies to evaluate the safety of their equipment. Under previous rules, those entities had to be approved by the government agency that oversees offshore drilling, without any input from industry.

A separate rule on oil production safety systems that has already been finalized would also strike requirements that were put in place after the BP disaster that forced companies to get independent verification of the safety measures and equipment they use on offshore platforms, as well as a rule that required professional engineers to certify the safety of drilling equipment for new wells.

The oil industry’s main lobbyist, the API, has argued in public filings that some of the Obama-era rules created an “unnecessary burden” and posed a “significant financial threat” to the industry. Members of API include BP America, Chevron, Exxon Mobil and Shell.

Michael Bromwich, an attorney who in 2010 was selected by the Obama administration to revamp the offshore oil regulator after the BP spill, told the Guardian he believed the administration had essentially offered the industry a “wish list” of how it wanted the Obama-era rules to change.

“A lot of the changes that were made to reduce the requirements were designed to get synchronized with API,” he said. 

Bromwich said most people would be shocked if they realised that some of the rules that had been put in place after years of study and multiple investigations into the BP spill would begin to be re-evaluated and weakened almost immediately after the start of the new administration. In some cases, the previous rules had not yet even taken effect, because of the time regulators were given to allow companies to adapt.
The industry has sought to justify the changes by submitting cost estimates on the Obama-era rules that Bromwich said he was sure were “inflated”.
Blowout preventers are meant to block the flow of oil and gas in the event of an accident, even when the wells are under intense pressure from escaping gas and oil. Under the Obama-era rule, companies’ blowout preventers needed to be able to “achieve an effective seal” of wells But under the new rule, it will be sufficient to “close” the wells. There are also concerns that blowout preventers – the mechanism that companies rely on to stop catastrophic spills from occurring – are simply not tested sufficiently and not a fail safe method of preventing spills, a fact that was proven by the BP disaster. The proposed changes reduce their testing.
Diane Hoskins, campaign director of Oceana, an environmental group, said,  " comparing a woefully underestimated environmental benefit to the potential cost-savings for industry, the well control rules proposed changes caters to industry at the expense of ensuring the safety of the public and the environment,” said Hoskins. “At the same time, they are preparing to drill almost everywhere.”
Christine Todd Whitman, the former Republican governor of New Jersey and EPA administrator said rolling back the safety measures “would constitute one of the gravest errors in ocean policy history”.
“The current proposal would remove real-time monitoring, eliminate third-party verification and essentially make reporting of equipment failures voluntary”

Fixing the science

EU regulators based a decision to relicense the controversial weedkiller glyphosate on an assessment plagiarised from industry reports, according to a report for the European parliament by crossparty group of MEPs. Germany’s Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) was copy-and-pasted tracts from Monsanto studies which had been released hours before a parliamentary vote on tightening independent scrutiny of the pesticides approvals process. The authors said they found “clear evidence of BfR’s deliberate pretence of an independent assessment, whereas in reality the authority was only echoing the industry applicants’ assessment.”
Molly Scott Cato, a Green MEP, said the scale of alleged plagiarism by the BfR " helps explain why the World Health Organisation assessment on glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen was so at odds with EU assessors, who awarded this toxic pesticide a clean bill of health, brushing off warnings of its dangers,” she said.

The study found plagiarism in 50% of the chapters assessing published studies on health risks – including whole paragraphs and entire pages of text. The European Food Safety Authority (Efsa), based its recommendation that glyphosate was safe for public use on the BfR’s assessment. 
A separate analysis of research methods used to evaluate glyphosate by the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also raised questions about regulatory independence. It found that EPA regulators used unpublished industry reports in 63% of the studies they evaluated, whereas the IARC relied solely on publicly available literature. Almost three-quarters of the peer-reviewed papers looked at by IARC found evidence of genotoxicity in glyphosate, compared with just 1% of the industry analyses, according to the study published in Environmental Sciences Europe.

UK's Invisible Slaves

Many women, mostly Filipino, come to the UK with a promise of income and regular hours, working as housekeepers or nannies to send money back home to their own families. There are nearly 19,000 people on overseas domestic visas in the UK. these women are socially isolated. There are few examples of true modern slavery, but these are undoubtedly some of them.

“Their status as workers is blurred by the language – like ‘maids’ or ‘domestic servants’ – that’s used to describe them,” says Joyce Jiang, a lecturer at the University of York and researcher into the experiences of immigrant workers. Many of these women have had to leave their own children to look after those of their employers – and because of the intimate nature of the work, they are often seen as “labourers of love” or “part of the family”, which obscures how little they are paid.
As part of Theresa May’s “hostile environment” policies as home secretary, the UK government changed the law in 2012 so that migrant domestic workers (MDWs) could only come to the UK on a non-renewable six-month “tied visa” – one that bound them to a single, named employer. This means that if their employer is exploitative or abusive, their main means of escape – moving to another employer – is closed to them. Before 2012, an MDW could renew their visa over a period of five years and then apply for indefinite leave to remain and ultimately British citizenship. 

After lobbying by the Voice of Domestic Workers (VODW), a grassroots self-help group, the trade union Unite and Kalayaan, a charity for domestic workers, the government commissioned an independent review of the UK’s domestic visa policies in 2015. Attaching the visa to a specific employer, the review found, increased these women’s vulnerability to exploitation, while living outside the law “increases their vulnerability to further abuse”. The report’s author, James Ewins, recommended an unconditional right for migrant domestic workers to change their employer and the right to apply for an annual extension of their visa for a maximum of two-and-a-half years. The government rejected this recommendation. All it did, in 2016, as part of the Modern Slavery Act, was slightly modify the harsh restrictions it had introduced in 2012. A MDW now could change employer, but only within the six-month original visa period, which could not then be extended. In reality, most workers have to leave – or go underground.

The National Referral Mechanism (NRM), a framework for identifying and supporting victims of human trafficking that, since 2016, also encompasses slavery, servitude and forced or compulsory labour. The MDWs who go down this route successfully can get a two-year visa, after which they must return home. But it’s an imperfect solution, says Begonia, Marissa Begonia, a VODW coordinator. “You need to have been raped, beaten or starved to death to get it. If you’re not paid for months, is that not abuse or servitude?”

In 2011, the UN International Labour Organization introduced the Domestic Workers Convention to improve the living and working rights of domestic workers. It has been ratified by 26 countries – including Ireland, Germany and Italy – but the UK is not among them. Meanwhile, migrant domestic workers in the UK remain mostly unprotected by laws that the rest of us take for granted – they are not covered by health and safety laws, for example, or the Working Time Regulations 1998, and employers often don’t comply with the national minimum wage.

We Are Family

Dr Adam Rutherford, the author of a book on genes entitled A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived, said the passage of time and overlapping ancestries meant “there is a time in history where all lines of all family trees cross through all people.”

Rutherford added: “Every European is descended from every European alive in the 10th century, if they have any living descendants. We know from his royal pedigree that Charlemagne has living descendants (Richard Branson boasted of it, Christopher Lee, too), which means that literally every European is also descended from Charlemagne.

“The basic problem is that we think of family trees fanning out from us into the past, but that means that the number of ancestors we have doubles every generation back. By 1,000 years ago, every person has more ancestors than people who have ever existed.”

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