Thursday, 19 February 2015

Biofach 2105

A short essay on the world of organics, innovation, commercialisation and 'creative destruction'.

 Guess who was the host country at Biofach this year?

Yep it was the Dutch. They put quite a lot into their show – building this dome (the largest I have seen - Eden Project excepted) as a ‘chill out’ space (though those weren’t the words they used).

 They enticed their ‘Agricultural Minister’ to stay for two days.  I put Agriculture Minister’ in quotation marks as the Netherlands doesn’t (at least the time I last looked) have a dedicated Ministry of Agriculture.  It was subsumed into the Ministry of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation some five years ago. It might possibly be the only country in the world (some city and gulf states excluded) that doesn’t have a dedicated ministry of agriculture.

 The last thing I did at Biofach, after all the meetings and seminars, was to pass by the novelty display – the area where all the new products are displayed. It’s the first (or last) stand you see if you go in or out through the man entrance. And that says a lot about the importance given to product development and innovation by the BioFach team.  I rarely get passionate about new products.  In fact that’s an overstatement – they usually singularly fail to excite me: aren’t there enough artefacts and products in the world already? 

It was a thought provoking experience. I have always felt uncomfortable with the emphasis on commercialism and product development at BioFach. To me the organic movement –has (historically at least) always had simplicity and scaling back as implicit - if not core - values. I find it strange – and some what distasteful - to see it caught up in this Darwinian adventure of varietal destruction.  Schumpeter terms it creative destruction; the process by which a capitalist market economy reshapes and refines the products and services it provides.   I had real problems when I first exposed to this first few times (the first was fifteen years ago) I went to BioFach.  I came into organics through the world of wholefood shops and brown rice and would have thought of the product range available now as a betrayal of ‘core principles’.  But in that intervening period organic market share (in the EU) has gone up from less than 0.5% to more than 5% - that’s a huge growth and has involved a large amount of ‘mainstreaming’ without compromising on core values.  Mostly I think the balance has been achieved.  There are now organic supermarkets in most large (and some small) towns and cities in mainland Europe (a phenomenon that one speaker pointed out has not yet taken off in the UK and is a potential market opportunity) and a range of outlets from farmer’s markets and delivery schemes for the dedicated consumer to supermarkets to the occasional or time-pressed organic consumer.

But back to product development: there were 7055 new organic products on display at Biofach this year.  I didn’t count them all: they were numbered sequentially.  They ranged from cheeses to chutneys; sauces to oat bars to a vac-packed fresh pasta with pipe holes at the bottom that allows the user to serve ‘fresh pasta’ at home – straight out of the fridge.   I’ll say that again: that’s 7055 new products from the organic sector. Given that the organic sector accounts for about 5% of the European food market (and most of the innovations were food) that suggests that there might be 140,000 new food products launched onto the market every year (perhaps a bit less given that the organic sector is more innovative and buoyant than the conventional ones).  I don’t know if they all been launched or if some are just prototypes. How many will survive or succeed? Underneath this it’s interesting to conjecture how many people have been involved in developing them: how many peoples hopes and dreams resting on gaining success, recognition or even sales order from this one competition?   

One of the projects I work with had a partner who exhibited a new line in this competition (a line of pure berry extracts).  Though they didn’t win a prize they did get much recognition and commercial interest and were ‘chuffed’.  I am sure that if I came up with a new recipe or processing idea that I wanted to commercialise then I would eat my words about my apparent distaste for innovation.  But its not innovation as such that I am uncomfortable with but with the overwhelming emphasis that is placed upon it – as illustrated by the Dutch Ministry’s choice of name.  Yes there is role for innovation but it seems that other values get lost in the rush for something new and better.

On the journey home I had much time to digest the latest (now in its 16th edition) version of the World of Organic Agriculture. Helga Willer and team at FiBL and IFOAM have once again done a wonderful job tracking the changes in organic land – under different regimes of cultivation and consumption – combining detailed statistics with snapshots of the most interesting developments.  Its not easy counting (or estimating the  number of organic producers / hectares in Say Mali – where government statistics of any sort are in short supply. We’re now up to 11 countries in the world with than 10% of their land certified organic – a sort of psychological breakthrough when claiming that that organic is no longer marginal.  And while some of those countries are micro-states or very small – they do also include Sweden, Italy and the Czech Republic.  Well done to Helga and her team at FiBL and IFOAM for publishing another excellent and as ever better informed book (which is also available online).  

Monday, 12 January 2015

Beginnings of a new year

I reclaimed my office this weekend.  After my roomy left in November I decided to leave it empty for two months uncertain whether to find another roomy or reclaim ‘the spare bedroom’ as my office space.   The benefits of having a roomy were manifold: company in the evening without having to go out - someone to look after the flat and my mail on (those frequent occasions last year) when I was away and, not least,  someone paying half the rent.  But it did involve certain sacrifices – having to negotiate freezer space (he bought lots of frozen veg – I like to cook double and freeze these for a ‘rainy day’ (plenty of those in Brussels) and squeezing my office into a corner of (first my bedroom, then later our lounge).  It never really felt like I had enough space.  My desk was too small and the wrong height, I experienced ‘paper creep’ – letters and work projects taking over the sofa, the carpet and eventually the kitchen table.  And sometimes important papers got put away somewhere obscure and answered too late. But I decided to sit it out two months and see what came out in the settling process.  
 Eventually this weekend I took the plunge and spent much of Sunday de- and re-wiring my office –a process made more complicated by it being cramped into one corner with the wires and connections hidden behind and underneath furniture.  There were the inevitable problems with wires not being long enough to put the various bits of kit where they would be ergonomically and aesthetically most pleasing- I was sure I had a long cable to attach the printer to the pc but after a long search through my suitcase full of cables it couldn’t be found so I had to come up with an inventive office redesign that - to my surprise - actually works.   The most attractive feature though is that the office really catches the morning light and you can see the skyscrapers of the Brussels’ World Trade Centre glimmering in the light. On a sunny day the room is positively luminous – a real incentive to start the day on a positive note rather than procrastinate about starting to work.  It finally likes the start of the New Year is finally upon me.  Roll on sunny days and longer evenings!

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

A near trauma

Today I acquired a kitten – on a short term basis – looking after my neighbours' joy and the centre of their life for ten days over Xmas. For the first hour she was all over the house like a troupe of monkeys. Checking which chairs and pieces of furniture she could access looking ather reflection in the flat screen – trying to clamber onto the keyboard of my laptop. Then I went downstairs to collect my post. I went back up looking at the post I my hand rather than what was going on around me. After half an hour I noticed things were curiously quiet on the cat front. I started to look around the flat - under all the sofas and cupboards that I had seen her checking out for as potential hiding places. Nothing. I called out kitty kitty kitty. Nothing. I threw a chicken leg on the floor. Still nothing. I went to check upstairs to see if she had slipped out while I was looking at my post not at life around me and might be sitting outside her own flat. Nope. I went down to check out the courtyard where she usually goes to play every day – though I thought it wise not to let her out there unsupervised on her first day in a new environment. She wasn't there. And worse the main door was from the courtyard to the street was open - as my downstairs neighbour was starting her move out. The streets outside the house are fiercely heavily trafficked with the daytime and there's no natural cat hiding places except for a couple of derelict lots.

Oh ****. This can't happen surely. I didn't believe it could. I can't lose my neighbours cat within two hours of taking her in? Can I? As the hours went past I thought perhaps I could. I chanted for a solution 'cats always come home don't they?' Yes, 'but not if they are looking for their owners' – á la 'Incredible Journey'. I put a chicken bone by my front door and to the impending annoyance of the cleaner of the communal area rubbed chicken fat from the skin on the front door of the house and up the stairs.

I distracted myself - did a bit of work – playing a lot of word scraper (online scrabble). I also posted a message asking for the address of the local animal sanctuary. And I wrote, google- translated and printed out twenty 'cat lost' posters to distribute later. How can I face my neighbours and tell them I've lost their cat I asked myself. How can I be so inattentive and irresponsible to do that? I had real self-confidence attack- so much so that I ended up taking the modern-day equivalent of a valium. I walked the block twice just looking.

Yet I held my ground (just). These things don't happen in real life do they? Four hours after the original panic set in I heard a very quiet crunching sound – the chicken bone wasn't where I had left it – there was purring cat under the sofa. So thank you every protective spirit and guardian angel on the planet for keeping me from going into total 'headless chicken mode' and for slowly losing my deeply ingrained conviction that the worst is always bound too happen.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Agroforestry in temperate climes

This blog came out of the (short) walk I did two weeks ago (see last blog). It seemed to merit its own space.

I tend to think of agroforestry as a tropical thing: vanilla pods being wound up coconut trees, while coffee and cassava mature in the shade. OK - perhaps I am mixing my agro-ecosystems up here – but you get the picture! On a recent walk in Belgium, I came across agroforestry in action in the temperate north – a place where I wouldn’t expect it.

It was an orchard on the estate of the Hulp Chateau where they were growing rare and endangered varieties of fruit trees. The powers of globalization - sucking in exports from European countries where labour is cheaper – and wanting uniform products delivered on specific dates - means that Belgium has lost 80% of its orchards and the apple and pear varieties grown have been decimated. This site is preserving those species endangered by hyper-commercialization - but actually does much more.

It marries conserving rare apple and pear (and other fruit) trees with a low intensity grazing regime. As such it has a number of synergies. The cows keep the grass short (no need for spraying agrochemicals or mechanical controls) and also fertilize the soil – recycling its nutrients. Having grass cover prevents soil and nutrient erosion.

It was a real treat to see this lovely, vibrant, orchard with the cows grazing contently underneath the canopies of the trees. So different from the tightly packed rows of miniaturised trees (bred thus for easier picking) standing on bare soil - that pass for orchards these days. It’s a shame that there was no visible sales point. I’m sure the juices from this orchard taste delicious.

Such approaches don’t need to rely on CSOs or NGOs. Driving down the back roads from Halle to Bruxelles earlier in the summer I passed a farm where there were cows grazing and chickens pecking in an orchard. I did a three point turn and went back to find the farmyard. ‘Can you sell me a chicken?’ (I fancied an organic roast that weekend) No, they don’t sell them (they probably keep them for themselves and their neighbours). But they did have potatoes and eggs for sale. Ah well that’s good enough. A ‘tortilla á la paysan’ was on the cards. It was good to see traditional farming practices still in place 20km outside of Bruxelles – and no – they weren’t organic - it was just the way they learned, and like, to farm!

Saturday, 1 November 2014

All the leaves are red and the sky is blue

Saturday 1st November. Chateau de la Hulp (70m elevation!). The Soignes Forest.

The weather forecast predicted a bright andd sunny day- so despite dancing until just before the very last metro last night and having promised a friend to help him move in the late afternoon / early evening - I get myself out to the forest south of Brussels. This place looked nice on the map and I chose it for no other reason. I wasn't disappointed.

It was almost 20 degrees - T shirt and shorts weather - just wondering and hoping that we might have another very late Indian summmer, as we did in 2012!

Friday, 31 October 2014

Grey skies but a rainbow of communities.

The skies aren't so grey at the moment but its inevitable that they will be soon

I hosted a leaving party for my soon-to-be ex-flat mate last night. At some point in the evening I counted the nationalities of the people attending: two Belgians (one Flams, one Wallonian), two Brits, two French, one Spaniard, a Pole, a Lebanese and a Cote d'Ivorian and two people of mixed origin (Belgian /Polish and Belgian/Turkish). And their professions ranged from surgeon to urban gardeners to tourist guide to cleaner! (And not a single lobbyist or 'fonctionnaire' in sight

Much though I have issues about living in a cold, damp, climate in an often over-crowded, polluted and heavily-littered city I doubt if I could enjoy such socio-cultural diversity in many other places in Europe. Here's to Brussels in its ugliness, beauty and diversity.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Gee - but it's great to be back home

It's cold (no more 27 degree days) and gets dark so early. There's no mountain views or little fluffy clouds overhead.

BUT it is still nice be home: To touch and arrange 'my things'

And also it's nice to be back in a place where I 'sort of' belong. After saturday's concert we went to a bar and there were three friends hanging out there. :-)

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Rolling home

En passant – end of part 1. Bagneres de Luchon - Brussels (almost 1200km)

I didn’t plan such an early departure but I find myself leaving Luchon in the pre-dawn dark. My body clock woke me up at 5.30 AM. I was packed and ready to leave within an hour. The first forty five minutes on the road home is slow: mountain roads whose curves, cambers and twists I am not familiar with. I cross the Garonne three times and the railway line twice. Just as I get to the motorway it starts getting light. Half way to Toulouse the sun rises – a huge ball of luminous orange. I cross the Garonne twice more before hitting Toulouse and the morning rush hour.

But its only a short delay through Toulouse and once north of the city I stop for a coffee and then pick the A20 heading north – with nary a glimpse back at the mountains that have enfolded my life for the past three and half weeks. This is no time for sentimentality. I have a serious drive ahead of me. The sign says Paris 700Km +. That’s a lot of clicks to cut through – then there’s some. The A20 is a new motorway that (not on my 25 year old Michelin map) that gave me the impression that I was tearing through the heart of the Massif Central. In fact it runs through its much less significant neighbour, les Causses de Quercy. Every village name ends in ‘nac’ or ‘zac’ and its remarkably colder here than in the Pyrenees - even though I’ve only travelled 200km north and the sun is shining brilliantly.

By Limoges the countryside becomes less savage, more fertile and more populated 9although not much less hilly0 There’ more traffic here for a while and then it thins out again A little further on – after another coffee and quiche stop and I’m half way home. Ii hadn’t entered my head that I could do this trip in one data: but its only 1330 and the TomTom says ‘ETA; 1915’. Damn that still almost light. I get the idea in my head that I can do this trip in one shot – see my own bed tonight and not have to get up the next day thinking aware that I have another 5-6 hour’s drive ahead of me.

From Vierzon onwards the motorways start get wider first from two to three lanes, then four and around Paris to five. Its half past four and I’m hoping I get around the periphique before the rush hour. Fat chance. It takes me around an hour and half to get through 50km of the ring round and then there’s another bouchon by the Charles de Gaulle turnoff. It’ running late. – but I’m just three hours from home and one and a half hours daylight left. I think I can make this. I gun it - foot down to the floor till it gets dark then stop for a coffee and to set my TomTom to night vision. Forty kilometre from The Belgian border I pas the last peage of the day – and the first manned one I have seen all day. The TomTom reads an hour and a half to home. I slow down a bit when I cross the Belgian border – the road layouts are different, the engineering specs different and it takes a while to readjust to them. A tanker with a huge luminous smiley on the back overtakes me. I tick into his wake like the peloton on a bike race and let him guide and drag me all the way back to Junction ?, where I turn off into Brussels. Almost 1200km. Just over 1400 hours. About 75 Litres of diesel and about 60 Euros of tolls. Epic. I’ve crossed the Garonne (five times), the Gironde, the Dordogne, the Ivorie, the Loire, the Seine and the Somme: the rivers and valleys that define the geography and history of western France.

Back home there’s a bowl of soup waiting, some help with unloading and my flat mate has already organised my social life for the next ten days. There will be a pile of bills and lots of files to update and transfer. But for tonight some sleep.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

En passant : days 18-25, Bagneres de Luchon. Le fin de cette voyage

I'm in the geographic centre of the Pyrenees. My French guide book eulogizes Luchon. But its more dodo than bo-bo. I lose track of the number of grand hotels that are closed / under renovation. One street doesn't seem to have any enterprises open any more. This is a quiet spa town that has seen better days! But it's a good place to be for a few days rest, writing and recuperation before taking on the long haul (1200 km) back to BXL. Time to swap my white summer panama for a black winter trilby!

Une maison a retaper?

Friday, 17 October 2014

En passant day 17

Andorra la Velha - La Seu D'Urgell - Sort - Puerta de la Bonaiqua (2084 m) - Eth Portillon (1298m) - Bagneres de Lucheron (195km)

The longest day's drive yet- as this is the biggest gap between road passes along the whole of the Pyrenean chain (80km or so as the crow flies). Also the most scenic - on a gloriously sunny autumn day and my fisrt glimpse of snow clad 3000m+ peaks. I'm posting more than my (self-imposed) 6-7 photos a day!