September 2 2008

Food for thought

Observing the combines parked in the fields waiting for the weather to relent so that the harvest can begin reminds me of Prince Charles' recent comments about industrialised farming in general and GM crops in particular.
The Prince said that food security, not food production, was what we should be talking about.
While this might sound rather profound, it is, as Johnjoe McFadden, professor of molecular genetics at the University of Surrey has said, a lot of "biased baloney."
I can remember as a boy going with my grandfather, together with half a dozen other men from the village, all with their scythes strapped to the crossbars of their bikes, to open out a field of corn.
This was the process by which the outside perimeter of the field was cut by hand so that none of the precious commodity would be run over by the binder.
On a decent sized field this would take most of the morning.
We boys and the women would follow along behind gathering up the loose corn into sheaves which were tied with a twisted piece of straw and placed out of harm's way in the hedge.
After the binder had done its work all the sheaves would be placed in stooks and over the coming few days, weather permitting, the stooks would be turned in for out and realigned to allow the wind to blow up the central tunnel.
The farmer's wife would bring us tea, sandwiches and cakes in a large basket and we would all sit in the sun and take a break.
This all sounds terribly romantic but, in particularly wet summers, such as the one we are presently experiencing, the corn would never get dry enough to be "led in" and it was a common sight to see the grain sprouting from the top of the sheaves - ruined.
Not much food security there.
Nowadays, given a couple of dry days, the combines will roll into action and the corn, albeit a bit damp, will mostly be saved.
As someone once said: only two groups of people favour the sort of small scale farming advocated by Prince Charles: those who have never done it and those who have never done anything else.
I think you will find that, as a general rule, the greater the proportion of a country's population engaged in agriculture, the greater the chance that the people are going hungry.
The fact is that the fewer people working in food production, the more there are available to do other essential tasks - think of a society where everyone is a subsistence farmer - and the more mechanised and technically advanced agriculture becomes, the more food is produced.
And if you don't produce the food in the first place there is no prospect of food security.
Much as I enjoy cultivating my vegetable patch, I do not kid myself that this is an efficient means of producing food.
Indeed, I reckon that if the cost of seeds was taken into account and my time charged at the minimum wage rate, I would have enough money to buy more vegetables from Tesco every week than I could get in the boot of the car.
Mind you, they wouldn't taste as nice.
Nor would I be able to feel so self-righteous about my role in reducing food-miles.

Off balance

After reading more local authority web sites than can be good for a man's sanity, I think I have now got to the bottom of this political balance business.
And, it would seem, my treatment of the rules as a mere mathematical problem was way too simplistic.
And, please note, I only claim to "think" I understand because this is a subject that makes Heisenberg's uncertainty principle seem like a bit of a doddle.
But, as my old chemistry master Geoffrey 'Solomon' Beaumont never tired of telling us: "Everything worth knowing is difficult to understand".
Of course, what he didn't say was that everything that is difficult to understand is worth knowing and, if you manage to get to the end of this without nodding off, you will be in a position to decide which of these two categories this comes under.
If you do nod off, that can be taken as the clearest possible evidence that you think it is the latter..
These rules came out of the Widdicombe Inquiry into the conduct of local government.
Prior to Widdicombe the ruling party in a local authority could, if it so wished, and it usually did, use its majority to monopolise the council's committees.
Widdicombe proposed that committees should be constituted so as to reflect the authority's political balance and this was enacted in S15 Local Gevernment and Housing Act 1989.
Without going into the details (the actual legislation is printed at the bottom of this page) committee seats are now divided in proportion to the number of seats held by each political group.
That is straightforward enough, until you consider those of us who don't belong to any party or group.
Last week, I drew attention to the apparently different treatment of the allocation of places on the planning committee (24 seats) and the scrutiny committees (12 seats).
With planning the independent independents have been given two seats which should mean, in strictly arithmetical terms, they should have one on the scrutiny committees.
However, my trawl of council web sites reveals that this is not how it seems to work.
In the case of the planning committee, the IPG is entitled to 14.6 seats (38/60 x 24) which, applying the principle that numbers of 0.5 or above are rounded up, equals 15.
Tories, Labour and Plaid, with five councillors each, are entitled to exactly two seats (5/60 x 24) and the three Lib Dems 1.2 (3/60 x 24) which rounds down to one.
Adding these together gives 22 i.e. two seats remain unallocated.
Repeating this process with the 12 member scrutiny committees we have 7.8 (8), 1,1,1, and 0.6 (1) which adds up to twelve leaving no unallocated seats.
Interestingly, even in the unlikely but not impossible case that two members from each of the Conservative, Labour and Plaid groups were to resign and become independent independents the three parties would still be entitled to 0.6 (1) seats and the allocation of seats on scrutiny committees would remain exactly the same with the, now, 10 independent independents out in the cold.
Though, if you have been keeping up, you will already have worked out that such a scenario would leave four unallocated seats on the planning committee.
From what I know about the interpretation of rules two principles apply.
Firstly, the rule should be applicable to all possible circumstances and in addition the interpretation shouldn't lead to an absurdity.
So take a hypothetical council with 48 members divided into 12 two-member political groups and 24 independent independents.
Applying the above interpretation to a 12 member scrutiny committee would entitle each of the groups 0.5 (2/48 x 12) of a seat rounded up to 1.
That would mean all 12 seats were taken leaving the 24 independent independents, and the people who elected them, effectively disenfranchised.
On the other hand, if the council was equally divided between a 24-member group and 24 dictionary independents the group would only be entitled to six seats (24/48 x 12).
How absurd is that?
Especially when the purpose of the rules is to achieve political balance.
I think there is a way in which these rules could be applied more fairly, though, as I suspect you've already had enough of this - I certainly have - that can wait until next week.

Russian boot


Buoyed up by the proceeds of our gas bills, Mr Putin and his sidekick President Medvedev have taken to sending their tanks over the borders of neighbouring states.
This has led to much huffing and puffing in the councils of the EU and Nato but as we all know (including the Russians) there is very little we can do about it.
Firstly, the Russians control our energy supplies and we are not about to see the lights going out, let alone consider military action, for the sake of "a quarrel in far-away country between people of whom we know nothing", as Chamberlain described the situation in Czechoslovakia after Hitler annexed Sudetenland in1939.
For anyone wishing to draw historical parallels, the text of Chamberlain's speech to the House of Commons can be found at http://www.history guide.or/Europe/Munich.html
But what Russia's incursion into Georgia should teach us is something about the true nature of democracy.
Living in stable country like Britain, where the first action of a defeated Prime Minister is to ring Pickfords rather than the leader of his private militia, it is easy to form the impression that democracy is the natural order of things.
A quick glance round the world should be enough to convince you that that is not true.
Nor is it the case that elections are a sufficient condition to found a democracy.
A few weeks ago I heard a young woman from Zimbabwe very eloquently making this point on the Today programme.
What she said was that, even if the recent elections in her home country had been squeaky clean, Zimbabwe would still not be a true democracy because it lacked the necessary democratic institutions - independent judiciary, non-political security forces and impartial civil service - that are essential if the rule of law is to prevail.
Even in countries such as ours, where democracy is well embedded, it is never a given.
And the greatest threat to democracies everywhere is not Al Qaeda, the Red Army or the Yellow Peril, but elected majorities.
Not because elected majorities are uniquely wicked, but because they are the only people with the power to subvert the constitutional arrangements upon which democracy depends.
And that is exactly what Mugabe and Putin, and Hitler before them, have done
Of course, if popular support was the sole criterion, Mr Putin with more than 70% of the vote could be considered more of a democrat that either George Bush 51% or Tony Blair 33%.

Unpalatable truth


Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alastair Darling has come in for scathing criticism for saying that we face the worst financial crisis for 50 years.
Old Grumpy can't see why.
Surely, we should be pleased to hear a politician telling us the truth as he sees it rather than telling us what he thinks we want to hear.
After all, we aren't children.
And, if there are hard economic times ahead, this early warning provides the opportunity to take steps to mitigate the worst effects.
It's too late to plant vegetables for this year but you could make a start on digging up the lawn in preparation for next spring's sowing
In any case, the Chancellor was only repeating what economic commentators have been saying for months.
And even the usually reticent Governor of the Bank of England has warned of financial turmoil in the months and years ahead.
The sad truth is that we have been living beyond our means on the back of an unsustainable surge in cheap credit and the time has now arrived when the kissing has to stop.

Home truths


Can it be as little as a year ago that politicians of every stripe were preaching the need for "affordable housing for first time buyers"?
Well, the credit crunch and the resulting fall in property prices has has made their wish come true.
So what do they do?
Bring in a package of measures to support the housing market i.e. stop houses becoming even more affordable than they are now.
This is tough on those wishing to get a foot on the housing ladder.
But the fact is that those of us on the ladder outnumber those waiting at the bottom and it is only natural that vote-seeking politicians will put our interests above theirs.
We all want to see more affordable housing, of course, but not if it means having to sell our own des res at a knockdown price.

And for really serious nerds

Extract from S15 LGH Act 1989

to make only such determinations as give effect, so far as reasonably practicable, to the principles specified in subsection (5) below.
(5) The principles mentioned in subsection (4) above, in relation to the seats on any body which fall to be filled by appointments made by any relevant authority or committee of a relevant authority, are—
(a) that not all the seats on the body are allocated to the same political group;
(b) that the majority of the seats on the body is allocated to a particular political group if the number of persons belonging to that group is a majority of the authority’s membership;
(c) subject to paragraphs (a) and (b) above, that the number of seats on the ordinary committees of a relevant authority which are allocated to each political group bears the same proportion to the total of all the seats on the ordinary committees of that authority as is borne by the number of members of that group to the membership of the authority; and
(d) subject to paragraphs (a) to (c) above, that the number of the seats on the body which are allocated to each political group bears the same proportion to the number of all the seats on that body as is borne by the number of members of that group to the membership of the authority.

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