Why cheap food may be damaging the environment

“Any environmental issue involves looking at who the stakeholders are and what are the relationships among them. If you don’t deal with the relationship problem at the root, then you will fail in the end”

– Dr Michael Schluter at the Caux Dialogue on Land and Security 2015

This pithy quote caught the theme of the Caux Dialogue on Land and Security well. The event brought together a group of practitioners, researchers and senior policy makers in a reflective environment for a conversation in which the dynamics of land and security were explored in depth. The dialogue contrasted the positive and negative feedback loops between political and environmental factors in land degradation, poverty and conflict.

One of the exciting good news stories shared at the event came from northern Ethiopia, where there have been major results on land restoration and on building social cohesion that together put the region in a much better place to withstand the current trials of a failed wet season.

However, the dialogue recognised that work in those geographical areas experiencing social and environmental fragility is not sufficient alone. The world is interconnected, not just through the migrant flows when things don’t work out – a striking reminder though that is – but also through the vitally important but less visible ties of global trade.

Trade in food arguably represents the most important set of relationships determining how society at large is connected with the farming community – who are, after all, the world’s front line environmental managers. As Stockholm Water Prize Laureate, Prof Tony Allan, explained:

“We are living a contradiction. We are addicted to cheap food. But we do not realise that asking farmers to produce under-priced food means they cannot provide the ecosystem services which we also need them to provide. Low food prices make it impossible for farmers to attend to the environment”

Food prices link everyone on the planet with farmers. So if there are problems with regulation of land and conflict affecting farmers in Africa, or problems closer to home as a result of farmers lacking incentives and resources to control polluted or excessive run-off into rivers, then reorganising society’s relationships with farmers is key.

The scope of the dialogue was broad – but it’s hard to think of a topic of which it is truer to say that it affects us all… The report, keynote speeches and some of the great presentations at the event are available here.

Brendan Bromwich is a water and environment consultant and was one of the speakers at the 2015 Relational Thinking International Conference.

Photo: Caux Palace – Switzerland (By Airflore on Flickr)

Grounding sustainable development: a focus on trust in the Caux Dialogue on Land and Security

The establishment of the Sustainable Development Goals and the International Year of Soils in 2015 give cause to focus on the foundations of sustainable development.  How well are we managing the water and soils we depend on to produce the food we eat?  And, perhaps more fundamentally, who is responsible for the world’s soil, and who should be funding its wellbeing?  These questions about sharing risk and reward from natural resources are fundamental to the conceptualisation of sustainability.

The global food trade is worth in excess of five trillion dollars a year so there is a strong argument for ensuring farmers are sufficiently funded to manage land and water well.  Or is this wishful thinking, given the market’s insatiable appetite for lower food prices?

Where supply chains are short, there are times when the consumer is enthusiastic about funding farming in this way: think local organic farmers’ markets.  But where supply chains are long, complex, costly or just too mundane (think canned beans), then the competition for lower prices may drive the environmental costs out of the equation.

There is an issue of relationships here.  What is our relationship as consumers (those who eat food!) with producers – a.k.a. farmers?  It would be fair to say that in a diverse urbanised economy we are not as well connected as we were and that there is something regrettable about this given the critical importance of food, and of the natural environment, to our wellbeing.

If this is important at home, how about the global perspective?  Africa is increasingly engaging in the global trade of food.  And as it scales up its agricultural production, how can we ensure that the global competition for cheap food doesn’t come at the expense of Africa’s soil and water?

Given the role of land in conflict in Africa, this becomes an important question of security as well as of land, trade and livelihoods.

It is these converging dynamics that will be discussed in the Caux Dialogue on Land and Security this summer.  The issues all have considerable relational significance – trade, good governance and conflict are all functions of relationships.  Dr Michael Schluter of Relational Research will be opening the event alongside Rear Admiral Neil Morisetti, the UK’s former Climate and Energy Security Envoy.  One day will be given over to focussing on the interface between land, trade, food and water.  Scale-up of land restoration and building trust to enable collective action are themes for the other two days.

Conferences at Caux have a long history of building trust in the context of international affairs and in business.  The discussions began as a reconciliation process, high in the Alps, in the aftermath of the Second World War. The stunning views from the restored Belle Époque hotel provide a fine context for reflection and thoughtful dialogue, then as now.

For more information, and to register to attend the Dialogue, which is held in Caux between 10 and 14 July, see http://landlivespeace.org/

Brendan Bromwich is on the Steering Group of the Caux Dialogue on Land and Security. He will be speaking at the Relational Thinking International Conference in Cambridge in September on  reviewing the UN’s Work on Environmental Governance and Peace building in Sudan.


Changing the Game for Drug Addicts

In January, we posted an article that briefly discussed a new book by Johann Hari about drug addiction. Today, Andre Van Eymeren, who worked for one of our member organisations ‘Partnering for Transformation’, writes a more in depth article based on Hari’s work.

What comes to mind when you think of drug addiction? Spaced out people, down and outers, alley ways littered with tags and needles, mental health issues, violence, the drain on society, people experiencing a lack of purpose and meaning, runaways. I guess for the most part the term conjures up fairly negative images and causes us to hold people suffering from drug addiction at arms length or further.

Some of the outcomes can of course be very scarey. People addicted to Ice for example can become violent at the slightest (perceived) provocation and the researchers are saying that the drug even begins to change brain chemistry. Currently they are not sure if this is reversible. All of this paints a pretty grim picture.

Enter into this dark landscape an article by Johann Hari, featured recently in  The Huffington Post. Based on the research for his book, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, he “learned… that almost everything we have been told about addiction is wrong and there is a very different story waiting for us, if only we are ready to hear it.”

For Hari the journey has been a very personal one, beginning as a child trying to wake up a relative and not being able to. From that time he has mulled as I’m sure many of us have on what causes some people to become fixated on a drug or a behavior until they can’t stop? Learning from friends who have first hand experience, the pain of seeing a loved one battle with the ups and mostly downs of addiction and attempting to loose themselves from it and falling over and over again is excruciating. And in no way to blame them, for self-protection, eventually most family and friends remove themselves from the lives of the addicted person. Unfortunately this tends to have the effect of further cementing a lifestyle of addiction.

Hari writes, “if you had asked me what causes drug addiction at the start, I would have looked at you as if you were an idiot, and said: ‘Drugs. Duh’” As you would be aware drugs have a strong chemical hook and so if we were to take them for a period of time and suddenly stopped the belief is our body would crave them.  This theory was established through tests on rats, carried out in America. A rat placed in a cage on its own with two water bottles, one plain water, the other laced with heroin or cocaine. Time and time again the rat would become obsessed with the latter bottle till essentially it killed itself.

In the 1970’s some alternate experiments were run by, Vancouver Professor of Psychology, Bruce Alexander. He built what came to be known as Rat Park. This cage had coloured balls, the best rat food, tunnels and friends. And again the two bottles were set up. This time the results were significantly different. The rats residing at Rat Park mostly shunned the drug laced water bottle, consuming less than a quarter of the drugs the isolated rats used. None of them died. None of the rats living in the second happy environment became heavy users.

According to Hari and the studies he uses as evidence, returning soldiers from the Vietnam war provided a useful human equivalent. Many soldiers on deployment (20%) understandably used drugs to combat fear etc. When they returned 95% of that 20% simply stopped without the use rehab. What was different? Their environment. From being terrified everyday the soldiers returned to relatively pleasant home lives which left the need for the drug redundant.

Professor Alexander made a fascinating observation challenging the view that drugs are a moral failing as well as the more liberal opinion that addiction is a disease taking place in a chemically hijacked brain. He argues that addiction is an adaption. It’s got more to do with your environment than what is going on inside you. Of course your reactions to your environment may be another story. He re-ran the old experiments with the isolated rats, they became hooked, then he placed them in Rat Park and after a few twitches they got on with a happy life, addiction free, with no desire for the drug.

A further case for this theory of addiction is pain relief in hospital. For severe pain, patients effectively receive heroin at a much higher purity and potency than addicts on the street. After months of use hospital patients can simply stop. It virtually never happens that a patient then transfers their addiction to the street and they leave hospital trying to score on the way home. But the same drug wreaks havoc in the lives of users on the streets.

Hari points out, “…the drug is the same but the environment is different.” The hospital patient for the most part is going home to an environment where they are loved and cared for. The street user suffers continual isolation and rejection.

The issue then, according to Professor Peter Cohen, is not the drug but human bonding. We are created to bond to others, to form attachment, relationship. If these essentials go missing then we will bond with other things. For some this includes drugs of all sorts and others gambling and alternate addictive behaviours.

If we accept this theory of addiction then it is a huge challenge to the way we work with addicts. By in large the social services are not equipped to adapt to a relational approach to service delivery. Professionalisation of care and the perceived need for professional distance has meant in some cases a de-personalisation, particularly around people with complex needs, which are often compounded by drug addiction.

If we are to believe the points that Hari raises and take on board people’s need for bonding relationships, then as service providers the concern will not only be for the individual but for their network of relationships, their community if you like. Now many of these might be burnt but focusing on their relational web will be a starting point in the recovery process. Quite often people addicted to drugs will find themselves homeless and in boarding houses. How can housing providers work to ensure positive environments where relationships and attachments will form, which will negate the need for the drug. In Melbourne there are an increasing number of rooming houses that focus these concerns. Servants of Hawthorn and Magpie’s Nest are two examples.

This approach to working with people addicted to drugs also provides a window for churches, Rotary, Lions and other welfare minded community organisations. People with addictions often need new networks of relationships, opportunity to connect with people who will share life and journey with them. Obviously if there are family and friends left in the addict’s life who can provide these relationships in a positive environment that is a better option. But if these relationships have been burnt alternate connections are needed.

As humans we have an innate need to connect meaningfully with others, why then do we seem to have the propensity to deny this connection to people who it could be argued need it the most?

Building more relational roads

Mill Road after its resurfacing.

By Samuel Fisher

Mill Road in Cambridge, UK, is well established locally as an ‘alternative’ area popular with both local residents and international visitors alike.  It is famous for international supermarkets, independent shops, restaurants and cafes not to mention a great variety of pubs.  For locals it has also been perceived as a place that has been beyond the reach of the University, which otherwise has a strong presence across the city.

In the past few months Mill Road has undergone another transformation that continues to uphold its reputation for being slightly alternative; after resurfacing the road Cambridge City Council, as a trial, has decided not to replace the white centre-line that adorns every other major, single lane road in the city.

In orthodox highway design philosophy the centre-line is considered necessary to delineate where vehicles can travel to avoid oncoming traffic. It was self evident this approach improves safety and efficiency. Or so it was assumed.

There is an emerging street design philosophy that emanates from the late Dutch urbanist Hans Monderman that takes, in my view, a more relational approach to considering the purpose of streets.  In the case of Mill Road it is accepted that the road is so narrow that cars find it difficult to overtake cyclists. It is argued by the Council that the centre-line caused a further, subliminal, obstacle to overtaking drivers since the centre-lines highlighted that drivers were infringing upon the ‘wrong’ side of the road. By removing the centre lines it was argued that drivers would feel less encumbered by the orthodox laws and give cyclists a wider berth when overtaking them.

More broadly Hans Monderman understood a wider benefit to this approach; for drivers, the absence of a centre-line increases the perception of hazard from oncoming vehicles. This naturally encourages drivers to pay more attention to their driving and the activity of other road users.  It may not increase eye to eye contact with other road users but, from personal experience, it does certainly make you more aware of how you are interacting with the vehicles around you (and by extension, those driving them).

My argument is that the built environment often provides both symbols of the dominant socio-political paradigm of the day and physical mechanisms to facilitate behaviour favourable to that paradigm. Whether intended or unintended it is possible to view centre-lines as both relational detractors and an omnipresent symbol of relational detractors elsewhere in our everyday lives.  Whilst the centre-line purports to be a safety aid it actually creates a law that, so long as we adhere to it, enables us (perhaps even encourages us) to largely ignore those around us. Subconsciously its message is ‘stick to your lane and you can enjoy right-of-way, moreover you will hardly need to think about any other road user.’  Whilst ostensibly innocuous the centre-lines, as the argument of the Council goes, even discourage drivers from providing the greatest level  protection to the most vulnerable road users – cyclists.  So in some very small way, whilst giving the illusion of safety and order, the centre-line it is argued acts as both a relational detractor and works against the most vulnerable.

If these potential safety benefits were not reason enough to rethink their use, there is also the added benefit that Mill Road simply looks much better without them.

Whilst it might appear to be counter-intuitive, the Mill Road trial continues and it has my full support.

Samuel Fisher graduated from Cambridge University in Architecture before becoming a chartered town planner. He now researches on relational cities and is a policy development partner for the Relational Schools Project.

Dairy farmers in danger

CAMBRIDGE/LONDON – The number of dairy farmers in the UK is at an all-time low and MPs are now calling for action, for more protection for the industry. A volatile domestic and global market are causing the farmers to go and look for another job, or to continue but with potential devastating effects for the environment.

According to a BBC news article the report from the Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee points out several problems. However, at the heart of the issues seems to lie the problematic relationship in the supply chain, especially between the farmers and supermarkets. The Groceries Code Adjudicator, which is there to investigate complaints and ensure that suppliers are treated “lawfully and fairly”, is only covering the interests of ‘direct suppliers’ of the ten largest supermarkets. This excludes the large number of dairy farmers.

In the Relational Proximity Framework® “parity” is one of the five dimensions of a relationship. In the current situation, this ‘balance of power’ seems to be very much on the side of the supermarkets. BBC environment correspondent Claire Marshall notes that where a farmer needs about 30p for each liter of milk to look after his cattle and earn a living, a lot of the times he only receives 20p. In some supermarkets four pints of milk can be bought for just 89p.

It is this lack of parity, caused by a situation where competition among the supermarkets is intense and the global (export) market is volatile, that forces farmers to go out of business. According to the National Farmers’ Union the number of dairy farmers has fallen with 50% since 2001.

There’s also a ‘relational’ aspect when it comes to farming and environmental sustainability. The danger is that where farmers try to go against the odds, continue to try and make a living, that they resort to measures that damage the environment. One can think of taking out hedgerows which will help them to increase yields in the short run, but which will have devastating effect on the environment with biodiversity lost and soils and watercourses undermined.

Solutions are needed on multiple fronts. If the groceries watchdog extends to cover dairy suppliers, then a certain amount of parity will be restored. Supermarkets will have to pay more for milk and so will consumers. Yet with improvement of the ‘balance of power’ in the supply chain, there will be many more positive effects on the environment, economy and ultimately on the farmer themselves.

But starting closer to home, the consumer can ask him/herself the question: How much am I willing to pay for four pints of milk?