Passover meal

Wordle: Untitled


The original Easter story took place against the backdrop of the passover festival, with much of the central part of this happening at a passover meal.

On the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the disciples went to Jesus and said, “Where do you want us to make preparations for you to eat the Passover meal?”   He said, “Go to a certain man in the city and say to him, ‘The Teacher says, “My time is near. I will celebrate the Passover with my disciples at your house.”’ So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the Passover meal.   When evening came, Jesus was sitting at the table with the twelve.   While they were eating, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you is going to betray me.”   Feeling deeply distressed, each one began to say to him, “Surely I am not the one, Lord?”   He replied, “The man who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me. The Son of Man is going away, just as it has been written about him, but how terrible it will be for that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for him if he had never been born.”    Then Judas, who was going to betray him, said, “Rabbi, I’m not the one, am I?” Jesus said to him, “You have said so.” While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread and blessed it. Then he broke it in pieces and handed it to the disciples, saying, “Take this and eat it. This is my body.”    Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you.   For this is my blood of the new covenant that is being poured out for many people for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will never again drink the product of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.

With this in mind last night our church held a passover meal as a preparation for Easter. This blog entry covers a brief account of what we did and thoughts and lessons we can learn from the passover*. The passover of course is recounted in Ex 12v5-14. In this passage God tells the Israelites to mark their door frames with lambs blood and eat the lamb along with bitter herbs to protect them from God’s wrath when he killed the first born Egyptians.

We started the Seder with the lighting of a candle done by the most senior woman on our table and a prayer thanking God who gives us life and sustains us. We then moved onto the Kiddush (cup of sanctification). Wine is a big part of passover and this is the first of four prayers of giving thanks to God for the fruit of the vine. We drank one glass of wine (actually grape juice).

Next was the Karpas. This is was a prayer of thanks for springtime and its bounty and involved eating parsley dipped in salt. The prayer we prayed was a specific remainder that God is the creator and we rely on him for our food.

Passover is a festival of remembrance of deliverance from slavery. In the next section the Maggid the story is recounted and the youngest member reads out a series of questions about the symbols and an elder answers each one. We thanked God for the unleavened bread the Israelites took in their hurray to leave Egypt and prayed for the hungry and oppressed. We then poured another glass of wine.

Moving on, in the “Hallel: cup of redemption” we first thanked God for his rescue from Egypt and asked him to allow plenty more passover meals in peace. We then thanked God for the fruit of the vine again and drank the second glass of wine.

Passover is of course a meal and before every meal you should wash your hands (Mat 26v23). We did this in water with lemon in it. Jesus washed his disciples feet showing his humility (Jn 13v2-17), we didn’t go that far. A prayer of blessing was prayed (Rachatz) followed by the Motzi Matzoh the blessing of the bread and prayer to remind us that its God who gives “bread from the earth”.

We kept some bread back for the Morar (the blessing of the bitter herbs). In this section we dipped our bread in sweet Charoses made of apples and nuts meant to symbolise the mortar with which the the Israelite slaves built the pyramids with.  Followed then by horseradish to represent the bitterness of slavery. This ended with a prayer and a reading of Luke 22v15-19 which is an account of Jesus’ celebration of the passover.

The next thing to do was actually eat (Shulhan Orekah). The church had laid on a fantastic meal of lamb with couscous. At this point my table did drink some real wine (we didn’t feel we could manage to down four glasses and stay sober). For the first time we could talk and we aptly discussed what we had or hadn’t given up for lent, a wedding and the merits of vegetarianism as well as holidays. At the passover you give thanks at the end for the food (Borekh), this took the form of a three part prayer and response thanking God, the food and fellowship, being able to celebrate passover and for God’s mercy. We then thanked God a third time for wine and drank again!

The passover meal, service?? started to come to a close with a Hallel psalm of praise (Ps 116) and another blessing for the fruit of the vine. This time we only drank half the glass keeping half for the Nirtzeh when we brought Christ into the final thanks for the fruit of the vine.

There is so much resonant symbolism in the passover meal for Christians. We see Christ as the unblemished lamb who saves us from our sins. There are also echoes of the unleavened bread in 1 Cor 5v6-8, a passage we were encouraged to read on our table. Paul sees it as a symbol of throwing off the old and embracing the new, which is Jesus. Roman 8v38-39 we also read, talks of coping with bitterness and suffering, something the bitter herbs reminded us of. This I regard as all true and the passover meal was a moving reminder of my need for Christ.

But there was more to the passover meal than I expected. The issue of food security and God’s place in it came up several times in the prayers we prayed. I have written a blog post on this subject this very week. We in the rich west have lost our link with the land almost completely and we seem to think we are immune from food insecurity. This is increasingly untrue. Long supply lines, oil dependency and climate change means feeding ourselves in the future will be expensive and challenging. The passover meal also reminds us that eating is an act of celebration and community. A last ironic thought. The passover meal we celebrated had no vegetarian option. But eating meat at the time of the patriarchs would have been rare, unlike today. Perhaps only in such festivals as the passover. This could be the future for us too.

Have a happy Easter.


*How authentically Jewish this is I’m not sure. As far as I am concerned its a Christianised version and not meant to offend. I do have some distant Jewish ancestry.

Posted in climate change, Creation, Faith, Food, One thing we have learnt this week, other, Peak oil, Practical low carbon living, Slow living | 1 Comment

oil and food

DSC_1305_optWhen you sit down for your next meal try to imagine you are eating oil.  Its a fairly disgusting thought, but that is literally what you are doing.  We tend not to think about how much energy is used in growing, transporting and storing food.  A helpful start is think about how much it takes grow a hectare of wheat.  Data provided by the Institute of Mechanical Engineers suggests it takes on average 22566MJ of energy in total.  Just 6MJ of this is due to human effort (presumably operating the tractor).  To put it into perspective, for every calorie you eat, it takes an average of 8 calories of energy to get it into your mouth.  Much more than that if its meat.

There are two main reasons for this.  When my grandparents were young, before the first world war, the great majority of the food they ate was local and seasonal.  Nowadays the food we buy can come from anywhere any time.  Seasonal, forget it.  About the only thing I can think of that’s still seasonal is sprouts!  These very long supply lines often from different continents, rely on vast amounts of cheap energy and that’s just for the transport.  There is also another issue that has links to just before the first world war.  Returning to our field of wheat, the fertilizer used to grow our wheat takes 10,651MJ/Ha, almost half the energy required.   Fertilizers are not solely composed of nitrogen, but its the most important element within them.  Why is this?

Nitrogen is a vital component of amino-acids which form the building blocks of proteins, its also used to make the nucleotide bases used in DNA and RNA.  There’s plenty of it around, the atmosphere is nearly 80% nitrogen.  There’s a problem though.  Nitrogen does not like being alone.  It bonds very happily with other atoms such as oxygen or hydrogen to form compounds, but not as happily as to itself.   Nitrogen in the atmosphere is a gas formed of two nitrogen atoms bound together by a very strong triple bond.  Nitrogen gas is therefore very inert, stable and not bioavailable.  This takes a lot of energy to break nitrogen the compound into individual nitrogen atoms, giving them a chance to combine with something else.  In nature lightening can do it, the nitrogen combining with either one or two oxygen atoms.  The resulting nitrogen oxides dissolve in rain water to form weak nitrous acids.  These end up in the soil where plants can acquire the nitrogen.  Another route for nitrogen to enter plants and the soil is via bacteria.  Some bacteria can use enzymes to break the triple bond.  Leguminous plants have evolved to be able use bacteria to “fix” nitrogen in forms they can utilise.  You might ask why over millions of years all the nitrogen has not ended up in plants and the soil?  The reason being other bacteria convert nitrates back to nitrogen gas.

Till the 1840’s crop rotation using legumes and rain were the main sources of nitrogen fertilizers for plants.  Then mineral nitrates and guano (mineralised bird poo) came on the scene.  These were finite.  Just as it looked like there could be a food crisis in 1909 Haber and Bosch invented the Haber process.  This as you will remember from school chemistry lessons uses lots of  heat, pressure and an iron catalyst to break the triple bond combining hydrogen and nitrogen to make ammonia.  Ammonia when combined with nitrates are forms of nitrogen that plants can easily assimilate.  Crisis solved, loads of nitrogen and lots of food for everyone.  There’s a problem however and its energy again.  The Haber process is reliant on fossil fuels both for the hydrogen and the heat to drive the process.  So much so that an astonishing 3-5% of the worlds natural gas alone is used to make fertilizer.

Our current food system has given us much that is good, we have more food than ever before and more choice of what to eat.  It also given us ecological damage and an obesity crisis.  Our reliance on oil and gas make us vulnerable when they start to deplete.  We are in the foothills of this now.  Since 2000 the percentage income we spend on food has doubled.

So what are we to do?  GM crops obviously won’t totally break the link with oil.  The solutions lie in growing as much food as close to us as we can, organically.  Even in the middle of cities.  Also using a diversified agriculture with rotation using legumes, rather than monoculture.  By eating less meat and less food in general.  Can it be done?  The experience of Cuba suggests its possible.  After the break up of the USSR they lost their cheap oil and survived by doing the above.


This post is being entered for a science writing prize (very speculatively), more info on the link between oil and food can be found in our book.

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UK energy data

A while ago I promised a blog on the recent release of the UK energy data.  This blog covers some of it.  The energy data I’ve obtained is really very comprehensive and goes back to 1970.  It covers almost very aspect of domestic energy use and patterns in the UK.  Whilst this data is UK centric the broad trends are probably the same in most Western countries.

Looking first at heat use from the UK energy data we can see from the left hand graph that decades of falling heat loss from UK houses has spectacularly reversed in the last three years of data.  The right hand graph shows that the average temperature people heat their houses to has showed a consistent upward trend even as the average outside temperature has increased.

graph1At first sight there is no obvious explanation for this recent pattern, although 2010 was on of the cold winters we have had, so was 2009.    However, the overall data is broken down into individual components (walls. Windows, roof etc.)  Only the heat loss through walls has shown a continuing fall.  The heat loss though windows and by ventilation has increased dramatically with other areas such as roofs showing minor increases.  It looks like the recent run of colder winters has had households opening their windows more frequently to combat mould and damp.  This a live issue of debate in our household, is it better to air the house and let cold air in and hopefully damp along with heat out?  Or does make the whole place colder and therefore damper?  There is a solution to this that is a mechanical heat recovery system which removes stale air passes it through a heat exchanger and sends 90% of it back into the house.  However these are disruptive and expensive to retro fit.

The second set of graphs show long term energy price trends.  The left hand graph shows the actual price and the second right hand graph shows the prices relative to 2011 prices (2011=100).

graph2Again this data shows some surprising trends. Whilst there has obviously been a very high upward trend in recent years the price some types of energy are not at all time highs.  The data ends at 2011 and it should be noted that prices have gone up more since.  Also gas and oil prices have been higher in the past.  The gas price data is explained by the fact that it was higher when there was no north sea gas and we used town gas.  This cheap north sea gas explains the gas and electricity price falls in the late nineties, not privatisation of the gas and electricity companies which piggy backed on the back of that cheap resource.  But as the gas has started to run out and the oil price leapt, that trend has gone into reverse with a vengeance.  Oil prices (used for heating) were also higher in the past.  This is also surprising to me.  Not even the record price of oil in 2008 could undo the 1979/80 price.

The effect of these recent price increases can be seen in the next set of graphs showing on the left the % of households in England in fuel poverty and on the right the % income spent by all UK households in different fuels.


What can we conclude from this UK energy data?  Despite energy price increases we are still very wasteful with energy and for many of us its still too cheap.  There are a large minority however, who are struggling since for them ironically energy prices are far too high.

All UK energy data sourced from DECC.

Posted in climate change, energy costs, gas, Lifestyle, Peak oil, Practical low carbon living, Renewables | Leave a comment

One thing we have learnt this week- climate change and food security

One thing we have learnt this week is we need to worry about food security due to climate change.   The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 5th assessment report covers a wide range of issues relating to climate change, but knowing readers of this blog are interested in food I have just decided to cover this one aspect.

One of the arguments that climate sceptics have made is that increased carbon dioxide levels will increase plant growth.  One right wing think tank in the US even produced a video claiming something along the lines “they called pollution we call it fertilizer”. This belief which, to be fair, many climate scientists hoped might be true is presumably based on the overall photosynthetic reaction shown below.


For any scientists reading this yes I’m aware its not balanced, its just to keep it very simple.  In crude chemistry terms if you increase the concentration one of the reactants on the left hand side then more product should be produced to bring the reaction back into a new state of chemical equilibrium.  This is known as the law of mass action.  The problem is that plant biochemistry is much more complicated than that indicated by the simple reaction above.  For starters the reaction above is split up, water is broken down to hydrogen ions, electrons and oxygen in a plant organ known as the chloroplast and this process requires light.  Carbon dioxide is captured to form sugars in light independent reactions (known as the Calvin cycle) by an enzyme called ribulose bisphosphate carboxylase oxygenase (RuBisCO.  This protein is probably the most abundant enzyme on earth!  Under dry conditions plants will attempt to save water by shutting pores called stomata.  This means the carbon dioxide levels fall and the reaction above starts to go into reverse (so maintaining the chemical equilibrium).  Various plants have adapted mechanisms to concentrate carbon dioxide and therefore maximise their growth.  For example some tropical plants (such as maize) use a an additional chemical pathway called the C4 pathway to chemically “fix” the carbon dioxide making photosynthesis in these plants more effective.

This last fact could be important to food security. Originally scientists thought plants would grow faster and bigger everywhere as CO2 levels rose.  Measurements have not borne this out.  Current thinking suggests that the plants in the tropics will suffer and plants in the northern hemisphere will do better.  Could it be that in the tropics plants are as efficient as they can be due to pathways like C4?  Whatever the reason plants in the tropics don’t benefit from increased CO2.

This is what the 5th assessment says;

Based on these studies, there is medium confidence that climate trends have negatively
affected wheat and maize production for many regions (Figure 7-2) (medium evidence, high agreement). Since many of these regional studies are for major producers, and a global study (Lobell et al. 2011) estimated negative impacts on these crops, there is also medium confidence for negative impacts on global aggregate production of wheat and
maize. Effects on rice and soybean yields have been small in major production regions and globally (Figure 7-2) (medium evidence, high agreement). There is also high confidence that warming has benefitted crop production in some high-latitude regions, such as Northeast China or the United Kingdom Jaggard et al., 2007, Supit et al., 2010;
Chen et al., 2010; Gregory and Marshall, 2012).”

If this was it then food security would be increased in temperate regions and decreased in the tropics.   Which would be bad enough.  The problem is this leaves out one huge elephant in the room – the weather.  Different plants are adapted to different levels of sun and moisture (and humans are responsible for much of that adaptation).  So for example rice likes growing in water, whereas maize will cope with much drier conditions.  The 5th assessment does not reach definite conclusions on this weather related food security  issue.  In fact it states crop yields and weather are even more complicated and localised than the above might imply.

“The overall relationship between weather and yields is often crop and region specific, depending on differences in baseline climate, management and soil, and the duration and timing of crop exposure to various conditions. For example, rice yields in China have been found to be positively correlated with temperature in some regions and negatively correlated in others (Zhang et al., 2010). The trade-offs that occur in determining yield are therefore region-specific. This difference may be due to positive correlation between temperature and solar radiation in the former case, and negative correlation between temperature and water stress in the latter case. Similarly, although studies consistently show spikelet sterility in rice for daytime temperatures exceeding 33°C (Jadadish et al., 2007; Wassmann et al., 2009), some statistical studies find a positive effect of daytime warming on yields because these extremes are not reached frequently enough to affect yields (Welch et al., 2010). Responses to temperature may vary according whether yields are limited by low or high temperatures. However, there is evidence that high temperatures will limit future yields even in cool environments (Semenov et al., 2012; Teixeira et al., 2013).

In other words on food security, the official view is we are guessing.  Common sense has to come into play here though. As a keen non-professional gardener, since the late 90′s I’ve seen the weather become increasingly erratic.  I also know that almost everything I grow needs benign weather.  Not to much rain or sun, just the right amount.  The crazy weather we have been getting does not bode well in that regard.  There are also other issues such as rising demand, population increase and peak oil that must be factored in.  Food security looks like being an increasing challenge over the next couple of decades and going forward.  We all have a responsibility to stop this happening, as the writer of proverbs says;

A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children, but the sinner’s wealth is laid up for the righteous.  The fallow ground of the poor would yield much food,
but it is swept away through injustice.” Proverbs 13v22-3


This passage will form the basis of part of a new book we are working on and is a very crude first draft.

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In praise of trees

apple tree_optI don’t know whether everyone has a favourite plant, but mine I have decided are trees. I like almost any trees, but my favourite ones are fruit trees.  The other week when we were doing some voluntary I was talking with some of our homegroup about my having a go at tree grafting.  At least one member had never heard of this.  So I thought I would blog on trees!


It doesn’t take long for the bible to mention trees.  Genesis 1v11 says;


“And God said,“Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, on the earth.” And it was so”


Whether you take Genesis literally or metaphorically, humankind was in Genesis 2 commanded to look after the garden which included trees and the bible moves forward from there mentioning trees too many times for this blog to list. Often trees are used as a metaphor as in Proverbs 11v30.


“The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, and whoever captures souls is wise.”


Or Psalm 1


“He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.  In all that he does, he prospers.”


All this leads me to think that GOD loves trees and so should we and they can also be used by God to teach us about him.

One of the slight environmental success stories of recent years is a slow down in deforestation, although there is no room for complacency.  I live in one the countries with the lowest tree cover in the whole of Europe.  Trees were chopped down to build ships, smelt iron and in the enclosures and clearances put sheep on the land.   There are national forest planting schemes in Scotland and England but progress is slow.  I would like to tell readers to support tree planting charities, but I’m slightly cynical.  Last year I went walking on the Isle of Skye with friends.  We walked through an area where rock stars had planted trees partly as a carbon offset (a scheme so famous I had heard of it).  At least that’s what a sign said but there were precious few trees to see.  They had been damaged and destroyed.

However, if you have sufficient land I would urge you to plant a tree or trees and given the remit of the blog, a fruit tree.  Peak oil being a real food challenge we will need to grow as much as we can ourselves.  There is no doubt that most fruit trees are highly space efficient.  2013 was a great year for my fruit trees, we had vast numbers of plums and apples.  We gave the fruit away, ate vast amounts of stewed and fresh fruit everyday for months, but also made large amounts of jam and cider.  To preserve my liver I also had a go at bottling apple juice, which has been extremely successful.  This year and last year I have planted three new apple trees and a Damson, all on small rootstocks.

This brings me neatly to the original reason for this blog -grafting, an ancient idea described by Pliny in his “Natural History“.  Almost fruit trees you would buy are made up of two components the rootstock and the scion.  The rootstock gives the tree its size characteristics.  The scion determines which variety of fruit a tree will bear i.e. a cox.  These two are brought together by grafting, using the natural healing properties of the tree to join two slightly wounded trees together.  When you buy a tree you will usually see a sign of this by a bulge low down the trunk of the tree.  This should be planted above the level of the soil otherwise the tree will from a sprout from the rootstock and put its energies into producing what will likely be useless fruit. Trees come on different rootstocks most developed by the East Malling research station in Kent.  The nomenclature is a bit confusing but you should buy one appropriate to your size needs.  There are lots of different ways of grafting trees.  I had a go at whip grafting at the garden project I do some volunteering for.  This is the time of year to carry it out.  How successful it will be only time will tell.  Anyway why not plant a tree!


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One thing we have learnt this week- Balcombe is going carbon neutral

repower-balcombe-group-panel-banner-waving-1000You may remember last summer the village of Balcombe was in the news rather a lot because of fracking.  In actual fact there was controversy over whether Cuadrilla were really fracking at Balcombe but in any case the village became the poster child of the UK’s nascent anti-fracking movement.

The news agenda moves on but thanks to CAT I was made aware this week that Balcombe is going to aim for carbon neutrality.  This is a great positive news story and one I’m only too happy to share since both this site and our book takes a dim view of fracking.

The idea is that the village will aim to generate around 10% of its needs through solar PV over the next few months.  A cooperative has been set up and shares will be issued to all members of the public, although only local Balcombe residents will have voting shares.  Panels will be put on both community buildings and private property.  The returns of at least 5% pa will be paid to investors and used for other community benefit (such as insulation).  This is exactly what Fintry and Gigha have done in Scotland.  Both have used the money generated from wind to improve energy efficiency in hard to heat homes off the gas grid and fit micro-generation such as solar hot water.

Details of the next stage are vague but the organisation 10:10 and others are going to help Balcombe move forward.  More details of the scheme can be found here.


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Food costs

Bramley apples from Neil's tree

Bramley apples from Neil’s tree

With all the fuss over energy prices and energy security another aspect of oil dependency that of food costs gets forgotten.  That’s why I was so pleased to see a documentary on food costs on channel 4 over the last few weeks.  This a review of the second programme with some comments by me.  It followed the format of the first looking at some key foods which raise some key challenges for the global food system going forward.  This week Jimmy looked at corn, eggs, pork and coffee.

Corn (maize)

Corn is one of the worlds most popular crops.  Used as animal feed and to make maize flour as well as corn on the cob, its price has rocketed from £88/tonne to over £200 in the last 10 years.  There is no shortage of production to blame this rise on.  The culprit is biofuels.  96% of petrol sold in the USA contains 10% bioethanol.  40% of all corn grown in the US is now used for biofuel production at a yield of 2.8 gallons per bushel.  When oil prices are high it makes sense to use corn to make biofuels as a petrol substitute so the price of corn rises.  Of course corn is also used as animal feed and this has pushed up the prices of eggs and pork.  This is a classic dilemma which as occurred in agricultural history, do we eat or use our land for some other than food use?


In 10 years we have seen an 80% rise in the price of eggs.  After the war and the end of rationing UK egg demand surged and so did prices.  Farmers developed battery farming which slashed egg  prices.  However the practice was regarded as cruel and after a long campaign the EU in 2012 banned factory farming.  Colony farming was introduced.  Colony farming gives the birds a bit more space and they live in smaller colonies of birds.  Although this to me looked unacceptable in terms of contact with the outside world and the space the birds had to move around in, its still factory farming.  This is one aspect of recent price increases.  The other is feed costs (see above).   Yet another that was not mentioned in this context was energy prices, battery farming was very energy intensive.   However, one possible solution was shown in the US.  In Illinois farmers are using old fashioned small farm diversified techniques.  By mixing cattle and chickens the farmers hope to keep rices down.  The cattle keep the grass short for the chickens and the chickens fertilize the grass for the cattle.  By using varieties of chickens that are good at foraging less feed is used.  Less feed means the price of eggs are less dependent on the global feed market keeping food costs down (eggs are used in so many foods).  Jimmy didn’t think this could compete with factory farming, I think he is probably right.


Pork at £5/kilo10 years ago is now over £7 a kilo, although farmers in the UK have not seen all the benefit of these increases.  Jimmy at this point headed for Taiwan.  Taiwan influences China and the demand for pork has rocketed 210% since 1970’s in this country.  China now eats an astonishing 50% of the world’s pork.  Of course pigs need to eat and China and Taiwan now buying vast quantities of feed.  One feed is soy, soy prices have from 200 dollars a tones to over 500 today, pushing up the price of this staple.  Jimmy spoke to one pig farmer in the UK who like for beef last week thinks pork will become a luxury even in the West.


In 15 years demand has risen 450%.  Everywhere coffee is seen as a sign of  civilised living.   Ethiopia gave the world coffee and its here Jimmy went next.  Ethiopia is the 3Rd biggest producer in the world by means of small organic family farms.  One of the problems is the Arabica coffee plant is a weak plant and is prone to die of diseases.  One fungal disease “coffee rust” is a huge problem.  In 2011 the disease struck in Colombia, that and huge demand sent prices through the roof but climate change is also causing weather related issues and helping the spread of another pest the coffee borer.  Climate change is having such an impact that Ethiopia my not be able to grow any coffee at all.

The programme ended on a cheery note that hopefully something will crop up (no pun intended) to help keep our food costs down but one positive spin off was it might make us think more about where our food had come from and how it reached us.   This was one weakness of the programme that not many solutions were advanced.  Governments around the world fret about energy costs but not food costs.  Is this because they have less direct control?  I don’t know but over the next few months this blog will be returning to this issue and trying to find some solutions to the issue of food costs.

Don’t forget our No oil in the lamp – Lent guide which has some ideas on food.


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One thing we have learnt this week-Libya is on the brink

While attention in the news is quite legitimately on Crimea and MH370 the country of Libya is on the brink of something very nasty.  The latest from Reuters today is that Rockets have been fired at Tripoli airport. To give an update of what has happened over the last week or so.  Rebels seized a ship loaded with oil in Cyrenaica.  The Libyan navy is at the bottom of the Mediterranean  due to Nato action in 2011.  The airforce was in open revolt and it was left to the US navy to seize the (North Korean) ship back and return it to the Libyan government who the oil belonged to.  At the same time the Prime Minster fled in a private jet.  There is a real threat that the country might fall into civil war and break up.

Does that Libya is on the brink matter?  I think it does for three reasons.

  • First, there is a humanitarian issue.  In Syria we have seen a huge humanitarian crisis that we have not been able to solve.  At least one hundred thousand people have died, many of them women and children.  Do we really want to see more carnage?  Is that a Christian response?
  • Second, we will have a refugee crisis much closer to Europe.  The Syrian crisis has been appalling with 2million plus people displaced.  Libyan will want to go to Europe which will cause all sorts of ructions.
  • Lastly the raison d’etre of this blog, energy security.  The graph below shows the oil and gas production for Libya (source BP statistical review of world energy 2013).  The Italian gas network is supplied by Libya, but ultimately the whole EU gas network is one (with the UK on the end with very little gas storage).  With relations with Russia getting worse by the day and the Russians very willing in the past to use energy supply disruption as a political weapon, this is another reason for us to do what we can to help Libya.

Libyan oil and gas production

As we wrote in our book at the end of the section on the “Arab Spring”;

This is where we are in the unfolding story of oil: dangerously dependent, with a finite supply, and a host of uncertainties to boot.

What can we do?  Western governments need to try to get the Libyan groups talking and encourage the disarmament of militias.  They also need to do everything they can to build civil society and encourage the central government not to be too heavy handed in its dealings with regional groups.  Not easy, or certain of success, but we have to try.  Contact your representatives and pray.  At the same time we need to get off fossil fuels using energy conservation and renewables.  Our lent guide will help you do this No oil in the lamp – Lent guide.

Libya is on the brink- it does matter.


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Food prices

rice“Food prices; the shocking truth” was a programme broadcast on channel 4 with Jimmy Doherty presenting.  Jimmy Doherty is a pig farmer based in Suffolk my co-author Andy pointed his farm out as we were on the way to London on the train to meet with our publisher.  In recent years he has become one of these media farmers a bit like Adam from “Countryfile” on the BBC.

The programme started by looking at the situation we are starting to get used to – rising food prices.  In 1950 we spent in the UK about 36% of our income on food, by 2008 this was down to 10% as food prices fell.  Now its about 20%.  After giving some examples of the increase in prices of some staples Jimmy asked the fundamental question.  Are we being ripped off by the supermarkets or producers or are more bigger forces at work and are food prices going to keep on rising?  Has this era of cheap food due to our industrial food system come to an end?

The programme focused in on four staple foods.  Rice, beef, bread and chocolate.


Looking at specific foods Jimmy gave some really amazing statistics.  For example Rice is the staple food for almost 50% of the global population and 718 million tonnes a year is grown.  Its now grown all over the world but one of the biggest exporters is India. The green revolution doubled production over last 50 years and there is no shortage.   Despite this in 2008 the price rocketed to an all time high.  The reasons why according to Jimmy were very surprising to me.  The Indian government spends a whopping 20 billion dollars in Indian subsidy to the poor (900 million) to help keep food prices low.  A wheat short fall in this year caused Indian government to buy more rice at same time as the demand rose elsewhere. The Indian government banned exports. Other countries followed suit. Since then the Indian government stockpiles rice which has led to permanently higher prices.  A different idea from free trade is now the rising idea of “food sovereignty”.  If countries restrict exports we could be in trouble with rising food prices.


The price has been rising, 70% for mince alone over the last decade in the UK. 85% of Beef consumed in the UK is British.  Jimmy cited three reasons for Beef price increases; fuel, fertilizer and feed. “Food prices” then turned its attention to the oil dependency of agriculture something we have discussed in our book.  A farmer interviewed on “Food prices” said diesel costs had risen from 20p per litre to 70p per litre in 10 years.  Fertilizer costs had also risen an astonishing 350% in the last 10 years due to increasing gas prices.  There was more pressure on prices due to growing demand around the world. One British man Alan Savory in the US has an idea to break this dependency. Grazing cattle on open land but optimising where cattle graze by planning on maps and using them to fertilize the soil he claims increases production 300-400%.  This struck me as a very traditional solution and way of farming we have lost due to our oil dependency.


“Food prices” turned its attention to another staple – bread.  Fuel costs above have had their effects on the price of bread which has rocketed, but climate change entered the programme here.  2012 had a disastrous effect on our home-grown wheat production.  But climate pressures are cropping up everywhere.  In 1900 the USA produced 14-18 bushel er acre.  Now its 3 times as much.  However severe drought in the US and elsewhere such as Russia is affecting production.  Another long term issue is that the aquifers in the US are running dry. India and China and Saudi Arabia have the same problem with water supply.  Yes you did read that right Saudi Arabia grows wheat!  Not for much longer though they have run out of water.


According to “Food prices” the British chomp their way through an amazing 1800 tones per day. Cacao prices soared by 80% from 2008.  One way manufacturers have coped with the rising prices is by shrinking the size but at the same price per bar- cunning. Demand for Cacao is however outstripping supply.   “Food prices” travelled to Ghana one the worlds largest producers to find out why.  Part of this due to climate change, but also badly paid Ghanaian farmers are leaving Cacao production.  One thing that surprised me is that the Ghanaian government controls their farmers prices of this commodity, meaning they may not always get a fair price.  Speculation on the futures market is also having an effect. In the last decade the investment banks have entered the food speculation market. This speculation may cause extremes in prices (both and high and low).  The EU worried by this is looking to introduce controls on futures speculation.

So there we have it, an interesting programme on the issue of rising food prices.  Part two is next week which looks at issues around some more staple foods.  I think pork and coffee? and some solutions.  There were a few weaknesses in it which I hope will be addressed next week.  Rising population, the idea of eating less particularly dairy and meat are some issues which were not mentioned at all.  Also as a general point he tended to treat the reasons behind the price increases in food in isolation which I don’t think you can do with climate change and food’s oil dependency.

Our lent guide is available here No oil in the lamp – Lent guide.


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One thing we have learnt this week – power from the people

Solar PV on my roofThis week there have been two examples that I have learnt about of power from the people.  In the first two Germans, Arwen Colell and Luise Neumann-Cosel have set up a not for profit company to buy Berlin’s electricity grid which apparently comes up for sale automatically every 15-20 years.  Whilst the debate on the German energy system is centred on rising costs due to renewables, the phase out of nuclear and coal fired power, these two think everyone is missing the point.

The government and energy utilities are focused on generating capacity but the local distribution grids are the final common pathway. They need to shift from just being the last mile between a huge power plant and the consumer to being a smart, decentralised and adaptive structure.

Everyone that invests get an equal vote but will share in the profits depending on how much they have invested.  It remains to be seen whether they will be successful in purchasing Berlin’s grid.

Meanwhile closer to home Nottingham city council is going to have a go at power from the people.  It has announced its setting up its own energy supply company.  Run on a not for profit basis it will launch next year with a high street shop and a call centre.  It hopes to shave £120 off the average bill.

Both groups are working on ideas that if successful could disrupt our established energy system.  Watch this space….

We have a lent guide to download here No oil in the lamp – Lent guide.


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