Getting the Lead Out

Why were the Sixties so much fun? Could it be that we were all high on lead? Sure there was acid and grass and purple hearts, but what really got everyone loose as a goose was the lead. There is no level below which lead doesn’t have an effect. A little goes a long way. And it rots your brain, makes you prone to take risks and forgetful, while eating away at your kidneys and your liver. Kids get it worst: adults store it in their bones, but kids have it circulating in their bloodstream.

In the 60s A Day In The Life would start with a pot of tea made from water that had been sitting in lead pipes all night long. All the time you’re inhaling house dust that contains particles of lead that have flaked off the walls, painted with lead-based paints. Then the paper hits the doormat and you read it, the lead in the print coming off as a greyish smudge on your fingers that is absorbed directly through the skin into the bloodstream. Then breakfast of baked beans on toast, from a tin that was soldered together at the seam with a lead/tin compound. Out on the street, take a deep breath of fresh air, nicely spiced with airborne lead from the tetraethyl lead that was in all petrol until the mid ‘90s. Then roast pheasant for lunch, with atomised lead particles from the shotgun that brought it down. Now lead’s been phased out – you can only get unleaded petrol, lead pipes have mostly been replaced with plastic or copper, newspapers no longer use lead-based ink, house paints are all lead-free and tinned foods now no longer use solder – all the cans are welded seams. When I first went to pack Whole Earth baked beans back in 1983 the canners were appalled that I was appalled at the lead solder on the cans. They warned me that having welded seam cans would cost me an extra 10p per dozen, expecting me to drop my resistance. We were the first baked beans to use lead-free cans but Heinz and the rest followed suit over the next decade. Or so. And swan populations are recovering as hunters and fishermen switch over to lead-free shot.

Of course there is still lead residue in the world’s soils in which we grow our food. Green & Black’s test every batch of cocoa beans to make sure there is no residue. Dagoba, in the US, had to recall all their chocolate 2 years ago when it was found to have high levels of lead residue. It broke the company and they sold to Hershey a few months later.

When General Motors and Standard Oil developed tetraethyl lead as a petrol additive in the 1920s there was an outcry. It was banned. Everyone knew it was a poison and the opposition was led by top professors from Harvard and Yale. But Standard Oil likened lead to a ‘Gift from God’ as it would make such a difference to automobile performance. They acted in cahoots with DuPont (“Better Living Through Chemistry”) and General Motors to put pressure on the politicians. The ban on leaded gasoline was lifted and the world got a lot more toxic. Then it was banned again in the 1980s. Rick Nevin, of the National Center for Healthy Housing, has shown that crime levels fall when unleaded petrol is introduced. All the claims of tough guy mayors and police chiefs to have cut crime rates are so much fluff, the real culprit was lead all along. Has lead been phased out around the world? No. In Mexico City cars pump 32 tons of lead into the atmosphere every day. The crime rate went up by 69 % from 2005 to 2009. Researchers said maybe it was criminals acting under the influence of drugs. I blame the lead

But all is not doom and gloom – it only took 60 years for common sense to prevail, so there’s hope for us all that it might do so again with our modern poisons.

Roll on $200 a barrel oil prices

Much as I hate what Gaddafi is up to and much as I dread any threat to the stability of the Saudi regime, I can’t help hoping that the oil price goes up and stays up.

There are a lot of reasons for this.

Cheap oil is what drives industrial farming. 7 years ago in The Little Food Book I calculated that when the oil price hit $70 a barrel organic food would be cheaper than non-organic. That’s because it take twice as much fossil fuel for an industrial farmer to produce a calorie of food as it does for an organic farmer. Broadly speaking, an industrial farmer uses 12 calories of fossil fuel to produce one calorie of food. Then it takes more fossil fuel to convey the food to the supermarket distribution depot, then to the store, including refrigeration costs. An organic farmer uses 6 calories of fossil fuel to produce one calorie of food and is more likely to sell it at a farmer’s market or to local outlets.

Industrial farming replaces jobs with chemicals. Instead of people planting, weeding and composting chemicals do the job. Nitrate fertilisers are made using natural gas. Gas prices follow oil prices upwards – energy is energy. So nitrates are getting a lot more expensive, but still not expensive enough. They’re killing us by releasing nitrous oxide into the atmosphere, a greenhouse gas 310 times more harmful than carbon dioxide in causing global warming. Nitrates are responsible for the equivalent of 1 billion tonnes of CO2 every year, about 1/6 of the total excess emissions that are turning up the heat on dear old Planet Earth. And farmers need to use more and more as underlying soil fertility dies out, making a bad problem worse. At $200 barrel, even with the current extravagant level of subsidies, farmers would switch to organic in droves. If you can grow your own fertiliser by leaving fields fallow, composting and growing green manures, why pay for a bunch of horrendously expensive chemicals? The price of food will go up as the price of oil goes up, but the impact per calorie on organic food will be half that on industrial.

A lacto-ovo vegetarian consumes half the energy resources for the same nutrition as a non-vegetarian meat-eater. A vegan consumes just one quarter. An organic vegan will consume just 1/8 the fossil fuel inputs of a non-organic non-vegetarian.

The price of carbon offsets goes up with rising oil prices. Companies have to pay for EU carbon emission allowances. They are currently priced at around £12 per tonne. Sir Nicholas Stern, author of the last government’s report on climate change and of the book Blueprint for a Safer Planet, said the real price should be £70 per tonne. (Then he said “I was wrong – the real figure is £140 per tonne”). The higher the price of oil, the higher the price of carbon offsets and the more attractive it is to invest in energy-saving and renewables. A tonne of oil produces more than 3 tonnes of carbon dioxide, so just to offset the cost to the future of this planet, it should cost £140 times 3 or £420. A barrel is 1/5 tonne, so the carbon cost of a barrel should be priced in at about £80, or $120 per barrel. Then the producers need to make a small profit, too, after all it costs anything from $3 (Kuwait) to $9 (Texas) to extract a barrel of oil from the ground. They’ve got used to making $90/barrel profit, add that to the $120 carbon cost and you’re over $200.

When you see the taxis with their engines running queuing up outside railway stations, vans parked with their engines running and people whizzing along at inefficient speeds you can’t help wondering if they would be so wasteful if petrol cost 3 times as much.

Think of the jobs that high oil prices would bring, too. Every time an out of town supermarket opens local employment suffers. Yeah, yeah, I know they claim they are creating jobs but James Lowman of the Association of Convenience Stores did a check last year. Supermarkets created an extra 2.75 million extra square feet of store space and cut their staff levels by 426. So we are gutting the high streets of our towns and putting more people on the unemployment register and forcing people to drive to the supermarket to buy a week’s worth of food, 1/3 of which goes off and ends up being wasted.

When oil prices go up people will shop locally, on an ‘as needed’ basis. They’ll eat organic. They’ll eat less meat. They’ll walk more and drive less. They’ll pay lower insurance premiums as adverse climate events reduce the impact on insurers. They’ll breathe cleaner air as people switch to less polluting transportation. They’ll drink cleaner water as pesticides and


Biofuels are causing environmental disaster. Let’s not be biofools...

Last year the average price of a food basket rose by 12%. There are legitimate reasons for this including rising oil prices and more demand for meat. Another cause, which concerns me here, is biofuels - the so-called ‘green’ saviour. The rush into biofuels is a scam to get rid of food surpluses by burning them. Instead of downsizing our cars, we are burning food for oil. Ethanol plants are taking one third of the entire US corn crop and turning it into alcohol for mixing with gasoline. It’s terribly inefficient, but the government gives ethanol plants a $1 gallon subsidy and charges less tax on biofuels at the service station. Many US states now require 15% ethanol to be added to gasoline at service station pumps. It’s another scam to waste taxpayers’ money on inefficient GM and industrial farming, this time under the guise of doing something to fight climate change. The US and the EU are both promoting biofuels as an eco-solution. Don’t be fooled. Two recently published groups of US research found that farming biofuels actually increases greenhouse gas emissions. Clearing carbon-rich peatland and rainforests to plant fuel crops releases even more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The industrial manufacturing process only adds to biofuels’ carbon footprint. Grown on an industrial scale, biofuels end up accelerating climate change, not reducing it. Worst of all, the fundamental principle is flawed. If you put £1 million in the bank in July and then withdrew it in August and burned it, would you say you were £1 million better off? Of course not, but the crazy economics of biofuels do just that. When biofuels are burnt, carbon that has just been taken out of the atmosphere in the summer goes right back into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, later in the autumn. How on earth is that doing something good for the planet? If we really want to reduce greenhouse gases, then we need to put carbon into the soil and keep it there by farming organically. Carbon does far more good in the soil then it does harm in the air (as carbon dioxide). The soil on organic farms contains up to 6 times as much carbon (as humus) as on non-organic farms. Humus fertilises the soil naturally, retaining moisture and nutrients. But instead of turning land into carbon-rich stores, the EU Commission is calling for energy-intensive, greenhouse gas-forming biofuels. It has recently made new targets: 10% biofuels by 2010 at a pump near you. This will exhaust what little carbon remains in our once humus-rich fertiles soils, all to keep agribusiness going.If the US and EU paid farmers to turn their farms into carbon-capturing meadows and forests, we could add billions of tonnes of carbon to the soil carbon bank annually. But agribusiness doesn’t make money out of set-aside land – no market for chemicals, equipment or fertilisers - it makes money out of land relentlessly farmed to destruction. So we pay more for food as well as, through our taxes, for biofuels. And global warming gets worse.This has terrible social consequences as well as environmental ones. Most of Europe’s palm oil bio-diesel is imported from Indonesia, destroying the orangutan’s habitat and precious rain forest and its human inhabitants. Ethanol from Brazil comes from sugar cane that replaces Brazilian rainforest. We are converting other people’s land and food into fuel for us. EU policies subsidise the theft of land from forest-dwelling people. Nobody, not even Parliament, ever asked for or voted for this.Not in my name, please.