Sociology meets chicken processing in County Durham

Jake Pointer is a first year Sociology PhD student studying the lives of workers in the meat processing industry. Here he shares some thoughts on his recent trip to a chicken processing plant in County Durham.

Photo credit: Nick Bondarev

In late February, I had the chance to visit a chicken processing plant in County Durham on a university trip organised by the Centre for Rural Economy. As my research concerns those working in the meat sector, it was an excellent chance to have my first glance into the working lives within such a facility. I went into this with mixed feelings: my vegan beliefs are naturally against any meat-orientated food producers, but my scholarly mind was telling me to put my biases aside and go in as objectively as possible. In this context, and as I’m quickly learning is the case for all my research, the scholarly mind was certainly the appropriate one to tap into for this visit (although this is sometimes challenging).

On arrival to the plant, the first thing I noticed was the smell of (perhaps not surprisingly) chicken. As we walked through the large gates and into the reception the smell only grew stronger until, for me at least, it was almost overpowering. After a brief talk from one of the managers about the plant we were split into groups and were given a tour. Before entering the processing areas we had to gear up with protective clothing and hairnets as well as wash our hands thoroughly. It seemed to me health and safety was of high importance here.

Inside the working areas were large machines, which, in various ways, processed the chicken. Slicing, freezing, cooking, bagging, skinning; there was a machine for everything. Many of the workers engaged in these machines had seemingly monotonous tasks, often involving repetitive motions such as continuously unloading a box of chicken pieces into a machine. Within the arrival area it was very cold as this is also where the chicken carcasses enter the plant and so they need to be kept fresh before being processed. This also means that plenty of workers operate in a cold environment. It was also quite loud in the factory, with various machines working away as well as speakers playing music here and there. Having worked in a warehouse some years ago myself, I can appreciate the effect music has on making an otherwise monotonous and often boring task more tolerable.

Whilst the tour was focused on the chicken, I was almost always looking at the workers, trying to use my sociological imagination and see if I could notice anything of interest. Some of the safety signs I noticed were in Polish next to their English counterparts, an indicator of the presence of non-British workers. I felt translating these signs was good work practice as safety should, in my opinion, be the priority in a potentially dangerous job such as this. The work-ethic seemed very high, with the workers seemingly never stopping whatever they were occupied with for even a second. I would not say they looked happy, but rather indifferent to their tasks, almost robotic as ever more chicken came through ready to be loaded into this machine or that. Few were talking at all, with most applying their attention only to their task. I would say that all the jobs required focus as the machines operated at high speed and a lapse of concentration would hinder this, and as a result, production. Many of the jobs also looked very physically demanding, often involving the lifting of large boxes or pulling huge pallets stuffed with chickens.

After the tour, we were led to the small conference room for a short Q and A session with the director of the company. The majority of questions were about the chicken itself; the quality, the manufacturers supplied and so on which the director and his mangers were happy to answer. It was clear they were proud of their work there, supplying high-quality, British ‘protein products’. I inquired about the workforce, in relation to the Polish signs I saw, and was told that around 30% of the employees were Polish. In addition, I was interested to see if they ever have injuries and if so, what the common ones were. The Director seemed a little surprised at my question. The Operations Manager told me the majority are made up of cuts, slips or back problems. I was surprised by how open they were about this. These answers raised more questions in my mind, why so many Polish workers? How are the injuries dealt with? but as I was there as part of a group, I did not want to dominate the session. A question was also posed about the vegan food factory which was operating just up the road. The director was very open to the changing food market and told us it was the company’s responsibility to adapt accordingly. He made a point that the businesses that do not adapt are the ones that close down.

I went away from this trip with mixed feelings. The scholarly side of me was happy with such an opportunity and experience, and I found observing the working environment fascinating. Worker safety did seem a high priority, which I was pleased to see. However, I would have been intrigued to hear from the employees themselves; their thoughts on the job, if they enjoyed working there, job prospects, what they thought of the management, whether the non-British workers integrated well and whether anyone ever thinks of the chickens at all and how they fit in with the process?  These questions I will have to save for another day; with a bit of luck, my research will help answer these and other questions in the future.

CRE PGR Symposium 2020

In the latest CRE blog, PhD students Hannah Budge and Ivy Matoju talk through their experience of organising the annual CRE postgraduate student symposium.

PhD student Ivy Matjou presents an overview of her research

Each year the students from the Centre for Rural Economy (CRE) organise a symposium to showcase the research they are working. It also provides a fantastic opportunity to receive comments on their work from their peers and colleagues in CRE. This year the symposium was held in the impressive surroundings of the Howden Room on campus, which really helped to add to the occasion.

This year we took a slightly different approach to the symposium, with the day was filled with a combination of rapid 3-minute presentations by the first year PhD students, insightful talks from staff based on their own research experiences, 10-minute presentations by the second year and above students, as well as the usual short papers submitted by students for staff to peer-review prior to the day itself.

Following the introduction by Hannah, the talks took the audience across a range of subject areas and geographical ones too: from the development of Responsible Research and Innovation frameworks, understanding place attachment in the era of mobilities, to the aspect of human rights, and to women in agriculture, and; from as close to home as the north-east of England, to the Islands of Scotland and as far away as Mexico’s Valle de Jovel, Southeast Nigeria and West Papua (Indonesia).

PhD student Hannah Budge presentsing at the CRE symposium

The 3-minute presentations by the 1st years were exceptionally detailed given the time constraints they had (it was amazing just how much could fit into such a short space of time). They outlined providing outlines of the ideas they will be following through their years at the university, including room for change and adaption required when conducting research in the field. The remaining presentations focused on the results obtained so far in the students’ studies, hurdles they had encountered and changes they had to put in place.

The exchanges between the presenters and the audience were viewed as beneficial by both groups with the exchange of thoughts, ideas, concerns and interests amazing to witness. Participants in the symposium stated that the event had allowed them to see new links between the topics presented and their research areas of interest or more generally other opportunities to consider throughout their PhD, thanks to the inclusion of other talks such as the use of social media and experience of pursuing a PhD with CRE. The submitted paper was also deemed to be of the appetizing variety with the reviewers’ keen to read the full version conference paper entered. The social at the end of the day provided a good way of winding down and further conversation on shared interests and future opportunities.

The symposium in full swing

Reflections

We both enjoyed the opportunity to organise the CRE PGR Symposium, and the final event itself. How smoothly it ran reflected our combined efforts over the past few months. It was not however without some issues along the way, we have summarised this below in the form of some handy tips for those who are considering organising similar events in the future, including next year’s symposium;

  • START EARLY! It may seem like an obvious point, but we cannot stress this enough. We started meeting weekly from the beginning of November and this meant that the workload was spread out over a few months, making it much more manageable to fit in around our own research and prevented any last-minute stress.
  • Speak to others who have organised and attended past events. By listening to their experiences, for instance issues with too small rooms, this meant that we could learn from them and avoid similar situations. Additionally, their feedback was valuable in terms of how the event was structured. By showing that you have taken on their concerns means that people are more likely to engage with the event as it continues to evolve the fit the needs of students.
  • Be flexible and creative with your timetable. One problem we had was that many of the PGR students were away conducting their fieldwork when they symposium was on, meaning it was difficult to initially fill up the entire day due to a lack of participants. To solve this, we had had to think creatively on what we could do to fill this time, we settled on asking some staff members in CRE if they would be willing to help. We are very grateful that they were happy to do so! There was an insightful talk about doing, and life after, a PhD in CRE and a presentation regarding using social media to promote yourself as a researcher. The latter generated much discussion and potentially a future social media training session for those in CRE. This highlighted that thinking of what else you can therefore offer at an event is important.
  • Plan breaks to keep everyone well fed and hydrated. The continuous supply of coffee and food ensured that people’s concentration levels didn’t falter throughout the day, and by having breaks meant that people could chat to others about their research and give some informal feedback. So, a thank you to CRE for funding the refreshments!
  • And finally, enjoy it! After months of work it was great to sit and listen to the presentations highlighting the diversity of topics in CRE, and afterwards hearing that people felt more confident about their presentation skills. It was nice to hear our hard work had proved to be fruitful for others.

Thank you again to everyone who attended and contributed to the event! We couldn’t have done it without you all.

The Agriculture Bill 2020: What’s in it for British farmers?

In the latest CRE blog senior lecturer Carmen Hubbard discusses what the UK’s new Agriculture Bill might mean for farmers.

Sheep in Weardale

The reintroduction of the Agriculture Bill 2020 for its first reading on 16 January attracted attention from all quarters. Agriculture is generally regarded as a dull topic, but Teresa Villiers, the former Secretary of State for the Environment, heralded the new Bill as a “landmark” and “one of the most important environmental reforms for many years” which will take the UK “away from the EU’s bureaucratic Common Agricultural Policy”. 

The initial version of the Bill, tabled in 2018, stipulated a gradual phasing-out of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) direct payments (known as ‘farm income support’) and their replacement with a system that rewards farmers for the provision of ‘public goods’. These include better quality air and water, improved soil health, public access to the countryside, animal welfare, and flood-risk reduction.

At the core of its delivery was the Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS), described by Defra as ‘one flexible contract’ that will allow farmers ‘to deliver public goods alongside market products’.  The Bill also set out measures to increase farm productivity and fairness along the food supply chain, and included provisions regarding market intervention and compliance with the World Trade Organisation (WTO). To allow farmers to adjust, the Bill established a seven-year transition period starting from 2021.

Environmentalist groups reacted favourably, but the Bill was severely criticised by the industry for being too ‘green-focused’, and particularly for its lack of support for food production. The industry also complained about the lack of detail: how much money will be allocated, to whom and for what? Will food imports be subject to the same production standards as applied in the UK?

Moreover, a report by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee of the House of Commons that scrutinised the Bill in November 2018 reinforced the criticisms. It stressed the excessive empowerment of ministers, the imbalance between food production and the environment, the lack of a multi-annual financial framework to cover the transition period, and the absence of any procedures regarding standards for imported food products. Hence, the Committee called on the government to ‘put its money where its mouth is’.

Following the political turmoil that followed the departure of Theresa May, the Bill was put on hold, only to be revived with additional face-lifting in January this year.  

In response to this criticism, and to EFRA’s recommendations, the revised Bill contains some extras. It includes a new chapter regarding the government’s duty to report to Parliament on UK food security, at least once every five years. It also refers to the preparation of a multi-annual financial assistance plan, with the first plan covering the period of transition starting on 1 January 2021. Another part relates to fertilisers, identification and animal traceability; transfer of payments between red meat levy bodies across countries in Great Britain; organic production and agricultural tenancies. The Bill also reinforces the provisions for increases in productivity, transparency and fairness in the supply chain, and assistance during exceptional market conditions.

Notably, though, the Bill focuses mainly on England, with just one part (Part 7) dedicated to Wales and Northern Ireland. Public consultations took place across all four nations, and these led to different preferences being expressed: for example, the complete and rapid abandonment of direct payments has been treated with more caution in both Scotland and Northern Ireland, at least up to 2024. This is not surprising given that agriculture is a devolved issue, and Scotland, which refused to consent the initial Bill, published its own Agriculture Bill in November 2019. This allows the Scottish government to continue current CAP schemes, including direct payments, beyond 2020.

Differences between countries regarding farm support could create tensions, with farmers complaining about the lack of a ‘level playing field’. But the amount of money to be allocated to UK farming still lies with Westminster, and therefore the devolved governments may find themselves constrained on how they can use their own budget.  

As an economist, I never find agriculture or how we produce and trade food products at all dull.  But it does seem that the questions an economist would really like to see answered are still hanging in the air. Like its predecessor, the new Bill does not provide any specific budget, beyond saying that overall annual funding for farm support will remain at current levels for the duration of this Parliament. At the same time, the term ‘public goods’ has disappeared, to be replaced with ‘purpose’, and there is no reference to ELMS. Does this signal a shift in emphasis, perhaps even that the Bill’s intentions are not as ‘green’ as environmentalists suppose? 

Improving productivity is always the government’s ‘holy grail’, but our research shows that this is by no means the answer to every problem, either for the country or for the producer. The UK does not have a ‘comparative advantage’ (the ability to produce food at a lower opportunity cost than that of trade partners) in agriculture. However, as yet, the UK has not been threatened by food insecurity, as our imports have generally come mainly from suppliers (mostly EU member states) who are very stable economically and politically.  Could this explain the lack of any reference regarding the quality and safety standards of future imported food? 

Traditionally, economists have categorised farmers as ‘price-takers’ in the market. This is because farmers are numerous and typically small in terms of production. Consequently, they have little market power and therefore are unable, unlike for example supermarkets, to decide their selling prices. Farming Minister George Eustice wants them to become ‘price makers’, and to increase their power in the market. This is easier said than done. Grouping together to form co-operatives is one possibility, but these have never been popular in the UK. Another possibility is for farmers to ‘add value’ to a product, for example by transforming milk into speciality cheese or switching to organic production. But farmers who produce an undifferentiated, homogeneous product – potatoes, carrots, wheat, milk – are always likely to be ‘price-takers’.

Finally, any form of support is likely to be capitalised into land values (as well as captured by others across the supply chain).  Hence, the tenant farmer simply pays more in rent.  It remains to be seen how this might manifest itself under the new regime.

For the economist these are all fascinating questions that remain to be answered.  For farmers and producers they represent a worrying, and continuing, uncertainty.

This blog post originally appeared on The UK in a Changing Europe blog.

Waterway Management and the Dairy Industry in Ireland

Adrienne Attorp is a PhD student in Sociology and Social Policy at Newcastle University. Here she writes about some insights gained during recent fieldwork in Ireland.

This autumn I was in Ireland undertaking fieldwork for my ongoing PhD research, which focuses on agriculture policy, land use and waterway management on the island of Ireland. While there, I travelled all over the country, interviewing people from across the agriculture sector, including farmers, civil servants, industry lobbyists and NGO workers. I hoped to find out how the Irish agriculture industry plans to deal with its ongoing water pollution issues.

Dairy is King

Something that became abundantly apparent over the course of my visit is that dairy is ‘king’ in Ireland. This, of course, was not a total surprise, given that it is by far the most profitable agricultural enterprise in the country. Although only 13% of in Ireland’s 137,500 farms are devoted to dairy – there are approximately 18,000 dairy farmers in the country, managing around 1.35 million cows – Irish dairy produce exports totalled €4.6 billion in 2017, accounting for 34% of Irish agri-food exports. What I had not fully understood until I started talking to people was just how much discussion of the dairy industry dominates discourse around land and waterway management practices on the island. This may have interesting implications for how best to address Irish agriculture’s pollution problems.

A dairy farm outside of Wicklow, Ireland.
Photo credit: Adrienne Attorp

A brief History of Irish Dairy Farming

Dairying has a long history in Ireland. Archaeologists at the University of Bristol argue that dairy was an important food source for Neolithic peoples on the island, after their research identified traces of dairy fats in pots found in the region dating between 4,000 and 2,500 BC (Smyth and Evershed, 2016). They note that, as dairy cattle are not native to the island, early farmers – possibly indigenous foragers or incoming farmers, or both – would have had to transport the animals across the open sea to Ireland in small vessels that could hold only a few animals at a time. This was no easy feat, and “…these voyages are unlikely to have been undertaken without a significant degree of determination and broader social support” (Smyth and Evershed, 2016, p. 220). The Irish love affair with dairy clearly has deep roots and continues to be an integral part of the country’s social, cultural and economic fabric.

Fast forward to the 20th century, by which point the Irish landscape had been transformed into a patchwork of small, family-owned farms. This landholding pattern developed as a result of centuries of land rights struggles under British occupation. In the late 19th century, a series of ‘land agitations’ and a changing political environment finally forced the British government to concede to far-reaching land ownership transfers from members of the British landlord class to their impoverished tenant famers (Hannan and Commins, 1992 [1]). As a result, family farms became the central focus of what was previously quite a diverse rural economy. By the 1920s, the majority of Ireland’s ‘active population’ were either farmers or ‘relatives assisting’ with farming (Hannan and Commins, 1992). Dairying would have been one of many agricultural activities undertaken by such farmers. Although the significance of agriculture in Ireland declined as the 20th century progressed, this landholding pattern remained relatively consistent through the middle of the century.

Prior to Ireland’s accession to the European Economic Community (EEC; now European Union) in 1973, the Irish dairy sector was not particularly significant economically. The majority of Irish dairy was consumed within Ireland, with UK being the country’s only meaningful export market. This changed with entry to the EEC. Common Agricultural Policy price supports translated into a huge increase in milk prices, which, alongside improved access to the European market and general productivity gains, greatly stimulated production. Irish dairy output doubled between 1970 and 1984 (Donnellan et al., 2015). A similar trend occurred across the EEC, and by the late 1970s, there were considerable milk surpluses across Europe. In 1984, the EEC brought in a quota on dairy production to curb this, which dampened the growth of the industry and became one of the key factors resulting in the consolidation of dairy farming in Ireland. Between 1984 and 2014, the number of Irish dairy farms declined from 80,000 to 17,500. This was accompanied by a 470% increase in output per farm, a 350% increase in average dairy herd size and a 48% increase in output per cow (Donnellan et al., 2015). The trend was, unequivocally, ‘go big or go bust [2]’.

The Irish Dairy Industry Post-Quota

The EU milk quota was eventually lifted in April 2015. As a result, the volume of Irish dairy output increased by 60% between 2015 and 2019, translating into a €2 billion per annum increase in value (National Dairy Council, 2019). This rapid growth contrasts starkly with the prospects of dairy farmers in some other countries around the world, notably the United States, where the industry, which is the largest globally, is facing significant economic pressures and decline. For example, according to a recent New York Times article, in Wisconsin, a state known as ‘America’s Dairyland’, the number of dairy herds has fallen by half since 2005, and nearly 1,200 dairy farms have closed in the past two years alone.

Undoubtedly, there are multiple factors contributing to these contrasting fortunes. However, perhaps most relevant to this discussion, is Irish dairy’s USP as the ‘green option’: predominantly grass feed, it is touted as the “the lowest carbon emitting dairy sector in the Northern Hemisphere”. This, along with the sector’s comparatively high animal welfare standards, has attracted a strong international demand for the industry’s various products. Today, over 90% of Ireland’s total dairy production is exported to more than 120 countries, and despite its small size – both geographically and in population terms – Ireland is consistently one of the largest dairy exporters globally.

A Billboard from the Irish Dairy Council's November 2019 #LoveIrishDairy campaign.
A Billboard from the Irish Dairy Council’s November 2019 #LoveIrishDairy campaign.
Photo credit: Agriland 2019

The Dairy Industry and Ireland’s Waterways

While this growth may be great for Irish dairy farmers and for the Irish economy more broadly, for those concerned with waterway management in Ireland, there is less cause for celebration. Ireland is a country covered in water, with 513 groundwater bodies, more than 800 lakes, and over 70,000 km of waterways (Fanning et al., 2017). Diffuse agricultural pollution (pollution from various sources, such as runoff from a field, as opposed to one single ‘point’ source) is the most significant source of water pollution in the country, and run-off of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous, the majority of which comes from animal waste (van Grinsven et al., 2012), poses a particular problem (Mockler et al., 2017). ‘Green’ credentials or not, the Irish dairy industry’s ongoing growth ambitions may not be compatible with water quality targets Ireland is statutorily obliged to meet as a member of the EU.

This is not to suggest the dairy industry is uniquely responsible for Ireland’s water pollution problems. The Irish agriculture industry as a whole is very animal-production focused, and in terms of numbers, the Irish dairy herd is vastly smaller than either the beef cattle or sheep herds: there are 5.35 million beef cattle in Ireland – nearly four times the number of dairy cows – and approximately 3.9 million sheep (Teagasc, 2017). Moreover, from what I can gather through my interviews thus far, the dairy industry has been leading the way within the agriculture sector in terms of trying to improve its sustainability. Dairy Industry Ireland has initiated a broad reaching sustainability initiative called ‘Dairy Sustainability Ireland’, and according to many of the policy makers and extension workers I spoke to, dairy farmers are often the most likely to engage with efforts to mitigate pollution.

A Billboard from the Irish Dairy Council’s November 2019 #LoveIrishDairy campaign.
Photo credit: Agriland 2019

This is, of course, not only because of some altruistic desire to help the environment, although for some farmers, such as those involved in the innovative BRIDE project, this does indeed play a leading role. Mainly, the dairy industry appears to be acutely aware of its obligations to maintain water quality under Ireland’s current Nitrates Directive derogation [3], and is very wary of losing this privilege. However, it is clear there are also other factors at play. Practically speaking, because the majority of dairy farmers farm full time, they tend to have more capacity to engage with extension services and stay up-to-date with industry trends than do their counterparts in the drystock industry, many more of whom farm part time. Because dairy is profitable, dairy farmers also tend to have more access to capital, enabling them to invest in measures that help mitigate pollution. Furthermore, dairy farms are often based on some of the best quality land, meaning that in many cases, nutrients are less likely to run off from these farms into waterways. Drystock farmers on more marginal land may have greater runoff issues, even if they farm less intensively. Last, but not least, public opinion plays a big role; current ‘plant-based’ diet trends are making the industry sit up and take notice, and public awareness about the environmental impact of agricultural practices generally is also placing pressure on the industry.

What does this mean for Ireland’s commitment to have all of its waterways achieve a ‘good’ status under the EU Water Framework Directive by 2027? Clearly, engaging with the dairy industry will continue to be very important. It is a very big player, and dairy farmers seem to have the willingness and capacity to address water management issues. Equally, since drystock farmers are also a big part of the pollution problem, but are harder to engage, then more creative ways will need to be found to do so. Furthermore, the discussion cannot be about dairy and drystock farmers only. Although industries such as pig, poultry and mushroom are far less significant, both in terms of economic output and of number/size of farms, they are still a major pollution risk, particularly in some regions of the country where they are concentrated. How exactly improvements are to be achieved remains to be seen, but I hope that my research will provide some insight as to how to bring everyone on board. King or not, the dairy industry is but one of several players that have to work together to reach Ireland’s environmental goals.

Sincere thanks to the Enviresearch Foundation for funding this research visit.

[1] Hannan, D. and P. Commins (1992). The significance of small scale landholders in Ireland’s socioeconomic transformation. The development of industrial society in Ireland. J. Goldthorpe and C. Whelan. Oxford, Oxford University Press: 79-104.
[2] This is, of course, a relative term. Today, the average size of an Irish dairy herd is 80 cows, whereas in the United States it is around 230. In some cases, American CAFOs may house thousands of cows.
[3] Under the existing Nitrates Directive derogation, approximately 7,000 intensive farmers in Ireland (mostly dairy) are able to farm at stocking rates higher than permitted than baseline Nitrates Directive rules. Most argue this is critical to sustaining existing levels of dairy production in the country, let alone expanding them.

Bridging gaps between researchers to foster collaborations

In the latest CRE blog, PhD researchers Francis Naab and Ivy Matoju reflect on a recent visit to London where they presented their research to a newly launched social enterprise.

Researchers attending the Bobab event

On 20th Nov 2019, we attended a seminar held in London as part of the panel speakers for Bobab Africa, a recently launched social enterprise and online platform which aims to bring researchers and industry in Sub-Saharan Africa together to share ideas, form collaborations and generally work together for the development of the Continent. They are keen to hear from a broad range of individuals whose work (be that research or otherwise) focuses on sub-Saharan Africa. This includes early career researchers such as ourselves.

As part of their initiative of fostering collaborations, the Bobab Africa platform hosts seminar talks that can be viewed online or attended in person. Each seminar is focused on a different area, with the one we attended centred around “A growing ecosystem: Supporting off farm innovation for inclusive agricultural development”. Its main purpose was to foster discussions around policy reform related to off-farm innovation and enterprise, business models and how they work, education and training for youth engagement, and job creation along the agri-food chain. So how does our research fit within this?

Francis

My presentation focused on agricultural policy in Ghana, which has been a core part of my PhD research. More specifically, I discussed policies that affect the agri-food chain via two different routes: those that influence food production and those that influence demand for agricultural products, such as the Livelihood Empowerment Against Poverty (LEAP) programme that has been the focus of part of my PhD research. Whilst several of these reflect the key focus of government to increase staple food production and create a ‘Green Revolution in Ghana’, a financing gap to further support this exists, created by the recent banking crises in Ghana and the subsequent reform of the microfinance sector and other informal credit schemes.

As smallholder farmers form the majority of the rural population in Ghana, they are particularly hard hit by this recent banking restructure, which primarily served rural local communities and makes it difficult to invest. This is further compounded by a lack of a widely implemented agricultural insurance policy which would help with the increased climate variability in the country. Innovation within the agricultural sector has an important role to play in addressing this challenge, and I highlighted two Ghanaian start-ups as good examples of this: Cowtribe, which provides extension services to about 29000 livestock farmers using a mobile application, and SyeComp which renders services such farm mapping, localised weather forecasts, farm financing and value chain traceability. More organisations like this will be important in the future for helping in areas where government support is currently not strong.

Ivy

Innovation was an important part of the work I presented. More specifically: the acceptance of innovation at the policy level in sub-Saharan Africa and how this has changed over time: from of the Lagos Plan of Action (1980) to the current Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy (2014). My presentation covered some of the hurdles faced when implementing such policies, especially within the agri-food chain. Using an example of genetically modified foods, I highlighted the contrast between public perceptions in Kenya and Tanzania (the two case study countries for my PhD) regarding genetically modified foods and their acceptance at the policy level. These differences may well be due to misinformation and a lack of public awareness, especially for those in the rural areas, and the pragmatic steps adopted by the governments in the form of controlled laboratory and field trials. I also emphasised the need for more inclusive societal participation in policy development, with this currently being limited. This should aid in efforts to increase awareness and acceptance of policies, thus helping ensure their effective implementation at all levels. My ongoing research will be looking to explore policy development further with a range of stakeholders involved in the food chain, and hopefully I can make more specific recommendations as my PhD progresses.

The event was live streamed and well attended, with discussions around the presentations ranging from agricultural initiatives, to power dynamics, to policy and microfinance. It proved a great opportunity for networking and to discuss our findings with other researchers from across the UK, as well as find out more about how other people are looking to tackle some of the challenges focused on during the seminar. The Bobab initiative provides a great motivational space for facilitating these conversations and we’re looking forward to future events.

For more information on Bobab Africa visit their website: https://bobab.org/

Climate conversations

In the latest CRE blog, researchers Lucia Rehackova and Mercy Ojo reflect on the recent Climate Conversation workshop at Newcastle University.

Earlier this month, Newcastle University ran a climate conversation workshop about what it could do to continue to reduce its carbon emissions. It was great to take part in the event, attended by staff and students alike, with most attendees keen to help drive change moving forward.

The event was opened by the University’s Deputy Vice Chancellor Professor Julie Sanders, who spoke about the need for the University to act with integrity in relation to the climate crisis. Newcastle University declared a climate emergency earlier this year, and it is good to see that this is being taken seriously and that there are people at the university who care about environmental issues and the role of the University within society.

We both found the discussions very positive, despite some of the presentations showing us the bleak future outlook for the planet, even if we do take radical action now. Professor Kevin Anderson, from Manchester University and the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, summarised the current status in his short presentation, but the full, approximately 1-hour talk, is worth watching and can be accessed here. Two points in his presentation particularly made us think:

  1. First, he argued that offsetting carbon emissions by donating money (e.g. when buying flight tickets online) may be worse than doing nothing. This is because the donation may make people feel better about themselves and their travel, which may actually encourage more people to travel, or encourage people to travel more. Accordingly, Professor Anderson highlighted that the best policy is to not fly in the first place.
  2. The other take-home message for us was that we have a lot more work to do than we had thought. It seems obvious now, but we have to admit, we had not quite thought about how long it takes the environment to catch up with human actions. The climate change we are experiencing now is not a result of human activity within the last 10-20 years or so, it is a result of the industrialisation of work about 250 years ago. What this means is that if we pollute the environment faster and more heavily, as we are currently doing, the consequences in the future will be more serious than they are now. Further, any changes we make now will not result in a relatively quick response from the environment; what we do now may not affect us in our lifetime. But, if we do not reduce our emissions now, the next generation may find themselves in a much worse situation, because of the failure of the previous generations to safeguard the environment.

So what can be done now to help protect the environment for the future? Universities play a critical role in society, and as organisations, should be ethical and independent. They provide education, innovation and leadership, and there are many opportunities for Newcastle and other universities to do this in relation to climate change, including by reducing their own emissions. Newcastle University aims to be carbon neutral by 2040 or earlier, and a goal of this workshop was to explore opportunities for reaching this target by creating a “Road map to Net-Zero”.

Together, we worked on ideas that could improve university-related travel, energy use and resource use. We discussed everything from light bulbs, to bikes, to virtual conferences. We also talked about the way we learn and whether that needs to change as society and its needs change.

Some of the ideas for reducing the University’s carbon emissions brought up at our tables included: creation of an annual carbon budget for every staff member; allowances for traveling on business by lower-emission means (e.g. by trains/buses instead of planes); the inclusion of travel in the working time; training locals in other countries to help with data collection to reduce travel; reducing the working week to 4 days or scheduling working from home on days when there is no formal teaching; recording lectures and letting students attend virtually; developing compulsory sustainability curriculums for students; an immediate ban on flying first class for employees; production of our own energy on campus; improving strategies to insulate University buildings; using University-owned land to produce fruit and vegetables used in the canteens; having a student market where the leaving students sell/give away clothes or bikes to the new students; developing a scheme similar to cycle-to-work for students; and changing the default of meals to vegan. Perhaps some of the cost savings could then be used to support subsidies for lower-emission travel or to make deals with travel companies who could offer discounted travel for staff.

There were many more ideas and a lot of consensus on what could be done.

All hands were then on deck to come up with a road map which included immediate, medium-term and long-term ideas for actions. Here is a photo of it at the end of the workshop, showing how many mitigating actions can be done now or soon. It is now left to the University leadership to make the choice of embracing these suggestions and taking them forward.

Post-its of the actions that can be taken to help tackle climate change

Participants were treated to a nice vegan-friendly buffet lunch at the end of the event, but mind you, you had to be quick to get your food! Thinking of the amount of food that ends up in the bin during catered events, organisers purposefully limited the amount of food that was served, in a bid to cut down on waste. Despite this, the meal was a pleasant way to wrap up the day’s event. Actions indeed speak louder than words😊

Here in the CRE, we are also looking at how to further improve our sustainability practices. Next month we will be holding discussions about how we as a research group can reduce our carbon emissions both as an institution, but also as individual influencers within the range of academic fields we contribute too. Watch this space.

A walking tour of Newcastle

In the latest CRE blog, Research Associate Beth Clark reflects on a recent walking tour of Newcastle and how walking will play a vital role in the upcoming social science research on the FIELD project she is working on.

Although using walking as a research tool is nothing new in the social sciences, it is not a method I have ever used before. However, it is something research colleagues and I plan to employ in an upcoming phase of data collection for the FIELD research project we are currently working on. We hope this creative means of capturing data will help us both experience first-hand the landscapes our participants live and work in, and learn about how their interactions between the ground, buildings and livestock influence animal diseases.

The walking method can add rich data to a study, but it can also be a challenge to simultaneously observe your surroundings, make notes and ask questions. I was therefore delighted when the opportunity to go on a walking tour around Newcastle arose so I could practice walking and learning at the same time. I have lived in the Newcastle for 30 years, so it was also a great chance to be a tourist in my home city.

Blackett Street in Newcastle – the old city walls are hidden underneath


The walk started at Grey’s Monument, where we learnt about the city walls that still sit underneath Blackett Street today, as well as about the history of the monument itself. This included several stories in relation to various body parts falling off the statue of Earl Grey due to activity nearby, such as the construction of the metro line. We also heard about how there use to be a large country house – including landscaped gardens – within the original city walls, which occupied a large chunk of land around the area we know as Grey Street and monument today. It’s hard to believe that such a built-up area could previously have been such a grand estate, especially with no obvious signs of its presence still readily visible.

Grey Street in Newcastle, which has changed considerably in appearance over the years

Moving gradually down the hill, we then entered the beautiful Central Arcade to hear more about its history, including, in particular, its beautiful architecture and stunning tin glazed tiles (these tiles can also be spotted in various pubs around the city centre). We also heard several stories about the different shops that have been in the premises over the years, including a ghost story – very fitting given the time of year.

Tin-glazed tiles in the Central Arcade in the city centre

Heading back outside onto Grey Street we learnt how this area of the city was created by covering over the Lort Burn – a river which still flows down to the Tyne today, albeit now underneath the city in a culvert. This explains the names of the roads ‘High Bridge Street’ and ‘Low Bridge Street’, as these were the actual crossings used to get over the river in years gone by. This hidden waterway is represented by a lovely array of paving near the Old George pub off High Bridge Street, depicting the water flowing underneath on its way down to the Tyne.

The paving off High Bridge Street designed to mimic the water hidden underneath

The decision to build upon this ground and over the river to create the beautiful buildings of Newcastle (in the famous Tyneside classical style) we know today, means that their foundations are pretty robust, being the same size of the buildings themselves. It was also impressive to hear that the Theatre Royal was built in just a period of 7 months, something which seems unthinkable today.

The tour helped me better understand what has driven the changes in the city and taught me more about the individuals behind these changes, such as Lord Eldon, Earl Grey and Richard Grainger. It really brought a human element into the history and development of the city, which as a social scientist I found fascinating. It also highlighted to me the importance of taking the time to understand the social elements involved in change, as well as the physical changes (in this case, buildings).

The walk really emphasised the importance of thinking about the land beneath your feet and how its use has changed over time.  It also demonstrated the value of looking up and fully taking in your surroundings. For example, I have lived in Newcastle for thirty years and never noticed the vampire rabbit hidden behind the cathedral, perched high above a doorway. This really hit home how much you can fail to notice your everyday surroundings.

The vampire rabbit of Newcastle, behind the city’s cathedral

This experience gave me numerous things to think about for my upcoming fieldwork, many of which will help ensure I can maximise the farm walks I undertake. This includes the importance of going with a fresh pair of eyes, and the value of using the visual prompt of your surroundings to stimulate discussion. This can generate a wealth of information, which we hope will illuminate some interesting new findings in the field of animal disease research.

This blog was originally posted on the FIELD project blog.

Making the rural a bit more idyllic

In the latest CRE blog, we have a guest post by Christina Dobson, Research Associate at the Institute of Health and Society at Newcastle University. Christina’s research is focused on inequalities in cancer diagnosis and outcomes, and in her blog she discusses how living in rural areas may influence these.

Ah, the countryside. The home of all that is natural and healthy, the epitome of the ‘good life’. Where you can stroll down the lane to collect fresh eggs or veggies from your neighbour, simply dropping your money in the honesty box left at the end of their drive. I grew up in a rural area, and still live in one now. I love that I only have to walk (more like dawdle – I have a very curious and distractible three year old!) for 10 minutes (five minutes without said three year old) from my front door and I am in the North Yorkshire Moors National Park.And it seems that living in a rural area could actually be good for you in a number of ways. You are likely to be more satisfied with your life, experience better health overall, and live an average of two years longer than people in urban areas. Maybe it’s the un-polluted air, the connection between land and food, the sense of belonging and community? Or maybe that is just a myth, sold to us all through Postman Pat?

Because, actually, living amidst the beautiful rolling hills may not be so good for you if you develop cancer. In fact, it may even put you at greater risk of developing certain cancers and make you less likely to survive your cancer. With roughly 20% of the population of England living in a rural area, this poses a serious public health problem.

However, we don’t really know why rural patients are facing poorer survival rates than urban patients. One of the strongest factors is that cancer is often diagnosed at a more advanced stage in rural patients, limiting the treatment options available to them. We know that delays in diagnosis are strongly linked to advanced stage cancers, and, as such, encouraging early diagnosis has been central to UK cancer policy for over a decade.

When we begin to think about where diagnostic delays may be occurring for rural patients, it seems that they are investigated and diagnosed just as quickly as urban patients, after referral to hospital for specialist assessment. It follows then that there may be problems prior to referral to hospital that are slowing down rural cancer patients’ diagnoses, either in the way patients respond to symptoms, or the way they are managed in primary care.

Thanks to funding from Yorkshire Cancer Research, and alongside colleagues from Aberdeen and Glasgow, we are starting to look for answers to some of these questions. This study will involve interviewing people in rural Yorkshire to understand their experiences of bowel cancer symptoms and decisions around if, how, and when to seek help about them. The findings from these interviews will be used to work with local communities to think about what interventions we may be able to design to encourage people in rural areas to present to their GP and, hopefully, increase the likelihood that their cancer is diagnosed at an earlier stage and that they will survive.

It is an exciting study, as there is so little known about symptom experiences in rural populations, with lots of issues to explore. For instance, availability and regularity of public transport, provision of health care services in rural areas, hidden poverty, cultural beliefs and experiences of ill health and employment, to name but a few. And then there’s the messy complexity of defining the ‘rural’, or maybe we should be looking to instead describe the multitudes of ‘rurals’? Plenty to keep me busy!

With the arrival of National Bowel Cancer Awareness Month earlier this year it has been valuable to reflect on the importance of this study and the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead. Understanding some of the barriers to timely presentation that exist for rural populations, and devising ways to overcome them is our challenge for the next two years, and beyond. Maybe, longer term, we can help to make the ‘rural’ a bit more idyllic.

 

This blog was initially posted on the Centre for Translational Research into Public Policy (FUSE) blog.

Northumberland communities about their predictions of the change in land use post Brexit

In the latest CRE blog artist in residence Gemma Burditt  discusses the first of her interviews with Northumberland communities about their predictions of the change in land use post Brexit.

Chickens in Northumberland by Gemma Burditt

In June of this year I made my way back to Northumberland to continue my research on the implications of Brexit on the rural north, focusing specifically on how land use might change post Brexit.

One of the more optimistic predictions which Michael Gove has begun work on, is that Brexit might provide an opportunity for British farming to work hand in hand with conservation and be rewarded in subsidies for acts which serve to increase biodiversity, create cleaner water and a more sustainable future. Farmers may also be encouraged to diversify into greener enterprises such as renting out land for renewable energy production or ecotourism. I was interested to speak to land owners, farmers and land based business owners to see how optimistic they felt about a post Brexit future, their predictions, aspirations and firm plans for the next few years ahead.

The last time I had spent significant time in Northumberland was during the winter months of 2016 / 2017; so, as I travel north from Newcastle to Berwick, I look out of the train window to see a landscape bursting with Spring optimism. The trail littered with wind turbines allows me to dream for a moment that a greener future for the country and food production might be obtainable after all. But looking more closely at the patchwork of fields, I begin to really understand what the statistic of 70% of the UK’s landscape being made up of farmland really looks like. When I think of the countryside, what appears in my head is just this, acres and acres of carefully orchestrated crops grown for their lucrative value which is not exactly “natural.” In fact with the increasing intensification of production, farmland more often than not is an actively hostile place for insects, birds and plants.

Saplings by Gemma Burditt

On the first day we meet two local land owners, one of whom tells us about how his land is made up: a farm in hand and several let out to tenant farmers with diversification into let out commercial properties and cafe. He has a genuine interest in conservation preferring to run a mixed farm while doing as much as he can to create woodland and habitats to increase biodiversity. He was fairly pessimistic about Brexit and was particularly concerned about the future of livestock farming as a no deal Brexit would mean paying tariffs of up to 45% on lamb and 60% on beef going into Europe. There was also concern that many farmers in the area cared a great deal about maintaining the highest animal welfare standards and if the markets opened up to the rest of the world, they would be competing against farmers who could produce meat more cheaply but perhaps not so stringently. This would perhaps result in many livestock farms going under. So what would this land be used for instead? His idea for his own farm was to take any unproductive land out of use to be used for forestry as it had the potential to be both profitable and increase biodiversity.

View from St. Oswalds Church by Gemma Burditt

The following day I met with Nicola Bell who worked with the CRE on a number of research projects and now works on LEADER projects trying to help small business and community projects to become more sustainable. She was kind enough to take me up to St.Oswald’s church and show me the view north of this point. Standing along the trail of Hadrian’s Wall, Nicola points out Kielder forest and explains how previously the woodland had been commercial but was now focusing more on the visitor economy. We can see quarries, wind farms, farmland and the RSPB conservation area. What is striking is how every piece of land is owned and accounted for. Although Kielder is working towards a more visitor based economy working on several conservation projects, it is so striking how the way we value even the countryside and natural landscape is based so heavily on economic outputs.

It would be very difficult for new innovative land based projects to emerge within this landscape as it is so unlikely that any land in the area would ever come up for sale without being snapped up immediately for a high price. Nicola was doubtful that land prices would be set to fall in the area after Brexit even if farmers were to sell up.

In the neighboring area I meet with Mark, aligned with the permaculture movement with his young WOOFA (willing worker on organic farm) Sam. He talks me through his various land based projects including plans for a new orchard, a social enterprise where homeless people would come and help plant and maintain the trees grown. Mark shows me around his fantastic garden, including saplings destined for the orchard. It looks like something out of 70s TV sitcom “The Good Life” with every inch of land being used to grow vegetables, trees and fruits – often in inventive containers made from unwanted items. He explains how proud he is that he doesn’t own anything. After spending the week hearing words such as “assets, profits, outputs” my ears really prick up to hear such a phrase being uttered, and what a rarity to meet anyone who doesn’t aspire to ownership particularly of property or land.

Some of the crops in Mark’s garden by Gemma Burditt

Obviously Mark is not aiming to stock the Sainsbury’s veg department so he is not under the same pressure as a regular farmer to maximise profits but it is difficult not to agree with the permaculture philosophy to “design intelligent systems which meet human needs whilst enhancing biodiversity, reducing our impact on the planet, and creating a fairer world for us all.” The permaculture movement has perhaps been sidelined as a somewhat hippy movement, but there seems real potential here to capitalise (sorry I know I’m doing it now!) on the wave of interest in locally produced food and create innovative community based projects as Mark is doing to bring people together through the love of growing.

There are several permaculture based veg box schemes in the area such as North East Organic Growers, a co-operative based near Bedlington all supplying locally grown organic produce to the area creating a sense of community and producing seasonal produce in a more sustainable way. Obviously this comes at a price and with an increasing percent of the population on stagnant incomes this is not an option for everyone.

On the way to Hexham I had seen a field which was filled with poppies. It looked like a memorial installation to commemorate the First World War, but after asking Mark about it, he explained that since Europe had banned certain weed killers, poppies had been easily able to grow again alongside wheat. I thought it was an interesting example of how European policy literally had changed how our landscape looked visually. Even down to the crops we are growing. Rapeseed for example, is soaring in popularity due to recent reports of olive oil prices spiraling after a poor European harvest and a bacteria outbreak affecting Italian olive trees. Rapeseed has such a striking yellow colour that it can dominate any landscape and challenge our concept of the British landscape made up of the traditional greens and browns. Rapeseed itself is also a controversial crop as it is often intensely farmed reliant on heavy use of pesticides and weed killers.

Finally we talk to a young researcher conducting tests into innovative crops which could grow in the UK partly in response to creating a more sustainable food production line and perhaps also with Brexit looming on the horizon; trying to find more profitable crops which grow easily in our climate. The two main trials were for Spelt and Buckwheat which again interested me in terms of the visual impact these would have on our landscape. The latter particularly having a striking appearance with fluffy white flowers protruding from the plant. A move towards a more plant based diet and unpredictable climate may also influence what we decide to grow in the future.

On the whole there was a lot less fear than I was expecting from a community so vulnerable to a no deal Brexit. There was also a unanimous feeling that the focus of the post Brexit agricultural policy would have to be working towards a greener and more sustainable future, although there was very little faith that the government would provide much support to aide these changes. Many were fastening their seatbelts praying that Boris Johnson didn’t get in – oh dear!

There were several more interviews conducted this week which I will discuss further in a future blog.

A rural sociologist at the Venice Art Biennale

In the latest CRE blog senior lecturer Menelaos Gkartzios reflects on his visit to the Venice Art Biennale.

From ‘SaF05’, Charlotte Prodger, Scotland + Venice partnership

 

The vaporetto from the airport to Venice was noticeably slow, and I swear the quality of water had been improved drastically. I decided that ‘slow transport’ was part of a strategy that sought minimum interruption in a city that was sinking – literally and metaphorically. In the middle of August, of all times, I had come to attend the Venice Art Biennale – for the first time. Artistic practice represents a new avenue of research for me, following the research network in Japan on art and rural development, the CRE Artist-in-Residence programme and the newly advertised rural Artist Residencies at Visual Arts in Rural Communities, as well as the upcoming Special Section in Sociologia Ruralis on ‘Doing Art in the Country’.

I wasn’t necessarily looking for the function or the meaning of the artworks, and the director’s introduction reassured me that there was no need to. I saw the artworks as a critique, an exploration of a particular topic, a research approach, and sometimes as nothing to ponder on. I arrived wondering where and how ‘the rural’ is positioned at the festival, obviously not as a space for exhibiting works of art, but as a field of knowledge that artists are engaging with: what questions of rurality (if any) are explored through contemporary visual arts? I approached the festival as if I was walking around a park. In fact, part of the festival takes place at the Venice Giardini, The Gardens. Years ago, a Dublin-based artist had advised me against seeing everything in an art exhibition. ‘Imagine you are in a park’. Some flowers, he continued, might take your fancy; you might even get closer to smell some, while others you will ignore. Handy advice I thought to myself when you are dealing with so much work: two art presentations offered as ‘propositions’ (one in the Giardini and one at the Arsenale), national pavilions and a series of other parallel exhibitions throughout the city. So I strolled at the park. Slowly and many times.

I came of course with my own rural preoccupations. Rurality had found its way to the festival, although not necessarily in explicit terms. Drawing here on the national representation entries (i.e. the pavilions) for example, there were questions of rurality in Charlotte Prodger’s intimate confessions about her queer identity growing up in ‘the village’ in rural Scotland. There were representations of rurality in the numerous landscapes that were used to depict Ghana’s natural resources and people in the moving (moving) images of John Akomfrah. Or in the video footage of tsunami rocks (presented as ‘cosmo-eggs’) washed out from the ocean and the multiple meanings these have for coastal communities much damaged in the 2011 earthquake in Japan – an entry that was fascinating to me because of its interdisciplinary work across ethnography, art, music and architecture. There were artworks about indigenous rural communities, for example the Inuit people and the forced relocation they were subjected to at the Canadian pavilion by artist collective Isuma. And there were more.

From ‘Cosmo-eggs’, Motoyuki Shitamichi, Japanese pavilion

Of course, to see the art festival solely through the rural lens is to reduce it. The trend of engaging critically with ‘the rural’ was there, although this could be easily missed were you not looking for it. Following the curator’s introduction, social critiques were abundant at the festival, and these seemed in line with ongoing discussions in social sciences about decolonising the academy and the art world, racial struggles and white hegemony, transgender rights, climate change, migration, poverty and the growth of ultra-right politics. Some artworks were extremely powerful in addressing these in a profound way, and if you ever have a chance to watch Arthur Jafa’s acclaimed video ‘The White Album’ please do, as anything I might try to write here about it seems too little.

As in any festival, it was the social element that makes it. The ‘art crowd’ as it is derogatively called sometimes, was friendly and engaging, and I met many people attending the festival, including fellow social scientists from across the world. ‘The rural?’ some would ask in puzzlement. Despite the posters everywhere in the city about the Biennale, many tourists didn’t know about it. It doesn’t matter, Venice is a sort of an art festival on its own, I thought. Still, the festival and its venues took me to places I wouldn’t normally go, and there were enough scattered exhibitions around the city to give you an adventure. Enough to see Venice in a different way, with washing lines hanging outdoors, kids playing on the backstreets and empty traditional cafes. All slow, walking in the city – all slow as the rural is sometimes, mistakenly, typified to be.