Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Some thoughts on GM Crops

In 1998, I wrote a book about genetic engineering and agriculture called Eat Your Genes (Zed Books). It was not intended as a polemic, but was written as a (hopefully) readable primer outlining everything you needed to know about How Genetically Modified Food is Entering Our Diet (the subtitle). Nevertheless, my scepticism about the heavy-handed introduction of this technology, and the initial uses to which it was being put, obviously coloured the text.

The so-called First Generation of Genetically Modified (GM) crops were developed by Monsanto and other multinational corporations. Monsanto’s first GM crops were genetically engineered, for example, to resist certain herbicide sprays and sales were tied to the specific use of branded herbicides. Genetic engineering opened the door to crop seed patenting for the first time, while genetic mechanisms were proposed to prevent farmers being able to save seed for replanting. The US government aggressively promoted this US-based technology (e.g., via aid programmes and threatening trade wars). This all raised genuine concerns about seed monopolies for commodity crops, and for food security in developing countries.

Although GM food is the norm in North America (e.g., through maize and soybeans in processed foods), relatively little is consumed or grown in Europe. Public opposition to the technology was a major factor in a European-wide moratorium on the planting of GM crops.

Last weekend, protestors assembled at the Rothamsted Experimental Station (Harpenden, England) to demonstrate against an experimental plot of GM wheat. I thought I would use this blog to put down some thoughts on this.

The wheat being trialled at Rothamsted is part of the so-called Second Generation of GM crops. These crops are being developed with an eye to what consumers will find acceptable in the future. The Rothamsted wheat incorporates a gene that causes the plant to smell of aphid alarm pheromone (E-beta-farnesene). Aphids are important insect pests of wheat. They are much less inclined to land on the modified plants (as shown in greenhouse trials). This could result in much less pesticide being sprayed on the crop; something which the field trial at Rothamsted has been established to test. This could mean less agro-chemical in the environment and less chemical residue in the flour. Pesticides have been implicated, for instance, in the dramatic decline of bees in the UK, which has serious repercussions for the pollination of crops.

My view is that you can no longer generalise about the use of this technology in food production. Each modified crop should be looked at on an individual basis. A wide range of problems are now being addressed, such as drought resistance (which could be beneficial in areas worst impacted by climate change) and resistance to numerous pests and diseases. The degree to which pollen can cross-contaminate non-GM crops also varies widely according to crop type and the type of modification made. There is currently a re-evaluation of the GM issue; things are now not so black-and-white.

Some of the banners and rhetoric at the Rothamsted demonstration are starting to look a little dated. For example, banners like “No to Corporate Control of Food” and “Big Business Bad Science”. I broadly agree with many of the sentiments expressed and remain highly sceptical about GM crops generally. However, Rothamsted is a publically-funded government research station and the wheat being developed there will not be owned by multinational corporations and will not be patented.

The sad thing is that there are environmentalists on both sides of this fence: Scientists who want to utilize this technology to benefit the environment and campaigners who are passionate about preserving the integrity of our food. They should get together to start establishing some common ground. 

I think it is important to preserve consumer choice. Food labeling was a hard-fought victory; organic standards are likely to continue to exclude GM for the foreseeable future.

The corporate vision of a nation covered in patented GM crops that can only be sprayed with proprietary agro-chemicals will hopefully never come to pass in the UK. However, genetic engineering has the potential to be a very useful tool in the plant breeder’s armoury, particularly in areas where farmers' needs are being addressed in ways that don't threaten food security. Where the benefits are high and the risks of transgene (modified genes) spread are shown to be extremely low, then it would be worth keeping an open mind.

A note on terminology:
Of course, all crops are genetically modified by plant breeders, but GM has become the term in general use to describe organisms that have been modified using the techniques of genetic engineering (usually the introduction of genes derived from another species). 

Wikileaks and GM Crops:

Sunday, 20 May 2012

In Transition 2.0

The UK Green Film Festival is a welcome addition to the touring film festival circuit. Now in its second year, it tours to a dozen venues - including Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff (18-20 May 2012). This year’s films included ones about the appalling levels of food wastage from farm to fork (Taste the Waste), turning vegan (Vegucated), corruption in the oil industry (Greedy Lying Bastards) and light pollution (The City Dark).

I went to see In Transition 2.0 (UK, 2012), a film directed by Emma Goude that provides a useful update on Transition Town projects. The Transition movement seeks to help communities prepare for an economically-uncertain post-peak oil world by enhancing local self-sufficiency. It’s about visualizing how your community may look in 20-30 years time, and putting in place the necessary sustainable energy and food framework to maintain a high (or even enhanced) quality of life. The film is structured around an interview with Rob Hopkins, who has outlined practical steps “from oil dependency to local resilience” in a series of books and is co-founder of the pioneering Totnes Transition Town.

The film incorporates stories from around the world (no aircraft travel – all groups sent their own sections via the Internet), showing how community groups have variously implemented transition steps to achieve greater local sustainability. Food projects usually provide the initial success. These include community gardens in reclaimed urban spaces (e.g., gardens of abandoned houses, railway platforms) and co-operatives selling local food. Local currencies are increasingly being used to promote local trade (the Brixton Pounds has even gone electronic), while local energy production is shown to be a good way forward (e.g., Lewes’ community solar power station). Bringing communities together is time and again a key factor in successful Transition Town initiatives.

After the film, Sam and Helen from the Cardiff Transition group spoke about projects in the Cardiff area. Most Transition Towns have been small towns or villages, so being in a large city they see their main role initially as being to help connect existing activities and sustainable businesses throughout the city. Projects include mapping (using Google map technology) of urban orchards and gardens, along with energy efficiency surveys and the establishment of community gardens (there’s even one at Chapter Arts Centre). The Taff, a local trading currency has been established, and more initiatives are shortly to be announced. Cardiff Transition Town officially launches this week (Wednesday May 23) at an event in the Old Library (see Transition Cardiff Event on Facebook to book).

UK Green Film Festival:

Related Food Blog posts:

Monday, 7 May 2012

Daiquiri’s Mexican Restaurant, Cardiff

Sherman Cymru reopened after major refurbishment in February. Their impressive theatre programme has seen us making frequent trips to Cathays (most recently for Clytemnestra). Therefore, this post starts a strand looking at pre-Sherman eating options. Last Friday we ate at Daiquiri’s on Salisbury Road.

Daiquiri’s is a Mexican Restaurant (that also does take-away) in the heart of the student area of Cathays, just a couple of minutes walk from Sherman Cymru. It opens evenings only (5.30pm-10pm Monday-Saturday). When we arrived it was nearly empty, but most of the tables were reserved. However, the reservations were mainly for groups, so some smaller tables, including the one by the window, were free. The place was packed by the time we left at around 7pm.

Décor is bright and welcoming, with good use made of mirrors. A collection of oversize tourist sombreros adorns the walls.

Food is ordered at the bar. Cocktails (and daiquiris) are a speciality. An after-work birthday party had arrived just before us and were downing what looked like Tequila Slammers, with worms. I hasten to add that the customers supplied their own worms (in a dodgy-looking bottle maybe bought on a Mexican holiday) - not the Daiquiri’s barman. As I once worked as an entomologist, I feel duty-bound to note here that the worms are technically caterpillars of Hypopta agavis.

The menu at Daiquiri’s comprises Starters (e.g., various Nachos), Mexican Dishes (Enchilada, Chimichanga, Tacos, Burrito), Mexican Sizzlers (beef, chicken, vegetarian and shrimp Fajitas), Mexican Paella (vegetarian, chicken and seafood – the latter with plenty of mussels by the look of it), Chargrills (steak, salmon and chicken breast), Gourmet Burgers, and Desserts.

I went for the Chicken Tacos, washed down with a San Miguel, while my partner had the Beef Burrito with an orange juice. There was change from a £20 note.

The twin Chicken Tacos were topped with melted cheese and sour cream. They were served on rice with salad garnish. Portion size was substantial (no danger of leaving here hungry) and the food mildly spicy (just enough chilli to get your brain into that slightly euphoric “must have another mouthful” zone). I like the creamy textures in this sort of Mexican food (e.g., refried beans, guacamole and sour cream) and could have no complaints on that score.

Beef Burrito comprised beef chilli and re-fried beans in a flour tortilla, topped with melted cheese and sour cream, served on a bed of rice with salad garnish. It looked good and I think on taste slightly edged the Chicken Tacos. 

Some Fajitas were served nearby, with suitably theatrical sizzling and steam. I'll probably go for one of those next time.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not fine dining. It is, as they say on their website, “unpretentious wholesome food”. We were looking for a bite to eat before a play, and ended up having a very enjoyable dining experience.

49 Salisbury Road
Cathays, Cardiff CF24 4AD
029 20344 807

Previous post on eating at Sherman Cymru:

Friday, 4 May 2012

Pieminister: Butter ‘nut nut’ pie

One strand on this blog has me cooking recipes from the book Pieminister: a pie for all seasons (Tristan Hogg and Jon Simon, 2011). Although this variation on American pumpkin pie is in the autumn section of the book (page 154), we still have British-grown squashes from vegetable boxes in the veg rack (and the thicker skinned squashes do keep well).

I made the suggested half-quantity of shortcrust pastry, following the book (page 10; the all-butter Pieminister way). This was barely enough to line the shallow pie dish I was using, but once you taste the pie you realize you don't want to overdo the pastry on this one. The pastry is cooked 15-20 minutes before the filling is added.

The filling is made from boiled cubes of butternut squash blended with cream (200ml), a couple of eggs, soft brown sugar (80g), and some grated nutmeg. I used a butternut squash that was to hand and, not wanting any left, put in more than the amount suggested in the recipe. I kept all the other filling measurements as in the book; it worked fine. The filling gets layered onto the part-cooked pastry base and put back in the oven for about 20 minutes.

I made the topping using flaked almonds (100g), just a few hazelnuts, and walnuts (100g) instead of the suggested pecans. These were pulsed in a blender and mixed with maple syrup (4 tablespoons) and pumpkin seeds (40g). When this has been stirred together it is put over the butternut filling, which should have just set, and the pie returned to the oven for about another 10 minutes to roast the nutty topping.

I am glad I made the effort (i.e., crossed the road to the shop) to obtain the sunflower seeds. Not an ingredient I use much, but they work well on the topping here; the partly-ground nuts with the whole sunflower seeds giving a very satisfying texture. I did not feel I needed to drizzle on the suggested extra maple syrup.

This pie is filling. The book suggests that this recipe serves 6. It will keep our family of four going for at least three days as dessert (with the remaining cream, with yoghurt, with ice cream).

See also:
Pieminister: Homity Pie:

Pieminister: Courgette & chickpea filo pie:

The Pieminister book:

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Villa Napoli, Penarth

There was a young couple with a toddler and a baby in a pushchair, families like ours with older children, a well-behaved Hen Party starting out for the evening (with their mums), gentlemen dressed in Bullingdon Club-style tailcoats, and elderly tourists from the attached hotel. No surprise this all takes places in an Italian restaurant: Villa Napoli in Penarth.

Villa Napoli is located on the ground floor of the Glendale Hotel on Plymouth Road, not far from the railway station, between the NatWest Bank and ffotogallery at The Turner House (interesting exhibition of contemporary Iranian photographers until 12 May). This family-run restaurant has been here for over 20 years, and apparently it looks exactly the same as it did back then (something timeless about an Italian restaurant maybe).

For starters we shared a plate of Bruschetta and a platter of mixed anti-pasta. Highlight for me here was the deep fried brie. The bread, olives, melon, avocado, Parma and other hams were as good as expected, although the perfectly good calamari felt a little out of place in this company.

For main, I went for the mixed seafood: mussels, large prawns, cockles, calamari, salmon. The mussels were excellent; and the word seemed to have got out, given the number of dishes containing mussels that were going past. The piece of salmon bordered on the hesitantly small, as if not sure whether to gatecrash the abundant seafood. It was most welcome. The seafood was on a base of rice and cream sauce. The sauce was good, but lacked a certain something that could have lightened it and lifted it to the next level.

I shared a dish of vegetables (small roast potatoes, carrots and broccoli) with my partner, who went for one of the Veal dishes; served in a stilton cream sauce with asparagus (they like their cream in this kitchen). Not usually one to go for blue cheese, it was a brave choice, but one that paid off because it was a splendidly rich sauce that perfectly complemented the tasty meat.

For dessert, the kids shared a Death by Chocolate, served hot with ice cream. It was collapsed, if not dead, under the weight of chocolate during heating; but still looked great due to the expertly dribbled chocolate all around the plate. Cheesecake of the Day was lemon, and this was our other choice.

Between us we drank a glass of wine, orange juice, a couple of J2Os, and finished with coffees (total bill £79.75). Not the cheapest Italian in the area, but Villa Napoli has a very good claim to being Penarth’s best Italian restaurant. There’s a good atmosphere and you’ll be mingling with an interesting cross section of Penarthian society.

A stretch limo arrived to take the Hen Party (without mums) to the bright lights of Cardiff. We headed home in more modest transport.

Villa Napoli
Glendale Hotel
10 Plymouth Road
Vale of Glamorgan CF64 3DH
029 2070 8302