Archive for the ‘food’ Category

Food poisoning – damn nature, you’re scary!

21 February, 2012

Food poisoning is – oddly – an excellent topic for a Naturehead because it leads you to discover the ecological quirks of the microbes behind it. Food poisoning is not a single type of ocurrence. The multi-faceted phenomenon entails a wide variety of microbes, each with their own special talents.

Bacillus cereus is a species of bacteria that defies some of the commonest advice that you hear about how to avoid food poisoning. If enough of these Bacillus cereus bacteria grow on your food successfully, cooking won’t save you from harm. You might kill them off after they have aready lacd your food with potent toxins.

“The spores of some species (especially Bacillus cereus and the ‘ Bacillus subtilis ‘ group) survive cooking and can subsequently germinate and grow under favourable conditions, particularly those in warm kitchens.” (from HPA website)

Nursing Schools blog article:

UK NHS… intro: Intro: and causes:


Bovril gone green?

12 November, 2009

The Google Ads on my new videos page drew my attention to something surprising… Bovril has a snazzy new website for its Great Outdoor Revival.  (note the rather gorgeous redhead on the homepage).

Bovril has £100k to give away to deserving sites that need a makeover. Can you think of a place that needs doing up? A countryside plot that needs a spot of polish? Nominate it!

Bovrils’ Great Outdoor Revival

Imaginative thinking on Wild Boar management

27 October, 2009

This morning’s edition of Farming Today on BBC Radio Four had an excellent funny bit. Thetford Forest wardens are concerned that Wild Boar might spread into Norfolk and irreversibly damage the woodland habitat. Farming Today was there to investigate.

Potted version:

“If they get here, how will you manage the Wild Boar population?”

“We will have to shoot them.”

“Are there no alternative control measures?”

“Well, you can cage-trap them.”

“And then what would you do with them?”

“Then you shoot them.”

Listen again on BBC iPlayer

Farming Today 27 Oct 2009

FSA say yes to Folic Acid

20 October, 2009

Folic acid in your bread, whether you like it or not? The Food Standards Agency (FSA) say yes.

The Food Standards Agency, as advised by their Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, has written to Sir Liam Donaldson, the chief medical officer, to confirm their view that it should be mandatory for folic acid to be put into British bread.

This mass medication programme would be undertaken to reduce rates of Spina Bifida, a debilitating condition which develops in a baby during its mother’s pregnancy, as a result of shortage of  Folate (vitamin B9) in the diet. Currently the annual incidence is around 1,000 cases in the UK annually, which the FSA reckons could be reduced to 350 cases.

If the Department for Health recommends legislation the UK could soon become the first European nation to follow the example of the USA and Canada. As with the mass fluoridation of water, this move to medicate without choice is controversial.

Because the body cannot store Folic Acid, those who argue in favour of the supplement point out the advantages of having the nutrient continuously available in the staple diet. Folic acid, along with other B-vitamins, is already found in a number of popular breakfast cereals.

However, critics point to the unknown effects of state-imposed Folic Acid over long periods. In a study last year, Prof Young-Im Kim of the University of Toronto highlighted increases in bowel cancer rates in USA and Canada, saying: “Excess folate, especially in the form of folic acid, can fuel lesion growth, accelerating progression into life-threatening cancers, because high levels of the vitamin make it easier for tumour cells to copy themselves.”

Natural sources of Folate include green leafy vegetables, beans and sunflower seeds.

Beekeeping hopefuls

14 June, 2009
photographer Clive Joyce

photographer Clive Joyce

The Farming Today team has taken on a real challenge – they are going to keep bees for a year. With newly emerging disease problems and the mystery of colony collapse disorder, this is a daunting task. Oh, and they’ll get stung.

Yes, it’s only a 1-year project, which is a bit temporary in the grand scheme of beekeeping! But the sure thing is they’ll find out a bit more about bees and the marvellous ways of this super-organism.

The Myth of Monoculture

20 May, 2009

Jason Ball at

The Myth of Monoculture is that it is an efficient farming method. Ecological systems, however, have far better productivity and suit our nutritional needs.

Monocultures of crops are often referred to as the ‘arable deserts’ of the countryside. Usually this is a way of highlighting the dearth of biodiversity. Which begs a question: When people designed monocultures, where was the wildlife supposed to live? Choose a likely answer: 1)[Oh, we didn’t think of that. Is it good for something?] or is it… 2)[Yeh, we didn’t want that running around, making a mess.]

When you look at the science it is obvious why so many experts tell us that farming has to change.

Ecology – the science of ecosystems and the interactions between living things and with their environment – shows that complex, mutli-layered systems are more productive than simple systems. (Ecologists also know that deserts are not the least productive biomes of the Earth).

Vandana Shiva hits the nail on the head, in this video. Dr Shiva states that polycultures, with mixed food types, are healthier, and have many times more potential to produce food than monoculture crops.


I especially like the way Shiva puts the explanation into very simple terms. Despite being a particle physicist, she understands that the ideas she’s talking about must be easy to absorb. Discover more of her work at the Navdanya website.

© Jason Ball

Green Living Roadshow

15 March, 2009

climateThe local Green Living Roadshow – packed with sustainable lifestyle tips and exhibits – has been touring Wiltshire. You can next see the roadshow in Aldbourne Memorial Hall.

Wiltshire Wildlife Trust are running the roadshow, which will provide a whole range of ideas, advice and experts, with groups such as Hungerford Environment Action Team (HEAT).

Emma Harrington, project officer from the Wildlife Trust’s Environmental Action team, says, “Many people are realising that doing nothing about climate change is no longer an option. We all have a part to play, but sometimes people simply don’t know where to start.”

Call Emma Harrington 01380 725670 for more info.

Carbon Fields

4 March, 2009


Rebecca Hosking’s filmA Farm for the Future– exposes the energy crisis lurking behind industrial food and farming – fossil fuels are running out and our food production systems have to change fast. Shown as part of the BBC Natural World series, Rebecca faces up to the inconvenient truth that her family’s farm needs to take a new direction. She explores the reliance on oil by industrial farming and looks at the viable alternative, a more ecological agriculture.


Unmissable and available now on BBC iPlayer 

Graham Harvey, award-winning author of The Carbon Fields, praised Rebecca Hosking’s A Farm for the Future.

“What pleased me most is that it had identified the need for farming to adopt an ecological paradigm rather than its present industrial one. At the moment global food production is based on setting up unnatural conditions – vast monocultures, straight drills, low biodiversity etc – a situation that makes huge chemical intervention essential. It’s a ludicrous, dangerous and outdated way to produce food based on 19th century science. It survives because a) in modern western societies we are effectively kept in ignorance of reality, and b) because we’re constantly lied to with the claim that only industrial agriculture can feed a growing world population.”

Organism of the month Jan 2009 – the Influenza virus

15 January, 2009

from the NIH website

As you’ve probably heard, there are many different strains of the virus, and it mutates rapidly, which makes it very hard to keep up with vaccines. And although there are lots of infectious agents who cause flu-like symptoms, Influenza is the real deal. Wrongly assumed to be trivial, flu is actually a hard-hitting illness, and the A-type of the influenza virus is very capable of killing. (B and C types usually cause minor illnesses.)

Typical of an animal virus, (of course there are others which infect bacteria, fungi or plants) influenza comes in an envelope of cell membrane, wrapped up as it emerges from an infected cell. This makes it easy for the virus to attach to the next, new cell. It also protects the DNA inside, but that’s why it is also vulnerable to dessication and temperature change.

How does a virus live?

Viruses are, basically, a package of DNA or RNA. A virus does not have its own active cells, tissues or bodies, and so instead they must come to life within hosts, on a sub-microscopic scale, within cells. (Artist’s impressions of viruses, as above, are informed by electron microscopy images and biochemistry studies.)

They reproduce by putting the infected animal’s cells to work – which copy the virus DNA and launch many new viruses. As a result of the biochemical activity being hijacked by the virus genes, the acquired cell membrane carries a new range of embedded glycoproteins which reveal some of the influenza’s genetic toolkit.

The membrane proteins are used to classify the different strains, such as H5N1, where the H refers to the hemagglutinin and the N relates to the neuraminidase glycoproteins.


Surprisingly, humans have not always been burdened by the threat of influenza. Can you guess where the flu virus comes from? Watch the revelations in this short clip of a presentation by Dr Michael Greger.

Michael, working for the Humane Society of the United States, has toured with a shocking presentation all about bird flu, and how he thinks we should tackle the problem of a pandemic – not by cure but by prevention.

HSUS, with the help of the Sheepdrove Trust ,  has made a DVD showing the whole presentation. The Humane Society is most associated with animal welfare, so what’s the link to avian influenza?

The future of flu?

Industrialised poultry farming, according to the evidence highlighted, not only spreads the virus rapidly via supply routes, but also provides the perfect environment for generate dangerous strains such as H5N1. Thousands of birds kept in cramped conditions and traded in millions across vast distances. No longer does the bird flu virus have to ‘care’ about the survival of its host – usually a low rate of casualties ensures that a virus gets carried to new victims – a high rate of death becomes a viable result for the virus when it is so easy to reach the next bird.

So, apparently, a pandemic is made more likely by the modern poultry industry.

Find out more about the threat of an influenza pandemic worse than the global 1918 influenza outbreak by buying the Pandemic Prevention DVD or the book Bird Flu – a Virus of Our Own Hatching. Amazingly, they reckon it’s such an important issue that they published a FREE version of the book online.

I strongly recommend you visit the Bird Flu book website.

Jason Ball on the Natureheads blog.

GM bias on BBC?

17 December, 2008

Jason Ball at the Natureheads blog

I have encountered a few examples recently of what seems to be, at best, poor journalism, at worst, bias in favour of Genetically Modified crops – which, it must be said, are expected to have associated influences on people and the planet which are not easy to justify.

The question is, am I really seeing bias with regard to the issue of GM crops, or is it simply a case of standard practice in the media generating a rather blinkered coverage? I am usually a big fan of the BBC, but recently my efforts to understand the potential impact of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) led me to read, listen to and watch various items on TV, the web, and radio. The BBC gave me cause for concern.

As a Naturehead the potential influence of GMOs is important to me, and my biology background helps me to understand some of the science-based issues. I am not immune to showing bias myself, but I think I am being fair when questioning the balance and quality of media articles I’ve encountered. What do you think? Am I seeing bias in the BBC?

King claims GM can save the world
Taking part in the radio mini-series Street Science, Sir David King was introduced by BBC Radio 4 as follows:
“David believes passionately that GM crops could save the lives of millions of people around the world. He’s worried that the anti-GM sentiment in the UK is ruining Africa’s chances of benefiting from this technology.”

You can listen again to Sir David King on Street Science here. (You’ll need Realplayer.)

A few things strike me about the way this was set up:

  1. the BBC give a platform for a scientist to speak out pro-GM
  2. the series is about promoting understanding of Science
  3. this implies that once you understand the Science you might be happy to accept GM crops

The BBC seem to set up a science versus anti-science scenario. Sir David himself said that he expected a strong presence of anti-science, ‘nature will provide’ views. The BBC present the argument so simply – does King really believe this, given the evidence, or is this how the BBC puts it? This is a scientist who dismisses Organic food production as “a lifestyle choice” (Observer, 5 Oct 2008.) so perhaps he does.

And the viewpoint is so narrow – it’s just about feeding the world. They specifically mention Africa, but this does not take account of the demands that rich ‘northern’ countries make on the world’s food suppply, for example it’s reckoned that the UK impacts about 4 times it’s own land area for its food.

My understanding so far, of the issues surrounding GM is that it’s about much more than feeding the world. What’s scary is that some leading UK politicians are simplifying the debate and the media – in these cases the BBC – seem all too happy to follow in their footsteps. For a refreshing change, read this article in the Guardian by Rachel Dixon about how Hilary Benn tries to reduce the GM issue to 2 questions.

I must have been mistaken about at least one thing – my impression was that Sir David King was in the same camp as the BBC Horizon programme Jimmy’s GM Food Fight, which seemed to basically set the same theme as above – i.e. that anti-GM sentiment might be depriving the poor of the ability to feed themselves. And I thought the BBC Horizon programme was biased and weak on the way it presented the science, because it was also narrowly focussed.

But the editor of BBC Horizon refutes bias, and what’s more, he has now come out to say firmly that Horizon said GM Crops are nowhere near being able to solve the problem of feeding the world. Please read on…

BBC Horizon disputes bias in GM Food Fight
On the blog for the Feeding the World Conference the Organic Research Centre now have a reply to their letter of complaint to the BBC. Richard Sanders of the ORC wrote to the Horizon editor, Andrew Cohen, about the programme entitled Jimmy’s GM Food Fight (broadcast 25th Nov 2008.)

Cohen denies any bias in the programme. His summary of the programme’s conclusion is that GM crops “currently on the market aren’t going to save the world, they’re good for farmers and good for profits, but while there are lingering doubts about the safety we should proceed carefully” and that any real benefits of GM may be “10, 15, 20 years in the future”

However, he does not seem to answer any of the specific criticisms from the ORC on factual error, the debate limitations, or journalistic weaknesses.  Read more…

Wrong debate
These BBC programmes have set up a debate which misses the point.

First of all, it’s not about science and anti-science, because the debate about GM technology requires a scientific evidence-based approach to analyse, assess and deal with the problems, limitations, risks and the best application of this technology. I heard at conference Dr Brian Johnson and Dr Charlie Clutterbuck call for a proper risk assessment system for GM technology. (Dr Johnson believes in 15 years’ time we might have a totally different set of gene engineering tools and could be building ‘designer organisms’ with synthetic biological processes. Listen to the very end of this MP3 sound file.)

And if , as Horizon concludes, GM crops aren’t fit for feeding the world then the question is, how do we tackle that challenge?