Paul de Zylva on bees, valuing nature and the role of NGOs

By Olivia Robinson, on 24 September 2014

By Harriet Bradley

Source: Friends of the Earth

Source: Friends of the Earth


Paul de Zylva is Head of Nature at Friends of the Earth [FOE]. He designed and is running FOE’s current campaign – The Bee Cause – launched on April 11 2012. Two years from its launch, they’re on the verge of getting a National Pollinator Strategy [NPS] from the Government.

Q: What motivated you to set up The Bee Cause?

A: The organisation was looking for a new campaign. We’d done a lot of work on energy and climate change issues but we weren’t doing much about the natural environment. There was a lot of concern about the issue of bee decline, there were a lot of organisations working on bees – but I think FOE is an organization dealing with the ‘root-cause’ problem – and no one was looking at all the causes of bee decline together. And that felt like an opportunity to work on an issue about bees, but that’s also really about our relationship to, or our mismanagement of, nature.

Q: Was there something particularly dramatic happening at the time in terms of bee populations?

A: Not really, no. There had been a decline in honeybees over a 20-year period between 1985 and 2005. The Government had funded some research into the pests and diseases of managed honeybee colonies, but no one was looking at wild bees and broader pollinators, or joining up the causes of decline. I thought that was the space FOE could occupy in a way that wouldn’t threaten other organisations and that would give people lots of interesting angles on the issue.

Q: So you get a form of competition between campaigning organisations?

A: There’s always a bit of healthy competition and collaboration among campaign groups but with The Bee Cause we’ve helped by bringing together the issues in a coherent way. Although the issue is already popular, it isn’t any easier because it touches on so many tough and potentially controversial issues such as what is the role of farming in relation to the natural environment? What is the role of chemicals in relation to species?

Q: Why do you think The Bee Cause is a policy issue?

A: Because there was a policy vacuum. We launched the campaign with a report from the University of Reading who said the issues are about farming, pesticide exposure, loss of habitat, the way we develop our towns and cities and, for managed colonies of honeybees, about pests and diseases and the danger of them migrating into the wild bee population. And then they’re about those causes interacting.

The Government was putting a lot of money into honeybee research, but there wasn’t a huge amount of policy detail. If the Government’s draft plan being developed now is half good, it will fill quite a lot of that policy gap. I think that whilst we live in an age of “Big Society” and localism, the public still looks to Government to lead. If the Government doesn’t have a policy on an issue, why would the public act?

Q: Do you think the economic and social benefits that bees provide explain the Government taking an interest in this particular issue?

A: Yes- that as well. The day we launched the campaign we led in our press release with the fact that if we had to pollinate crops in the UK by hand, it would cost farmers an extra £1.8 billion a year, and that would go on food bills. And that got political attention.

We had support from 250 MPs across the party divide backing our call for a bee action plan in the UK. I think they saw the sense that in an era when everyone’s talking about food security and valuing the natural environment more, are you really going to ignore the problem of bee decline?

Q: What is Friends of the Earth’s relationship to policy makers, how does it influence them and the policy agenda?

A: Sometimes it’s through formal channels- changing or using the law has been a theme of FOE’s work over the decades; we like to get our policy positions right and base those on good research. Democracy may not be perfect and in many ways it doesn’t work anywhere near what it needs to for the challenges we face on the climate and the natural environment. But can you do campaigning and advocacy without policy? Probably not. You’ve got to stand for something.

But policy work is more subtle than just going in at legislative level. Direct meetings with ministers I think is increasingly the theme of our times. And a lot of policy stems from working with decision-makers in business or civil society.

Q: Like working with business?

A: Yes, we are working with certain business interests through the bees campaign like B&Q, M&S, the Co-operative, Waitrose, Sainsburys. There are increasingly in my view pennies dropping around whole different sectors of society about what climate and a diminishing natural world means for farming, business supply chains, and civic society. Companies like Puma have looked at the whole effect on the natural environment of their product chain. The bottom line is that if they had to pay the true cost of what impact they have on the environment they would be out of business.

Q: Are you up against other lobbyists working behind the scenes with opposing interests?

A: Yes, they are there but I think that’s the name of the game. You know that they’re probably doing some stuff behind the scenes which is representing their interests. Equally, I think it’s been very powerful for us to be able to show to ministers the businesses and civic society organisations that we are working with.

Q: Do you feel a pressure to place a cost on things?

A: The valuation of nature is quite contentious. My colleagues are concerned about the unproven market-based ‘financialization’ of nature. You can never put an accurate price on nature, but if you give some indicative figures it focuses the mind and sets off a debate that policymakers are never going to do without that focus.

The test of the valuation of nature debate is whether it starts to turn round the decline of nature, and if that change leads to changes in policy fields but also within business practices. If it’s simply another case of destroying nature because we’ve managed to sell it to the highest bidder, then that’s not a change, that’s just creating a market.

Q: So do think that we need a national or international solution, along the lines of the European Commission’s ban on some pesticides linked to bee decline.

A: It’s a 2-year restriction until 2015 on some uses of three neonicotinoids. It got loads of interest from North America and Canada, because they’re having the same kind of debate there. But obviously pesticides are only part of the problem.

Q: What do you see as the long-term solution – do we need to rethink our agricultural system?

A: Oh yes. We need to rethink a lot. The latest Common Agricultural Policy reforms promised to ‘green the CAP’ and they’ve been a huge let down- a lot of lobbying behind the scenes has stopped the reforms that were needed. There’s a lively debate about whether we need to continue to just squeeze the land to grow more crops, or whether there’s a better way of feeding mouths other than squeezing the life out of our farmland. Bees have brought about that debate on pesticides, but it also needs to apply to the urban environment.

So yes, transformational change is what we need, but it will probably happen in increments, and occasional shocks to the system. The job of a campaigning organisation like FOE is to use those issues but be ready for them as well. That’s the world of campaigning- it’s about that basic human spirit that you can make a difference. There is a view held by some in certain organisations that charities shouldn’t be campaigning for change, charities should just do good works. It’s come to the fore recently in the whole debate about the Lobbying Bill, where the constraints are now put on charities in the run up to a General Election.

Q: So do you think those restrictions have come from those sorts of voices?

A: Partly, I think there’s a healthy debate about what a charity should be. We are confronting some of the big issues of the day, on pollution, energy, traffic, redevelopment, green space- I think that’s as much ‘Big Society’ and civil action and civic pride as anything. We fundamentally believe that good decision-making and good governance is what’s needed if we’re going to turn around some of these problems, and get away from the idea that somehow just by making the economy better everything will be okay.

For example there’s a rescue job needed on sustainable development to reclaim what it means, rather than just say it’s the economy comes first and everything else comes last. There has been a hijacking in some cases of sustainability – enough industries putting the word ‘sustainable’ in front of words like ‘aviation’. Words become normalized, but you then have to challenge their usage to hold people to account and hold true what is really meant by those things.

Q: Perhaps costing nature could be a way of drawing attention to problems not traditionally seen to come into economic calculations?

A: It’s a way of garnering attention, you need to know where the risks are. Some of our colleagues in southern countries- in Africa, Asia, South America in particular, are very suspicious of the financialization of nature. They’ve experienced this with an initiative called REDD and REDD+, where incentives have been given to continue to destroy rainforest or virgin forest because companies get subsidized to plant oil palm plantations.

Q: That seems to undermine theories that the wealthier a country becomes, the more likely they are to care about environmental, as opposed to ‘materialist’ issues.

A: There is some evidence, but it’s too easy and increasingly inaccurate to say it’s only the rich who care about the environment. I think the challenge is that people engage with nature and the environment irrespective, but if they’re not asked the right questions, if they’re told what to think, or they’re not given the chance to explore real choices, they’ll give the usual answers; that they’re not interested, or they need a job to put food on the table. We work with a lot of communities of environmental campaigners who are not wealthy, like those in North East England facing the worst excesses of industrial pollution. If you go to Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, a lot of groups in Africa, there are people trying to do similar stuff against the odds.

Our job, as FOE nationally and internationally, is to empower those people to get a bit more traction on the issues to start doing stuff. Who holds the power and in whose interests are always good questions to ask. Just because you’ve identified the answers to those doesn’t mean you’ve solved the problem, but you map out who you need to work with. I think some institutions, organisations and decision-makers are starting to think the world is changing.

Q: Do you mean in terms of climate change?

A: Yes, some businesses are thinking far longer than most governments and some departments of state are prepared to think far longer than any term of office. The challenge to groups like us is always to make these things far more accessible than government ever will, and then reflect back to government and decision-makers that they are responsible.

Q: So you have more of a capacity to take a longer-term perspective?

A: Climate change is a long-term issue, but it’s also a short-term issue. If you look beneath the public opinion polls of what gets reported in the media, there are some fundamental questions facing every society, community, locality, about the things that really matter. And they tend not to be the things that get most of the public debate or media attention.

Q: That conveys a more positive view of human nature- that people do want to know about these things.

A: I wouldn’t be sitting here if I wasn’t positive. FOE and other organisations spent 40 years putting the environment on the agenda. Now we’ve got it there, we’re trying to work out where that goes next. And one of the key things is that it isn’t just a separate issue – it’s fundamental to all the questions about quality of life, wealth, welfare, wellbeing, health, human rights – whether it’s comparing Teesside to Dorking, or the Thames Valley to Thailand.

There’s trouble down-under: UNESCO recommendations and the Great Barrier Reef

By Olivia Robinson, on 24 September 2014

By Harriet Bradley



Over the last 50 years pollution, over-fishing, tourism and climate change, among other factors, has caused coral reefs to decline by an estimated 80% in some parts of the world, and could reach 60% globally by 2050. Scientists at the Catlin Group – who have been documenting this decline since 2012 – note that the impact could extend to 500 million people in communities across the world relying on the reefs for food, tourism, and coastal protection. Whereas, if coral reefs were maintained in good condition, they could benefit the world by $30 billion a year.

In January 2014, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) approved plans to dump dredged sediment (a by-product of plans to create one of the world’s biggest coastal coal ports at Abbot Point) in some areas, which, some scientists warn, could poison the reef. This decision disregarded opposition from numerous environmental groups and a letter signed by 233 scientists calling the GBRMPA to reject the plan. In this case, short-term economic interests appear pitted against longer-term economic and environmental ones. And those with the authority to act are currently backing the former.

There does not have to be such an incompatibility between economic activities and environmental activity. Indeed, the fact that the Catlin Group – which has been funding a global survey of coral reefs since 2012 – is a specialty insurance firm suggests not only the increasing complexity of the relationship between the economy and the environment, but also the emerging realisation in some quarters of the long-term economic risks of environmental destruction.

A casualty of this saga has been ‘objective’ scientific assessment. It has been blurred by the ‘green-light’ assessment of the Ports Australia report and the mining industry, represented by the Queensland Resource Council, who endorse dredging as environmentally safe. This conflicts with the report of the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) and Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS). This represents a common trend where science is being vied for in politics, rather than being considered objectively.

The politics of the issue escalated to the international level in late April 2014, following UNESCO’s recommendation to consider the reef for its List of World Heritage in Danger at its 39th session in 2015. This could present an opportunity to change – or at least put the unwelcome international spotlight on – the current preferences of the Australian government. However, the Queensland Environment Minister, Andrew Powell, denied that the government would follow UNESCO’s recommendation. The implication is that such a move by UNESCO would involve significant reputational damage to the Queensland and Australian governments, especially given the increasingly important role that coral reefs may play in protecting coasts from sea-level rises associated with climate change. Whatever the outcome, the episode will provide evidence on whether international monitoring bodies like UNESCO have the power to impose reputational costs and whether these will lead to a change in regulatory policy from the Australian government.


“Now for the Long Term”: The Report of the Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations

By Lucy Phillips, on 6 April 2014

By Laetitia Sanchez Incera

"Now for the Long Term" speakers

“Now for the Long Term” speakers

On 26 February, the International Public Policy Review (IPPR) organised an event presenting the report “Now for the Long Term” by the Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations. This event, which was chaired by Dr Colin Provost, gathered four sustainable development specialists: Professor Ian Goldin, Professor Paul Ekins, Michael Jacobs and Camilla Toulmin.

The talk began with Ian Goldin’s presentation of the report. He explained that the world today is at a crossroads: it has been experiencing the fastest growth ever over the last 25 years, but this growth is threatened by various accompanying and unintended consequences, such as climate change, soil erosion and increasing inequality. These issues remain a key source of frustration for many policy makers. With regards to the future, for them, the problem is not a lack of knowledge, but rather the gulf between knowledge and action; the difficulty in moving from policy to practice.

“Now for the Long Term” is composed of three sections. The first section comprises a summary of today’s biggest challenges, whilst the second considers the lessons of history. The report points to the role of crisis in generating change, and the existence of occasions when shared interests led to resolutions, such as in the creation of the European Union or agreements at Bretton Woods. The role of institutions are also emphasised, most particularly with regards their ability to foster international cooperation under common goals (e.g. the Millennium Development Goals). Despite the existence of several success stories, some trends continue to undermine the potential for international co-operation and policy making. Perhaps most importantly, democracy is increasingly “short-term,” limited by election cycles and distorted by powerful lobbies. The large number of institutions has led to disillusionment with their ability to bring about change, whilst the long-term characteristics of many issues means that it is increasingly difficult to identify cause and effect.

Having presented the major global issues and deliberated what we might learn from the past, the third section of the report looks to the future. It offers up a series of principles and practical recommendations that might just pave the way for the future we so covet. Suggestions include a focus on investment in younger generations, and a shaking up of existing institutions, making them more innovative and transparent. The importance of breaking the monopoly of governments seems particularly pertinent, with calls for the promotion of creative coalitions. A particularly forward-thinking example of such a coalition is the suggested ‘C-20 C-30 C-40’ which brings together countries, companies and cities over the issue of climate change. The final improvement, upon which the success of the above suggestions perhaps rests, is the creation of ‘shared’ global values – a common platform of understanding.

In response to Ian Goldin’s presentation, Michael Jacobs, Professor Ekins and Camilla Toulmin each made their comments. Michael Jacobs agreed with the assertion that efforts to deal with public goods require collective solutions, but he feared that the importance of public mobilisation had been underplayed.  The mobilisation of the public, he argued, is intrinsic to helping to restore governments’ lost authority, providing them with the leverage they need to act internationally. To support his argument, Jacobs contrasted the success of Gordon Brown’s popular ‘Make Poverty History’ campaign with the UN Copenhagen Summit on climate change, a disappointing Conference undermined by a notable lack of public mobilisation.

Whilst also a strong advocate of the creation of creative coalitions, Camilla Toulmin was particularly interested in understanding why people are reluctant to consider the “long-term”, and in identifying ways to reward those who do. She stressed that short-term or ‘myopic’ tendencies in banking and finance are particularly problematic. The banking sector remains highly sceptical of the long-term efficacy of carbon cutting policies, which unfortunately, translates into an aversion to change for the common good.

For Professor Ekins, the current state of politics makes it extremely difficult to promote the wellbeing of future generations. As regional powers have gained traction and influence, the conditions which led to cooperative success in past decades have been eroded. In spite of these difficulties, Ekins pointed to two areas which should be prioritised: the removal of subsidies that distort prices, and the protection of privacy, which is increasingly under threat.

Having deliberated over the various recommendations in the report, the speakers came round to discussing one of the most vexing global issues – climate change. Having taken a back-seat in recent years with the outbreak of the financial crisis, climate change is now back on the political agenda. As states meet to prepare for a Climate change conference in Paris in 2015, debates have arisen over the optimal extent of participation in climate policy.  Should participation be limited to the main polluters – China, the US, the EU and Japan? Or would this grouping erode global legitimacy, instead coming to be seen as a ‘conspiracy of polluters?’ Whilst the speakers might have disagreed over the issues embroiled in this upcoming conference, they were united in their belief that alongside the work of states and NGOs, public mobilization plays a vital role in giving momentum to these causes at such key points in time.

In all, the Oxford Martin Report marks an important first step in efforts to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems. Though many are aware of such issues, be it climate change or the ongoing proliferation of HIV, this report is devoted to actionable change through innovative and practical solutions. Whilst the speakers pointed to the considerable breadth of the report as a point of weakness, arguably it is this all-encompassing nature which also lends it it’s strength. The report also, quite uniquely, provides a framework for new and innovative multi-scale collaborations, beyond the assumed mantra of government-led change. Whilst its ‘real’ impact remains to be seen, the report has been very well received, providing a much needed shake-up to debates over global governance.

Ozone: An Update

By Lucy Phillips, on 28 March 2014

By Harriet Bradley, IPPR Environment Columnist

The ozone hole (2006)

The ozone hole (2006)

27 years on from when the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer first came into force, it emerges that at least four anthropogenic substances, not banned by the previous treaty, are likely threatening the recovery of the seasonal ozone “hole” over Antarctica. Evidenced in the Oxford Martin School’s October 2013 report ‘Now for the Long Term’ as an exemplar of international problem solving, the Montreal Protocol has been widely heralded as the most successful international environmental treaty. However, this recent revelation, uncovered by scientists at the University of East Anglia, undermines its perceived long-term efficacy. The implied increase in scope of a treaty that bans additional ozone depleting substances (ODS), particularly given their links with greenhouse gases, paves the way for an enlarged economic and political arena of debate.

The revelation is interesting for International Relations (IR) scholars and public policy makers alike. For IR scholars, it is interesting to consider what the discovery of these substances pose for theorists of ‘transnationalism’ and ‘epistemic communities’ – these theorists predict that transnational communities of experts (such as the scientific community) bear an important influence on transnational policy making, increasing the likelihood of cooperation. The revelation provides a potential ‘test case’ to help answer the question as to how far science informs and/or provides the impetus for international agreements, and how long it takes for this influence to manifest itself in policy. For those who contest the formative role of science in such agreements, it could be used to test whether the enlarged scope of these new revelations bears an impact on the political will to deal with the issues at hand. For example, two of the newly identified ‘harmful’ substances are used in insecticides and chemical feedstock (which UNEP is not obliged to report under the protocol), whilst the most highly emitted ODS, nitrous oxide, is widely used in fertilizers – predicted pressure from powerful lobby groups, such as farmers, will perhaps undermine any enthusiasm politicians might have had in confronting the issue.

For policy makers, the news throws up a number of interesting questions. These include the possible existence of loopholes or violations of the original treaty, as well as the need for policy to remain up to date with scientific developments. To be effective over the long-term, agreements based on science must be constantly and vigilantly monitored. It will be interesting to see whether policy debates surrounding renewed threats to the ozone will be affected by the same lines of division that plague climate change talks. There is a risk that the ozone debate will once again be politicised, undermining the likelihood of generating a simple successor to the Montreal Protocol.

From a wider political standpoint, the issue begs the question as to whether national governments possess the tools, or indeed the will, to forge a new international agreement? It is possible that the issue will be even more contentious than in the 1970s and 1980s, when the strength of the public environmental movement in the US (along with the American development of alternatives to CFCs), set the US as the natural leader of the Protocol. Considering the widened scope and concomitant interests involved, whether the US has either the ability or desire to continue to lead the movement remains open to debate.

What is interesting is that some players who were instrumental in their initial support of the Montreal Protocol, such as Canada (where the Protocol was signed), today show signs of reluctance in allowing policy to be influenced by science. The Canadian government under Prime Minister Steven Harper have introduced significant cuts to the funding of environmental science. For example, in 2012, the government cut funding to the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory, (PEARL), an organization which provides scientific data on ozone depletion and climate change for scientists around the world. One of its founders, Dr Tom Duck, fears the move could be related to the government’s pursuit of valuable oil and gas resources in the Arctic, as they become increasingly accessible with climate change.  In September 2013, Canadians demonstrated against the cutbacks to science funding, and against the campaign to relax laws on what scientists can reveal to the public.

Contrary to its presentation in ‘Now for the Long Term’ and elsewhere as a ‘closed chapter’ from which international policy makers can now all learn, this news highlights the real lessons of the issue of ozone depletion: the need for constant vigilance and ongoing adaptation of policy and international accords to keep up with rapid developments in the interlinked areas of technology, the environment and science.

What’s in your latte?

By Claire McNear, on 6 March 2014

By Harriet Bradley, IPPR Environment Columnist

latteRecent history suggests that the global food system is becoming more openly political in public discourse.

With consumption of many luxury goods in Europe in decline, specialty coffee is one habit that has defied the recessionary trend in the UK: last year sales were up 5 percent since 2009, and in 2012 1.4 billion specialty coffees were sold. By some measures the most popular of coffee specialties, in the US the latte has even become an object of political attacks by the right on so-called “latte-drinking liberal elites.” The drink’s cultural currency is so great that it is now the star of the annual World Latte Art Championship, the tenth incarnation of which will be held this May in Melbourne following a series of national qualifying rounds around the world.

Yet for all specialty coffee’s ubiquity, the components of what has become for some an everyday necessity are intertwined with surprisingly complex political questions about the equity of the global food supply chain and its impacts on humans, animals and the Earth’s environment and ecosystems. The issues go deeper than scandals like the 2012 discovery of horsemeat in supermarket beef products: rather than considering its intermittent illegalities, they ask us to question the food production system itself.

I could not do justice here to the theme of the global food and drink production system, let alone the components that make up a latte and other speciality drinks. The focus here is just one – milk – and I provide only an overview of that. Nonetheless, as an item whose uses are expansive, milk symbolises issues that relate to all types of consumables, both everyday and luxury.

The latest available statistics show that Britons consume an average of 249 litres of milk per capita per year, which equates to an average of 682 ml each day. However, until recently, public debate over milk has largely been confined to whether milk is nutritionally sound for humans, rather than its broader health, environmental and animal welfare implications, all of which have been heightened by the industrial methods of modern milk production and distribution. The just-published Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat has drawn praise for revisiting the grim realities of industrial farming methods. Among other things, the book revealed that cattle raised in intensive dairy farms live an average of just two to three years; the normal life span of a cow is 10 to 15 years longer.

Consuming milk produced in this way poses a number of potential health risks to humans. In the US, cows reared via industrial methods are injected with the growth hormone recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST or rBGH), originally developed by the Monsanto Corporation, to stimulate milk production. rBGH remains banned in the European Union, Canada, Australia, Japan and New Zealand. Cows treated with rBGH tend to develop more udder infections, called mastitis, which are then treated with antibiotics. In the US, more than 80 percent of antibiotics sold are administered to livestock, in which the drugs are also used as growth promoters. Last December, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced new voluntary regulations to curb the use of antibiotics as growth enhancers in livestock, amid fears that drug remnants in livestock products were contributing to the increasing bacterial resistance to antibiotics in the treatment of human diseases.

Although the debate over the FDA’s assertions remains unresolved, in no small part because of the influence of political and other special interests, the evidence suggests that the human health risks of modern dairy farming are serious. Under modern dairy methods, cows are kept pregnant as often as possible to boost milk production. A 2006 study by Harvard’s Ganmaa Davaasambuu revealed that this practice raises the level of the estrogen compound estrone sulfate in their milk to up to 33 times that of milk from a non-pregnant cow. Davaasambuu suggested that because dairy accounts for 60 to 80 percent of estrogens consumed in the human diet, it is of particular concern in the development of hormone-dependent cancers. However, judging by the fact that the year-round milking of pregnant cows in such environments remains legal, the burden of proof to show whether these methods are safe seems for now to lie with those raising the concerns, rather than those responsible for the methods.

An intensive dairy rotary milking shed.

An intensive dairy rotary milking shed.

The scandal over British milk prices in 2012, in which it emerged that the market price for milk in the UK was less than the cost of production, indicated that we are not just addicted to cheap meat but to cheap dairy, too. This illustrates the pervasive imperative to drive down costs in numerous sectors of production, which led to the development and growth of Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) in the US since the 1950s. This mode of operation limits the time and space animals receive outdoors, and involves a non-natural feed, usually corn or soya, instead of grass.

Although initially a feature of the American farming landscape, intensive dairy farming has been on the rise in Europe since the mid 1980s, propped up by subsidies from the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy. In 2010, planning for the UK’s first zero-grazing “mega dairy” at Nocton Heath, Lincolnshire, intimated that the practice was to spread across the pond. But January’s news that plans for a 1000-cow mega dairy in Powys, Wales, have been put on hold pending a judicial review over concerns for animal welfare suggests that pressure is mounting on producers.

The Nocton Heath mega dairy proposal has stalled as well. Among the objections cited by the Environment Agency and local council to the Nocton Dairy were the “significant risk to groundwater quality, including the nearby public water supply,” “significant uncertainties regarding the impacts and control of odour […] and its effects on residential amenity” and adverse impact on local wildlife due to “increased ammonia and nitrogen deposition.” These objections illustrate the widely documented environmental impacts of intensive dairy farming, in particular groundwater and river pollution due to the high amounts of waste animal silage, which is stored in “slurry lagoons” before being sprayed onto neighbouring fields. A study carried out by Johns Hopkins University for the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production says many CAFOs dump more waste than the land can cope with. Much is then washed away by rain, ending up in local watercourses; there have been reports of river contamination and deaths of fish and other aquatic life as a result. A 2012 report by Friends of the Earth suggested that at 8,100 cows, the Nocton Dairy would have generated enough manure each year to fill approximately 75 Olympic swimming pools, the presence of which, along with increasing nitrogen levels in water, increases the risk of releasing pathogens (such as salmonella and E. coli), antibiotics and hormones into water sources. The Pew Commission also found evidence that those living near such farms suffered from asthma and other respiratory complaints at a higher rate than the general population. The effect of this contamination has also been reported to have an impact on adjacent farmland, compromising the ability of farmers to grow organic foods.

Wind back to the emergence of a café culture in the UK and elsewhere: it takes an estimated 200 litres of water to produce the average grande latte (out of which the milk comprises 49.4 litres of water). This touches on yet another emerging debate about the sustainability of modern farming methods: the ethics and consequences, human and environmental, of using water in regions where it is scarce, such as Kenya, for irrigation and non-essential food items. The intensifying issue of water scarcity brings the ethics of treating a latte as an everyday essential into sharp focus.

Whilst this may be more detail than the average latte drinker would have time to contemplate at the till, I would argue that it points to some of the most severe systemic problems within the food production industry. The case of the dairy industry illustrates that the “politics of sight” function in many aspects of daily life; perhaps the more common an item is, the less visible its less-palatable features become. In the case of milk, ubiquity is coupled with a greater difficultly of discerning quality and inferring standards of welfare than with other products: regardless of how it is produced or what is in it, milk mostly tastes and appears the same. It is likewise easy to take the ready availability and cheapness of an item like milk, unlike for example, tiger paws, as evidence that its production and procurement is relatively harmless. What a small amount of research reveals is an intense political arena in which both sides claim to be more sustainable, contribute less to climate change and be better placed to solve world hunger. Whilst the horsemeat scandal was a single illegal disruption within an ostensibly functioning system, a brief foray into what’s involved in producing just one ingredient in something as ubiquitous as a latte yields surprisingly complex and political results, and, hopefully, a little food for thought.