Tag Archives: sustainability

Palm oil production: problems and future sustainability

By Joseph J. Bailey, University of Nottingham, UK

Palm oil, which is a type of vegetable oil that comes from the oil palm tree Elaeis guineensis, is big business! I challenge you to look in your home and fail to find a foodstuff, cleaning product, or toiletry product that contains it (see this guide to products containing palm oil). It has attracted much attention from environmental campaigners for several years, with a particularly high-profile set of protests against Unilever back in 2008, and there has been much publicity about its negative environmental impacts for some time (e.g. a report from the Independent in 2009). The story continues to reoccur in the popular press, with The Guardian recently reporting on a Greenpeace report (published March 3rd 2016) that claims 13 big brands (out of 14) cannot guarantee that the palm oil in their products is not contributing towards deforestation. The companies reviewed were: Colgate-Palmolive, Danone, Ferrero, General Mills, Ikea, Johnson & Johnson, Kellogg, Mars, Mondelez, Nestle, Orkla, PepsiCo, P & G and Unilever. Ferrero was the exception as it ‘purchases palm oil volumes that are both fully traceable to plantation level and fully RSPO Segregated’.

Palm oil has penetrated global markets (including food, toiletries, cleaning products, and biofuel) because it is efficient (in terms of the amount of land required), versatile, and relatively cheap compared to other vegetable oils. It has been described as a ‘golden crop’, lifting many poor farmers from poverty, but it continues to cause major environmental problems, particularly in Indonesia and Malaysia, which are two of the main producers (BBC, 2015). Deforestation creates space for the palm oil plantations and this directly threatens ‘charismatic’ species (e.g. orangutans, rhinos, tigers, elephants), their associated ecosystems, and the many less charismatic species therein (WWF).

There are currently a number of organisations and initiatives that are trying to increase the sustainability of palm oil production, to ensure that this product is profitable now, and in the future, without devastating the natural environment. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which came into operation in 2004, aims to put the global palm oil supply chain on a sustainable path. Currently, 21% of palm oil is RSPO certified globally. The Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG), meanwhile, aims to support the RSPO by implementing existing standards and building upon these through ‘creative innovations’ and local, corporate (e.g. Danone, Ferrero), and NGO (e.g. WWF, Greenpeace, Orangutan Land Trust) partnerships. POIG recently released an updated set of criteria (published March 2016). Therefore, whilst there is clearly still some distance to go beyond this figure of 21%, progress is very much being made. Consumer awareness is also vital towards these efforts.

District Kunak, Sabah: A oilpalm plantation along the Malaysia Federal Route 13 with different stadiums of oil palm growing.

District Kunak, Sabah: A oilpalm plantation along the Malaysia Federal Route 13 with different stadiums of oil palm growing. © CEphoto, Uwe Aranas / CC-BY-SA-3.0. Available at: (accessed 14th Mar 2016).

Palm oil production often occurs at a local scale. A recent article in The Geographical Journal reported on the diversity of small-scale oil palm cultivation in the Malaysian part of Borneo (Soda et al., 2015). The article provides a case study of SJ Village in the Bintulu District in Sarawak and considers land-use changes from 2004 to 2013 using land-use maps derived from high-resolution satellite data. The oil palm trees grown here are irregularly dispersed and not in large plantations, which is quite a contrast to the sources of much palm oil. The authors identify that this method of harvesting palm oil may seem inefficient and irrational compared to plantations, but show why it is in fact very sensible. This is because only 26.9% (14% cultivated by the local villagers and the rest by outsiders) of the land in this area in 2013 was found to be used for oil palm, which means that the area’s economy is relatively resilient to declines in palm oil prices. The rest of the land area consisted of: young secondary forest (38.3%), old secondary and primary forest (29.1%), and rubber (0.14%), while the remainder (5.63%) was not visible because of cloud cover. The villagers regard old secondary forest and lands with poor access as ‘backup space’ for planting rubber trees and rice if the price of palm oil were to fall.

However, the authors also discuss potential future land conflicts within this complex system of multiple actors, whereby villagers ‘may have no option but to plant oil palms to secure their land’ if plantations continue to expand in the area. This could impact the mosaicked spatial pattern that currently dominates this village landscape and potentially threaten forests (primary and secondary) and future livelihoods. Outsiders also have an increasing influence in the area, including farmers from other villages (they marry into the community) and urban Chinese who lease rural lands. This can take some control away from the local people and threaten the economic security and rural subsistence that they have developed over many years. Maintaining the diverse landscape of mosaicked oil palm trees and forest requires ‘balanced relationships’ among the diverse set of stakeholders.

The importance of local socio-economic resilience and sustainability cannot be overstressed: maintaining a spatially diverse landscape is regarded as superior to palm oil plantations by being ecologically, economically, and socially more sustainable. Hopefully such sustainability can be developed alongside conservation objectives by some of the organisations mentioned above, even where large companies and outsiders encroach on local villages. Additionally, landscape diversity should be encouraged in existing plantations, to the advantage of the local communities and wildlife.


60-world2 Batty, D. 2008 Unilever targeted in oran-utan protest The Guardian

60-world2 Greenpeace 2016 Cutting deforestation out of palm oil: company scorecard 

60-world2 Hickman, M. 2009 The guilty secrets of pail oil: are you unwittingly contributing to the devastation of the rain forests? Independent

60-world2 Lamb, K. 2016 Leading brands unsure if pal oil in products comes from rainforest land The Guardian 

books_icon Soda, R., Kato, Y. and Hon, J. 2015 The diversity of small-scale oil palm cultivation in Sarawak, Malaysia. The Geographical Journal. doi: 10.1111/geoj.12152.

60-world2 WWF  Which everyday products contain palm oil? 

Geography, Urban Geomorphology and Sustainability

By Mary Thornbush, Brock University, Canada

WordItOut-word-cloud-1071134With the expansion of cities around the world, there is an increasing emphasis within geography to consider urban environments, and the impacts humans have on the environment more generally. This opens up opportunities for the development of human-environment investigations within the context of current urban studies.

Working within the context of human impacts on their environment, it is possible to integrate studies so that they holistically examine both human and physical components of the environment. This has already been an integral part of human geography, but is novel within physical geography and geomorphology specifically, where the sub-field of urban geomorphology has recently experienced some growth from the framework of human-environment interactions. In addition, sustainability has gained attention within geomorphology, and there has been, for instance, a recent special issue on ‘Human Impacts on Landscapes: Sustainability and the Role of Geomorphology’ published in Zeitschrift für Geomorphologie by Hudson et al. (2015). This approach recognizes the importance of long-term studies within the domain of geomorphology, and is applicable to studies of environmental change that is currently affecting cities and shaping urban geomorphology.

The key landscapes examined within an urban context are still diverse, encompassing (for instance) rivers, karst, uplands, deserts, tropics, etc. Within this special section on ‘Geography, Urban Geomorphology and Sustainability,’ there is a focus on rivers, karst and applied geomorphology, with six papers delineating urban geomorphology in settings where there is a concentration of urbanisation and natural environments have been altered by humanity and natural processes, which in turn modify human structures, as is the case with the weathering of historical buildings and structures. Case studies are central to this special section, illustrating key contemporary issues from a long-term perspective and considering the future of human-environment interactions and landscape change.

Specifically, this special section of Area presents a diversity of papers that range from Europe to North America. First, Thornbush (2015) provides a long-term assessment (16 years) following the implementation of the Oxford Transport Strategy (OTS) in central Oxford, UK. She employs the historical buildings located in the city centre as a measurement tool in order to gauge post-OTS environmental change. Second, Randall and Baetz (2015) relay their land-use diversity index (LDI) as a GIS-based model to determine sub-urban sprawl applied in Ontario, Canada. Third, Martín-Díaz et al. (2015) offer a post-war examination of planning policy and land-use planning in Sarajevo that is relevant to urban development within geomorphology. The second half of the special section focuses on rivers. A fourth paper by Sammonds and Vietz (2015) approaches urbanisation in greenfield sites from the perspective of stream naturalisation. Fifth, Shuker et al. (2015) likewise approach stream restoration, but from a hydromorphological perspective. Finally, Booth and Fischenich (2015) similarly address stream restoration through their channel evolution model that focuses on urban sustainability.

Together, these papers contribute towards the development of urban geomorphology from a sustainability perspective of long-term landscape change. Theirs is an integrated approach of human-environment interactions in urban settings. With more human impacts on the natural environment, it is necessary to acknowledge and consider more human-affected landscapes as well unaffected natural landscapes, which are increasingly harder to find. Separating the human-nature signatures in the environment is becoming a challenge; however, such interdisciplinary investigations could make a contribution towards the development of urban geomorphology and sustainable environments.

About the author: Dr Mary Thornbush is an Adjunct Professor within the Department of Geography at Brock University, Canada. Her research interests include: interdisciplinary and applied geomorphology; weather science and landscape change; and geomorphological fieldwork and field-based training.

Special section papers: 

books_icon Thornbush, M. 2015 Geography, urban geomorphology and sustainability. Area. doi: 10.1111/area.12218 (introduction to special section)


books_icon Booth D B and Fischenich C J 2015 A channel evolution model to guide sustainable urban stream restoration Area DOI: 10.1111/area.12180

books_icon Martín-Díaz J, Nofre J, Oliva M and Palma P 2015 Towards an unsustainable urban development in post-war Sarajevo Area DOI: 10.1111/area.12175

books_iconRandall T A and Baetz B W 2015 A GIS-based land-use diversity index model to measure the degree of suburban sprawl Area DOI: 10.1111/area.12182

books_icon Sammonds M J and Vietz G J 2015 Setting stream naturalisation goals to achieve ecosystem improvement in urbanising green-field catchments Area DOI: 10.1111/area.12181

books_icon Shuker J L, Moggridge H L and Gurnell A M 2015 Assessment of hydromorphology following restoration measures in heavily modified rivers: illustrating the potential contribution of the Urban River Survey to Water Framework Directive investigations Area DOI: 10.1111/area.12185

books_icon Thornbush M J 2015 Building health assessed through environmental parameters after the OTS in the city centre of Oxford, UK Area DOI: 10.1111/area.12161


books_icon Hudson P, Goudie A and Asrat A 2015 Human impacts on landscapes: sustainability and the role of geomorphology Zeitschrift für Geomorphologie 59 1–5

Gridlock: GIS in transport planning

By Joseph J. Bailey (@josephjbailey), University of Nottingham, UK.

It is not hyperbole to state that we are witnessing a revolution in the human sciences … fuelled by a stunning advancement in capabilities to capture, store and process data, as well as communicate information and knowledge derived from these data” (Miller and Shaw, 2015; p. 180)

We have all been there, haven’t we? Powerlessly sitting in a vehicle amidst of a sea of pollutants. I am of course referring to the traffic jam. They are often the result of rapid urban expansion around city centres that were simply not designed with such volumes of traffic in mind. It is something that people the world over can relate to. Indeed, Statista (with TomTom data) recently released a graphic that identifies the world’s worst cities for gridlock (also see: IB Times, Forbes). Drivers on a thirty minute commute (with no traffic) in Istanbul, Mexico City, Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Bucharest, and Recife (Brazil) could expect to spend more than 100 hours a year in gridlock; that’s over 4 days a year just sitting in a car stationary in traffic! The sheer volume of waste that traffic causes (fuel, money, time) has hugely negative effects on the environment, economy, and human wellbeing. Environmentally, of course, pollutants are also a significant problem, posing risks to both the natural world and human health.

‘GIS’, or ‘Geographic Information Systems’, is now ubiquitous in geographical research and beyond. It refers to an array of processing and analysis techniques that use spatial data and theory (see the QGIS introduction to GIS online). GIS can be used across an enormous range of research from natural disaster management and monitoring deforestation, to biodiversity science and geomorphology. This post considers GIS in transport planning.

Rgoogin at the English language Wikipedia [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/), GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], from Wikimedia Commons. Available at: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:New_York_City_Gridlock.jpg

New York in Gridlock. Source: Rgoogin at the English language Wikipedia [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/), GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), from Wikimedia Commons. Available here.

Miller and Shaw (2015), writing in Geography Compass, recently discussed GIS-T (GIS for Transportation), providing an update update on their previous work from 2001. The quote at the top of this post says a great deal in itself and, while people referring to data volumes and computing power is so common it is bordering on a cliché, it really is true and we need intelligent systems to make both sense and use of it. The heart of GIS-T projects is identified as a georeferenced transportation database, probably using a spatial network in which locations, nodes (e.g. junctions), distances, and directions can all be represented in a model. With this spatial network in place, mobile objects (e.g. people, vehicles, freight) can then be incorporated and modelled. Terrain (e.g. if somewhere is very steep) and human-imposed features (e.g. congestion zones, toll roads) can also be considered where they may affect traffic flow and peoples’ decisions.

We are now comfortably into the 21st century, and new technologies can help provide information for GIS-T models. Most notably, GPS technology is widely available in most vehicles and on most individual people (via a phone or tablet). Such mobile tech means that “it is now feasible to collect large amounts of data from a wide range of mobile sensors in real-time or near-real-time at high spatial and temporal granularity” (Miller and Shaw, 2015; p. 185). A better understanding of how people move should help with urban planning, in terms of both policy making and infrastructure design, by allowing scenarios of certain decisions (e.g. creation of a congestion zone where people have to pay to drive into the city centre) to be incorporated into the GIS-T models.

GIS is a fantastic geographical analysis and problem-solving tool that needs to be fully harnessed and applied to a range of problems (from traffic management to conservation planning) if we are to cope in our increasingly busy and complicated world. As we have seen here, GIS-T has enormous potential in urban planning, utilising quantities of fine-scale data that we have never had at our disposal before. Hopefully this will be able to make for more efficient and sustainable cities, towards improved environments, economies, and human wellbeing.


books_icon Miller, H. J. and Shaw, S. (2015). Geographic Information Systems for Transportation in the 21st Century. Geography Compass, 9 (4), 180 – 189.

Measuring sustainability across scales

By Joseph J. Bailey (@josephjbailey), University of Nottingham, UK.

Sustainability, meeting present demands without degrading environments in such a way that we jeopardise their ability to meet the needs of future generations, has been a topic of interest for a great many years as the world’s environments are converted and degraded like never before. Here, I briefly discuss an article in Area, on quantifying global sustainability, alongside a recent sustainability assessment of the world’s fifty ‘most prominent cities’.

The recently-published ARCADIS Sustainable Cities Index has attracted much attention in global and national media outlets (e.g. National Geographic, The Telegraph, The Guardian, Gulf Times, and the Australian and US media). In the list of fifty, European cities performed well (the top three being Frankfurt, London, and Copenhagen; Manchester and Birmingham were in the top 20), with the relatively new metropolises of Asia-Pacific (not including Seoul, Hong Kong and Singapore, which did rather well), the Middle-East and Central and South America lagging far behind. The USA’s cities generally fell in the middle of the list. This index combined three sub-indices of ‘sustainability’: social (‘people’), environmental (‘planet’), and economic (‘profit’). Cities’ positions sometimes changed quite a lot between these sub-indices.

Alexandra Park, London Borough of Haringey. Source: unedited from flickr; author: Ewan Munro. Click on the photograph to see the original.

Alexandra Park, London Borough of Haringey. Source: unedited from flickr (original). Author credit: Ewan Munro.

Elsewhere, in Area, Phillips (2015) recently described a “quantitative approach to … global ecological sustainability”, identifying the importance of population density at this national scale. The ten least ‘ecologically sustainable’ countries in this study had very high population densities (these are: the UK, Italy, Belgium, Trinidad & Tobago, Japan, India, Lebanon, Israel, Netherlands, and Singapore). Of these ten that are considered as ‘economically developed’ countries, the combination of high population density, high standard of living, and high GDP are thought to have caused negative environmental impacts that affect people in the present and will affect people into the future. The ‘economically developing’ countries in the list are highlighted as being so because of socio-economic (India) and environmental (Trinidad & Tobago) reasons, and a combination of environment and political instability (Lebanon and Israel).

We therefore see some cross-scale spatial mismatches between these independent studies, whereby countries with purportedly sustainable cities (top 20) have been ranked amongst the least sustainable countries (e.g. UK [London, Manchester, Birmingham], Belgium [Brussels], Netherlands [Amsterdam, Rotterdam], and Singapore). This highlights the importance of spatial scale in sustainability science, and translating this through to planning and management. Indeed, very different approaches will be required between city authorities and national governments to ensure sustainability.

Both of the focal publications in this blog post strive to advance our understanding of ‘sustainability’ by quantifying this concept and its many components, from environmental and ecological, to social and economic. Both studies are global in scope, but the approach, data, and scales of analysis differ, with one focussing on fifty cities and the other on countries. The results, in combination, demonstrate the complexities of sustainability science, especially those regarding geographic scale. They show that quantifying and understanding sustainability across all spatial scales (towns > cities > landscapes > regions > countries > globally) is vital for future planning, targeting of resources, and understanding what we need to do not only for the people of today, but also for the people of the near and distant future.

– – – – –


books_icon Phillips, J. (2015). A quantitative approach to determine and evaluate the indicated level and nature of global ecological sustainability. Area, Early View. DOI: 10.1111/area.12174.

60-world2 ARCADIS (2015). Sustainability Cities Index. Available at: http://www.sustainablecitiesindex.com/.

Badgers and bovine tuberculosis: how geographical research can help

By Joseph Bailey, University of Nottingham, UK.

If I mention bovine tuberculosis (bTB), I imagine that a badger, not a cow, would come to mind for many people. British news has recently reported a push for culling these mammals and calls from others for vaccination, with the intention of curbing the spread of bTB. Some famous faces have also engaged in the anti-culling debate (e.g. see ‘Stop the Cull’). There are strong views on both sides because of the damage that bTB can do to cattle herds and farmers’ livelihoods. All parties, of course, want to see a decrease in bTB cases; it is just the preferred means that differ. Here, I outline the debate and move on to discuss how geographical research can help.

Attribution: By H. Zell (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Attribution: By H. Zell (Own work) [ CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) ], via Wikimedia Commons

First, why are badgers getting all of the press? Badgers, along with a number of other mammals, are capable of contracting bTB and spreading it to cattle, the result of which can be devastating because cows that test positive are compulsorily slaughtered. Badgers, perhaps justifiably (they can and do infect cows with bTB), perhaps not (reported infection rates vary but can be very low), are often referred to as a natural ‘reservoir’ of the disease and there is now a strong association between badgers and bTB in cattle. The Government has approved badger culls in England, whilst the Welsh Assembly has favoured a vaccination programme. .

The BBC recently reported on the decision for future culls in England to not be independently monitored as they have been previously. Naturally, this has been heavily criticised and it is disturbing considering the outcome of last year’s pilot culls. However, to many, culling generally seems to not be a sensible or sustainable solution, not least because of the high uncertainty surrounding badger numbers and the associated need for highly costly surveys to decrease this uncertainty and reduce the risk of causing local extinctions, costs which potentially make the whole process financially impracticable (Donnelly & Woodroffe, 2012). Most importantly, such local extinctions would be a tremendous natural loss to an area.

Culls in England were criticised by a Welsh Minister earlier this year who referred to ‘promising’ results from the vaccination efforts in Wales. It has been shown that only a minority (even with varying figures) of badgers actually carry bTB (see The Wildlife Trusts infographic and references therein), meaning that many uninfected, healthy badgers are likely to be killed during a cull. Unlike with vaccinations, culling can also cause badger populations to spread unpredictably (known as perturbation), making control of any infected badgers not killed during the cull more difficult, thus potentially increasing the likelihood of the disease spreading.

Nationally, the Wildlife Trusts are leading the way with badger vaccination efforts and no Wildlife Trust allows culling on its land. Given that badgers live for 3–5 years, it is estimated that herd immunity could be achieved within 5 years (see bottom) as infected animals die over time and the proportion of vaccinated animals increases. How to target vaccination efforts, though? This is where geographers can help.

A recent article in Area (Etherington et al., 2014) recognises the importance of landscape isolation and connectivity, alongside data on badger presence and abundance, in mapping the spatial variation in bTB. Such knowledge is potentially very valuable for bTB management strategies. Indeed, understanding badgers’ local or landscape scale population dynamics and their isolation or connectivity within that broader landscape could allow for more effective vaccine distribution within an area surrounding a farm, for example. Namely, if a population is likely to be connected to certain other populations and a certain farm, it follows that these populations should be vaccinated in parallel. That is of course a simplification of reality, but an enhanced understanding of such dynamics will hopefully be able to contribute to bTB management.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that bTB in badgers represents a small, albeit significant, part of the overall bTB crisis. Overall, it seems to me that targeted vaccination of badger populations in combination with enhanced biosecurity (I have not discussed this here but it is a significant part of the solution; e.g. ‘badger proofing’), is clearly a superior solution to culling when it comes to achieving long-term reductions in bTB. Such an approach also ensures the survival and welfare of the badgers that so many people deeply care about.

(For another Geography Directions blog post on bovine tuberculosis, see ‘Badgers, borderlands and security‘ (by Helen Pallett), which discusses the inherent complexities of disease in nature.)


books_icon Donnelly, C. A. & Woodroffe, R. (2012). Epidemiology: Reduce uncertainty in UK badger culling. Nature 485, p. 582.

books_icon Etherington, T. R., Trewby, I. D., Wilson, G. J. & McDonald, R. A. (2014). Expert opinion-based relative landscape isolation maps for badgers across England and WalesArea 46, 50-58.

The $250,000 burger: towards a new moral economy of meat-eating?

Image credit: macieklew

No cows were harmed in the making of this post
Image credit: macieklew

By Helen Pallett

On Monday afternoon at a West London press conference, reporters witnessed a world first: the eating of a pioneering laboratory-grown hamburger. The carefully orchestrated spectacle also reached a further audience worldwide, as this pricey mid-afternoon snack was streamed live onto thousands of PCs, whilst others joined in the conversation on twitter with the hashtag #culturedbeef. Media reporting on this event has been quick to point out the potential of this emerging technology to alleviate pressing food security and distribution problems, and to reduce the environmental impacts of meat production. The arrival of the new burger has also been celebrated by animal rights advocates, such as the philosopher Peter Singer and the activist group PETA, as opening up a new market of cruelty-free meet.

The event has raised challenging questions which have stimulated wide-ranging debates across the traditional media and new media. Are there any meaningful differences between this stem cell burger and ‘natural’ meat? How do we know that it is safe to eat? What stance should vegetarians take? Can a lab-based food source prove to be a sustainable alternative to other low carbon, low impact diets based on low meat intake and local or organic food? And of course, does it taste any good?

The press conference focused on demonstrating the safety of the new product, but also brought together a group of food writers and journalists to attest to the meat-like taste and texture of the burger. What was not under the microscope were some of the broader moral and economic questions, covering scales beyond the object of this solitary burger, spanning temporalities beyond the specific event, and concerning the whole of the production chain. In a 2009 paper, Peter Jackson and colleagues used the term ‘moral economy’ to describe how ethical and moral concerns were expressed across time and space, and in relation to the diverse practices and processes involved in the production of different food products. Whilst Jackson’s paper was concerned with the morals and markets of the supply chains of chicken and sugar, their framework also helps to shed light on the moral economy of this newest of products.

The answers to questions such as ‘how different is this new meat?’ and ‘is it suitable for vegetarians?’ depend not only on which ethical frameworks we use but also where we choose to look, through space and time. The in vitro burger is made up of muscle tissue, the substance which would also account for the majority of any normal beef burger that you could pick up in the local supermarket. The scientists have also been careful to reassure potential consumers that there have been no ‘unnatural’ chemicals added to the burger. In this sense then, perhaps there is no meaningful difference between the two kinds of beef. But the processes that went into making the new burger, do set it apart, and this is why it is possible to claim vast environmental benefits of in vitro meat. A small amount of muscle cells are harvested from a living cow and are then nurtured in the lab so that they grow and multiply. This process takes around 3 months, much shorter than the life of the average cow when it enters the slaughterhouse. The carefully controlled laboratory process also means that there is no fat in the meat to give it flavour, so this instead came from the use of ‘natural’ flavourings such as beet.

On the question of the response of vegetarians, the the texture and taste of the burger itself has been likened to the meat substitute quorn. When we broaden our gaze to the production processes as well, the burger has been welcomed as cruelty-free (and therefore implicitly vegetarian friendly) meat by many advocates as it requires the painless removal of muscle cells rather than the slaughter of a cow. However, when the micro-scale laboratory processes which go into the production of the meat are also brought into the frame the use of calf serum – a slaughterhouse product – to nurture the stem cells comes into view.

Another aspect of the moral economy of the new burger which has been relatively unexplored in the media coverage is its situation in broader economic and market structures. The making of the in vitro burger was bank-rolled by the much-criticised Google co-founder Sergey Brin, citing animal welfare concerns but also with interests in the market potential of this emerging product. In the liberalised and globalised modern food industry does this product bring into being new moral economies or will it simply be moulded by existing ones?

books_icon Peter Jackson, Neil Ward & Polly Russell, 2009, Moral economies of food and geographies of responsibilityTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers 34 12-24

60-world2 The world’s first cruelty-free burger The Guardian, 5 August 2013

60-world2 First hamburger made from lab-grown meat to be served at press-conference The Guardian, 5 August 2013

60-world2 Google’s Sergey Brin bankrolled world’s first synthetic beef hamburger The Guardian, 5 August 2013

60-world2 World’s first synthetic hamburger gets full marks for ‘mouth feel’ The Guardian, 5 August 2013

60-world2 Synthetic meat: is it ‘natural’ food? The Guardian, 6 August 2013

60-world2 Lab-grown burgers cannot provide a secure future for Africa The Guardian, 6 August 2013

60-world2 PETA: Lab meat to provide methadone for meat eaters ITV News, 5 August 2013

60-world2 What is Cultured Beef? Maastricht University, accessed 5 August 2013

60-world2 Test-Tube Burger: Lab-Cultured Meat Passes Taste Test (Sort of) Scientific American, 5 August 2013

Consumption, Behaviour Change and Sustainability

Taken by John O'Neill: View from lookout hill of Japanese Gardens, Cowra, NSW, Australia.  This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.Jen Dickie

On Tuesday, the House of Commons International Development Committee published a report on global food security.  Issues around the changes in the supply and demand of food at a local and global scale are discussed and calls for food wastage to be reduced, nutrition programmes expanded and a revision of agriculturally derived biofuels are some of the recommendations made.  However, in The Guardian yesterday, Fiona Harvey focussed on a more specific warning from the MPs’ report, stating that the British public “should eat meat less often, in order to help ease the food crises in the developing world”.  Although only one of many factors contributing to the global food crises, the MPs’ suggest that by cutting down meat consumption, pressures on agricultural land will ease, deforestation and obesity will be reduced and recent food price inflation will stabilise.  The report emphasises that this is not just a national issue but a global one, highlighting that China has doubled its average meat consumption per person per year from 20kg in 1985 to 50kg today; whilst high, this consumption level is still shadowed by the UK, who averaged at 85.8kg in 2007.  However, the report recognises that simply “urging the Western world to stop consuming meat is neither feasible nor desirable”, and instead suggests a campaign for behavioural change is needed where we see meat as an “occasional product rather than an everyday staple”.    

The timing of the International Development Committee’s report is of particular relevance as it was UNEP’s ‘World Environment Day’ on Wednesday.  The theme for this year’s celebrations is Think.Eat.Save, an anti-food waste campaign that encourages you to become more aware of your food choices and the environmental impacts they may have.  Sustainable consumption is described by UNEP as being about ‘doing more and better with less’, not just in terms of food, but for all renewable and non-renewable resources.  

Whilst food consumption behaviours are the main focus of these activities, Meryl Pearce et al. report on the consumption and conservation behaviours of water in three parts of Australia in an article for The Geographical Journal.  They compared householders stated water use with their actual consumption and found that high water users knew that they were high consumers of water, and that location, household size and annual household income were good predictive factors for high per capita water use.  Interestingly, their study also found that having a healthy garden was seen as a “symbol of economic status in the neighbourhood”, and therefore more important than conserving water.  Pearce et al. suggest that successful behavioural change campaigns need to offer “alternatives that do not lead to any loss in social welfare or status” and that by promoting the growing prestige associated with sustainable living consumption behaviour could change for the better.             

books_icon Meryl Pearce, Eileen Willis, Loreen Mamerow, Bradley Jorgensen, John Martin, 2013, The prestige of sustainable living: implications for water use in Australia, The Geographical Journal, DOI: 10.1111/geoj.12016

60-world2 Eat less meat for greater food security, British population urged, The Guardian, 4th June 2013

60-world2 Global Food Security: First Report of Session 2013–14, House of Commons International Development Committee, accessed 4th June 2013

60-world2 United Nations Environment Programme, Think.Eat.Save.  World Environment Day, accessed 5th June 2013