Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Will the food run out

Food prices are seemingly in the news constantly at the moment. So here is an article i wrote for the New Statesman in January.

THE weekly shop and the morning loaf of bread are becoming more expensive, but while most of us may barely have noticed, rising food prices are hitting the world's developing nations hard.

Global reserves of cereals are at an all-time low, mounting food costs have sparked riots in Mexico and there are hunger warnings across sub-Saharan Africa. A seldom-mentioned casualty of the price surge, though, has been the aid agencies, which are struggling to buy in food aid. With prices predicted to remain high, they are increasingly seeking new ways to feed the world's hungry.

The boom in global food prices, in part driven by demand for biofuels, is stretching resources at the UN's World Food Programme (WFP). Over the past five years, the agency's food procurement bill has rocketed by 50 per cent, according to Robin Lodge, spokesman for the organisation.

"There has been a cost increase across the board in major grains and pulses, such as maize, wheat and rice," he says. The escalating price of grains, described as agri-inflation among economists, has been rapid. The price of wheat, for example, doubled in 2007.

Paul Horsnell, head of commodities research at Barclays Capital, blames increased use of land for biofuels, reduced supply and an insatiable demand for food and animal feed from the world's emerging markets. "Biofuels, China and some poor harvests have been a recipe for a very sharp rise in grain prices," he says.

The WFP's finances are further hit by record oil prices. This impacts on grain prices by pushing up the cost of fertiliser and also adding to the agency's food-aid distribution expenses.

"Transport costs have soared over the past few years, adding enormously to our costs; also the rates shipping companies charge have increased. We are being hit all round," says Lodge.

The WFP's problems are unlikely to diminish since, in the long term, global warming will push up food prices, predicts John Ingram of Global Environmental Change and Food Systems, an organisation which monitors environmental change and food security. "Climate change is going to make things more difficult," he says.

The influences of climate change are already evident; as the US and Europe search for alternative carbon-neutral energy sources, land is diverted from food to fuel crops. "It's not rocket science to say that if you take land out of food production, the price of food will go up," says Ingram.

Another impact of global warming on the cost of food is the projected increase in extreme weather events, such as Australia's continuing drought and the serious floods of 2007 across Africa. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that by 2100 we will experience heavier rainstorms, causing soil erosion and crop damage; droughts producing lower crop yields; and widespread soil salination from rising sea levels.

Responding to the growing crisis, Jacques Diouf, director general of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation, is demanding urgent steps to boost crop production. The UN agency is also seeking to address the problem from the other direction - by seeking means to prevent shortages, rather than simply managing them. "We look at ways of mitigation," says Lodge. "We are trying to increase farmers' yields by providing a ready market."

Handing out vouchers or small amounts of cash to stimulate local trade, rather than shipping in and distributing food aid, is one method increasingly used by the WFP. It has also started to buy directly from farmers, creating a stable market price that encourages production.

"World commodity prices are high, but this is not reflected at the farm gates. By being on the spot, we can guarantee a price," explains Lodge.

Nonetheless, the WFP is warning governments that if official development assistance doesn't keep up with rising food prices, the agency will be unable to maintain current levels.

"The bottom line is that if the donations remain static, we cannot feed all the people we are feeding at the moment. And unless donations go up, we may have to cut programmes," says Lodge.

Thursday, 20 December 2007

Review: control

Drugs and drink didn’t kill Ian Curtis. It was guilt. That is the implication from Anton Corbijn’s new film about the Joy Division front man.

For Curtis, born in Maccasfield in the late 50s, Joy Division was a tool to express his loneliness and depression, allowing him to pursue his fascination with self-abrogation in the most dramatic of ways when he committed suicide at the height of his, and the band’s fame in 1980.

For people who have never heard of Joy Division, simply by listening to Curtis’ dark, broody and isolationist lyrics in Love Will Tear Us Apart – the most famous song in the band’s two album repertoire – will explain the man’s cult following for generations of lost romantics.

Control is a depressingly grave biopic of Curtis. It is a cheerless arresting 2 hours, portraying a troubled genius, whose deep baritone voice reverberates in the film’s ample performance scenes and which underscores the feeling of impeding tragedy from the very start.

For Joy Division fans, Sam Riley (24 Hour Party People) as Ian Curtis won’t be up to the job, but the superb performance of Samantha Morton (Elizabeth: The Golden Age) as his homely and naïve wife, Deborah, will go some way to make up for the disappointment.

In Deborah Curtis’ book, Touching From A Distance written before the film came out, she hints the singer always harboured desires to commit suicide. And this is skilfully evident with Matt Greenhalgh's screenplay which occasionally inter-splices images of the couple’s drying rack - the eventual modus operandi of his death.

Despite the film’s annihilist nature, there are points of humour, injecting relief; particularly when the charismatic Manchester impresario Tony Wilson signs a contract with Joy Division in his own blood. This amusing nod to history, backed by the scene of the Sex Pistols’ legendary gig at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall, will go down well with die-hard fans.

Control is Corbijn’s first feature film, and its stylish finish is clearly due in part to his background directing music videos for U2, Nirvana and alike, as well as his work as an acclaimed black and white photographer of musicians which has spaned three decades.

In Control’s case filming in black and white was perhaps the obvious choice for Corbijn, considering the sad nature of the movie. But at times colour, particularly with the rare landscapes, or for a flavour of Deborah’s floral dresses would have been appreciated.

The film, possibly overly sympathetic to Curtis, avoids pandering too much however, and is a gripping interpretation of his sorry and romantic life. One that will be watched by Joy Division’s fans and new-comers alike; who will all tap their fingers lachrymosely to its fantastic score, from start to finish.

UK: MP's facebook closed down

Steve Webb, Lib Dem MP, had his facebook account closed because the social networking site thought it was a fraud.

His profile with 2500 friends was deemed a fake and only reinstated after he contacted the host and a group - Steve Webb is real - was set up.

Read Odds and Sods
Steve Webb’s website


Tuesday, 18 December 2007

US: States reject - safe-sex is no sex

Sex education relying on preaching the virtues of abstinence is being shunned by states, amid growing realisation that it doesn’t work.

The news from the Washington Post proves the US isn’t falling headlong into Christian fundamentalism quite as quickly as sections of the Euro press would have us believe.


Thursday, 6 December 2007

Review: Cloud Nine

Watching Cloud Nine I was reminded about what Noam Chomsky said about nonsense, he called it “colourless green ideas sleep furiously”.

By using this set of incomprehensible words, the great linguist was trying to show how language can be grammatically correct but meaningless.

Nonsense, is in fact, an established genre of writing. It deliberately fuses order and chaos to present a confusing world that is humorous precisely because it appears to make no sense. Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is a prime example, as is Dr Seuss and countless other pieces of children’s literature.

Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine certainly isn’t for children but it is nonsense all the same. The play’s two acts are set in Victorian colonial Africa and 1970s London, between the two periods the actors change roles but the characters remain the same, having aged little over the intervening 100 years.

In act 1, men play women, women play boys and white men play black men. It is a deliberate attempt by Churchill to highlight the constraints of Victorian society through confusion. The result is undeniably funny, but disturbing, especially when the play points a comical finger at the issue of paedophilia.

Churchill has been writing plays since the 1950s but it was Cloud Nine, first performed in 1979 that really established her. She has since gone on to write numerous radio and television plays for the BBC and is now considered one of Britain’s foremost dramatists.

The Almedia’s adaptation of Cloud Nine is well acted, particularly James Fleet (Four Weddings and a Funeral) who plays Clive, a colonial old boy in act 1, and Cathy, a 5-year-old girl in act 2. Joanna Scanlan (Girl with a Pearl Earring) is also as Clive’s mother in law, and then in the later act, his daughter.

As the play canters into act 2 it becomes less confusing and more approachable, adopting a rhythm that eases the audience out of mysterious colonial Africa into the recognisable settings of a London park. This is in part testament to the director, Thea Sharrock - returning from her much applauded direction of Peter Shaffer’s Equus at the Gielgud Theatre. Throughout, she keeps the dialogue tight and the scenes seamless; getting the best out of the difficult cross gender roles that work well in making us question our assumptions on relationships and sex. Even the issue of colonialisation, sitting uneasily among the other themes is provokingly explored.

Good acting, directing and script, why then was Cloud Nine such a let down? Perhaps the set, which is basic, could have been better put together. Or the play itself could have spent more time bedding in the context. Or simply, because it is nonsense.

Cloud Nine, Almeida Theatre, until 8 December.

Sunday, 25 November 2007

Review: Shibboleth by Doris Salcedo

After a string of dull commissions in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, the new Shibboleth by Doris Salcedo is a welcome breath of fresh air.

On first impressions, Shibboleth, which starts as a hairline crack in the floor, does little to fill the vast space of the Turbine Hall like previous pieces such as Holler’s slides or Kapoor’s red PVC Marsyas. But that is just the impression it is meant to give.

Shibboleth is a Hebrew term by origin and means a word or phrase that distinguishes a group of people from another. Salcedo has used the name to highlight the differences between Colombia, where she was born, and the prosperous countries of the west.

Running the length of the Turbine hall, the crack, like a bolt of lightening, splits and widens to become a growing chasm, big enough for children to play in. Walking along it, the installation purposely concentrates the eye on the floor, allowing the viewer to forget the enormity of the space they are in.

Salcedo’s most famous work to date, is a tower of 1550 chairs between two Istanbul buildings for the city’s biennale. The eighth artist to be shown as part of the hall’s Unilever Series she has succeeds where many of her predecessors failed. Producing both a visually interesting and contemplative piece, leaving viewers, as they follow the crack’s 167m path, wondering just how it was made.

Like 1550 Chairs, which was built to draw attention to the anonymity of economic migrants, Shibboleth is also a political piece. By fracturing the hall it symbolises a world divided by racism and colonialisation. The deliberate use of steel mesh inside the fissure adds to the feeling of tension, by seemingly holding the sides of the crack apart, preventing it from healing.

Salcedo is the first artist outside Europe and North America to take on the challenge of filling the immense hall; following the drab aural collage of Nauman’s Raw Materials and the unoriginal plastic boxes of Whitehead’s Embankment, lets hope Salcedo is not the last.

Friday, 16 November 2007

Review: call of the wild

Jack London wrote in White Fang: “One cannot violate the promptings of one's nature without having that nature recoil upon itself.” It is lesson in self-destruction depressingly played out in the short life of Christopher McCandless - the subject of a new Sean Penn film: Into The Wild.

Sean Penn’s fifth film as director doesn’t disappoint but it also doesn’t excite. Taking on the form of a road movie it follows the troubled McCandless, whose naivety and obsession with wilderness leaves a trial of sadness the length and breadth of America.

It is based on the true story of McCandless, who, as a 22-year-old college graduate disturbed by the fake bliss of his parent’s lives, gave away his entire savings to embark on an anonymous life tramping around America.

From start to finish it is filmed in superb cinematography as McCandless - played sympathetically by Emile Hirsh - walks or hitches from the South Dakotan grain fields, through the alien rock formations of Arizona, to the white wilderness of Alaska.

Into The Wild is also a literary film. Penn applies a Byron poem at the start to underscore the grand American landscapes with powerful prose. And with voiceover narration from both McCandless and his sister (Jena Malone), uses Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago, Tolstoy and Thoreau to romanticise McCandless naïve dismay at 1990’s American life.

At one point the cheerless subject quotes directly from Thoreau: “Rather than love, than money, than fairness, give me truth.”

Penn, himself, is renown for playing intense, bitter characters and he has done well to bring this out in Hirsh, whose good looks where always in danger of making the self-obsessed McCandless seem too likable.

With the film focusing almost entirely on McCandless, periphery characters are nonetheless memorable and strong -particularly the reformed drunk Ron Franz, played admirably by Hal Holbrook (Deepthroat in All the President’s Men) who tries to adopt McCandless toward the end of the film.

Yet despite the great acting, innovative camera work and realistic dialogue, the film fails. It is long and slow, rarely changing pace or suggesting to viewers an ending of anything other than the predictable.

In perhaps film’s only light point, McCandless finds out he must wait 12 years for permission to paddle down the Colorado River. It is a scene used to underline the hopelessness of leading a life outside the bureaucratic white picket fence norm of 20th century America. But this is a theme we saw decades before in Easy Rider and Penn has nothing more to add.

Overall, Into the Wild has been received well and it should get the recognition it deserves - that of being a beautiful and poetic film - but we should stop short of labelling the film a masterpiece of American introspection.

Film's official site here.