Confusion Among the Star Struck - Inbred Reality - We are Being Robbed of our Identity and Purpose
1. VEGA, atop the Summer Triangle of 3 prominent stars in the southern sky (the others being Altair and Deneb) is now a major ornament in the firmament (when it is not lost in clouds of one sort of another, one of which would be light pollution). For mariners and explorers VEGA is a guiding light; for astronomers it is to replace the North Star in zillions of years. For ordinary citizens VEGA stands for enlightment on matters of farming, food, health, and the environment and the wellbeing of “all things bright and beautiful,” as well as those ugly, withered, and aged.
2. When the Vegetarian Society disbanded and ousted its loyal voluntary bands of helpers doing Research and Campaigning work it lost 50 or so years of valuable, useful, and successful experience, and it blundered into professional darkness. Many of the original teams resiled from scratch in new forms, needing new names and publications. The original Vegetarian Nutrition and Research Centre (VNRC) distinguished itself soon after the end of WW2 and, in recognition of its main purposes, by founding the scientific journal Plant Foods for Human Nutrition and, in the 1960s it was subsumed into a conglomeration of organizations under the banner of the Vegetarian Society UK Ltd, whose journal (which at one time flourished as a campaigning newspaper named the Vegetarian) continued as an advertising magazine.
3. During this time and changes of editors the British Vegetarian (BV) was for a while an old-fashioned publication of the parish magazine-style. A description by an expert of breast-feeding aroused the liveliest reaction the BV ever achieved, surpassing even the outrage when an article was printed on ritual slaughter when the editor’s critical faculties were asleep. Reformers called for a revamp and toyed with new names, of which those in the Alive, Awake, Alert group attracted attention, but some suppressed that dominant V for Victory (and “setting Europe alight” with those memorable notes that Beethoven had written and decorated the international morse code with). The volunteers of the Publicity and Research Section toyed with many names and slogans. Live and Let Live went better, we thought, in the altruistic version as Let Live and Live, and it was widely translated into various languages. All the hope and vitality in the sprouting symbol exemplified the spirit in the campaigners, who began sketching designs of what seemed at first sight a simple task. Not so; some seedlings were spindly and weak, others were of muscular tree-trunk girth. Dictionaries were scanned for V-words: Viva with 2 vs caught on for a while, but that attempt expired when Vauxhall produced a car of that name which was long in pretensions, but short on finesse.
4. Our Real Bread Campaign CAMREB, launched in 1976 as an offshoot of our Green Plan for Farming, Food, Health, and the Land, with strong links in matters of rural environments, animal welfare, and European agricultural policies, was and is a sequel to the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). The order of appearance of these campaigns was noteworthy; nonetheless, Real Milk, and Real Meat, and Real Food escaped similar attention, and definition of the word Real was left in a we-know-what-we-mean state. CAMREB was at least stimulating and exemplified many initiatives taken during WW2 (and some in WW1) on the national loaf and the Agriculture Acts of the mid 1940s, emphasizing food security in war-torn Europe and the beginnings of the CAP. The UK had further responsibilities in territories overseas and in collaborations with research institutes in other countries. In those days food security had all the modern meanings, which included threats of disease, pestilence, and terrorism. Battlefields, just as much as playing fields, might not be level and land (and seas) could be polluted or subject to droughts and flooding. Plant breeding and bakery, as well as nutrition and sociology, were important factors.
5. Churchill’s choice of words after the escape out of Europe through Dunkirk roused resistance movements to organize and set the continent alight for the D-Day return it might have sounded alarming to many European agriculturalists in a scorched-earth context in countries wearied under thraldom and littered with the polluting remnants of modern war. Nearly every year such residues are brought to the surface with the plowing and harvesting. Visions of scorched earth, barrenness, and starvation glimmered dimly as the liberation of Europe and its cultivations and granaries were opened up after 1945.
6. We have been advancing our CAMREB all the years since the launch and incorporating earlier experience. The Sunday Times appropriated the campaign for a most exciting year of recipes, bread-making, and enterprise, eventuating in a book to which the Caroline Walker Trust awarded the Campaign one of its top prizes. As the range of crops and flours advanced year-by-year, corollaries flourished in fibre-righting, glycemic index, the value of land and set aside, and finally the inclusion of much of this research in a Portfolio of Eating Plans, launched at a Nutrition Society Conference a few years ago and being overhauled and extended at the present time (see our website: http://www.vegaresearch.org/recipes.php) Our local “corner shop”, a grocery, now sells a wide variety of traditional British, Indian, Italian, and Eastern European cereal-derived products, copious with information on labels, and now up for reassessment for their fortification (or mass medication) with B-vitamins.
7. The scope of CAMREB has extended to a wide range of matters within the purview of our Green Plans: the genetics, conditions of cultivations, means (or none) of fermentations, and the operations of subsidies and environmental factors, such as set aside, building regulations and allocations of space and facilities for leisure, for instance. Moreover, the UK is only a minor player in the world trade in cereals and in changes of demand and increasing human (and therefore of livestock) populations. Since 1976, when we were launching CAMREB with Green Planning, our interests have paralleled research and developments in other northern European countries, which open up fundamental questions (some common to the brewing industries) of choice of cereals and starchy foods and the prevalence of dietary aversions or allergies. Plant breeding, including GM, and the engineering of harvesting and milling machinery might bring oats, barley, and rye, for instance to the fore, with nutritional and other advantages over wheat. Overall, there are the price of land, density of populations, and dependence on exports, imports, and transhipments and susceptibility to climate change to consider, as well as nutritional aspects going beyond protein-calorie essentials in gut-fill to micro-nutrients at trace amounts, but nonetheless significant. Exotics, such as quinoa and amaranth began to take their place, if at first only as game cover.
8. At the moment British farmers are doing well as demand and competition for biofuels increase, with the corollaries in the price of land and currency effects (the subsidies being paid in euro’s in September/October, if delays made in some rural payments are avoided this year). In global terms the attractions of biofuels and crops used for non-fuel purposes include sugar cane and beet, maize, rapeseed and soya, the last presenting powerful environmental challenges; nitrogen fixation and the C4 and C3 biochemical classifications of these crops count in the purposes to which they will be put and in the effects of climate change. British farmers, particularly those opting out of dairying, will be tempted to keep land in production in arable while set aside (which severely restricts building and other applications) limits developments for non-food purposes, such as leisure (which as sports grounds and courses makes hefty demands for water and use of “agrochemicals”). And, while cereal-growing persists the gap between milling and feed-wheats is likely to narrow. Grow food, not feed remains after all these years a prudent aim to set.
9. The organic movement, notably the Soil Association, shares common concerns with VEGA in practices in agriculture and sources and uses of feeds, and “agrochemicals”. We appreciate the exchanges of information and outlook, without necessarily being in agreement. A feature of the launch of CAMREB was the ASSALT course, singling out a chronic anxiety over the high salt content in British diets, which was evident as we assessed issues in our Dayplans with menus and nutritional information. These were forerunners of our Portfolio of eating plans, with an improved version of the Dayplans, now incorporating the developments in the Food Standards Agency (FSA) over intakes of salt. In 1976 we focussed on Marmite soldiers to challenge what we reckoned were excessive salt contents in the bread, yeast extract, and fat. We can claim some success in our persuasions, now reinforced by other agencies (such as the FSA). In our opinion the public would be better served by adding sodium/potassium ratios on labelling, and retailers should be promoting sales of salt/potassium chloride ingredients and condiments and low-sodium yeast extracts, which are now available, but only in certain health food stores. Development at an early age of salty food and drink is an untoward dietary taste to stimulate in youngsters. We seek reinforcement from other organizations for our ASSALT course and further manifestations of its purpose.
10. In another example of CAMREB activity, we trawled through many microbiological samples collected by medical officers who had served in oversea theatres of war. The specimens were intended primarily for fermentations yielding antibiotic substances (eg penicillins; streptomycins etc). (Some serratia organisms turned up: they were red and pathogenic, but were thought to be the causes of the blood-on-the-bread stigmata. However, the haul brought in some ferments of great industrial importance and we assembled a corps of Britain’s experts on making sourdo bread, with acknowledgments to some poetry from the Yukon. There are other ways of making vinegary bread, but – as with ginger beer – nicer fermentations could be achieved with patience and guidance from food producers in northern Europe. In particular, various rye breads could be improved by using mixtures with wheat to improve the rise. Examples are available now on the shelves of most supermarkets (where atta flours for making “real” Indian flat breads at home can also be bought, we are pleased to add). Multigrain breads seemed to be desirable developments and muesli mixtures played the variations that could be made out of the Oslo breakfast and Swiss muesli:
11. We had the hope that sourdo fermentations might generate the vitamin-of-the-year, B12, possibly by a subsidiary bacterial action. No luck there: more vitamin B12 arose in those days from rat hairs and droppings, probably from some contributions from free range and wild birds and the farm cat, these being traditional inhabitants and visitors of granaries. Supervision by supermarkets and the major farmers and millers has put an end to these traditional sources of vitamin B12, more caution is observed on storage of grains, although with some nutritive loss, which takes consumers into the realms of fortification of “refined” flours with folic acid (another B-vitamin). (Some of the crops held in reserve for famine relief might actually be fitter for purpose from some adventitious “contamination”).
12. As a registered charity VEGA and its “products” (i.e. research, training, and campaigning) assert an independence from commercial alliances, although information is offered freely to all comers. Adherence to the Charity Commission’s stipulations entails tasks that once would be undertaken by volunteers, but now require payment. It is a highly competitive area for recruiting potential Trustees, and Treasurers. The present Research Advisor and Trustees have been real veggies (vegans) for many years. The stream of donations has nearly dried up and the cost of conferences and ancillary help bear heavily on strained resources and financial recession. In consideration of our work with the FSA and MHS (Meat Hygiene Service, which is responsible for the “welfare” of animals being killed for their meat and in massacres in preventative culls in times of crisis) the Veterinary Public Health Laboratory Association (VPHA) has offered our Research Advisor and a founder-member of the Vegetarian Nutrition Research Centre (which formed at the end of WW2) honorary membership. The VPHA’s scientific meetings, some held at weekends, are excellent value for our purposes, although both parties recognize at the moment differing final aims. Other NGOs and government-appointed bodies offer opportunities for brief debate (although the chairpersons generally try to restrict contributions to no more than brief Q and A sessions).
13. Membership of Hilary Benn’s new Council of Food Policy Advisors, chaired by Dame Suzi Leather, on Food Security seemed a likely forum for discussion and sharing of views where we could contribute usefully and perhaps enjoy and exemplify the benefits of our experience, with the bonus of the occasional appropriate lunch; however, that application was quickly turned down. Unfortunately, we are unfairly marginalized, although we have been working in the true spirit of national benefit. We are already accepting invitations to attend the Westminster Food and Nutrition Forum’s forthcoming meeting on Food Security, which clashes with the agm and debate at the Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC). We nearly always send a representative to meetings of the Associated Parliamentary Food and Health Forum, at which there is some overlap (unnecessary in our view). These don’t cost much in money but time has to be reckoned with in the accounting for cost. Similarly, Chatham House is inviting us, as paying participants, to a 2-day meeting later in the year. The FAWC’s meeting, held and catered for at the headquarters of the Mothers’ Union, offers us welfarists a free lunch in the best spirit of the example by the agricultural minister and expounded by other participants and experts. We have had to withhold further membership fees to sustain because it lacks the forthright action and example that are required at this time. In our assessments of good citizenship, we cannot respect any advocates of food security who failed to recognize the BSE crisis with a boycott heeding authoritative advice to “cut down on meat and dairy”, in which many others have appeared as ridiculous as John Gummer, MP, who is still in circulation in Westminster Village as an agricultural advisor.
14. It is therefore imperative for us to scotch any association with a Real Bread Campaign that has not had the courtesy of introducing itself and offering positive signs of reinforcement of common altruistic aims. Dame Suzi Leather is head of the Charity Commission and we hope that she will ease resolution of the present avoidable confusion. There is now a Real Meat Company, which sells meat to its own standards and independent veterinary supervision. In these respects it probably surpasses the stipulations of other animal welfare organizations, and it is commendably open in its discussion of its practices.
15. We also wish to make clear our concern at adopting the word VEGA by a firm selling dietary supplements and another selling a machine claiming to detect allergies. The Vegetarian Economy and Green Agriculture organization (that’s us) directs medical and nutritional advice and policies to people’s own attested and chartered professionals, on whose guidance it offers its own objective outlook. Our efforts at resolving this confusion, which could be serious in terms of human welfare, was met, after the word was introduction without consultation on our prior usage, with rejection and referral to a lawyer. We can’t afford such diversions.
16. The word and response to our complaint was similar when we alerted an educational Trust: they chose to use the word abbreviation in their title. They have strong backing from the Royal Society and their views on scientific matters and teaching in schools might generate unwanted bias, especially as VEGA is involved in the religious debates over school meals and faith schools and with teaching on evolution. We are involved in many matters more pressing than proceedings with solicitors, and we must hope that users of the name VEGA will check on websites or other sources of information the commercial or other involvements they have; or enquiries can be addressed to the Charity Commissioners. Scientific worthies are being forced increasingly to exercise of precautionary principles and reluctance to disclose their own disciplines (and the advice they give their families). This action was notable in the BSE Inquiry, which was demonstrated impressively and should inform actions in succeeding epidemics of food-borne diseases.