News Article | February 28, 2017
On Shrove Tuesday, the biggest egg-buying day of the year, UK consumers are being warned that eggs branded as free range have actually been laid by housed hens because of emergency measures to combat the spread of bird flu. All free-range egg boxes will carry a sticker explaining that the box contains “eggs laid by hens temporarily housed in barns for their welfare”. But consumers, who will be stocking up on eggs to make pancakes on Tuesday, will still be charged a premium for free-range eggs. The UK consumes an estimated 52m eggs on Pancake Day, more than double the normal rate. About half the eggs sold in supermarkets are usually free range. On 6 December poultry farmers were ordered to house their flocks to protect the UK from a virulent outbreak of avian flu. The stickers are being introduced because, under EU rules, if hens have been housed for more than 12 weeks they cannot be sold as free range. Andrew Opie, the director of food policy at the British Retail Consortium, said: “What we will start to see is stickers appearing on boxes of eggs to indicate that the hens that have produced those eggs are no longer free range. The likelihood is that all egg boxes will be stickered.” Asked by BBC Radio 4’s Farming Today programme whether prices would fall as a result, he said: “We would hope that customers would recognise that this is a challenge beyond the control of the farmers themselves and will continue to support British free range farmers through this difficult time.” There have been several confirmed outbreaks of the H5N8 strain of avian flu this year, including on farms in Northumberland, Suffolk, Lancashire and Lincolnshire. About 20% of egg producers have flocks in areas classed as a high risk of contagion. From Wednesday, the restrictions will begin to be eased. All farmers in the high-risk areas will be required to continue to house birds. Those outside the area will be allowed to let birds out, but many are expected to continue to house their flocks as a precaution. The H5N8 strain of bird flu poses no risk to humans. The British Free Range Egg Producers Association said birds were not being be kept in battery farm conditions. It said: “While free-range egg farmers would prefer their birds to be outside, they also wouldn’t want to risk the health of their birds. Their sheds have plenty of room for the birds to move around freely and include scratching areas so birds can still display their natural instinctive behaviour. “Farmers have also put in additional stimulants like footballs, cabbages and even Christmas trees to keep the birds happy.” It added eggs “will still taste great and will have been laid by birds who were allowed outside before 6 December, and that will be allowed outside again as soon as it is safe”. Opie said: “We expect more farmers to be bringing hens indoors than might be anticipated from those higher risk areas that have been identified by Defra [the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs]. “That’s a genuine concern from farmers to prevent the virus entering their flocks and destroying their livelihood. We anticipate that all eggs will be stickered for that reason.”
News Article | March 2, 2017
The government's long-delayed 25-year plan for improving nature in England should be published immediately, MPs have said in a letter to the Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom. They asked her to explain why the strategy due in 2016 is still not out. They say it's essential that ministers have agreed and published a clear plan before negotiations on Brexit begin. The government promised in its manifesto that it would leave nature in a better state than it was inherited. The all-encompassing masterplan aims to set out a policy framework for air, freshwater, marine, wildlife, soils, flooding, forests, and even the urban environment. Environment charities which have been briefed on the plan say it is appropriately ambitious in some respects - but they, too, want to see it in black and white. The plan was originally due to be published in summer last year. I understand that the document has been signed off by the Prime Minister but has been delayed for weeks, waiting for the ideal time to publish. The letter of complaint to government has been signed by all the members of the Environment Audit Committee, which involves Conservative, Labour and Green MPs. The Lib Dems told BBC News they supported the demand. Their letter says: "We welcome this important step by the government to take a longer-term approach to protecting our environment. However, we are disappointed by the continuing delays in publication of the framework. "First, the framework (of the plan) was delayed from summer last year to the autumn following the referendum. We are now in March, the framework has still not been published and there is no indication of when it will be." The letter accepts that Defra has been under strain from preparations to leave the EU, on top of budget cuts. But it says: "The Plan should be published and consulted on before Article 50 is triggered, so as to inform the government's negotiating position. "This seems unlikely, raising the prospect of the government entering crucial and time-limited negotiations with the EU without an agreed plan. It is essential that the 25-year plan is not delayed further." Members are particularly concerned about post-Brexit policy on farming, which will have a huge impact on wildlife, water and air pollution, soil loss and flooding. They want assurances that when the UK is no longer under the jurisdiction of the Commission and the European courts, the government will still be able to be held to account if it fails with its environmental promises The government is preparing a separate but related plan for post-Brexit farming. I understand this is also finished and approved but awaiting a "suitable" publication date. Peter Morris from the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust told BBC News: "We're hoping for a legally-binding plan, with milestones for a healthy environment, the money to invest in our natural world, and clear monitoring to make sure it succeeds. This should be backed up with a commitment for a new Environment Act to establish the plan in law." A spokesman for the government told BBC News it would publish both plans as soon as possible. The government wants to leave Nature in a better state: here's three examples of how that can be done. Carbon stores: Peat bogs are good for wildlife and flood prevention - and for storing carbon (they store 10 times as much as England's forests, say the Wildlife Trusts). Yet 80% of the UK's bogs are damaged or lost. On the western edge of Salford, conservationists are cultivating sphagnum moss in polytunnels to re-colonise the devastated landscape. Suffolk hedgerows: Hedges are a rich habitat and a haven for pollinators but over 100,000 km are estimated to have been lost between 1984 and 1990 alone. In Suffolk one farmer, Steve Honeywood, has seen bird numbers treble and species increase from 60 to nearly 90 by measures including pruning just one edge of his hedges each year and leaving two uncut edges for wildlife. He's now planting elm hedges to support the elusive white-letter hairstreak butterfly. Urban wildlife: In South London, locals are working to create green areas along the catchment of the lost River Effra, which was turned into a closed sewer in Victorian times. By smashing up concrete and tarmac they want to extend flood resilience and improve neighbourhoods for people and wildlife. The government wants to extend people's contact with nature.
News Article | October 3, 2016
Once, my family’s kitchen cupboard would have contained dozens of plastic bags. But today – a year after the introduction of England’s 5p plastic bag charge – I count just six (three secondhand ones, given to us by other people, one corner-shop bag and two small bags supplied with meat and fish). England’s plastic bag charge was a long time coming – long after Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales – and critics predicted its exemptions for small stores and paper bags would diminish its effectiveness. A year ago, Andy Cummins, campaigns director of Surfers Against Sewage, predicted that England’s charge would reduce use of plastic bags, but not as effectively as in Scotland, Wales (down 78%) and Northern Ireland (down 81%). In fact, in the first six months of the charge, the number of single-use plastic bags handed out by the seven biggest supermarkets fell by more than 85% from 7.6bn a year in 2014 to 600m. In that period, the levy raised more than £29m for charities and community groups. A study by Cardiff University found that more than nine out of 10 people often or always carry their own bags, up from seven out of 10 before the 5p charge came into effect. Six billion fewer plastic bags in six months: Cummins is happy to be proved half-wrong. “It’s a fantastic success,” he says. “The vast majority have adapted their behaviour without a check in their stride. There will be a phenomenal net benefit for the environment from 6bn fewer bags.” The Marine Conservation Society undertook its annual beach clean in September. Laura Foster, head of pollution, says that volunteers aren’t seeing plastic bags on the beach any more. “There is strong anecdotal evidence to suggest a decline in plastic bags in our marine environment,” she says. Single-use plastic bags may not be being discarded in their previous numbers, but there are reservations about their replacements. Bags for life and, in particular, cotton bags require much more energy – and carbon emissions – to produce. A study by the Environment Agency found a “resource expenditure” of just 2kg of carbon per plastic bag: a paper bag would need to be used seven times to achieve the same per-use expenditure; a cotton bag would need to be used 327 times. Supreme Creations, which claims to be the world’s largest ethical packaging company, reports a 20% increase in sales of its reusable carrier bags since the levy was introduced in England. So, are we now creating reusable bag mountains? My family’s reusable bag stash currently stands at 15, but these include a cotton bag from the Devon town of Modbury, which I picked up in 2007 when I wrote about it being the first place in Europe to ban plastic bags. That has definitely had more than 300 uses, and so have our three large Ikea bags, which I take to the supermarket each week. Surfers Against Sewage, Keep Britain Tidy and the Marine Conservation Society all say that there are no problems with reusable bags being littered on land or sea. “Because people pay for them, they value them and there is no tossing them away,” says Foster. What about the free ones? “Even if you get them for free, you hoard them,” says Cummins. “You need every bag you can get if your shopping is anything like mine.” For analysts such as David Powell of the New Economics Foundation, the unequivocal success of the plastic bag charge shows that the government shouldn’t be afraid of using financial “nudges” in new environmental regulations. Who would imagine that a 5p charge changes human behaviour so decisively? “By far the most interesting thing about the plastic bag charge is just how successful an incredibly small charge can be,” says Powell. “Introduce the right charge in the right way and people respond to it, particularly if there’s such an obvious environmental problem. The government will have to conclude, how can we use this principle for other things?” The Cardiff University survey also reveals that the charge has made people in England more willing to accept regulations to reduce plastic waste, such as a 5p charge on plastic bottles. Plastic bags may have been litter’s poster child, but they amounted to just 2% of beach rubbish. Powell suggests a charge on coffee cups is an obvious next step. “There are massive piles of unrecycled coffee cups everywhere. It’s an obvious problem that people are keen to do something about.” While the plastic-bag charge was about changing consumer behaviour, announcing a charge on coffee cups to apply at a future date would give the industry an incentive to innovate and find alternatives, rather like the sugar tax, which will apply from 2017. Both Keep Britain Tidy and Surfers Against Sewage would like to see the government close the loopholes in England’s current plastic bag charge so that paper bags incur a charge, too, and small shops are no longer exempt (the Association of Convenience Stores wanted to be included in the charging system from the outset). However, a Defra spokesperson says there are currently no plans to extend the regulations. “We walk into meetings with Defra where the position is: ‘The government doesn’t want new regulations.’ Unfortunately, that’s the default position,” says Cummins. He thinks the next example of a win-win regulation that would benefit consumers, industry and the environment is a deposit-return system for drinks bottles. Such systems are used in dozens of European countries from Germany to Croatia, and in Australian and American states, too. Reverse vending machines that give people, say, 20p for their plastic and glass bottles and aluminium cans deliver recycling rates of up to 90%, provide high-grade recyclable materials for industry, and save councils’ doorstep recycling and rubbish bin costs, argues Cummins. If placed on shop floors, they also encourage footfall; it’s not hard to imagine kids collecting bottles and quickly spending their earnings in the shops. “We all know that litter breeds litter,” says Cummins. “If you can take these really visible litter items out of the environment with a successful deposit-return system, it will have a knock-on effect and everyone will treat their environment better.”
News Article | October 1, 2016
Four strawberries, picked an hour earlier, sit on a saucer on the dining-room table of Lindsey Lodge Farm, a 40-acre farm growing fruit and vegetables in Suffolk. It is June and these strawberries are the first of the English season. Andrew Sturgeon, a farmer for 30 years, smiles, certain of the quality. The aroma is heady, the taste is of strawberries as they ought to be, naturally sweet. Sturgeon delivers to 45 stores belonging to the East of England Co-operative, owned by its members. It is independent from the Co-operative Group chain and has more than 200 shops in Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk. Ninety per cent of Sturgeon’s fruit is delivered straight to stores within 36 hours of being picked. They sell at £2.25 a punnet, compared with under £2 elsewhere. “Customers know what they are buying when they ask for our strawberries,” he says. According to a recent YouGov poll, 71% of UK shoppers say that buying local produce is important, yet it makes up only a fraction of the retail efforts of the four major supermarkets – Tesco, Asda, Morrisons and Sainsbury’s, which dominate 75% of the market, providing ever cheaper food to more than 25 million households. In Felixstowe, in a supermarket converted from a Victorian railway station, Roger Grosvenor, the East of England Co-op’s joint chief executive, explains how the locally sourced drive began nine years ago. “I was driving past fields of asparagus on a visit to a farmer near Aldeburgh when it hit me,” he says. “Why are we importing asparagus from Peru, when it’s all here?” Sourced Locally was born. It still makes up only 6% of sales, but £45m has been ploughed back into the local economy, creating more than 400 jobs. Labels on products show images of real farmers and producers; provenance is detailed. The food is “honest”. Thousands of locally sourced products come from more than 100 suppliers, including exotic items: Suffolk chorizo and chilli sauce from Colchester. Sales have risen 15% in the last financial year. “We don’t have contracts, everything is on a handshake,” Sourced Locally manager Kevin Warden says. “When Kevin first came to see me,” Sturgeon recalls, “he said, ‘What price do you want for your strawberries?’ Nobody had asked me that in 20 years supplying fruit. Other retailers say, “This is the price we are prepared to pay and then they announce they want double on a promotion at the end of a season when little is left.” Locally sourced food, like Fair Trade or organic produce, is a small but fast growing market. Its popularity flags up that some consumers want to know more about what they buy and the terms on which those goods are delivered to the shelves of their supermarket –store or farm shop including distance travelled, freshness, animal welfare and pricing. It’s a simple story, but increasingly hard to unearth. The major supermarkets serve 25 million households (and are chafing because their profits have faltered recently as discounters Aldi and Lidl continue to thrive). We customers expect cheap food. But cheap food is often heavily processed, full of sugar and fat that plays its part in the obesity crisis we face; it requires animals permanently indoors, “no grazing” eating grain that produces nutritionally poorer meat; and it means the major chains source their produce from around the world, branding products to keep the memory of the British countryside alive, no matter how many air miles are involved. Cheap food also results in British farmers, bruised by the full force of a competitive global market, being increasingly squeezed by the demands of major suppliers for the perfect product and ever lower prices. At the same time, more and more intensive methods are being devised to extract crops from exhausted soil. These are not the ingredients that ensure sustainable, honest food. “Cheaper food is obviously welcome but there has to be a balance,” says Matthew Rymer, who comes from seven generations of Gloucestershire farmers. “What’s not currently calculated is the hidden cost of what’s on our plates. Too often, major retailers create the price storms that drown the smaller farmers and leave the others floating on subsidies. We are also losing our independent local food processing infrastructure as large retailers and processors contort the food chain and gain more and more retail power.” Sunday, 2 October is the final day of British Food Fortnight (BFF). At the beginning of the year, the government set up a Great British Food Unit to increase exports of food and drink, and announced that this would be the Year of Great British Food. Stinking Bishop cheese and Rutland bitter are among many examples of British food at its best, but they are on offer alongside intensively reared chicken that is three times higher in fat, and a third lower in protein and valuable omega-3 fatty acids, than in the 1970s. Brexit adds urgency to finding solutions that work not just for the supermarkets but for our health, the public purse (it costs the NHS £16bn a year to treat obesity-induced diabetes), the environment, consumers, farmers and the countryside. As BFF founder Alexia Robinson says: “This is a watershed moment for British food. Subsidised and regulated for 40 years by Europe, our farmers will now be competing in a global market place … we need … a robust supply of quality domestic food.” So what’s to be done? The “agri-food” sector in the UK was worth £109bn in 2014, employing one in eight of the national workforce. “Agri-food” includes manufacturing, wholesaling, retailing and catering: only 10% comes from farming. In three years, 1,000 dairy farms have gone, beaten by cheap milk. The income of pig farmers fell by 46% last year and the income of cereal farmers has declined 24%. British farmers receive 60% of their income from EU Common Agricultural Policy payments given, for instance, for improvements to the environment. The government has pledged to continue to pay £3bn a year provided under CAP until 2020, but what then? Until the early 1960s the farmer dictated what was on offer, according to the seasons. Now, while some relationships between retailers and suppliers are long and mutually beneficial, more negative examples are not hard to find. One apple farmer says he was encouraged to grow more and more apples, “then the supermarkets refused to pay what we needed to survive People rightly talk about food waste but we had to destroy apple trees that were five and six years old with plenty of life.”. Another says he supplied green beans to a high-end retailer which were sent more than 100 miles away for packing, ignoring the environmental cost,while a third of the crop would be rejected in the name of perfection, supposedly demanded by the customer but in practice demanded by supermarket buyers. Last year the National Farmers’ Union set up a Fruit and Veg Pledge to encourage supermarkets to treat growers and packers across the UK equally and fairly. The increasingly powerful discounter Aldi was the first to sign, followed by Lidl and this month the Co-op – and so far that’s it. A survey last year of 1,141 suppliers revealed that 70% had at least one problem under the Groceries Supply Code of Practice with the supermarket chains. These included such issues as charging for shelf space, short-term contracts and delaying payments. At the same time, the power of the supermarkets, as well as food processors and big agri-business (companies producing grain, chemicals and hi-tech equipment to try to correct the wrongs imposed by intensive farming), is changing the shape of farming. For instance, “bed and breakfast farms” are growing in number – where a farmer owns the buildings and provides water, straw, machinery etc, and the major producer provides the rest, including livestock, feed and veterinary services. A fee is paid to the farmer for looking after the pig or “finishing” the cow in its last few weeks. Again, the supermarkets are centralising processing and slaughtering systems on an industrial scale. In recent years 75% of abattoirs have closed, replaced, for instance, by Waitrose’s use of a central slaughterhouse at Dovecote Park, Yorkshire. These are changes that are bound to entail a big increase in animals transported long distances at an environmental cost. The RSPCA believes all animals should be slaughtered close to the point of production to minimise stress (which also affects the quality of meat). All the big supermarkets insisted they had good relations with suppliers and strongly supported British produce. “Our aim is to offer customers great quality and value … and we are continuing to do this by working well with our partners,” a Sainsbury’s spokesman said. A spokesperson for Aldi said: “Unlike other retailers, once we have agreed terms with suppliers we do not change them midway through the agreement or ask for additional monies to support better positioning of goods or increased shelf space … Aldi is a privately owned company and therefore not beholden to City shareholders… We do not need to generate the same gross margin as others in the sector to deliver strong and stable profits.” Supermarket clout is one issue: what is being done to our animals to get fatter livestock, ever quicker, is another. Graham Harvey, an agricultural adviser to The Archers, and author of Grass-Fed Nation: Getting Back the Food We Deserve, is an advocate of the grass-fed movement. Animals, many of them ruminant, spend their lives “non-grazing” indoors, fed on grain that would be better used in human diets. Harvey argues that if ruminants returned to grass, instead of grain there would be more than enough food for a global population predicted to reach 8.5 billion by 2030. He says “poor science”, “corporate ruthlessness” and our own lack of interest means that more than half of EU cereals that could provide food for growing populations are fed to animals producing less nutritional meat. This requires intensive crop production, GM crops and chemicals, insecticides, pesticides, plant growth hormones and “agri-tech” to coax exhausted land to produce, all of which leads to water pollution, soil degradation and biodiversity loss. In 2013 the government announced a programme in collaboration with one of the three major global agri-chemical companies, Syngenta, to lift average wheat yield from the current 8 tonnes a hectare to 20 tonnes in two decades. Harvey says: “If we didn’t have such a distorted economy, and agri-business had to pay for the soil degradation and pollution it causes, good food would be cheaper. Supermarkets are not going to change until consumers insist on change. In the meantime, government should be tackling the shareholder power invested in keeping the system that we have.” In June, a respected international thinktank, the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food), said in a major report that two billion people suffer micronutrient deficiencies because food systems produce an abundance of energy-rich but nutrient-poor crops. Olivier de Schutter, co-chair said, “Many of the problems in food systems are linked specifically to the uniformity at the heart of industrial agriculture and its reliance on chemical fertilisers and pesticides.” In the same month, international researchers from Food Research Collaboration, a body connecting academics to civil society, called on EU states to review its food system. Professor Tim Lang, a senior adviser to FRC, said: “Policymakers are either too hesitant or too dazzled by a belief that technology will resolve future food problems. They cannot. Food culture also needs to change.” There is no easy way to make that happen. One tool would be to increase transparency in the food chain by making labels count for more – but that would need customers to read the small print, make choices and pay a little extra. While some logos such as the Soil Association and RSPCA’s Freedom Foods have higher standards, the largest food assurance scheme in the UK, Red Tractor (RT), is staffed and funded by the industry. The label tells you where the food is farmed, processed and packed – but is that enough? In 2012 Sainsbury’s dropped the RT label. Asked why, then chief executive Justin King said: “Red Tractor does not tell the customer anything special about the product … it doesn’t add any value.” Sturgeon in Suffolk disagrees. “Red Tractor has been very effective in raising the standards of both food production and food safety,” he says. RT employs 450 independent inspectors to regulate 50,000 farms. Chief executive David Clarke says very few fail to comply with standards. Asked if consumers should have more precise information on labels, he said: “That may be true of a small subset of shoppers, but generally [customers] are content to know the country of origin.” If “British” is on the label, the implication is that it signals quality and high animal welfare – but is that always the case? Several months ago Viva!, a vegan animal welfare organisation, published a gruelling report into pig farming, the New Big Pig Report. Three pigs are slaughtered every second in the UK. Only 1.5% are organic and live outdoors for their entire lives; 80% of pigs, which are highly intelligent animals, have their tails docked without anaesthetic, the report says. A high percentage of piglets have their teeth clipped so they don’t bite the nipple; 60% of breeding sows give birth in crates in which they cannot turn around, and remain in the crates until the piglets are weaned. All of this is legal. Ninety per cent of British pigs are reared on farms that take part in the RT scheme. In 2015 there were only 35 prosecutions over “welfare on farms”; the vast majority of the convictions involved animals reared outdoors and visible to the public, according to Viva!. Assurance schemes obviously require decent standards of welfare, clear information, rigour in policing and independence. When standards are poor, the Department for the Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (Defra) is responsible for investigating complaints on farms and the Food Standards Agency (FSA) looks at food fraud and mislabelling. Both are much depleted, another cause for concern about what we are swallowing. Defra is said to be suffering cuts of almost 60% and the FSA is finding £22m in savings. In February, checks on hundreds of samples in West Yorkshire revealed more than a third were not what they claimed to be – beef mince adulterated with pork, “ham” made from poultry. West Yorkshire’s public health analyst said at the time: “We are routinely finding problems with more than a third of samples, which is disturbing at a time when the budget … is being cut.” If the odds are increasing that you can’t always believe what you read on the label, how else can credibility be restored to promises of “local”, “farm fresh” and “premium”? Matthew Rymer and his business partner, Clifford Freeman, have launched a campaign, #NametheFarm, to encourage consumers to exercise their power and challenge restaurants, butchers and retailers to be transparent about what’s on offer. (Supermarkets have begun using fictional British farm names to brand produce flown in from all over the world.) Rymer and Freeman breed pedigree Gloucester beef, “grass fed, taken in our transport to a local abattoir all within sight of Gloucester cathedral”. Their new campaign is part of their scheme called Happerley Passports (the name taken from Apperley, their nearest village) designed to establish traceability across the food chain. “Provenance should not be the preserve of the rich,” Rymer says. “Even if it’s a £3.99 battery chicken, why shouldn’t the customer know its story?” The passport is free to farmers and a small levy is charged to restaurants and retailers. By way of a mobile phone or the Happerley website, it gives the life story of a product – in beef, for instance, the breed, age when slaughtered, distance travelled to abattoir, farm of origin, and so on. But do consumers really want such granular detail about the ingredient in their casseroles? “By linking the food on our plates and in packaging back to the farmer we could create the most connected and transparent food industry with huge export potential,” Rymer says. “Brexit gives an opportunity to rewrite the rules. More information for consumers, whether they access it or not, has to mean better scrutiny and improved animal welfare.” It reduces the room for fraud. It also has the potential to put pressure on supermarkets to change some of their methods. The idea of transparency in the food chain to encourage a change in the culture is gaining ground. For instance, the Pasture Fed Livestock Association, five years old, has 250 members, mostly farmers, who sell either direct or via butchers and farm shops. Its livestock is reared only on grass in summer and silage in winter, offering meat that – according to research – is higher in vitamins E and B and beta-carotene. A shopper scans the QR code on the meat’s label or enters the label’s number on the PFLA website to receive detailed information(Defra, however, defines “pasture fed” as 51% fed on grass, which further confuses consumers.) “We are not organic,” says Dr John Medley, chair of the PFLA, “But like the organic sector we raise questions in the minds of consumers about the provenance of their food.” Last month the British Veterinary Association called for mandatory animal welfare labels on meat in an attempt to stamp out cruel practices. Labelling Matters, a campaign set up by Compassion in World Farming and the RSPCA among others, is calling for labels that discard euphemisms in favour, for instance, of “intensive indoor” for pork from pigs that never go outside and “permanently housed” for dairy cows that never graze in fields. The Co-op is funding a 12-week pilot with a social enterprise, Provenance, to see how it can increase transparency on labelling “to provide a digital history so every product tells a story”. Catherine Higgs of the Co-op says labelling has clout: “We are proud to have been the first to label eggs intensively produced, a technically illegal step but which directly led to the law changing to allow eggs to be labelled ‘From caged hens’.” (Tesco plans to end the sale of eggs from caged hens – 1.4bn eggs a year – by 2025.) So where do we go from here? In 2001, following the foot-and-mouth disaster, the government commissioned a report on the future of farming. It concluded: “England’s farming and food industry is unsustainable in every sense of that term. It is serving nobody well. Farming has become detached from the rest of the economy and the environment … the key objective from public policy should be to reconnect farming with its market and the rest of the food chain; to reconnect the food chain with the countryside; and reconnect consumers with what they eat and how it is produced.” It’s food for thought that, 15 years on, none of those reconnections have been realised. How we create a more honest food chain is complicated and contradictory. Food is cheap, but still people in this country go hungry. While “ethical” food including organic and Fair Trade has steadily increased in popularity, in 2015 it made up only 8.5% of the market. Locally sourced produce and pasture-fed livestock widen consumer choice and offer healthier alternatives, but can’t yet meet the scale of supply supermarket chains demand. So, greater education about what constitutes a healthy diet, the learning beginning at school-age plus good information conveyed on labelling, monitored by bodies independent from industry, are vital – as is willingness to exercise our consumer muscle. Three men, Andronicos Sideras, Ulrik Nielsen from Denmark and Alex Ostler-Beech, appeared in court in late September accused of arranging beef and horsemeat to be combined and sold as beef in the UK in 2012 in supermarkets including Tesco and Aldi. It shouldn’t take another horsemeat scandal or outbreak of foot-and-mouth – or report of yet more damage to the environment – to encourage us to restrain the accelerating power of the major supermarkets and put a proper value on provenance.
News Article | February 28, 2017
Millions of UK eggs will temporarily lose their free-range status after hens were forced to spend weeks inside barns as part of emergency bird flu measures. Since December, poultry has had to be kept indoors under government orders to prevent the spread of the disease. Under European Union rules, if birds have been housed for more than 12 weeks they cannot be marketed as free range. Farmers said the eggs would still look, taste and cost the same, despite the temporary re-labelling. They pose no danger to consumers, but bird flu is highly contagious amongst poultry and can wipe out entire flocks. It has been 12 weeks since governments in England, Scotland and Wales ordered poultry keepers to protect their birds from a highly-infectious strain of avian flu in Europe. The emergency measures are now being scaled back, but many farmers are keeping their hens indoors for the birds' protection. To avoid confusion, the industry has decided to label free-range egg cartons with stickers stating the contents were "laid by hens temporarily housed in barns for their welfare". They started appearing on shelves last week, but will be rolled out fully on Wednesday. "The need to change labelling of free-range egg packs after 12 weeks is an EU requirement," said Mark Williams, chief executive of the British Egg Industry Council. "However, these are all still free-range hens, but some are temporarily housed to protect them from bird flu." Mr Williams said: "Our research shows that consumers are supportive of farmers putting birds' health first and 80% are happy to continue to pay the same price, or more, for eggs from free-range flocks temporarily housed inside." There are four different types of eggs sold in the UK, all of which are stamped on the carton: organic, free-range, barn-reared, and caged. Hens laying free-range eggs must have had unlimited daytime access to runs - fenced areas - with vegetation and at least 4 sq m of outside space per bird. After weeks of being kept indoors, farmers would love nothing better than to let their birds back outside. But it's a difficult balancing act. Get it wrong and a farmer could end up having his or her entire flock destroyed. So the British Egg Industry Council (BEIC) has taken the unprecedented step of labelling all commercial boxes of free-range eggs - whether hens are in or out - in order to create a level playing field for all farmers. Farmers say the label is just a technicality in any case as the hens are still free-range, just temporarily housed to protect them from bird flu. They hope consumers will be supportive, given that prices, for now, are staying the same. But it's not an open-ended guarantee and they will all be hoping that things get back to normal by the end of April. The UK has the largest free-range flock in Europe - and farmers are trying hard to help the birds adapt to the new routine, according to BEIC. Some are using footballs, plastic bottles and straw bales to stop the birds - which can normally peck whatever they want outside - from getting bored. The hens also have continuous access to feed and water, and are already used to spending time inside because they go there at night, the BEIC points out. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said the majority of farmers in England could let birds outside provided they follow "strict disease prevention measures". "Producers in the higher risk areas could still market their eggs as free-range, provided they use netting and meet other free-range criteria," a Defra spokesperson said. However, farmers pointed out that the average flock would require eight football pitches worth of netting, making it impractical and costly. The BEIC said "continuing outbreaks of avian influenza across the UK and Europe" meant egg producers and their veterinary advisers remained concerned about the risk. The government is due to review the restrictions again at the end of April, when farmers hope the risk will be lower because many wild birds will have migrated.
News Article | February 16, 2017
The European Commission says the UK has two months to address "persistent breaches" of air pollutants - specifically nitrogen dioxide - after it issued a "final warning". Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) comes from sources including factories and vehicles, particularly diesel engines, and is linked to an increased risk of respiratory problems. Under EU law, when air pollution limits are breached member states must implement air quality plans to bring the levels back down. The commission says the UK failed to address repeated breaches of legal air pollution limits for nitrogen dioxide levels in 16 areas including London, Birmingham, Leeds, Southampton and Glasgow. It says if the UK fails to act within two months, it could take the matter to the European Court of Justice. The UK could face a lump sum fine or a daily penalty payment decided by the court. The commission says more than 400,000 people die prematurely in the EU every year as a result of poor air quality. Germany, France, Spain and Italy were also served with warnings. To date, legal action on NO2 has been taken against 12 member states, the commission says, with ongoing infringement cases against Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Spain and the UK. The commission says air quality standards are being exceeded in 23 out of 28 member states - including more than 130 cities across Europe. It suggests possible measures to lower polluting emissions include reducing overall traffic volumes and switching to electric cars. The commission says reducing emissions from diesel-powered vehicles is an "important step" towards meeting the EU air quality standards. The warning has reignited calls from organisations for a "clean air act" with targets to reduce pollution levels in the UK. Friends of the Earth say an act will be needed to protect the public from air pollution once the UK leaves the EU to "help safeguard existing legal protections". The charity is also calling for: Jenny Bates, Friends of the Earth air pollution campaigner, says road traffic is the biggest problem and diesel vehicles are the "worst of all". Dr Penny Woods, chief executive of the British Lung Foundation, agrees that traffic emissions are "the main culprit", particularly those from diesel. "Scrappage incentive schemes will help drivers to move to cleaner vehicles, without being financially penalised," she said. The government says it is "firmly committed" to improving the UK's air quality and cutting harmful emissions. It says the UK meets the legal limits for "almost all" pollutants. In October, proposals were announced for clean air zones for Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham, Derby and Southampton by 2020. The zones aim to encourage drivers to choose less-polluting electric cars and will also introduce restrictions on older, polluting commercial vehicles. Under the plans, electric cars could be given priority at traffic lights and exempted from one-way systems. They could also be given preferential parking spaces and lower charges. Councils with clean air zones are also expected to restrict access to older buses, coaches, taxis and lorries with emit high levels of gases such as nitrogen dioxide. Birmingham and Leeds also plan to extend restrictions to polluting vans. This could mean a charging zone for commercial vehicles with high levels of emissions, or by introducing stricter licensing requirements for buses and taxis. The clean air zones are the government's response to a UK Supreme Court ruling, which ordered it to take action to meet European limits on air pollution. The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said the government had committed more than £2bn since 2011 to increase the uptake of ultra-low emissions vehicles and support greener transport schemes. "We will update our air quality plans in the spring to further improve the nation's air quality," the spokesperson said.
News Article | March 2, 2017
Fly-tipping is on the rise again, with the number of incidents up for the third year in a row, official figures show. Councils across England reported 936,090 cases of fly-tipping in 2015/2016, up 4% on the previous year, the data from the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) reveals. Local authorities carried out 494,000 enforcement actions to tackle the problem which blights towns and countryside, costing them £16.9m, a reduction of nearly £700,000 on 2014/2015. As the figures were published, campaigners warned financial pressure on local councils had caused some waste collection services to be cut, which people had “taken as a licence to dump their waste illegally”. Around half of the rubbish illegally tipped, which ranges from fridges, tyres and vehicle parts to rubble and black bags of household waste, was dumped on highways. A third of all incidents consisted of a quantity of material equivalent to a “small van load”. The figures do not yet show if new powers for councils to hand out “on-the-spot” fines of up to £400 for fly-tipping incidents, which came into force in May 2016, have helped reduce the problem. A Press Association analysis earlier this year revealed councils had handed out hundreds of thousands of pounds in fines, but more than half of English local authorities had not used the powers. The Defra figures suggest fly-tipping incidents fell from more than 1.28m in 2007/2008 to about 711,500 cases in 2012/2013 before starting to rise again, although the changes may in part be down to the way councils record the data. The Environment Agency dealt with 125 major fly-tipping cases in 2015/2016, including six incidents of illegally dumping asbestos, 11 large-scale tyre dumps and 26 cases of tipping chemical drums, oil or fuel. Samantha Harding, litter programme director at the Campaign to Protect Rural England, said: “Financial pressure on local councils has caused some local collection services to be cut and it seems that people have taken this as a licence to dump their waste illegally. “There needs to be a review of England’s struggling waste management systems, with a new ambitious programme to haul them into the 21st century. “We cannot afford to waste our valuable resources in this way.” Country Land and Business Association (CLA) president Ross Murray said: “These figures do not tell the full story of this disgraceful behaviour which blights our beautiful countryside. “Local authorities tend not to get involved with clearing incidences of fly-tipped waste from private land leaving the landowner to clean up and foot the bill.” CLA members have reported a big increase in fly-tipping, with incidents ranging from unwanted sofas to broken washing machines, building materials and even asbestos dumped in the countryside, he said. The CLA is calling for a zero-tolerance approach by local government to the problem, imposing and enforcing stronger penalties, ensuring powers to issue fixed penalty notices and seize vehicles are used and reducing council fees to legally dispose of waste. Local Government Association environment spokeswoman, Judith Blake, said: “At a time when social care faces a funding gap of at least £2.6bn by 2020 and councils’ overall funding shortfall is predicted to reach £5.8bn within three years, local authorities are having to spend a vast amount each year on tackling litter and fly-tipping. “This is money that would be better spent on vital frontline services. Litter and fly-tipping is environmental vandalism – it’s unpleasant, unnecessary and unacceptable.” She welcomed the government’s move to give councils power to hand out fixed penalty notices for small-scale fly-tipping. Other changes would help with the problem, such as manufacturers providing more take-back services so people can hand in old furniture and mattresses when they buy new ones, she said. A Defra spokesman said: “Fly-tipping blights communities and poses a risk to human health and the environment, which is why we are committed to tackling this anti-social behaviour so everyone can enjoy a cleaner, healthier country. “New powers to issue £400 fixed penalty notices and advances in technology, including mobile phone reporting, have all made it easier for local authorities to clamp down on small-scale fly-tipping which should be welcomed – and 98% of fly-tipping prosecutions resulting in a conviction is a clear warning to anyone involved in serious waste crime.”
News Article | February 20, 2017
The European Commission has told the UK to clean up its air. Levels of nitrogen dioxide – which is linked to heart and lung disease and contributes to the early deaths of 40,000 people a year in the UK – are particularly bad. We’re not the only ones with filthy air; the five most-developed countries in the EU (Germany, France, Italy, Spain and the UK) are all in breach of the recommended limits and have been given two months to take action. Yet gone are the days of epic smogs, such as the great smog of 1952 that enveloped London in a thick fog for four days and killed an estimated 12,000 people. That crisis led to a new awareness of the dangers of air pollution and the need to protect our air with legislation. So surely our health is less at risk now? Yes. Ambient (outdoor air pollution) in cities and rural areas caused three million premature deaths worldwide in 2012 – predominately in low- and middle-income countries. And the World Health Organisation (WHO) is confident that, if we reduce air pollution, it would cut rates of stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, asthma and respiratory disease. Researchers at King’s College London (KCL) have recently confirmed that high levels of toxic air particles from traffic and combustion are associated with an increase in hospitalisations and deaths from heart and lung disease in children and younger adults. But it is a huge task; in 2014, only 8% of the world’s population lived in places where the WHO air quality guidelines were met. The vast majority of us are breathing sub-standard air. Yet change is possible. According to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), between 1970 and 2015, there was a long-term decrease in UK emissions of all air pollutants (ammonia, nitrogen oxides, non-methane volatile organic compounds, particulate matter and sulphur dioxide). Air pollution can be indoor or outdoor. Four key pollutants – particulate matter (PM), ozone, nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide – can cause health risks if limits set by the WHO are exceeded. PM is a mix of solid and liquid particles suspended in the air and it affects more people than any other pollutant. In 2012, there were 37,800 premature deaths in the UK attributed to PM exposure, compared with 14,100 premature deaths from nitrogen dioxide pollution. Size matters; the smaller the particle, the worse it is: “The most health-damaging particles are those with a diameter of 10 microns or less, ( PM10), which can penetrate and lodge deep inside the lungs. Chronic exposure to particles contributes to the risk of developing cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, as well as of lung cancer,” says the WHO. Ozone at ground level – which is different to the ozone layer in the atmosphere – forms when sunlight reacts with air pollutants. So, high ozone levels occur when it is sunny and can trigger asthma attacks and breathing problems in susceptible people. Nitrogen dioxide is a product of combustion (burning fuel for heat, power, engines and ships) and has a negative effect on lung function, especially in children with asthma. Sulphur dioxide is a colourless gas released when sulphur-containing fossil fuels are burned to produce heat and power. High levels cause eye irritation, breathing difficulties and an increase in hospital admissions and mortality among people with heart disease. Indoor air pollution is a major health problem for the 3 billion people globally who use solid fuels such as wood and charcoal in cooking and heating, especially if their homes are poorly ventilated. Wood-burning stoves may expose people to higher levels of PM than if they stood in the middle of a busy roundabout at rush hour. The Daily Air Quality Index (Daqi) provides reliable information about levels of air pollution with recommended actions and health advice. This UK government resource says: “Air pollution has a range of effects on health. However, air pollution in the UK on a day-to-day basis is not expected to rise to levels at which people need to make major changes to their habits to avoid exposure; nobody need fear going outdoors.” Clearly, if your breathing is already compromised by an underlying heart or lung problem (such as angina or asthma), you’re more likely to suffer from the effects; those with asthma may need to increase their use of inhalers on days when levels of air pollution are higher than average. Even the healthy general population may notice symptoms such as a dry throat, sore eyes and a tickly cough when pollution levels are very high, as they were in central London last month. The London Air website gives more specific advice depending on the level of air pollution. When the air pollution banding is rated as very high, the advice to adults and children with lung problems, adults with heart problems and older people is to avoid strenuous physical activity and, for people with asthma, to use their reliever inhaler more often. And the general population is advised to “reduce physical exertion, particularly outdoors, especially if you experience symptoms such as cough or sore throat”. Air pollution has a small but significant impact on pregnancy and the health of babies and young children, according to a report from UCLA. It is not as bad as smoking during pregnancy or near your newborn baby, because the air pollutants are relatively diluted. But developing lungs are more susceptible to the damaging effects of air pollution and further study into the effects on pregnant women and infants are needed, says the report. Yet a stroll outdoors, even in a traffic-heavy zone, is actually going to give a baby more chance of breathing clean air than being in a smoke-filled car or strapped into a high chair next to a poorly ventilated wood-burning stove. However, on days when air pollution is very high, and if your infant has a bad cough or cold, it may be preferable to stay indoors. It is not clear whether cyclists are particularly at risk from pollution. KCL air quality experts have suggested that urban cyclists could be exposed to lower levels of particulates than average; either because their journeys tend to be short or because being on the move outdoors means you are not trapped in smog. A small study of pedestrians in an area of high air pollution in China showed lower blood pressure in mask wearers than non mask wearers, possibly indicating less strain on the heart when exposed to pollution. Masks need to fit snugly and have sub-micron filters to filter out the small particles. The trouble is that masks that are comfortable enough to cycle in are probably not effective.
News Article | February 15, 2017
Tackling the causes of air pollution has been on of the themes of our special focus this week, The Air We Breathe. But in the short term, what about the symptoms? We examined some of the most common solutions to see if the claims they make are anything more than hot air. Despite looking deeply dystopian, surgeons’ masks are an increasingly common sight in cities around the world – and largely pointless, according to Prof Ally Lewis, director of the UK’s National Centre for Atmospheric Science. “Surgical masks are pretty useless because air just leaks in around the side,” Lewis says. As for more sophisticated anti-pollution masks? “Others are designed to be far more airtight and do remove particles, but don’t remove gases. Nitrogen dioxide can pass right through.” What’s more, if the seal is good enough to keep small particles from leaking in, it may also require uncomfortable amounts of energy to suck air through the mask. “You can conceive of extremely elaborate devices that are closer to chemical-weapons gas masks,” says Lewis, “which would filter out gases and particles – it just depends what you’re prepared to do.” His hunch is that you’d make more of an impact by changing your commuting pattern to avoid busy roads at peak times. Cooking can cause massive spikes in indoor air pollution, so “extractor fans are a very good idea,” says Rob MacKenzie, professor of atmospheric science at University of Birmingham, “as long as they’re venting outside – and especially if you have a gas hob, because flames produce nitrogen dioxide.” These come in all sizes – from take-out coffee cup to big industrial-looking drums. “If you run a big blower with a fine particle filter on it,” says Lewis, “as long as your house isn’t too leaky, it will make a meaningful difference to the particle numbers. The question regarding these products is: is the volume of air it’s filtering significant relative to the volume of the house?” A home might cover hundreds of cubic metres, and in most houses the air is completely renewed every hour. “If your unit is the size of a drinks can,” asks Lewis, “does it seem reasonable that it is going to make its way through tonnes of air?” A frequent complaint about the plug-in machines – which have become common domestic appliances in China – is their size. “It’s like having a rattling old air-conditioner,” says Lewis “it takes a lot of energy.” Mark Jacobson, director of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, has an even more fundamental problem with the growing adoption of personal purifiers. “They are a short-term way for people to save their lungs but they do not solve air pollution problems – which also harm animals, agriculture and structures. People should not have to breathe through an air filter their entire life.” Consumers can’t know how effectively their car filters the air they breathe. “Cars are small, sealed boxes,” says Lewis, “but they are driven in the most polluted place there is: the middle of the road. Their filters have a tough job.” As well as most particulates, filters in modern cars should catch noxious gases such as nitrogen dioxide with charcoal. But performance will vary and filters become less effective with use – so they need replacing around every six months. Filters should also work more efficiently, says MacKenzie, “if you limit the air exchange between inside and outside, by switching to recirculation rather than continual fresh air. It’s somewhat morally bankrupt, though, to be sitting in your luxury 4X4 with pristine air, churning out god knows what from your exhaust.” Air-purifying bus shelters and street furniture are being developed, some using filters and others with added oxidation, which turns gases into dust. It sounds like a good idea, but, says Lewis, “you’ve got to think about how big the atmosphere is over a city. Hundreds and hundreds of square kilometres, possibly 2km deep, so you’ve got a massive swimming pool of pollution.” Unless the bus stop is enclosed, like a mini-waiting room, he says, “the mixing of the atmosphere will completely outweigh the benefits you might get from blowing a bit of filtered air around.” Underground train networks face a similar issue: “It isn’t a sealed box that you can clean up. Every time a train goes through, it’s like a piston replenishing the polluted air. You’d need machines to move thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of tonnes of air per hour.” Lewis sees more gains to be had by cleaning the air in offices and other workplaces than on the streets. “A modern office building is already very air-tight for energy efficiency,” says Lewis, “so you have the opportunity to filter the air because you’re not replenishing it with polluted air from outside.” “In terms of air pollution mortality and morbidity, planting trees doesn’t help very much at all,” says Jacobson. “Planting is more useful for absorbing carbon dioxide, which affects pollution indirectly through temperatures but not directly as a chemical air pollutant.” (There are, of course, many other environmental, economic and health benefits to trees – although recent guidance from National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) warned that their leaves and branches slow air currents, causing pollutants to settle, and they may also act as sinks for particulates and chemicals.) Then again, perhaps we just haven’t been doing it right? While bunging more trees along London’s Oxford Street probably won’t touch the sides, the more leaves there are, the more fine particulates (PM10s and PM2.5s), nitrogen dioxide and carbon dioxide will be removed from the air. “You’d need two man-made filters to achieve the same effect, which would increase the energy burden,” says MacKenzie, who has a particular interest in how plants affect air. “The most useful places to put lots of vegetation are pedestrianised areas,” he explains, “because there’s nothing there to make the air dirtier. Trees offer the advantage of closing off the area from polluted air above. And tall trees are helpful near motorways because they produce turbulence that helps traffic pollution disperse.” For heavily trafficked streets, says MacKenzie, “green walls would appear, in theory, to be a better option than trees” – since the plants up the side of a building can do their job without risk of trapping pollution at street level. Their success, however, will depend on many factors. “Green walls could help with pollution hotspots, but not with every hotspot – you have to do careful calculations,” MacKenzie explains. “It would require a lot of green vegetation, a lot of maintenance and careful, heavy implementing. So it might be an expensive solution.” Lewis co-authored an article in the scientific journal Nature last year, warning about the proliferation of unregulated, affordable air quality sensors. “Smart” sensors now even come with apps offering breakdowns of CO2, particulates and volatile organic compounds. “There is a significant challenge in making a decent measurement of air pollution with a cheap device,” Lewis says. “The sensors may be unreliable and they are marketed at the general public, who have no way of knowing whether they’re working or not.” By contrast, he points out, air pollution monitoring equipment used by government organisations such as Defra, or academic researchers “typically costs tens of thousands of pounds. If we had a cheap way of doing it, we’d do it the cheap way.” Lewis advises against making health decisions based upon personal monitor readings. The most accurate guide to air quality in your home is to keep track of your local outdoor readings and to keep a close eye on possible internal sources of pollution. “If you’re constantly frying in a wok or have an open fire, you will be making additional sources [of air pollution]. It’s not rocket science, and you probably don’t need a sensor to tell you that.” MacKenzie says he finds it bizarre that, for fans of domestic open fires, “the smell is part of the attraction, when that’s telling you it’s a source of pollution”. If your carbon monoxide alarm goes off when you have a fire, you should assume there are other, significant pollutants in the room’s air. “However, the threshold on an alarm is set quite high,” MacKenzie warns, “because it’s about whether you’re going to fall asleep and never wake up again. If it doesn’t go off, you might still have concentrations of carbon monoxide and other particles in your house.” Good ventilation, dry fuel and high temperatures are essential for clean burning, while swept and lined chimneys provide further protection. Even with so-called smokeless fuel, you need to take care. “I’d estimate that smokeless coal produces more nitrogen oxides than wood fuel,” MacKenzie says, “and they both produce the very small particles that are the least noticeable, but the most harmful, of the smoke particles.” Guardian Cities is dedicating a week to investigating one of the worst preventable causes of death around the world: air pollution. Explore our coverage at The Air We Breathe and follow Guardian Cities on Twitter and Facebook to join the discussion
News Article | February 26, 2017
Ministers are coming under growing pressure to remove tax incentives for diesel cars and offer compensation to motorists so they can swap to more environmentally friendly vehicles. A group of medical professionals, environmental campaigners and lawyers has written to the chancellor ahead of the budget to demand a change to the vehicle excise duty that they say subsidises diesel cars. Separately, senior Labour and Tory politicians have called for a comprehensive vehicle scrappage scheme to help people with diesel cars change to greener alternatives. The letter from campaigners, including the British Lung Foundation, Greenpeace and doctors’ groups, says toxic air poses a daily risk to people’s health – particularly the young and those suffering from lung problems. “Air pollution has ... been shown to stunt children’s lung growth, which could leave them with health problems in later life,” it states. “We all deserve to breathe clean air.” On Saturday the Guardian revealed that thousands of children and young people at more than 800 nurseries, schools and colleges in London faced dangerous and illegal levels of toxic air, much of it from diesel cars. The transport secretary, Chris Grayling, indicated the government may bow to pressure, saying motorists should be wary of buying diesel cars, adding: “We’re going to have to really migrate our car fleet, and our vehicle fleet more generally, to cleaner technology.” However, he said that diesel “was not going to disappear”. Air pollution causes 40,000 early deaths in the UK and costs the country £27.5bn a year, according to a government estimate. MPs have called it a public health emergency. The letter adds: “We know diesel vehicles, in particular diesel cars, are a major source of pollution in towns and cities ... yet vehicle excise duty (VED) not only fails to recognise this, but is still incentivising them. We are therefore asking for a revision of the VED first-year rate in your upcoming budget statement.” Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, has added his voice to calls for a change in vehicle excise duty for diesel cars. He also said the government should introduce a comprehensive clean air act and a diesel scrappage scheme to compensate those motorists who bought diesel cars after being told they were more environmentally friendly. “A number of years ago Londoners and others around the country were encouraged to buy diesel cars – businessmen and women, charities, families were all encouraged to buy diesel. “We are saying to the government you need to choose a national diesel scrappage fund to help people move away from diesel ... and we would target this to the poorest families.” Judges told ministers last November they must cut the illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO ) in dozens of towns and cities in the shortest possible time after ruling that their plans to improve air quality were so poor they were unlawful. The government has until April to come up with proposals to bring before the court. Last year the environment, food and rural affairs select committee described the situation as a public health emergency and recommended the government introduce a diesel scrappage scheme. Its chair, Neil Parish, told the Guardian he was disappointed that the advice had been ignored and called on the government to change course. Parish said: “Defra has lost again in the courts on its failure to tackle air pollution. The option of a scrappage scheme should be back on the table to help get the dirtiest diesels off our roads quickly.” He said it was vital any scrappage scheme was “focused and does not merely become a subsidy for the middle classes. Cash from the scheme should either promote ULEVs [ultra-low-emission vehicle] or incentivise public transport use.” Legal NGO ClientEarth brought the case against the government and was one of the groups to sign Sunday’s letter to the chancellor. Its chief executive, James Thornton, said: “The high court has ordered the government to take immediate action now to deal with illegal levels of pollution and prevent tens of thousands of additional early deaths in the UK. “The government needs to recognise that diesel is the primary cause of the problem, and to promote a shift to alternatives. It’s perverse that our tax system encourages people to buy dirty vehicles.”