France and the nuclear lobby: public opinion will shift soon

The nuclear cloud was scheduled to arrive in France on Wednesday or Thursday, so those of us who aren’t convinced by the Heidi-esque declarations in the mainstream press telling us that there is no public health risk have to dig as best we can to try and figure out what we can/should be doing.

I’m following the evolution of public opinion with great interest and so far we don’t have much hard evidence that there’s an important shift underway. However, anecdotally I can report that the sentiment is not as rock solid as EDF, Areva, the nuclear lobby and the French government would like it to be. Stores of various types of “soft” remedies such as organic miso paste, seawater supplements and clay powder are moving quickly through the organic co-ops and stores in Paris, and Les Echos reported that geiga counters sold out in Paris earlier this week (source Les Echos on Twitter).

Don’t forget that France is a country:

* where over 75% of electricity comes from nuclear energy.
* which is the world’s largest net exporter of electricity (generates more than 3 billion euros/year in revenue)
•    for whom nuclear reactors and fuel products and services provide significant export revenue
* which is building its first Generation III reactor and planning a second.
* where 17% of electricity comes from recycled nuclear fuel.

A poll (March 15-16), commissioned by EDF and conducted by TNS Sofres, showed that only 42 percent of the French favoured an end to nuclear, but that 68% believed that a similar accident to Fukushima could happen in France.
Another poll (March 15-17) by IFOP for the Green Party Europe Ecologie Les Verts showed that 70% favoured an end to France’s nuclear program, with 19% in favour of an immediate halt, and 51% for a gradual phase-out over 25/30 years. Only 30 percent of those surveyed favoured continuing the nuclear program and building new power plants.

That was before the cloud arrived in France, before people started to worry about which vegetables they should stop eating (lettuce and mushrooms, for instance), and before reports suggesting that the nuclear reactor core may have breached at Fukushima.

Politicians have been conservative and relatively mealy-mouthed, no doubt keeping a close watch on the opinion polls as a presidential election is coming in 2012.  François Hollande, a Socialist presidentiable, has not said a word. Former PM Dominique de Villepin has called for a Grenelle on energy, and “possibly” a referendum (how brave!). Martin Aubry, head of the Socialist Party, said France should “move towards an exit from nuclear in the next 20-30 years.”

For objective information, the only source is the CRIRAD.

And everyone should read this post by Dmitry Orlov, and learn the difference between radiation and radioactivity.

Safest cellphones and safest cellphone behaviour – introverts rule!

Samsung Blue Earth - lowest radiation level

For those of you, who, like me, are faced with the prospect of purchasing a cellphone for a teenager this year, managing the potential risks are the best option, and aside from the obvious best practices such as favouring texting over voice calls, using an earpiece, not telephoning in the metro or on trains or other places where reception is weak, the SAR (Specific Absorption Rate) seems like a helpful metric.

It’s a measure of the amount of radio frequency (RF) energy absorbed by the body when using the phone, and there is considerable variability among models.

CNET publishes a chart where the SAR level given is the highest level measured with the phone next to the ear, and these figures refer to voice calls only, and not to data use.

According to the latest figures released in December 2010, the three phones with the lowest radiation levels are:

1.    Samsung Blue Earth (0.196) – boasts solar panel on back of handset, and is manufactured from used plastic bottles.
2.    Samsung Acclaim       (0.29)
3.    LG Quantum                  (0.35)

LG Quantum

Compare this with the Blackberry Curve (1.51).
For the Apple Iphone 3G rates vary among models. The 3GS (16GB) is 0.79, the Iphone 4 (1.17).

Among the top 20 highest radiation phones are:
Sony Ericsson Satio (1.56)

LG Rumor 2 (1.51)
HTC Desire (1.48)

Recommendations from the Environmental Working Group which will cheer introverts worldwide: Listen more and talk less – cellphones emit radiation when we talk or send an SMS but not when we are listening!!)

All those fashionable and distinctive phone protection cases – throw them away! the phones have to work harder to emit beyond the casing.

Collaborative consumption in France

Goat rental at 10 euros/day in the French Alps for natural lawn care from E-loue

One step removed from barter (but getting closer every day), and a hot new trend documented by two new business books in 2010 – “What’s Mine is Yours” and “The Mesh” – the mode for sharing and renting our physical assets is being driven by the economic recession and a wider societal backlash against wasteful and mindless consumption. If you’re ready to jump in, here are some resources for France:

Zilok, the French version. Rent anything from a car to a lawnmower or power drill. A Citroen C1 rents for 40 euros a day.

E-loue Goat rentals for lawn mowing etc. for toys (4 toys for 6 months at a monthly rate of 15.9 euros)

Supermarmite – Buy and sell home-cooked food in your neighbourhood. They call themselves the first social network for sharing home-cooked meals. Car sharing platform.

Louerunetudiant Outsource your business needs to a student: market research, telemarketing, design, animation, translation etc.

Sustainable soy: Greenwash scam or timely reminder?

The fuss about sustainable soybeans (civil society attacking the Roundtable on Sustainable Soy as greenwash) actually serves an important purpose: to remind us that 80% of the meat and poultry we eat in France is actually fed with GM animal feed, mostly soy-based.

France prides itself on the quality of its meat and poultry, and there are a plethora of “appellation d’orgine controlé”s to testify to the importance of terroir and the way the animals are raised and fed. That, plus the fact that it’s illegal to grow GM soybeans in France would make it easy to assume that so long as you purchase your meat from a nice, artisanal butcher, and ensure that the provenance of the meat is France, that you would be doing your bit for the family’s health. Wrong. Just look at the price differential between organic and non-organic meat and poultry. A “free-range” chicken from a decent butcher costs around 15 euros.  The organic variety costs at least 20 euros. That is a much bigger price hike compared with any other product – fruit, vegetables, dairy, coffee, flour, chocolate etc. Therein lies the catch. Sustainable soy is an intractable problem, simply because the quantities needed are too immense and the costs of conversion too high. Supermarket chains which, in 2010, rushed to declare their imminent shift to sustainable palm oil in their products by 2012, had nothing to say about  sustainable soybeans. It’s the big taboo subject for any supply chain person who is now stuck with a CSR brief. There’s basically no solution to this problem: most of the world’s meat is raised on GM soybeans.

Greenpeace diagram of animal food chain

Hence the civil society scorn for the Round Table on Responsible Soy, which groups corporate members such as France’s Carrefour, Marks and Spencer, Unilever, Ahold (a Dutch supermarket chain), BP International and Shell International. Other members include companies driving soy expansion and GM crops such as Cargill, Bunge, Monsanto and Syngenta.

Over sixty NGOs signed an open letter to the participants of the Round Table on Responsible Soy calling for it to be abandoned, arguing that the roundtable encourages soy monocultures which have a negative impact on biodiversity in ecocystems such as the Amazon, Cerrado, and Chaco.

Meanwhile, Brazil announced in April 2010 that it was creating its own sustainable soy label, called Soja Plus.

Cantona urges French to revolt by withdrawing cash from banks Dec 7

France’s footballer/philosoper, Eric Cantona, has issued a call for revolution in a video which has gone viral urging people to withdraw cash out from their banks on Dec 7 as part of a a coordinated protest against the status quo.

“If 20 million people take their cash out, the system collapses. No arms, no blood, nothing, a la Spaggiari…. Not complicated. Then they will start paying attention.” Albert Spaggiari was a French bank robber, who, in 1976 made off with millions of francs after tunnelling his way into a branch of the Societe Generale.

French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde responded to his call tartly during a press conference last week, saying: “Some people play football magnificently, whereas I wouldn’t dare try. I think that people should stick to their areas of expertise”.

Cantona’s call for a peaceful revolution has been heard outside of France, notably in Belgium, where a website called Bankrun2010 has been set up by a screenwriter called Geraldine Feuillien where the petition is available in 8 languages. According to an article in Le Figaro last month, Belgian banks are already concerned about the impact of coordinated action on their fragile banking sector, and Feuillien forecasts that 15,000 Belgian citizens will withdraw all their cash on that date.

This is their ‘ask’:

“We, the citizens of the 21st century, heirs of generations who have sacrificed so that we may live free and dignified, demand the creation of a CITIZENS BANK- serving citizens, a bank that would put our money away from speculative fever, free of all financial bubbles designed to burst one day, free of operations that transform our loans & assets and use our debt to buy other assets.

“We want banks that lend only the wealth they have. Banks that help small and medium enterprises to relocate jobs, &  bank lending at zero rate. Banks that support projects that benefit citizens rather than the “market”. Banks where we can deposit our money, which will then create a peaceful conscience within ourselves. Banks we will not have to be worry about. Banks whose success will sound the death knell of the merchants of death, disease and slavery. On the ruins of the old system, we want to build a banking system that will no longer sacrifice more human dignity on the altar of profit.

“We, the people have finally been awakened by poverty and despair afflicting the most vulnerable among us – pensioners, welfare recipients or working poor – and is now threatening what remains of the middle class & entrepreneurs. Even these are exploited as milking cows, and we now simply want the cancellation of the public debts generated by the sick system that we no longer want. We do not want our taxes, our efforts, our resources to continue to feed this bottomless pit. We want to regain the power to coin money and free ourselves from the guidelines imposed on us by the European Union, which was built against the consent of the majority of people consulted by referendum, not to mention those whose country of origin have no organized popular consultation.”

And finally: “We thank the footballer Eric Cantona for having instilled the idea that we have taken literally. The die is cast. Time will tell whether we were right.”

My personal opinion? Cantona is cool. In the film “Looking For Eric” in which he makes a cameo appearance, playing a virtual version of himself, he has a classic line: “I am not a man, I am Cantona.”

French Ecology Ministry downsized and downgraded in reshuffle

Last month’s cabinet reshuffle left the Ecology Ministry – the former jewel in Sarkozy’s crown of 2007  – shrunken and downgraded. Jean Louis Borloo has been replaced by Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet as Minister, with a smaller title (Energy and the Sea have been moved elsewhere), and ranking in the government downgraded from number 2 to number 4. Borloo was Minister of Ecology, Energy, Sustainable Development and Sea, and Kosciusko-Morizet is now Minister of Ecology, Sustainable Development, Transportation and Housing.

Adding insult to injury, President Nicolas Sarkozy has betrayed a key promise of the 2007 Grenelle – that the Ecology Minister would be ranked Number 2 in the government. It is now ranked number 4, behind Defence and Economy and Finance. Energy has gone to the Ministry of Finance.

Friends of the Earth warned that the shift of Energy to the Finance Ministry presages the return to a policy of favouring more nuclear and fossil energy production, thereby satisfying the big corporate lobbies at the expense of the interest of citizens.

Organic sharecroppers’ collective launches in southern France

Barjac, scene of the 2008 film “Our children will accuse us” which celebrates the town mayor’s decision to convert the school canteen to organics while documenting a massive public health scandal linked to pesticide use in the local farm community.

Inspired by the success of his school canteen initiative, Edouard Chaulet, the mayor, has launched a new project this year which he claims is a world first. Using an innovative social financing scheme pioneered with association Terre de Liens, he has made available a 120-hectare plot of land for organic farmers to rent and farm collectively. The aim: to increase land surface area in the Gard region of France farmed organically to help close the gap between demand and supply.

Chaulet first approached local authorities to rent land from them.
“The obstacle to local organics is that we don’t have enough farmers who are convinced by this mode of production, which would in addition work to stop rural desertification. And when we find farmers, we aren’t able to set them up because they don’t own any land,” he told Libération in an interview.

Then he approached “Terre de Liens” to raise funds using an innovative shareholder model based on a social compact which offers no dividends, but tax breaks for investors who stay in for at least 5 years.

The association, created in 2006 in partnership with bank La Nef, collects savings from citizens and companies to buy farms and then rent them out exclusively to organic farmers.

It has a “Finansol” label, which means that it guarantees to savers that their money will be invested in projects with a social purpose.
As of May 2010, the Terre de Liens association had 4,700 shareholders for a capital of 12.5 million euros. Thanks to this capital, 45 farmers, with an average age of 35 years, were able to set themselves up and 26 farms were purchased.

Chaulet’s project was the most ambitious ever seen by Terre de Liens.  The initial investment: one million euros plus 500,000 euros for restoring the farm buildings and other work related to irrigation.
The 120-hectare plot will be farmed by a collective, and tenants have to share tractors, animals, water rights and buildings. Furthermore, there is a time lag of 2 years before the farm produce can obtain an organic label.

Land in the Gard region of France costs around 6,000 euros per hectare. For the “sharecroppers” of La Grange des Pres, the cost of renting a hectare is 50 euros per year for the first 2 years, and then 73 euros in subsequent years.

“The Common Agricultural Policy (of the EU) forces our farmers relentlessly towards large monoculture farms. These big intensive farms destroy the countryside, make the soil sterile and the water undrinkable. We need a diverse and local agriculture, not thousands of tons of cereals!” said Sjoerd Wartena, president of Terre de Liens.

Europe faces new challenge from one-million petition on GM crops

The battle between members states and Brussels has entered a new phase since the summer. Here’s a brief update:

July 2010: The European Commission moots a proposal which, if approved, will give the 27 member states freedom to decide for themselves whether to allow cultivation of GM crops.

September 2010 – Agriculture Ministers of the 27 debate the proposal. Big agricultural nations – France, Germany, Italy and Spain – are opposed, arguing that this opens the way to undermining the Common Agricultural Policy. Smaller countries such as the Netherlands are in favour. Commission fails to achieve a majority. Debate scheduled to resume Oct 14.

September 2010 – French Eurodeputy José Bové calls press conference to accuse Hungarian scientist Diana Banati – who chairs the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) – of a conflict of interest. EFSA is tasked with providing the European Commission with scientific advice on genetically modified foods. Banati failed to disclose that she had previously sat on the board of directors of the International Life Science Institute, a pro GM lobby which includes among its members Monsanto and Bayer.

October 2010 – Greenpeace announces that it has collected over one million signatures from across Europe urging the European Commission to freeze the introduction of GM crops. This initiative – the first of its kind – seeks to benefit from a new clause in the Lisbon Treaty which states that if at least one million Europeans resident in a significant number of member states invite the Commission to make a legislative proposal in a domain of its competence, it should honour the citizen’s intiative. The Commission now has 4 months to respond, but its president can say the ruling which concerns the initiative is still being negotiated between the European Parliament and its member states.

What’s behind the Sustainable Palm Oil label

Understanding what is behind certification for concepts like fair trade, organic agriculture, organic cosmetics and more broadly anything which claims to be “responsible” or “sustainable” is at the heart of the ongoing dialogue among consumers, retailers and manufacturers. Yet what goes on in the supply chain is only dimly understood by even the most well-informed consumers. Unless some brave soul starts developing “supply chain tourism”, it is unlikely that we will ever get a firm grasp on exactly what we are paying for beyond the feel good concepts of saving an orangutan or two somewhere in Borneo.

So palm oil has experienced a big shift in consumer perception this year due to successful lobbying efforts of Greenpeace and a fall-out in the European Union over the health risk contained in high levels of saturated fat contained in Nutella, which has been abruptly de-throned from its place as a symbol and repository of happy childhood memories throughout Europe.

Industries which rely heavily on palm oil as a cheap input for their products – mostly food and consumer items – are responding to consumer pressure to “clean up” their palm oil supply chains, and a number of solutions are available today.

Here’s a short primer on currently available certification which should help to de-mystify what you are getting when you buy a product which says “sustainable palm oil”.

Sustainable palm oil producers are grouped together in a body called Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)  which was set up in 2003 and brings together growers, processors, food companies, investors and NGOs. The members represent around 40% of palm oil producers., so they can’t be said to represent critical mass in the industry.

The RSPO defined the principles and criteria of sustainable palm oil in 2005:
•    No more replacement of ‘High Conservation Value Areas’ for new plantations
•    Respect for the righs of local people
•    Respect labour laws

RSPO has approved 3 supply chain models for RSPO Certified Sustainable Palm Oil:

1.    Segregated  – Most stringent option: sustainable palm oil is kept segregated through the chain. Mixing is possible only with other RSPO Certified Palm Oil. This is the only certification that allows retailers to claim that the product “contains” sustainable palm oil.
2.    Mass Balance – Sustainable palm oil is followed through the chain. Mixing with conventional palm oil is possible provided this is administratively possible. Retailers can claim that the product “supports” the production of RSPO sustainable palm oil.
3.    Book and Claim – Chain is not followed. End-users buy certificiates directly from the producer via web-based trading platform (premium for sustainable palm oil is currently valued at $13 per tonne). Allows buyers to claim that their product “supports” the production of RSPO sustainable palm oil.

So basically when you buy a product that carries either of those claims: ie “contains” or “supports the production of sustainable palm oil”, you will be getting one of the above three options.

Green holiday ideas for the summer

Summer has finally arrived in Paris, and it is truly glorious. One of the highlights of the past few weeks was the “greening” of the Champs Elysees on a holiday weekend Sunday: organized by France’s Jeunes Agriculteurs (Young Farmers), it was a heady display of farm production and biodiversity. Overnight, 8,000 plots of earth were transported to central Paris, and around 150,000 plants were installed – including 650 fully grown trees – at a cost of 4.2 million euros. Here’s a slideshow which features snaps of the visiting First Lady and President: Carla and “Sarko”.

Come June 1, and the only question on everyone’s lips is: “Vous partez quand?” (When are you leaving?)

So for those who haven’t already decided, here are some suggestions:

The lovely Atlantic coast island of Noirmoutier, home to fabled sea salt and tiny potatoes, now boasts a tempting high-end camping site called La Guérinière. Think luxury tents safari-style transported to a saltwater, pine-forested environment shot through by a fresh Atlantic breeze. Set in five hectares of sand dunes and pines by the sea, you can rent a tipi for 4 people for 129 euros/weekend or up to 650 euros/week.

2010 is UN Year of Biodiversity, and the CNRS scientific research centre in French Guyana is opening its doors for the first time this summer to allow visitors to share in France’s biggest natural reserve in the heart of the tropical rainforest.

For more information, check out the scientific travel section of the website.