Archive for the 'Europe' Category

Toilet break

I only ever come to Brussels for work-related stuff, so tonight I decided to see a bit of the city and leg it around the touristy spots before the sun went down.

It turns out the place is titchy, and unless I managed to miss a massive chunk of the city out somewhere, I saw pretty much everything the guidebook recommended.

Perhaps a little unfairly, Brussels has a bit of a reputation for being a dull place. Full of diplomats and government buildings, much of the characterful buildings have been overshadowed by large office blocks and glass and metal-covered towers.

But in the centre, in the Grand Place, there are some really snazzy, historic buildings which – coupled with its cafe culture – give the city a really nice feel.

The most famous touristy bit of Brussels though isn’t a big, impressive building. Instead it’s a titchy statue of a peeing boy.

Mannekin Pis

To be honest, I didn’t really understand the attraction. I certainly didn’t get why people were queuing up to have a family snap in front of it:

Family Pis
But I had to give a thumbs up to the nearby witty chip shop owners for making the most of its weird, crowd-drawing neighbour:

soggy chips
Not sure I’d want to eat there though. I hate soggy chips.

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The language of the CAP

I can’t remember any German when I need it, but every time I come to French-speaking  Brussels it seems to be the only language that leaves my mouth.

Having got off the Eurostar I couldn’t even seem to remember how to ask where the taxi rank was in English.

Instead I frightened a poor, unsuspecting woman with a series of windmill movements and random, broken (and entirely useless) German words.

“Zug nach centrum! Nein, taxi nach centrum! Wo! Canst du ihren helfen? Wohnwagon! Ich decke den tisch!”

It’s no wonder she edged away from me with a look of panic on her face.

Luckily I’m not the only British person who seems to have linguistic issues when in Belgium.

brussels

I’m here for a meeting between international farming journalists and the European Commission to talk about reform of the Common Agricultural Policy.

As well as having a chin-wag with farm commissioner Dacian Ciolos, we’re going to talk about how to set up a communication network so the Commission can let us know what’s going on between now and the policy being reformed in 2013.

The main meetings don’t start until tomorrow though, so today I met Will, who’s an ex-journalist friend from London who has come over to Brussels to work for the NFU.

Will’s worked over here before so I expected his French to be impeccable, but he made me feel so much better about my earlier language disaster when he tried to order his lunch in Spanish.

Luckily, Will’s day job of dealing with MEPs and other Euro big-wigs is entirely English-based. He’s part of a team of five people the NFU has permanently based here in Brussels as part of a lobbying and communications team.

Basically their job is to let farmers back in the UK know what’s going on over here and how European policy decisions will affect them.

But they also have the rather unenviable job of trying to encourage politicians to listen to them over farm policy in the hope that they’ll support British farmers when it comes to policy discussions and votes.

The idea is through building relationships with MEPs, the NFU and in turn farmers can have a direct impact on the rules and regulations that are made here.

I doubt many farmers realise they have an effect on the content and wording of European policy, but it’s something the NFU is taking even more seriously in the run-up to CAP reform proposals being published in October.

Anyway, just be thankful us farm journos won’t be asked for our views on the policy’s wording. If I have anything to do with it there could be some very random German chucked in there for good measure….

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The EU reporter’s job is safe in my hands…

Today I had to write a story about Mercosur.

Imagine my disappointment when I discovered it’s actually a group of South American countries who want a trade agreement with the European Union and not what I thought it was….

mercosur

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Chasing developments in animal genetics

Apologies for ruining Mr Geography’s pen pal dreams, but I didn’t come back from the sticks married to an emu farmer.

I did, however, learn some interesting facts about Rod Hull’s special friends:

Emu
1. They are growing in popularity in this region of India because they are incredibly efficient animals. More than 90% of every bird can be used, from the meat, to the skin (used for bags and shoes), to the bones (which are rendered for bonemeal)

2. Emu’s feathers can apparently be plucked and then spun into wool. The emu farmer I met reckons emu wool makes smashing shawls.

3. Emu meat is incredibly good for you. It’s low in fat and high in iron, and is being touted as a health food here in India.

and finally: 4. Emu meat taste like chicken. Though doesn’t everything.

I’ve been pretty impressed about the type of livestock I’ve seen being reared and bred here in India. From the buffalo and chickens I saw around Delhi, to these birds and the cattle I saw yesterday in Maharashtra.

These dairy cows, at the KVK research centre, are bred from Australian and Canadian genetics.

Cows

They’ve also been mixed with a native breed (I can’t remember the name off the top of my head, if anyone’s desperate to know, email me and I’ll make something up for you), meaning they’re high-yielding milkers, but able to cope with the 45 degree+ temperature it reaches in summer over here .

And the developing interest in animal genetics doesn’t stop at bovine. These fellas on the left have been imported from Australia. Famed for growing a lot of flesh quickly, their semen is being turkey-basted into the scrawny-looking gals on the right, who are rubbish at producing meat, but nimble enough to walk the rocky land in the region and and can handle the heat.

goats

The result? A hardy goat that offers more milk and more meat, helping farmers become more profitable.

It’s really interested me to see just how much technology from Europe, Australia and the US is being used in India. Before I came here I assumed the majority of farmers were working on a subsistence basis and wouldn’t be as developed as they are. Admittedly, they still have a long way to go and there are lots of farmers who still just have a couple of scrawny heifers  tied to their front door, but most of the farmers I’ve met know a great deal about international markets and the technologies they are developing and using, and they want to catch up.

If only they could harvest some of their emu’s speed, they’d be a force to be reckoned with in no time at all.

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How to meet farming’s needs

My inner geek has been having a field day. I warn you in advance of reading this post that any ideas you might’ve had about me having a shred of coolness are woefully off the mark.

Today most of the parties have published their manifestos ahead of the general election on May 6. Everyone at Farmers Weekly Towers has been looking at me in a slightly concerned way as I’ve sat happily going through them all to write about the rural policies.

Because I like you for taking the time to read this, I won’t bore you to death by talking through the policies here. But I will show you these word clouds I made using the green policy part of the manifestos and a nifty thing called Wordle (it’s a website that aggregates words and shows how often they are used). Clockwise from top left are clouds made from Labour, the Conservatives, UKIP and Plaid Cymru manifestos:

Manifesto

I thought it was pretty interesting that ‘energy’ features most for the top two parties, while ‘agriculture’ doesn’t even factor. Draw from that what you will. ‘Environment’, ‘protect’ and ‘security’ are all prominent in the Tory manifesto, but there’s no mention of ‘Britain’ or ‘community’, which Labour really played on.

UKIP went for  ‘support’ in a big way, but not in the context you might think – apparently if they get in they’re going to make subsidies unecessary by convincing people to buy more British food, thus raising food prices and making farming profitable. I notice ‘wind’ and ‘warming’ feature there too – is it too easy to say something about them being full of hot air?.

What interested me most though was Plaid Cymru’s word cloud. Not only do ‘Wales’, ‘Welsh’ and ‘Cymru’ get some of the biggest mentions, but the word ‘need’ is pretty prominent. I got the same ‘needy’ sense from reading the manifesto too – it was pretty good at being whiney but didn’t really offer any solutions.

Anyway, the Lib Dems publish their manifesto in the morning so we’ll see how airy fairy (or not) they can be. My not-so-inner geek can’t wait.

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Dunno know why, but let’s chuck some more money at it…

According to a survey by the European Commission published last week, about 70% of Brits want farmers to get more subsidies over the next decade.

It’s a figure that’ll make lots of farmers in the UK feel pretty cheery. After all, that obviously means the public recognises the help the Common Agricultural Policy and subsidies give in allowing farmers produce food whilst keeping our countryside green and purdy, like this, right?

cows

Errrm… yeah.

The same survey reveals that while the majority of people want to up direct support, most of them (61%) have never heard of CAP and the subsidy system. A further quarter say they’ve heard CAP being mentioned, but they know as much about it as Victoria Beckham knows about particle physics.

I haven’t got the space on here to go through each question, but in a nutshell, these people who know nothing of farm subsidies want to see those very subsidies increased so farmers can do more environmental stuff. They don’t know what this environmental stuff is, but it should probably involve climate change in some way. Oh yeah, and they want farmers to be paid more for the food they produce while they’re at it. Whilst food prices remain reasonable. And the EU’s spending on agriculture stays around about the same level.

To me, this is kind of endemic of the whole subsidy system. Does anyone really know whether farmers are being paid to carry on producing food, to maintain the countryside and manage the environment, or to keep them afloat so their presence maintains rural communities? Is it all three? If payments were solely and directly linked to environmental management, then I’d perhaps have less issues with them, but I don’t think the current system can satisfy the myriad of demands the public seems to have on politicians, Europe, and farmers themselves.

Having not offered any solutions, I’m sure I haven’t furthered my subsidy argument against the pro-payment people of this world.  With my ‘socialist views’ maybe it’s a good job I won’t be sat around the table once the CAP shake-up discussions get going. Then again, if I had to come up with something that answered all of the demands out there, I’m glad I won’t be.

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