Letters: Sustainable agriculture

Sustainable agriculture still has a place for meat

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Sir: As an (organic) beef farmer, I was obviously intrigued by the Big Question concerning possible changes in our diet to resolve the global food crisis (16 April).

It was disappointing to see you using the hoary old figure of 8kg of grain being needed to produce 1kg of beef, as it is based on US practices in the 1970s. The conversion ratio would be similar if cattle were fed chocolate cake or marshmallows. A beef farmer feeding grain at 2008 prices would be instantly bankrupt.

Cattle and sheep are not "designed" to eat cereals, and throughout human history they have grazed land which is too steep, wet, cold, dry or infertile for cropping, or consumed "break crops" in field rotations to provide naturally sustainable fertility and manure for succeeding food crops.

Despite the fact that the vast majority of fresh beef in our shops is UK-produced and grass fed, the issue of rainforest being cleared "for beef production" is widely misunderstood. Cattle are being grazed in South America largely as an interim measure in order to prepare former rainforest for cultivation of infinitely more profitable soya and biofuel crops.

I agree that we should be eating much less meat, but surely we should be prepared to pay a fair price for quality produce while avoiding cheap "factory farmed" meat at all costs.

Aidan Harrison

Rothbury, Northumberland

Sir: The coverage in "The Big Question: Is changing our diet the key to resolving the global food crisis?" deserves a round of applause. It is refreshing to see the shocking inefficiency of grain-to-dinner-plate trends make it to the national media.

Going vegan really is the answer to this impending doom we face, but it is not "unrealistic", as Jeremy Laurance states.

Dismissing the vegan diet as one of mere "green leaves, pulses, fruit and nuts" will of course have a negative impact on its uptake. As a vegan, I enjoy a varied diet and relish the thought of cooking up a treat in the evenings and dining out in restaurants.

Meat-reducing is a great start, however, and is a responsibility we all owe the third world, the planet, the animals and our health.

Alexia Weeks

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, London SE1

Sir: I wonder why prices of wheat and other cereals are going through the roof. Nearly all the fields in our area are full of oilseed rape whereas a few years ago they were nearly all full of wheat and barley. Consumers are paying heavily for somebody's diabolical planning.

Neil Stilwell

Borehamwood, Hertfordshire

The West can act against Mugabe

Sir: I fear you are right in saying that Mugabe's thuggish tactics may once again have stolen the Zimbabwe elections from the people (leading article, 16 April). It is also true that only Mugabe's fellow African leaders have the necessary leverage to hold him to account.

But as Mugabe consolidates his coup, there is action that the US and Britain could initiate via the UN. The current awful crimes of violence, including the murder of opposition supporters, invasion of farms by militia and general intimidation the population, need to be documented. In addition, the beatings and farm invasions earlier this decade, deaths and torture in prison, the house demolitions and Mugabe's war in Matabeleland in the 1980s – a war which resulted in up to 20,000 deaths –- should also be investigated.

If sufficient evidence of crimes can be collated, Mugabe and his cronies could be indicted by an international court in absentia. There is precedent: Milosevic was indicted with war crimes while still President of Yugoslavia. Despite all his bluster, the effect was extremely intimidating for Milosevic, as it removed at a stroke his international legitimacy and made him very careful about travelling abroad for fear of arrest. It arguably hastened his downfall the following year.

The West does have very few levers to force Mugabe to concede defeat. But this legal avenue is one for debate. The alternative is that the Zimbabwean people are abandoned to suffer at the whims of a man Desmond Tutu once called "a cartoon figure of an archetypal African dictator".

Stephen Leah

York

Sir: For all that Robert Mugabe claims, he did not bring African majority rule to Zimbabwe. He delayed it a dozen years.

In 1962, the white Rhodesians voted overwhelmingly for a constitution which would effectively give the blacks a third of the seats in parliament, and the ability to keep out racist white parties, through a transferable preference vote. The party in power, the UFP, undertook that half the cabinet would be black. After the black politicians had a few years' practical experience and had shown themselves responsible, the franchise would be extended to majority rule, certainly by 1970.

Mugabe's Zanu and Joshua Nkomo's Zapu refused to take part. They imposed a ferocious boycott: only 50 people voted in one "black" seat. They set up a system of terror, intimidating people into buying party cards, and beating up anyone who produced the wrong one, or who they believed was supporting the other party. The white Rhodesians thought, "If this is majority rule, no thanks", and voted in Ian Smith, who they had previously rejected as a racist nutter. The swing was so great that the UFP, which had ruled since pioneer times, did not win a seat. UDI, then civil war, were inevitable.

Throughout his career, Mugabe has been concerned only that nobody else should rule, not to get majority rule.

Peter Bowbrick

Edinburgh

Public relations helps democracy

Sir: Reading Professor David Miller and Dr William Dinan's article "The dark history of spin and its threat to genuine news" (Media, 14 April) about the public relations industry, I had to ask myself whether I had spent the last twenty years in a parallel universe. Miller and Dinan have written a highly charged article where they say that PR poses a threat to journalists and news.

Since Gutenberg invented the printing press, society has been given an increasing number of communications outlets. Today we are bombarded by opinions and news. Does it not make sense that companies, governments, political parties and other groups and individuals that have things to say have someone to help them do this?

There may be a few rotten apples in the PR industry, but which profession doesn't have them? Miller and Dinan come across as conspiracy theorists, digging up examples from 1919 and twisting new tools such as webcasts and the use of video as proof that the world of PR is rotten to the core. PR people work for charities to help raise funds to feed people living in areas struck by famine. PR people work for companies who sell products and services that drive our economies and fulfil critical functions in our daily lives. PR people work for political parties who are keen that voters understand what they stand for. What is wrong with that?

Kristin Syltevik

Group managing director, Hotwire, London, EC1

Sir: Contrary to the views expressed in the Media section on Monday, the free operation of public relations is actually essential, and unique, to democracies; and we should value it rather than see sinister forces and secret lobbying everywhere.

Whatever the history, modern public relations is about managing reputations and relationships and this is best done openly and transparently. In today's sophisticated media world, the press and public are quick to expose propagandistic messages and untruths and any adviser or organisation foolish enough to use them risks losing their reputation – their most important asset.

Please let us not confuse the excesses and poor practices of a few with the work done by the great majority in our profession.

Colin Farrington

Director General, Chartered Institute of Public Relations, London SW1

Harry Potter and the literary mugging

Sir: I am surprised that you imply (leading article , 15 April) that J K Rowling is being selfish and mercenary in trying to prevent publication of The Harry Potter Lexicon.

Authors routinely draw on the ideas of others and rarely take action even when they consider that their own work has been plagiarised. The expense, risks and wear and tear of litigation deter all but the most robust writers. At a time when copyright is being routinely infringed, J K Rowling is to be commended for taking a stand against a derivative book which appears to have been built entirely on her creativity.

As far as one can gather, it is others, not her, who will be "maximising the earning value" of Harry Potter. It seems that she is reacting to being mugged. Good for her.

Mark Le Fanu

General Secretary, The Society of Authors, London SW10

More at stake than house prices

Sir: Contrary to rumuors, a fall in house prices does not mean that the sky itself is falling on our heads ("The £40bn question: do we bail out the banks to get the mortgage market moving?", 16 April). It's bad news for home-owners, particularly recent buyers, but good news for those wishing to buy. It is simply a bubble that has burst.

The credit crunch could have far more serious consequences. It could mean lack of investment in factories, shops, and other businesses – anyone remember the real economy? It is vital that this issue is addressed. To focus upon sustaining an asset boom when there is danger to the productive economy would be fiddling while Rome burns.

Mark Harms

Clara Vale, Tyne and Wear

Cameron and 1924, the lesson of history

Sir: According to John Rentoul (Opinion, 15 April) David Cameron "would have expected to form a government" if Labour had lost its parliamentary majority last October but remained the largest party. This apparently is because of what happened in 1924 when Stanley Baldwin found himself with about 100 fewer MPs than Central Office had predicted after an election in which he had called for an end to free trade in order to protect British jobs.

The situation in 1924 was straightforward. Labour and the Liberals together had an overwhelming majority. The Liberals immediately "declared war on the Government", as Thomas Jones, Deputy Secretary to the Cabinet, recorded in his diary. Saving free trade was all that mattered to them. Baldwin therefore had no alternative but to resign, and Ramsay MacDonald took office.

The circumstances last October would have been very different. Would David Cameron or Gordon Brown have created a majority, juggling with Liberals, the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Northern Ireland members? Who can tell what would have happened?

Alistair Cooke

London SWI

Sir: I am grateful to John Rentoul for his comments about me. But, contrary to what he says, I have had no discussions with David Cameron concerning the possibility of a hung parliament.

Vernon Bogdanor

Professor of Government, Oxford University

English spelling hits children of the poor

Sir: Education debates in English-speaking countries always miss one crucial point: English spelling makes learning to read and write exceptionally difficult if a child does not receive sufficient help and encouragement from literate adults. English literacy progress depends very heavily on being read to from a very young age and being listened to for many hours when learning to read.

Those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder tend to have low literacy, so children of the poor are educationally disadvantaged long before they enter school. If we improved our spelling, we would not have such great differences in educational performance or between schools. The middle classes would then not be so desperate to avoid some schools (letters, 16 April). It would also save many of the billions spent on unsuccessful efforts to raise overall standards.

China is slowly becoming aware that its writing system also leaves too many people illiterate. It is considering adopting the Korean orthography, which is famous for making learning to read and write exceptionally easy.

Masha Bell

Literacy adviser for the Spelling Society, Wareham, Dorset

Briefly...

Straying into danger

Sir: Pavements (letter, 15 April) are those safe reserves whence pedestrians blissfully stray into cycle lanes and roads as if they are fields of buttercups. It is ruled unsafe for a motorist or cyclist to use a mobile phone when on a highway, but not for a pedestrian when crossing one.

Peter Forster

London N4

Signs of spring

Sir: Forget swallows and cuckoos (letters: 14, 16 April); for me the first sign that spring is upon us is the chimes of ice-cream vans. I heard my first one yesterday. Unfortunately it was only in the distance and did not enter my close. Ah well, I hope they haven't run out by the time the first heatwave arrives.

Philip Moran

London N1

Puzzle in the park

Sir: David Nicholson's letter (15 April) complaining about London marathon runners fouling Greenwich Park craftily gets his dog's name into print. This preoccupied much of my walk with my dogs this morning in searching for a pretext to achieve the same for Alfie and Benny, but I couldn't think of one.

Alan Weir

Hitchin, Hertfordshire

Insult to Everest

Sir: I have just returned from six months in Nepal, where a considerable number of Tibetan refugees are living, staring every day from the Kathmandu Valley towards Everest, on the borders of their homeland. I can think of no other contrivance by the Chinese more designed to inflame Tibetans than to have the Olympic torch run up and down the magnificent mountain. The Olympic Committee has the power to stop this wretched piece of theatre – and should do so, now.

Lesley Abdela

Burwash, East Sussex

Serious games

Sir: In my day, we played doctors and nurses, so I was somewhat taken aback to watch my seven-year-old grand-daughter, dressed in black, taking notes and giving feedback, playing "inspectors". Now where did she learn about that?

David Selby

South Wonston, Hampshire

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