We strongly agree with many of the points George Monbiot makes in response to the recent floods (The benefit dependency that the government loves, 4 March). George notes that the changes he wants to see will lead to a reduction in production. He is right that this could helpfully lead to less grain and protein being wastefully fed to farm animals, many of which spend their entire lives shut up indoors, and less grain being produced for biofuels on land which should be producing food for people. His argument is greatly strengthened by the overwhelming need to change our diets in the face of the rising tide of ill-health linked to over-consumption and obesity, costing the NHS over £5bn annually. UK farming could easily support healthy diets, with more fruit and vegetables, and less meat and dairy, and with a focus on grass-fed meat rather than industrial chicken and pork.
George argues against the almost unconditional payments made to farmers under pillar 1 of the common agricultural policy, which is why we and others have long argued that all payments to farmers should be made under pillar 2, where payments can be linked to genuine benefits which farmers deliver for society, like more wildlife and, in other EU countries, less greenhouse gas emissions and more jobs. George is right to castigate the damaging impacts that a crop like maize can have, but not all farming is the same, and we would argue that organic farming, using the sun's energy rather than fossil fuels to provide fertility, with grass leys needed on all farms, and with deeper and denser rooted crops, ensures that soils can absorb and hold more water in times of heavy rain. By holding water, soils on organic farms also provide resilience against what will probably be the next climatic shock to hit the UK – another "exceptional, one in 100 years" drought like the one we suffered in 2011.
Policy director, Soil Association
• In his ongoing crusade to rewild the countryside at the expense of UK agriculture, George Monbiot again seems determined to ignore key facts. He continues to repeat the line about maize growers being entirely exempt from soil protection rules even though it isn't true. He insists on portraying farmers as wanton destroyers of the soil when their livelihoods (and the country's food production capabilities) rely on them maintaining fertile and productive soils.
As for his statements about pesticides, no product is certified for use without undergoing extensive trial evaluations of environmental risk and these registrations undergo regular review. Metaldehyde, which Mr Monbiot mentions, is critical to UK crop production and is the subject of ongoing registration review in the UK as well as a rigorous and targeted stewardship campaign supported by manufacturers, water companies, farmers and regulators to find smart solutions to ensure it doesn't enter water. As the population grows we have to find ways to produce more food while impacting less on the environment. How we achieve this is the debate that attention should be focused on.
Dr Andrew Clark
Head of policy services, NFU
• The government spends £108.9bn a year on the NHS, yet only £3.2bn on agriculture. Disease is often a consequence of poor diet. Since 1970, the supermarkets have come to control farm incomes. Most farms are now dependent on subsidy. The exceptions are those who have paid off their mortgages, and can afford to farm more sensitively. Some post-mortgage farmers own huge estates, some own just a few acres. However, most independent farmers are above retiring age and their children, faced with dire economics and oppressive regulation, do not want to inherit. It's likely that up to 60 % of UK farm land will be sold in the next decade and most will be bought by investment companies, whose shareholders will demand maximum profit until the ecosystem collapses.
Monbiot claims inspections happen "once every 100 years" but our experience was of three inspections a year. The advertised fines would have bankrupted us. But we are also monitored by satellite, and from aircraft. Monbiot's agri-environment schemes are greenwashing. No official surveys are undertaken before the schemes start, the government ignores farm species lists, and imposes a standard management plan regardless of its affect on existing rarities. No ecological surveys are conducted during or after the scheme, but subcontractors are sent to ensure that rules are being obeyed, effectively ensuring the local extinction of rarities that the government had not considered worth enquiring about.
St Clears, Carmarthenshire
• I congratulate George Monbiot on his attack on modern farming practices. We witness these in our valley, which spreads west towards Guildford from Dorking. In our village there is a stream which runs continuously throughout the year, even in times of drought. It's catchment area is primarily Leith Hill and the water is generally clear, no matter how hard the rain is falling, until it meets the arable farming land in the base of the valley. At that point it is joined by water from the deep drainage ditches from the fields which is a yellowy brown sludgy mess due to the run off. As Monbiot has consistently pointed out, this practice of over-draining what are often bare fields not only leads to flooding but is in blatant disregard of the necessary conservation of the soil that farms rely on for their, and our, long-term future.
• Given the finding that diets rich in animal protein may be as harmful to health as smoking (Report, 5 March), the chancellor must give serious consideration to our suggestion of a tax on meat, eggs and dairy products. We can get all the nutrients that we need (without the saturated fat and cholesterol) from healthy vegan foods. The government can prolong the lives of millions of people, not to mention save those of animals.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals
New WHO guidelines must be translated into something meaningful to consumers, says director of Action on Sugar
One Starbucks caramel frappuccino with skimmed milk and whipped cream contains nearly twice as much sugar as the World Health Organisation says is the advisable daily intake, and a can of Coca-Cola or Pepsi has one and a half times the amount, but campaigners worry that the message about cutting down on sugar is insufficiently clear.
In a draft updated guideline on sugar consumption, WHO recommended on Wednesday that no more than 10% of our calories should come from sugar, but suggested less than 5% would be preferable.
For an average adult consuming 2,000 calories a day, that equates to 50g of sugar – or 12 teaspoons – at the higher limit and 25g – six teaspoons – at the lower limit.
A child, whose calorie intake is much lower, would reach the limit even faster.
The Starbucks caramel frappuccino contains more than 44g of sugar – 11 teaspoons – which is considerably above the lower limit and almost at the upper limit, suggesting that it could be unwise to drink one at all.
Coca-Cola and Pepsi in 330ml cans have nine teaspoons of sugar, a 51g Mars bar has eight teaspoons and a Muller Crunch Corner strawberry shortcake yoghurt six teaspoons. There is added sugar in many savoury dishes, including pasta sauce and soup, to improve taste and texture.
Aseem Malhotra, cardiologist and science director of the pressure group Action on Sugar, which produced the table of foods with added sugars at its launch in January, said most people would find it hard to calculate how much sugar they are consuming, and are not helped by labels.
Malhotra points out that many manufacturers add together the WHO recommendation of 10% of added sugars and a further 10% of intrinsic sugars – those from fruit and vegetables, which were the subject of a separate nutritional recommendation by the WHO in 2003 to try to persuade people to eat more of them. As a result, Coca-Cola can say that the 35g of sugar in a 330ml can is 39% of an adult's guideline daily recommended amount of total sugars, even though it contains only added sugar.
"This is extremely misleading," said Malhotra. "I agree with the WHO recommendation, but it has to be translated into something meaningful for the consumer."
Public Health England responded to the WHO announcement by accepting the 10% limit recommendation. It went further, adding that it "will carefully consider the suggestion that a further reduction of sugar to below 5% of total energy intake per day would have additional benefits." The UK already has a 10% limit guideline. Surveys suggest that adults in England consume 11.6% of their calories as sugar and children 15.2%.
The WHO recommendation is a response to the growing obesity epidemic, which is a cause of increased heart disease, strokes, type 2 diabetes and some cancers, and also tooth decay.
But the food and drink industry appeared to be relaxed over the guidelines. Barbara Gallani, director of regulation, science and health at the Food and Drink Federation, said: "The main recommendation in the draft guidance … supports the existing UK policy on sugars, that intake of free sugars should not exceed 10% of total energy. Where weight gain is referenced in the draft guidance, this too supports current UK government policy and industry action to reduce calories in the diet.
"Excess calories, whether from fat, sugars or other nutrients, can result in weight gain, which is why UK food and drink producers are working to reduce calories in their products, many doing so under the UK government's Responsibility Deal calorie reduction pledge." The federation pointed out that the WHO said there was greater uncertainty about the science underpinning a 5% limit.
Religious slaughter is at least as humane as conventional mechanical slaughter. The British Veterinary Association should look elsewhere
The head of the British Veterinary Association has said that religious slaughter methods need to change to prevent animal suffering. It is unfortunate that the BVA and other animal welfare organisations in the UK tend to view religious slaughter as incompatible with humaneness; quite the contrary is true – compassion and animal welfare stand at the centre of the entire process.
Shechita and zabiha are not words commonly known by the public, but to Jewish and Muslim communities they are synonymous with sincerely held, religiously mandated care for animals. They refer to the Jewish and Muslim humane methods of slaughter of animals for food, and the body of religious law in which they are contained talks not only about the last two seconds of an animal's life, but about its treatment from birth.
There is much difference between shechita and zabiha, but both quickly dispatch the animal by severing the structures at the front of the neck – the trachea, oesophagus, carotid arteries and jugular veins. When carried out by a trained practitioner, the speed and precision of the incision ensures the lack of stimulation of the severed structures and results in the immediate loss of consciousness; blood flow to the brain is completely halted. In addition, blood empties rapidly from the brain.
Irreversible cessation of consciousness and insensibility to pain are achieved, providing the most effective stun. There is no delay between stun and subsequent death, so the animal cannot regain consciousness – as can happen with conventional slaughter methods.
Traditional British methods of stunning by use of a captive bolt, gassing or electrocution (by electrified pincers for larger animals, or a water bath with an electric current running through it for poultry) paralyse the animal, and it is unable to display outward signs of feeling pain. However, it is impossible to know whether the animal is feeling pain or not.
There is ample scientific evidence that religious slaughter is at least as humane as conventional mechanical slaughter. Research in the UK and the US, including by Dr Temple Grandin – one of the authorities on animal welfare – have supported this view. By contrast, many of the studies that suggest that religious slaughter causes unnecessary pain have been agenda-driven and methodologically flawed, stretching data in a distinctly unscientific fashion to unsupported conclusions.
It is remarkable therefore that religious slaughter can generate such a huge amount of publicity and media scaremongering when in fact the number of animals affected is extremely low. Halal and kosher meat are responsible for a fraction of the cattle slaughtered in the UK.
So even if one believes, despite the lack of scientific consensus, that religious slaughter is cruel, it is deeply troubling that the BVA has chosen to focus its attention on religious slaughter rather than other, far more pressing animal welfare issues. For example, between 2009 and 2011 the campaign group Animal Aid filmed secretly and found evidence of unspeakable cruelty and illegal activity in eight of nine randomly chosenBritish slaughterhouses: animals were kicked, slapped, stamped on, and even burned with cigarettes. We are yet to hear of a campaign by the BVA to root out this kind of cruelty.
Similarly, the European Food Safety authority found in 2004 that the failure rate for the much-trumpeted penetrating captive bolt stunning in conventional mechanical slaughter may be as high as 6.6%, and up to 31% for non-penetrating captive bolt and electric stunning. This equates to millions of animals each year that experience incredible suffering. But the BVA has not mounted a campaign on this.
There will always be a discussion about what can be learned from scientific evidence, and the Jewish and Muslim communities stand ready to debate in any constructive forum. But let us not pretend that religious slaughter represents a key battleground for animal welfare in this country – to do so is disingenuous in the extreme.Shuja ShafiJonathan Arkush
Nasa's Hubble telescope caught asteroid P/2013 R3 splintering into ten pieces over three months
The break up of an asteroid has been captured on film for the first time.
Experts pictured the P/2013 R3 asteroid breaking into ten pieces using Nasa's Hubble space telescope.
Publishing details in Astrophysical Journal Letters, they said that although fragile comet nuclei have been seen falling apart as they near the sun, nothing resembling this type of breakup has been observed before in the asteroid belt.
The pictures show the asteroid splitting up into smaller fragments between October last year and mid-January.
The four largest are up to 200 yards in radius, the astronomers said.
They said the asteroid's debris will provide a "rich source of meteoroids" in the future. While most will plunge into the sun, a small fraction may one day enter the Earth's atmosphere as meteors.
"Seeing this rock fall apart before our eyes is pretty amazing," said Professor David Jewitt, of the University of California, Los Angeles. Fragments were seen drifting away from each other at about one mile an hour.
The astronomers said the asteroid began coming apart early last year, but new pieces continue to emerge.
They said it was unlikely that the asteroid is breaking up because of a collision with another, because that would have caused an "instantaneous and violent" break up.
They said that the break up is also unlikely to have been caused by interior ices warming and vapourising because it is too cold – being nearly 300 million miles from the sun.
Professor Jewitt, who led the astronomical forensics investigation into the asteroid, said that it could have disintegrated due to a "subtle effect of sunlight".
He said that this can cause the rate of rotation to increase slightly, which causes the asteroid's component pieces to gently pull apart due to "centrifugal force".
This type of disruption has been discussed by experts for several years but has never been reliably observed.
The chemical used in Ghouta district near Damascus in August matches government stockpile and gas used in Khan al-Assal in April last year
The Syrian opposition has seized on a UN finding that sarin used in a devastating chemical strike last August was likely to have come from the regime's supplies of the weapon as proof that loyalist forces carried out the attack.
The claim was made in a report about human rights abuses released by the global body on Tuesday, which condemned a wide array of atrocities committed throughout the three-year war.
Describing the attack on the Ghouta district near Damascus, the report said: "The perpetrators likely had access to the chemical weapons stockpile of the Syrian military, as well as the expertise and equipment necessary to manipulate safely large amount of chemical agents."
The Syrian military has not reported having lost control of any of its 1,200 tonnes of chemicals, which it is in the process of surrrendering as part of a Russian-brokered deal to avoid US-led air strikes.
The strong wording stops short of apportioning blame for the attack. However, the political wing of the Syrian opposition said the finding was "confirmation" of a regime role.
The sarin attack claimed between 350 and 1,400 lives and was a defining moment in the Syrian war, drawing international condemnation and provoking a bitter debate about who was responsible.
It came during rebel attempts to push towards regime-held districts of the capital, which were being rebuffed by intensive shell fire from Syrian units.
US and European officials claim to have intercepted phone calls immediately after the attack from Syrian officers to the defence ministry and from Hezbollah to senior regime officials demanding to know what had happened. Syria has vehemently denied having carried out the strike, insisiting that rebel groups were the perpetrators.
Ever since, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has been leading a process of verifying then securing and transporting Syria's chemical weapons stocks, a mixture of sarin, mustard gas and precursor chemicals.
The transfer is less than 40% complete and is running several months behind schedule. However, efforts to move the chemicals to the port of Tartous and onward to sites in Europe have been stepped up over the past fortnight.
It is understood that samples from the surrendered sarin have been matched to samples taken in the days after the strike. Investigators also said that another chemical attack in Khan al-Assal, near Aleppo last April "bore the same unique hallmarks" as the Ghouta attack.
The report also condemned the regime's use of barrel bombs – large rudimentary explosives dropped from helicopters, which have caused death and destruction in several cities, especially Aleppo. It said torture and "starvation to submission" were also commonly used tactics in the war, which has killed more than 130,000 people and led to around nine million being displaced.
The UN blamed the situation on a combination of government forces and non-state actors on both sides, including paramilitaries fighting alongside loyalist forces, and jihadist groups, who have been fighting with opposition militants.
It said more than 250,000 people remain beseiged by the Syrian army. The UN interviewed 563 people between July and January to reach its findings. The global body has funded one of its largest humanitarian drives ever to aid Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Turkey, but has been unable to broker a political solution to the fighting, which continues to take on a sectarian feel.Martin Chulov
Both pro and anti gun groups have been critical of the social network, which has become one of the world’s largest marketplaces for gunsDominic Rushe
Composer's playful interest in mathematics gets its own exhibition at museum in his home town of Eisenach
The 329th birthday of the composer Johann Sebastian Bach may not strike most people as a very significant anniversary, but for Bach scholars, 21 March this year will be a very special day. Some researchers claim that the Baroque composer had an obsession with the number 14, the sum of the numeric value of the letters in his surname (B+A+C+H = 2+1+3+8 = 14). The numbers 3, 2 and 9 also add up to 14 – and all this 14 years into the 21st century. Coincidence?
To mark his birthday in 1685 – which is sometimes dated to the 31st of the month these days due to the switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar in Germany in 1698 – the Bach museum in the composer's hometown of Eisenach will take a closer look at his esoteric interest in number puzzles. Amongst the items on display from 21 March until 9 November will be a famous 1746 portrait in which the composer wears a waistcoat with 14 buttons, a personalised drinking cup with a 14-point monogram, as well as Bach's annotated score for 14 canons built on the baseline of his Goldberg Variations.
A series of films and interactive displays will explore and sometimes question the validity of the most common theories.
Until the discovery of the 14 canons in Strasbourg in 1974, looking for numeric patterns in Bach's work had been considered a niche activity, said Jörg Hansen, the curator of the exhibition. But these days "most scholars accept that Bach shared other baroque artists' passion for gematria", an ancient system of assigning numerical values to words or phrases.
"That's not to say that music came second to number games," said Hansen, who was sceptical about some of the wilder theories, such as that the composer mathematically predicted the date of his own death. In the late 90s, one Bach scholar developed a computer programme just to show that any given number could be found to reoccur in Bach's work once you started searching for it. The number 13, for example, occurred just as frequently as the number 14.
But these days, Hansen said, there were few academics who denied that Bach had a playful mind, and the theory that he enjoyed encrypting his personal signature in the texture of his compositions was seen as less fanciful. "[Carl] Philipp Emanuel Bach was recorded as saying that his father 'was not a fan of dry mathematical stuff'. Increasingly, I think that statement should be read with an emphasis on 'dry' rather than 'mathematical',"Hansen said.
The curators of the Bach House in Eisenach are not alone in their renewed interest in Bach's number puzzles. Danish director Lars von Trier's new film, Nymphomaniac, features a series of earnest conversations about Fibonacci numbers and Bach's polyphonic theory.Philip Oltermann
Historian, archaeologist and authority on the Anglo-Saxons
The Anglo-Saxons retain a powerful grip on English imaginations. The discovery in 2009, just south of Watling Street, the ancient trackway paved by the Romans, of gold and silver artefacts that became known as the Staffordshire hoard attracted much attention but raised many questions. One of the few people equipped to propose solutions was Nicholas Brooks, emeritus professor of medieval history at Birmingham University, who was soon appointed to the panel co-ordinating research into the finds.
His was the kind of scholarship that reaches out to the public. Among his special interests were Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and warfare, and the payments, in the form of weapons and armour, owed by the elite as death duties to the king and recycled in the form of gifts to warriors. Nicholas convincingly explained the hoard's apparently odd composition – only the hilts and pommels of swords, for instance, not the blades – in terms of its being the working capital of one department of a royal armoury near Lichfield, the bishopric of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia. The hoard was found south-west of Lichfield, and nearby is Tamworth, site of the chief Mercian royal residence.
Nicholas, who has died aged 73 of pancreatic cancer, was not only a historian. As a young archaeologist, he identified one of King Alfred's forts, and discovered the structure of another's ramparts. An early paper, co-authored with his former school history master Harold Walker and published in Anglo-Norman Studies Vol 1 in 1978, found unsuspected evidential value in the arms and armour depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry. But his greatest achievements lay in the study of documents.
Born in Virginia Water, Surrey, Nicholas was the son of WDW Brooks, a consultant physician at St Mary's hospital, Paddington, London, and Phyllis (nee Juler), a physician's daughter and talented pianist and figure-skater. The third of their four children, he was educated at Winchester college, and graduated in history from Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1961.
His interests and imagination had been fired originally by stays at the family's holiday cottage in Kent, which lay on the continuation of Watling Street south of Canterbury. He became fascinated by Kent's historic landscape. As a mature scholar, he showed, in a brilliant foray into the 14th century, the effectiveness of the communication strategies used by Kentishmen in the Peasants' Revolt of 1381.
A series of path-breaking earlier medieval studies proved that works ordained by medieval kings to maintain the bridge over the river Medway at Rochester, and persisting in various administrative incarnations until the Bridge Trust of the present day, originated in late Roman arrangements. Nicholas's view was long, and never insular.
Anglo-Saxon Canterbury was central to Nicholas's life's work. His Oxford DPhil on the Canterbury charters, supervised by Professor Dorothy Whitelock at Cambridge, was finished in 1969 and published as The Early History of the Church of Canterbury (1984). The charters record donations of property to the church, nearly all by lay benefactors, giving details of where estates lay and how valuable they were, when they were received, on what terms leases were granted, and disputes arising later. What makes Canterbury's charters special is their large number, the fact that they mostly survive as originals, and that through them can be traced the workings of lay piety, and the buildup of Canterbury's lands through the Anglo-Saxon period, which explains its importance as a great institutional landowner with huge political clout.
The full edition of the 185 charters, completed through 30 years' further editorial labours, shared between Nicholas and his colleague Susan Kelly, with unstinting support from the British Academy, was published in the two bulky volumes of Charters of Christ Church Canterbury (2013). Canterbury's archival hoard brings to light earlier medieval English history in all its guises: religion, language (many are in Old English), law and politics, landscape and economy, and connections with continental Europe.
While still working on his DPhil, Nicholas was appointed in 1964 to his first academic post, at the University of St Andrews. There he met Chlöe Willis, whom he married in 1967, and there they stayed until 1985.
In 1978, when Nicholas became general editor of the series Studies in the Early History of Britain (later, Studies in Early Medieval Britain), he gave a memorable paper to the Royal Historical Society on King Alfred mobilising his people against Viking attacks. Thirty volumes of studies were published under his guidance, and four under his personal editorship or co-editorship: Latin and the Vernacular Languages in Early Medieval Britain (1982), St Oswald of Worcester (1996), St Wulfstan and his World (2005) and Early Medieval Studies in Memory of Patrick Wormald (2009). These publications were important in establishing an approach to Anglo-Saxon England that understood it in the context of the whole of the British Isles and contacts with continental Europe.
In 1985, Nicholas was appointed to the chair of medieval history at Birmingham University. There, history prospered under his wise and supportive headship, as did the faculty of arts during his stint as dean. He was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 1989. After his retirement in 2004, a group including several of his former students, now academics themselves, produced a festschrift, Myth, Rulership, Church and Charters (2008), testimony to Nicholas's personal warmth and kindness as well as to his academic distinction.
There are two stories of Nicholas's retirement, both true. One is that he spent more time with Chlöe and the family, that he continued to enjoy gardening and walking, that he and Chlöe found new enjoyment in choral singing, and that he spent more time on bridge playing than bridge archaeology. The other is that the Canterbury charters were published, as were several substantial papers, including two of his most original on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, that he continued to supervise research students, that he presided as he had since 1991 over the British Academy's Anglo-Saxon charters project, and that he continued to sit on the fabric advisory committees of two great cathedrals, Canterbury and Worcester. King Alfred left his memory in good works; Nicholas followed suit.
He is survived by Chlöe, a daughter, Ebba, and a son, Crispin, and three grandchildren.
• Nicholas Peter Brooks, medieval historian, born 14 January 1941; died 2 February 2014
Jen Doll: You can change the way you test your verbal, College Board. You just can’t take away the memory of all that remainsJen Doll
An image taken by the Hubble telescope in 2009 shows dust and stars being ripped from galaxy ESO 137-001 as it moves through a hot galaxy cluster
Yale Environment 360: Local food effort tiny while industrial agriculture is blasting ahead at a great rate, says author, farmer and activist