Wednesday, 27 March 2013

The many remits of The WI

This week's news has brought to the fore the issue of the lack of public transport, especially for older people. In some areas where services are being axed, a short trip for weekly shopping becomes more of a problem.  The remedial suggestion given, setting up "community car schemes", is not new. Car sharing schemes are now becoming more established, but back in 2006 when the NFWI tried to establish them, it was very difficult to harness peoples' interest, never mind setting one up. The main reason for the NFWI then was to cut CO2 emissions within our campaign on environment and climate change. That is still a principal reason; but also journeying together can be a great help to someone, as well as enjoyable and less stressful if you are the passenger. My own village operates such a scheme and has done for many years. No doubt many other villages and areas could benefit from these schemes also, and who better to organise one than WI members?

There is no doubt that the climate has changed and I always try to use the train on my WI travels. Today I find myself en route to Eastbourne where I shall speak at the annual meeting of the East Sussex federation of WIs – it is the last such meeting before Easter, but there will be a few more in April.  I thoroughly enjoy this part of the WI and, in fact, all that goes into making the WI what it is and that is why I have always loved and valued being a member. Much time is spent by the national board on deciphering policy and constitutional matters, not to mention honing the vision for the future of the WI. I suppose, in modern parlance, I could say we are trying to break down the disparate silos (data management) across the enterprise. Mind you, when it comes to data we have very little, and it is only in the last decade that we even know the names of all our members on a national level. However, the buzz word is vision, and without vision over the past 98 years the WI would not have survived to be here for the thousands of women who are currently swelling the ranks.  There is no doubt the organisation is, again in modern speak, a brand - The WI Inspiring Women. Open to all women to make of it what they want, to come together with like-minded women, and those with differing opinions too, to learn and share, advise, regroup and take stock with a view to doing something for themselves and for their community.

Sitting on a train I have just passed a corset factory. Corsets were de rigueur when the WI was established – but although women might have been physically constrained thanks to their underwear, it did not prevent WI members voicing their concerns on sexually transmitted disease, poor housing, polluted sea, lack of water and sanitation. I could go on. In fact, there is a list of well over 400 mandates accepted by the members over 98 years. Women today, although not constrained so much corset-wise, are still pushing at boundaries society appears to accept. Labelling of food, its content and its origin has come sharply into focus in recent weeks but WI members had the COOL campaign (country of origin labelling) long before 'horsegate' hit the headlines.

Over the years many issues around the food we eat have been within the WI remit, whether tackled at national, federation or local WI level. Positive results are usually seen when all three work together, but many a positive result can be down to the tenacity of a WI- or even one or two members of a WI.  Our resolution for this year is a call for WI members to play a part in saving the high streets: if it gains a two thirds majority vote at the AGM this June it will become a mandate upon which members will take action. There are no doubt already many members who, as individual consumers, support their local high street, but a WI mandate would add even more emphasis to the issue. A few years ago in my own federation a survey was carried out to ascertain how many 'local shops' there were in the places where there was a WI. Many villages had no retail facilities. Living in a village that did have a few shops I endeavoured to feed my family for six months using only local food shops. I succeeded and the cost was certainly no more than had I shopped at out of town food shops. For now, we wait to see if our resolution becomes a mandate.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Pesticides and Pollinators – Time to Act

In 2009, the WI passed a resolution on the decline of our honeybee population, calling for greater research in order to challenge this trend. The ‘SOS for Honeybee’ campaign that followed catalysed our members into action and brought the plight of the honeybee to the public consciousness.

We were delighted when the government announced the Insect Pollinator Initiative in 2010; a £10million funding pot dedicated to researching the important role that pollinators play, including honeybees, wild bees and solitary bees.

Despite this research, our bee population remains in crisis and, in recent months, bees have been in the headlines once again. This is largely in light of a growing body of evidence emerging on the impact that neonicotinoids – a type of systemic insecticide used in agriculture, as well as in the home – has on bee health and wellbeing. The reaction to this has been swift; several garden retailers have withdrawn products containing neonicotinoids from their shelves, and the European Commission has proposed imposing a partial restriction on their use in some applications and at certain times of the year.

This week the European Commission are putting their proposal to a vote of the EU member states and there is concern that the proposal will be blocked by three of the larger states – Britain being one of them.

The WI has always been an organisation to look to the future. From campaigning against oil pollution in the 1920s to the provision of breast cancer screening in the 1970s, we have always strived to consider the bigger picture. That is why I have written to the Secretary of State, urging him to support the European Commission’s proposals. Yes; there may be truth in claims that there are gaps in the current research available on neonicotinoids. And yes, we realise that there will be implications for our farming communities. Yet we do not approach this view lightly; we do so bearing in mind the huge impact that pollinator decline will have on our future generations – whether they end up being farmers, wildlife enthusiasts, or simply those who benefit from the fruits of our bees’ labour – which is pretty much everyone! We simply cannot stand still while our bee population, and the important pollination role that they play, slides into obscurity. Of course we accept that alone, the European Commission’s proposal will not present the magic bullet needed to stop the decline of bees. The challenge that bees face is multifaceted and this is widely acknowledged. But the fact remains that the evidence available on neonicotinoids paints a compelling picture on the contribution that they make to that decline. Even if restricting neonicotinoid use assuages this decline just a fraction, can we really afford not to take action?