What actually makes avocados bad for the environment?

The soaring demand for avocados in Europe and North America has led to a trebling of global production in just over 20 years. However, this popular fruit is increasingly controversial because of the environmental impacts of farming and distributing them around the world.

These issues are not inherent to avocados themselves, which could still be a part of a sustainable, healthy diet. But rather they reflect some of the deep-rooted problems associated with their production.

Avocados are native to Central and South America, where the warm, temperate climate provides ideal growing conditions. There are hundreds of varieties, however the one that most of us are familiar with today is the Hass variety, which can be traced back to a single tree planted almost 100 years ago.

Part of the avocado’s rise in popularity over recent decades has come from its marketing as a “superfood”. While some health claims may have been overstated, they are indeed a good source of vitamins, minerals and unsaturated fats, which give them their satisfying, creamy texture.

So why have avocados become so controversial? Like a lot of modern agriculture, most avocado plantations rely heavily on fertiliser and fossil fuels, contributing to rising greenhouse gas emissions. They have smaller yields than a lot of other crops and so have a higher carbon footprint per kilogram of fruit.

On average, avocados have a carbon footprint of around 2.5kg of CO₂ equivalent (kg CO₂e) per kg – that’s all the greenhouse gases resulting from producing and transporting avocados, such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, rolled into the CO₂ equivalent of warming.

The carbon footprint of avocados is more than twice as high as bananas (0.9kg CO₂e per kg) and over five times higher than apples (0.4kg CO₂e per kg), although it is only slightly worse than tomatoes (2kg CO₂e per kg).

But these figures are small compared to the global average carbon footprint of most animal-derived products. A kilogram of eggs has a carbon footprint of 4.6kg CO₂e, a kilogram of chicken comes in at 9.8kg CO₂e, and a kilogram of beef results in a whopping 85kg CO₂e on average.

For those outside the Americas, the large distances avocados often travel may not be as big a deal as is commonly believed, at least in carbon terms. The vast majority of avocados are shipped, which is relatively low carbon because of the huge quantities that can be transported in a single voyage. Even when they are transported thousands of miles, shipping results in just 0.2kg CO₂e per kg of avocados, which is often much less than the footprint from growing them.

Shipping does entail other issues. Over-reliance on shipping has created a food system that is vulnerable to shocks and disruptions, where logjams and logistical bottlenecks (for example, the blockage of the Suez canal by a container ship in 2021), famines or wars in one part of the world can lead to disruptions or food shortages in many other countries.

The problem is likely to increase as the climate crisis deepens. This issue is not unique to avocados, but moving towards more locally supplied foods may build more resiliency and help protect against future food shortages.

Avocados are primarily grown as an export crop for Europe and the US.

An environmental burden

Avocado trees are very thirsty plants, requiring an average of around 1,000 litres of water per kg. This is higher than most other fruits and vegetables but lower than some cereals such as rice. The main issue is that avocados are grown in regions that are already water-stressed.

Mexico, the world’s top avocado producer, is experiencing prolonged periods of drought, so irrigating avocado plantations may be undermining the local population’s access to water. This issue of fair water distribution could get worse in the coming decades.

There are also impacts on nature to consider. Traditionally, avocado trees were planted in mixed plots with other crops and harvested as a subsistence food, with only the surplus being exported. This practice changed as demand from the US and Europe increased.

Avocados are now primarily grown as an export crop, with production switching to large, monoculture plantations to maximise productivity. These monocultures have pushed out other native crops and are much more vulnerable to pests and disease than mixed planting.

All this means greater volumes of pesticide chemicals and synthetic fertilisers need to be used. These, in turn, negatively affect biodiversity, soil quality and human health.

Avocado plantations can require intense irrigation.

Worse still, in some regions new avocado plantations are driving deforestation. As much as 25,000 hectares of forest are being cleared every year in the state of Michoacán, Mexico’s main avocado producing region that supplies most of the avocados sold in the US.

Michoacán has rich forest cover that is home to several endangered animals such as jaguars, cougars and coyotes. Increasing avocado production in this region could therefore be a massive threat to biodiversity.

Finally, there are the human impacts to consider. While the avocado trade can help the local populations by providing income for farmers, they are also the ones who are feeling the brunt of the environmental issues. In addition, avocado plantations have been linked to organised crime and human rights abuses, with some towns and villages getting so sick of the problems that they have outlawed avocados altogether.

Frustratingly, there aren’t any easy answers. Looking for fairtrade or organically produced avocados might help in terms of the human and biodiversity impacts, but the certification processes are far from perfect and often too expensive for small-scale farmers in developing countries. They also may not result in lower emissions than monoculture plantations.

Avocados aren’t the only food with an environmental burden. They have a much lower carbon footprint than most animal products and are just one of many crops where a single variety dominates the market. But neither should we dismiss the damage that avocado production is having on nature and local populations.

The best advice for consumers may be to consider alternative varieties of avocado where possible to reduce the demand for monoculture plantations. Where these aren’t available, the next best thing is probably to try to keep avocados as a treat rather than a regular staple. Läs mer…

Israel threatens ‘all-out war’ against Hezbollah – what are the consequences for the US presidential campaign?

Israel has announced that it is ready to go to war with Hezbollah – a move that is likely to undermine US president Joe Biden’s chances in the 2024 election even further.

Israel says that Hezbollah – the Lebanese political party and militant group – has pushed it close to an all-out war after the organisation posted a nine-minute video of drone footage, showing military and civilian areas in several locations including the Israeli port of Haifa. Israel has now publicly stated that it has approved military plans to move to a war footing against Hezbollah. Lebanon is on Israel’s border and the two countries have a long history of conflict and tension, which has been intensifying in recent months.

Israel’s escalation would be a significant blow to Biden ahead of the US presidential election. The Israel-Palestine conflict is already eroding Democrat support and Biden has repeatedly been accused from all sides of mishandling the situation. If further violence ramps up in the region, this will put even greater pressure on Biden, in ways he doesn’t need, just before the US goes to the ballot box.

Any further weakening of support for Biden is of concern to other national leaders who want to avoid a Trump presidency, and, potentially, its fallout for the Ukraine war. Biden has already had to navigate a complex situation of wanting to bring peace in the Middle East, while also respecting a longstanding expectation that the US will always stand by Israel. Biden has faced political pressure to arm Israel and public condemnation of the way he has dealt with protests on university campuses. There has been further pressure on him after allegations that Israel was committing genocide were filed with the International Court of Justice. In short, it’s the sort of situation that no president wants.

Tension in the Middle East along Israel’s border with Lebanon.

The tension between Israel and Hezbollah will not be seen as an isolated incident but will play into deeper concerns about Israeli foreign policy and where the US should stand. The situation will inevitably be considered part of a wider US debate on the Israel-Palestine conflict, with all the emotions and political difficulties that come with this, and is likely to be a source of contention at the upcoming presidential debate on June 27.

Read more:
US election: why Latino and Hispanic voters are shifting to Trump after a long history of supporting the Democrats

The US is already working to maintain peace between Israel and Hezbollah and to bring about a diplomatic solution in the form of a ceasefire proposal. Critics who want increased US support for Israel will be upset with peace negotiations which they say favour Hezbollah – and, with it, Iran. But if Biden goes beyond trying for a peace deal – for example, by providing more military aid to Israel – he can forget the votes of those who would prefer a more hardline American stance towards the Netanyahu government. Even if Biden gets a peace deal, or Israel doesn’t move to all-out war, the situation will still undermine Biden’s electoral chances, because it can’t be separated from the wider disputes around Israel that are already losing him support in some quarters.

Damaged relationships

Biden’s response will also be extremely difficult for his relations with the Democratic party. The party is already deeply divided over Israel and this new threat will only exacerbate that division. The last thing candidates need before an election is to not have the full support of their party. The Israel-Hezbollah conflict has the potential to inflame internal political disputes between the Democrats even further and Biden will be going into the election with one hand tied behind his back.

This isn’t just a domestic question, however, but an international one. Israel is one of the most important issues on the international political agenda right now. The criticisms against Biden don’t just come from US voters but from other states. If Biden can’t win those states over to whatever he does next in relation to Israel and Hezbollah, he will look incompetent and unreliable. And if he can’t convince other national leaders that he is up to the job, he won’t convince US voters either.

The problems that Biden now has to address over Hezbollah will also be problematic for his electoral competition with Donald Trump. The Republican party is also split on Israel. But the situation would hurt Trump in the election to a lesser degree. In fact, it may even be a win for Trump.

Trump has been a strong backer of Israel – and this has often appealed to his supporters and pro-Israeli voters. Yet this is going to be less about issues and more about image. Trump’s vocal (and occasionally critical) stance can make him look like an effective leader. His position on Israel may attract condemnation from some, but you can’t deny that he at least looks like he knows what he wants. To many he will appear more presidential in comparison to Biden – who is in a difficult position on Israel and has been frequently accused of not having what it takes to be president.

The tension between Israel and Hezbollah is another chance for Trump to make himself look dynamic and attack his opponent. While the politics of the situation will alone be enough to sway some voters, it’s also the case that this represents another opportunity for Trump’s supporters to call Biden weak. If Biden think the criticism of him now is bad, it’s about to get much worse. Läs mer…

What would war between Israel and Hezbollah mean for the Middle East? Expert Q&A

The Israeli military is reported to have signed off on a major offensive against Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based militia, prompting fears that the situation could spiral into a full-blown war. The two sides have been exchanging fire since the conflict in Gaza began with the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7. But in recent weeks this has escalated considerably.

Earlier this week, Hezbollah released a nine-minute video featuring drone footage of Israeli military and civilian infrastructure, including of the port town of Haifa. Israel’s foreign minister, Israel Katz, warned that his government was “very close to the moment of decision to change the rules against Hezbollah and Lebanon”. Simon Mabon, a Middle East expert at Lancaster University, addressed some key questions for us.

How dangerous is the situation right now?

The situation on the border between Israel and Lebanon has been precarious for months, with tit-for-tat exchanges of cross-border fire becoming a regular occurrence between Israel and Hezbollah (the “Party of God”). While many feared an outright conflict between the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and Hezbollah after the October 7 attacks, both sides have thus far remained within the parameters of low-intensity conflict. The consequences of any escalation are severe, with the potential for mass casualties on all sides.

Though conflict has remained at a low level, more than 400 people have been killed in Lebanon and 30 have been killed in Israel. An estimated 150,000 have been displaced on both sides of the border. Though the events of October 7 and their aftermath have affected the situation, Hezbollah and Israel have been embroiled in low-level conflict since Hezbollah was formed in 1982.

The 2006 war was the most significant moment in this history. This began after Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers from close to the border in an attempted prisoner swap. In response, Israel embarked on a destructive war designed to eliminate Hezbollah. At the time, the war was sold by Israel both domestically and internationally with a similar objective to that found in the current war against Hamas.

The memories of the war almost two decades ago linger. The war in 2006 had a devastating impact on Lebanon. Reconstruction cost over US$10 billion (£7.86 billion) and was funded largely by Saudi Arabia, Iran and others.

Since then, the geopolitical landscape has shifted. It would be far harder to finance any rebuilding projects. Meanwhile the loss of life is likely to be catastrophic – particularly in Lebanon’s crowded urban areas.

Residents of Haifa in the north of Israel fear Hezbollah attacks, while people living in south Lebanon fear IDF attacks. Though attacks have largely been restricted to military targets, the repercussions have affected civilians across south Lebanon, destroying farmland and forcing many people to leave their homes. This has made an already precarious socioeconomic situation in Lebanon a great deal worse.

The conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and northern Israel.
Institute for the Study of War

Recent reports have suggested that Hezbollah has a sophisticated armoury, much of it supplied by Iran and Russia, which includes more than a million rockets of various types, along with anti-tank weaponry, suicide drones and a range of missiles. While Israel’s arsenal of missiles is far larger, along with the infrastructure that supports it, the IDF remains beset by political, strategic, theological and economic challenges and Israel’s public and politicians are far from united about how to deal with the threat.

The recent resignation of Benny Gantz from the war cabinet – which has since been disbanded – shows how precarious the situation is for Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who is under pressure to resign and call an election.

How well prepared is Israel to fight a war on two fronts – perhaps even three, as violence is also increasing in the West Bank?

There are serious doubts as to whether Israel can engage in significant conflicts on two fronts. Rising violence in the West Bank poses an additional challenge for Israel’s security apparatus. Its security infrastructure has come under fire for “missing” Hamas’ brutal attack, while its military is also facing increased pressure due to its actions in Gaza where close to 40,000 have been killed, millions displaced, and where life has been decimated.

The occupied West Bank is home to around 3 million Palestinians, and while the Palestinian Authority exerts a degree of control, Israel is the final arbiter of all matters pertaining to security.

The situation is made more challenging by the presence of close to 700,000 Israeli settlers, whose presence is deemed illegal under international law. These settlers routinely engage in acts of violence against the Palestinian population and largely depend on the IDF to keep them safe and maintain the security architecture that separates the two communities and regulates access to Israel.

Any shift in the security landscape would pose serious challenges to the IDF, to the Palestinian Authority – which is under growing pressure from Palestinians and Arab states more broadly – and exacerbate schisms in Israel’s domestic politics.

How much international support can Israel count on if it launches a major offensive against Hezbollah?

Benjamin Netanyahu has long framed Iran as an existential threat to Israel and has been supported in this by successive US administrations. Yet despite steadfast initial support from the Biden White House, this support has begun to wane as a result of growing popular dismay in the US and globally at the way Israel is conducting operations in Gaza.

Israeli officials have repeatedly said that they can – and will – operate alone if the situation calls for it. But with international bodies becoming increasingly critical of the catastrophic war in Gaza and the devastating death toll, allies are beginning to waver in their support. Votes in the UN have suggested growing anger at Israel’s conduct, while international bodies have explored legal avenues to end the suffering of Palestinians.

The Biden administration has dispatched senior adviser, Amos Hochstein, to the Middle East to try to calm the situation.
EPA-EFE/Dalati and Nohra

Much like Hamas, Hezbollah is a deeply unpopular organisation. Its relationship with Iran worries policymakers in Washington, London and elsewhere and it has been proscribed as a terrorist organisation by a number of western states.

Yet it occupies a central role in Lebanon’s politics and economy. So any conflict with Israel would potentially worsen Lebanon’s delicate power sharing agreement, putting more strain on the economic situation, and destroying urban and rural landscapes.

The situation is bleak and this is undeniably a precarious moment. Yet there is little appetite for another conflict in the Middle East, particularly one that has both the potential for further catastrophic loss of life and wider escalation. Läs mer…

People are worried about the media using AI for stories of consequence, but less so for sports and entertainment

Advances in artificial intelligence (AI) are disrupting many aspects of modern life, and the news industry is no exception. In a year with a record-breaking number of elections worldwide, there has been considerable soul searching about the potential effect of so-called “deepfakes”, and other synthetic content, on democracies. There have also been further disruptions to the business models and trust underpinning independent journalism.

Most audiences are just starting to form opinions about AI and news, but in this year’s Digital News Report survey, which we produced at the University of Oxford’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, we included questions about the subject in 28 markets, backed up with in-depth interviews in the UK, US and Mexico.

Our findings reveal a high level of ambivalence about the use of these technologies. It also offers insights to publishers looking to implement the technologies without further eroding trust in news, which has fallen in many countries in recent years.

It is important to keep in mind that awareness of AI is still relatively low, with around half of our sample (49% globally and 56% in the UK) having read little or nothing about it. However, concerns about the accuracy of information and the potential for misinformation are top of the list when talking to those who are better informed.

Manipulated images and videos, for example around the war in Gaza, are increasingly common on social media and are already causing confusion. As one male participant said: “I have seen many examples before, and they can sometimes be very good. Thankfully, they are still pretty easy to detect but within five years they will be indistinguishable.”

Some participants felt widespread use of generative AI technologies – those that can produce content for users in text, images and video – would probably make identifying misinformation harder, which is especially worrying when it comes to important subjects, such as politics and elections.

Across 47 countries, 59% say they are worried about being able to tell what is real and fake on the internet, up three percentage points on last year. Others took a more optimistic view, noting that these technologies could be used to provide more relevant and useful content.

Use of AI by the news industry

The news industry is turning to AI for two reasons. First, they hope that automating behind-the-scenes processes such as transcription, copy editing and layout will reduce costs. Second, AI technologies could help personalise the content itself, making it more appealing for audiences.

In the last year, we have seen media companies deploying a range of AI solutions, with varying degrees of human oversight, from AI-generated summaries and illustrations to stories written by AI robots and even AI-generated newsreaders.

How do audiences feel about all of this? Across 28 markets, our survey respondents were mostly uncomfortable with the use of AI when content is created mostly by AI with some human oversight. By contrast, there is less discomfort when AI is used to assist (human) journalists, for example in transcribing interviews or summarising materials for research.

Here, respondents are broadly more comfortable than uncomfortable. However, we see country-level differences, possibly linked to cues people are getting from the media. British press coverage of AI, for example, has been characterised as largely negative and sensationalist, while US media narratives are shaped by the leading role of US companies and the opportunities for jobs and growth.

Comfort with AI is also closely related to the importance and seriousness of the subject being discussed. People say they feel less comfortable with AI-generated news on topics such as politics and crime, and more comfortable with sports or entertainment news, subjects where mistakes tend to have less serious consequences.

“Chatbots really shouldn’t be used for more important news like war or politics as the potential misinformation could be the reason someone votes for a candidate over another one,” a 20-year-old man in the UK told us.

Our research also shows that people who tend to trust the news in general are more likely to be comfortable with the uses of AI where humans (journalists) remain in control, compared with those who don’t. This is because those who tend to trust the news also tend to have greater faith in publishers’ ability to responsibly use AI.

Interviews we conducted show a similar pattern at the level of specific news outlets: people who trust specific news organisations, especially those they describe as most reputable, also tend to be more comfortable with them using AI.

On the flipside, audiences who are already sceptical of or cynical about news organisations may view their trust further eroded by the implementation of these technologies.

As one woman from the US put it: “If any news organisation was caught using fake images or videos in any way it should be held accountable and I’d lose trust with them, even if they were being transparent that the content was created with AI.”

Carefully thinking about when disclosure is necessary and how to communicate it, especially in the early stages, when AI is still foreign to many people, will be a crucial element for maintaining trust. This is particularly so when AI is used to create new content that audiences will come into direct contact with. Our interviews tell us this is what audiences are most suspicious of.

Overall, we are still in the early stages of journalists’ usage of AI, but this makes it a time of maximum risk for news organisations. Our data shows audiences are still deeply ambivalent about the use of these technologies, which means publishers need to be extremely cautious about where and how they deploy them.

Wider concerns about synthetic content flooding online platforms mean trusted brands that use the technologies responsibly could be rewarded. But get things wrong and that trust could be easily lost. Läs mer…

What Tory plans to scrap self-employed national insurance would mean for taxes and pensions

The Conservatives have been chipping away at national insurance, and say they want to abolish it altogether for the self-employed. But national insurance has traditionally been the way to build up a state pension – so where would this leave the people who work for themselves?

In common with most higher-income countries, the UK operates a social insurance system. In return for paying certain types of tax, you become entitled to claim various benefits from the state.

National insurance is a tax paid by people of working age on their earnings or profits. Some types act as social insurance, including class 1 contributions paid by employees and class 2 contributions paid by self-employed people. These contributions build your entitlement to claim a state pension when you retire.

However, the Conservative government abolished class 2 national insurance contributions. Instead, since April 2024, self-employed people with taxable profits of £12,570 or more get national insurance credits towards their pension.

Self-employed people with profits between £6,725 and £12,570 already get these credits rather than having to pay contributions.

Those with lower profits can opt into paying the contributions. However, it’s worth remembering that, under current rules, you need only 35 years of contributions or credits to get the full state pension (most people’s working lives span around 50 years).

Phasing out national insurance

If you are self-employed, you also pay class 4 national insurance contributions. These are purely a tax on profits – they do not carry any entitlement to claim the state pension or other benefits.

Class 4 contributions apply on profits above £12,570 and up to £50,270 at a main rate (6% since April 2024) and a lower rate of 2% on profits above that. The Conservatives, in their manifesto, pledge to reduce the main rate further in successive years until the tax is fully abolished from April 2029. This would not affect income tax, which self-employed workers pay at the usual rates on any profits they make.

Jonquil Lowe/Conservative Costings Document, Table 1 and footnotes

Tax on earnings has been rising due to the freezing of the income tax personal allowance and higher-rate threshold until 2028. With wage growth, which has been strong in 2024, earnings cross these frozen boundaries and pull workers into higher bands (so-called “fiscal drag”).

Cuts to national insurance so far have, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), only partially offset income tax rises. The Conservative plan would continue this partial offsetting.

Cutting contributions is relatively painless in terms of the public finances. Contributions go into a “national insurance fund” where they are immediately used to pay state pensions (and some benefits).

But the fund has a surplus of around £80 billion, so the cuts are being financed by running down that surplus.

Want more election coverage from The Conversation’s academic experts? Over the coming weeks, we’ll bring you informed analysis of developments in the campaign and we’ll fact check the claims being made.Sign up for our new, weekly election newsletter, delivered every Friday throughout the campaign and beyond.

The main rationale for the abolition of national insurance for the self-employed is to back “risk-takers and entrepreneurs”. However, of the 3.9 million self-employed people in the UK, one in ten are over state-pension age and so no longer pay national insurance contributions anyway.

What’s more, of the 5.6 million private sector businesses in the UK, 4.1 million are “non-employers”, in other words one person with no employees and unlikely to be a major source of growth.

Larger private businesses (with at least one employee) are more likely to be set up as companies rather than self-employed (technically “sole proprietors”). Only sole proprietors (and some partnerships) pay class 4 national insurance. So again, it seems unlikely that class 4 national insurance is holding back growth.

However, abolishing class 4 contributions can be seen as part of the Conservatives’ longer-term ambition to abolish national insurance, including for employees, and so simplify the tax system.

This is in line with the recommendations of the Mirrlees Review, commissioned by the IFS more than a decade ago to look at the whole tax system. The review argued that there are good reasons to operate a separate social insurance system, but that national insurance has so many anomalies that it is not working as originally intended. It recommended that national insurance be merged with income tax to be more efficient and transparent.

Paying contributions is not the only – or even the best – way of organising a state pension system. Many people in the UK already rely on national insurance credits rather than paid contributions to build up at least part of their state pension entitlement. Importantly, since 1978, this includes people doing unpaid work caring for young children and frail adults.

Some countries, including Canada, New Zealand and Norway, base state pensions on residency rather than the paid labour market. This implicitly acknowledges the value of unpaid as well as paid work and the human rights of those unable to work.

So, while the Conservatives may dangle an end to national insurance for the self-employed as a vote winner, there could be more serious grounds for rationalising the way the UK runs its state pension system.

Under current rules, when the national insurance fund surplus falls to one-sixth of the cost of paying for state pensions and the benefits it covers, there is an injection of money from general taxation. Eventually, if national insurance was completely abolished, state pensions would presumably be entirely financed through general taxes.

It would be naive to assume that the total tax burden would fall. Rather, it would shift and in the process most likely spread the costs more widely – with wealthier pensioners as well as earners contributing to the state pensions bill. Läs mer…

Putin-Kim summit has roots in an alliance of ‘isolated’ nations built over decades

The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, has spent two days in Pyongyang, meeting with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, and signing a “comprehensive strategic partnership”.

Few details are being released about this deal and its expected ramifications for rearming Russian forces stretched by the Ukraine war. But the Kremlin said the agreement would mean each country would come to the aid of the other if attacked. At the top of the agenda for the meeting was almost certainly the war and Russian military requirements.

Since the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine in early 2022 Moscow has been ostracised by the west and its economy has been hit by a succession of harsh sanctions packages. North Korea’s leadership knows all about isolation and has faced decades of economic sanctions. Pyongyang is also increasingly seen as a threat to the security of the Asia-Pacific region – and potentially the United States, particularly in light of the regime’s longstanding pursuit of nuclear weapons capability.

But Putin is in Pyongyang looking for less sophisticated weapons than these. Despite both leaders denying they struck an arms deal when they met in 2023 in Vladivostok, North Korea has been accused of supplying Russia with the artillery and ammunition it so desperately needs to keep its war effort in Ukraine going. Putin and Kim denied at the time that they agreed an arms deal.

Meanwhile, Kim has been a supporter of Russia’s position over the Ukraine war, probably because closer ties with Russia offers the best solution to a range of problems North Korea faces. The North Korean leader has been eager to boost the prestige and security of his country since his overtures to then US president Donald Trump broke down in 2019, and this deal with Putin offers that platform.

Subsequently, the Biden administration has strengthened military ties with Seoul and South Korea and has adopted a tougher stance towards the North. At the same time, North Korea needs energy supplies for its ailing economy and food for its hungry people, so will be looking for economic support from Russia.

Nevertheless, this is neither the first nor the closest Russia-North Korea alliance. It is also not the first time weapons have been crucial to their relationship. The parallels to the alliance between Kim Il Sung – Kim Jong Un’s grandfather and the person the younger Kim has styled himself upon – and Joseph Stalin – the former leader of the Soviet Union who Putin seeks to emulate – are extremely clear.


Harks back to WWII

In the 1930s, Kim Il Sung was a relatively unknown Korean communist leading a small guerrilla band fighting the Japanese in Manchuria. During the second world war he fled to the Soviet Union and joined the Red Army, rising to the rank of major.

After the Japanese surrendered in August 1945, they handed what had been occupied Korea to the allies. It was split into two zones, one overseen by the Soviets, the other in the south overseen by the US.

Kim Il Sung was handpicked by Stalin to lead the Korean Workers party and then to lead North Korea when it was formally established in 1948. Kim’s loyalties to the Soviet Union were clear and he was determined to create a Stalinist state.

He was principally a Korean nationalist and was determined to unite the Korean peninsula under his rule. But he could not launch an invasion into South Korea without Stalin’s permission and, crucially, Soviet weaponry.

Kim Il Sung made numerous requests to Stalin for this support. Yet, Stalin remained cautious in the early cold war, fearing the United States would retaliate if its South Korean ally was attacked.

The situation then rapidly changed. In October 1949 the Chinese Communist party defeated its Nationalist rivals for power and the People’s Republic of China was born. Also, in January 1950 the United States suggested it would not come to the defence of South Korea if attacked.

After this, Stalin became more amenable to Kim’s pleas, believing the North Korean leader’s claims that victory would be swift. He then wrote to Kim Il Sung giving him the green light and supplying him with the weapons he desired. Much of this military hardware was old second world war stock but it included 200 T-34 tanks that had proven highly effective against Nazi Germany.

With this decision, the Soviet-North Korean alliance was cemented. However, it immediately led to the gravest crisis of the early cold war. The North Korean invasion on 25 June 1950 – almost exactly 74 years ago – did not lead to a quick victory, since Washington refused to abandon its ally and intervened along with 15 other countries under the United Nations’ aegis.

When North Korea appeared defeated, Beijing entered the fray and the world came perilously close to an atomic third world war. Yet, much like the war in Ukraine, it soon became a stalemate. The Korean war then dragged on for two more years before the armistice that is still in operation today was signed.

Hopefully nothing as devastating or risky as the Korean war will result from this new alliance between Russia and North Korea. But it is important to understand that this relationship has a long history. Its roots are in an earlier bloody conflict from a time when the leaders in Moscow and Pyongyang felt isolated and were willing to take dangerous measures to change this situation. Läs mer…

Will Labour’s plans deliver for NHS dentistry?

Access to NHS dentistry is one of the top four issues ahead of the forthcoming 2024 general election, according to a recent YouGov survey. This level of public concern has clearly filtered through to the main political parties, with dentistry included in each of the manifestos.

It is perhaps unsurprising that dentistry features so highly when 40% of children are unable to get regular NHS checkups, and some desperate adults are having to resort to removing their own teeth.

The situation is bleak. And with 75% of dentists planning to reduce their NHS commitment over the next year, radical action is urgently needed.

In all likelihood, the responsibility for saving NHS dentistry will sit with a new Labour government. Wes Streeting, the current shadow secretary of state for health and social care, faces a daunting task, one which his predecessors have grappled with yet failed to resolve.

Streeting has a daunting task ahead of him.

There are many reasons for the UK’s dental crisis, but under-investment and a failure to implement changes to the dental contract are undoubtedly important factors in the demise of NHS dentistry.

These issues have been highlighted in health select committees in 2008 and 2023, in the Steele report in 2009 and by the Nuffield Trust in 2023. Unfortunately, previous governments have been slow to respond and unwilling to act, which has contributed to the current crisis.

The Labour party has proposed a dentistry rescue plan that includes:

• NHS dental contract reform,• 700,000 extra urgent dental appointments,• Incentives for dentists to work in areas with the greatest need,• Supervised toothbrushing in schools for three to five-year-olds,• A focus on prevention, and• Ensuring there is an NHS dentist for all who need one.

Streeting has acknowledged that a new dental contract needs to be implemented and has committed to meeting dental representatives in his first week in office.

This is to be welcomed, as is Labour’s commitment to prevention as part of their child health action plan. This includes the introduction of supervised toothbrushing in schools and increased access for routine and emergency care for children.

This might go some way to reduce the number of children having teeth removed under general anaesthesia – the leading cause of hospital admission for five to nine-year-olds.

There is a workforce shortage in dentistry, particularly in the NHS, so Labour’s commitment to deliver 700,000 additional emergency appointments may prove difficult without compromising access to routine care. A proposal to increase the number of training places for dentists and therapists is much needed but will take many years to be realised.

Rural areas often struggle with recruitment and Labour has proposed the introduction of financial incentives to recruit dentists into areas of greater need.

A similar incentive scheme was introduced earlier this year as part of the government’s dental recovery plan, although it is too early to evaluate its success.

These schemes may improve access in certain areas but will be at the expense of others unless we increase the overall number of registered dentists working in the NHS.

The NHS long-term workforce plan has recommended an increase in training places with new graduates encouraged to work in the NHS. This has been included in the Labour manifesto, although no detail has been published on how this might work.

Dental contract reform will again be critical, as forcing recent graduates to work in an underfunded system will be counterproductive and likely to lead to a greater exodus from the NHS at the end of any enforced tie-in.

Given Labour’s commitment to fiscal prudence, their aspiration to provide “an NHS dentist for all who need it” would appear naive and misguided. There is not the funding nor the workforce to provide a comprehensive service for all, let alone one that is free at the point of delivery.

Blair failed to deliver

It is worth reflecting on a similarly ambitious pledge made by Tony Blair in 1999, when he promised “easy access to NHS dentistry for all”. The Blair government failed to deliver on that pledge, despite a substantial increase in funding, which resulted in the former prime minister admitting to underestimating the scale of the problem and declaring that dentistry was “the most difficult aspect of the NHS”.

A massive increase in dental funding is an unrealistic expectation. The only way to deliver Labour’s latest ambition for NHS access “for all who need it”, will be to provide a pared-back or core service, targeted at those with the greatest need. The key will be how “need” is defined. This would be a radical shift for NHS dentistry, but one that many dentists believe is long overdue.

NHS dentistry desperately requires investment and radical reform, but perhaps most importantly, it needs an unprecedented level of honesty about what NHS dentistry should provide for the general population.

If Labour is genuine about implementing change, dental contract reform will need to include an honest discussion about the future of NHS dentistry: what do we need, what do we want and what can we afford? Läs mer…

Labour wants to make England the best place in the world to be a football fan – but there’s much work to do first

Labour wants to give football special treatment. It only features on one page of the party’s manifesto so it’s not a priority focus, but it is positive to see the sport considered important enough for an individual mention.

Perhaps this is because football is interwoven with complex layers of national identity and cohesion. It is rooted in the social fabric of British people’s everyday lives, past and present, giving it a strong ability to aid political agendas. But this means trying to reform football could raise complex social issues as well as organisational ones.

Labour is pledging to make England a world-leading place to be a football fan, specifically by focusing on how the sport is governed and giving fans a greater voice. Labour also wants to ensure English football’s financial sustainability with the proposed introduction of a football governance bill to preserve the English football pyramid, its tiered league system.

The pyramid currently faces financial instability due to the considerable wealth gap between the higher and lower clubs. It has been reported that 58% of clubs across the pyramid’s four divisions are now “technically insolvent”.

These are bold pledges but they are sure to connect with many people. Football has long been considered essential for socialisation and provides people with a sense of community and place. Football stadiums are considered to be a form of “home” environments compounding the importance of comfort that the sport brings to many. It also has the power to offer fans a space to belong.

Football can give fans a sense of belonging and community.
Impact Photography/Shutterstock

Football has other benefits, such as encouraging fans to engage with mental health issues. And it is often viewed as integral to forming and sustaining important relationships. More broadly, research shows that football fans are more liberal with how they define “Europe” and as such are important in developing a more encompassing, continental community identity.

But English football fandom is complex. It straddles emotions of both loss and desire while being doused in melancholy sentiment.

Not every football fan (or player) is currently accommodated in the sporting environment. The 2022-23 Kick It Out summary report claims a 65.1% rise in reports of discriminatory behaviour and a staggering 279% increase in reports of online abuse. The same report shows racism as the most frequent form of discrimination but also notes a 400% increase in reports of sexism and misogyny.

More broadly, fans’ views of women’s football paint a mixed picture. Positive changes in attitudes sit alongside findings that show that (mostly) male football fans are resistant to an “agenda” to promote the perceived “inferior” game of women’s football. Football fans’ relationship with violence will also need looking at, with reports of clashes prior to the England men’s 1-0 victory over Serbia on the team’s first match of the 2024 Euros.

My latest book shows that the relationship between gender, sport and society is complex and imbalanced. This is shown by the paradoxical increase in football sexism amid a backdrop of football growth and success for girls and women.

There are other issues to be dealt with, too. The many ways football commands our attention as a theatrical form of entertainment (through mega-event euphoria and all-encompassing match-day experiences) has ramifications for its sustainability, both in terms of the environment and consumption.

In its manifesto, Labour also references the ways that mega events, such as the men’s UEFA European Championships, can create effective legacies. Legacies that they hope will encourage future generations to participate in sport and maintain healthy lifestyles.

Despite its popularity among politicians, “legacy” is a difficult word. That’s because there is no unified way to define, frame or measure it. It will be interesting to see how our next government, whoever that may be, will use and quantify legacy for our society.

Making Britain the best place in the world to be a football fan cannot be achieved in isolation. Britain must first establish itself as world-leading in inclusive and equitable opportunities for sport, ensuring sports for all are resourced, promoted and supported in unison.

Whichever political party wins the next election, it’s clear that sport broadly, and football specifically, has incredible potential to positively lift the nation. To do this successfully, we need a government that is prepared to resource, facilitate and back equitable sporting opportunities for all – and a football environment that is fit to deliver on this. Läs mer…

Wales could become world’s first country to criminalise politicians who lie

Trust and confidence in UK politics and the election system have never been lower. One of the central reasons for this breakdown in trust is the widespread popular belief that some politicians have made a practice of lying to the public. Research published in 2022 showed the British public overwhelmingly wanted lying politicians to face consequences.

And while the UK’s general election is grabbing the headlines, a proposal in Wales’ Senedd (Welsh parliament) is seeking to address this issue by introducing new legislation that would criminalise politicians who lie. If passed, Wales would become the first country in the world to introduce criminal sanctions for lying politicians.

The proposals are being led by the former leader of Plaid Cymru, Adam Price, who has described a “credibility gap” in UK politics as a “gaping chasm”. Price has pushed for such changes since the mid-2000s when he campaigned for the impeachment of Tony Blair over the war in Iraq.

Price tried and failed to introduce an offence for politicians who lie when laws were passed in May expanding the size of the Senedd. But a cross-party committee has now voted in favour of Price’s proposals, and they are being considered for incorporation into the new elections and elected bodies (Wales) bill instead.

Under the proposals it would be a criminal offence for a member of the Senedd, or a candidate for election to the Senedd, to wilfully, or with intent to mislead, make or publish a statement that is known to be false or deceptive. Proceedings would have to be brought within six months from the date on which the statement was made.

It would be considered a defence if it could be “reasonably inferred” to be a statement of opinion, or if it were retracted with an apology within 14 days. Being prosecuted for such a law would disqualify a person from being a Senedd member.

The proposals are not yet law, and the bill has further debate stages yet to go. Price’s amendment is supported by Plaid Cymru, the Welsh Conservatives and the Welsh Liberal Democrats.

But so far the amendment does not have the support of the Welsh Labour government and ministers may attempt to have it removed. The Welsh counsel general (similar to the UK government’s attorney general), Mick Antoniw, has said he supports the “general principle,” but is concerned that the amendment “amounts to little more than bad and ineffective law.”

There are also broader concerns about whether the Senedd has the ability under Wales’s devolved powers to make such a law. While Wales can pass laws in respect of the operations of the Senedd, legally speaking there are problems when it comes to straying into the realms of criminal offences. In this instance it is unlikely the Senedd would be able to expressly create a criminal offence such as this.

The Senedd may find itself in territory akin to what Scotland experienced when the UK government blocked Scotland’s gender recognition bill. In January 2023, the UK government invoked section 35 of the Scotland Act to veto proposals designed to make it easier for people to change their legal gender, on the grounds they would affect equality law for the whole of the UK.

Is such a law necessary?

The Welsh ministerial code already exists and is meant to uphold the standards of constitutional and personal conduct of ministers. The Senedd has an independent standards commissioner, who is an “impartial provider of advice on any matter of principle relating to conduct of members of the Senedd”.

But the commissioner doesn’t deal with complaints relating to the actions of the Welsh government and ministers carrying out Welsh government business. Nor do they investigate issues relating to the performance of Senedd members. The standards commissioner’s website states that this is because: “Issues relating to performance of the member of the Senedd in his or her role is essentially a matter for the electorate at the ballot box.”

There are also the Nolan principles which apply to those elected or appointed to public office across the UK. They include the principles of “integrity”, “openness” and “honesty”.

The proposals to criminalise lying by politicians are being led by the former leader of Plaid Cymru, Adam Price.
Thomas Bowles/Alamy

The problem with the current regime is a lack of enforcement. Beyond accountability to the electorate during elections, there are very few repercussions when politicians mislead the public. This is helping to fuel a mistrust of politicians, and casting doubt over what can be believed.

Laws may be a stepping stone to restoring trust and facilitating enforceability in a different way, and with legal safeguards. In terms of standards, it would bring politicians more into line with what is expected from other professions, such as lawyers and doctors. Of course, members of these professions aren’t criminalised unless they explicitly break the law, but they are held to account if they fail to maintain certain standards and can be struck off as a result.

Politically speaking, while the Welsh government could seek to remove anti-lying amendments at future debates, that would do little to signal trust in those elected to public office. In fact, it could prove to be even more damaging.

This issue is likely to shine a spotlight on the constitutional devolved competence of the Senedd itself. But trust in politics is a UK-wide issue. While some politicians are trying to put a sticking plaster over the wound, the new UK government will need to work with all devolved administrations to take more significant steps to rebuild trust.

It’s a bleak indictment of democracy that a law reminding politicians not to lie is even being considered. But a culture change in politics is evidently needed. Läs mer…

Catalonia independence: electoral shift marks the beginning of a new era in a region fraught with political tension

In Catalonia’s elections, held on 12 May, pro-independence parties lost the parliamentary majority that had allowed them to govern since 2015. It was their first electoral defeat in decades.

They lost to the Socialists’ Party of Catalonia (PSC, Partit dels Socialistes de Catalunya), the Catalan wing of Spain’s ruling PSOE, with former health minister Salvador Illa expected to take over as president by the end of August.

This shift in public opinion begs the twin questions of whether the recent push for Catalan independence (known as the procés) has finally ended, and whether the electoral defeat of pro-independence parties means that the Catalan independence movement itself has reached an end.

A decade-long push for independence

While the Catalan independence movement dates back centuries, the procés is the name given to the surge of political support for this goal over the last 14 years or so. Its origins can be traced back to July 2010, when a Spanish Constitutional Court ruling annulled and amended some essential aspects of the new Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia, which the Catalan people had previously backed in a June 2006 referendum.

Up to then, pro-independence parties had taken only a minority of the vote share (less than 20%), and their influence on Catalan politics was limited. However, from 2010 onwards, support for them grew exponentially, reaching a peak of 48% in the 2015 elections.

This new panorama marked the beginning of a profound change in the Catalan political system, as the then dominant moderate alliance Convergence and Union (CiU) began to lose electoral ground. The alliance broke up altogether when one of its member parties, Convergence (Convergència), was forced to adopt a stronger pro-independence stance after losing 10 seats in the 2012 elections, forming a new alliance with the pro-independence Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC, Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya).

The percentage of vote share according to political party in Catalan elections, 2010-2024. Pro-independence parties are highlighted in pink, and national parties in blue. Parties highlighted in green are regional parties that are not pro-independence.
Author’s own, data from Parliament of Catalonia

October 2017 – a timeline of the procés

With hardline pro-independence leader Carles Puigdemont at the helm, the 2015 electoral term saw independence take priority on Catalonia’s political agenda.

At the height of the procés (September-October 2017), the Catalan Parliament approved the Llei de referèndum d’autodeterminació (Law on the Referendum on Self Determination) and the Llei de transitorietat jurídica i fundacional de la República (Law on the Legal and Foundational Transition of the Republic) on 6 and 8 September, respectively. Both aimed to legally pave the way for Catalonia to break away from Spain.

On 20 September, the Guardia Civil searched various Catalan Government offices. This provoked an immediate reaction from the Catalan public, who gathered outside the gates of the region’s Ministry of Economy.

Days later, the main civilian leaders of the pro-independence movement – Jordi Sánchez and Jordi Cuixart – were charged with the crime of sedition.

On 1 October 2017, the now infamous referendum on self determination in Catalonia was held, with just over two million votes cast. Throughout the day there were multiple incidents of serious violence, as police used excessive force to seize ballot boxes and prevent voting.

Read more:
Spanish government crushes Catalan independence dreams – at a high price

On 27 October, the Catalan Parliament passed the declaration of Catalan independence. On the same day, Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy, with prior authorisation from the Senate, enacted Article 155 of the Constitution, immediately calling a snap election in the region.

On 29 October, several members of the Catalan government fled to Belgium. Shortly afterwards, the pro-independence leaders who remained in Catalonia were arrested and charged with the crimes of rebellion, sedition and embezzlement.

The rise of the Socialists’ Party of Catalonia

The 2024 elections have marked a radical shift in Catalonia’s political landscape. The PSC won by a comfortable margin, while support for pro-independence parties plummeted – in the 2015, 2017 and 2021 elections, they won absolute majorities of more than 70 MPs, but in 2024 they achieved a combined total of just 59 MPs.

So, does this mean the procés has come to an end?

Understood as a political movement, with specific actors pursuing the singular, unilateral goal of Catalan independence, the procés has indeed ended. More generally, it has ceased to be a political priority – continued confrontation with the Spanish state has been unproductive for Catalonia and politically disruptive for Spain. Indeed, Spain’s far right owes much of its success to a harsh rhetoric of opposition to Catalan independence, including proposals to ban separatist parties outright.

Dialogue and amnesty

The pardons granted to Catalan separatists through the recently enacted Amnesty Law have reduced tensions and made it possible to channel conflict off the streets and back into the political arena.

In recent years, Catalonia’s current president Pere Aragonès, of ERC, has pursued a pragmatic approach of opening up channels of communication and negotiation between regional and national governments. Specific mechanisms have been set up to to normalise political relations between Catalonia and Spain: the roundtable for dialogue between the Spanish and Catalan Generalitat, and the Generalitat-State Bilateral Commission.

Read more:
The Spanish amnesty law for Catalonia separatists, explained

Pro-independence politics isn’t going anywhere

While the procés may be drawing to a close, the electoral defeat suffered by pro-independence parties in no way spells the end of the Catalan independence movement. As the table beneath shows, since the 2015 elections, pro-independence groupings have received a higher vote share than national, “constitutionalist” parties. The most recent elections – where pro-indepdendence parties garnered 39.4% of the vote share – are the only exception.

Vote share for pro-independence versus national Spanish political parties. Percentages for pro-independence and national parties expressed as a proportion of total votes cast, abstention as a proportion of total eligible voters.
Author’s own

Political fatigue and apathy among part of the Catalan electorate in the 2021 and 2024 elections has been reflected in a sharp increase in abstention, which has particularly affected pro-independence parties.

Author’s own, made with data from Centre d’Estudis d’Opinió, Generalitat de Catalunya, 2015-2024.

While the procés may have ended, the independence movement is still very much alive and kicking – support for independence has dropped, but even at its current low ebb it has the backing of 42% of Catalonia’s population. This ingrained, structural phenomenon is unlikely to disappear any time soon, but it can be redirected into productive dialogue and negotiation. Läs mer…