What the papers say: PISA tests, NATO and Listeria

Estonian newspapers (picture is illustrative).
Estonian newspapers (picture is illustrative). Source: Andrew Whyte/ERR News

Three of the dominant topics of this week are, unsurprisingly, getting plenty of coverage in Estonia's daily and weekly newspapers, as well as online portals, with Estonia's recent success in the educational PISA score ratings, the NATO summit attended by Jüri Ratas in London on Tuesday and Wednesday, and a type of "listeria hysteria" gripping the country following repeated contaminations detected at a fish-packing company's premises. Other news includes planned farmers' demonstrations, and a new munitions factory due to be built in Pärnu County. All links in Estonian unless otherwise noted.

Maintaining PISA scores requires teachers in future

Reflecting on the fact that every silver lining has a cloud behind it, daily Postimees noted in its editorial that while yesterday's Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) assessment results, which put Estonian schoolchildren top of the table in several categories, are to be lauded, prolonging this could be in jeopardy given the parlous state of the demographic of the teaching profession, the appeal of the job, and declining investment into the sector.

Or to be even bleaker, there is some irony in being top of the table – ahead of neighboring Finland and closing down on Singapore and some other east Asian states or cities – while the very driving force behind that is in decline.

One of the main factors is the ageing demographic of teachers – over half in the profession are over 50 years old, Postimees said (as a comparison, the average age on the ERR news floor would be over 10 years below that-ed.), and the number of teachers over 60 years old increased by 1,000 in the past decade, meaning that even though teachers are capable of handing down their knowhow, they still have to retire, sooner, rather than later.

The profession simply isn't attractive – not only due to perceived or actual low pay, but other perceptions of a low value on the profession placed in society, and around just 1 in 70 school leavers express a wish to become a teacher, about half the proportion in some "western" nations.

Funding is the other obstacle – this has decreased by around 30 percent in real terms when adjusted for economic growth over the past 10 years, Postimees says, and the ongoing talk about increasing Research and Development spend to one percent of GDP remains just that so far – talk, placing Estonia's envied, and free, almost uniformly standard educational system in a situation critical for the future.

NATO's crossroads summit

With a crucial NATO summit taking place in London on Tuesday and Wednesday, with Estonian prime minister Jüri Ratas rubbing shoulders with the likes of Macron, Trudeau, Queen Elizabeth II and of course Donald Trump, International Center for Defence Studies (ICDS) director Sven Sakkov took a look at what is at stake given the divergent interests of some of the member states and their leaders, in daily Postimees.

While the summit marks the 70th anniversary of the foundation of NATO, the occasion seems likely to be a little muted given conflicting desires of different blocs within the alliance – French President Macron wanting a serious discussion, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson looking ahead to the Dec. 12 general election and the situation with Brexit, Turkey making extortionate demands, southern European countries concerned with immigration, Angela Merkel and the Germans being able to rein in the various factions less effectively than in the past, central and eastern European member states nervous about their security...and of course Trump seeming to want to trash the entire enterprise makes little room for congratulatory back slapping, Sakkov thought.

On the plus side, budgets seem to be on the rise, and even Donald Trump had tweeted recently in praise of NATO, and next year sees around 20,000 U.S. troops heading to Europe for Exercise American Defender, but his unilateral actions on Syria, pulling out troops in the face of opposition from all sides including his own advisers, means that other powers might step into the void that leaves.

Nonetheless, the US president and the status of the largest NATO member is a bellweather for the rest of the alliance, Sakkov wrote, something even Emmanuel Macron really needs, but is also at the root of a catch-22 situation; without the U.S., NATO is nothing, but with Donald Trump – should he win the election next year – it may cease to exist in any case.

Conflicting desires and quickly shifting priorities have meant that NATO's current doctrine, dating to 2010, is already obsolete – Russia was mentioned 54 times at the last NATO summit last year, compared with terrorism 28 times, and China not at all.

A possible solution might be a new "Harmel Commission" which arose in the late 1960s as an attempt to reach out to the then-Warsaw pact countries in the very CEE region where Estonia lies; however, Sakkov says, while larger countries like France – already acting outside of NATO with bilateral and European-focussed initiatives (such as Operation Barkhane, in Mali – which involves Estonian personnel-ed.) - Britain and the U.S. may have a margin of error, for smaller countries like Estonia, there are no such second chances.

Fruit and vegetables contain Listeria too

While Listeriosis has grabbed a lot of media attention lately in Estonia after the recurring cases of Listeria bacteria found at fish-processing plant M.V.Wool and, less well-known, a meat packing company which acted as a supplier to supermarket Selver (which cancelled the contract with the company) vegans and vegetarians are far from immune to the issue, according to agricultural weekly Maaleht.

Citing a piece which originally appeared on news portal Delfi's Maakodu page, the article explains how Listeria cases in the U.S. cause around 260 deaths per year, from a total of 1,600 who fall sick from contamination, meaning there are regular cases there; many of these occur in fruit and vegetable products, however, with frozen vegetables often the culprit.

Risk factors include contaminated water and the use of fertilizers, and Listeria monocytogenes can remain in a food processing location long after their initial introduction, in party because they are largely immune to low temperatures.

Even fresh fruit and vegetables carry risks, particularly avocados, although the piece also cites a case of thousands of apples being recalled from the market in the U.S. due to Lyme disease contamination; fresh salads are particularly risky since they are harder to wash due to their softer tissues (supermarket Rimi recently closed its salad production facilities for sterilization, and recalled its salad products from the shelves-ed.), and peeled fresh fruit and vegetables can also be contaminated.

While Estonia often gets its products from other locations than the U.S. - avocadoes for sale come from Chile, for example, the piece reports, the best precaution is nonetheless to properly wash all fruit and vegetables immediately on getting them home, in warm water, even using detergents on skins, peels etc, drying them on kitchen paper rather than towels. Fruit and vegetables can also be heated to at least 75C for a short time without damage – this also has the effect of zapping Listeria bacteria, which are not as resilient to high temperatures.

Munitions plant to be constructed in Pärnu County

An Estonian company is to unveil to the public its plans to transform a former quarry into a munitiions plant, regional daily Pärnu Postimees reports.

Taking advantage of a change in the law last year which means such munitions can be assembled in Estonia, OÜ Nitrotol intends to develop the 17 hectare site for the purposes of storing, assembling and producing munitions and related products.

OÜ Nitrotol, which has already made lateral anti-tank mines for the Estonian Defence Forces, says that the site, at the Pottsepa quarry in Audru, Pärnu County, is away from densely populated areas, has already seen the use of explosives in the former quarrying and mining activities, and also has existing infrastructure left over from its previous users – though will require the re-routing of the current Kaelepa-Soomra road which runs close to it.

The company will use, among other things, important trinitrotulene (TNT), hexogen and pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN) for its activities, and the project will create 10-15 new jobs early on, with more promised for the future.

The plans will be available to the public, including on the Pärnu city website, from Dec. 12, and be available for one month, followed by a period of public consultation starting on Jan. 15, 2020.

Electric cars much the same as a Soviet-era Moskvitch, says nonagenarian driver

While, as reported on ERR News, state-owned electricity distribution network operator Elektrilevi is being forced to sell its recently acquired ELMO electric vehicle charger network, the private sector, or rather private individuals, seem to be faring better with vehicles of all types.

Electric vehicles comparison site insideevs.com caught up with a nearly 95-year-old Estonian woman who still drives (link in English).

The story followed up a 2017 piece on news portal Geenius where the then-92-year-old Roosi test-drove a Tesla Model X electric car, which she enjoyed, likening it to a car she had earlier on in her 60-year driving career, the Soviet-era GAZ-M20 Pobeda.

Roosi has owned several Pobeda and Moskvitch cars, iconic of the Soviet Union, but said that she and her husband had managed to get hold of an almost unheard-of, for the time, American Buick.

Of driving today, Roosi says that she would rather do that than walk, given the amount of traffic on the roads, noting that the best advice is to think long and hard before stepping on the gas – she says this as only having had one minor accident in her entire driving career.

Her fame from the original 2017 piece spread far and wide – even relatives from Australia spotted her online when testing the Tesla.

Farmers to protest lack of EU and domestic support

Finally, farmers are organizing a protest on Toompea, location of both the Riigikogu and Stenbock House, seat of the government, over what they see as unfair European Union treatment on agricultural subsidies and related issues, as well as insufficient domestic support.

The protests, which will be matched with similar demonstrations in Latvia and Lithuania, say that EU subsidies are much lower than that in other EU member states, adding a desire to get equal treatment with the rest of the EU in the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) for the 2021-2027 budgetary period, daily Postimees reports.

The demonstrators have also addressed the incoming EU leadership - Charles Michel, President of the European Council, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, and David Sassol, President of the European Parliament, ahead of European Council meeting in Brussels on Dec. 12, and noting that direct payments to farmers in the Baltic States stand at 60 percent of the EU average.

Farmers from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have organized joint demonstrations in Brussels in the past, in 2013 and 2018; a February 2013 meeting agree minimum direct payments of €196 per hectare and, while the EU average is €260 per hectare, the figure is estimated at €170 per hectare for Estonia in 2020, Postimees reports.

The protestors also note that farming production costs in the region are higher than the EU average at 129 percent of that figure, due to climactic conditions and low yields, hampered by miscalculations on agricultural land use in the period after Estonian independence and setting up a vicious cycle of future decline in rural areas and the agricultural sector.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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