Saturday, November 26, 2011

Bletting Medlars

Yeah, there's a couple of words you usually don't see together. Or at all, really. But they are both words and they really do belong together.
photo compliments of :

The medlar is a fruit-bearing tree more familiar to those reading old English literature. The fruits of this tree are pomes, and as the word suggests, are related to apples and pears.
Medlar fruit photo from

I noticed this small (~1.5 metre) tree outside St. Saviours church and by the end of summer couldn't help but see the fruiting bodies all over it. Medlars are about 25mm to 50mm across and not quite as deep, making them an oblate spheroid.
I had no idea what the tree was, until one day Paula came by with me. "Hey!" said she, "you've got a medlar tree! You know, those fruit are supposed to be edible...." So we picked the fruit and took them home. I peeled one and tried the flesh. It might have been edible, bu tit certainly wasn't something I was going to eat. Just this rock-hard starchy thing.
So after some research (or, at least, reading the Wikipedia page for medlars), I discovered that the fruit had to be bletted before eating. Bletting is when certain fleshy fruits, after ripening, begin to decay and ferment. Much like an apple bruising, the flesh changes colour and undergoes physical changes. In the medlar, the flesh changes from white and hard to a soft, dark brown paste. At the same time, the starches convert to sugars, and the fruit becomes quite tasty.
There may be ways to hurry the process (one suggestion was freezing, but I've no back-up for that), but we simply laid the medlars out on a tea towel on a large baking tray and left them there in the kitchen. Two, maybe three weeks later I noticed some darkening patches on the skin and cut one open.
medlar part way through the bletting process
The paste is so tasty! The starches are being converted to sugars, and the hard texture is gone. We left the medlars a few more days until they were thoroughly bletted, and then Paula coarsely chopped them and boiled them down. After passing them through a jelly bag and adding sugar, they made a lovely deep transparent brown jelly that has an earthy, unusual taste that is lovely.

Monday, November 21, 2011


I don't usually do this, but with the ongoing impact of the “pink slime” story and there's a pretty good article over at The Street about the increasing use of cellulose as a filler in food, I thought I'd write a little about food additives and adulterants.
Adulterants are distinct from additives in that additives are generally regulated and accepted in use, and adulterants are added to food without the consumers knowledge. In practical terms, additives are legal and adulterants are not.
So the use of cellulose in food is legal. Cellulose is found on the FDA's GRAS list (Generally Regarded As Safe), and so is allowed in food products. The rise in it's use is due primarily to economic pressures to keep food costs down particularly in this period of price spikes from the speculative bubble we're in. The same with “pink slime”; mechanically separated meat treated with ammonia can be added to ground meat products quite legally. Whether we want these substances in our edible food-like products is quite another story.
Adulterants in food have a long and storied history—particularly in bread. Bread, over the years, has had plaster of Paris, alum, sawdust, and mashed potatoes added to it to increase weight or whiteness and defraud the consumer. The British Medical Journal was printing arguments about the presence of adulterants and arguing about how much they mattered back in 1873.
Cellulose is a product on the FDA GRAS list (Generally Regarded As Safe), but the increasing use of filler comes from economic pressures. Commodity prices remain strong (primarily on a bubble due to speculation) and economies remain weak, meaning that producers looking to increase or maintain margins are going to be searching for cheaper alternatives to their traditional products. And food producers are turning to cellulose to add bulk and structure to their edible food-like products.
The use of additives or adulterants (the difference is whether or not the recipient knows about / wants the additive in their food. If it is iodine in salt, that's an additive. If it is plaster of Paris being added to bread, adulterant) in food has a long history, and always for the same reason: economic pressure to supply food as cheaply as possible while maintaining profits. We've seen this with the addition of melamine to milk products in China, in order to more cheaply achieve crude protein content targets. Alum, sawdust, and mashed potatoes have historically been added to bread to increase weight or the whiteness of the flour.
Food adulteration is directly tied to industrialization; both the industrialization of food production and the migration of populations out of the countryside to the cities. Low wages increase the need for cheap food, the drive for cheap food encourages adulteration.
These days, it's the GRAS list that defines the difference between adulterant and additive. That food will have additives is taken as read, as long as the ingredients appear on the GRAS list, it's generally acceptable. Consumers often disagree, as with the addition of HFCS (high fructose corn syrup) to honey. Or pink slime to ground meat products.
Of course, there's always the option of TSP, or Textured Soy Protein. But a fairly recent study shows how the manufacturing process leaves behind a residual level of hexane. Hexane is used as a solvent to separate fats from protein in the making of soy protein (well, in all fairness, not just soy protein. Its used with corn and other plants too, for the same purpose). Mother Jones has an article on the report, along with an FAQ, and Slate weighed in with an article as well. As is pointed out, there has been little research on whether or not hexane, when consumed, is a problem. It certainly is when we breathe it, but as to eating it, well, that seems to be a lot less immediately toxic. There are even alternatives; when it comes to complex processing to create vegetarian fare, mycoprotein has to be a bit better, but not by much. At least they're not currently using a neurotoxin in the process.
But as consumers, we have to ask ourselves, just how much responsibility or concern should we have for the way our food is prepared? Do we want to eat food that is killing those who gather or prepare it? Because, if so, there's a lot more research that needs to be done before we eat various things—particularly out of the industrial food system. For example, pesticides are dangerous to both farmworkers, as this EPA pamphlet demonstrates, and their families.
We create a market for such substances every time we eat food out of the industrial food system. But, as Michael Pollen said in hisWilliams College address, the food system is a fragile thing. What we do as consumers has an impact. If we don't buy something, stores will quit stocking it, meaning fewer people will buy—creating a virtuous circle. Pollen mentions that as few as fifty complaints can get a topic onto a McDonald's board meeting agenda. Positive requests have an impact also. If you ask for more local food, you create a demand that grocers will try to satisfy—meaning more downstream demand for farmers. Anything affects the way the food system acts. It really is that fragile and sensitive. So when you see local produce in your local or chain grocery, ask for the produce manager and compliment him/her. If you don't see local cheese in the dairy aisle, ask for the dairy manager and request it. This can be the politest ruckus you'll ever raise.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Death for Innovation

 I'm not sure that I agree with all of Joe Cunnigham's column over at the Pincher Creek Voice. But I do know that he has certainly identified the problem. At least Joe was producing a value-added product that he could ship around the world. When we were producing fresh veg, we couldn't save product from day to day. We had to sell it same day or forgo any possible profit on it.
This really is an excellent column from someone who has been in the trenches of small production. It is clear that we need a second food system, distinct from the international industrial one we live with now. One that supports small producers, local producers, and artisanal producers.  Anyway, let me introduce you to Joe Cunningham:
  I spent the last ten years of my life as a small food producer. It was an interesting journey. I say “was” because I have recently gone into semi-retirement from the gourmet smoked fish business my wife, Janice Day, and I operated here in PIncher Creek. Most Pincher Creekians do not know there was a fish producing business in Pincher Creek for ten years and it gave me a chuckle every time I watched the reaction of someone here finding this out for the first time. They werenʼt ill-informed - how would they be expected to know?  Ninety-nine percent of what we made went to specialty stores and expensive restaurants in Calgary and Banff. It had to.

Iʼm not being flippant. For years we agonized over pricing our products high enough to stay in business. Eventually we settled on a pricing scheme that placed us at roughly double that of similar category, however inferior, supermarket products. We were successful! ... well... sort of. You see, we grew at a reasonable rate, got rave reviews from all over the planet (some food writers going so far as to say we made the best cold smoked product in the world), operated on a mean and lean budget, were courted by Alberta Agriculture, and were proud of the little innovations and inventions we came up with to make our small operation work as efficiently as possible. Hereʼs the catch - we didnʼt make enough money to justify continuing, on a purely economic basis. We were living near poverty so we could continue experiencing the personal, cultural and artistic gratification of making something of intrinsic value while living a lifestyle with an element of independence. Although by the time we had worn ourselves out we were selling about
$115,000.00 worth of stuff a year, we werenʼt even clearing minimum wage for our efforts. Somethingʼs gotta give eventually.

Itʼs the same story elsewhere. Over those ten years Janice and I got to know a lot of other small food producers in Alberta, and elsewhere - vegetable growers, apiary owners, makers of sauces, condiments and frozen gourmet food, ranchers, bakers, cheese makers, coffee roasters, and oyster growers ...etc., etc., etc. Their experiences were related to us in an endless stream of commonality and challenges. At least we werenʼt alone.

Read the rest of this excellent column at The Pincher Creek Voice.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Pulled Pork

Just attended the Friday lunch at the The Centre for Co-operative and Community-Based Economy up at UVic, something I've been doing for a couple of months now. It is one of those things that reminds me that I have an intellectual life as well as an everyday life—and that's a good thing. Sometimes I forget, as the days fill up with the clutter of activities around dogs, the Kitchen and the basics of staying alive. Lunch at the Centre reminds me that I have been trained to think critically and to communicate my thoughts clearly. I may be a bit out of practise, but that doesn't mean giving up on who I am.
One of the things I love about attending is that it gives me the chance to cook for a group that is bigger than just Paula, and smaller than the crowd at the Kitchen. There is a lunch supplied, but I'm welcome to supplement it, which I have done by making soup and stew a couple of times. Today was a slightly larger group than usual, about 20, and I pulled out some pork rib trimmings and made pulled pork, which were served on a slider bun from Portofino bakery. Apparently the pork was flavoured properly, as there were no leftovers (and I saw at least one person make it through three servings—very gratifying!), and after lunch I was asked a couple of times for the recipe. This is really gratifying, as it lets me know that I'm not just getting good at cooking for my own taste, but that my taste translates into good flavours for others palate.
So, as promised, here's my Cheap and Easy Pulled Pork recipe.

Bernie's Pulled Pork (easy version) 

Start with a cheap bit of pork. I found rib trimmings at Real Canadian Wholesale Club out in Esquimalt for about $2/kg, and I bought a lot. You know, because it was cheap and only about half of it was usable meat.
Braise the meat. Braising is cooking meat in a wet environment in a closed container. So toss the meat in a roaster or a foil-covered pan (the roaster is better). Add a braising mix; I used balsamic vinegar (75 ml), white wine (250 ml), tomatoes (six or so plum) a couple of bay leaves, some salt, pepper, star anise, cloves, whole allspice, some rough-chopped carrots (scraped), celery, and probably a couple of other things I noticed laying around. The wine and vinegar and tomatoes are essential, for their acidity, but everything else is random and optional. Put the lid on the pan and place it in a 175° C (350° F) oven for a couple of hours. Take it out when is smells great and is falling apart.
Don't throw away the braising liquid—it is incredibly flavourful! Strain it into a pot, toss the hard bits, and boil hard until the volume is reduced by half or more. Taste. Yeah, that's umami. Normally you'd use it as a sauce on the braised meat, but today is different. Put it away for tomorrow.
Shred the pork. Pull it off the bone and tear it between two forks. You're pretty much done. Put the shredded pork in a pot—I like to use a slow cooker. Now dump a bottle of BBQ sauce over it. I used Bulls-Eye Guinness flavoured for today's, but that's not essential. Whatever you have or is cheap is fine. It just saves you having to make your own. Mix the sauce and meat together and begin heating it up. Taste it. It's probably too sweet, so add a bit of balsamic vinegar. Keep flavouring it until you're satisfied. I used a little Lee and Perrin's Worcestershire Sauce with the balsamic, and some fig and balsamic glaze. Don't go overboard, but don't be afraid. You're looking for the perfect marriage of sweet and acid to bring out the umami of the braised shredded pork.
Let the whole pot simmer at about 70° C (160°F) for a while. Keep testing. If there's any left, serve on a fresh bun. Accept compliments.

Want to do the complex version? Make your own BBQ sauce without using any prepared ingredients (like ketchup). There you go.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Intense (ive) Agriculture

Two innovative projects popped up on my radar (thanks, Jeff!) involving urban farming this week. One is a storefront farm in Hackney, London, called FARM:shop, and the other is Riverpark Farm in New York City.
Both are responses to the fallout from 2008 and the ongoing international economic crisis sparked by American corporate criminality. In Hackney, the number of disused storefronts has sparked a municipal initiative to fill them at least temporarily with art projects and the like. Something and Son took a look at the cubic footage they had available, and created a café/workspace/venue/ and an intensive food production space.

Honestly, Something and Son has the air of an art installation, talking about how their “displays” change with the seasons. They claim to be the world's first “urban farming hub” (whatever that is supposed to mean), but the ideas they've used involving food production are not all that innovative. FARM:shop's food production is directly descended from the work of the New Alchemy Institute (NAI), which, from 1971 through 1991 conducted a major research and education initiative on a farm in Massachusetts. They explored green-housing/aquaculture synergies, formulated the 90-day-compost plans used by most gardeners today, and rigorously documented their work. They even built one of their “Ark “ projects in Prince Edward Island, testing their theories in a less hospitable clime.
The New Alchemists weren't the first either, building on both academic and farm-based work that had gone before them. But, thankfully, they were a part of the 60s diaspora that documented their work,leaving behind not only a record of their work, but a group of people still pushing forward environmental design.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Community Garden

About six months back, Paula finally got a spot in the University of Victoria's Community Garden. By the end of August, they were ready to move the garden to its new location. And since then, gardeners have been busy preparing things for the next growing season.

The garden is located in what was nothing more than a grassy field for years. Pipes have been laid for water, and after the plots themselves were laid out, the sod was lifted in each of them. The best thing about the garden is the two metre high deer fence around it--there are a lot of deer on campus.

Paula and Ben, our son, originally laid out the beds in the new plot. Formal raised beds are new to me--on the farm, we used a rotary tiller to break up the earth and then used a hilling blade to hump it into a rounded long mound. As you can see, here we have a much more formal series of boxes--each lined on the bottom with landscape cloth to discourage anything from working its way up from underneath.
The boxes are spaced so that they are slightly further apart than my feet are long--enabling me to stand between the beds.Each had a layer of leaves laid in, and then covered with a mixture of compost and topsoil.The recent rains seem to have compressed the soil a bit.
The old strawberry garden was moved a week or so back, so Paula planted some of the extras in the one bed. This still needs to be mulched.

I salvaged what was left of a soaker hose that had been run over by a lawnmower (not by me!), and cut it into shorter pieces to fit in the beds. I found some L and T fittings at Rona and laid the hose out until I ran out. So far, this bed and the strawberries have hose in them, and the third bed and the empty space are still waiting. But I got a clockwork timer today (spring driven) that will enable us to turn the water on and leave.
The polytunnel hoops are 25mm electrical conduit held in the D holders for the next size up. The conduit came in three metre lengths--longer than I wanted-- but once I bent them into their holders, it didn't seem necessary to shorten them. Poly clearly still has to be installed....
The fourth space in the plot isn't being ignored; it is slated to have a cold frame built for it. Among other things, we're hoping this gives us a place to overwinter herbs.
Its strange to imagine overwintering anything. Out on the prairies, most everything is planted in May and out of the ground by mid-October at the latest. Here, things are different. Up the peninsula, someone is successfully growing citrus trees. Kiwi fruit are farmed nearby. Here at the bottom of Vancouver Island, the temperate rainforest is modified by a local micro-climate that gives us even milder weather. A lot of rain in the winter, sure, but seldom snow, and even less seldom, -20C. I've never gardened out here, so this year looks to be very experimental.

Summing It All Up Neatly

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Rice Shortage

A few years back--about 2008--there was rice rationing in the US and a great fear of rice shortages around the world. This lead to a certain amount of panic, particularly in Asia where citizens have traditionally consumed 70-80% of their calories in rice. The story of what actually happened is a combination of non-transparent markets, panic, reasonable actions on the part of governments, corrupt actions on the part of governments and their officials, reasonable actions on the part of consumers, screwy international trade activity, and just a general mess.
NPR ran a great story on the "crisis" and thankfully it's available in a podcast of the show Planet Money.

There's also a short interview with economist Peter Timmer on their website. But what is interesting are the lessons learned from the crisis. If you listen to the whole story, you hear that the lesson that the WTO and  Western economists take away from the "crisis" is exactly the opposite of the lesson learned by the governments involved. The interesting thing is, both sides appear to be right; open markets and transparency are good, but food security is a necessity. The problem is, neither side can see that maybe both lessons need to be learned.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Behind the Scenes

The New York Times posted a lovely little video of food porn in the making. It's not the full monty on how its done, but it does give some insight into the work of food stylists.

It does give some suggestion as to why what you make doesn't look the same as what you see in Gourmet or Cooks or on the Food Network.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Good News / Bad News

The good news: an application to develop a 25,000 head pig farm has been turned down by a municipal council. It may not be the death knell for this particular farm, but it is a significant set-back.
The bad news? Regretfully, this took place in South Derbyshire on a greenfield site west of the historic village of Foston. Industrial pig farming is still alive and well in North America.
And really, it is absurd; there have been a numbert of studies in Canada that show that mega-farms like this actually damage the local economy and lower a municipality's tax revenue when adjacent property values are lowered because of the mega-farm.

image sourced from The Guardian
When I raised pigs, I worried about not having farrowing crates for my sows (as in the photograph above). What I discovered is that pigs have perfectly good instinctual behaviour that keeps them from laying down on their young--which is what the farrowing crate is supposed to prevent. Pigs will walk in an ever-tightening circle before laying down, pushing their iglets into the centre of the circle. Then, when they are certain that ll the little ones are in a heap, they flop down to the outside of the circle, at which the piglets charge to attach to a nipple. Just like only bored and overcrowded pigs will bite each others tails, so docking isn't necessary. Pictures like the one above are artifacts of imposing an industrial production model in place of natural behaviours.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Kitchen--on TV

The local cable news program ran an article on the Rainbow Kitchen on October 19th. I finally got the recording from my (amazing) sister-in-law and edited it down to the four minutes it ran. I think it went well; although the report neglects the larger issues of food security, it does a good job of reporting on the sense of community the Kitchen is trying to foster and support and on the need in the community.
That Friday we had a group of about a dozen kids about 12-15 years old come in to help for the morning. I found it interesting that one of the kids said afterwards that "I didn't know that people needed help like this here in Canada" or words to that effect. The educational component of the Kitchen seems to be almost as important as the proactical aspect of feeding people. *sigh*

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Balance

Think of two lines of force in perfect balanced opposition:

Whatever the intensity of the force each side is exerting, in order to separate the two you have to apply a force to each side that is slightly greater than the one pushing them together. And then, in order to keep them apart, you have to maintain that level of effort forever. But if you have the same lines of force pressing against each other and you apply your effort perpendicular to the opposed forces, it takes a great deal less effort to dislodge the two, and they pop apart quite readily.

If we think of the world's food producers (a whole lot of people everywhere except in the developed world) and the world's food consumers (which is, of course, everyone) and we track how the first group gets their produce to the second group, we find that by far the majority of food in the world ends up going through maybe a dozen transnational corporations with names like Cargill, and Monsanto, and Archer Daniel Midlands. Economists look upon this state of affairs and say that these corporations have both a monopsony and a monopoly; that is, they are both the only buyers for the products and the only sellers for the products. This makes the corporations very happy. In order to maximize their profits (which is their goal), they can put pressure on the producers to accept lower prices (because, after all, where else are you going to sell your coffee?) and on the consumers to pay higher prices (after all, where else are you going to get your coffee?). While this is not a good state of affairs for consumers or producers, it is a great state of affairs for the guys in the middle. In a healthy, functioning economic ecosystem, competition between different companies keeps pressure on to ensure a fair price to the producers of materials and to keep prices down when selling to the consumer. When a monopsony or a monopoly develops, things get out of whack. If we look at a diagram of this state of affairs (viz. Raj Patel) we see an hourglass:

But it kind of looks like the first illustration of the two balanced forces, and that bothers me. As Frederick Kirchenmann of the Leopold Center in Ames, Iowa says:
"... we should be asking ourselves what kind of agricultural system could produce the food and fiber we need in a world where oil is $250 and where we have twice the severe weather but only half the water that we have now. What kind of agriculture could we come up with? It's an entirely reasonable question to ask and yet, no one wants to touch it because when you get down to it, no one has a clue." 
The current industrial food system does two things very very well—it moves large amounts of food from one place to another (primarily from low cost of production areas to wealthy areas, but still...), and it makes the corporations in the middle very very wealthy (particularly now that they are working so hard to become the only place you can purchase seed). The current system also produces large amounts of food-like substances very cheaply (though mostly at the expense of those producing the feedstock), and distributes them very efficiently (at least in economic terms). But $250/bbl oil or more rain or less rain are perpendicular forces operating on the balance of forces we currently have. Forty years into the awareness of global climate change and we still have allowed an unstable, non-resilient food supply system to be developed. There are, of course, alternatives. But, like the transition to a sustainable energy system, the food system needs a backbone and the industrial food system is pretty much all we have. We are going to need to be able to move food and agricultural knowledge around the world during any transition to a sustainable food system. And it won't always be for profit, as we try to offer relief in areas suffering severe weather and crop failure. If we manage to transition into a sustainable food system—and that is a really big IF—we will need the systems Monsanto and Cargill and the like have developed. The thing is, we may not need the corporations. And that presents us with a massive problem; they will not want to disappear, and they will not wish to disappear quietly. Considering that these corporations are so large that their economies surpass most of the national economies they service, the potential for trouble is immense. If we consider the case of Monsanto and glyphosate-ready seeds like canola, we can see the redlinings of what we can expect in the future. As reported in Businessweek online, what was expected has indeed come to pass; glyphosate (better known by the trademark name Roundup)-resistant “superweeds” have begun appearing. And being able to say “See! I told you so!” isn't doing anyone any good. The problem is that the large chemical companies aren't seeing this as evidence of a blind alley and turning around. Rather, they are seeing it as an opportunity to revive older herbicides, develop crops resistant to those herbicides, and follow Monsanto into large short-term profits for the next ten or fifteen years. Monsanto denied for years that glyphosate resistance could occur in weeds, then denied for years that it had occurred, and now has announced that they will be adding resistance to a second herbicide into glyphosate resistant crops by 2015. To quote Monsanto Chief Executive Officer Hugh Grant, “The calvary is coming.” All this for a problem that never needed to exist in the first place. So what will companies like Monsanto do when they discover that they are being made redundant? The prevailing business theory is that corporations need to embrace change and pursue new markets in an ever-evolving environment. But just as Apple under Steve Jobs have shown, companies don't embrace change; they instead fall back on the same solutions. Solutions like closed systems, reduction of alternatives, growth by buying innovation, feudalism, and slavery. Most farmers are already not much better than serfs on their own land. Now corporations are buying up enormous tracts of farmland with the intent of hiring people to work it, changing farming from a profession of small and medium-sized businesses into classic wage-slavery. And not incidentally ending fourteen thousand years of cooperative innovation.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Good Morning

I'm writing this at about 7:30am so it is a "good morning" from me.
The illo above popped up on Facebook and manages to sum up a whole lot of food security issues in one pithy quoteable moment.

On the other side of the coin, the CBC ran this article:
I really hate it when improvements aren't....

Friday, September 23, 2011

A Damn Good Question

"... we should be asking ourselves what kind of agricultural system could produce the food and fiber we need in a world where oil is $250 and where we have twice the severe weather but only half the water that we have now. What kind of agriculture could we come up with? It's an entirely reasonable question to ask and yet, no one wants to touch it because when you get down to it, no one has a clue."
Frederick Kirchenmann
Leopold Center in Ames, Iowa

Saturday, September 17, 2011


Spent much of the afternoon making jam yesterday. Put me in mind of a couple of things, not the least of which was Michell Shocked's excellent tune “Strawberry Jam” from her Arkansas Traveller cd/tape/album/download. The song is a tribute to making jam—but jam becomes a metaphor for all DIY culture, and how culture is something made, not consumed. And how making things, particularly jam, is a liberating experience.
But standing there in the kitchen, mushing berries down and adding sugar (not too much, because I've been using Pomona's Universal Pectin instead of Certo for a while now), put me in mind of my mother and growing up in Edmonton. Mom put up a lot of preserves.
My mother was not a great cook, but she was pretty darned good at putting up jars of fruit in syrup, jams, and the like. Growing up in the suburban sixties, our family kept contact with the land by picking local berries, and keeping a garden. Living in Alberta, we had access to wild Saskatoon berries. Mom and Dad would keep track of where the berries were heaviest and how ripe they were—in rural areas, Saskatoons grew along fence lines, so you had to park, cross the ditch at the side of the road, and then push your way through wild roses to get to the berries.
I have great memories of having a pail hung off my belt, a hot summer day with that high background sound of heat, mosquitoes,grasshoppers, and sun, stuffing handfuls of plump, sweet, purple berries into my mouth (and occasionally into the pail). It would take forever to fill the pail (I wonder why?) and when I came out of the bushes, Mom and Dad would have emptied several of the smaller buckets into the large pail.
I never thought about it, but when we got home, Mom would have to sit for hours, sorting the berries, tossing out all the crap I'd cheerfully picked (because it helped fill the bucket, you see), and prep the berries for preserving. She made mountains of jam, and also preserved Saskatoons in a sugar syrup. This was a long-time favourite of mine; there was always an air of festival when there were Saskatoons for dessert.
There were other berries in our lives; one of the first things the folk did when setting up the garden was to plant raspberries along the fence-line. As kids, we picked handfuls of them as they ripened, but the larger volumes were reserved for Mom. We also, like pretty much every house on our block, had rhubarb plants. In July, we would crack off the largest stalks and grab a drinking glass with a couple of centimetres of sugar into which we'd dip our rhubarb. At first you'd eat the sugared rhubarb, but by the end you'd just be sucking vaguely rhubarb-flavoured sugar off the stalk without biting it at all.
It was unusual to see a yard without a kitchen garden in it. In late summer, as the evenings lengthened, we'd gather in groups and roam the back alleys, hopping over fences to steal fresh vegetables and fruit from carefully tended plots. We'd eat fresh peas, and then chew on the shells for the blast of flavour, spitting huge mouthfuls of pulp as we went along. We'd search out massive carrots that were on the verge of changing from sweet to woody, rub the dirt off on our pants, and walk along talking, feeling that satisfying crunch as your teeth finally made it though the bright orange flesh.
Wed could simply have stayed home and eaten our fill of veg out of our family gardens, but “garden raiding” (as we called it) made the vegetables taste so much sweeter. The same with fruits; many families had apple trees (mostly the smaller crab apples), and you quickly became aware which apples were good raw, and which weren't. Crab apples were also pickled—I still remember taking the entire apple into my mouth and pressing it with my tongue. The softened flesh and skin of the apple would mush into an explosion of flavours, and I would pull the stem with the core still attached out of my mouth through pursed lips, sucking the last of the goodness off of it.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Taking on the Giant

    I've been spending a fair bit of time thinking about foods that are under-used, ignored, or simply have fallen out of favour. An excellent example of this is Fat : an appreciation of a misunderstood ingredient with recipes by Jennifer McLagan, a book that attempts to single-handedly restore one of the most irrationally hated substances in cooking to its rightful place. Another is Bones: recipes, history and lore, coincidentally also by Jennifer McLagan.
    Bones, fat, and offal interest me because historically we've eaten all of them, yet currently we eat almost none of them. There are many vegetables that have suffered the same fate; like the pumpkin. Between mid-October and New Years, we eat a few pumpkin pies (usually commercially made, or made with commercial filling), but the majority of pumpkins are cut into jack o'lanterns and discarded a day or two later.
    So I ended up with a massive pumpkin back in early November. Maybe no Atlantic Giant, but it was a good 18 kilos or so. When reading Annie Hill's  book Voyaging on a Small Income, I learned that squash can be stored for extended periods with not much more than a quick wipe-down with a 5% bleach solution. The bleach impairs the growth of fungus and other microorganisms that degrade the shell of a squash, and once that's accomplished, squash slowly desiccate, but will last a long time without spoiling.
    A few weeks after rescuing this pumpkin, I noticed a little bit of white mold starting to grow on some of the rind scars, so I wiped it down and let it sit on a counter in the kitchen for the last eight weeks or so while I figured out what to do with it. It didn't really matter what I cooked it into, this was a big squash and was going to require a lot of preservation after that first cut. Yesterday I decided to get on with the job and picked up the pumpkin for the first time in months.
    And it was a good thing I did; I hadn't managed to stop all spoilage on the squash. Around the stem, the pumpkin rind had begun to soften and rot, but the pumpkin itself was in remarkably good shape.

The Food We Eat

An interesting editorial from The Guardian--it's also worth following the link to the Scientific American article about halfway down.

Food sustainability: Modified opinions

Historians of the future may mark the early 21st century as the point where the science of agriculture finally broke into public understanding. Ten years of ill-tempered debate over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has had many malign effects, not least adding to public scepticism about science and scientists. But it has had one benign one. It has pumped dye into the veins of the global food business, graphically illustrating the monopolistic ambitions of agribusiness and ultimately, perhaps, its ability to control the very food we eat.

On Wednesday night a debate on GMOs at the illustrious Royal Society of Chemistry HQ in London suggested a breakthrough. Afterwards the feeling was that it was a win on points for the GM sceptics. This is not what was meant to happen: the scientific community, and the government, insist Britain's future food sustainability depends on employing some form of GM to increase yields, as the Royal Society recently argued. But they can take heart: the debate was less a defeat for GM than for the way it has developed. The corollary is that if the government really believes that the only way to increase yields is through GM technology, it will have to fund this itself.

The winning argument on Wednesday was not really about science at all, but about the ethics of a method of increasing yields that delivers such power into the hands of the multinationals. Yesterday the Soil Association published a report claiming that next year's GM soya bean seed will cost US farmers almost half as much again as this year's. Genetically modified seed is, as a technology, intended primarily to benefit the corporations that develop it. Claims that it is the way to save the world came later. This does not necessarily make it a bad technology; it only means – as Sussex University's Erik Millstone argued in the debate – its commercial trajectory is too narrow to provide much in the way of answers to global hunger. It is a technology developed for large-scale agriculture in advanced capitalist economies that has scant regard for other producers or other economic models. It has been accompanied by unsubstantiated claims which, according to independent scientists backed by the powerful voice of Scientific American, cannot be tested, since all research on GM seed has to be licensed as part of the impenetrable defences erected by agribusiness around its expensive patents.

This model excludes all kinds of developments that might make a more significant contribution to food sustainability than merely increasing yield (often by enabling heavier use of herbicides or pesticides). Food sustainability in an era of climate change requires not only, nor even primarily, higher yields, but greater resilience – the ability to survive in harsher conditions and on poorer soils. There is work to be done on developments that would lower the need for high-cost (and often high-carbon) inputs, by for example developing crops grown as annuals into perennials, or breeding varieties that do not require soil cultivation, or that improve the soil by fixing nitrogen.

Here, GM may be a small part of the answer. But it has a mixed record in Asia, where it has tended to enrich the rich and impoverish the poor, and it is unlikely to be any part of the answer to food security in Africa for the foreseeable future. As the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation pointed out last year, there is enough food for everyone. It just isn't available in the right places. Subsistence farmers are cut off from all but the most local markets, and if they take the risk of buying commercial GM seed their increased yield might just lower local prices. They need simpler improvements. And globally the need is for publicly funded science to investigate sustainable agriculture in the widest possible meaning of the word: better farming practices, a viable pricing system and, for the global north, a radical change in patterns of consumption.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Food Security IS Security

Damian Carrington, over at the Guardian, is pointing out, with reference to the map above, the links between food security and conflict. I'll quote the opening couple of paragraphs:

A new map of food security risk around the world is, in some ways, depressingly familiar. Sub-saharan Africa leaps out as the place where the most people fear for their next meal, while the rich world has more to fear from obesity. But there's plenty of salutary reminders and fascinating detail, like India's food problems and the vulnerability of Spain.
And it demonstrates the sickening, symbiotic relationship between lack of food and conflict: where one leads, the other follows.
We must start with the worst, in the horn of Africa. In Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea, human failings mean a severe drought has tipped millions into famine. It's a textbook case of why things go wrong. War begets poverty, leaving food unaffordable. Devastated infrastructure destroys both food production and the ability to truck in emergency food. The collapse of society means the effects of extreme weather such as drought cannot be dealt with. And the fear of violence turns people into refugees, leaving their livelihoods and social networks behind.
I really haven't anything to add to his concise and poignant piece, except to say that overextending your food supply is the classic way empires fall, as detailed in Evan D.G. Fraser and Andrew Rimas' book
Empires of Food: Feast, Famine, and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Some Food Writing

Since, most famously, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin and, slightly less famously, Alexandre Balthazar Laurent Grimod de La Reynière invented food writing in the first quarter of the 1800s, food writers have battered language almost insensible trying to describe the transports of delight that food has wrought upon their palates. Brillat-Savarin famously said "Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are," in his Physiologie du Goût, ou Méditations de Gastronomie Transcendante; ouvrage théorique, historique et à l'ordre du jour, dédié aux Gastronomes parisiens, par un Professeur, membre de plusieurs sociétés littéraires et savantes. (commonly translated as The Physiology of Taste). The Physiology of Taste is available in a plain text format through Sadly, Grimod's Manuel des amphitryons : contenant un traité de la dissection des viandes à table, la nomenclature des menus les plus nouveaux pour chaque saison, et des élémens de politesse gourmande : ouvrage indispensable à tous ceux qui sont jaloux de faire bonne cher̀e, et de la faire faire aux autres (1808) is less accessible in translation (although available in French).

(It is fitting that, as I write this, I've been offered a sample of coffee with instructions to taste it like I would a wine; first the nose, then a slurp and swish to spread the taste over my whole tongue.)

In addition to his mots and aphorisms, Brillat-Savarin dealt with many of the issues that concern us today, such as the globalisation of of food and food culture. He writes:

Gourmandise offers great resources to fiscality, for it increases customs, imports, etc. All we consume pays tribute in one degree or another, and there is no source of public revenue to which gourmands do not contribute. Let us speak for a moment of that crowd of preparers who every year leave France, to instruct foreign nations in gourmandise. The majority succeed and obedient to the unfasting instinct of a Frenchman's fever, return to their country with the fruits of their economy. This return is greater than one would think.

Brillat-Savarin continues on to talk about how food and the businesses surrounding it contributed an extraordinary amount to France's GDP and balance of payments. But he writes about the joys of the table:

The centuries last passed have also given the taste important extension; the discovery of sugar, and its different preparations, of alcoholic liquors, of wine, ices, vanilla, tea and coffee, have given us flavors hitherto unknown. Who knows if touch will not have its day, and if some fortuitous circumstance will not open to us thence some new enjoyments? This is especially probable as tactile sensitiveness
exists every where in the body, and consequently can every where be excited. We have seen that physical love has taken possession of all the sciences. In this respect it acts with its habitual tyranny. The taste is a more prudent measure but not less active faculty. Taste, we say, has
accomplished the same thing, with a slowness which ensures its success. Elsewhere we will consider the march. We may, however, observe, that he who has enjoyed a sumptuous banquet in a hall decked with flowers, mirrors, paintings, and statues, embalmed in perfume, enriched with pretty women, filled with delicious
harmony, will not require any great effort of thought to satisfy himself that all sciences have been put in requisition to exalt and to enhance the pleasures of taste.

“[A]ll sciences have been put in requisition to exalt and to enhance the pleasures of taste.” A bold statement, although, considering the state of the hall described, a defensible one.

Brillat-Savarin was writing in the early 1800s, but, in many ways, he set standards that have echoed down the years. In his book Blue trout and black truffles : the peregrinations of an epicure, Joseph Wechsberg writes similarly about the Restaurant de la Pyramide in Vienne. In what turns out to be a sheer delight of a read, Wechsberg at first resists the pilgrimage to Pyramide:
I objected mildly that I wasn't too much interested in the “show places” of la grande cuisine. France's restaurants are, by and large, the best in the world, I said, and I could see no reason for patronizing fancy establishments when there is such an astonishing number of small restaurants all over the country where one can get a delicious omelet, a succulent blanquette de veau, a fine Brie, and a bottle of honest vin du pays for the equivalent of a dollar and a half.
Of course, cooler heads prevail, a letter of introduction is written, and Wechsberg is off (again) to France where he meets “incontestably the greatest chef on earth”, the Formidable Monsieur Point (the title of the chapter).

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Empty Oceans Follow-up

I wrote about the international fishery’s problems with by-catch about six weeks back, and how so many fish are being caught, killed, and then dumped overboard because they are not currently in season or are not in quota. Its a terrible waste, and is doing nothing to ensure we have a sustainable source of food from the ocean.
So the other day, gonzo filmmaker and favourite Victoria brother-in-law Karl Johanson spotted an article he thought would interest me. Recently, David Watson (currently a student in the Innovation Design Engineering joint course between the Royal College of Art and Imperial College, London), submitted a design for a retro-fit for fishing nets designed to reduce the problem of nets catching too many small fish along with the commercial-sized ones to the Victorinox sustainable design competition. It is a very interesting design in that it addresses a couple of problems; that small fish can't escape commercial trawling nets, and that when they can escape, they can't see the way out.
I know that when I think of a trawling net being pulled through the ocean, I think of a curtain where large fish get caught up trying to pass through the holes. The reality is a bit different, where an open bag is pulled through the water, and the netting's holes collapse, allowing primarily water to pass through. Small fish either can't get out or are crushed in the mass of fish being swept up.
David Watson's design solution is fairly straightforward; reinforcing grommets that hold the netting open. And because the small fish often can't see their way out, he's included a couple of LED lights in each grommet (nicely powered by small turbine in the grommet, powered by the motion of the net through the water).

Its an elegant solution, one where you fit the net with reinforcing grommets and then pretty much forget about it. And its one solution that will never be used. Even if the cost of the grommets was a nickle each installed, the sheer number needed makes the cost prohibitive. And without effective international regulation, any requirements to install these grommets would quickly un-level the playing field, making adoption untenable. Such is the reality of a globalized food system: the worst and cheapest practices become the de facto standard.
Its the same on-land as it is in the oceans. If Ghana has no regulation on agricultural practices and produces cheap food, that's the food that will end up on your plate. Unless, of course you're paying attention and make a conscious choice not to purchase it. When it comes to fish, the Monterey Bay Aquarium produces a sustainable seafood guide that helps you make better choices about what goes on your plate. And keep in mind, that while prairie-farmed rainbow trout are a good choice, ocean-raised Atlantic salmon from the Pacific coast are a terrible choice.

Monday, June 20, 2011

A Quick Round Up

Over in China, flooding has innundated over 1 million acres (just over 404 thousand hectares) of farmland, raising local food prices by a minimum 20%. Flooding has been bad this year pretty much everywhere--like southern Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Warm air holds more water than cold, and the steady upward drift of average global temperature means we're going to face more of this. There's a short article on the China flood in The Guardian.

In an op-ed piece in the NYTimes, Patricia McArdle writes about how the US is destroying one of the last locavore cultures with foreign aid. No surprise there. This has been the role of foreign aid since the mid-sixties and the birth of the "Green Revolution." That the US is still pursuing a policy decades after it was shown to be misguided and wrong isn't much of a surprise either; the US is a ship that may no longer be able to turn. Oh, and the locavore culture being destroyed? Afghanistan.

Verlyn Klinkenborg writes a very short piece (A Welcome Silence) on the joys of leaving the hearing protection on when working. It echoes one I read in Harrowsmith a decade or two back that suggested that rather than using hearing protection, one could just give up the chainsaw....

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Local Sourcing 1

The summertime lobster sandwich from McDonald's is back! Yes, Micky D's serving a lobster which is only available in New England and the Atlantic provinces. Apparently the lobster is being sourced from lobster-men in Escuminac, New Brunswick in a move to try sourcing and selling a local sandwich.
Now, this feels really strange, but I have to compliment McDonald's on this move. Locally sourced for local consumption,these are the actions we need to see in the food world. If we could add “sustainably harvested” to the list, we'd have the whole trifecta.
Honestly, do we really need to eat the same things everywhere in the world? I know that this is the concept behind food outlets like McDonalds. You serve the same thing everywhere, standardizing production, preparation, and service across your chain in order to present the same experience to every consumer on every visit. But we've done that, and it's killing us.
Regardless of what we've been teaching ourselves for the last century, people are not all the same everywhere. Motivations may be, general needs may be, but that doesn't make us identical. Just as an example, cow's milk isn't great for everyone (often, goat's milk is a better fit). So force feeding everyone a burger and shake combination may not be the best idea.
We, as humans, have spent thousands of years developing local and regional cuisines. This food is one of the ways we define ourselves. I know most Canadians don't get it (other than poutine, we really have no national cuisine), but most places aren't Canada. Provence, Tuscany, Ethiopia, all of these places have things they eat or ways they eat that are particular to themselves. Parmesan cheese is not the white grainy food-like substance we consume in North America; rather it is particular to the Parma region of Italy. And when you feed pigs on the waste whey from making Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, you get a specifically-flavoured pig that, when you've butchered and salt-cured it, makes prosciutto. Salt-curing a ham doesn't make prosciutto, terroir makes prosciutto. And that terrior is place-specific. Techniques are transferable (thus you can cure a prosciutto-style ham), but place isn't transferable. If I cure a ham from a Berkshire hog on a farm north of Sudbury which I raised on whey from milk from Jersey cows made into a Cheddar style cheese, what I get is not prosciutto, but a salt-cured ham that represents the place in which it was produced. And no one can copy that terroir—which is why I shouldn't be trying to represent that ham as being something its not. Call it Tondalayo Ham produced using adapted Parman techniques, which would explain what it was better than simply calling it prosciutto.
Eating local isn't about sourcing the same items everywhere, it's about letting farmers do what they've done for fifteen thousand years—figure out what grows well and grow it. And just because something exists doesn't mean everyone should be able to get it. Total gratification of every whim is not just killing us, its killing the planet.

BTW, there's actually an ad for the McLobster....

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Earth Can Feed Us

Hugo Osvald, The Earth Can Feed Us, George Allen and Unwin 1966

Hugo Osvald was an academic, politician and writer deeply involved in food security issues back in the fifties and sixties. A professor of crop science at the Swedish Agricultural University, he was also a member of the Swedish parliament from 1948-1963. His book The Earth Can Feed Us is an important look at food security issues and the plans made to confront those issues just prior to the Green Revolution.
As you can see from the title of his book, Hugo was actually fairly optimistic about the ability of humans to feed a population of six billion or so (about double the population at the time he wrote this book). As he says in his preface:

I have also refrained from giving terrifying descriptions of the situation in the over-populated countries, with their starving and diseased populations, or detailed accounts of the mistakes mankind has made in exploiting natural resources. For if we want to improve the situation, it is, in my opinion, necessary first of all to show what possibilities there are of increasing food production. Mankind must be given a gleam of hope, a chance to believe in a brighter future, if it is to make the necessary effort. Otherwise it will become discouraged and apathetic.1

Hugo provides an overview of the current condition of the food supply circa 1966, and what he sees isn't good. “The sad truth is, that more than half the world's population of more than three milliard people has not enough to eat.2” He also did not think, after reviewing the numbers, that even with perfect distribution there would be enough calories to go around at the then current rate of production. Whether there is currently enough to go around is still one of those open questions; if you cancel biofuel production in the US and quit feeding so much livestock on so much corn, there might be enough calories produced. But practically there will never be enough, if only because those that have access to food are in no hurry to give it up to eat a 2300 calorie/day diet high in grains and low in animal protein.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

From Farm to Kitchen

I've just about finished reading an influential book which helped lead to the green revolution (Hugo Osvald's The Earth Can Feed Us. Hugo was a Swedish academic, writer, and legislator.). I've also begun Empires of Food: Feast, Famine, and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations by Fraser and Rimas (you have no idea how nice it is to have access to the University of Victoria library system...), a book that has helped clarify my thinking about famine and I'm only about fifty pages into it.
There's also the matter of the difficult-to-predict flood in southern Manitoba (and in Saskatchewan) and the sudden explosion of wildfires in northern Alberta (one of which took out almost half the town of Slave Lake). Both the floods and the fires are exactly what climate scientists have been predicting (both more frequent weather-related events, and more extreme weather-related events) and events like these are going to have tremendous impact on our future food production in this country.

But I would rather talk about my new volunteer position instead. It is now official; as of 23 May, I am the volunteer coordinator and kitchen manager at the Rainbow Kitchen in Victoria. Well, at least for the next six weeks or so.
This is an outgrowth of my long-held desire to feed the world. Or at least, the part of it I can reach. When we were growing vegetables on DoubleJoy Farm and selling them at market (what is called “truck gardening”), we would haul upwards of a quarter to a half tonne of veg to market on any given day. We tried to provide a high-quality fresh product, and while we did want a pretty good price for it, that price more accurately reflected the real costs of raising food. Sustainable agriculture is not cheap, and unless you can take advantage of cheap labour or major equipment (or both), small producers are always going to be asking a premium price. But they are offering a premium product. And there is something else they offer; contact with the farmer. After we'd been selling vegetables a while, I noticed that, at market, it wasn't so much the veg we were selling, but the contact. A link to the land, the product, and the producer was essential to the customer. It was also essential to us as producers. My mother, who started vegetable production on the family farm back in the mid-seventies, took me aside on day and questioned me about the pounds of produce we were giving away. We did it right from the beginning—people would walk by and we'd offer them whatever we had on hand. Peas, beans, tomatoes, potatoes, whatever. Mother couldn't get over how many we gave out. Fistfuls, one two, three at a time, to kids. More to their parents. That, mother pointed out, was money out of my pocket.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Regional Food Security 1

Xinhua News, on their English news site, is reporting that "China, South Korea and Japan will each provide up to 200,000 tons of rice for a contingency plan of the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) plus three, out of total allocation of 787,000 tons" destined for an ASEAN +3 stockpile. The idea is to manage price volatility and ensure emergency stocks of rice. Indonesian Agriculture Minister Suswono said "We will propose that it wouldn't be only for emergency situation but also for price stability. It means that we should increase the reserves in case of price volatility so that we could conduct market operation." 
It's interesting that  ASEAN has taken this action now, as International prices, Thailand: Bangkok, Rice (Thai 100% B) , Export, US Dollar per Tonne have dropped considerably since peaking in 2008 (peaking at $962.60, prices have since dropped to $507.25--which is still double the 2000 price of $243.50/ton according to the FAO). It means that the collective governments of the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (+3, of course) are concerned about continued price volatility in their collective markets.
The FAO is also showing that, worldwide, prices are climbing again, after having spiked in 2008 and dropping last year. Meat and dairy products have either almost recovered or have (in the case of meat) exceeded their 2008 price highs. Cereals are still down--lower than last year, even--but oils and fats have showed increases. All in all, this brings the global food price index to 164--the second highest point it's achieved this century; having started at 90 and peaked at 191 in 2008.
We can expect continuing volatility over the next several decades; global climate change has shown us increased agricultural impacts in (for example) Australia with drought, flooding, and brush-fires, and according to a recent report [.pdf] (reported by the CBC) expected sea level rise on the BC coast of a half metre by 2050, which will put a great deal of our local agricultural land at risk.  If in fact the report is correct when it says: "At the present time, scientific information on the expected changes in storms approaching British Columbia coastal waters and their characteristics, specifically on the intensity of the storms, their related wave conditions and the associated storm surges in the future, is only starting to emerge. Based on the available information it appears reasonable to conclude that no significant change is expected in coastal BC waters," one would expect that if sea levels have increased by a half-metre, any storm activity will have greater effect on coastal areas.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Having A Hard Time Facing The Future

Report on Business Magazine (May 2011) is running an article this month called “How Do We Feed Seven billion People—and Counting?” In it, reporters interview various people, looking for their take on what is evolving into an international food crisis.
The range of opinions and suggestions is much broader than expected—mostly because several of the interviewees are pushing for more of the same discredited policies that we've been pursuing. Sometimes dressed in new rhetorical clothes, but the same solutions nonetheless.
Jeffrey Sachs, the director of the Earth Institute and special adviser to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, takes on one of the elephants in the room by saying simply that we can't afford to reach nine billion. And its true, we can't. We could, if we took agriculture and feeding people very seriously indeed, manage—just!—to feed nine billion. But it would be incompatible with the international economic order as it is currently constituted. And, as Sachs is quoted as saying:
“This crisis cannot be solved just by food aid or short-term tricks. We have to look at the basic issue: that politicians are locally oriented and cynical, that they make announcements they don't follow through on, and that they're in the pockets of lobbyists intent on preventing solutions.”
As long as the focus is on maximizing return on investment, and not on farmers making a living by feeding people, we will continue to starve both poor people and poor nations. It will be a brutal way to keep population pressure under control—after all, we are increasing by 80 million people a year at this point—but famine will be a very effective method of international social control. But famine does appear to be the weapon of choice at this time.

Abby Abassian is the senior grains economist at the FAO in Rome, and he mentions the other elephant in the room—if only obliquely. When asked “What caused the latest surge in food prices?” his reply is “In one word—weather. This is not like 2007 and 2008, where we had so many other factors mixed in.”

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

One Reason Our Oceans Are Empty

Just reading in The Guardian that the European Union is finally trying to deal with the issue of by-catch. By-catch (or "discards" in the article) are the fish discarded by fish boats because the fish are of low commercial demand or the boat has no quota for catching the species. It is one of the unintended consequences of the quota system of fishing: no quota, you don't land the catch.
This is not to say that the fish are in any way no good or inedible. It is simply that if you are fishing, say, halibut, you don't want to land other fish with your catch; you only have quota to catch halibut. Rockfish, ling cod, whatever else gets swept up in your nets gets tossed back overboard.
The volume of by-catch is large--often up to fifty percent of the catch. We might like to think that if you're fishing coho, that coho is all you catch, but it's simply not the case. The problem is particularly difficult with trawlers--the nets tend to sweep up everything they can, leaving the sorting for the men on deck.
European Union commissioner Maria Damanaki brought forward a plan [.pdf] earlier this year to ban discards. Speaking in Brussels 03 May 2011, she said ;
"Legislators must establish a new legal framework that removes all compulsory discarding. We also need clear objectives and time limits. And the fishing industry should devise ways in which the fish they don't want, is simply not caught in the first place. Or if it is caught we can help them to build storage mechanisms, to wait for a better price."

The fishing industry is not onside. Anything that means landing less than the highest-priced catch means difficulty for the industry. The problem is, the public is no longer buying the reasons for by-catch. As Ms. Damanaki says:
"We live in a hungry world and we cannot keep a policy that obliges fishermen to throw away perfectly good food. Just look at the picture behind me showing fishermen throwing away big cod, because they ran out of quota. There is no way that we can explain this to the people on the street."
 In the UK, the arguments against by-catch disposal are being led by chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall , who has signed on over a half-million supporters to change the by-catch rules. And it's having an effect--sales of sustainably-fished varieties are up in the UK.

Here in North America, we too have similar rules about by-catch and also waste enormous amounts of fish.And in a world where the once full oceans are being rapidly converted into deserts--much like farmland is rapidly being converted to desert--we really can't afford this. As Greenpeace pointed out in 2008:
Bycatch also undermines the recovery of protected species. In the North Atlantic trawling is netting huge numbers of juvenile cod, undermining efforts at rebuilding decimated Atlantic cod stocks. For example on the Grand Banks, cod fishing is banned but in 2003 an estimated 90 per cent of the biomass was caught as bycatch in other groundfish fisheries. Our wild king salmon populations in the northeast Pacific are also suffering with about 160,000 fish being caught as bycatch in the Alaskan pollock fishery last year. This mass incidental catch resulted in a collapse of a subsistence fishery because not enough fish returned from the ocean to spawn.

The World Wildlife Fund is also concerned.  The Fisheries Council of Canada seems to think that things are well under control [.pdf], but How We Fish offers a .pdf brochure on all the things we don't know. And with our new government here in Canada, don't expect to see conservation on the agenda--which baffles me. One would think Conservatives would be wanting to conserve resources, it being right there in their name. Instead, look for maximum exploitation to be the order of the day.

Friday, April 22, 2011

It's Not Really Necessary

It's not really necessary, you know. We don't actually have to have 2.5 million Canadians be food insecure each day. We don't actually have to have a billion or more food insecure persons in the world. We don't actually have to have Mike Davis' Planet of Slums. These are choices we've made or allowed to be made.
In the book of his Massey Lectures, A Short History of Progress, historian Ronald Wright spends a fair bit of time looking at the birth of pastoralism and agriculture and at the perfection of hunting. About hunting, he writes:

By 15,000 years ago at the very latest—long before the ice withdraws—humankind is established on every continent except Antarctica. Like the worldwide expansion of Europe, this prehistoric wave of discovery and migration had profound ecological consequences. Soon after man shows up in new lands, the big game starts to go missing. Mammoths and woolly rhinos retreat north, then vanish from Europe and Asia. A giant wombat, other marsupials, and a tortoise as big as a Volkswagen disappear from Australia. Camels, Mammoth, giant bison, giant sloth, and the horse die out across the Americas. A bad smell of extinction follows Homo sapiens around the world.
Not all experts agree that our ancestors were solely to blame. Our defenders point out that we hunted in Africa, Asia, and Europe for a million years or more without killing everything off; that many of these extinctions coincide with climatic upheavals; that the end of the ice age may have come so swiftly that big animals couldn't adapt or migrate. These are good objections, and it would be unwise to rule them out entirely. Yet the evidence against our ancestors is, I think, overwhelming. [....] Upper Palaeolithic people were far better equipped and more numerous than their forerunners, and they killed on a much grander scale. Some of their slaughter sites were almost industrial in size: a thousand mammoths at one; more than 100,000 horses at another. [....]

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Outgrowing the Earth

I'm currently reading Outgrowing the Earth: The Food Security Challenge in an Age of Falling Water Tables and Rising Temperatures by Lester R. Brown, the founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute. It is proving to be an interesting and accessible read, and one that I was planning to review once I finished reading. I likely still will review it, but it is proving interesting in a different way at the moment.
At the end of each chapter is the note: "Data for figures and additional information can be found at [...]." I finally found myself needing to check the figures for an end-note and popped over to take a look at the website for the book.  Oh my. Research heaven. Data and charts provided in Excel formatted spreadsheets.  And each chapter provided in both .pdf and html formats. All the end-notes converted to footnotes. Everything in the book and more. And all available for online browsing or download.
Now, I'm unlikely to read the entire book online (I still prefer a paper copy for reading), but I could load the whole thing up on a Kobo and read it. Brown has decided that communicating the information in his book is more important than killing trees, and for that, I applaud him. Now, I'm not sure that Brown's (and Cory Doctorow's) business model is viable for everyone, but it certainly is convenient when you're looking to quote from a book. It's also an excellent way to provide more information than you might want to cram onto dead trees, and connect to readers.
So how does this connect to food security? Well, that's what Brown's book topic is, so off you go. Have a read. Here's a .pdf of chapter one to get you started.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Real Deal

This is a CBS report on school lunches in France. What impresses me is not that the kids get lunch, but that they get lunch that matters. Fresh where possible. Local where possible. The focus is on real French cuisine; to teach kids to care about food as a cultural thing.

Can you imagine what this would look like in Canada? The maple syrup lake being stored for export would be served to our kids. Alberta bison, prairie grains, Quebec cheeses.
This also denotes a culture where food matters. Where you teach kids about what is good and why. Its also a culture that actually cares about its kids--there's no sodas or junk food in the schools. You want that, you have to decide to go and get it.
Its no wonder Jose Bove and the anti-McDonald's movement grew up here. Real food still matters. Kids matter. National pride is on the line. It really is sad that I can't even imagine what Canada would look like if we cared that much.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Adulterated Rice

Image from original article at Weekly Hong Kong

West Coast Woman mentioned seeing an article that reports on China producing adulterated rice for sale. With a little help from Google, I found the story in a number of places; Raw Story and the Globe Tribune are two. They, and most of the other sites, are referencing a story that appeared on Very Vietnam--which itself references an article that first appeared on Weekly Hong Kong. I don't read Korean, so the original article on WHK is inaccessible to me, forcing me to rely on translations for my information.
That being said, it looks like

The "rice" is made by mixing potatoes, sweet potatoes and plastic. The potatoes are first formed into the shape of rice grains. Industrial synthetic resins are then added to the mix. The rice reportedly stays hard even after being cooked.
The Korean-language Weekly Hong Kong reported that the fake rice is being sold in the Chinese town of Taiyuan, in Shaanxi province.
 The report quotes an un-named Chinese Restaurant Association official as saying that eating three bowls of the adulterated rice would be the equivalent of ingesting a plastic bag.
This is the logical outgrowth of an industrial food system that treats food as nothing more than a commodity and severs the relationship between producers and consumers. The goal is to keep the costs of production down and profit margins up.
The "wild west" capitalism of China has lead to other problems with food adulteration before--like Chinese milk and infant formula being contaminated with melamine in order to pass protein level tests.

Medium Raw

Medium raw : a bloody valentine to the world of food and the people who cook
Anthony Bourdain
Ecco Press, New York, NY. 2010

Anthony Bourdain is the Hunter Thompson of food writers; profane, insightful, and funny as hell. He also possesses a personal honesty that Thompson never had. His latest book, Medium Raw, is a collection of short essays, really, each delving into an aspect of the food world. Why he despises the Food Network, but understands why his friends are in thrall to it. Whether or not you should attend cooking school or get a job in the restaurant industry (probably not). A crazy-funny chapter called The Rich Eat Differently Than You and Me that is brilliantly observed. And another called The Fear that details what happened to the New York restaurant industry in 2008. And some pure unadulterated food porn in a chapter called, simply, Lust.
But the chapter Meat is simply one of the great jeremiads about industrial food. It's' so good that I wish I had written it. I want to quote a long passage from it--by no means the whole thing. I think it best expresses the rage, horror, and sense of betrayal all of us should or would express at the current industrial food system.
Medium Raw is a great read. You should pick it up.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Quinoa and Food Faddism

Photo from Wikipedia

    Over at The Independent (22 March 2011) they're talking about "the "lost crop" of the Incas, a health-giving seed found in the Andes which is increasingly providing the garnish on fashionable Western dinner plates." The crop is quinoa, a high protein seed with a balance of amino acids long used by people needing a gluten-free grain alternative. It's not particularly "long-lost" either, being a staple of health food shops since at least the seventies.
      What has changed is the demand. The price of quinoa has trebled over the last couple of years, and the article in The Independent makes the unsupported claim that some of this price increase has trickled down to "agricultural workers" in the growing regions. While market prices may have risen over the last five years, it is doubtful that peasant farmers have seen all that much of an increase in their personal income as the majority of profit is always taken by the purchasing desk.