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.