Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Blueberries and the Bigger Question

     I would have preferred to  have embedded this, but there you go. It is worth watching, though.
Blueberries faked in cereals, muffins, bagels and other food products - Food Investigations -
     The point of the piece is pretty good; you may think you know what you're buying, but you really don't. Of course, glancing at the ingredients list would have told you that. Or the fact that you're already buying a processed food-like substance rather than, you know, food. But nevertheless, there is a lot of marketing money being spent to ensure that you are mislead about what it really is that you're buying.
     This is the reason that Michael Pollan and others suggest that you simply skip the inside of your local supermarket. If you must shop there, minimize the damage by shopping the outer edges rather than the centre shelving. If your grandmother wouldn't recognize it as food, don't buy it.
     This does show one of the reasons that farmers are getting less than ever of each food dollar spent these days: most of the "food" being sold isn't food, but manufactured edible food like products. And thankfully, vegetables are still vegetables, fruit is still fruit, and we can still recognize them as such. 

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Population Pressures

The global food system will experience an unprecedented confluence of pressures over the next 40 years. On the demand side, global population size will increase from nearly seven billion today to eight billion by 2030, and probably to over nine billion by 2050; many people are likely to be wealthier, creating demand for a more varied, high-quality diet requiring additional resources to produce. On the production side, competition for land, water and energy will intensify, while the effects of climate change will become increasingly apparent. The need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to a changing climate will become imperative. Over this period globalisation will continue, exposing the food system to novel economic and political pressures.
So understates the British report The Future of Food and Farming: Challenges and choices for global sustainability. Two billion more people to feed by about 2050, and we can't even get food from farm to plate with the people we've already got.
     We're bloody useless at food, really. We've experience with famine that stretches back to the dawn of time, but we still haven't figured out how to handle famine relief. When food prices began their upward movement in 2008, it was clear that  a lot of people were going to fall off the food delivery waggon. And they did. As Raj Patel points out, "There are 75 million people more undernourished now than in 2008."And that's in the modern fossil fuel age--and that's not the total number of people who are food insecure or actually starving to death. That's just the people added to the total in the last two years.

     Part of the problem is the way we treat food.
These perverse poles of the global food economy, obesity and hunger, reflect the basic reality that while food is elemental to life and health it is conceived as a commodity and not a right--food aid and food banks, which reflect a minimalist conception of food rights, notwithstanding--and the motive force of profit prevails over concerns about equity and nutrition.
The global food economy : the battle for the future of farming p. 13
Food is not a right, but a commodity. As such, steps have to be taken to ensure that the maximum of profit can be realized; thus the use of food aid as a lever to destroy local markets, depress food prices, drive farmers off small holdings and into the cities, and the concentration of land ownership into fewer and fewer hands. none of this actually improves access to food, quality of food, or security of supply--although all of these claims are made, none of them stand up to sustained scrutiny.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Dinner on the Cheap

     I've been reading Bill Buford's excellent book Heat: an amateur's adventures as a kitchen slave, line cook, pasta maker, and apprentice to a Dante-quoting butcher in Tuscany (which is an terrific read--I doubt you can get through it without reading choice passages aloud!) in which he describes braising at it's most basic. So today, while in a local grocery store, while thinking about Buford and Anthony Bordain, I picked up a tray of the cheapest meat I could find. Described on the package as "pork bones for stewing," I could see that there was actually a fair bit of meat on the bone, and that this would give me a chance to pursue braising as described by Buford.
     Talking about braising short ribs at Mario Batali's three star restaurant in New York, Buford writes:
After the browning, the rest is straightforward. [...] There are five remaining steps.
One. remove the now brown and glistening ribs (using tongs, por favor) from the rondo and make a braising liquid, the stuff that's going to cover the ribs while they cook. In this method, the liquid is the essential ingredient, and it doesn't matter what it is as long as it's wet and plentiful (in an Irish pot roast, it's water), although the ideal liquid is both flavoring and flavorful and is made from one part wine (at Babbo, about three magnums' worth, which, as it happens, is not the Barolo of the dish's name but a perfectly acceptable, very cheap California Merlot) and one part meat broth (say, a chicken stock), plus loads of vegetables: some carrots, an onion, two stalks of celery, and five peeled cloves of garlic, all roughly chopped, which you throw back into the rondo, still hot, and stir. You add the wine, the broth, a can of tomatoes, and cook for a few minutes.
Two. Put the now-browned ribs in a roasting pan, pour the braising liquid over them, add some rosemary and thyme, put a lid on top, stick it in the oven (350 degrees), and forget about it.
Three. (Three hours later, the ribs now cooked.) Turn the braising liquid into a sauce, although the instruction itself raises an obvious question: what is a sauce? In this preparation, for instance, this is what you do: first you remove the ribs and set them aside to cool; then you pour the liquid they were cooked in through a strainer into another pot. This liquid, even before you'd begun cooking the ribs in it, had been pretty rich, being a broth that had been made from chicken feet, plus lots of vegetables, herbs, and plenty of wine. Then the ribs themselves had been cooked in it. (The bones of any animal, simmered slowly, make for a wet, intense expression of the meat; here you're getting a double expression, like a broth made from a broth.) Next, you take this dense, aromatic, already highly extracted liquid and hammer it: you put it back on a burner and boil it to hell. Just torch it. Full blast. Lots of yellow-frothy melted fat will rise disgustingly to the surface. You skim this off and keep boiling the thing until it's reduced by more than half, when, lo and behold, it is no longer a braising liquid or a broth: it's a sauce. The result is very, very, very concentrated. (In fact, it's really almost French.)
Four. Once the ribs are cool, you discover that the bones have loosened themselves from the meat and come right out. You also discover that what's left is really quite ugly. It consists of two parts: a muscly tendon of some kind (the texture is non unlike a baseball catcher's mitt) that is smooshed, by way of a fatty sinew, to the meat. The two parts can be pulled apart by hand. The bit that looks like a catcher's mitt is, in addition to being very ugly, entirely inedible. With great pleasure, you throw this away. The other bit is quite yummy, although you need to trim it into a rectangle, eliminating any fatty goo. But, curiously, mixed in with your good short ribs are a number of mutants. In these, for some reason, there is no distinction between the two parts, the bad and good bits (that is, catcher's mitt and dinner). They're all mushed together, and you can't pull them apart without tearing the thing to shreds, which is what you do: tear the thing to shreds to find something, anything really, that Cesar can use to make the family meal with.
Five. Assembly. Your meat is now arranged like so many dead toy soldiers, neatly tidied up. The sauce has been skimmed of fat and reduced to something that could be described as the food equivalent of most male movie stars: dark, rich, and thick. Everything is ready, Next you want to put it away in a fashion that allows you to retrieve it quickly, blast it in an oven, and serve: say, six short ribs in a half-hotel pan (which isn't a pan, either, but a tray, and is half the size of the full hotel not-actually-a-pan-but-a-tray pan, or in normal life what you cook brownies in), pour some sauce on top to keep the meat moist, and bundle the whole thing up first with plastic wrap, then with foil, tightly, tightly, so that, once stacked on the floor of the walk-in, it can be stepped on (and in the frantic rush of service, things happen--they always happen) without short-rib juice squirting out and adhering to the bottom of your shoes, leaving a disgraceful track to the toilet when you finally get a chance to go. What you now have is a wholly typical restaurant preparation, in which most of the work is done long before the dish is even ordered (and if a restaurant can do it, why can't you?). It keeps for a week.
These steps--brown meat, make a liquid, cook meat in it, remove it, and reduce the liquid until it's a sauce--are the same for every braised dish everywhere. Lamb shanks are done this way; so, too, are lamb shoulders, veal shanks, wild boar hams, venison shoulders: it's all the same.

pp. 74-75

Sunday, February 13, 2011


Court bakery of Ramses III

Well before 8 o'clock on a late April morning, a line of about 30 eager customers forms at a modest bakery in this working-class neighborhood. With a global food crisis roiling countries from Asia to the edge of Europe, at least 11 people have been killed recently in such lines here, struggling to get their daily bread.
There's no panic, no desperate scrambling for sustenance — a tentative sign of success for an emergency government plan that involves dramatic increases in spending on bread subsidies and the use of Egyptian soldiers as bakers.
"Now we're able to find bread," says Dalia Hafez, 40, seated on a nearby curb in a cappuccino-colored headscarf. "Thanks God, the crisis is over."
For now, anyway. But the aftershocks from the food trauma here are only beginning to be felt. Tensions are continuing to build in this key U.S. ally, evidence that the global food crisis — the product of factors ranging from unusual weather in producing nations to increased competition for grains from biofuels programs — is now about much more than food.
"This crisis threatens not only the hungry, but also peace and stability," the head of the United Nations World Food Program (WFP), Josette Sheeran, warned in a recent speech.
That Egyptian officials regard photos of bakers at work as potentially incendiary is a measure both of bread's unrivaled importance in the Egyptian diet and of the government's concern that continued public discontent over food supplies could metastasize into something more threatening.
"People in Egypt may be considered passive or silent, but there's a limit to this. And when they reach that limit, one day there will be a popular explosion," said lawyer Esam Salam, interviewed at a cafe near Cairo's train station.
USA Today 4/30/2008

The roots of the revolution are in food. Much of my life I've heard the saying that no city is more than three days away from revolution--all you have to do is cut off the food supply. Since the Bush regime decided to encourage the production of ethanol in '07-08, speculators have had a field day in the food futures market. And after years of the "green revolution," increasing reliance on petrochemical inputs, and land hunger (and a failure to reform consolidation and exclusion in land ownership), have combined to produce global unrest over the future of eating.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Honey Laundering

    Among the problems we experience with a globalized food system is that what were once local issues rapidly become international or global. A case in point would be Maple Leaf Foods in Canada discovering that several of their machines for processing deli meat were harbouring Listeria monocytogenes bacteria. Fifty years ago this would have been, at worst, a provincial problem. but by 2008, Maple Leaf Foods was shipping deli meats not only across Canada, but into the US as well, making this, at least potentially, an international outbreak from a single point source. The CBC (which has actually spent a lot of time on food safety issues) was reporting that Federal inspectors usually spent less than 2 hours a day at the plant in the months before the outbreak of the illness, sometimes as little as 15 minutes. This is, of course, a result of conservative pressure to reduce regulation and enforcement on the part of governments, and move responsibility for enforcement onto the businesses affected.
    The Globe and Mail (05 January 2011) is reporting that that honey we are purchasing either in liquid form or in consumer foods, may not be what we think it is. Jessica Leeder, global food reporter for the G&M, writes that much of the honey we consume is Chinese in origin, and does not meet North American food standards.
What consumers don’t know is that honey doesn’t usually come straight – or pure – from the hive. Giant steel drums of honey bound for grocery store shelves and the food processors that crank out your cereal are in constant flow through the global market. Most honey comes from China, where beekeepers are notorious for keeping their bees healthy with antibiotics banned in North America because they seep into honey and contaminate it; packers there learn to mask the acrid notes of poor quality product by mixing in sugar or corn-based syrups to fake good taste.
None of this is on the label. Rarely will a jar of honey say “Made in China.” Instead, Chinese honey sold in North America is more likely to be stamped as Indonesian, Malaysian or Taiwanese, due to a growing multimillion dollar laundering system designed to keep the endless supply of cheap and often contaminated Chinese honey moving into the U.S., where tariffs have been implemented to staunch the flow and protect its own struggling industry. (from Honey laundering: The sour side of nature's golden sweetener)

Look at what Leeder is reporting here:
  • Honey contaminated with antibiotics 
  •  taste masked with sugar or HFCS (high fructose corn syrup)
  • Inaccurate labelling
And that's just two paragraphs.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Vancouver may be waking up

image courtesy Freedigitalphotos

Victoria News Daily (13 September 2010)reports that Metro Vancouver is pursuing a Regional Food Systems Strategy that may involve Vancouver becoming a "farm landlord." When discussing agriculture, the metro van website points out:
Agriculture is an essential component of a sustainable region and a resilient food system. The agricultural industry contributes to the regional economy, supplies healthy food, and maintains farmland that provides public amenity benefits such as green space and wildlife habitat. The Metro Vancouver region is one of the most productive agricultural areas in Canada due to the rich alluvial soils of the Fraser delta, excellent climate and proximity to the country's third largest urban market. Remarkably, the region generates 27% of B.C.'s total farm income on less than 1.5% of the province’s farmland. 
They've also managed to build over most of that "most productive agricultural area," which is why in 1972 the NDP brought in the Agricultural Land Reserve: to preserve the province's farmland.
 (from the ALR website)

The problem is that it has become progressively easier for developers to target chunks of the ALR for development--particularly under the "business-friendly" Social Credit Party and Liberal Party governments.
Metro Van is noticing this steady erosion of the ALR, and Richmond councilor Harold Steves, chairman of the Metro Agricultural Committee, has suggested that a share of development cost charges applied on new construction, or when highway projects alienate large areas of farmland, be directed to a farmland acquisition fund.

The acquisition fund could be used to purchase threatened farmland, which would then be leased to farmers--particularly those who are facing significant barriers to entry--or used to create model farms.
When the ALR was created in 1972, BC grew almost 86% of the fresh food consumed in province. By 2010, that percentage had shrunk to 48%. Councilor Steves has pointed out that this leaves the Greater Vancouver region extremely vulnerable to any disruption in the "continuous convoy of trucks coming from Mexico and California." Steves argues that this situation is "dire" and requires immediate steps to restore production to the Lower Mainland.

Tough Times Ahead

     The headline on the front page of the 08 February 2011 Globe and Mail reads "A Warning to Canada: Start Growing", and opens with:

Canada has lost its statue as a food-producing superpower and needs a drastic overhaul of its agricultural policy if it hopes to compete in world markets and feed more of its own people.
The country, hobbled by out-of-date policies and a continuing battle for scarce government dollars, has dropped from third-largest global exporter of food to No. 7 at a time when we can least afford it: Climate change and population growth are putting enormous pressure on the food system while diet-related healthcare costs are weighing on the national economy.
     The article is by Jessica Leeder, the full time "global food reporter" at the G&M. Leeder also reported on the cuts at NSERC a while back. And I've gotta say, she's doing a bang-up job of reporting on global food issues. But that the G&M has felt it necessary to appoint a full time reporter shows that we're about five years past the tipping point on the issue.
The problems we face here in Canada can, according to Leeder, be boiled down to three points:

• Farm incomes have stagnated over the last two decades, debt levels are "soaring", even with direct government subsidies tripling to $8 billion over the same time period.
• "Food processors have also struggled, squeezed by demanding retailers who have been lured by higher margins they can reap by selling cheaper imported food."
• "Consumers, in turn, have grown used to spending only a fraction of their income on food and demand cheap prices--at any cost."

Funnily enough, these three problems look familiar. They look exactly like the problems being encountered by other producers and manufacturers in a globalized neo-liberal economic regime.

Short-sighted cuts at NSERC

     The Globe and Mail (12 January, 2011, p. A8) reports that the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) has removed food-related research from its target funding areas this year. This means that research into new plant breeds and better farming techniques will continue to be slowed. Of course, this comes just as several organizations, including the United Nations, are warning that we are entering a period of global food crisis.
In the first half of this century, as the world’s population grows to around 9 billion, global demand for food, feed and fibre will nearly double while, increasingly, crops may also be used for bioenergy and other industrial purposes. New and traditional demand for agricultural produce will thus put growing pressure on already scarce agricultural resources. And while agriculture will be forced to compete for land and water with sprawling urban settlements, it will also be required to serve on other major fronts: adapting to and contributing to the mitigation of climate change, helping preserve natural habitats, protecting endangered species and maintaining a high level of biodiversity. As though this were not challenging enough, in most regions fewer people will be living in rural areas and even fewer will be farmers. They will need new technologies to grow more from less land, with fewer hands.

     NSERC insists, in a statement, that "food-related research, despite not being listed as a target area, continues to be a priority for NSERC funding." NSERC funding has been commonly in the areas of traditional plant breeding--like canola, which was developed by Canadian scientists in the 1960s with government funding, and led to increased oil yields per acre.

Alcohol Is Not Food

Okay, beer was once food. But as a general rule, it's safe to say that alcohol is not food. Yet we're willing to convert food calories to alcohol calories and then burn them in our cars rather than eat them. It's things like this that make me understand why Gaia is thinking about thinning the human herd.
Famine is one of those things on my mind these days. The UN is warning of food shortages and a crisis in distribution, prices are rising steadily as big money is finding big profits in speculating on food futures markets, and global warming is devastating worldwide production. But we still don't see the linkages between the diverse issues facing us--which, I have to say, leaves me batting my head against a wall. We love the "traditional" western diet, but it takes 700 food calories to produce 100 calories of animal protein. And that doesn't include the calories expended to produce the initial 700 calories. This is the same problem we're facing in fossil fuel production; eventually it takes more energy to produce a barrel of oil than a barrel of oil contains (the Alberta tar sands is approaching this already). That is simply unsustainable, whether it's food or oil--and particularly when it's food AND oil.

The Real Food Flowchart

An excellent flowchart to help you navigate the supermarket. From Darya Pino over at

This may not be perfect, but if you follow her suggestions you'll pay more attention to what you're eating. Additives aren't necessarily bad, but you should really be noticing how much of what types you're consuming, for example.