Thursday, May 31, 2012

Jiro Dreams Of Sushi

Spent a delightful 80 minutes or so in the company of Jiro Ono, his son Yoshikazu, and lots and lots of sushi.  The opening ten minutes or so reminded me overwhelmingly of Gereon Wetzel's El Bulli: Cooking in Progress, the last film I paid money to see.  The similarity? Both films contain lengthy sequences of watching their respective chefs work, and in both cases you are watching men of uncommon skill concentrating with extraordinary intensity on food that they are making.
Jiro Ono has been making sushi since forever. At 85, he's still making sushi; over and over we watch his hands forming the perfect rice bundle. In The Story of Sushi, by Trevor Corsin, he writes:
   A sushi chef wants the grains lined up along the length of the finished rectangle. That way the grains will stick to each other without lots of extra squeezing. A tightly packed nigiri [hand-packed sushi] is bad. The chef's goal is a piece of sushi just firm enough to stay in one piece while the customer handles it, but loose enough that it will immediately disintegrate in the mouth. When a perfect nigiri crumbles apart on the tongue, the grains of rice mingle instantly with the fish, combining tastes and textures. The sensation some diners feel is gratitude because the chef has calibrated the sushi so perfectly that they hardly have to chew.
   Researchers have conducted MRI scans of nigiri made by master sushi chefs. The scans reveal that a master chef's nigiri disintegrates easily on the tongue because it contains more empty space than a nigiri made by a novice. Scans of nigiri  made by sushi robots showed a product tightly compressed, with almost no empty space on the interior at all. [pp. 91-92]
 To watch Jiro Ono's hands, and the hands of his son and apprentices, shape and re-shape grains of rice into perfectly tensioned rectangles is hypnotic: their hands perform a precise set of actions over and over again. And at the end of each series of actions are sushi of perfect size and tension.
Anthony Bourdain has, of course, eaten Jiro Ono's sushi: fifteen courses in twenty minutes. Bourdain is one of those people I both admire and envy: he writes well, eats well, and gives great food-gasm.

But this film is about more than one man making sushi in a ten-seat restaurant (Jiro runs the only Michelin 3 Star restaurant with so few seats and no washroom in the restaurant, and yet the Michelin guide said "three stars is the only rating suitable for this restaurant. It is worth traveling to Japan just to eat there."). It is about old-school standards. An apprenticeship runs about 10 years  under Jiro.He says, "Once you make a decision to do something, learn to love it. It must take all your time." He knows what he's talking about; he's been working and making sushi since he was ten years old. At one point the comment is made "What's the difference between Jiro at 40 and now? He's quit smoking." Jiro talks, in the film, about doing the same thing over and over until you're good at it. But to seek perfection, you must then continue to do it over and over, all the while looking for ways to improve.

In the trailer (above) you see one of the changes that have happened in the last 15 years: his son now rides down to get the fish every morning. After Jiro had a heart attack at age seventy, this job passed to his son. But the men Yoshikazu meets at the markets are as old-school as Jiro. They too have served long apprenticeships, learned their trade so deeply as to dream of it as Jiro does of sushi. The tuna purchaser who reads tuna with his fingers, massaging a bit of fish  and saying "The way it feels tells me how it will taste." After buying from the same tuna supplier for so many years, Jiro, and by extension Yoshikazu, trust his supplies. The same is true of the rice supplier, who won't sell the rice he sells Jiro to anyone esle--unless Jiro says to--even though he knows that the quality of the rice he sells to Jiro still requires Jiro's techniques in preparation to be as good. Yet he reserves one grade of rice for the sushi master he's sold to for so long.
Jiro's world, the world of this film, is a world where nothing replaces time and practice. We hear from Yoshikazu how many apprentices simply disappear. We also meet the ones who stay. Jiro explains that by the time he prepares the sushi, 95% of the work is already done by his crew. He has the easy job. One apprentice must "massage the octopus" (a process by which a partially cleaned but living octopus is tenderized) for 40-50 minutes. Why? Because it is better. And better takes time and focus.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi ends with a plea for sustainable fishing practices. There is some archival footage of a tuna that makes a whale look small being cut up. Quite the difference even with the big boys we see in the film. If we pursued perfection instead of the quick and the easy, I suspect that there would be more to go around, instead of pursuing a course of rabid consumption for the cheapest price. Maybe, and I know this is heresy in the modern world, maybe we're not supposed to have everything we want.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012


Food Trucks

From The Toronto Standard. Credit: Jen Chan

Sometimes, there's a lot going on. And those days (like today), well, I can't posibly put an explanatory gloss on everything I see. Like food trucks. Not an entirely new phenomena, but suddenly they've taken off again in popularity.Now, I've had some terrific food truck food: at the St. Albert market we used to get pulled pork and bbq beans made with Cattleboyz BBQ sauce that was to die for. And green onion cakes were always a food you bought at a street vendor tent. I've even thought about opening one. But the current mania just seems an invitation to bad food driving out good (in the foodie version of Gresham's Law). Bronwyn Kienapple is asking a few of the same questions in the Toronto Standard.

Occupy The Farm

From Climate

Trying to get a handle on what the Occupy movement means seems impossible--except to say that as a movement that seems dedicated to citizen involvement and democratic empowerment, I couldn't be more supportive. The Occupy the Farm group taking over UC Berkley lands and procceeding to plant food crops is an interesting idea. Jeff Conant explores it in more depth at Climate

Corporate Land Purchases

from the Grain website

Not just corporations, but nations (I'm looking at you, China), are busy buying up farmland--particularly in the developing workd--not to grow food to feed indigenous populations, but to support their own populations. This is a good idea from the corporate and national governments perspectives, but really is unsustainable. Carey L. Biron takes on the issue at Farm Land Carey Gillam, at the same site, points out the ongoing influence of speculators in investment in agriculture. And at the Grain website, an article pursues the question of how these land grabs are affecting food security in Latin America.

Private Profit, Public Cost

is the issue around pig farms in a new report (pdf) from the WSPA (World Society for the Protection of Animals). Now, I have a few problems with PETA, but I have a lot more concerns around CAFOs. The Financial Post has a pretty neutral article discussing the points contained in the above report.

Food Security and Farms

Both Alternet and  have articles on Why Big Food Must Go (alternet), and Why Hunger is a Farm Issue ( Both good, and both symptomatic of the discussion that is being heard more and more these days. As Michael Pollen says, the way we raise food is the issue that floats overtop all the other envirinmental issues we face.

The Madness of Smoked Pig Bellies

This recipe got passed around a while back.

Bacon Jam

    1 1/2 pounds sliced bacon, cut crosswise into 1-inch pieces
    2 medium yellow onions, diced small
    3 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
    1/2 cup cider vinegar
    1/2 cup packed dark-brown sugar
    1/4 cup pure maple syrup
    3/4 cup brewed coffee


    In a large skillet, cook bacon over medium-high, stirring occasionally, until fat is rendered and bacon is lightly browned, about 20 minutes. With a slotted spoon, transfer bacon to paper towels to drain. Pour off all but 1 tablespoon fat from skillet (reserve for another use); add onions and garlic, and cook until onions are translucent, about 6 minutes. Add vinegar, brown sugar, maple syrup, and coffee and bring to a boil, stirring and scraping up browned bits from skillet with a wooden spoon, about 2 minutes. Add bacon and stir to combine.
    Transfer mixture to a 6-quart slow cooker and cook on high, uncovered, until liquid is syrupy, 3 1/2 to 4 hours. Transfer to a food processor; pulse until coarsely chopped. Let cool, then refrigerate in airtight containers, up to 4 weeks.

When did such a simple product like bacon become the object of such veneration and our latest food of mass destruction?

Food Integrity Campaign

Food Integrity Campaign is an American organization that helped spread the word about "pink slime." Now, its all about meat inspection changes, bringing on this photo:

From the Food Integrity Campaign

Depressing what industrial food manufacturers think we should be eating....

Monday, May 28, 2012

Urban Farmers

 A lovely project from Fire and Light Media Group: a series of short (and long) videos introducing you to urban farmers.

The trailer (above) is longer than many of the short films, but is a real delight; so many people passionate about growing food! The urban farming movement is really taking off--particularly with the experience of Cuba to draw on.
Photo from the City Farmer website

This is a shot of an urban farm in Havana--a farm a lot bigger than pretty much every urban farm in North America. But what has been done in Cuba can be translated into cities here in Canada. In Victoria we have a under-used program that puts growers together with people who would like to see their gardens be used. There are a number of community gardens--like the one up at the University of Victoria that Paula and I are involved with. There's also the Greater Victoria Compost Education Centre, a great resource for converting waste into soil. We had them come out to the Rainbow Kitchen (old site) and do a compost education day last fall. And Lifecycles, who worked on a fruit harvesting program (among so many other projects) last fall that filled a 20cf freezer with sliced, cored apples at the Rainbow Kitchen. Apples picked from the huge number of urban apple trees in this city.
We forget that urban farming can also grow livestock. And not just chickens, but rabbits (my aunt supplemented her income and the family's food  with a rabbit hutch on the family garden plot back in Manitoba decades ago), or pigeons (we forget that pigeons are edible, domesticated, and have been considered suitable for kings as well as commoners). There is a tremendous potential for integrating food production into our lives in the city. It is really a shame we don't do it more often.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Battle Moves North

from Earth First News

From Locals Supporting Locals:
Monsanto coming to Richmond to try to overturn Council decision
This Tuesday Richmond Council voted unanimously at a general meeting, with the Mayor and all Councillors present, to pass a resolution to make Richmond the eighth GE free crop zone in B.C. The wording of the resolution is on the Richmond Council website, at
Ten people spoke in favour of the resolution. This now has to go through the formal process of being passed at a Council meeting, which will happen on the 28th May at 7 p.m. at Richmond City Hall.
We've been informed that Crop Life, the Public Relations wing of Monsanto and other biotech companies, will be coming to the Council meeting on the 28th May. They have already begun their lobbying efforts to try and get Richmond Council to change its mind.
If you are in or near Richmond, please turn out for the meeting. Some Councillors may waver under corporate pressure, and a big turn out of the public will make all the difference and hold them firm to their decisions. Several Councillors spoke passionately about their concerns with genetic engineering, and a big public showing will give them more courage.
If Richmond becomes a GE zone this will have a really big impact on other parts of the Province. As a large municipality with about 200 farms and where GE corn is being grown, people will see that if this can be done in Richmond, it can be done anywhere in the Province. GE Free BC is already getting emails from other municipalities where environmental activists want to get a GE Free resolution passed. This is why Monsanto is sending in the PR guys.
At the same time, apparently the BC government is tryining to slide through an Ag Gag law.

Legislation being proposed by the BC's Liberal government will make it illegal and punishable for a person, including citizens or journalists, to disclose information relating to reportable animal disease in the Canadian province. Bill 37, The Animal Health Act, over-rides BC's Freedom of Information Act, making it unlawful for the public or the press to speak publicly about an agriculture-related disease outbreak or identify the location of an outbreak such as the deadly bird flu or a viral outbreak of IHNV at a salmon aquaculture feedlot.
Who would this affect? Anyone. My significant other, author Paula Johanson, recently wrote a book titled Fish: from catch to the table which addressed the safety of farmed fish--this law would have affected her work.

Fake Foods by Paula Johanson
Or the work she did in Fake Foods.Not because anything she said was wrong, but that she said anything at all.

Photo from Living Food FIlms website
 We've seen this sort of thing before, in the Howard Lyman case in Texas:
In April of 1996, Mr. Lyman (former cattle rancher and now President, Voice for a Viable Future)) was invited to appear on Oprah to discuss Mad Cow disease, food production, and the rendering process. He was part of a discussion of experts, including an expert from the beef industry, about food safety in the U.S. This included a discussion of potential health risks from e-colii and mad cow disease (which only weeks before was making headlines in Britain and throughout the world). When Mr. Lyman explained that cows are being fed to cows, Ms. Winfrey seemed to be repulsed by this thought, and exclaimed that it had just stopped her cold from eating another hamburger
Lyman was sued under an Ag Gag law, the Texas Food Disparagement Act, and it took four years and a heap of money to end the lawsuit brought by a Texas beef ranchers organization. Since then, there has been a pause, but these laws are back.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Michael Pollan interviewed

Amy Goodman, the host of Democracy Now!, interviews Michael Pollan on the release of the paperback edition of In Defense of Food (the book written from the essay Unhappy Meals  that appeared in the New York Times Magazine). Michael takes on HFCS, five ingredient Haagen Das, and the marketing of foodsince he first released In Defense of Food.

Pollan lays out the two basic rules for buying food: don't buy any food you've seen advertised, and don't buy any food that makes a health claim.

A fascinating interview.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Peace. Bread. Land

The struggle for social justice is deeply tied to the struggle for land reform around the world.  At a conference in Islamabad Monday, participants echoed the rallying cry of the Bolshevik revolutionaries: Peace. Bread. Land.
The Express Tribune is reporting today that participants in a conference had "underlined the need for equal distribution of land rather than land reforms and ensuring food sovereignty, rather food security in the country.
They pointed out that due to corporatisasion of farming and giving land to foreigners, not only food security, but due food sovereignty is largely at the stake."
The call for countries to be food sovereign is pretty much worldwide, at this point. Participants in the Pakistan conference pointed to a " military-bureaucracy-feudal troika" standing in the way of land reform. According to the Express Times, "It was also highlighted that lands are given to generals, bureaucrats, cricketers and actors, but not to peasants, who are the real owners."
Increasingly, we are also seeing members of the national business press seeing problems with the continuing commodifying of everything threatening nation-states. The article closes with "Pakistan Business Review Chief Editor Dr Shahida Wazarat also advocated land reforms. “There will be adverse affects on food security if corporate farming continues in future,” she opined."

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Hungry For Change

I have to say, I love this sort of thing--this is a student-produced, neighbourhood-generated video on a social issue (of course its food security--do I ever talk about anything else these days?)
Here, students look at the concept of a "food desert", a place where there are no grocery stores. All the while that they were interviewing people, I kept thinking "Hey! There's a vacant lot. Use that." Sure enough, they are also involved with an urban farm with a farmer's market component.
This is also a particularly American video. It takes place in an African-American neighbourhood, and there is a deep undercurrent of issues of race. But at the same time, the solutions are practical and applicable to pretty much any urban area.

Umoja Students from North Lawndale College Prep, Manley, and Ace Technical 
High Schools teamed with Free Spirit Media to discover the facts about the food 
desert in North Lawndale, Chicago.

In the end, you have to question how this situation could have become so dire. Food deserts? How the hell do you not feed people? Why should we have to educate people in what constitutes good food? And a big reason for many of the problems we face, I think, is because we are nations of immigrants that destroyed the indigenous cultures, leaving us with no food culture of our own (and not much other place particular culture either, but that's for a different venue). We don't recognize terrior, we have no real place-specific foods (no equivalent to Parmesan cheese which is made in Parma, from Parman cows, the whey of which is fed to hogs which then become prosciutto). We have no generational attachment to the land in North America, and while many immigrants had an attachment to owning land, a house in the suburbs has fulfilled that desire. There is no equivalent to, say, the attachment to land reform and land ownership you find among the peasants of  South America, or the Northern European peasants from whom I am descended. Land hunger has been diverted into house hunger.
But this video points out another truism; that, given tools, people are ready, willing, and able to make changes in their local environments that contribute to self-determination. In many ways, it boils down to an old punk slogan: DIY or Die. Because culture is made, not consumed.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Garden Update

I planted early this year--my first year planting in this climate. Of course, it was radishes, which are an early crop to begin with.I learned from my brother that you plant radishes early and cover them with floating crop cover (a spun-bonded fabric of polyester threads that allows light and water through the weave). The crop cover does two things; it offers maybe a degree of frost protection and it doesn't allow pests to get through. So you end up with radishes without worms.
In Alberta, we would lay out our pieces of crop cover, mark their size, and then plant to that size. The crop cover was carefully re-folded, and stored for next year, as we only had so much and could only get it in massive commercial rols that I could never afford. So the pieces from my brother (Frank Klassen of Sunnyside Fruit and Vegetables) ended up lasting us most of a decade.
Crop cover is very light (a few grams per sq. metre)--important, because it has to lay directly on top of the plants and mustn't interfere with their growth. It's now available pretty much everywhere (here in Victoria at Buckerfields and Lee Valley) and in home garden sizes. Which I think is a real boon to small growers.

Radishes at three weeks under crop cover

I was in a hurry when I planted the radishes this year and over-planted. They're far too close together. But they came up nicely, and delivered what they're supposed to--that first blast of colour and flavour in the spring after a winter of preserved food and store-bought vegetables.

The Big One

We had the last of the first crop of radishes for dinner last night. A couple of small rows will go into the same bed for eating in June. But Paula found the radish above while cleaning out the last of the radishes. Normally radishes like this would be woody and inedible, but this one was still crunchy and tasty.Actually the flavour was less intense than the smaller versions of the same cultivar. This one was more like a daikon radish--lots of crunch, less intense.
Currently, under a tunnel, we've got some transplant pepper plants, beets (up), shallots (up, from sets), Royal Burgundy beans (bush beans that produce purple beans that turn deep green when steamed. Also up.), and carrots (Paris Market, I think, but not up the last time I checked).
Paula's transplant peas (at the far end of the crop cover picture above) are huge and ready to flower. Should have fresh peas before too long! We've also got some tomatoes in with more to go, potatoes in (some yellows that sprouted in the cupboard) and squash. The medlar tree has leafed out and should make it through the summer (assuming I water it regularly), but has taken a bit of a hit from an insect attack to the leaves. Nothing fatal, though. Summer's starting to look tasty.....

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Special Rapporteur Spanks Canada

Yesterday, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food delivered his preliminary reflections [pdf] on his eleven day trip to Canada. Olivier De Schutter's press conference and report on the state of food security in Canada and our progress on the human right to food spanked Canada pretty good. You could tell how accurate it was by the three members of cabinet that attacked him, claiming he knew nothing of Canada and shouldn't have been here anyway--even though he was here at the invitation of the federal government.

The CBC report on De Shutter's Visit

The reason for the Harper government's upset is mentioned in the report from the CBC: De Shutter's report to the UN Human Rights Commission becomes part of Canada's human rights record at the UN. And the report is quite critical about Canada's food security status.
The Special Rapporteur visited four provinces (Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, and Alberta) and convened eight civil society meetings in which he met with farmer's organizations,food security groups, human rights organizations, academics, researchers, and communities. He also read a number of written submissions from individuals and communities.
Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq was one of the Harper government's attack dogs, saying that as De Shutter had not visited her home community, there was no way he could comment on the food security status of Canada's First nations people. On the CBC program Power and Politics, De Shutter pointed out that a trip to Aglukkaq's home would have involved two days travel each way. In his preliminary remarks, he does mention that he met with First Nation's groups and communities in all four provinces, including the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples. He then thanks a number of First Nation's organizations and chiefs, council, and community members with whom he visited. Having failed to travel two days to a remote village doesn't really seem to have affected his meeting with a wide variety and cross-section of Canada's First People.
De Shutter's report doesn't say anything really new--anyone paying attention to poverty and/or food security issues in Canada over the last 35 years will not be at all surprised.
A growing number of people across Canada remain unable to meet their basic food needs. In 2007/2008, approximately 7.7 per cent of households in Canada reported experiencing moderate or severe food insecurity.4 Approximately 1.92 million people in Canada, aged 12 or older, lived in food insecure households in 2007/2008 and a staggering 1 in 10 families, 10.8 per cent, with at least one child under the age of six were food insecure during the same period
Fifty-five per cent of households in which the main source of income was social assistance are food insecure, the result of a huge discrepancy between social assistance levels and the rising costs of
living.6 The failures of social assistance levels to meet the basic needs of households, have resulted in the proliferation of private and charity-based food supplements. In 2011, Food Banks Canada
calculated that close to 900,000 Canadians were accessing food banks for assistance each month, slightly over half of whom were receiving social assistance.
The Special Rapporteur was disconcerted by the deep and severe food insecurity faced by aboriginal peoples across Canada living both on- and off-reserve in remote and urban areas. Statistics on First Nations specific food insecurity are few, however the First Nations Regional Longitudinal Health Survey (RHS 2008/10) indicates that 17.8 per cent of First Nations adults (age 25–39) and 16.1 per cent of First Nations adults (age 40–54) reported being hungry but did not eat due to lack of money for food in 2007/2008.
[from the preliminary  remarks page 2]

But the Special Rapporteur's remarks have made it very clear why the Harper government went on the attack so quickly; after pointing out how many strong actions have been taken on the human right to food and food security at the municipal and provincial level, he points clearly to the lack of a national food strategy in Canada. During his interview with Evan Solomon on Power and Politics, De Shutter comments on the strong grassroots commitment and concern over food and food security issues in Canada--a constituency he feels is unrecognized at the federal level.

Evan Solomon interviewing Olivier De Shutter on CBC's Power and Politics

Olivier De Shutter has been the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food since March of 2008, and this was his first visit to a developed country like Canada. I, for one, was pleased that he held Canada to the same standards that he would a country in the developing world. he has also been paying attention to the agroecological movement taking place in the developing world--which he talks about in the following video clip:

Food Secure Canada  has a transcript of the questions asked in the House about the Special Rapporteur's preliminary report. Depressingly low-quality questions and answers.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012


I was in my local grocery store this week because I wanted to buy some walnuts. Chopped walnuts, 400 grams (just shy of a pound) were $10. "No no," I thought, and went next door to the specialty store to compare prices. Same thing. What the hell happened to the price of walnuts when I wasn't looking? Turns out, walnuts are just like oil--there is a world price and you have to pay it no matter what the local supply price should be. And in the last couple of years, even though California has had record walnut harvests, demand from China has exploded.This year's price is expected to be 35% higher than last year's price. Western Farm Press reports:
Despite this biggest-ever California crop, buyers have been willing to pay more for walnuts. Compared to a year ago, in-shell prices are currently 20 percent to 30 percent higher, while shelled walnuts are selling for 20 percent to 50 percent more, Jelavich reports.
He attributes much of this to strong demand by buyers in China and Hong Kong, who first entered the market just three years ago.
“Last year, at this point in the marketing year, these two markets had bought a combined total of 14,000 tons. This year, they’ve already purchased about 40,000 tons.”

While I was buying a quarter cup of walnut pieces, I noticed the jar of whole nutmeg behind the counter: $19.99/100 grams. That would be $90.75 / lb. I was amazed that the nuts weren't guilded or locked in a safe. I bought one mid-size nut and paid a dollar for it. When I asked about why, the proprietor didn't know, but said that mace--the spice obtained from dried covering of the nutmeg fruit seed--was so expensive that his distributor wouldn't even carry it, as no one could afford to buy it.

Mace is the red covering the nutmeg seed above

Turns out, nutmeg has been experiencing bad crop years in India. From 2009 to 2010, crop yields fell 50-60% and the price rose from Rs 120-135 to Rs 180-200. Again by 2011, the Hindu Business Line reported:
The prices of nutmeg and mace continued to soar on short supply in the domestic and international markets.
Unfavourable weather in growing countries such as Sri Lanka and Indonesia reduced the output last year and harvesting is reported to be delayed in Sri Lanka this year due to untimely rains, trade sources here said.
Meanwhile, industry sources claimed that in India “unseasonal rains have destroyed the flowers hence, 30 per cent shortage is expected in the coming 2011season.” According to them, there is a likely shortage in Sri Lanka also in the coming seasons due to unseasonal rains and hence prices are expected to move up further.
Decline in output in supply sources has pushed up the prices of mace to Rs 1,700-2,000 a kg here depending upon the quality/colour, they said.
Farm grade nutmeg with a shell is ruling at Rs 425-450 a kg while that without shell is at Rs 700 a kg and above, they said.
Indian output of nutmeg with shell is estimated at 13,000 tonnes and when the shells are removed it would come to about 9,000 tonnes.
 So "unseasonal rains" have pushed the price from Rs 120/kg to  Rs 700/kg in the course of a couple of years. There was also some profiteering by producers not shipping crops as the price was appreciating daily.
But the whole "unseasonal rains" thing is the issue that should concern us most. Russia has seen "unseasonable non-rains" in the last couple of years--leading to shutting down wheat exports a couple of years back to ensure a sufficiency for the country--as well as wildfires and heat deaths among the population. Global climate change is here, and its a bastard. 15,000 warmest day records fell this past winter across the US. Canadians should not be relying on food from anywhere else, but rather concentrating on producing as much as possible locally. That way there might be food from away when we need it most, when the "unseasonable rains" happen here.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Urban Experience (II)

The CBC covered the story of the urban garden going in in Vancouver this week. What is most interesting is to see how they are building the garden: pallets, cloth/tarp, boxes, soil. In doing this, I'm sure Concord Pacific is getting a great return somewhere along the way (although no one is saying where). But that's fine. What is important is how much food is expected to be grown on an unused parking lot--something like 100,000 kilos. SoleFood has their work cut out for them. Growing that much will be a lot of work--even if not grown in the most sustainable manner. But this is all to the good.
It is, of course, nothing really new. Cuba has been doing this since 1988 and the collapse of the Soviet Union. In Havana, the local government authorized people to use, free of charge, state-owned vacant lots in and around Havana. During the years 1990-1994 (the "special period" when food imports evaporated and the average Cuban lost 9 kilos of weight) it was estimated that more than 27,000 people were linked to some 1,800 hectares of community gardens. Cuba has made great strides in achieving food sovereignty since then.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Urban Experience

From The Vancouver Sun website:

A parking lot is not exactly the place you might expect to see organic beans, bok choy and baby beets growing in abundance.

But part of the empty lot on the former Expo lands on the north side of False Creek will become a two-acre urban farm, bursting with 40 varieties of fruits and vegetables, if all goes according to plan.

“It’s an enormous leap,” said Michael Ableman, an urban farmer and director of Solefood, an organization that creates agriculture jobs and training for inner-city residents.

It’s the largest city farm attempted in Vancouver, and will be tended mostly by residents of the Downtown Eastside. The group plans to employ 25 people along with four farming apprentices and sell its produce to restaurants and farmers’ markets. The farm is portable, growing in containers above ground, because the site is on a three-year lease.

“We’re demonstrating this can in fact be considered a serious enterprise for urban areas. We’re not talking about community gardens any more. We’re taking it up a level,” said Ableman, who founded the Centre for Urban Agriculture in Santa Barbara, Calif., in 1981 and now farms on Saltspring Island.

A Brief History Lesson

Over at Slate, there's a terrific article I wish I'd written; All Churned Around: how buttermilk lost its butter by L. V. Anderson. I had noticed that buttermilk wasn't the leftover milk product of buttermaking anymore, but I didn't take the time to follow up on that thought.Ms. Anderson does take that time. She starts out with a personal recollection--one that I totally get:

I first saw the word buttermilk in print while reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods. In one riveting scene (I was 7 years old) Laura’s mom dyes some cream yellow with grated carrot and then churns it into butter. After shaping and embossing the butter, she takes the leftover liquid from the churn and gives Laura and her sister “each a drink of good, fresh buttermilk.”
This whole process—and especially the celebratory buttermilk quaff—stuck with me, as exotic images from literature tend to do when one is a child. So when I saw buttermilk on the menu at a Southern-themed restaurant called Threadgill’s a few months later, I promptly ordered a glass. My parents advised me to reconsider, but I persevered: This was a chance to commune with my favorite author and to prove to my parents that I had a hardy, advanced palate. (My ability to enjoy a glass of buttermilk at the age of 7 carried the same symbolic weight that my ability to enjoy a scotch neat does today.)
My parents were right. The buttermilk was sour, tart: awful. So overwhelmingly acidic was its flavor that I hardly even noticed the creaminess. I abandoned the glass after one sip.
Read the rest at Slate.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

A Number of Issues

A Huffington Post article echoed on Alternet. Martha Rosenberg introduces her list of BigAg's Nine Issues:
Food scandals are so costly to Big Food, it has repeatedly tried to kill the messenger rather than clean up its act. In the 1990s it pushed through "food disparagement" laws under which Oprah Winfrey herself was sued by cattlemen in 1997 (Winfrey said she would never eat a hamburger again upon learning that cows were being fed to cows). Winfrey was acquitted and cow cannibalism was made illegal but the US still lost $3 billion in beef exports when a first mad cow was discovered in 2003. April's new mad cow will not help foreign trade.
Last year, Big Food introduced Animal Facility Interference laws in several states which make it a crime to "produce, distribute or possess photos and video taken without permission at an agricultural facility." The bills also criminalize lying on an application to work at an agriculture facility "with an intent to commit an act not authorized by the Owner"--in an effort to stop the flow of grisly undercover videos. The first facility interference offense would be an aggravated misdemeanor but subsequent offenses could be felonies.

Of course, the Ag-Gag bills, as they were quickly dubbed, are anti-free-speech and would chill both whistle-blowers and news media (who couldn't legally even receive non-approved farm images). The bills were scorified by CNN, the New York Times, Time magazine and First Amendment and food safety activists and, luckily, were defeated in 2011. But they are creeping back.
It would be difficult to argue with her sentiments, but for the moment, at least, Canada isn't seeing quite the same activity on the part of BigAg. Well, not until the Stephen Harper government attacked environmentalists....  With a government inspired by a fundamentalist right-wing theology that doesn't acknowledge the validity of science and believes that mankind cannot harm the environment (no, really.), BigAg, just like BigOil, doesn't actually have to get it's hands dirty. They can simply watch our government go further faster than even they would have hoped. [Martha Rosenberg's Nine Issues and my Canadian-perspective gloss follow the jump]

Friday, May 11, 2012

Things We're Losing (1)

Glass Gem Corn. How cool is this?

Apparently this has gone viral from Milkwood Permaculture's
Facebook page. The original caption:

Glass Gem Corn... hands-down winner of the most amazing heirloom corn variety we've seen yet! Carefully stewarded by Seeds Trust in Arizona...

"Seedsman Greg Schoen got this seed from Carl Barnes, a part-Cherokee man, now in his 80's, in Oklahoma. He was Greg's "corn-teacher". Greg was in the process of moving last year and wanted someone else to store and protect some of his seeds. He left samples of several corn varieties, including glass gem. I grew out a small handful this past summer just to see. The rest, as they say is history. I got so excited, I posted a picture on Facebook. We have never seen anything like this - Bill (Seeds Trust)

More photos at

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Why "Organic" Does Not Mean What You Think It Means


New Canadian ‘Organic’ Aquaculture Standard Fails to Meet True Organic Principles

For Immediate Release
May 9th, 2012
East and West Coast conservation organisations today expressed united concern over the undermining of the Canadian ‘organic’ label by a new organic standard that would allow net-pen aquaculture products to be certified.
By including open-net pen finfish in to the organic aquaculture standard, the standard fails miserably at one of its claimed principles, to ‘Protect the environment, minimize benthic degradation and erosion and water quality degradation, decrease pollution, optimize biological productivity and promote a sound state of health’.
“The finfish standards would allow conventional open net pen farmed salmon to be certified organic despite the large body of scientific evidence linking this farming practice to detrimental impacts on wild salmon and on the marine environment,” stated Matt Abbott from the Conservation Council of New Brunswick.   “Organic producers and customers should be concerned as this weak aquaculture standard threatens the integrity of all organic labels,” concluded Abbott.
The Conservation Council of New Brunswick, Living Oceans Society and three other voting members including organic associations,  formally voted ‘No’ to the new Canadian Organic Aquaculture Standard as members of the standard committee. However the standard still passed the Canadian General Standards Board (CGSB)’s requirement of 50% plus one vote.
The restrictive voting membership of the committee was heavily government and industry based, including a number of the largest salmon aquaculture companies and their associations. “The bias of the membership base, definitely aided this standard being passed,” said Kelly Roebuck from Living Oceans Society, a member group of the Coastal Alliance for Aquaculture Reform (CAAR).  “In fact the standard sponsor, Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) has been a major driver for obtaining an organic standard for open net pen farmed salmon” stated Roebuck.
The Canadian so-called ‘Organic’ Aquaculture Standard allows:
  • The use of synthetic pesticides;
  • The continued, uncontrollable spread of disease and parasites to wild fish;
  • Uncontrolled disposal of fish feces into the ocean;
  • Escapes of farmed fish that compete or interbreed with wild fish;
  • Entanglement and drowning deaths of marine mammals;
  • The unrestricted use of feed from non-organic, potentially unsustainable sources, as opposed to the 100 per cent organic feed requirement currently in place for all other organic livestock;
  • The unlimited use of wild fish in feed. Since operations use substantially more wild fish in feed than farmed salmon produced, this allows farmed fish to be certified “organic” despite contributing to a net loss of marine protein and a drain on already strained global fish stocks.
“With growing consumer interest in sustainable, local and organic food – this organic labelling will undermine public confidence in all organic and sustainable labels,” stated Rob Johnson of the Ecology Action Centre. “With this standard for open net pen fish, we’re seeing greenwashing being taken to an entirely new level,” concluded Johnson.
Innovative technology such as closed containment systems can greatly reduce or eliminate environmental risks such as escapes, diseases and parasites, waste discharge and pesticide use, yet  these aquaculture production systems that are more compatible with organic principles have not been prioritized within the standard.
The Coastal Alliance for Aquaculture Reform (CAAR), Conservation Council of New Brunswick and Ecology Action Centre today launched the website to provide more information on the concerns associated with the Canadian Organic Aquaculture Standard and how shoppers can make a difference by supporting aquaculture producers who are farming more sustainably.
For more information, please contact:
Kelly Roebuck, Living Oceans Society (CAAR member group)
604.696.5044/Cell: 778.232.0329
Matthew Abbott, Conservation Council of New Brunswick
506-529-8838/Cell: 506-321-0429
Rob Johnson, Ecology Action Centre
About the Coastal Alliance for Aquaculture Reform (CAAR)
CAAR was formed in 2001 to ensure salmon farming in British Columbia is safe for wild salmon, marine ecosystems, coastal communities and human health. Today the coalition has over 10,000 supporters across four continents and is comprised of the following conservation groups:
About Conservation Council of New Brunswick (CCNB)
CCNB is a membership-based organization that has been at the forefront of environmental action in New Brunswick since 1969. CCNB believes the future of all life depends on bringing human activity in balance with ecological limits. CCNB is a citizens’ action group that creates awareness of environmental problems and advocates solutions through research, education and interventions.
About Ecology Action Centre (EAC)
Since 1971, the EAC has been working to build a healthier, more sustainable Nova Scotia. The Ecology Action Centre works closely with social and natural scientists and makes strong use of science in communicating its message to the public. The Centre’s earliest projects included recycling, composting, and energy conservation, and these are now widely recognized environmental issues. Our current areas of focus include Built Environment, Marine Issues, Coastal Issues, Wilderness, Food, Transportation and Energy Issues.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Reducing e. coli Contamination

There's a report at Science Daily that talks about research by a "Cand.agric. Sigrun J. Hauge defended her doctoral research on 2nd May 2012 at The Norwegian School of Veterinary Science (NVH) with a thesis entitled "Hygienic impact of measures related to unclean cattle and sheep at farm level and in the abattoir."" The article goes on to detail Sigrun's testing of  a "hot water pasteurization" process for destroying e. coli  on lamb carcases. It is an interesting read (a copy follows), but its predicated on treating animals as industrial inputs. Stop doing that and meeat will become more expensive, better, and better for us.
ScienceDaily (May 4, 2012) — Following the E. coli case in Norway in 2006, when 17 people fell ill and one child died after eating mutton sausages, the meat industry introduced a number of measures in order to reduce the risk of food poisoning from meat. Clean animals and good hygiene during slaughtering are essential preconditions for food safety.
Sigrun J. Hauge has studied the effect of the measures implemented on farms and in slaughterhouses. The aim of the project "Uncontaminated Carcasses" was to uncover data that would help to improve the hygienic quality of meat from cattle and sheep by means of cleaner animals and efficient ways of slaughtering high-risk animals.
E. coli is a commonly occurring bacterium in the digestive tract of humans, animals and birds. Just a few strains are pathogenic and can cause diarrhea and kidney failure, particularly in children. The bacteria die at temperatures over 60-70 °C and are therefore normally eliminated by boiling and roasting. Hauge has shown that a new, rapid enzymatic method for detecting E. coli is equally as reliable as the traditional method of growing bacteria culture. This new method is therefore suitable for monitoring E. coli in abattoirs.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Hunger Is Political

In this news report from Al Jazeera, Prerna Suri reports on an Indian iteration of a problem that affects the world: food does not make it to those who need it.

While India has a food security program, it still has some 200 million hungry and malnourished people--and grain to feed them rots in storage facilities that look more like they were specifically designed to feed rats.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Keep It Simple

I do like it when things are kept simple. Michael Pollan's "Don't eat anything with more than five ingredients" is a good example. As is this mnemonic device:

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Canada first wealthy nation to be probed by UN food monitor

By Sarah Schmidt, Postmedia News May 2, 2012 OTTAWA — Canada has the dubious distinction of being the first wealthy nation in the world to face a probe by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food.
The 11-day mission begins Saturday, and will take Olivier De Schutter to Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Winnipeg and Edmonton, as well as remote aboriginal communities in Manitoba and Alberta. Until now, the independent expert appointed by the UN's Human Rights Council has been dispatched to countries such as South Africa, Cuba and Lebanon to probe those nations' records on ensuring people have access to food.
Canada, well known as a major food exporter, is the first developed country facing a probe since the UN created the position in 2000, and the report on the mission, to be presented to the UN Human Rights Council, will be part of Canada's official international human rights record.
In addition to examining the challenges facing aboriginal people, De Schutter, a professor of law based in Belgium, will probe food supply chains in Canada and government policies and programs that affect the right to food. He will be meeting with aboriginal leaders and non-governmental organizations, as well as federal officials at Health Canada and in the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development. While in Ottawa, he will also meet with NDP leader Thomas Mulcair.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Don't Tick Off The Neighbours

I don't know everything behind this, but it sounds depressingly familiar. I undertand how large volumes of uncomposted horse manure might tick off the neighbours, but why the Lantzville council has such a hate on for the farm baffles me. If it was a bylaw issue, it would have been solved already. As it is, who knows. You can also visit Compassion Farm's website.

Lantzville's Compassion Farm Continues To Be Harassed For Growing Healthy Food

by Kim Goldberg on Monday, 30 April 2012 at 13:49 ·
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE, April 30, 2012, Lantzville, British Columbia 

Last week Dirk Becker and Nicole Shaw of Compassion Farm in Lantzville, BC, founders of the Bowen Road Farmers Market, received another letter from the District of Lantzville (D.O.L.).

This letter states they are contravening the DOL small business bylaw by selling rain barrels.

In January of this year, Becker and Shaw met with the new mayor and signed an agreement to discontinue the importation of any manure onto their property. They were given to understand that this agreement would appease council and were told it would appease their neighbor, Jim Brash, whose campaigning against their use of horse manure is on-going.

This April they were informed that council wants to 'reinspect' their property. Ensuing communication revealed that Council is unwilling to disclose what they are looking for. Therefore, Becker and Shaw responded that they see no point in yet another inspection since nothing of significance has changed since the last inspections--by various levels of government: Regional District of Nanaimo Bylaw Enforcement, the Vancouver Island Health Authority, the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture.
Further, no manure has been brought to the property in question since the above-mentioned agreement was signed.

On April 24th they received a letter informing them that council has a problem with their rain barrels.

In the same week, a friend who has donated grass clippings for 10 years shared a letter received from the RDN, threatening legal action if he continues to bring grass clippings to Compassion Farm.

"There doesn't seem to be an end in sight,” says Becker. “The District of Lantzvile has moved the goal posts several times. Urban Farming is a global movement and is moving past being 'allowed' or 'permitted' to being supported, encouraged and protected".

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Pressure's On

The pressure's indeed on--the World Bank is reporting global food price increases, increases due to global warming and oil price increases.

The April Food Price Watch report says "Global food prices have increased by 8% in the last four months since December 2011, and in March 2012 were only 6% below their February 2011 historical peak. All key food prices have increased, except for rice."

Cold weather in extreme cold in Europe, the Russian Federation, and other countries is blamed for upward pressure on wheat prices, while hot and dry conditions in South America have affected sugar, maize, and soybeans. There is a little good news in that a slowdown in maize-to-ethanol conversion in the US is helping put a brake on price rises, as is aa lower value for the Euro.Also, record prices in 2010-2011 have encouraged more planting, which should help offset weather/climate induced shortfalls.
The report also points out some dramatic domestic price changes around the world:
Wheat price increases between March 2011 and March 2012  reached 92% in Belarus and 56% in Moldova, while they declined by 30% in El Salvador, 19% in Kyrgyzstan, and 16% in South Africa. The price of maize rose by 82% in Malawi, 80% in Ethiopia, and 71% in Mexico. The largest maize declines occurred in Honduras (31%), Somalia (20%), and El Salvador (19%). Rice prices in the same period rose by 125% in Uganda, 54% in Tanzania, and 38% in Rwanda. In turn, Bolivia saw its rice prices decline by a more modest 21% and Bangladesh's declined by 18%.
So while there have been some declines in prices, the rises have more than outweighed them. But once again, the shortfalls in production, while worrying, and the price increases, while scary, do not mean that there isn't enough food in the world. Famine is not an automatic byproduct of these shortfalls. Starvation will result from a lack of purchasing power, not a lack of food.
And, to repeat:
 Models that just treat supply and demand are not consistent with the actual price dynamics. There is a consistent firm upward pressure on food prices from the increased demand from ethanol conversion programs, but the big driver of food prices is "specifically due to investor speculation."

Why We're Hungry

Al Jazeera is reporting on the food crisis facing South Sudan:

Look at that market. This is what it looked like in Ireland during the Great Hunger, when the potato crop failed. Food in the markets, none in the belly. What this tells us is something that bears repeating over and over again: .People are hungry because of politics, not a lack of food. People are hungry because they don't have money, not because there's a lack of food. We grow more than enough for the world as it is, we just choose not to feed everyone. Its why we feed so damn much to animals, or bring in supports for foodgrain ethanol production. We have foodbanks because we choose to have them. Because we turn our backs on the poor in our own countries as well as around the world. May the revolutionary cry of the Bolsheviks ring out: "Peace. Land. Bread."