Thursday, February 28, 2013

Busy Busy...

It really has been a busy month. At UVic, I've just finished a four week course called Just Food taught by Jessica Miles. About ten minutes into the first class I realized that Ms. Miles was the sociologist with whom Paula and I had spent a couple of hours talking. Ms. Miles is looking at food narratives--the ways in which our relationship to food both helps construct and is constructed by narrative. (Of course, that's just my take.... ) So it was interesting to be in a class where I got to explore what she was taking away from these talks with people.
The readings were also intriguing. Topics like alternative food culture in San Francisco county jail (Sandra Cates' "Breaking Bread with a Spread" in a San Francisco County Jail from Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture Summer 2008) which explored the interface of prison restrictions and freedoms, food culture and gang culture, and Latino and African-American food culture, and Julie Guthman's Bringing good food to others: investigating the subjects of alternative food practice (DOI: 10.1177 / 1474474008094315 ) which looks at racial bias and the issue of white privilege in efforts to address diet and food supply problems in community food movements. the latter piece is one I hope to have something to say about in the future. All in all, a terrific class and one that absorbed a lot of my attention.
At the same time, I've been taking an online course through Coursera entitled
An Introduction to the U.S. Food System: Perspectives from Public Health, brought out by the Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Death By Canned Fish

Well, maybe not death, but canned fish years past its "best before" date is regularly being sold to Canadians.
Kathy Tomlinson of CBC reports on the problem:

As she points out, there's no proof that eating the food will make you sick--but there's no way to tell if three year past date shrimp is safe to eat, either.

Bruce Cran of the Consumer's Ass'n of Canada via CBC TV

The major grocery chains are being offered discounts on canned fish that's well past date, and are passing that fish on to consumers--though not at a discount. The stale-dated cans are simply mixed in with the others on the shelves.
Of course, this federal government has no interest in regulating this behaviour--as Bruce Cran (above) asks; "Why then even have the dates?" And that is a sentiment this government can get behind. No regulation is better than regulation. But the role of the CFIA (Canada Food Inspection Agency) is a bit blurry here as well. Why don't we know how long a period preserved food is edible?
The use of sell-by dates has never had a clear reason behind it. We're told that it merely indicates the period during which the food is at its preserved peak. Consumers treat it as a preservation expiry date (which is what we really want). Retailers apparently treat it as optional.
I'm lucky. Here on the coast, I can get access to fresh fish in season. But my kids, living on the prairies, seldom have that option--and certainly not at an affordable price. So how do we ensure reasonable quality, high safety, and an affordable price? I would suggest dropping the "best before" date entirely, and instead dating food with both a "packaged on" and  "don't sell after" date. And that latter date should be the point after which spoilage becomes a concern. That at least gives us information that both makes sense and that we can use to make an informed decision.

England Underwater

The Met Office map of UK rainfall
between 20 and 27 November Illustration: Met Office

The Guardian has an extended report on the plight of farmers in the UK. The American drought got a lot of press over the last year, but the situation in the UK is almost as dire--if rather wetter.
The UK was facing drought conditions across large a large swath of their farming country. Then last spring, the rains returned. And then they didn't stop.
Wakestock festival in July 2012.Image from The Week
 June saw multiple flood warnings, primarily across the south-eastern UK. July saw more floods, like the Wakestock Festival, above. By November it was south-western England and parts of Wales that were getting hammered. All in all, the UK is drowning.
And the effect on farms has been devastating. From The Guardian:
It is only now becoming apparent just how terrible sodden 2012 has been for farmers, particularly those in the north-west and south-west. Wheat yields were at their lowest level since the 1980s, the potato crop at its lowest since 1976. The oilseed rape harvest and barley yields also suffered. Livestock farmers suffered too. The wet weather conditions sent the price of animal feed soaring as farmers were forced to keep their animals indoors.
For some, the consequences threaten to be devastating. Recent figures from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs paint a bleak picture of a year many would prefer to forget. Dairy farmers saw their income plunge by 42%. Livestock and pig farmers have seen their incomes as much as halved. There were double-digit decreases for cereal and crop farmers, too.
Many have seen their profits completely wiped out. The only way they can survive is by borrowing from the banks. "We are seeing increased levels of indebtedness," said Charles Smith, chief executive of Farm Crisis Network. "For some it's becoming unsustainable."
 Climate change is an elephant in the room, when it comes to food security. We can't grow food in a world with 400ppm carbon in the atmosphere. The evidence is mounting that we can't do it at the current average of 395 (this past spring of 2012 saw the atmospheric concentrations pass 400 is some places for the first time in human history). We probably can't do it at anything over 360, at least not long term. Farming needs a generally stable climate to function, and once we get over that magic 350 mark, things start to spin off into more and more frequent extreme events. Places like Tewksbury in England have become pretty much un-insurable because of flooding.
We've had a climate buffer, as the oceans absorbed more CO2 for us, and this gave us a half-century or so to adapt our lives over to a lower carbon footprint, and to begin mitigation. Of course we didn't do anything like that at all. We ramped up industrial agriculture, we kept burning coal, and we opened up the Tar Sands in Alberta; all really, really stupid things to have done. Currently we're on track for sea level rise of 69 feet (21 metres)--that's going to make it a bit difficult to farm any of the world's deltas--like the one under Vancouver or the mouth of the Nile.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Friday Link-straveganza

via The Guardian
The Guardian is reporting on an over-fishing scheme in the UK:
An inquiry into the UK's largest fishing scandal has uncovered "serious and organised" criminality by Scottish trawlermen and fish processors in an elaborate scam to illegally sell nearly £63m of undeclared fish.
Three large fish factories and 27 skippers have pleaded guilty to sophisticated and lucrative schemes to breach EU fishing quotas, in what one senior police officer described as "industrial level" deception.
They went to extraordinary lengths to conceal their illegally caught fish, installing underground pipelines, secret weighing machines and extra conveyor belts and computers to allow them to land 170,000 tonnes above their EU quota of mackerel and herring between 2002 and 2005.
The extent of the "black landings" scandal emerged as 17 skippers and one of the three factories were given fines totalling nearly £1m at the high court in Glasgow on Friday, after admitting repeated breaches of the Sea Fishing (Enforcement of Community Control Measures) (Scotland) Order 2000. Another six skippers pleaded guilty at the same hearing to landing undeclared fish worth nearly £7m at Lerwick, in the Shetlands, and Peterhead, Aberdeenshire.
{...}Judge Lord Turnbull, told the 17 skippers sentenced on Friday they were guilty of a "cynical and sophisticated" operation, which brought embarrassment and shame on them and their families. "The motivation was purely financial," he said. "Those who were already making a good living saw this as a way more income could be generated and were prepared to participate in deliberate lies and falsehoods."
It's no wonder the bloody cod are gone. Even when we know we're over-fishing, even when we're already making a good buck, we still connive and scheme to empty the bloody ocean when we know better!  And notice, this lot got fined a million pounds on £63 million in fish. And they will be allowed to go back to doing what they were doing in the first place.

Community Food Centres Canada get animated!

CFCC gets animated! from Community Food Centres Canada on Vimeo.

more after the jump....

Feeling a Little Horse...

via BBC
The last couple of weeks have seen a growing awareness of how horse meat has entered the British food chain in an unregulated and unexpected manner. It has been blamed on organized crime and lax inspectors and what not all.
From the Guardian:
Europe's unfolding horsemeat scandal took a new twist on Saturday when it emerged that key intermediaries involved in the trade appeared to be using a similar secretive network of companies to the convicted arms trafficker Viktor Bout.
The Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) identified an intermediary firm, Draap Trading, based in Limassol, Cyprus, as playing a pivotal role in shipping horsemeat across Europe.
Draap has confirmed that it bought horsemeat from two Romanian abattoirs. The company sold the meat to French food processors including Spanghero, which supplied another French company, Comigel, that turned it into frozen meals for the likes of food firm Findus, some of which had a meat content that was almost 100% horse.
Draap, which is owned by a trust in the British Virgin Islands tax haven, insists the meat it sold into France was labelled as horse. Spanghero says the meat arrived labelled "beef". Jan Fasen, who runs Draap and has denied any wrongdoing, was convicted last year of selling South American horsemeat as German and Dutch beef.
But It is a good opportunity to reflect on just how complex the food system is--and how that complexity breeds potential failure points. Each link in the chain above is another point at which inspection or regulation failed. Draap claims it labelled its product "horse." Spanghero (which is back in operation), claims it wasn't. Even within the European Union, this is a pretty complicated supply chain; by my count, it involves a minimum of six countries.
Supply chains for food map over supply chains for illegal arms. In Meat: a benign extravagance, Simon Fairlie describes how recapturing British food waste into the food system could provide a daily serving of pork for every Briton. But it won't happen--the  current system is too entrenched, too powerful. At least until they get caught serving horse to people....

This news report from 1948 from the British Pathé archives shows how horses were killed and sold on the black market to back-street restaurants, who then served it to customers who thought they eating steak or veal. The problem was so bad that some breeds of horse were even threatened with extinction
In the video, it is interesting to see how consumer demand for meat is characterized as being "so offensive to the British character". Horse was clearly doing damage to the legitimate slaughter trade, and consent needed to be manufactured. Because there isn't anything inherently wrong with eating horse, or dog, or whatever. There are only cultural issues--like the love of horses the filmmakers exploit here.

Will Hutton, in The Observer, has tied the introduction of horsemeat into the foodchain to the anti-government actions of post-Thatcher Thatcherites:
Paterson is one of the Tories who joyfully shared the scorched earth months of the summer of 2010 when war was declared on quangos and the bloated, as they saw it, "Brownian" state. The Food Standards Agency was a natural candidate for dismemberment. Of course an integrated agency inspecting, advising and enforcing food safety and hygiene should be broken up. As an effective regulator, it was disliked by "wealth-generating" supermarkets and food companies. Its 1,700 inspectors were agents of the state terrifying honest-to-God entrepreneurs with unannounced spot checks and enforced "gold-plated" food labelling. Regulation should be "light touch".
No Tory would say that now, not even Paterson, one of the less sharp knives in the political drawer. He runs the ministry that took over the FSA's inspecting function at the same time as it was reeling from massive budget cuts, which he also joyfully cheered on. He finds himself with no answer to the charge that his hollowed-out department, a gutted FSA with 800 fewer inspectors and eviscerated local government were and are incapable of ensuring public health.
Paterson, beneath the ideological bluster, is as innocent about business as Bambi. Even the most callow observer could predict that with the wholesale slaughter of horses across the continent as recession hit the racing industry – horsemeat production jumped by 52% in 2012 – some was bound to enter the pan-European network of abattoirs, just-in-time buying, industrial refrigeration units, food brokers and giant supermarkets that deliver British and European consumers their food.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Less is More

From the Guardian:
Sumant Kumar was overjoyed when he harvested his rice last year. There had been good rains in his village of Darveshpura in north-east India and he knew he could improve on the four or five tonnes per hectare that he usually managed. But every stalk he cut on his paddy field near the bank of the Sakri river seemed to weigh heavier than usual, every grain of rice was bigger and when his crop was weighed on the old village scales, even Kumar was shocked.
This was not six or even 10 or 20 tonnes. Kumar, a shy young farmer in Nalanda district of India's poorest state Bihar, had – using only farmyard manure and without any herbicides – grown an astonishing 22.4 tonnes of rice on one hectare of land. This was a world record and with rice the staple food of more than half the world's population of seven billion, big news.
It beat not just the 19.4 tonnes achieved by the "father of rice", the Chinese agricultural scientist Yuan Longping, but the World Bank-funded scientists at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, and anything achieved by the biggest European and American seed and GM companies. And it was not just Sumant Kumar. Krishna, Nitish, Sanjay and Bijay, his friends and rivals in Darveshpura, all recorded over 17 tonnes, and many others in the villages around claimed to have more than doubled their usual yields.
The villagers, at the mercy of erratic weather and used to going without food in bad years, celebrated. But the Bihar state agricultural universities didn't believe them at first, while India's leading rice scientists muttered about freak results. The Nalanda farmers were accused of cheating. Only when the state's head of agriculture, a rice farmer himself, came to the village with his own men and personally verified Sumant's crop, was the record confirmed.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Who Are You?

Infographic via Seacoasteatlocal

Egypt is Drowning

Via AllAfrica:
Egypt's judiciary received on Wednesday a scientific report that confirms that 9 thousand tons of carcinogenic pesticides have entered Egypt in the era of the former regime despite a cabinet decision to ban these products.
A report by a Scientific Committee formed to investigate the case of the entry of carcinogenic pesticides to Egypt during the tenure of the former Ministers of Agriculture Youssef Wali and Amin Abaza.
The report revealed that around 33 banned pesticides entered Egypt despite the ban.
Thirty-five brands of pesticides that are known to cause cancer were banned by Egypt in 1996, yet Wali permitted the chemicals to cross into the country between 1998 and 2004.
The Criminal Court had sentenced Wali to prison for ten years for being convicted with selling an island in the Nile River for less than its original price to a businessman who was close to the former President Hosni Mubarak.
The report explained that there are safer alternative chemicals that can have been used instead of the banned pesticides.
It pointed out that the risk of the banned pesticides is not limited to causing cancer, as many of these products have severe toxic effects even if the level of exposure is at a low dose.
It added that these pesticides lead to genetic abnormalities and delayed formation, growth and death of embryos and ovarian cancer and other diseases.
The members of the Committee based their report on the results of scientific research on the impact of pesticides and its relationship to cancer in Egypt.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Biowar Sh*tbomb

Figure Legend: 2007 Census of Agriculture data from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) shows the geographic concentration of hog and pig production in the US. Source: USDA Census of Agriculture; 2007 Census Ag Atlas Maps 
Each of those dots in the above figure are CAFOs or IFAPs. That is, Confined Animal Feeding Operations, or Industrial Food Animal Production facilities. Really, it just depends on who you're talking to. Each dot on the map represents 20,000 hogs and pigs--in other words, the equivalent of a fairly big town. And each animal is producing an average of 74 pounds (33.5 kilos) of waste per day. [links to .pdf I averaged the waste production of five different classes of hogs and pigs to get the number quoted] That's about 1.48 million pounds or 671 metric tonnes of shit and piss per day. When hogs are raised in this kind of concentration, they are being raised under contract: a contract that spells out everything about the way an individual animal is brought to market weight or whatever the end goal is. Feeding, confinement, environment, drug use, delivery weight,all is spelled out in detail--frequently the feed specified is a feed produced in the vertically integrated corporation contracting for the final "product." The only thing the farmer owns or controls? Yup, 671 metric tonnes of waste per day.
This is not a minor issue. This waste is a greenhouse gas producer, it's difficult to dispose of (spreading it on fields is the preferred technique, but the volumes are a problem--the land cannot absorb the amount of nutrients), and it's often contaminated with low levels of pharmaceuticals used in raising animals in confined quarters. These are shit-bombs that go off at thousands of sites every single day--and that's just in America. Add in Canada and China and this becomes a nightmarish situation. It is estimated that, in America, livestock produce more than 100 times the waste that the amount of human sludge treated by municipal waste-water treatment every year.[Gerba, C. P., & Smith, J. E. (2004).  Sources of pathogenic microorganisms and their fate during land application of wastes. Journal of Environmental Quality, 34(1), 42-48.]

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Pigs and Public Health

via wikipedia
 Well, it could be any animal raised in massive numbers, really. But the report released by PNAS as about pigs. Particularly about antibiotic use and antibiotic resistant genes. The report is titled Diverse and abundant antibiotic resistance genes in Chinese swine farms, and the abstract reads:
Antibiotic resistance genes (ARGs) are emerging contaminants posing a potential worldwide human health risk. Intensive animal husbandry is believed to be a major contributor to the increased environmental burden of ARGs. Despite the volume of antibiotics used in China, little information is available regarding the corresponding ARGs associated with animal farms. We assessed type and concentrations of ARGs at three stages of manure processing to land disposal at three large-scale (10,000 animals per year) commercial swine farms in China. In-feed or therapeutic antibiotics used on these farms include all major classes of antibiotics except vancomycins. High-capacity quantitative PCR arrays detected 149 unique resistance genes among all of the farm samples, the top 63 ARGs being enriched 192-fold (median) up to 28,000-fold (maximum) compared with their respective antibiotic-free manure or soil controls. Antibiotics and heavy metals used as feed supplements were elevated in the manures, suggesting the potential for coselection of resistance traits. The potential for horizontal transfer of ARGs because of transposon-specific ARGs is implicated by the enrichment of transposases—the top six alleles being enriched 189-fold (median) up to 90,000-fold in manure—as well as the high correlation (r2 = 0.96) between ARG and transposase abundance. In addition, abundance of ARGs correlated directly with antibiotic and metal concentrations, indicating their importance in selection of resistance genes. Diverse, abundant, and potentially mobile ARGs in farm samples suggest that unmonitored use of antibiotics and metals is causing the emergence and release of ARGs to the environment.
The problem is that regulation and research haven't kept pace with the explosion of  IFAPs (Industrial Food Animal Production) and  the techniques they use to speed the production line of animal flesh. Canada, Europe, and America are in the same boat here; in the US about 80% of antibiotics are used for animal production--usually in sub-clinical doses which seem expressly designed to breed resistant bacteria.
Thankfully, there is a solution. Politically unpalatable, perhaps, certainly not one that will thrill everybody. But one that looks a lot better than losing drug treatments for infections. And that is going organic. Industrial chicken farms that go organic have significantly lower levels of resistant bacteria according to an article in Environmental Health Perspectives. From the abstract:
The percentages of resistant Enterococcus faecalis and resistant Enterococcus faecium were significantly lower (p < 0.05) among isolates from newly organic versus conventional poultry houses for two (erythromycin and tylosin) and five (ciprofloxacin, gentamicin, nitrofurantoin, penicillin, and tetracycline) antimicrobials, respectively. Forty-two percent of E. faecalis isolates from conventional poultry houses were multidrug resistant (MDR; resistant to three or more antimicrobial classes), compared with 10% of isolates from newly organic poultry houses (p = 0.02); 84% of E. faecium isolates from conventional poultry houses were MDR, compared with 17% of isolates from newly organic poultry houses (p < 0.001).
Conclusions: Our findings suggest that the voluntary removal of antibiotics from large-scale U.S. poultry farms that transition to organic practices is associated with a lower prevalence of antibiotic-resistant and MDR Enterococcus.
So, smaller operations run on organic principles with resultant lower meat consumption and higher prices equals a better world. Or, you know, just raise a couple of chickens in your backyard.

Fat Tuesday

In the spirit of Fat Tuesday, may I present Thomas Dawson’s 1585 recipe on how to make a good pancake.
(in fairness, this is my updating from a mediocre scan of the original book) Compliments of the British Library.

To Make Pancakes
Take of new thick cream a pint, four or five yolks of eggs, a handful of flour and two or three spoonfuls of ale and sweeten with a good handful of sugar,a spoonful of cinnamon and a little ginger: Then take a frying pan and put a little piece of butter, as long as your thumb, and when it is molten brown cast it out of your pan and with a ladle put to the further side of your pan from your stuff, and hold your pan aloft so that your stuff may run about all over all the pan as thin as may be: Then set it to the fire, and let the fire be very soft, and when one side is baked, then turn the other, and bake them as dry as you can without burning.

A few notes:
  • The sugar would be loaf sugar in this case, and you'd have to break the amount of sugar from the loaf before using it.
  • Notice the use of cinnamon and ginger. The spice trade was very advanced at this time, and cinnamon and ginger would have been available to the middle class as a regular ingredient.
  • The ingredient list makes it clear that these are more what we would consider crepes than the heavier pancake.
  • I take no responsibility for the taste of the result. Our ale and the writer's ale will be completely different, making these beer batter crepes an entirely different taste experience.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Friday Link-straveganza

Caroline Raffensperger has written a lovely essay at Common Dreams about the scale of personal actions as compared to the scale of the environmental breakdown we're facing:
Most people suffer from a sense of moral failure over environmental matters. The mismatch between being told to change our light bulbs when the planet seems in free fall—melting ice caps, polluted water supplies, drought—creates a needling angst and anxiety.  We know that we are in deep trouble, but feel that there is little we—or anyone—can do individually. Anne Karpf writing about climate change in the Guardian last year said “I now recycle everything possible, drive a hybrid car, and turn down the heating. Yet somewhere in my marrow I know that this is just a vain attempt to exculpate myself – it wasn’t me, guv.”
To fully acknowledge our complicity in the problem, but to be unable to act at the scale of the problem creates cognitive dissonance. And this “environmental melancholia,” results in hopelessness. It is not apathy we are feeling, but sadness that can be eased only with taking actions, mostly collective, scaled to the problems we face.

The Chronicle of Higher Education is forced to ask the question "In Standing Up for Big Ag, Are Universities Undercutting Their Own Researchers?"

In a case before the U.S. Supreme Court this month, advocates for academic researchers are urging the justices to reverse a patent-infringement decision that has given the Monsanto Company broad authority to restrict scientists’ study of genetically modified seeds. The decision, the advocates say, not only hurts farmers and fuels higher food prices; it also contributes to “the suffocation of independent scientific inquiry into transgenic crops.”
Not surprisingly, the case has also drawn the attention of higher education’s research establishment—but it’s pulling for the other side.
[...] George A. Kimbrell, senior lawyer for the Center for Food Safety and Save Our Seeds, calls the universities’ stance disappointing. “It’s a very strange position for institutions that should be promoting the freedom of scientific inquiry,” he says. “Unfortunately, they’ve become beholden to the money and put that before their basic mission.”

The BBC is reporting on a minor case of mis-labelling:
The meat of some beef lasagne products recalled by Findus earlier this week was 100% horsemeat, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) has said.
On Monday Findus withdrew from retailers its beef lasagne in 320g, 360g and 500g sizes as a precaution.
Environment Secretary Owen Paterson said the findings were "completely unacceptable", but Findus said it did not believe it was a food safety issue.
The FSA said companies would now be required to test their beef products.
"In order to get to the bottom of this, we're going to be requiring every company to test every product line," Catherine Brown, the FSA's chief executive, told the BBC.
"If we find any other cases, we will pursue our investigations vigorously until we find out what's happened and put a stop to it."
Ms Brown said it was "highly likely" that criminal activity was to blame for horsemeat being found in some meals.
 But really, this is more of an "ick" problem....

Funny or Die has a lovely parody of the "God Made A Farmer" ads.

The Guardian is talking about how to build resilient food systems:
All farmers, no matter their size, depend on the weather to the grow crops that feed the world, while providing a livelihood for their families and communities. This makes them among the most vulnerable to the changing climate. By 2050, if farmers are not assisted to meet these changes, agriculture yields will decrease with impacts projected to be the most severe in Africa and South Asia, with productivity decreasing by 15% and 18% respectively. Therefore, strategies to adapt to the significant shifts in weather patterns are greatly needed.

USAID, DuPont work with Government of Ethiopia to improve food security:
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) today with Ethiopia and DuPont to boost maize harvests through increased use of hybrid maize seed, improved seed distribution, and post-harvest storage.
Maize is a significant contributor to Ethiopia’s economic and social development, providing jobs, income and food. This collaboration will help more than 30,000 smallholder maize farmers increase their productivity by up to 50 percent and help reduce post-harvest loss of maize by as much as 20 percent.
This collaboration advances agricultural development and food security goals set by the Government of Ethiopia and supported by USAID through the U.S. Government’s global hunger and food security initiative, Feed the Future, which is part of the U.S. contribution to the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition.
Michelle Simon, author of Appetite for Profit, writes about the fallout from the recent vote on GMO food labelling in California:
Recent reports of secret meetings among industry reps and the Food and Drug Adminstration over GMO labeling piqued my interest, mostly because this critical aspect was missing: any effort to label GE foods at the federal level could bring the current grassroots movement to a grinding halt by preventing any stronger local laws from ever being enacted. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Last month, Ronnie Cummins, director of the Organic Consumers Association and one of the leaders of the GMO labeling effort, recently published an article about how “representatives of Wal-Mart, General Mills, Pepsi-Frito Lay, Mars, Coca-Cola and others” met with the FDA on January 11 “to lobby for a mandatory federal GMO labeling law.”
The story was then picked up by Tom Laskawy at Grist, who reported that at the meeting, a Walmart representative said the retail giant would no longer oppose GMO labeling and that “[o]ther food company executives agreed, saying that the fight had become too expensive, especially given the prospect of more state-level initiatives.”

Thursday, February 7, 2013

South 2 North--The Food Show

From Al Jazeerra in Africa comes this lovely show on food culture, nutrition and other such ideas.

The show opens with a nutritionist who's "seen the light!"Someone more cynical than I might suggest that his last book had fallen off the bestseller list and he needed a new one to get back on the curcuit.... but that's not me. Anyway, Professor Tim Noakes tries out a high-fat "paeleo" diet.
A chef can be heard cooking up a storm behind the interview with Dr. Noakes: it's Dorah Sithole, one of the great exponents of South African cuisine.
And the show wraps with Justice Malala, who discusses food culture and political culture. As usual, Al Jazeera cooks up a heck of a show.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Public Library / Seed Bank

Boy, if you were trying to push a couple of my buttons.... I'm a big user of our local public library. I borrow well over 150 items a year. I also use the University of Victoria library, but not to the same extent. I also am a big fan of seed banks--both the massive try-to-save-a-copy-of everything-in-the-world one like the big one in Norway and the smaller home based seed savers who participate in the Seedy Saturdays around the continent. To find out about a library that does both....

Portland and Victoria

An article at on the sharing economy and its growth since the Great Theft of 2008 led me off to the North Portland Preserve and Serve website. This is a great idea: they offer members the opportunity to borrow (for a nominal donation) canning equipment and large-gathering table settings.
Neither is a huge volume of stuff--the preserving equipment is basic:
4 Pressure Cooker Canners (each includes canning tool kit)
1 Water Bath Canner includes canning tool kit)
4 Food Dehydrators
2 Steam Juicers
1 Apple/Potato peeler
2 Food mills

The pressure caners are a fairly expensive item, so spreading the cost over a lot of people over time is a great idea. I would have thought there would be more water-bath canners,as they are relatively cheap (I got mine for under $5 at a local church rummage sale),  but hard to find complete with the bottle lifter. The inserts are so difficult to find that I notice Bernardin is offering a replacement insert set (locally, available through Canadian Tire). Bottles are the other big demand item; I sourced my litre-sized one through freecycle a couple of years back.
Dehydrators are another item that take up a lot of room and are better shared. One of the difficulties is that quite often you need canners and dehydrators when everyone else needs them--which makes communal use difficult, but not impossible.
The group also offers reasonably-priced  classes in how to can food. I can't help but think that this would make a logical and much used add-on to pretty much any community kitchen.

The other thing I came across yesterday was while having a light dinner with my Significant Other at the Grad House restaurant at the University of Victoria: Captain Electro's Intergalactic Root Beer from Phillips Brewing, a local artisanal brewer more known for their beers than soda.
Paula and I split a bottle as a test, and we both really enjoyed it. Good bouquet, a light top-note with a complex but creamy bottom. Very satisfying as a drink.
I was also impressed by the label: a retro spaceship being flown by a square-headed robot printed on a light sepia ground. Man, you want to push all my buttons, that label did it. But I was also impressed by the ingredient list:
carbonated water, cane sugar, molasses, Madagascar bourbon pure vanilla extract, sasparilla, licorice root, anise seed, cloves, cinnamon, citric acid, sodium benzoate, oil of wintergreen. Pretty straightforward, really. And the flavours mesh well together. If you live in the area, Chimo! If not, too bad, so sad .

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

US Drought--Still Not Over

via US Drought Monitor
Yup, that's the mid-winter drought map for the US states. Clearly the drought of 2012 isn't over yet. We may not get the opportunity to reform agriculture and the culture of consumption.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Qatar and the Problem of Food Security

via Wikipedia
Qatar is not a big country. At about 11,600 sq kilometres (or just under 4,500 sq. miles), Qatar has a population of about 1.6 million, with only a quarter million of those being citizens. Qatar survives on its fossil fuel reserves, giving it a high per capita income--but also a moderate gini coefficient of 41.1 (the measure of inequality in a society). But what Qatar doesn't have is water. And they don't really have any food either.
Qatar inports about 90% of the food they consume--a number roughly comperable to Vancouver Island.  But the Qatar government is hoping to change that--by embarking on an intensive food production regime backed up with desalination of ocean water for irrigation. Al Jazeera has reported on this:
About 200 staff, mostly from other Middle Eastern nations and the Indian sub-continent, tend to crops on the irrigated, semi-arable land and in greenhouses.
More than a dozen greenhouses are set in rows and cooled to deal with summer temperatures that frequestly exceed 50° Celsius (122°F). Hydroponics - a soilless, mineral-infused water growing system - helps to produce tomatoes, eggplants and green peppers.
Qatar wants to increase these farms twofold to about 3,000 as part of a plan to become food secure by 2024.
"We believe Qatar can produce the vegetables for the local market, without any need to import," Shamardal says.
They've got about 1500 farms growing vegetables, and hope to double that number by 2024. Mostly, it seems, because they don't really trust the stability of the world food system. Qatar has seen food price rises of 5% a year from 2006 through 2011--raising the prices high enough that the government is worried.
Fahad bin Mohammed al-Attiya, chairman of the Qatar National Food Security Programme, said "We intend to reduce the level of volatility and make sure there is certainty within the system and build confidence that this country is not going to be prone to food price shocks and food supply shocks in the future."  After all, Egypt's government, the one that seemed so stable and permanent,  fell quickly when the food price index jumped to over 210.
Here's a short piece from Al Jazeera:

Al Jazeera news on Qatar's food security program.

Qatar is also moving ahead with being able to grow more food on saline soils. By intensively growing a naturally-occurring soil fungus called mycorrhiza and then using it to innoculate soils, plants are more able to deal with salt,  better able to take up nutrients, and better able to deal with the punishing heat.

Al Jazeera news on Qatar's mycorrhizal program.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Tunagate Mark II

The CFIA today announced that 240,000 Atlantic salmon infected with ISA have been released for sale into the Canadian market--because the US won't allow them over the border. There is apparently no science either way on the question of whether or not ISA infected fish are acceptable for human consumption. The Harper government is saying that there is no reason to worry--after all, no doctor has ever reported a problem from someone eating ISA infected salmon. Of course, doctors haven't been looking for illness caused by eating contaminated salmon....
CFIA normally pays a per head price for ISA infected salmon, and orders a cull of the entire lot in contact with the observed infected fish. But this time, Cooke Aquaculture has been allowed to ship them to processors for sale into the Canadian market. This may have something to do with Cooke Aquaculture being d=seriously underwater financially. Reports have it that they are some $350 million in debt at the moment. And the Harper government is known for its willingness to take private industry failures and transfer the risk onto the public's shoulders. It's just that usually they aren't playing with tainted fish.
I mean, does no one in this government remember the Tanted Tuna Scandal of 1985? That too was a true-Blue Conservative scandal.
Tunagate was a 1985 Canadian political scandal involving large quantities of possibly tainted tuna that were sold to the public under order of the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, John Fraser.
The story broke on September 17 in the CBC program the fifth estate. Fisheries inspectors had found that StarKist tuna, made by a New Brunswick plant, had spoiled and declared that it was “unfit for human consumption.”[1]
A Winnipeg, Manitoba plant had processed the tuna, and the forced destruction of a million cans of tuna would likely cause the plant to close down. The owners of the plant thus lobbied fisheries minister Fraser. He decided the tuna should be allowed on store shelves. He later defended himself saying he felt the business owners were right that the inspectors were too severe, or that the inspectors could have made a mistake. He also stated that he had two other independent groups test the tuna, but the lab that did these tests later revealed that their testing was not complete when Fraser made his decision.
WTF is wrong with these guardians of the public trust?  Those who learn nothing from history are condemned to repeat it--and I guess that means the Canadian public is doomed to repeat these same scandals everytime we believe the Conservatives when they say they've changed.

Brominated Vegetable Oil and Gatorade

Over at Food Politics, the incomparable Marion Nestle is reporting on why BRO may soon disappear from various PepsiCo drinks--including Gatorade. And the reason is simple; a fifteen year old food activist named Sarah Kavanagh. Just when you start thinking that maybe there's no way to make a difference....

Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant Interview

The Wall Street Journal sat Hugh Grant (not that Hugh Grant, the other one, the CEO of Monsanto) down for a little chat. Some of the intersting comments that were made:
WSJ: What's the harm in disclosing genetically modified ingredients to consumers?
Mr. Grant: Under the headline of transparency and open access, [Prop 37] befuddled the issue in our view more than explained it. A much better job needs to be done, I think, by the industry in general, in communicating how, where and who produces that food, and the safety and integrity of it.
I'd be up for the dialogue around labeling. Maybe we'll look back and say [Prop 37] was the start of a more reasonable debate. But it was a confusing proposition.
 "I'd be up for the dialogue around labeling." Wow. Really? After all those millions you spent defeating Prop 37? I swear, these guys honestly don't believe that anyone is paying attention. They really think we can't check on what they've said and done.
WSJ: At the heart of this debate is safety. How do we know that GMOs are safe?
Mr. Grant: They're the most-tested food product that the world has ever seen. Europe set up its own Food Standards Agency, which has now spent €300 million ($403.7 million), and has concluded that these technologies are safe. [Recently] France determined there's no safety issue on a corn line we submitted there. So there's always a great deal of political noise and turmoil. If you strip that back and you get to the science, the science is very strong around these technologies.

WSJ: Two of your top executives have a background in the vegetable business. Is that a coincidence? How do you see the business growing?
Mr. Grant: Fresh fruit and high quality vegetables are becoming more important than they ever were. So we see an opportunity there, but the opportunity in veggies is going to be driven by where we are spending our money. We are spending our money on nutrition and taste. A lot of veggies look great, but they don't taste like much. We think the consumer will pay a premium for improved nutrition and improved taste.
Personally, I already do--it's called organic produce. Or I grow it myself.

WSJ: There have been growing reports of weeds developing resistance to your glyphosate herbicide and bugs developing resistance to your genetically modified corn. Did Monsanto push too hard convincing farmers to use these products?
Mr. Grant: It's 20-20 hindsight. If you look, the [herbicide] product is 35, nearly 40 years old. Resistance is still limited to a handful of species. If you look at resistance to other products in the industry, it's not unusual to see resistance to 200, 250 species. That's not an excuse. When you talk to farmers, these are technologies they do not want to lose.
You know, I'm just at a loss for words. This is the worst kind of hack journalism--there's no fact-checking (oh, sorry. An earlier version f the article quoted the CEO as saying Monsanto spent a quarter billlion a year on reseach when in fact it's a billion and a quarter). There's no insight. There's just the repeating of corporate spin. 
The thing is, Hugh Grant probably believes what he's saying. It's what makes him a good face for the corporation: the ability to believe their own narrative.

Mackerel Overfishing II

Satellite image of trawler mud trails off the Louisiana coast via Wikipedia

Over in the UK, mackerel has fallen off the sustainable fisheries list (as I mentioned the other day). Today, George Monbiot over at the Guardian, writes about the new quota rules in place on the mackerel and other fisheries. Of course the news isn't good. I'm reminded of Rapa Nui or Easter Island, when they were able to see that the trees they depended on for survival were being harvested at an unsustainable rate. Rapa Nui is not a really big island, and there is actually a vantage point where you can stand and look around at the whole island. You could see that there were only a few trees left, and you knew that if you didn't stop cutting them down, there would never be another tree. Ever. And when the colonial powers "discovered" the island some years later, there were only a few, half-starved, quite crazy, islanders left. With the head-building frenzy on them, they had knowingly cut down every tree on the island. What little soil there was on the island could now erode away. The boats needed for fishing soon fell into disrepair and became useless. And what was formerly a stable, functional society, had fallen to fallen to religious mania and breath-taking stupidity.
That is the history being played out in our fisheries. Stocks that would have lasted forever with handlining and small boat nets have fallen to the massively stupid trawlers. To a process that not only took too many fish too fast, but destroyed the environment needed by the stocks to replenish themselves. Not only are we as insane as the Easter islanders were, we are that stupid with industrial efficiency.  In Canada, we destroyed the cod fishery (anyone else notice how it's really not coming back?) and we're in the process of destroying the West Coast salmon fishery.
I'll end with a quote from Monbiot's article:
Just before Christmas (which could explain the paucity of coverage the story received), the British government gleefully tore up the scientific advice, trampled the evidence, ignored the pleas of conservationists and gave two fingers to common sense by fighting to prevent the European Union from cutting the catch in the seas surrounding this country.
The chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation, Bertie Armstrong, who plainly has a lively sense of humour, called it "a good outcome based on the science". To show how badly this industry has been rolled up in its own nets, he added that "the decision [by the EU] to set our overall share of the mackerel at the traditional level was also a sensible move."
What he is celebrating here is the EU's refusal to resolve the mackerel dispute with Norway, Iceland and the Faroes. All four players insist on awarding themselves a quota way in excess of what the stock can tolerate, with the result mackerel, until a year ago one of the few species not in serious trouble, is now being fished at a completely unsustainable rate. That, dear reader, is a "sensible move".
Again and again over the past few decades, our fishing industry has clamoured noisily to cut its own throat, then responded with astonishment and fury when it collapses as a result. Is there a clearer example of being blinded to your long-term interests by short-term greed?
All this has been accompanied by the government's failure to establish the 127 marine conservation zones it promised, and even more astonishing refusal to exclude industrial activities (principally commercial fishing) from any of the 31 it deigns to designate.