Monday, October 21, 2013

Monday Multistory

Issues with urban agriculture are going to come increasingly to the fore as conditions worsen and people struggle to maintain their food supply through some very dark times. Over at AgWeek, they're running a story about some of the problems UA is facing in one neighbourhood:
NEW BRIGHTON, Minn. — From the front, nothing about the house in suburban New Brighton appears that different.
 A car sits in the driveway near a flower bed of towering magenta amaranth
 plants. A small pirate flag waves from atop a picnic table, a nod to
the “Peter Pan”-inspired name the women who live here gave the half-acre
 property when they moved in seven years ago.
Behind the one-story house, however, is a different scene.
There, you see sprawling vegetable gardens, berry plants, bee hives and lots
of fowl. A large coop extends from the back deck and houses about 15
laying hens, a dozen quail, a few heritage turkeys, a couple ducks and
one Serama rooster. A basket brimming with vegetables sits on a table
near a garden bed. Next to it is a bowl full of multicolored eggs.
The collection represents a day’s harvest at “Lost Boys Acre,” an
experimental urban farm operated by four women in the quiet residential
neighborhood near Silver Lake Road and Interstate 694.
Let's be frank; a half-acre property isn't all that big, and that is a lot of fowl. New Brighton doesn't have any bylaws regarding urban agriculture practices, so everything the four women are doing at Lost Boys Acre is legit.  But that's a lot of noise for a suburban neighbourhood....
The rest of the article makes it pretty clear that much of what's going on is a simple neighbours dispute (the primary complainants really don't like the four women in the house for reasons that have nothing to do with urban ag), but conflicts like this are going to become more and more frequent. Now, I don't actually expect municipal governments to get in front of this issue (cough Havana cough), but they really should be noticing this on their radar and setting some rules.
this is also aan opportunity to set some rules on acceptable treatment of livestock: cattle not allowed on areas less than two acres, say, or chickens needing so many square metres of space for roaming about. The setting of such limits will be subject to abuse (of course), but once in place can be changed by subsequent administrations. these kinds of bylaws can also provide some guidelines for the ethical treatment of livestock in more rural areas.

Which leads to a story from back where I used to farm; Alberta. The CTV news programme W5 ran some undercover footage of an egg operation about 20 km away from our family farm. The story is typical--120,000 birds in battery housing, dead birds not removed from cages, horrific environment, etc.
Down a quiet road, deep in Alberta farm country, not far from Edmonton, is a massive egg production facility known as Kuku Farms. Housing about 120,000 battery hens, they live out their lives in cramped cages, producing almost an egg a day for a year until they are considered spent and killed.
The video shows row upon row of hens crammed into battery-cages. Nearby are dead birds that appeared to have been there for some of time, birds with missing neck feathers and some with severe urine scalding on their backsides.
A few kilometers away is another barn, Creekside Grove Farms. In this barn about 100,000 chicks spend the first 20 weeks of their lives crammed 50 to a cage, standing on barren wire. These are chicks that will eventually become egg-layers.
The undercover video shows some chicks injured while others clamber over them for access to food and water.
Other chicks can be seen escaping from the crowded cages to end up on the hopper, where they are covered in feces and sometimes mangled by the machinery. Perhaps most disturbingly, sick or injured chicks are seen being killed by a practice called "thumping" -- where a bird is smashed against a hard surface to kill it. On several occasions the video shows birds that survived but are left in a garbage bag along with a pile of already dead chicks
Nobody can defend this-- but heaven knows, someone will.  Egg producers are policed by their own group--who are primarily concerned with whether producers are following the quota rules, rather than the proper treatment of animals. However:
On Monday, Egg Farmers of Canada released the following statement from its chairman, Peter Clarke:
"As a fifth-generation egg farmer and chair of our industry, I have visited hundreds of Canada's more than 1,000 egg farms. I have never seen hens treated in the manner shown. I share in the public's response to the video. The images were unacceptable. However, I object to any perception that this is in any way common, tolerated or representative. It simply is not.
Actually, I don't buy that. After a trip to the University of Alberta experimental farm a few years back, it was clear that standards were developed with producers, not the chicken's, requirements in mind. And the problems with factory farming of chicken  are myriad; from arsenic in the meat to issues of manure disposal. But as reported:
W5 found that the industry group tends to focus more on whether eggs are safe for consumption and whether the farmer has the right number of chickens allotted under the industry's market quota system rather than on the well-being of the animals laying the eggs.
The Mercy for Animals investigator told the program that when she was undercover at Creekside Grove, workers were given 24 hours' advance notice of an inspection and that the facility passed inspection.
Until this is top-of-mind for consumers, Egg Farmers of Canada won't give a damn about how the animals are treated. Only when it impacts the bottom line will it matter.

Over at the Guardian, they have a lovely graphic about how much food is wasted from farm-to-fork. The figures were put out by Tesco, a major food retailer, and funnily enough, they show that 16% of food is wasted or destroyed on the farm and by consumers, but less than 1% is wasted by food retailers. Sorry, but I have to call bullshit on this. The EU reports:
Food waste in industrialized countries is as high as in developing countries:
  • In developing countries, over 40% of food losses happen after harvest and during processing;
  • In industrialised countries, over 40% occurs at retail and consumer level.
 (emphasis mine).

Friday, October 11, 2013

Ancestral vs Industrial: Two Stories

via Mother Earth News
This is "glass corn," a traditional, multi-coloured translucent variety, a picture of which made the rounds last year. Lovely, isn't it? Honestly, I wouldn't have a clue how to cook with it, but that doesn't make me covet it less. Mother Earth News has the fascinating story of the man who recovered this heritage variety; the original seed was obtained from Carl L. Barnes of Oklahoma.
Carl is of half Cherokee, half Scotch-Irish ancestry and was born in the family’s original farmhouse about a half-mile from his current home. His father had moved the family west, where they acquired land and set up farming on the High Plains. Carl spent his childhood on this homestead, and the family lived through the 1930s Dust Bowl years, staying to survive the ordeal rather than leaving as many did at that time in our history.
As a youth, Carl began to seek out his Cherokee roots, exploring the knowledge of his own ancestors and of Native American traditions in general, by learning from his grandfather. Much of this quest centered on the ceremonies surrounding planting, harvesting, and honoring seeds. Carl went on to earn a degree in Agricultural Education, and later in his adult years worked with the Cooperative Extension Service. He also spent several years serving with the Kansas Highway Patrol. Carl continued working the farm, along with his wife Karen, and they raised a family.
In the course of growing some of the older corn varieties still being farmed at that time, Carl began noticing ancestral types of corn re-appearing in his crops. As he isolated these, he found many of the variants to match up with traditional corns that had been lost to many of the Native tribes – particularly those peoples who had been relocated during the 1800s to what is now Oklahoma. Thus, he was able to re-introduce specific corn types to the elders of those tribes, and this helped their people in reclaiming their cultural identities. The corn is, to them, literally the same as their blood line, their language, and their sense of who they are.
 The Globe and Mail today has an interesting story about the traditional remedies and how they are not always what they seem:
...when scientists from the University of Guelph scoured the DNA in a number of herbal products, they found that many times the labels on the merchandise didn’t accurately reflect what was in the container.
Some products contained fillers like wheat or rice that were not listed on the label. Some were contaminated with other plant species that could have caused toxicity or triggered allergic reactions. And still others contained no trace of the substance the bottle purported to contain.
“It says gingko biloba ... and we didn’t find any gingko DNA at all in the bottle,” said Steve Newmaster, an integrative biology professor at the university who was the first author on the paper.
In fact, about a third of the 44 products Newmaster and his co-authors tested were instances of what he called product substitution – alfalfa sold as gingko, for example. He said those two substances in powder form would be indistinguishable without testing.
People buying herbal products need to know they may not be getting what they are paying for – and they may be ingesting something they aren’t expecting, said Newmaster, who is also the botanical director of the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario, which is the home of the Canadian Centre for DNA Barcoding.
“Because you spend a lot of money to buy a health product, you care about your health, and then you’re not getting what you think you’re getting.”
The study is being published Friday in the journal BMC Medicine.
About a third of the products tested had products substituted. That is a hell of a lot of fraud. And the manufacturers of herbal supplements  have successfully fought against actual testing of the contents of these substances. But this is outright consumer fraud. Even without requiring some kind of proof to back up claims made about results from use, at the very least can't we have the actual product in the bottle?

World Food Day This Weekend

via Grain
Get out there and say something!

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Forward Only Looks Like Backwards

via Wikipedia

From the Hindu Business Line:
Climate change is inspiring farmers in the Sundarbans to go back in history to a time when their forefathers grew indigenous varieties of rice using green manure.
Giving the modern high-yield varieties of rice a miss, farmers are going back to the pre-Green Revolution days and opting for traditional seeds which have unique properties such as ability to tolerate salinity and floods.
“The switch over was difficult but slowly we realised that our traditional rice varieties like ‘Dudheswari’ has low input costs and tolerates salinity more easily than the modern ones,” farmer Uttam Maity who lives in one of the islands under Pathar Pratima block says.
Rising sea levels, increasing instances of floods and salinity of water due to various factors including climate change is threatening to convert fertile agricultural land into barren wasteland in the Sundarbans.
 Again, the way forward in world food production starts with a retreat from the blind alley of industrial food production.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Innovation Inside Tradition

via SciDevNet

Take a look--these are all potatoes. Beyond the skin colour, some even have coloured flesh. There used to be hundreds of varieties of potatoes alone--now, worldwide, we depend on about 30 crops for the majority of our food. More science isn't the answer. We've had plenty of science. We need farmers farming in traditional ways with research support to clarify what's happening and help traditional farming do better. After all, it already does as well or better than the industrial version in production of calories per acre.
SciDevNet has an article up on innovation in traditional farming practice:
Indigenous knowledge is innovative, not static, says Krystyna Swiderska. Protecting it will help food security.
When policymakers think of innovation they tend to think of laboratories or the spaces where designers and engineers create solutions to pressing problems. But this ignores a more longstanding and widespread form of innovation.

Communities that live close to nature continually create innovative approaches in farming and other sectors by building on knowledge and practices refined over generations. For instance, farmers around the world experiment with local crops to develop varieties that cope better with drought or pests.

This kind of innovation does not fit easily into policy frameworks. But its value will grow as the climate changes and population increases bring more mouths to feed.

Yet the biological and cultural diversity this innovation depends on is in steep decline. And modern systems of farming threaten to swamp traditional innovation. Now more than ever, it needs to be recognised and protected.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Way Forward

I've been reading Andrew Nikiforuk's The Energy of Slaves this week (check out the pop-up interview with him on CBC' radio show The Current) and it has been a great read and an interesting take on the links between the hydrocarbon economy and the slave economy. He also dedicates a chapter to what he calls "The Unsettling of Agriculture": the change from solar to slave to hydrocarbon-based production.
In the chapter on agriculture, he looks at the example of China between the 8th and 12th centuries: during that time, China constructed
...a unique agro-energy empire, diverting enough natural flows of energy to feed nearly half a billion people. It did so by carefully marshaling solar energy in intensely farmed plots of millet and wheat int he north and of rice in the south. Innovations in rice farming--the artificial flooding of land and multiple cropping--tripled the yield of an average peasant family. One square mile of carefully tended land could feed 225 peasants. Peasants hoed, fertilized, and irrigated these highly nutritious crops like some great garden. The land was manured with human shit.
But even this system faced problems. As the population grew from 100 million people in the 12th century to 500 million in the 18th, the country inevitably ran into a series of energy and environmental shocks. they ran out of land, and they ran out of wood. The amount of food necessary increased, but the crop surpluses declined.  No empire, co government, no country can withstand a collapse in caloric stocks (I've talked about Empires of Food  by Fraser and Rimas before (Check out Evan Fraser's discussion here)). the basic structures of Chinese solar energy harvesting remained until the 1970s. This steady-state agriculture finally collapsed under the assault of oil and oil's industrial agriculture programmes--leading to China becoming an ag-product exporter, but, as has been mentioned before in the posts on honey laundering, not one without problems.
We've been through these issues before, too. In 1973, energy analyst Earl Cook pointed out that it was taking 26,745 calories to produce 3,300 kilocalories of food. In 1930, in a manifesto called  I'll  Take My Stand, a group of southern US farmers said that machines did not emancipate farmers, but in fact evicted them from their farms. In 1943, Sir Albert Howard, in An Agricultural Testament (pdf) pointed out that the replacement of animal traction with mechanical traction came with a significant drawback--mechanical traction doesn't produce urine or manure. he predicted that a people fed on improperly grown food would eventually become dependant on "an expensive system of patent medicines, panel doctors, dispensaries, hospitals, and convalescent homes".
In the end, Andrew Nikiforuk looks at the Cuban experience and takes, as I do, hope from it. Slavery, whether human or hydrocarbon, is a dead end, suitable only for short-term gains, but antithetical to long-term sustainability. The hydrocarbon economy is, at best, a dead-end side road we've mistakenly diverted down. As in the video below, sometimes we discover that the only way to go forward is to move a ways back.

Shaped by Hand from Elias K. on Vimeo.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Art Of The Memoir

I've just finished Bob Spitz' memoir The Saucier's Apprentice, which, I have to say, has been a real relief from Breadlines Knee Deep In Wheat and Food Banks And The Welfare Crisis. The only crisis in Apprentice are bad cooking schools and a broken heart--neither of which are particularly world-in-peril stuff.

The book can be described fairly simply: person reaches a point in their life that requires a re-evaluation of said life. Person realizes that one of the things they really like to do is cook. Person pursues an education in cooking that also enables them to re-evaluate their life. Cut to narratively elegant wrap-up. Ba-da-boom, satisfying read.
And don't get me wrong, The Saucier's Apprentice is a satisfying read. Spitz expresses just enough self-reflection and exposes enough personal angst to make him a sympathetic character (although I did want to smack him a few times). He writes well about his experience as a dilettante ADD-like cook-wannabe travelling around France and Italy attending various cooking schools. When he confronts a problem with a school experience, he is careful to differentiate between whether the problem is one with the school, or if it's a problem with what he needs from a school. That is to say, if the teaching is okay, but simply not teaching him what he wants/needs to know, or if the actual instruction is less than advertised or less than satisfactory for a paying student. This is an important distinction....
There are some very nice info chunks in the book; why to pursue both Italian and French cooking (because together they form the two pillars of modern cuisine), how the approaches differ (French is more disciplined, Italian more expansive), and he includes some of the best recipes he learned while on the road. Of course, what he can't tell us are the techniques he learned. Knife skills are not a topic that communicates best through writing.... About halfway through the read, I came across his description of working with a Michelin-starred chef, who taught him how to make an omelet. I'd previously read a version in the Best Food Writing series, so it was a treat to come across it again. And it's an excellent piece of writing, describing how the chef challenges him, and when he sees Spitz' failure, quickly drops his "great chef" persona and becomes a journeyman cook again, teaching a technique that must be got right, for a result that is simply perfect.
But the actual technique (involving striking one's wrist three times boom boom boom to fold and finish the omelet) is not something that can be communicated on the page. It is the practice that teaches. Here we can only get Spitz' reaction to the teaching, how exhausted he becomes with the repetition necessary to acquire the skill, and how it feels to see his final, perfect omelet be taken away from him and sent to a customer.
This is common to all of the books in this genre; we can only experience the learned skill vicariously, through the narrator's reaction to learning. We don't become better at using a knife while reading about Julia Child honing her knife skills in My Life In France. Our sauce-making ability is not improved by reading The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry. What instead we share is the narrator’s internal journey, and it is how this journey resonates with our own journey that makes a memoir of this type matter or not to us.
And I have to say, I love these books. I'm not in the position to pack up and leave for France tomorrow (if, indeed, ever). But the desire is there, and a good writer (like Julia Child, Bob Spitz, Kathleen Flinn, or Julie Powell) gives me hope that I could still make the transition from mediocre cook to decent one.