Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Why I don't eat meat

I've been meaning to write this piece for a long time, so here goes.

Today I followed a trail in a NY Times article - about aggressive pro-vegetarian ads, aimed at people concerned with climate change - to a United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization report Livestock's Long Shadow. (See link to right.)

I'll admit that I was more than a little annoyed when I saw "An Inconvenient Truth" (aka All About Al) that there was no mention of the contribution cattle make to global warming. Now it seems PETA is taking on our former Vice President, basing their billboard campaign on data in the the UN report.

So I tracked it down, and even though reading on line and reading sans serif is not easy, decided not to print all 408 pages. I read the introduction, skimmed the report (good pictures, better charts, graphs and maps!) and then read the conclusion.

The report outlines the impact of livestock globally on climate, water and biodiversity - and it's not a pretty picture.

There's a strong appeal for policy change - to move from the superficial nuisance issues related to livestock such as flies and smells, through the intermediate issues like local clean air and water, to consideration of the long term issues, like climate change and loss of biodiversity.

And it's not easy, since the social importance of livestock far outweighs its economic importance globally. Think about the way meat eating is used as a dividing line socially in the media here in the U.S. Think about Precious Ramotswe's father's cattle. (#1 Ladies' Detective Agency stories - and by the way, cattle in Botswana use 23% of the water) Think about using goats as dowries, think about sacred cows - and you begin to get the picture.

And over a third of the world's poor depend on livestock production for at least a piece of their livelihood.

The environmental impact of livestock is also grossly disproportional to their economic value (about 1.4% of global GDP). One third (33%) of the arable land in the world is used to grow feed for livestock. Eighteen (18%) of the global warming effect is due to livestock - that's larger the transportation sector worldwide.

Growth in production of livestock around the world is not in small scale farming, but in industrial production, usually near urban areas. Manure is a huge problem!

I am reminded of wondering, when listening to the keynote from Petaluma Poultry (Rockie and Rosie) at the Sustainable Enterprise conference, that they can't call themselves a sustainable enterprise until they solve the manure issue, preferably cycling it back into the system nearby to produce feed for R & R.

I'm not sentimental about animals (Okay - except the ones I know. Okay - I have watched the movie Babe half a dozen times.) And if I were much concerned about eating meat and health I would eat much less of everything. I stopped eating meat ten or twelve years ago for environmental reasons, and then I rather lost my taste for it. I might still eat a little if I were still working in rural Nevada, where range fed beef, backyard sheep, and venison from the annual hunt were common - and sustainable. But I live in a suburban/exurban area where good produce is much more readily available than sustainably grown or harvested meat, and most restaurants (and congregations) speak vegetarian.

Livestock's Long Shadow does deal with policy changes, not with consumption and lifestyle issues, yet it does note
"While not addressed by this assessment, it may well be agreed that environmental damage by livestock may be significantly reduced by lowering excessive consumption of livestock products among wealthy people."
I would assume that means us, and that it includes leather and fiber, too - though there was little about the latter in the report.

It's not my job to "convert" anyone to vegetarianism. It is part of my calling, I think, to remind environmentalists that livestock present very serious issues. The report says with great understatement
"Perhaps even among the majority of environmentalists and environmental policy-makers, the truly enormous impact of the livestock sector on climate, biodiversity and water is not fully appreciated."

We got the first environmental set of 3R's: reduce, reuse, recycle. Perhaps now it is time to consider another set: Reform farming practices, Reduce meat consumption, Replace meat in the diet with other things.

Take me out to the (meatless) ballgame

I'm not an animal rights activist - but while looking at the PETA site to find something else, I stumbled upon this.

Lo and behold! Even though the embattled Black Muslim bakery is no longer at the Coliseum, there is meatless fare. I can't wait for Stitch n Pitch with vegetarian lunch on Sunday, September 16.

If you're headed to an MLB game near you, you can check out the park here.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

agroindustrial cryogeneticism

In a recent issue The New Yorker profiles a scientist who is developing a global cryobank for plant seeds - to be stored in a vault in the cold of an island off the Arctic coast of Norway. The seeds are stored country by country and each country may only have access to its own. While Monsanto, ADM, and rest of the Big Ag oligarchy shy away from allowing patent hybrids to be even that far out of their control, certainly the governmental powers that be are buying into the idea.

As for the work of the people, Gary Paul Nabhan of Native Seed/SEARCH gets a brief mention as an ethnobotanist; no word of Ecology Action or Bountiful Gardens, Alan Chadwick or Michael Pollan. There is apparently lots of room left for individual action - seeds in a deep freeze may preserve the future of our planet's biodiversity about as well as coal has.... so go plant some heirlooms of your own and share them with the living.



Annals of Agriculture
Sowing for Apocalypse
The quest for a global seed bank.
by John Seabrook August 27, 2007
John Seabrook, "Sowing for Apocalypse," The New Yorker, August 27, 2007, p. 60

ANNALS OF AGRICULTURE about seeds, seed banks, and the genetic modification of crops. Writer accompanies Cary Fowler to the Vavilov Research Institute of Plant Industry in St. Petersburg, Russia. Fowler, the director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, was in St. Petersburg to gather contributions for the world’s first global seed bank, which is being built in Svalbard, Norway and is scheduled to open in February, 2008. Briefly discusses the history of agriculture, which began about 8000 B. C. in Mesopotamia, and the preservation of seeds by early civilizations. Tells about Nikolai Vavilov, the founder of the Russian seed institute and the first man to think of creating a global seed bank. Vavilov fell afoul of Stalin and died in a Siberian labor camp. Writer mentions the destruction of the national seed banks of Iraq and Afghanistan during the U. S.-led invasions. Seed banks in countries such as Honduras and the Philippines have recently been lost to natural disasters. Most national agricultural banks contain the seeds of crops grown in that country. The American national seed bank is in Fort Collins, Colorado. Explains the basic principles of seed storage: low humidity and cold temperatures are essential. Tells about Fowler, who grew up in Memphis and became interested in seeds while working on a magazine article about the disappearance of family farms in the South. Describes his battle with two forms of cancer. Surviving cancer motivated Fowler to become more involved in seed preservation efforts because he believed he hadn’t contributed constructively to society. Writer describes the development of hybrid crops by companies such as Pioneer Hi-Bred, the first private seed company. By 1945, hybrid corn amounted to ninety per cent of the corn planted in the U. S. Tells about the green revolution, the process by which American-made hybrid seeds were sent around the world. While the hybrid crops allowed farmers to increase their yields, they also planted an American-style agrarian capitalism in developing nations. The backlash to the green revolution was led by writers and activists such as Pat Mooney and Jack Harlan, who warned that the adoption of hybrid seeds might cause traditional crop varieties to become extinct. Discusses the role played by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in negotiating international agreements regarding the sale and use of seeds. American agricultural corporations had successfully patented their hybrid seeds, many of which had been taken from developing countries, whose farmers were now forced to pay for the seeds they originally helped cultivate. Tells about the controversy over genetically modified organisms (G.M.O.s). Writer accompanies Fowler to Svalbard to inspect the site of the global seed vault, which is also where the Nordic Gene Bank is housed.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Reflecting on what the NY times found newsworthy

Do we (Episcopalians and other moderate to liberal Christian denominations) care about the ethics of food? And if not, why not? I have been musing about this since I posted the link to Wednesday's Times story.

On the one hand most of our congregations have or participate in some sort of program to get food to the food insecure. An emergency food pantry, a community meal, a weekly food handout, or in some parishes a large scale effort. On the other hand, my observation remains - that few want to go beyond that - to look at the ethics of our food system. Example: a few years ago when I did a program on Measure M (our local initiative to ban GMOs) I had half as many people attend as worked handing out food on a weekday afternoon when it's Episcopalians' month to do it.

It seems to me we won't care about food system issues if we don't care about our own practices around food. I haven't been to a coffee hour in some time around here when there was homemade food on offer. Oops - I take that back - there were homemade toll house cookies two weeks ago at Thanksgiving Lutheran. But mostly it's stuff bought in quantity at Costco.

It's not that there is better food at the Eucharist, either. Two weeks ago an appeal was made for folks to bake bread for the Eucharist. "How many of you have a bread machine at home?" was the opening question. I just sat there. I have taught folks in more than one congregation how to make good uncrumby bread for the Eucharist - but I don't have a bread machine and don't much like the product.

In the Los Angeles diocese in the 90s my experience was that if you wanted anything to eat after the liturgy, you should go to a congregation where English was not the primary language or get two hours away from central Los Angeles. There are congregations in some places which do not even have kitchens where you can prepare a meal - and I am not talking about old and tiny small town churches, or buildingless congregations. We have fewer and fewer communal meals at our congregations, it seems to me. And we feed our youth a steady diet of take away pizza. Why don't we teach them to cook?

And when is the last time I have heard anyone talk about fasting? I've noticed that those who have been to seminary or something like it and those who have been among the more Catholic Episcopalians for decades do exercise some form of fasting, at least on the two required fast days. But it's been years since I ever heard it mentioned in a sermon, or even an announcement.
I think most people's piety around food is strictly secular - whether the South Beach/Weight Watchers kind or Mickey D's/Costco or Slow Food. We don't want to bring back dietary laws, by any means - but surely our eating practices ought to be begin with the many meanings of our Sunday meal together, and flow from them?

There are also the time pressures of too many people's lives which cause eating to be hurried and food prep to be minimal. And I think we also have some class issues, wedded to a strange asceticism, that cause us to not want to make too much of food, not to pay it too much attention (except for individuals who are labeled "foodies"). And our disregard then gets mapped onto our thinking about food system issues.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

The NY Times notices that food is a religious issue

though it's too bad that so little attention is given to mainstream and liberal protestantism. Or do we care as much about the ethics of eating as Roman Catholics, conservative evangelicals, and observant Jews?

Thursday, August 16, 2007

"Food Access"

Tuesday I went to the Sonoma County Food Access meeting. I knew some of the folks there from working on our Food Connections conference last summer. I knew a few others by reputation or organization. Some I didn't know.

Things were heavy on the school garden, childhood obesity end of things. I know this is partly because that's where the grant money and the programs are these days. But it discourages me that the perspective of some of the folks involved is so narrow. What about food security generally? what about environmental concerns? what about the whole peak oil re-localization agenda? what about, if you are going to be part of a county-wide interest group, trying to take a broader perspective, not just advocate for your little project?

I also have some issues with some of the racism and classism I see around this obsession with the obesity epidemic. It feels a little judgmental, a little condescending. In some ways it parallels the stop smoking campaign. Since fewer of even poor and working class people smoke now, let's attack the fat.

I keep thinking about the woman I met at the gathering in November of Episcopal commissions and committees, the urban nurse educator from the Health Commission. She said, "We've been working so hard with our young black women, trying to build self-esteem, and now we have to tell them you're fat and that's bad."

I couldn't believe that one woman concerned with child health in this community did not know what Lola's was. We were talking local supermarkets and I mentioned Lola's. Lola (is there a Lola, or is she like Betty Crocker?) has two smallish supermarkets serving the Spanish speaking community. I can't get a non-profit job because I don't speak Spanish - but I know where Lola's is and what she sells. How can anyone concerned with Food Access in this community not know? (And now I am embarrassed to admit that I don't know if there really is a Lola - another research project.)

Limiting food systems policy development to the realm of health bugs me too. That seems to be the best banner in the county plan under which to place our concerns, but the food system is about so much more than personal well being. (My favorite edible symbol of American individualism and self absorption: the "personal watermelon".)

Clearly I probably shouldn't be attending these meetings. I'm sure I make almost everyone there crazy asking system questions and challenging them to take a wider perspective.

We also talked about a name for the group. People seem happy with "Food Access". It makes me uncomfortable. And toward the end of the meeting I realized why. It implies a consumer perspective. Now in one way we are all consumers. Consume food or die. And we live in a consumer culture. But I think one of the reasons our food system is such a mess is because of consumerism. So why are we looking at a consumerist solution? That's intervening in the system in a way that plays right into the problems and reinforces them.

As long as we are focused on an individualistic consumer solution to food system issues we are only going to reinforce the problems. We need some approaches that stress building relationships and community, and that respect people as participants and producers in the food system, not just shoppers.

Mapping Hunger

I have some found time today, so have been plowing through all my "read later" bookmarks. The New York City Coalition Against Hunger site is pretty impressive. The interactive map is fun to play with. You can almost read it backward - you know the areas with more small food stores, for example, are the lower income ones - but it's good that someone has demonstrated this.

There are other features on the site, too - like downloadable neighborhood handbooks with information about eligibility for food stamps, where all the soup kitchens and food pantries (but not, I note, community gardens) are located, etc.

I don't think there is anything like this concerted effort in my city, but I think the Food Access group with whom I met on Tuesday does have it as a goal. (More about that later.)

If you cruise around the NYCCAH site you will also find news of research on hunger. Why are there more hungry US residents than Canadians at the same income level? One paper summarized here suggests that its partly due to the cost of medical care in the US. Makes sense - even when some basic care is offered to low income families it is for the children only, and doesn't cover those trips to ER. And I wonder what the dynamics are for those of us who are too old to get jobs with benefits, but too young for medicare (and senior feeding programs)? I suspect that there are people my age who are eating a less than wholesome diet because of their medical bills. What's wrong with this picture?

Friday, August 10, 2007

Today's News - 3 Things to Check Out

Marion Nestle just plain makes sense. I learned today listening to Science Friday that she has a blog with the same title as her most recent book, What to Eat. Check it out here:

In my links list you'll find Science Friday. Usually it takes them a day or so to get the broadcast up in podcast form. Do listen to today's second hour with Marion (okay - I feel like I know her, and you will, too, after reading and listening) and Michael Pollan and others on the Farm Bill. Hope remains that the Senate might do something more creative than the House when all get back from their summer vacations.

There's also a blog item on SciFri about urban agriculture with some helpful comments and many links:

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Everytime I hear more hype about ethanol from corn I shudder

And another reason to is that farmland prices in the heavy corn growing parts of the country are going up. Today's NY Times report is a helpful introduction.

Imagine! Land near ethanol plants going up as much as 30% in one year.

One of the effects of this is that the generational transition of farmers, in trouble all ready, is in worse shape. Young farmers cannot afford land. Minority farmers cannot afford land. People who'd like a small farm for diversified agriculture can't afford land.

And what happens when the corn-based ethanol boom crashes?

Will we get an energy bill through the congress that has stricter mileage standards for cars and trucks so that we'll have some land left to grow food?

Local Urban Agriculture

In today's Press Democrat, city council approval for annexing the Imwalle site was announced. What this seems to mean is that the amount of land the Imwalle's are planting now will stay the same for the near future, but the adjacent land that's been lying fallow will go to housing. I was interested that councilwoman Veronica Jacobi voted against the move, favoring an even denser development on the ten acres in question. This would leave more open space, and place houses further from Santa Rosa Creek. Jacobi is the council member from my quadrant of Santa Rosa (NW), not from the starter castle NE.

Earlier this week, the PD covered the new park in the SW, specifically Roseland. The land has an agricultural history, so Landpaths, the nonprofit which works with the Open Space District, will be starting a community garden there. I hope to see what they are doing, maybe get involved a little. And I think it would be great to get an urban agriculture network going here in Santa Rosa.

Read about the Bayer Farm and proposed park here:

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Green Chefs

I'm having to write a blurb on Episcopalians and Anglicans who made Grist's top 15 religious leaders list, but I got bored with it, so I started webgoofingaround. Rather quickly I found this list
and began exploring its links.

And so I discovered my new favorite blog title, even though I don't eat the stuff anymore - Offal Good.
The best news is that Cosentino's restaurant has stopped selling bottled water.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Foodie trends for the frugal gleaner

It all comes together in blackberry zinfandel icepops.,0,3149603.story

I felt a little foolish last summer when I bought a set of molds to make my own frozen treats. The idea was to make cool snacks instead of buying ice cream - and avoid the temptation to construe whatever size container I brought home as a portion. The whole operation was kind of a throwback to childhood, too, as my grandmother used to make homemade popsicles when I was a child - usually improvised from koolaid and whatever juice was around, and frozen in ice cube trays with little sticks or in dixie cups. So last summer and this I have been experimenting with different combinations - and not always being the good scientist and recording my experiments, so that every batch is different. The coffee yogurt - chocolate almond milk combo needed something to ramp it up, but was still edible, and the best have been smoothy mixtures with mangoes and peaches and plain yogurt.

Now I read that I am right with a trend here. Good for me, and an excuse not to participate in the cup cake trend. One trend at a time, I think. Frozen nursery food in adult flavors somehow seems a more wholesome idea than nursery food with gloppy frosting, whether in adult flavors or not.

The other aspect of this story is that I do enjoy gleaning, and particularly I enjoy harvesting nature's bounty. From a later period in my childhood/youth - later than the koolaid popsicles - comes a love of making preserves out of wild fruits. This year I've decided to ramp it up and try a hybrid blackberry-wine jelly.

And now I read that blackberry wine is a flavor to try for a grown-up ice pop. But not too much wine, as it does have anti-freeze properties. What a way to celebrate life's freebies on a warm summer afternoon!

Thursday, August 2, 2007

new feature

I just added a new feature, titled "curiosities", because I stumbled upon a site with cucurbit postage stamps. Squashes and gourds around the world. I could not resist adding a link.

The garden continues to amaze me. I find reasons to go by even on days when I don't have to water. There is something about growing things. Lately I have been musing about how the pumpkins and gourds change shape as they get bigger. What gene interactions are causing that development? (I'm also wondering if they cross pollinated, because some of the shapes aren't shown on either seed packet. Near as I can tell they are all Cucurbita pepo, so this is quite possible.)

In an anthology of Thomas Merton's writing on nature, When the Trees Say Nothing, he marvels at the growth of the corn in the monastery garden. "I know the joy and worship the Indians must have felt, and the Eucharistic rightness of it!" he says.

He continued
"The irreligious mind is simply the unreal mind, the zombie, abstracted mind, that does not see the things that grow in the earth and feel glad about them, but only knows prices and figures and statistics."
This captures how I feel about the garden. But I would add that even when I find myself asking scientific questions, I can still experience deep awe. Science and communion are compatible, but commodification and communion aren't.