Monday, March 31, 2008

Happy Cesar Chavez Day

Where would we be without farmworkers? And why is it that today is a holiday only in California, when much of the produce much of the country eats depends on their efforts?

At least there are greeting cards for today. You can get a Chavez e-card at the UFW site.

And while there you can learn more about what's happening, or even sign the petition to make this a national holiday. After all, March is one of those months when there are no civic holidays - and when March is soggier than it is this year and Easter is late we could use one.

As I was looking at sites about farmworker justice to be linked here, I was saddened by how most address problems rather than offering opportunities. So I've posted a link to the right about ALBA, which is different - an organization small in geographical scope, but wide in its impact, helping "limited-resource, aspiring and immigrant farmers" in Monterey County get training in organic farming. ALBA recognizes that for farmworkers to become farmers they need access to education, capital and land - and gives them a leg up in all three.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Almost Alleluia

In an hour or so I will be on my way to Willits for the vigil and first Eucharist of Easter. This will be the first Easter in the new building, and I look forward to seeing how to work it. It's very live. Of course, I also look forward to being among friends.

One of the things I did for Lent was to give up buying anything but comestibles and drugs for me and for my cats. I discovered that I needed to include cat litter and toilet paper in the things I would buy. The difficulty was not in foregoing other things - it was in those impulses to fill time or reduce stress by spending a little money on something not necessary. I've also been sorting last year's receipts - and been surprised at how many of them are for food, and how little else I really do buy except office, garden, cat and knitting supplies.

My lenten reading has been food fiction (like All Over Creation by Ruth L. Ozeki) and food memoirs, like Judith Jones and Madhur Jaffrey. It was amazing to me how many of the classic cookbooks on my shelves were Knopf - that is Jones - productions. And seeing the history of Indian independence and partition through food gives a most interesting lens.

Jones actually comments in her memoir that many of the best cookbook writers were amateur cooks who had to teach themselves, and who were trying to perpetuate a food tradition - often one from their childhood - in a strange land.

She also talks about cooking as essentially religious, springing off this quotation from A.N. Whitehead: ‘Cooking is one of those arts which most requires to be done by persons of a religious nature.’

(All that AND process philosophy!)

As I've tried today, as every holiday, to juggle cooking preparation with liturgical preparation, I have been edified by this quotation from Jones:
"Other creatures receive food simply as fodder. But we take the raw materials of the earth and work with them - touch them, manipulate them, taste them, ...and then, through a bit of alchemy, transform them into delicious creations. Cooking demands attention, patience, and, above all, respect. It is a way of worship, a way of giving thanks."

Monday, March 17, 2008

We need a new bumper sticker

and of course I recognize the irony in having one that says


I just got around to reading an article that appeared in Scotland's Sunday Herald last week on the world food crisis. We may all be on the low energy diet before long. Remember thirty years ago when the church focused on world hunger and so many of us said "Of course, there's enough food, it's just a matter of distribution"? That was simplistic then, and may be just plain wrong now or in the near future.

Food scarcity is mounting. Climate change is driving it in two ways - through increased drought conditions, and, over the next few decades, probably flooding of croplands. The world population continues to grow. And while more people are starving, the number of people pursuing western middle class lifestyles - read: eating more meat - is growing. Rising oil prices have caused food prices to go up, and more crop land to be devoted to aggrofuels, exacerbating the situation.

Here are some stats that caught my attention from the article, and from the reports linked to it (now added to my sites list).

Since 2000 the global price of food has gone up 75%; the price of wheat 200%.
(And when the price of grain goes up, so does the price of animal foods. Dairy prices are showing dramatic increases. You don't need to read an article about it. Just go to the store.)

The number and frequency of food riots are increasing as urbanites can no longer afford to purchase food.

In India last year 25,000 despairing farmers killed themselves.

In China, the per capita per year meat consumption was 20 kilos in 1985, and now exceeds 50 kilos. That's around 5 ounces per person per day - what our food pyramid recommends for me of meat and meat analogs. Whatever happened to tofu?

25% of our US corn crop goes to ethanol. There's talk of tripling this. But we supply 60% of the world's export corn. What happens to those in poor countries who import it? And - with my tongue deep in my cheek - what happens to our supply of high fructose corn syrup on which the American diet depends?

One sixth of our grain harvest is fed to cars.

The Sunday Herald stressed food security in Scotland as an issue, and has a campaign for folks to eat local. I suppose at this time of year that involves bringing back the demand for root vegetables in a climate like Scotland's - and frankly, that's not a bad idea.

I wonder if the rising prices of food, combined with escalating fuel prices to ship it, may make local produce, and particularly growing your own, increasingly attractive economically, not just from a flavorful and ethical standpoint. An article in yesterday's New York Times suggests that small, diversified organic farms in exurban New York are proving economically, not just environmentally, sustainable.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Deliver me from the ascientific

An email appeared on an email list today talking about the Low Carbon Diet.

At first I thought it must be someone advocating starvation. I am hard pressed to think of any foods that do not contain carbon. It would be the low carb, low fat, low protein diet. Water and inorganic (as in chemistry, not agricultural methods) sources of minerals. I'd last a while, but you thinner folks would be gone fairly quickly.

Surely people know that carbon is not the enemy? that there would be no life on this planet without it?

I'm guessing they mean a diet that is less dependent on fossil fuels for inputs and processing and transportation energy. But then they need to say that.

Probably next they will call it the Low Energy Diet. Just what we all want from our diets - low energy - though I suppose in one way low energy suggests reduced calories.

I'm a fan of the low methane diet myself.

So is the PB, Katharine Jefferts Schori

Fewer Fish

Well, let me complete this series of gloomy messages by mentioning a UN Environment Progamme report issued a couple of weeks ago titled Dead Water.

Here's the article that introduces it:

In a nutshell, global warming is expected both to raise the temperature of ocean waters and change circulation patterns in a way that will impact negatively the world's fisheries and the habitats that support the fecundity of the oceans (like coral reefs).

More carbon dioxide dissolved in ocean water will lower the pH (increase the acidity) and quite probably affect the ability of many marine creatures to form shells and similar structures.

Now throw in overfishing plus development and pollution of coastal areas and marginal wetlands - and well - it's a pretty ugly picture. Agricultural runoff and waste water discharge into the oceans in problematic, and depleted fishing stocks leave areas vulnerable to invasive marine species.

The prediction is that the worst impact will be on up to 15% of the world's oceans - and that fraction that includes the most significant fishing grounds.

Agriculture, energy use, water use, ocean health - and human poverty. Once again we see the interlaced complexities of planetary degradation.
And we aren't going to have much fish to eat.
I grew up in a coastal family where fish were an important part of our diet. This may have been even more true for my mother, her parents and their forebears. I recall stories about my grandfather feeding his family by digging a bucket of clams on his way home from work. We tried to take care when taking fish or shellfish, always mindful of our impact. But our individual or household acts of local conservation were not enough. Somehow this helps me to identify with poorer coastal peoples who find that their marine stocks are depleted, that a part of their subsistence and culture are gone, for reasons beyond the scope of their local stewardship.
We must reconceive what it means to be a neighbor.

Monday, March 10, 2008

rising prices on tap

Add to the depressing stories I cited yesterday today's item on public radio's The World:

The price of beer is going up, too.

There is a short supply of hops and malted barley worldwide. The same increases in standard of living that stimulate the purchase of more bread and meat apparently cause a greater desire for beer. Accelerating oil prices affect the cost of shipping those two principle ingredients and the finished product. And changes in weather patterns - that's right, climate change - are affecting yields in hops and barley. Hops is apparently a finicky crop - so farmers may choose instead to plant corn or rapeseed, with more predictable harvests at the high prices paid for biofuel crops.

(According to the story, hops has to be grown in northerly latitudes, 49 N being ideal. This made me wonder why all the old hop kilns around here?)

There's a supplement to the story on The World's site, an interview with Tom Standage, author of "A History of the World in Six Glasses." Standage suggests that the accidental discovery of beer may have driven the beginnings of agriculture. We humans may have settled down and cultivated grain to slake our thirst. I suppose this makes sense, given Johnny Appleseed's true purpose. Why did we need Michael Pollan to tell us what we learned in elementary school was romantic twaddle? Why couldn't they have told us the truth? John Chapman was after a dependable source of applejack in every community.

So the desire for a little liquid merriment has driven a lot of farming.

Which brings me to a question. Didn't most cultures ferment what was handy - from cactus to grapes to rice to elderberries to molasses to potatoes to apples? Will it be part of relocalization to go back to local brews and spirits?

And there's a second question that runs through all these recent stories - our greed for energy from fossil fuels is now having multiple impacts on our food system, in many places, at many levels. Do we need to fast from our energy gluttony, so that once in a while all will be able to feast at the table?

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Global Wheat

I had a good weekend in the cluster, but realized when checking email on the road last night and showing my hosts some of my favorite blog links that I hadn't posted here in a week and a half. So I came home this afternoon and checked some of the food news. There were several pretty depressing articles in the NY Times.

This article on rising grain prices raises more questions than it answers.

To what extent is the push for biofuels driving up the prices for grain and other commodity crops? Why is it underplayed in this article?

I also wonder to what extent higher prices are being pushed by the rising price of fossil fuel inputs - synthetic fertilizers, for example - and to what extent are they being pushed by the increased cost of shipping inputs to the farm, running the farm machinery that applies the inputs, and shipping the grain to the mill and the flour from the mill, etc.

Frankly, if I am going to pay more, I'd rather pay it for organic local food than for an oil guzzling diet. Heck, why not just drink the oil directly? (I know, I know - but picture it.)

The article is clear that while those cost increases are pushing price increases - and probably pushing on farmers profits more - the big pull is the increased demand for wheat and other grains in countries where bread is not a traditional food. (The US exports half the wheat we grow.) While the rising standard of living in many places in the world is partly responsible, increasing demand for a western diet, the article implies that part of the cause is advertising. Among the greatest immoralities of advertisers has to be pushing foods that are not traditional and must be imported. Is pushing bread any different than pushing baby formula? (Remember the Nestle atrocities.)

Then there's another article where the details have been changed but the story is the same. Monsanto masquerades as a citizen group once again ("Afact" - where do they get these names?) this time in fighting the labeling of synthetic bovine growth hormone free milk and other dairy products.
Sales of "Posilac" are down. What a shame.

The last lines in the article:

"Afact also listed 'integrity,' 'honesty' and 'transparent' as 'words we wish to embody.'
They could start by being more straightforward about who is behind Afact. "

Now add threats all over the local news of no salmon season this summer because of predicted minuscule runs. Ugh. Depressing is an understatement.

So divert yourself and watch this:
a bit overstated but amusing.

And if you can handle more serious stuff (not specifically food), also check out another Free Range Studios offering, The Story of STUFF.