Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Not exactly good news

so maybe it should be called well news?

Actually it's well-written news, a thorough article on what is happening with food prices and the rise in numbers of hungry people in one locale. And since I've been impersonating a journalist, I really appreciate well done stories - that don't belabor, but do honor the complexities.


I suspect this story, with some variations for local circumstances, could be told in many cities around the country. Certainly in our diocese everyone involved with a food pantry or soup kitchen or community meal is reporting stresses and challenges. I get emails of links to stories from many papers and TV stations with the word "Episcopal" in them - and almost every day there is an article about challenges faced in charitable programs for the hungry.

I've been obsessing about the global food crisis, especially its environmental dimensions, but I need to remember the need for local efforts, and the place that charity does have when we are in the midst of crisis, and while taking the necessary time to assemble long term solutions.

Monday, April 28, 2008

For the reading list

I'm working my way through Kitchen Literacy by Ann Vileisis, which demonstrates that the roots of our ignorance about our food system are deeper than we probably think. It's quite readable and pause for thought. I'm learning a lot.

As one might expect, though, there are errors here and there in the book which prove its point. In an early chapter the author quotes some advice to home cooks for tender mutton - choose, if you can, meat from a cosset withers. She then adds that this is a particularly docile breed of sheep. Wrong. A cosset withers in a pet castrated male (ram or buck depending on where you are doing your sheepherding).

Cosset is a word any of us ought to know from reading 18th and 19th century English novels. But just for the heck of it I googled "withers" and tried the various sources like Merriam-Webster, Britannica, Wikipedia, etc. The only results were for classified ads where folks were selling off their small flocks, as in "2 rams, some withers, mostly ewes".

Withers are the what you get after you harvest and eat the Rocky Mountain oysters.

Why is "withers" a secret term? Is gelding a secret term? Perhaps if we raced rather than sheared and ate sheep, we would know "withers"?

More on global food issues

A recent article in the NY Times on the true cost of shipping food around the world - a topic on which I have probably spent enough energy here, at least for now - led me to the site for all the articles in the series on the looming global food crisis which they call "The Food Chain".

Here it is:


Note that these articles are all in "business". We need some other perspectives!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Eating on Earth Day

Yesterday was marked by some interesting eating events reported on commercial media. In the South Bay, one company offered the "low carbon diet" in its cafeteria.

(Are we stuck with this term - akin to foods that "contain no chemicals" and "organic"? Has no activist or marketer taken chemistry?)

One thing that interested me was that they served no beef or lamb (whose company caff serves lamb anyway? must be some special place) but did serve pork and chicken. They also served no cheese, but did serve other dairy products.

I've just spent far too long trying to figure out what the chef was saying about cheese - something about cheese giving off nitrous oxide. The fact is that all manure can give off nitrous oxide, and dairy is friendlier to the environment than beef.

Here's a good summary article from last fall on Salon that gives a kind of hierarchy of greenhouse gas contributions of various animal proteins.

Based on things I have read in the past, I think they have underestimated chickens, but nevermind - it's still pretty "fair and balanced".

But now I am wondering about turkey, which they don't cover. If I were to eat poultry, I'd prefer sustainably and humanely grown turkey.

Another news story featured a guy who had parboiled the ribs he was barbecuing - thus cutting down on time over charcoal and volume of air pollutants. The things some people think are helpful!

Oh - and what did I eat on Earth Day? Local strawberries I bought on the way home on Sunday - I'd have preferred a different variety - they were the same as the supermarket kind - but at least I could see them growing. Homemade granola - who knows where the oats came from, but they were organic, and the almonds California. Some leftover vegan WIK (what's in the kitchen) soup. Then for dinner spanish rice made with Lundberg's golden rose rice, canned organic tomatoes (the ones in my freezer are gone for another year) and backyard herbs, with refried organic black beans and some Rumiano pepper jack cheese. I was feeling lazy, so couldn't hit the full LOAF standard - but I don't think I ate anything that wasn't at least one of the four: Local, Organic, Animal-friendly, Fair-traded.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Watching the News

I've been paying attention to how the media are covering the emerging world food crisis, and it's not a pretty or predictable picture.

Sunday evening I just let the tv run and ended up in the late news on my local ABC affiliate. They mentioned the world food crisis, and then had some talking head comment that there was really no crisis, it was just a matter of getting the food to the people who need it. Where did they get that clip? 1975 archives? The US approach of food aid - trickle down food? - was not sustainable then - why would it be now?

Then last evening my local Fox affiliate had a clip of a demonstration against rising food prices in South Africa, and said, in the 30 seconds allowed, that rising population, drought exacerbated by global warming, and conversion of agriculture lands to growing fuel crops were the main reasons. Who would have thought that Fox would get some of the story right, even if in capsule form?

Meanwhile the NY Times business pages on Monday had an article suggesting that rising prices, particularly for wheat, may make genetically engineered crops more attractive. Global markets - the reluctance of so many other countries to buy our gm crops - had caused Monsanto to abandon the quest for gm wheat. This parallels what I know from folks in the rice growing areas of this diocese. But no longer.

What appalls me about this is that it is a short term solution to a long term issue which will exacerbate global poverty (because of the integrated control through patents and marketing of the company that develops the seed) and affect genetic diversity.

The article even suggests that one might grow gm wheat to increase yields now, and then somehow return to non-gm wheat later. Who are they kidding? Any crop which is wind pollinated (we have corn as an example) can become genetically polluted worldwide before you know it; and experiments have demonstrated backcrossing between rape/canola and its wild cousins.

I'm no luddite. There are reasons to hybridize, to extend the range of crops and increase yields, for example. We will probably need to do some work on staple crops here and there around the globe as populations increase and the climate changes. This will be part of working for sustainable agriculture in the great variety of local climes and soils. But there is no global silver bullet, and there will be no going back from genetic pollution. Diversity lost is lost for good.

But hey - what did I expect - look where this article appeared.


It all reminds me of a line from at the Ecumenical Roundtable on Science, Technology and Faith. Larry Rasmussen said, "If you don't think ecological debt is different from other kinds of debt, try making more adamah (topsoil).

Meanwhile, the BBC notes that Britain and the rest of Europe have high biofuel targets contributing to the global rise in food prices. They include a clip of El Presidente Evo Morales calling for an end to the capitalist system and the use of crops to produce energy in Latin America - from the UN conference on indigenous people.


Thursday, April 17, 2008

"Rice is a staple crop,

Chardonnay is not."

Thus speaks Graeme J. Haley, of Deniliquin, Australia, where the rice mill has closed and water rights are being sold to grape growers.

The article, and others in a series "The Food Chain" from the NY Times are aggregated here:


What's growing in your yard?

I've just added a fun site which I found in a NY Times article today, Kitchen Gardeners International.

Having always grown something edible where I live, even if in a pot on a fire escape or balcony, I like this kind of thing. The idea that growing your own and edible landscape might become a serious trend is very attractive. When I walk around my neighborhood or drive around my city I tend to see front lawns covered in rocks or small vacant lots as places where food could be grown. Seriously - why have grass or pea stones on a sunny few square yards in front of your house when you could have tomatoes? My yard is too shady in the summer, but I harvested a nice lot of chard earlier this week, will continue to harvest herbs through the spring, and need to get more serious about lettuces for next winter. The little I did this year was a welcome addition to a few meals.

And there is that appreciation for the bounty of it all that you can get without driving anywhere.

I also like the descriptor on the site: kitchen gardens are a "globolocal" phenomenon.

We need more of them - things that manifest locally but are connected globally - and now we have the word for it.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development has just met, and here is a summary article from BBC news:


The conclusions are not new, but very clear - how do we address the challenges of hunger, poverty, rural life, and nutrition around the globe in ways that are sustainable environmentally and culturally.

"Our agricultural systems have contributed to human-induced climate change and, in turn, human-induced climate change threatens agricultural productivity," says Robert Watson, director of the organization which includes more than 400 scientists and 30 governments.

The article also mentions some of our favorite culprits, complicit in the crisis in world hunger, such as agricultural subsidies in rich countries. And it includes notes on regional issues.

The Real Deal in Food

You may have noticed that I don't spend a whole lot of time on my blog on nutrition and diet. This is partly due to my stronger interest in justice issues, and partly because there are days I'd rather just eat than try to be disciplined about it. I rationalize this sometimes by saying I use environmental criteria to make food choices, but it's more likely on some days that I just relish being a little gluttonous.

Today John sent an article from the Seattle Times about following Michael Pollan's simple maxim as a post-diet strategy for health. (I mean post-diet in the sense of what we do after the age of reducing diets, not how we maintain weight loss after taking drastic measures.) Doesn't it seem logical that enjoying real food must be a way to promote health?

I find that garden season is a natural time for me to embrace such a strategy, and last year with increased physical activity and fresh produce - both the result of doing more gardening - it worked for weight loss and a general sense of wholesomeness. But about mid-January I fell off the wagon - still trying to eat seasonally and locally, but with a bit too much of the extra added attractions. Now is a good time in the year to get back on track. Surely there is enjoyment without gluttony; and gluttony, no matter how organic and local the food, is not green.

Check out Rebecca Morris's blog Real Food, listed to the right with the other blogs at the end of the list.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Techno meat

Here's a brief piece from the NY Times on cultured meat products:


I actually got a few laughs out of this, but that may be because I have been in an out of town meeting (Committee on Science, Technology and Faith) for two days, and am just plain silly.

It does raise a few questions, though.

Can technology provide a magic bullet for the hungry on a stressed planet anymore now than it has in the past?

Is creating cultured meat just letting the richer folks on the planet once again refuse to face their need to change?

Why is it that we can't get creative with vegetables, and use lower tech means to meet our need for a varied diet?

And who is it over twelve who liked chicken nuggets anyway?

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

You read it here first

Last month I speculated:

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.

Now in today's NY Times there's an article along similar lines.
with Michael Pollan wondering, as I have, if the rising price of corn and the competition from the biofuel industry might push up the price of high fructose syrup and thus the price of many industrial foods, making local produce more competitive.

I heard on the radio this morning - or was it yesterday morning - that projections show the amount of corn planted this year will be less. That should escalate things.

Meanwhile, in a puzzling development, at the market today the organic California Haas avocados were 99 cents, and the conventional California Haas avocados $1.89. What's going on there?

Finally, today's Press Democrat reported that the food stamp users in Sonoma County have increased by 76% since 2000. I'm not surprised. The story featured a household of 6 people, a pregnant woman, and her roommate, a single mother with four children ages 3 to 19. Together their food assistance runs to about $600 per month, which does not stretch very well.
Again, I'm not surprised, though I suspect those two middle children qualify for free school and summer lunches, which could help. What annoyed me was that I don't think any of those people know how to cook - if they did, they might eat better for more days in the month.

"The month starts with lunch meats, some cuts of beef or chicken to throw on the barbecue, bread and fresh vegetables. But by the end of the month, they have exchanged bread for rice, cut out meat and almost all vegetables."

And the key interviewee reports that she eats well for a week and a half and then it's just rice.
Maybe it's cooking AND budgeting - those skills that have been lost.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Wear clothes. Not too many. Mostly plant fiber, animal hair, or pounded bark.

Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto (Penguin, 2008) urges us, with humor and good sense, to "eat food, not too much, mostly plants."

Put that together with headlines like

Nalgene to nix BPA bottles due to consumer concern
(Houston Chronicle, April 18, 2008, 10:38AM)

and you have to wonder what's next....

Containers your great-grandmother would've recognized as containers.

Clothing your grandmother would've recognized as clothing.

Music your parents would've recognized as music....

What Michael Pollan writes about is hard to dislike - and encourages a simpler way of consuming food, simpler in the 'common sense' way, but not simpler in terms of obtaining foodstuffs. It requires intentionality, care and attention. And may pay off in better health, for you and the planet.

One enjoyable suggestion is to purchase food at local farmers markets and 'shake the hand that feeds you'. In Sonoma County, California, you can, for example, buy at farmers markets (in places like Healdsburg) organic potatoes from the farmer - the same potatoes you would be served at the French Laundry or John Ash restaurants.

Buying containers from the potter, purchasing coffee from the growers' collective, buying cheese at the dairy, etc., -- both a pleasure and good sense. Could living good also mean living well?