Friday, September 26, 2008

a conversation I could have had

I don't always listen to our local foodie radio program - in fact, I don't listen much - but this one caught my attention. Host Michele Anna Jordan and organic gardener Wendy Krupnik talk about preserving the harvest.

Just scroll down to "Mouthful" and listen to the September 21 program.

There's some sort of weird dialogue and music at the beginning, but hang in there.

I've been concerned, with the resurgence in home gardening, about all the people with no experience in home canning. Perhaps the best advice they give is to be sure to get a good reference book.

Like Wendy, I don't do pressure canning and I do have a passion for seedless blackberry jam - but my jars don't seem to come back at the same rate as hers do.

Like Michele, my best applesauce is gravensteins laced with zinfandel.

I do have one comment for both of them - the latest edition of the Joy of Cooking has restored the chapter on food preserving and some of the traditional recipes. The edition they are griping about is the one before this, I think.

My latest trick - not energy efficient, I am sure, but so much easier - is to roast tomatoes and assorted other vegetables tossed in olive oil, then just puree with the immersion blender. Instant thick sauce for pizza or pasta, which I can freeze in one person sized containers (re-used). Tonight I simmered some mushrooms in wine until all the wine was evaporated and added them to the tomato and veg puree. Now I've got to go heat it through one more time before packing it for freezing.

Urban Farmer Makes Good

The second farmer ever to win a MacArthur Foundation genius grant is Will Allen of Milwaukee.

His story is not just a marvel of urban agriculture, but one of community development, integrating human good with sustainable farming.

One of the themes that emerged so clearly in my recent researches about Episcopal communinty gardens - the way growing community and growing food work together - is elevated to an art form by Mr. Smith and his neighborhood colleagues.

For all of us who care about food systems, this is something to celebrate, big time.

For me on the local level, thoughts are turning to how we can do more to develop an integrated system at the TLC community garden that would allow us to do our own plant starts and have worm composting. But before we can have greenhouse dreams, we need a sound shed. And we need a few more gardeners - to get to that critical mass where year round, integrated systems can happen. Growing community, growing produce.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Opposite directions?

After some pretty boring weeks, the New York Times food pages this Wednesday actually contained several articles of national interest.

Two in particular caught my attention.

One talked about the growing trend in nutraceuticals. (I'm not sure how to spell that, and I'm not sure blog spot's spell checker will either.) These are also called functional foods. Which would make ordinary, unadulterated food dysfunctional, I guess. But I digress. The trend is to add things that are unrelated to packaged foods. So it wasn't enough to add more strains of bacteria to our yogurt, a mild digression, but now we have to have secret fiber and maybe secret omega 3's. The source of omega 3's are sardines and anchovies. So you can fore go fish and maybe get them in your breakfast cereal - not from plant sources, like flax meal, but from marine bycatch.

Scientists and nutritionists are saying it's a leap from simple fortified foods to these nutraceuticals. The article reports that they are also saying we don't know enough about how the good for you elements in various foods work together with other components in those foods. Seems like vitamins in isolation don't pack the punch they do when they are an integral part of a fruit or vegetable or animal source.

I'm sure there are people who not only choose individual foods because they've heard of their benefits - blueberries, say, or tofu - but who subsist on these new synthetic foods, on medications and vitamin pills thinly veiled as food. It's the food of the future. Ah - and I remember when tang, the beverage of the astronauts, was all we needed.

But the counter trend is that more people are choosing diets of whole, seasonal foods. More people are returning to cooking. And fewer people are on diets! There are significant decreases in the number of folks on reducing diets, and some growing evidence that people who add more fruits and vegetables to their diets and do their own cooking are slimmer - without dieting. Hey - this is like the trend we experienced around Lent - don't give something up, take on a positive discipline for 40 days and 40 nights. On a more somber note, surely the number of people purchasing whole food and doing their own cooking is going to increase as incomes and wealth continue to decrease. Maybe we'll rediscover that happy meals and functional food begin at home.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Candidates on Agriculture

As we might have predicted from the primaries, Obama doesn't have much of a food platform.

At Science Debate 2008

we learn from two candidates' responses to 14 key questions that both support GM crops. Obama wants appropriate testing to ensure safety for the environment and human health, and McCain envisions a new "green revolution."

Which basically shows that Obama doesn't know much about the science, or the issues of ownership of genetic material, and McCain participates in the Hope in Science of an earlier time when everybody of his generation did. Better living through chemistry time.

And then there's Sarah Palin, who would probably just keep saying that it doesn't matter if genes exist or not - enough times so that those who fear expertise would believe it. She's the truthiest!

Time to go in search of the green party position.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

More on less

I caught the tag end of an interesting interview with Professor David Pimentel (Cornell) on Living on Earth yesterday.

While driving home from the garden I learned that a 12 oz can of diet soda, which contributes 1 calorie of food energy to one's body, requires 2200 calories of energy to get to you. Specifically, it takes 600 calories to produce, and 1600 calories to put it in the aluminum can.

Pimentel and his colleagues have been coming up with figures like this for a number of the foods on our plates. He suggests that we could reduce the amount of oil that goes into our food system - about 500 gallons per person per year - and thus reduce what our food system contributes to greenhouse gases - by changing our habits. 50% - think about it. That may be the biggest prediction of possible change I've heard yet.

But think about it - while we can make changes as individuals, we also need to somehow make these changes in concert - by exerting real pressure on agribusiness and industrial food production and marketing. Just because I stop buying diet sodas doesn't mean they don't still take up half an aisle in most markets I visit. Just because I buy my pears from the grower doesn't mean the specials on pears shipped from hundreds of miles away that never ripen quite right will stop.

I also have been thinking - the diet soda example inspired me - that the American way of reducing diets probably increases the energy expenditure per calorie. Whether it's the prepared meals of some plans, or the pressure to eat out of season foods because they are diet foods, or the meat laden high protein diets - these strategies that reduce calorie consumption have got to increase planetary cost per food calorie.

And then there's the question of how we make the case for reform in our congregations. Shunning meat a few days a week and eating seasonally just isn't as sexy as buying a prius or maybe even changing the light bulbs. Maybe because it isn't a technological solution, but a set of choices must closer to our hearts, technically and metaphorically. People get emotional about their cars, not so much about their light bulbs - but less emotional about both, I'm thinking, than their mother's meatloaf (pro or con), their glass of milk or macaroni and cheese, their right to eat the foods they like most every week of the year. So - continuing to muse - shouldn't we in the religion business be able to touch those emotions somehow, to reshape attitudes and practices around our participation in our food systems?

Some things to do:

Work toward cutting the total amount of meat, dairy and eggs in our diets by 2/3. That's 2/3 of the average American consumption now. (And, yes, I recognize that there is room for some cuts in even my diet, without going totally vegan, by reducing my consumption of cheese and ice cream.)

And cut the amount of waste in our food purchases - both in overbuying and in reducing the number of shopping trips powered by fossil fuels.

Next I want to know if in Pimentel's team's interdisciplinary work they have compared the energy costs of methods of food preservation. As I've suggested before, I think freezing is probably the most energy greedy, but need to do some more searching for data.

You can read or listen to the interview which inspired this post here:

Saturday, September 6, 2008

shUN meat

The BBC on-line science news headline reads:

"Shun meat, says UN climate chief"

IPCC chief Rajendra Pachauri will be speaking Monday evening in London. Assessments by various UN agencies report that 16% of greenhouse gases worldwide come from livestock production, and 13% from transport.

Of the livestock sector, the biggest producer of greenhouse gases is the clearing of forests for grazing.

Surveys show that people are anxious about their carbon footprints - but are they anxious enough to give up their Whoppers and bangers?

(Seems to me many of the green actions people are willing to undertake are a little like the child who gives up spinach for Lent.)

And will the successor to the Kyoto protocol contain goals for reducing the emission of greenhouse gases in the livestock sector?

Stay tuned.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Who is this woman anyway?

I really resist putting my photo on-line - even on my Facebook page - but you probably deserve to see who is writing most of the entries in this blog. I had Karen at the TLC community garden take some snaps of me, thinking about an Alfred Hitchcock touch in the harvest photo essay on which I am working for Episcopal Life on-line. Now you can see it first. Here I am with Gregory's scarlet runner beans, the prettiest thing in the garden. The beans, not me.

Why organic matters

An article in the science section of the NY Times earlier this week caused me to think about why organic matters. It's not because eating organic will make you healthier or more righteous. It might make you healthier, and whether or not it contributes to righteousness is not ours to judge. But it will contribute to a lessening of the planetary overload with nitrogen, an important factor in climate change and other environmental impacts.

We've been carboned to death with warnings about the big C, but there is also the big N. Life is made up of many elements, and the nitrogen cycle matters just like the carbon cycle and the water cycle and many other less studied cycles.

Dead areas in the oceans are largely there because of nitrogen run off from crop land fertilized with synthetic fertilizers. Much nitrogen is wasted in growing that favorite source of sweetening and ethanol, corn. The Times article reports that with raising beef about 6% of the nitrogen inputs actually end up in the meat we - make that you - eat. The rest is run off - or gas off.

Plants - except legumes which can fix it from the air - must have nitrogen to grow, and it's in every amino acid. But too much of a good thing is not wonderful.

In organic farming, nitrogen inputs are from natural sources, like composted animal manures and plant material. These forms of nitrogen are both less concentrated and more readily assimilated by the growing plants. Hence much less nitrogen is lost to air and water where it can cause harm.

The reason to choose organic when possible, then, is not about me or you, but about the health of the planet. It's also a reason to push for consideration of nitrogen, not just carbon, in national environmental legislation.

The article points out that one of the reasons no one talks about nitrogen is that environmental activists want simple messages to deliver to their audiences. This is what gets us stuck in the "change a light bulb for Jesus" mentality. Much easier to give people one thing to worry about, and one thing to do, rather than encouraging to them to think about complex topics. But the interplay of environmental stresses and issues is complex. And the impact of one basic human activity, such as eating, on all of them requires careful thought about many impacts.

I'm still struck by the British movement to have the label "organic" reserved for produce which has not been flown in, no matter how it has been grown. Surely somebody there understood the interrelationship of climate change impacts from transportation and from industrial farming. We need more of that kind of thinking.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Diet Discipleship?

Eric sent me the link to this article on Beliefnet

which is a good summary of some of the things going on at churches of various denominations around the country - community gardens, vegetarian options at potlucks, CSA deliveries, concern for the epidemic diabetes among poor parishioners.

Buy I balk at the phrase "diet discipleship". Dear God, please free us from purity codes. It's bad enough that we have all the food taboos in popular culture. Ethical reflection, thoughtful choices - but thou shalt not preach negative apodictic diets!