Monday, June 20, 2011

A Quick Round Up

Over in China, flooding has innundated over 1 million acres (just over 404 thousand hectares) of farmland, raising local food prices by a minimum 20%. Flooding has been bad this year pretty much everywhere--like southern Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Warm air holds more water than cold, and the steady upward drift of average global temperature means we're going to face more of this. There's a short article on the China flood in The Guardian.

In an op-ed piece in the NYTimes, Patricia McArdle writes about how the US is destroying one of the last locavore cultures with foreign aid. No surprise there. This has been the role of foreign aid since the mid-sixties and the birth of the "Green Revolution." That the US is still pursuing a policy decades after it was shown to be misguided and wrong isn't much of a surprise either; the US is a ship that may no longer be able to turn. Oh, and the locavore culture being destroyed? Afghanistan.

Verlyn Klinkenborg writes a very short piece (A Welcome Silence) on the joys of leaving the hearing protection on when working. It echoes one I read in Harrowsmith a decade or two back that suggested that rather than using hearing protection, one could just give up the chainsaw....

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Local Sourcing 1

The summertime lobster sandwich from McDonald's is back! Yes, Micky D's serving a lobster which is only available in New England and the Atlantic provinces. Apparently the lobster is being sourced from lobster-men in Escuminac, New Brunswick in a move to try sourcing and selling a local sandwich.
Now, this feels really strange, but I have to compliment McDonald's on this move. Locally sourced for local consumption,these are the actions we need to see in the food world. If we could add “sustainably harvested” to the list, we'd have the whole trifecta.
Honestly, do we really need to eat the same things everywhere in the world? I know that this is the concept behind food outlets like McDonalds. You serve the same thing everywhere, standardizing production, preparation, and service across your chain in order to present the same experience to every consumer on every visit. But we've done that, and it's killing us.
Regardless of what we've been teaching ourselves for the last century, people are not all the same everywhere. Motivations may be, general needs may be, but that doesn't make us identical. Just as an example, cow's milk isn't great for everyone (often, goat's milk is a better fit). So force feeding everyone a burger and shake combination may not be the best idea.
We, as humans, have spent thousands of years developing local and regional cuisines. This food is one of the ways we define ourselves. I know most Canadians don't get it (other than poutine, we really have no national cuisine), but most places aren't Canada. Provence, Tuscany, Ethiopia, all of these places have things they eat or ways they eat that are particular to themselves. Parmesan cheese is not the white grainy food-like substance we consume in North America; rather it is particular to the Parma region of Italy. And when you feed pigs on the waste whey from making Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, you get a specifically-flavoured pig that, when you've butchered and salt-cured it, makes prosciutto. Salt-curing a ham doesn't make prosciutto, terroir makes prosciutto. And that terrior is place-specific. Techniques are transferable (thus you can cure a prosciutto-style ham), but place isn't transferable. If I cure a ham from a Berkshire hog on a farm north of Sudbury which I raised on whey from milk from Jersey cows made into a Cheddar style cheese, what I get is not prosciutto, but a salt-cured ham that represents the place in which it was produced. And no one can copy that terroir—which is why I shouldn't be trying to represent that ham as being something its not. Call it Tondalayo Ham produced using adapted Parman techniques, which would explain what it was better than simply calling it prosciutto.
Eating local isn't about sourcing the same items everywhere, it's about letting farmers do what they've done for fifteen thousand years—figure out what grows well and grow it. And just because something exists doesn't mean everyone should be able to get it. Total gratification of every whim is not just killing us, its killing the planet.

BTW, there's actually an ad for the McLobster....

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Earth Can Feed Us

Hugo Osvald, The Earth Can Feed Us, George Allen and Unwin 1966

Hugo Osvald was an academic, politician and writer deeply involved in food security issues back in the fifties and sixties. A professor of crop science at the Swedish Agricultural University, he was also a member of the Swedish parliament from 1948-1963. His book The Earth Can Feed Us is an important look at food security issues and the plans made to confront those issues just prior to the Green Revolution.
As you can see from the title of his book, Hugo was actually fairly optimistic about the ability of humans to feed a population of six billion or so (about double the population at the time he wrote this book). As he says in his preface:

I have also refrained from giving terrifying descriptions of the situation in the over-populated countries, with their starving and diseased populations, or detailed accounts of the mistakes mankind has made in exploiting natural resources. For if we want to improve the situation, it is, in my opinion, necessary first of all to show what possibilities there are of increasing food production. Mankind must be given a gleam of hope, a chance to believe in a brighter future, if it is to make the necessary effort. Otherwise it will become discouraged and apathetic.1

Hugo provides an overview of the current condition of the food supply circa 1966, and what he sees isn't good. “The sad truth is, that more than half the world's population of more than three milliard people has not enough to eat.2” He also did not think, after reviewing the numbers, that even with perfect distribution there would be enough calories to go around at the then current rate of production. Whether there is currently enough to go around is still one of those open questions; if you cancel biofuel production in the US and quit feeding so much livestock on so much corn, there might be enough calories produced. But practically there will never be enough, if only because those that have access to food are in no hurry to give it up to eat a 2300 calorie/day diet high in grains and low in animal protein.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

From Farm to Kitchen

I've just about finished reading an influential book which helped lead to the green revolution (Hugo Osvald's The Earth Can Feed Us. Hugo was a Swedish academic, writer, and legislator.). I've also begun Empires of Food: Feast, Famine, and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations by Fraser and Rimas (you have no idea how nice it is to have access to the University of Victoria library system...), a book that has helped clarify my thinking about famine and I'm only about fifty pages into it.
There's also the matter of the difficult-to-predict flood in southern Manitoba (and in Saskatchewan) and the sudden explosion of wildfires in northern Alberta (one of which took out almost half the town of Slave Lake). Both the floods and the fires are exactly what climate scientists have been predicting (both more frequent weather-related events, and more extreme weather-related events) and events like these are going to have tremendous impact on our future food production in this country.

But I would rather talk about my new volunteer position instead. It is now official; as of 23 May, I am the volunteer coordinator and kitchen manager at the Rainbow Kitchen in Victoria. Well, at least for the next six weeks or so.
This is an outgrowth of my long-held desire to feed the world. Or at least, the part of it I can reach. When we were growing vegetables on DoubleJoy Farm and selling them at market (what is called “truck gardening”), we would haul upwards of a quarter to a half tonne of veg to market on any given day. We tried to provide a high-quality fresh product, and while we did want a pretty good price for it, that price more accurately reflected the real costs of raising food. Sustainable agriculture is not cheap, and unless you can take advantage of cheap labour or major equipment (or both), small producers are always going to be asking a premium price. But they are offering a premium product. And there is something else they offer; contact with the farmer. After we'd been selling vegetables a while, I noticed that, at market, it wasn't so much the veg we were selling, but the contact. A link to the land, the product, and the producer was essential to the customer. It was also essential to us as producers. My mother, who started vegetable production on the family farm back in the mid-seventies, took me aside on day and questioned me about the pounds of produce we were giving away. We did it right from the beginning—people would walk by and we'd offer them whatever we had on hand. Peas, beans, tomatoes, potatoes, whatever. Mother couldn't get over how many we gave out. Fistfuls, one two, three at a time, to kids. More to their parents. That, mother pointed out, was money out of my pocket.