Tuesday, March 27, 2012

John Todd and the New Alchemists

Inventor Jay Baldwin, quoting Buckminister Fuller, says that in order to survive, we need a design revolution. The revolution would have to be comprehensive, anticipatory, and science-based revolution that takes entire systems into account. And this, says Jay Balwin, is exactly what Dr. Jonathan Todd is doing. Jonathan Todd is a Canadian-born environmental scientist and activist. In 1969, he, his wife Nancy Jack Todd, and William McLarney founded The New Alchemy Institute, a small farm just outside Woods Hole in Massachusetts. The goal of the Institute was pretty simple—change the world.
 "Among our major tasks is the creation of ecologically derived human support systems - renewable energy, agriculture, aquaculture, housing and landscapes. The strategies we research emphasize a minimal reliance on fossil fuels and operate on a scale accessible to individuals, families, and small groups. It is our belief that ecological and social transformations must take place at the lowest functional levels of society if humankind is to direct its course toward a greener, saner world."   Fall 1970Bulletin of the New Alchemists

In 1974, John and Nancy returned to Canada to build The Ark, a smaller version of the Institute, at Spry Point, P.E.I. Research At the Ark involved a number of trailblazing and now established green or sustainable elements: solar orientation, solar collectors, wind energy, thermal storage, and composting toilets. These formed the basis for the Living Machine®, his wastewater treatment system. The New Alchemist's built stuff, lots of stuff. They worked at systems thinking, building greenhouses with a built-in aquaculture component, making greenhouses that require minimal inputs. Their work is what has led to things like the “million pounds of food on three acres” people at Growing Power. I remember reading The Book of The New Alchemists and seeing the first examples I'd seen of integrated systems thinking. Here was a greenhouse with above-ground fishtanks serving as supports for the plant benches. The water moderated temperatures in the greenhouse and served as a growing medium for tilapia. The water was cycled back through the plant cultures, fertilizing the plants and cleaning the water. The tilapia are vegetarian fish, and are fed with the greenhouse cleanings (prunings and the like). Most importantly, the New Alchemists kept detailed notes about what they were experimenting with, and distilled the notes into various papers and publications over the years. The Greencenter has become the custodian of this information, and continues to offer it to the world as a kind of open source biological research.

example of a bioshelter design

 Todd eventually decided to pursue his work with the Living Machine® on a larger scale, and is now building organic water treatment systems.

His more recent work is also the topic of a TEDx talk. Not the best talk I've ever watched, but a lot of fascinating stuff being said.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Jamie Oliver

I kind of have to admit, I love this guy. He has leveraged his celebrity into not more celebrity, but into actual conciousness raising, actual change. His British School Dinners series made significant changes to the way English children eat at school. When it was shown on the food network here in Canada, it sparked the formation of dozens of groups across the country. Engaged activist parents who began to pay attention to food at school.
Then Jamie took on school food in the USA with Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution. While he didn't have the effect he'd hoped for, what with being turned away from 75 LA school districts when he offered them an opportunity for a cafeteria makeover. America really didn't want anyone to know what kind of crap they were feeding their kids in school. But then this happened:

Jamie showed off the "pink slime" or "finely textured lean ground beef" used as a filler product in commercial ground beef. A USDA study shows that pink slime is used in about 70% of all commercially made ground beef in the US.
Well, things happened. Things like this report from ABC News on 21 March 2012:

Safeway, the #2 supermarket chain in the US is now refusing to stock ground beef containing the filler.That's success. In Colorado, parents have pushed school districts to reject beef using the filler. That's success.
And back in the UK, The Guardian reports that a study published in The Journal of Health Economics  shows:

Jamie Oliver's healthy school dinners continue to produce a marked improvement in national curriculum test results five years after the chef first launched his campaign, according to research.
A study by academics shows children eating the healthier lunches introduced by the TV chef do far better in tests.
Absenteeism from sickness was also said to have dropped by around 14%.
And it is claimed that a child eating the healthier food will earn between £2,103 and £5,476 more over their lifetimes due to their improved literacy.
So you get why I love this guy? Impact. And a positive impact at that.  And it's exactly this kind of impact that has caused industrial food to pursue "ag gag" bills in various state legislatures in the US.Because if you don't know about it, they can keep doing it--no matter what "it" is.

UPDATE: Read a report that said that three of Beef Products Inc.'s four factories producing "pink slime" have been closed for 60 days, pending a review of demand.  The closure may be permanent. Like I said, impact.

UPDATE II: Reuters is reporting that  
Ground beef processor AFA Foods filed for bankruptcy protection on Monday, citing the impact of the uproar over a meat filler dubbed "pink slime" by critics.
The Daily Mail Online is headlining that
'Pink slime' company files for bankruptcy amid controversy over the ammonia treated filler

Jamie Oliver + social media = Chapter 11 proceedings.
I'm guessing that for the company's managers this was like being punched by Mike Tyson with no warning. Can't say that I'm feeling all that concerned for them, although this will affect 650 workers in multiple plants. Defenders, like Texas Governor Rick Perry, seen here chowing down on a "pink slime burger"
(an AP photo that runs with the Daily Mail Online article) claim that the substance was "safe to eat." Don't know that anyone was saying it was "unsafe to eat,"  just that we didn't want to eat the damned stuff. And because it was labelled "finely textured lean ground beef" rather than "ammonia-treated mechanically recovered waste meat-like substance" in general people got a bit perturbed. Interesting that the University of Guelph has chosen today to announce that it will no longer be pursuing research on the "enviro-pig," a pig designed to better withstand the industrial farm conditions under which it would be raised.
Call me crazy, call me idealistic, but you know what I believe? I believe that when you're making a hamburger for human consumption, you should at no time deem it necessary or desirable to treat its ingredients in ammonia. Or any cleaning product, for that matter.
I don't think that's asking a lot--and I don't ask a lot for my fellow burger-eaters. Only that whatever it is that you're putting in my hamburger? That laid out on a table or cutting board prior to grinding, it at least resembles something that your average American might recognize as "meat."

Update III
Over at the Food Integrity Campaign, there's a really nifty timeline of the "pink slime" issue, from it's beginings to the almost total rejection of the product in this past week.  Also, back in 2009, the New York Times ran an excellent article (it must have been, it won awards) about the use of ammoniated beef and the problems that were apparent with the product even then.
You know, I started out wanting to talk about a chef who has leveraged his celebrity to try and do some good in the world. I really didn't see this explosion coming, thinking it was just one more example of the crap we're stuck with eating ,and that until there was a revolution we would continue to be stuck with eating. But, man, did this thing ever achieve critical mass in a hurry!

Saturday, March 24, 2012

NECSI Update

The New England Complex Systems Institute and their President, Professor Yaneer Bar-Yam who's study I quoted when writing about debt and food prices, have issued an update to the landmark study done on the relationship between corn ethanol production, food commodity speculation and food prices. And Professor Bar-Yam is pretty convinced we're not done with the madness yet.
The Institute's web site hosts three very interesting short videos (regretfully, not embeddable) about the relationship of corn ethanol production, food commodity speculation, and food prices. The first shows how food prices between 1980 and 2000 fluctuated moderately around a consistent value, where prices neither spiked nor collapsed. Then food prices begin a dramatic upward climb peaking in 2008 and 2011. These two spikes are rather dramatic, and Professor Bar-Yam draws a direct link between the price spikes and social unrest. This is shown in the second video which links social unrest (like the Arab Spring) with food prices between 2004 and 2011.
The third video graphs actual food prices with increases in demand from ethanol production and speculation. To quote the update:
Our analysis shows that dominant causes of price increases are investor speculation and corn to ethanol conversion. Models that just treat supply and demand are not consistent with the actual price dynamics. The two sharp peaks in 2007/2008 and 2010/2011 are specifically due to investor speculation, while an underlying upward trend is due to increasing demand from ethanol conversion.
 Models that just treat supply and demand are not consistent with the actual price dynamics. I thought that bore repeating with emphasis. There is a consistent firm upward pressure on food prices from the increased demand from ethanol conversion programs, but the big driver of food prices is "specifically due to investor speculation."
"The food price bubble of 2011 caused widespread hunger and helped trigger the Arab spring. In 2013 we expect prices to be even higher and may lead to major social disruptions." said Professor Bar-Yam President of NECSI, who has just returned from Davos where he presented his findings on speculation in global commodity markets. His paper "The Food Crises: A Quantitative Model of Food Prices Including Speculators and Ethanol Conversion" was called by Wired magazine one of the top 10 discoveries in science of 2011.
In 2008 and 2011 increases in global food prices triggered hunger, food riots and social unrest in North Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere, at a cost to global stability which policy makers can no longer ignore. Over the past decade, world unrest has sharply increased at time of peak food prices; now the long-term price trend is getting close to what used to be episodic peaks.
According to the new study, the next food price peak will take place in about a year. The results will be dramatically higher prices than we have encountered thus far. The study warns that should ethanol production continue to grow according to multiyear trends, even the underlying trend will reach social-crisis levels in just one year.
from the update
So get a garden in, build a chicken coop in you backyard, and plan to do a lot less of everything, because you're going to need your $$ for food. Our refusal to find a way to put the brakes on global capitalism means that we're in for a rough few years. A lot more people are going to fall from "working poor" into "destitute poor" and none of it needs to happen. I don't want to go off on a rant here, but really people:

 Is it really going to have to take a revolution to get the comfortable to pay attention?

Friday, March 23, 2012

Back To The Start

A video I stumbled upon. Made for Chipotle Mexican Grill in another of those moments where a small company gets it. Willie Nelson covers Coldplay's The Scientist. A lovely piece of animation.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Chili Tank

Well, not actually a tank, but a Czech Army Field Kitchen. This short video by Kyle Farquharson and Jennifer Giesbrecht of the University of British Columbia Graduate School of Journalism interviews local Steven Forster and his unique food cart.

Notice, at about 1'10", the display of the different types of carrots being prepped for use. Steven is careful to use local and organic wherever he can when making chili. He operates under the name Opa's Suppenküche. and you can check out another video--showing how the tank is heated using green fire logs made primarily of used coffee grounds. He also serves into biodegradable and compostable bowls.And the chili looks pretty darned good too!

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Spring! (I hope I hope...)

Well, Saturday was a lovely day--meaning it wasn't raining, the sun was out occasionally, and there were no windstorms. I've been getting a bit twitchy watching first the snowdrops appear a month ago, then the crocuses a couple of weeks later, and now all the plum and cherry trees in blossom. The rest of Canada (well, maybe not the True North) have been regularly seeing temperatures ranging from the high single digits into double digits regularly, this being the Winter That Wasn't up here north of 49.
However, this fine example of the way global climate change is going to affect us over the next couple of decades aside, I've been wanting spring to be here already. I know I'm probably early (after all, it seems to be November here, even though it's March), but I'm really not used to planting times in a Mediterranean-like climate. And this year, we've got a garden.
I've written about it before, building the raised beds and setting up the poles that will carry the tunneling plastic. But I started some rosemary seeds six weeks back (like I said, I've been hurrying the season a bit), and some tomato seeds a couple of weeks ago. And rosemary seeds either have really have a crap germination rate, or I'm doing something really really wrong.
But looking at the fragile little sprouts in their peat pellets has been making me want to get my hands dirty. So yesterday, Paula and I went to the garden centre to buy more dirt.
Over the winter we've noticed that the rains have made the soil in the beds less fluffy--which was expected. So now we're topping off the topsoil/compost mix with more soil in order to fill the beds. To the tune of 4+ cubic feet per bed.
Unlike on the farm, we don't have a lot of room, so we're having to look at more intensive methods of growing vegetables this time around. I've always wanted to try forcing potatoes in a cylinder. I first heard about this a couple of decades back as a method for re-using car tires.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Wheat. The Dominant Grain Just Gets Better

Wheat is one of the dominant grains grown on this planet, and most traditional cuisines have been forced to adopt it into themselves. Wheat opened up the Canadian west, allowing the prairie provinces to become the "breadbasket of the world" back in the middle of the last century. Wheat is one of the heavyweights, no doubt.
Now, wheat's just got a shot in the arm--improved salt tolerance. The University of Adelaide announced on Monday 12 March 2012:

A team of Australian scientists involving the University of Adelaide has bred salt tolerance into a variety of durum wheat that shows improved grain yield by 25% on salty soils.
Using 'non-GM' crop breeding techniques, scientists from CSIRO Plant Industry have introduced a salt-tolerant gene into a commercial durum wheat, with spectacular results shown in field tests. Researchers at the University of Adelaide's Waite Research Institute have led the effort to understand how the gene delivers salinity tolerance to the plants.
The research is the first of its kind in the world to fully describe the improvement in salt tolerance of an agricultural crop - from understanding the function of the salt-tolerant genes in the lab, to demonstrating increased grain yields in the field.

This is actually important news. A significant part of the world's soils have a high salinity. And irrigated soil sees its salinity rise also. This latter could be addressed with better soil management practices, but the drive toward repeated cropping without fallow periods means that much of our land will continue to degrade. And if its being irrigated, its salinity will increase.
Domestication and breeding has narrowed the gene pool of modern wheat, leaving it susceptible to problems with saline soils. But early wheat cultivars had better resistance to salty soils. The researchers at U Adelaide used conventional breeding to move the salt-tolerant gene (TmHKT1;5-A) into a modern cultivar. By using traditional practices, rather than modern gene splicing, means that the new variety will be able to be planted anywhere without concerns or resistance being raised.
The salt-tolerant durum wheat shows no yield-penalty from the breeding. Yields remain about the same under normal planting conditions, and show as much as 25% increased yield in salty conditions. Which means that the new variety will be able to be sown uniformly in a field, regardless of whether or not there are patches of saltier soil.
Dr James, who led the field trials, says: "While most studies only look at performance under controlled conditions in a laboratory or greenhouse, this is the first study to confirm that the salt-tolerant gene increases yields on a farm with saline soils.

The researchers have taken the next step and have bred the salt-tolerance gene into wheat cultivars used for making bread. 

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Geek Food (?)

More from archive.org. This is an episode of Geek Food--from what I can discover, Geek Food was an audio blog that made the jump to video and then disappeared. But I liked how this couple made pizza for a housefull of people. I hadn't thought about using a white sauce as a base on pizza before--and the idea of melting cream cheese into it is a great one.

Of course, I immediately thought that a fresh cheese might be better than the cream cheese, but I do recognize that they were under the gun on the pizza. Oh, and check out how their mise en place were set up so nicely beforehand.

A recipe I've used to make fresh cheese (called variously fresh, ricotta, or quark) is pretty simple:

8c whole milk (3.8% mf)
 1/2 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons vinegar

  • heat the milk and salt to ~203°F / 95°C--this should be done slowly over a lower heat and take about 40 minutes
  • add the vinegar and stir slowly about three times. This will clabber the milk.
  • remove from heat and let stand ~20 minutes (this give the milk time to finish clabbering.
  • skim off the curds and allow to drain in cheesecloth for about half an hour.
et voilà! fresh cheese! Use immediately, or, if storing, try to use it within the next two days.

Friday, March 9, 2012

A Russian Minute

Actually 48 seconds of video of a Russian woman in the kitchen. As I watched this, I had no clue what the end result was going to be. Now I just want to go to the kitchen and do it myself.
Notice thespeed and sureness of her movements. That's some serious kitchen skills.
Another video from archive.org

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Buying Food: The Motion Picture

Welcome to 1950! This lovely Young Americans film (from archive.org, a site you really should be familiar with) details how to spend your time and money wisely while in a grocery store. Yes, there are the unintentionally funny moments, but the basic information is still pretty good.  Avoid impulse buys, understand labels, buy bulk according to what you can use and store, these aren't bad lessons for any of us to take away from this short film.
One of the things that fascinates me is that this film talks about the difference between three different grades of food available for sale. To see cheaper Grade "C" tomatoes for sale--"just as nuitritious, but more broken up"--just made me think "Wow! Cheaper tomatoes for saucing!"
My mother grew up on this type of home economics information, and you could see how it informed her cooking for the rest of her life. There were a lot of less expensive cuts of meat prepared according to recipes from magazines and cheap cookbooks over the years. (I wish I had her copy of the Mennonite Cookbook from back in the early sixties!) Fish was only prepared when we caught it or when her wise-ass son (yes, me) stumbled on a recipe he wanted to try. Roasts were reserved for Sunday or special occasions. Ground beef was a staple.
Growing up this way has given me a lasting appreciation for what I call "subsistence" or "Bachelor" cooking; the kind of cooking done with a mix of prepared, frozen, and fresh ingredients. Ramen noodles with a handful of frozen diced veg tossed in. 15-minute chili made from canned beans, both spiced and plain. Meatloaf that's more filler than meat, but still feeds you two or three times. Lord knows, I respect Jamie Oliver, but  it's not always possible to do the best you can in the kitchen. The goal, as I see it, is to try and do better than takeaway more often than not, and for less money.
Food is a lot of things; cultural signifier, social lubricant, palate tickler. But cooking happens three times a day, 365 days a year, and sometimes it's just a chore you have to do when you're tired and hungry. And that's a good reason to have a well-stocked pantry for those days when you just want to eat and sleep.