Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Link-straveganza II

From the US Food Integrity Campaign:
If food recalls continue to predispose people to experience recall overload, the government's recall data should at least be reliable and effective. A new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report criticizes the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) lack of public information on how the agency will implement its new recall authority as well as the uncertainty of FDA's recall data.
The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) signed into law in January 2011 finally gave FDA the ability to order companies to recall food products it deems unsafe, an important power given the previous danger of companies choosing not to remove adulterated products from the market. It remains unclear, however, how successful FDA will be in carrying out this new authority.
From the report:
But without publicly available procedures, regulations, or industry guidance on how the agency will implement its authority—including how the agency will weigh evidence on whether a recall is necessary—the agency cannot ensure that it applies practices uniformly or consistently or that it provides clear information for the food industry to follow or consumers and the public to understand. Such ambiguity could be particularly troublesome with regard to outbreaks of foodborne illnesses, which can occur any time—indeed, have already occurred since FDA assumed its new authority—and demand clear and timely agency reactions.

Next, an 8-minute documentary about a Fair Trade / CSA-inspired fishing program from the East coast.

And, lord knows, we need more of this kind of thinking in the food chain.

Especially now that Canada is seeing severe drought conditions in the East. The Globe and Mail reported (30 July):
Weeks of drought have turned much of Ontario’s prime agricultural land into a dust bowl. And it is corn farmers, especially in the southwest and eastern parts of the province, who have been the hardest hit.
“It is a bad year in eastern Canada and it is getting worse,” said Evan Fraser, a geography professor who studies global food security at the University of Guelph, west of Toronto. The far southwest part of Ontario is “looking grim,” Dr. Fraser said, and in other parts of the province “it’s a bit of a wait-and-see game.”

This Magazine brings up one of the little-discussed aspects of turning small-scale organic agriculture into large-scale industrial organic food production: migrant labour.
Organic regulations give value to everything from animal welfare, soil systems, and biodiversity to watersheds and air quality—concepts of sustainability focused almost exclusively on the physical environment. Farms go to extreme lengths to close the gap between farmer and eater: consumers are invited to open farm days for tours, food is meticulously labeled and sourced, and farm owners are no longer faceless, appearing on websites, packaging and TV commercials. In all this effort to exist outside conventional food practices and eat guilt-free, however, there is one link in the food chain consumers know shockingly little about: the migrant worker producing all this wonderful food.
The myth of the family run, locally staffed farm has somehow remained despite fundamental changes to both the scale and style of organic agricultural production in Canada. While many farms are still family owned and operated, the labour usage line is blurring between large-scale organics and conventional agriculture.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Local Food Fair!

Not huge, but really a lot of fun. Peppers, the food store on the left of the photo, held a local food producers fair yesterday, to advertise many of the brands they carry. With the two large exhibition tents set up on the right, people started showing up even before the producers had set up.
In addition to Level Ground (about whom I've written before), there were3 numerous other producers, several of whom I was unaware. Portofino is not one of them.
Portofino Bakery
Portofino makes a large variety of breads and supplies a number of outlets, from Peppers to Hotel Grand Pacific. They've become a significant voice among local food producers.
Daksha's Gourmet Spices is producing a line of curry mixes: Butter Chicken, Chicken Curry, Korma, Tikka Masala, Tandoori,Vindaloo, Spicy Fish,Chana Masala, Aloo Gobi and Daal.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

National Food Plans

Australians have come to a bit of a disconnect with their government. The Australian government announced that they would pursue the development of a first-ever National Food Plan for the country, prior to the 2010 general election. The call was put out by (apparently now ex-) Woolworths chief Michael Luscombe, who is quoted as saying;
 "If you think about our food value chain, from the producers down, it is covered by multiple departments at federal and state level, and then there are many regulatory bodies.
"Because it's such a complex challenge for all of us, there's no one minister that has an over-arching approach at one point in time -- that has a view on how things are happening."
Australians took their own meaning from the call for submissions on the topic. Many of them were like Cathy Xiao Chen, who called for more urban food production and a strong organics recycling program. Or Carolyn Ballard, who wanted to see an integrated land/water/health program directed towards long-term sustainability.
The problem was, the Australian government really wasn't interested in hearing about these ideas. Michael Luscombe was calling for a free-trade-based, minimum-regulation regime focused on increased "food manufacturing." As The Australian reported: "The retailer had recommended a super-ministry, or "one minister with overall responsibility"." And that's what Australians got--a report focused on the dominant paradigm of a growth- and export-oriented model. Not much mention of a sustainable and secure food supply in-country.
Traditionally, and I'm talking here of "traditionally" stretching from Ur and the birth of agriculture until quite recently, the role of government was to manage a safe and secure food supply for their own people. After they had planned for famine, then they looked at taxing and controlling the flow of exported foodstuffs and the creation of empires. And every empire has learned, once you stop paying attention to the coming famine (and there's always a coming famine), once you allow your food system to become reliant on imports to keep the population fed, you were balancing a pyramid on its apex rather than its base. And that is an unsustainable model.

Food Crisis Part II

Al Jazeera is one of the few media outlets talking about the impact of the US drought on the rest of the world. The 2008 price spike brought down governments in the Middle East, and sparked uprisings in Africa and Latin America.  With so much of the corn crop decimated, there's really no telling what to expect over the next 18 months. Oh, and when you look at the list of the the top three food-secure nations? Notice Canada doesn't make it. The Harper government may well pay for years of neglecting a national food strategy.

  • About 60 per cent of continental US is experiencing drought conditions
  • The US is the world's largest corn producer, and provides up to 60 per cent of the world's food aid
  • The price of corn has increased by 34 per cent in the last month
  • The US government says nearly 40 per cent of the corn crop is in poor condition
  • Most US farmers have crop insurance in case of losses

  • The US is ranked as the most food-secure nation in the world, with an average of 14 per cent of household expenditure being spent on food. Second is Denmark, followed by Norway
  • The most food-secure nations benefit from ample resources, high incomes and subsidies for farmers
  • The least food-secure nations are in sub-Saharan Africa, with the DR Congo scoring most poorly with 70 per cent of household income there spent on food despite the country's huge agricultural potential
  • Chad and Burundi suffer from similar circumstances

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Abolish the Food Industry(?)

Back in February, Raj Patel wrote an article for Atlantic Magazine titled Abolish The Food Industry. Provocative title. Provocative article. And it was based on an article in Nature called The Toxic Truth About Sugar that made the argument for legislation around sugar consumption. Again, very provocative--sepecially in this coprorate world of ours. Patel's article isn't very long, and Atlantic Magazine has seen fit to release it online. I wish the same could be said of Nature, who are asking ~$25 to view the Toxic Truth article. I'll leave Cory Doctorow to explain why this is just stupid.
Raj Patel photo via Jan Sturmann and Wikipedia

But CBC's Jian Ghomeshi interviewed Patel on his article and that interview is available online and is quite worth listening to. Patel makes it clear that he's not actually planning the abolition of industrial food--at least not yet. But he is making the point that democratic discussion is so stunted that we scarcely even recognize the possibility exists. As the judge pointed out in the San Francisco "no smokes in pharmacies" judgement; while advertising is a form of free speech, "selling cigarettes isn't."
Anyway, to get you started, an excerpt from Raj Patel's article:
The analogy of tobacco with food isn't perfect, clearly. People who eat Twinkies often want to eat Twinkies, and we all need to eat. But it's increasingly common to see the medical literature push forward an understanding of sugar addiction and it's also true that our food choices are far from free, in no small part because of the commercial and cultural power of the food industry. Weaned as most of us are on Big Food's free speech, we ought to be suspicious of our instincts when it comes to food.
This week's Nature article doesn't argue for the abolition of Big Food, but indicts the industry nonetheless: "Sugar is cheap, sugar tastes good, and sugar sells, so companies have little incentive to change." Limiting the power of these corporations to sell their products -- just as we limit alcohol and tobacco companies -- ought to be widely agreed, and the battle among health professionals in the years to come will see the transformation of this proposition into an axiom.
The food industry tastes its own blood in the water, and is responding aggressively to the nicks and cuts from public health professionals. It's unwise to underestimate the chutzpah of an industry that spread trans fats across the Western diet in the 20th century, and made a marketing pitch of their removal in the 21st. So the industry has adopted a strategy that counters a pound of sugar with an ounce of nutrition.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Nose To Tail 1

Spent my Sunday in the kitchen, dodging the Significant Other, who was baking bread and cinnamon rolls. I, on the other hand, was trying my hand at a couple of new things.
First up was rolls. I had meant to pick up some won-ton wrappers at the local market (Victoria is extremely lucky in that we have both a large Asian community and a local grocery chain that caters to them. This means access to a lot of items that are more difficult to find in the majors—like the black-skinned Silky chickens that are the breed used in traditional Chinese cooking). Instead of buying the won-ton wrappers, I found egg roll wrappers. The ingredient list was short (five items, only one of which was a preservative), and they were cheap (around two bucks), and they had a suggested use recipe on the front. So, I was sold.
 So, lunch was pretty simple. Ground pork, spiced and flavoured, fried up. Added rice flour to thicken the juices. Flipped it out onto a plate. Put the skillet back on the stove and added about 25mm of (GM free) canola oil and let it heat. Peeled a wrap off the stack, wet the edges with a flour/water paste, and began building. I kept it pretty simple; spiced meat, enoki mushrooms, and bean sprouts.
Enoki Mushrooms--Photo by Chris 73 / Wikimedia Commons

Created the roll (following the folding instructions on the package, but really, it is pretty straightforward), slipped it into the hot oil, and went back to make another. Apparently I heated the oil just right. As I put one in, the previous roll was ready for flipping or removal. No smoke, no excessive browning. Just nice, crisp, deep-fried rolls.
 With lunch under our belts (and the rolls were good enough that it was difficult to stop eating them, so the belt was a bit strained), my next chore was poaching tongue. I had bought two pork tongues Friday, and, on getting them home, put them in brine for about twenty-four hours as per my guru of nose-to-tail eating, Jennifer McLagan.
Odd Bits cover from Jennifer McLagan

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Better Animal Husbandry

Le Point online and Time Magazine are both reporting an interesting story about better animal husbandry in France. In an experiment, Languedoc-Roussillon winemaker Jean-Charles Tastavy partnered with farmer Claude Chaballier after reading about Spanish ad Canadian studies indicating that happier cattle produced better tasting meat. Tastavy suggested that they try feeding a couple of animals on the pomace from his wine-making operation. The cattle were not adverse to the pressed grape leavings washed down with water, and eventually the two decided to try the cattle on wine. Tastavy and Chaballier scaled the wine recommendation for humans up to cattle, and began trying them on ~1.5 litres per day.
Yes, the cattle seemed happier than their teetotal counterparts. But after slaughter, it was noticed that the meat from the imbibing cattle was different. As Time reports:
Michelin-starred chef Laurent Pourcel had a taste of the “viande de luxe” — luxury beef — and hedges that there’s a bustling market for it among a foodie crowd. It has a “very special texture, beautiful, marbled and tender, which caramelizes while cooking.”
Tastavy and Chaballier are expanding their pilot program in the coming year. Because, even though the feeding costs have tripled (from $6 to $18), the price the Vinbovin-labelled meat fetches has gone up as well--to ~$122/kilo. Which, for a small producer, is a heck of a nice return.

Urban Agriculture--Venezuela

Venezuela  has been moving towards more urban agriculture over the last couple of years. But, as the report from Al Jazeera below shows, results have been mixed. In comparison, the urban agriculture movement in Cuba has done very well. I think the difference is in buy in; in Cuba, the population was faced with a crisis when their agricultural inputs collapsed. The Cuban government responded by removing roadblocks and creating support structures for both urban and rural small agricultural projects. The Venezuelan experience seems to have been more top down.

In North America, the rise of the city chicken is an indication that there is a strong desire for urban agricultural projects, but municipal bylaws keep getting in the way. If our governments were to get out of the way and quit forbidding (which is, I think, more accurate than "allow") more agricultural use of urban land, I don't think we would need much in the way of assistance to get a proper urban agriculture movement off the ground. The agro-ecological principles of farmer-to-farmer peer counselling would take off by itself.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Annie Smithers interview

Annie Smithers is a restaurateur from Australia. What makes her interesting is that she works hard to locally source her supplies--including running her own farm. I recommend reading the whole transcript in The Australian (and thanks to Milkwood Permaculture for the link), but I'll include a few choice quotes here.
There are a lot of producers out there who will tell you that a restaurant has bought something from them once and then listed it on their menu for 18 months. It happens and people do it because it’s about survival. This industry is full of lies - we have to tell lies. It's whether we're lying or just not quite up with their paperwork! The reality of the restaurant industry is that you can be here today and gone tomorrow,  and it's full of small businesses chasing their tails. It's not easy. Even though you might think something's lovely it might be 33-50 per cent more than a stock standard product so you might think "oh well" and never change the status. It's a really tough question.

[...] when you take it to the producer level you run into the problem of constancy of supply. If a supplier doesn't get enough orders they don’t take the animals to the abattoir so all of a sudden you can have two weeks without it. How do you communicate that to your staff and customers? It's quite difficult. There's constant supply of some products, we know their seasonal fluctuations and we know what's good and when, but it's pretty testy. It takes a lot of work.

Producers don’t necessarily come to us. It all comes down to business margins. If someone is producing on a small scale sometimes it's more profitable to sell direct to the consumer via the farmers market because at some point we [restaurateurs] have to pay less for it. So there's a lot of small producers who are now bypassing restaurant land and going direct to the consumer because of the increasing conscience of the eating public. 

This last quote, " there's a lot of small producers who are now bypassing restaurant land and going direct to the consumer," is something I've felt confident about for a long time. When we sold fresh veg at market, we got supermarket or better prices. When I hear producers complaining about not getting a price per pound for animals, or not enough for what they produce, all I can think is "We did better. But we sold direct." There are artificial barricades put up to keep farmers from selling direct--like the BC ban on on-farm killing, where I cannot buy a lamb from a producer and then slaughter it on their land. I can do it at home, but not a lot of neighbours want me to do so. And if I'm a newbie, I might need some direction on best practices--which the producer could give me if I was allowed to slaughter on site.

The other opportunity for producers to cut out the middle man is via the web. This goes to the heart of the whole conversation about supermarkets in the supply chain and the boutique versus mass produced. Take, for example, a family citrus farm that's been beaten up by the big supermarkets for years. The young savvy family members that are coming in to the business say, "Oh bugger this, it's stupid. I'm not going to let them pay $x per kg and for them to sell it at $y. I'll put it online and sell it at a price somewhere in the middle. It'll cost us half as much and earn us four times what it used to”. 

It costs me $85,000 a year to run the garden.  That would be the equivalent to spending about $1200 per week on vegetables. My vegetable bill here should be about $600 a week. I am lucky that I have a restaurant that is able to support that initiative. The only way it's affordable is that everything we sell is value added because we're not selling a carrot for $2 - we're selling a main course for $36.  

$85,000/yr to run the garden seems a bit high to me, but somehow she's making it work. Anyway, have a read, it's good stuff.

Friday, July 20, 2012

A Rare Level of Stupid

*Sigh*  The Harper government's pursuit of ideology over facts is reaching levels of absurdity that I could never have predicted. The Vancouver Sun is reporting:
Health Canada has rejected the advice of its own advisory panel of food experts to renew monitoring of trans-fat levels in processed foods and send a "strong signal" to companies that regulations are on the table if levels don't drop.
The department's Food Expert Advisory Committee made the recommendations in June 2011 after Health Canada asked its external advisers on food policy about how best to manage trans-fat levels in the Canadian food supply.
At the time, departmental officials were revisiting the issue of trans fats after Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq quietly killed a plan drafted in December 2009 to bring in regulations to limit trans-fat levels in processed foods.
Aglukkaq made the decision even though senior officials had briefed her on a cost-benefit analysis commissioned by Health Canada showing a "significant net benefit to Canadian society" of up to $9 billion over 20 years if trans-fat caps were imposed.
Trans fats, created by pumping hydrogen into liquid oil at an elevated temperature, raise the levels of low-density lipoprotein or "bad" cholesterol in the body and can lead to clogged arteries and heart disease.
The latest development on the trans fat file comes after Aglukkaq prematurely disbanded her much-touted expert panel on sodium in December 2010. The Sodium Working Group was created in 2007 and had unveiled a plan in July 2010 to track, over the next five years, whether companies were reducing the level of salt in processed foods.

A Year Getting Worse II

The US drought is starting to raise eyebrows in the business world. So we can expect our politicians to start noticing soon. That usually means that its going to cost the taxpayer for some ad hoc design program that's intended to be a temporary measure, but has a good chance of becoming a permanent feature distorting markets across the globe. The beginnings of this are in place as the US has declared 1,297 counties in 29 states “disaster areas.” The USDA has cut its corn production forecast by 1.8 billion bushels and lowered yield expectations to 146 b/a from 166 b/a back in June of this year. Corn futures have hit an all time high of $8US a bushel, and as the primary crop in the US is industrial corn, that makes a heck of a difference (all figures current to 19 July/12). So what does this mean for you and I, sitting here in Canada, wondering what to do next? Well, it means some of our industrial farmers will be doing better this year. But with Canada's integration with global markets, it does not mean that Canadians will see any benefit. We will not be seeing any drop or even stability in the prices we pay in the supermarket. About 40% of North American corn production is used for animal feed (regardless of whether or not its good for the animals involved) so we can expect to see a hike in meat prices come through the industrial food system. When? That's a trickier story. If markets are efficient and honest, meat prices should begin to rise over the next six to twelve months. This would mean producers looking at older, cheaper supplies they have in stock and calculating when they will run out and newer, more pricey supplies begin to be used. What is far more likely—as the oil industry has shown us time and time again—is that the old stock will become re-valued at the new international price, and prices will rise immediately, in order to maximize profits. There is actually wiggle room available: about 40% of corn grown in NA is designated for biofuel production. With dramatically increased feed-stock prices, corn-derived fuel will quickly become uneconomic to produce and sell (unless, of course, oil heads well north of $120/bbl in the very near future). Reduced demand from biofuel manufacturers would free up stocks to go for animal feed, and help keep a check on the price rise. The problem, of course, is the ubiquity of corn in the food system. If you're shopping the produce aisles, you might be in reasonable shape. But if you shop the inner aisles you'll find corn or corn-derived products in pretty much everything. For example, the citric acid used as a preservative in tomato sauce: corn-derived. HFCS (high-fructose corn syrup), of course. But also margarine, candies, ketchup (and catsup), peanut butter, and mayonnaise. (And a lot of non-food products like paint, printing inks, and photographic films). But this is going to be the new normal. If not drought, floods. If not floods, tornadoes. Or other extreme weather events. North Americans have had artificially low food prices for decades, and that period is about to come to a close as a result of global climate change. Recent projections have put temperature rise at 8-10 degrees over the rest of the century. This means that all of us are going to be to suffering for a short time, those of us under 40 are really going to notice the changes, and those under twenty might not make it.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Failure of Genetic Engineering

There's a steady drumbeat that we are not producing enough food, that there must be more food for the growing global population, and that traditional or organic agriculture cannot achieve the necessary volumes. Therefore, continues the argument, we need to shift all our production over to genetically engineered varieties which produce more food per acre than traditional farming techniques. And its a compelling argument. Global population at six billion and due to rise to at least nine billion. Famine conditions popping up all over the place. The future looks grim. Perhaps we should embrace a technological fix.
Just two small problems. Tiny, really. First, The genetically engineered plants we grow aren't really food. The corn and soy we grow are not intended as food, not like, say, a carrot is food. Let's call them “precursor foods”; they are feed-stocks we tear apart into their constituent molecules and then construct “edible food-like products” from them.
And the second problem is just as minor. There's no evidence. At all, really. Down in the United States, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) sponsored a report on production differences between traditionally bred crops and genetically engineered ones, a report written by Doug Gurion-Sherman, a senior scientist in the UCS Food and Environment Program. His conclusions?

Thus a close examination of numerous studies of corn and soybean crop yields since the early 1990s gives us a good gauge of how well GE crops are living up to their promise for increasing yields. Bottom line; They are largely failing to do so. GE soybeans have not increased yields, and GE corn has increased yield only marginally on a crop-wide basis. Overall, corn and soybean yields have risen substantially over the last 15 years, but largely not as a result of the GE traits. Most of the gains are due to traditional breeding or improvement of other agricultural practices.1

This is not a minor matter. GE crops are touted as saviour seeds for farmers, for hungry populations, for the world. They are, in fact, the final development of the the Green Revolution, the ultimate expression of the technologization of agriculture. And, like the Green Revolution, not only have they largely failed, but the original goals have been forgotten in a rush to manufacture profit and privatize life. The findings of the report are clear and powerful. First, that

“[g]enetic engineering has not increased intrinsic yield. No currently available transgenic varieties enhance the intrinsic yield of any crops. The intrinsic yields of corn and soybeans did rise during the twentieth century, bu not as a result of GE traits. Rather, they were due to successes in traditional breeding.”2

Intrinsic, or potential, yield is the highest yield that can be achieved under perfect conditions. This is different from operational yield, the yield obtained under field conditions. About which, the report says:

Genetic engineering has delivered only minimal gains in operational yield.... Based on available data, it is likely that Bt corn provides an operational yield advantage of 7-12 percent compared to typical conventional practices, including insecticide use, when European corn borer infestations are high. Bt corn offers little or no advantage when infestations of European corn borer are low to moderate, even when compared to conventional corn not treated with insecticides.3 [emphasis mine]

The increases we've seen in yields in corn and soy are, primarily, attributable to non-GE plant breeding techniques. The development of salt-tolerant wheat, for example, was done by crop scientists in Australia specifically without the use of GE techniques, in order to ensure free access to the cultivar by the world's farmers.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

apis mellifera mellifera

Yeah, I didn't get it either. "apis mellifera mellifera" is a breed of honeybee called the "British Black," long thought to be extinct.But such is not the case.

from The Daily Mail

The Daily Mail is reporting that the "extinct" bee has been discovered living in Whitfield’s Holy Trinity Church in Northumberland. The bee is one of the varieties that was native to the British Isles after the last ice age, but was thought, like 90% of bees in the UK, to have become extinct after being infected with Spanish flu in 1919.
Conservation officer for the Bee Improvement and Bee Breeders’ Association Dorian Pritchard, was called in to help.
He said: ‘They are generally a lot darker than the European bee with pale thin strips across the abdomen. It takes a specialist bee keeper to recognise them. ‘These bees were the native bees in Britain after the Ice Age but in the 1830s we started to import foreign bees. ‘An epidemic wiped out 90 per cent of the population after the First World War.’
So, longish Daily Mail story short; bee, thought extinct, recognized by highly observant bee conservation officer Dorian Pritchard. Bees moved out of church and into hives. Prognosis good. World generally a better place.
Right. Just so I'm not always doom and gloom.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

A Year Getting Worse

Al Jazeera English is reporting
The US department of agriculture has declared a natural disaster in 26 states where the Midwest drought has done considerable damage to this year's corn crop.
High temperatures and drought in the farm belt have devastated farms and are pushing up the price of corn and other crops.
This is both as bad as it sounds and not quite as bad as it sounds. As  Hannah Poturalski, a staff writer with the Middletown Journal in Ohio puts it: "Ohio is among 29 states with counties now designated as natural disaster areas due to the drought." That is to say, it's not the entire state that has declared drought condition, but counties within it have. Still, when you look at the map, the situation is pretty severe.

According to the US Drought Monitor on July 05, 2012, "Analysis of the latest drought monitor data revealed that 46.84 percent of the nation’s land area is in various stages of drought, up from 42.8 percent a week ago...Looking only at the 48 contiguous states, 55.96 percent of the country’s land area is in moderate drought or worse." in the July 10, 2012 news release, the Drought Monitor notes:
[W]ith the hot weather that covered much of the central and eastern United States, only a few scattered areas of dryness and drought experienced significant improvement. In addition, the areas with the greatest temperature anomalies (average daily maxima 10 to 13 degrees above normal) generally coincided with an area of scant rainfall across the Midwest, northwestern Ohio Valley, and southern Great Plains, resulting in another week of widespread deterioration and expansion of dryness and drought in these regions.
In the hottest areas last week, which were generally dry, crop conditions deteriorated quickly. In the 18 primary corn-growing states, 30 percent of the crop is now in poor or very poor condition, up from 22 percent the previous week. In addition, fully half of the nation’s pastures and ranges are in poor or very poor condition, up from 28 percent in mid-June. The hot, dry conditions have also allowed for a dramatic increase in wildfire activity since mid-June. During the past 3 weeks, the year-to-date acreage burned by wildfires increased from 1.1 million to 3.1 million as of this writing.
That's about 4800 square miles or 12545 square kilometres burned over so far this year.  The Drought Monitor has also produced the following animation of drought conditions in the US over the last 12 weeks:
 There is some hope for rain in some area this week, but overall, this means trouble. With corn crops not producing ears (check out the Al Jazeera footage, above), and with pasture, soy, and other crops affected, the industrial food system is going to be seriously strained this year. Combined with big money building speculative bubbles in the food system, we could be facing a doubling or better of food costs this year.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the period from January through June was "the warmest first half of any year on record for the contiguous United States."
The average temperature was 52.9 degrees Fahrenheit, or 4.5 degrees above average, NOAA said on Monday. Twenty-eight states east of the Rockies set temperature records for the six-month period.
A heat wave blistered most of the United States in June, with more than 170 all-time temperature records broken or tied during the month. On June 28 in Norton, Kan., for instance, the temperature reached 118 degrees, an all-time high. On June 26, Red Willow, Neb., set a temperature record of 115 degrees, eclipsing the 114-degree mark set in 1932.

I'm not saying that it will get as bad as this 1942 Alfred Eisenstaedt photo of the dustbowl, at least not this year.
unpublished, from Life

But don't think it can't happen again. Dr. David Schindler, over at the University of Alberta, has pointed out that the Twentieth Century was the wettest century in the Pallister Triangle in the last 10,000 years. It has also been the only century we've farmed in the Triangle, so our perceptions are kind of skewed. And the past century also had four major drought events, including the one above. So Global Climate Change is going to matter here in North America.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

More From Michael

Michael Pollan made his way back to Williams College, just up the road from where he studied, to talk to a room full of people about his book The Omnivore's Dilemma. The talk covers two of the major themes from the book, corn and hope. It is long, but can run behind whatever else you're doing. Pollan is an excellent speaker, personable and interesting, making this time just flow by.
He talks, at the end in answer to a student's question, about the price difference between organic food and industrial food, and how we mis-perceive industrial food being cheaper. As he points out, industrial food has a lower proce per calorie in the store, but only after enormous subsidies along the way. All in all, a fascinating talk from a knowledgeable and interesting speaker.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Pressure's On

Monsanto--Taking The Shot

From Alternet:
A so-called “Monsanto rider,” quietly slipped into the multi-billion dollar FY 2013 Agricultural Appropriations bill, would require – not just allow, but require - the Secretary of Agriculture to grant a temporary permit for the planting or cultivation of a genetically engineered crop, even if a federal court has ordered the planting be halted until an Environmental Impact Statement is completed. All the farmer or the biotech producer has to do is ask, and the questionable crops could be released into the environment where they could potentially contaminate conventional or organic crops and, ultimately, the nation’s food supply.
Unless the Senate or a citizen’s army of farmers and consumers can stop them, the House of Representatives is likely to ram this dangerous rider through any day now.
In a statement issued last month, the Center For Food Safety had this to say about the biotech industry’s latest attempt to circumvent legal and regulatory safeguards:
Ceding broad and unprecedented powers to industry, the rider poses a direct threat to the authority of U.S. courts, jettisons the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) established oversight powers on key agriculture issues and puts the nation’s farmers and food supply at risk.
In other words, if this single line in the 90-page Agricultural Appropriations bill slips through, it’s Independence Day for the biotech industry.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

LMFAO (rural version)

All respect to the three young men in this video. Not afraid to let their passion show.

Level Ground, Fair Trade

So I got the opportunity this week to do one of my favourite things: getting behind the “Employees Only” door. On June 12th, I was with a group of about a dozen and a half other members of the UVic University 101 program got the opportunity to meet one of the founders of Level Ground TradingCompany. Stacey Toews helped found Level Ground back in 1997 in order to provide Fair Trade coffee to lower Vancouver Island. In the beginning, they didn't even have a building to work from, instead borrowing space from another company after their workday was over, in order to roast and pack the coffee they were bringing in from Columbia. Now in their third building and fifteenth year, Level Ground has a compact, efficient space and about 25 employees.
Level Ground facilities

Level Ground is now bringing in coffee from about 5000 farms and 12 different producer groups in 8 different countries, supplying a number of local retailers with both beans and ground coffee. Stacey is clearly still passionate about the work he's doing. I inferred that a lot of what he does is explain just what he does: talking about the business, he had a casual command of both facts and concepts that he wanted to communicate, and his delivery was both polished and personal. We started the tour with, of course, coffee. Level Ground buys top-end, shade-grown beans, roasts and packages them on-site, and apparently have figured out a good grounds-to-water ratio, because I thoroughly enjoyed my cup. Which, of course, was the point. Stacey started our tour with a history of the fair trade movement, the modern version of which is said to have started about 65 years ago with Edna Ruth Byler, a Mennonite missionary. While on mission work, she found herself in a village where the women were producing high quality linen needlework. Six years later, she and a colleague, Ruth Lederach, took some of the items to a Mennonite conference in Switzerland and sold them, and by 1958 had opened a small shop. These shops have become the Ten Thousand Villages stores found across North America. In Victoria, Level Ground imports, roasts, grinds, and bags coffee for the Ten Thousand Villages shop.
 In Europe, Oxfam picked up the ball in the mid-sixties and ran with it, becoming the force behind the European fair trade movement. Both the Mennonites and Oxfam were drawing on a much deeper and older tradition. Gavin Fridell writes [pdf] that
 “it is difficult for anyone in our present age to imagine that at an earlier point in world history it appeared “unnatural” that one person should profit by denying others the basic right to subsistence. Yet this conviction was common amongst local communities in pre-capitalist societies before the imperatives of the capitalist market and the new ideology of political economy replaced the “old moral economy of provision.” ”
Fridell links this pre-capitalist moral economy with the modern fair trade movement:
 “The greatest virtue of fair trade lies in its attempt to take advantage of its market niche to construct a new moral economy, one which crosses national boundaries and re-asserts the notion of people’s right to live taking precedence over the flows of supply and demand. Whereas the old moral economy described by Thompson asserted the rights of poor consumers to gain access to the means of life, the new moral economy of fair trade asserts the right of poor producers to get a fair price for what they sell on the market.”
It is this “new moral economy of fair trade” that Level Ground works in and that Stacey Toews is so passionate about. The front of every package of Level ground coffee has the face of a producer emblazoned on it—a producer who grew some of the beans in the roast, GPS coordinates to the community nearest their farm on the package, and who relieved a fee for the use of his or her face. The goal is to produce a perceived relationship between the producer and consumer, to make you think about where your food came from. And it wasn't until food became part of the fair trade movement that it really became visible to the public. Because of the central place food holds in all human cultures. Level Ground is branching out into non-coffee items as well, distributing dried fruit, chocolate, cane sugar (an excellent sugar, primarily a dehydrated sugar can juice that leaves a great deal of flavour with the sweet), and most recently, vanilla beans. The “A” quality vanilla beans are being sold as beans, and the “B” grade are being used to make extract. Level Ground is partnering with a local vodka maker to create an authentic vanilla extract, and early experiments seem quite promising, according to Stacey. Coffee also needs special handling when being picked. 

As coffee is a berry when it is picked, beans must be de-pulped and washed within hours of being picked or it ferments, rots and is valueless. Farmers must have access to a buying station or buying post or their crop is worth nothing. Level Ground is pursuing a project in Columbia with an organic grower to purchase his sun-dried pulp (the remains of the cherry) and make a tea from it. Apparently it is naturally quite sweet tasting.
The roasting room

 But, according to Stacey, fair trade remains an imperfect solution to the problems of ensuring producers a fair price for their goods. While the fair trade standards set by a German NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) provide for a minimum price for various goods from different places, there is no guarantee that the price flows all the way back to the original farmer rather than a larger producer group. “So without a dialogue and relationship with the producer group you can actually completely dehumanize trade and call it fair at the same time by current global standards,” Toews says. And points out that NestlĂ© in the UK now produces a two-finger Kit Kat bar that is fair trade certified.He sees the prices established by Fair Trade certification to be akin to a minimum wage: The goal is not to pay the minimum wage, but to pay more than that. When Level Ground started trading, world coffee prices were $2 US / pound. Since then, prices have fluctuated between a low of $0.45/lb and as high as $3.10/lb.
Grinding and bagging station

Currently at ~$1.75/lb, on the international market, Level Ground is paying its suppliers for top quality export beans (green) between $3 and $4 /lb depending on the country and producer group. Keeping in mind that roasting reduces the weight of beans (it takes, on average, 1.3 pounds of green beans to get a finished pound of roast beans), there's a lot of product moving through level Ground.
Distribution area--for ground and whole bean coffee

From their first container load of green beans, Level Ground is now working with 5000 farms, 12 different producer groups, 8 different countries, 25 staff, and goes through about 4 million pounds of beans a year.
Stacey Toews in front of green beans
 They store very little coffee on site. Warehouse costs are so much lower in Vancouver that they store their coffee there, only bringing it over a container at a time to roast and distribute.
Stacey with a handful of "coffee paper"

Level Ground is also paying attention to their waste stream as well. The bags the green beans come in are a natural burlap that decomposes, making them a great mulch in local gardens.  The "paper" that covers the bean and comes off during roasting is also recycled. With an aggressive recycling program, Level Ground generates very little actual "waste.
Level Ground also offers their employees a subsidy program, helping pay for the workers to commute by bus or by bike. And provide coffee to a number of non-profit organizations (including both Uni101 and The Rainbow Kitchen). Sustainability and responsibility take  pride of place in the corporate vision, making Level Ground a most unusual business. Is it obvious I had a good time?

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Animals and Animals

Wednesday, June 27th, I presented the inaugural film in the Uni101Presents series at the University of Victoria. The film I chose and introduced is (big surprise to anyone who knows me) both Canadian and about food: Jason Young's Animals. So I was working on the notes for the screening and thought I'd do a somewhat expanded version for the blog.
Jason Young's film Animals is a film about a young man from Toronto who marries, and he and his wife buy a farm in Nova Scotia. He decides that he should take responsibility for raising his own meat, and the film follows him through a year of learning to raise and butcher his own meat.
The parallels between Jason's journey and my own were quite striking. While previewing the film, it was unexpectedly funny: my hair was a bit longer but we both braided it, I wore tie-dyed T-shirts, and I've never been that skinny in my life, but other than that, we could have been twin sons of different mothers.
While Jason moves from Central to Atlantic Canada, I moved from the Wet Coast to the Prairies—the difference here being that while Jason Young is unfamiliar with East Coast culture, I was familiar with Alberta. It was, after all, where I'd been born and where I'd lived until my early twenties. But it was while I was living on the Wet Coast that I read John Robbins' book Diet For a New America. I remember looking at Paula as I opened the book and saying “Just warning you. This might change everything.” It did; for the next seven years we lived a primarily vegetarian lifestyle.

You should try it. No, really. Not for seven years, maybe, but for a month or two at least. Because once you start trying to figure out what you're getting in your food, you begin to see it differently. I remember eating lunch at Camosun College and thinking “Great! Potato salad!” right up until I saw the chunks of ham in it. Or wondering if that order of fries had been deep fried in beef tallow or not. Because animal products and by-products are bloody everywhere. And so difficult to avoid. And once you start looking at your food for what it contains, all kinds of questions come up: What is that ingredient? What is it derived from? And how will that affect me?” After living on a vegetarian diet, it's difficult not to be a conscious eater.
I didn't decide to live as a vegetarian for health reasons, or to lower my carbon footprint (in the early eighties, I hadn't started thinking about that yet). The reason was pretty simple; I couldn't justify supporting (with my food dollars) the criminal way animals are treated in North America. I'd had an unusual upbringing for the sixties. While everyone else was exploring what it meant to be urban, I was still connected to Canadian traditional mixed farming through my grandfather Klassen.