Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Winter Breeds Thoughts of Spring

University of Victoria Campus Community Garden 25 Jan/14
It's raining here today--which is a good thing actually. We've been having a pretty mild winter this year, even while the rest of North America is experiencing winter.
I find it interesting that everyone is so shocked by the weather here in Canada. Honestly, it's just the weather we used to experience in the 60s and 70s. When I was growing up in Edmonton, there was a period of over thirty days where the temperature didn't rise above zero degrees Fahrenheit. My dad's  first year of owning a farm, the snow thrown up by the snowplows keeping the roads open was so high that you had to be careful not to touch the hydro lines when you climbed over them to look at the farm in winter. Now, we never saw that again afterwards, nor did we get the extended cold again. But When I went back to the farm, the first winter we made it to  -60 C.
This winter isn't the same as those, of course. This time it's the breakdown of the polar vortex brought on by the lack of sea ice on the Arctic Ocean that's bringing the cold air south. But here on Vancouver Island, we've been under the influence of a succession of high pressure systems that have meant a dryer than normal winter. So much so that there's some concern about reservoir levels. Every summer it surprises everyone when we have six to twelve consecutive weeks without rain--even though it's a pattern repeated every summer. Winter is when we get the metre or more of rain. But the weather gave us a break in mid-January. The rain stopped, the sun came out, and all of a sudden it was May.
It reminded me that this isn't Alberta, and that you can garden here all year long. Paula and I headed down to the garden and started preparing our space for another season. We've emptied one bed and sieved the soil, trying to get the invasive grasses out of it. Turns out I missed a half-dozen shallots in the covered bed last fall, and they've already sent out this years shoots.
The kale and cabbage have made it through the cold and dark times, with only minimal damage. And most of that is on the cabbage from slugs. Paula has plans for a teach-in in the new gazebo; how to propagate strawberries (ours are under the plastic).
Paula has since started some squash in transplant pots, and I've started peas: both Oregon Giant snow peas and Sugar Ann snap peas. We've grown both varieties before on the farm, and had great results. The Oregon Giants gave us snow peas bigger than my hand that were still flat and edible (you just needed a really big wok). The Sugar Ann's were our go-to variety that we introduced to market. We would grow snow, snap, and shelling peas, and the snap peas were our best seller--once people understood the whole "eat the shell" concept.
We would also grow three varieties of bush beans; green, yellow, and purple. I liked the purple, because when you blanched them for freezing, as soon as they turned green, they were ready to bag.At first the loss of colour when cooked was a disappointment, but they deep green they took on always looked good in a stir-fry, and they tasted great.
Potatoes were the same; yellow, red, and purple. The purples (Skerry Blue) kept their colour when cooked, and the kids ate a lot of lavender mashed potatoes. But the purples were a good all-round potato. Bake, boil, mash, in soup, and, we found out later, as fries, they performed well. We also loved the banana potatoes my brother grew. They appeared to be impossible to over-boil; keeping their texture even when the water had boiled away (by accident, of course!). Today I would plant Skerry Blues, banana, and Cranberry (a red-fleshed variety). All good potatoes, and all getting a good customer response.
But I don't currently plant for market, just to supplement our trips to the market. I'm not entirely thrilled by that, but there you go. But still, a sunny day will remind me that spring will come, that plants will grow, and that the planet will keep on turning--whether I'm there to man the machinery or not. Winter may be coming on Game of Thrones, but around here, Spring is Coming.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Friday Food Security Link-straveganza

Oh, those GMOs. Nathaniel Johnson at Grist has been doing an in-depth series of reports on whether GMOs matter. It's a series that has raised more than a few hackles in the green world, particularly because he has come to the conclusion that spending our political capital opposing GMOs is a waste of time, energy, and money.
Johnson's series is worth reading, as is Tom Philpott's response, and Ramez Naam's generally pro-GMO article. But, kas Nathaniel Johnson writes in his most recent article:
[...]I want to add a note of caution: There’s an entire industry pushing the argument that GMOs are the solution. I agree with the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development that GMOs could be part of the solution, but we shouldn’t let the hype distract us from all the other ideas out there.
There are lots of problems associated with GMOs. I just want to focus directly on fixing those problems, rather than turning GMOs into a vague representative boogieman. I see problems with seed patents, problems with overuse of pesticides, problems with the lack of funding for research on agricultural alternatives. I care deeply about these things. But I’m worried that the discussion has become so ossified over GMOs that it’s not helping those causes. We’ve focused so tightly on GMOs that people tend to lose sight of those bigger things.

Raw Story is reporting that Golden Rice, that long-touted but otherwise invisible genetically modified crop that's supposed to save millions from blindness may actually be a go:
The first genetically-modified rice to be commercially available could be approved for production in the Philippines in two to three years, researchers said Tuesday, despite strong opposition from environmental groups.
Officers of both the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and the Philippine government’s agriculture department said the newly-developed “golden rice” had completed field trials, despite vandalism at one test field.
“Golden rice is coming. That is in the pipeline and a lot of the principal development and research has been completed,” said Achim Dobermann, deputy director-general of IRRI.
“At the moment, there is no GM (genetically-modified) rice officially released in any country,” he stressed.
No word on the actual vitamin A content of the rice, or whether kids would still be better off eating a half a carrot a month as a nutrient source. But Golden Rice, which has been in development for at least 25 years was supposed to be the criticism-killer of GMOs, developed with world health rather than tawdry financial gain in mind. Of course, when the Australians decided to breed salt-tolerant wheat, they did it with conventional breeding, meaning that farmers will be allowed to save their own seed.
Raw Story is also reporting on GM trials in the UK of a new genetically modified version of camelina that is high in fish oils:
A genetically-modified plant that produces seeds packed with fish oils is set to be grown in open fields in the UK within months, scientists announced on Friday. The oils could provide feed for farmed fish, the researchers hope, but they could ultimately be used as a health supplement in human foods such as margarine.
Fish oils – specifically omega-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids – have been shown to cut the risk of cardiovascular disease and are a popular food supplement. But about 80% of the fish oil harvested from the oceans every year is actually fed to other fish being raised in aquaculture. With many fish stocks already over-exploited, the government-funded researchers from Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire have spent 15 years developing the new GM plant and hope to have permission for field trials by March, with planting to start shortly after if approval is given.
This is typical; we have a significant requirement for food, but a large amount of the food we harvest from the ocean is either by-catch and trashed, or fed to other, more commercially viable, fish. We harvest a hundred calories to eat ten. No bloody wonder the oceans are empty. The only farmed fish that are remotely sustainable are tilapia.
Tilapia via Wikipedia /Bjørn Christian Tørrissen
According to the New York Times:
Americans ate 475 million pounds of tilapia last year, four times the amount a decade ago, making this once obscure African native the most popular farmed fish in the United States. Although wild fish predominate in most species, a vast majority of the tilapia consumed in the United States is “harvested” from pens or cages in Latin America and Asia.
Known in the food business as “aquatic chicken” because it breeds easily and tastes bland, tilapia is the perfect factory fish; it happily eats pellets made largely of corn and soy and gains weight rapidly, easily converting a diet that resembles cheap chicken feed into low-cost seafood.
But, of course, the rush to monetize tilapia has led to problems as well. Fed on corn and soy, farmed tilapia contains relatively small amounts of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, which are why it is recommended we eat fish in the first place. From the same article: "For the moment, Seafood Watch lists tilapia raised in the United States as a “best choice,” tilapia from Latin America as a “good alternative” and tilapia from China as “to be avoided.”
The report from the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development points out:
Development and sustainability goals should be placed
in the context of (1) current social and economic inequities
and political uncertainties about war and conflicts; (2) uncer-
tainties about the ability to sustainably produce and access
sufficient food; (3) uncertainties about the future of world
food prices; (4) changes in the economics of fossil-based en-
ergy use; (5) the emergence of new competitors for natural
resources; (6) increasing chronic diseases that are partially a
consequence of poor nutrition and poor food quality as well
as food safety; and (7) changing environmental conditions
and the growing awareness of human responsibility for the
maintenance of global ecosystem services (provisioning,
regulating, cultural and supporting).
Today there is a world of asymmetric development, un-
sustainable natural resource use, and continued rural and
urban poverty. Generally the adverse consequences of global
changes have the most significant effects on the poorest and
most vulnerable, who historically have had limited entitlements and opportunities for growth.
Canada, the US, and  Australia did not agree.

Also from Grist, an update on the California drought--in this case a lovely comparison of satellite pictures of California now and at the same time last year:

via Grist / NASA
Oh, and CNN and the John Hopkins School of Medicine report:
More than half of all adults in the United States take some sort of multivitamin; many do so in hopes of preventing heart disease and cancer or even to aid with memory.
But an editorial published in this week's Annals of Internal Medicine says that using supplements and multivitamins to prevent chronic conditions is a waste of money.
"The (vitamin and supplement) industry is based on anecdote, people saying 'I take this, and it makes me feel better,' said Dr. Edgar Miller, professor of medicine and epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and co-author of the editorial.
"It's perpetuated. But when you put it to the test, there's no evidence of benefit in the long term. It can't prevent mortality, stroke or heart attack."
It's all about the money, honey.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Horror Show

Well, it’s as official as it needs to get:
“In NOAA’s annual global analyses, researchers put the average world temperature (combined land and ocean surface temperatures) last year at 14.52 C.
That was 0.62 C above the 20th-century average of 13.9 C, making 2013 the 37th consecutive year that the yearly global temperature exceeded the average.
The global land temperature was just shy of 1 C (0.99 C) above the 20th-century average, according to NOAA.
Both NOAA and NASA said that nine out of 10 of the warmest years ever recorded between 1880 and 2013 were within the last 13 years. Only one entry prior to the 2000s, the year 1998, cracked the top 10.
The hottest recorded year so far was in 2010, when a temperature anomaly of 0.66 C was recorded above the 20th-century average. It topped both NOAA and NASA’s lists.”

Another hot year, with the majority coming in the last decade. And back in October, the CBC reported that by 2047, we’re in real trouble:
“A new study on global warming pinpoints the probable dates for when cities and ecosystems around the world will regularly experience hotter environments the likes of which they have never seen before.
And for dozens of cities, mostly in the tropics, those dates are a generation or less away.
“This paper is both innovative and sobering,” said Oregon State University professor Jane Lubchenco, former head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who was not involved in the study.
To arrive at their projections, the researchers used weather observations, computer models and other data to calculate the point at which every year from then on will be warmer than the hottest year ever recorded over the last 150 years.
For example, the world as a whole had its hottest year on record in 2005. The new study, published Wednesday in the journal Nature, says that by the year 2047, every year that follows will probably be hotter than that record-setting scorcher.
Eventually, the coldest year in a particular city or region will be hotter than the hottest year in its past.”
So, about 33 years and we are fully into the new, changed, hotter world. It’s actually conceivable that I could still be alive at that time. I’ll only be 88 in 2047....
I’ve got two kids, and their world is going to be changing over the next decade more than mine has changed over my whole life. And just what are they going to eat? The leaked report from the IPCC says pretty clearly that starvation, poverty, flooding, heat waves, droughts, war and disease are going to get worse, and that much of the worse will occur in cities—particularly when food security gets even worse.
We like to think that Canada is going to come out all right in the hotter, meaner, climate-changed world. Not likely. According to NASA:

”By about 2100, the climate change projections that we have today would suggest that there would be pressure on that grassland so prevalent in [the Canadian Prairies] to move further northward — and at the expense of the forest moving further northward as well,” said NASA climate scientist Duane Walliser, who spoke with CBC News from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
Walliser said that all across the globe, whole ecological zones such as deserts and tundra will be on the move because of “unprecedented” warming at a pace faster than at any time in 10,000 years.
But Western Canada will be among the areas hardest hit.”
NASA’s also drawn up a cute little map that “shows ecological sensitivity for the next century, with purple representing regions only slightly vulnerable to change. The ecological stress increases through blue, green, yellow, and orange areas to red.”
via NASA

I’m not seeing a lot of ways out of this. We will not stop burning hydrocarbons. We refuse to downshift into a simpler, sustainable lifestyle. We just condemn our children to disease, starvation, and death.
In Canada, we face an unprecedented in-migration, with the majority of 330 million desperate Americans and similarly large numbers of Hispanic climate refugees set to pour across our borders (there’s already a million here), and we don’t have the water or food, or basic infrastructure in place to handle an influx like that. Our ostrich-like Prime Minister has his head firmly buried in the oil-sand, and will do nothing that will put the near-trillion-dollar investments in the massive bitumen-mining operation in Alberta at risk. In the US, they’re cracking the Bakken Formation as fast as possible, damaging or destroying water supplies along the way, in order to make the US “energy independent” once again. And the global atmospheric carbon load stands at 396.8 and counting.
By mid-century, grasslands will be hard-pressed to survive over the summer, denying livestock natural forage. Forage they wouldn’t be able to eat during most of the day, because it will be too hot for them as well. Increased CO2 won’t mean increased plant growth if temperatures are rising rapidly and the summers become an annual drought.
Some things I can see managing as a farmer if global climate change only got a little worse: livestock grazing morning and evenings, and being sheltered in cool barns during excessive mid-day heat. Walipinis, below-grade greenhouses, being used to protect plants from high-summer heat as well as lengthening the growing season. But...but if night-time temperatures are too hot, then animals and people won’t get the chance to cool off. That’s a quick road to heat-stroke and death. If the rains become unpredictable, even the best water-harvesting systems become worthless. And too many people trying to live on too little land with too-stretched resources (like water and food), that’s a recipe for a horror show that will make Stalin’s Russia look good by comparison.
No, there’s only one hope for us, and that’s stopping this death-spiral of oil dependency. And that doesn’t look too likely. Buckle up.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Dr. Ian MacPherson and the Co-op Movement

via wave design coop / Wikipedia
This past Saturday, I attended the celebration of life for Dr. Ian MacPherson (above), and it was, by turns, hilarious, moving, and for me, a bit depressing. The room at the University of Victoria Faculty Club was standing room only, with people attending from across Canada and the United States.
I'd met Ian MacPherson through the CCCBE (the Centre for Co-operative and Community-Based Economies), a centre he had founded in 2000. Dr. MacPherson was what we now call an engaged academic; that is, his time was not spent only in the classroom or doing research, but also out in the world. He helped found and/or lead several co-ops across Canada; ranging from child care and health co-ops, to sitting on the boards of Pacific Coast Savings and the BC Central Credit Union. He was also the founding President of the Canadian Co-operative Association in 1989.
 At the celebration for Dr. MacPherson, one of the speakers rose and opened with the phrase "Dr. MacPherson changed my life." He then talked about how, as a young academic, he'd been introduced to the co-operative movement; "And I said, wait a minute. You mean there's a practical alternative that eliminates the worst excesses of neo-liberal capitalism? Why is this the first I'm hearing about this?" Well, exactly.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Friday Means...Link-straveganza!

There's bad news coming, and it's called the TPP or Trans-Pacific Partnership. It's another of these Free Trade corporate rights deals being made behind our backs. In Canada, there's a total of three people allowed to see the full text of the deal and they are not allowed to tell Canadians what's in the damned thing until after it has been signed. The TPP would include Japan, Mexico, Canada, Australia, Malaysia, Chile, Singapore, Peru, Vietnam, New Zealand, Brunei, and possibly China. Over at Grist, Heather Smith takes on the recent leak of the draft text and points out just how bad for the planet this deal is going to be.

via University of Colorado
 In somewhat related news, there's been a drought of MSM (main stream media) coverage of global climate change. Grist is once again on the story:
The University of Colorado’s Center for Science & Technology Research monitors mentions of “global warming” and “climate change” in five major U.S. newspapers: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and USA Today. Check out the [...] sad graph [above] showing its latest findings

Cacao tree via Luisovalles at Wikipedia
Science Daily is reporting on the use of genetic testing to identify various cultivars of cacao beans;
 The ability to authenticate premium and rare varieties would encourage growers to maintain cacao biodiversity rather than depend on the most abundant and easiest to grow trees. Researchers have found ways to verify through genetic testing the authenticity of many other crops, including cereals, fruits, olives, tea and coffee, but those methods aren't suitable for cacao beans. Zhang's team wanted to address this challenge.
Applying the most recent developments in cacao genomics, they were able to identify a small set of DNA markers called SNPs (pronounced "snips") that make up unique fingerprints of different cacao species. The technique works on single cacao beans and can be scaled up to handle large samples quickly. "To our knowledge, this is the first authentication study in cacao using molecular markers," the researchers state.

Science Daily is also reporting two linked stories. First, that the effects of livestock on climate change are underestimated:
 While climate change negotiators struggle to agree on ways to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, they have paid inadequate attention to other greenhouse gases associated with livestock, according to an analysis by an international research team.
A reduction in non-CO2 greenhouse gases will be required to abate climate change, the researchers said. Cutting releases of methane and nitrous oxide, two gases that pound-for-pound trap more heat than does CO2, should be considered alongside the challenge of reducing fossil fuel use.
The researchers’ analysis, “Ruminants, Climate Change, and Climate Policy,” is being published today as an opinion commentary in Nature Climate Change, a professional journal.
And second, that there may be a chance of lowering the emission of greenhouse gases from cattle:
A new research project looks into the possibilities of adapting every aspect of cattle husbandry and selection processes to lower their greenhouse gas emissions.
The key to the project, Garnsworthy says, is that cattle vary by a factor of two or three in the amount of methane their stomachs produce. It is therefore possible to imagine a dairy herd producing the same volume of milk for lower greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, different diets mean that cows can produce the same amount of milk with lower emissions. "It is possible to imagine cutting emissions from cattle by a fifth, using a combination approach in which you would breed from lower-emitting cattle as well as changing their diets," Garnsworthy said.

Katy Salter, writing for The Guardian, points out the rise in expensive slices of toast as the Next Big Thing:
Toast is trendy. Yes, you read that right: toast. Obviously we're not talking marge on Mighty White, but rather the artisanal slices served with hand-churned butter and homemade jams that have been popping up on "toast menus" around San Francisco and now New York. And if that all sounds too yuppy and insufferable for words, brace yourself: there's more. Some of those slices are selling for $4 a pop. That's about £2.43 a slice at the current exchange rate.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

CFIA Fails On Organics

Photo via Wikipedia

 Life isn't perfect,we know that. If you want to buy organic vegetables, you can't always get everything you want locally. This is Canada, after all, and we do have these extended winters. So we have to accept that if we are going to have fresh veg in the winter we may have to import it. Unless you live on lower Vancouver Island or are a seasonal eater--then you can eat winter vegetables that take well to storage; squash, carrots, turnips and rutabagas,  and the like.
If you want to eat organic vegetables, you can find more and more of it in the stores. The remarkable rise in demand has led suppliers to begin operating more and more of those weird hybrids; industrial organic farms. And Canada doesn't grow near the volume of organic vegetables that we consume, so we do a lot of importing.
Certification of Canada's organic farms is handled by agencies vetted by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). The CFIA is also responsible for the safety of food imported and exported from this country. In line with this responsibility, the CFIA has been monitoring pesticide residues on imported labeled-organic vegetables. According to a recent CBC article:
The Canadian government brought in the Organic Products Regulations in 2009 requiring organic food producers to have their products certified by an accredited third-party certification body.
The certifiers conduct annual farm and facility inspections meant to ensure the organic producers are following the rules.
Rola Yehia, acting national manager of the CFIA’s consumer protection division, said, “If there is non-permitted substances found in organic products, we would notify the CFIA-accredited certification body who would request the organic operator to take corrective action."
"So we have the system in place, and we have the confidence in our system, and we have the mechanism to address any non-compliances if they arise,” said Yehia, whose oversight includes the Canada Organic Office of the CFIA.
"We have a good relationship with the industry, so we work together to correct any gaps in the system," Yehia added.
Health Canada sets a maximum residue limit (MRL) for food products, representing the most that is expected to remain on food. One of the reasons for this is because the world isn't perfect. Organic farms are not isolated from industrial farms, so it is to be expected that occasionally there might be pesticide drift from an industrial farm to an organic one. And "We see pesticide residues throughout our environment. It's in our soil, they're in our water, drinking water now, and there's new reports coming out showing there's pesticides in fetal cord blood. So unfortunately, it's really hard to have a zero pesticide residue any longer," said Matthew Holmes, executive director of the Ottawa-based Canada Organic Trade Association.
But what the CBC found out was that, while the CFIA was conducting MRL tests on organic food over the past decade, there were some troubling numbers. As much as eight percent of organic produce tested by Canadian inspectors has so much pesticide residue that experts say there is a strong indication synthetic chemicals were deliberately used. That is, farms allegedly using organic techniques appear to have been spraying chemicals on their produce--so much so that unacceptable residue levels remain on the vegetables even after they arrive in your local supermarket.
This is happening in the US as well.But there is a difference between the two countires. The US government was approached by American organic producers with a request to beef up enforcement of the organic rules. From the CBC story:
Starting in 2013, the USDA required five per cent of organic operations to undergo routine pesticide residue testing.
The U.S. testing protocol is part of a beefed up enforcement plan that was implemented at the request of organic farmers, according to the USDA’s McEvoy.
“They were seeing violations that were occurring, and enforcement was not occurring. Civil penalties were not being used,” McEvoy said.
“But I think organic farmers in particular, when they see violations, they want everyone to be held to the same standard and they want the penalties to be significant so that people are playing by the same rules,” McEvoy said.
The USDA responded to the organic farmers’ concerns by assessing approximately $500,000 in fines involving dozens of operators in the last four years. It even sent cases to criminal court.
In April 2012, Harold Chase of Springfield, Ore., was sent to prison for more than two years after he pleaded guilty to wire fraud for selling in excess of four million pounds of corn falsely labelled as organically grown. Chase is one of three people the USDA helped put in jail in the last few years. “The penalties send the message that you can't get away with defrauding the organic consumer,” McEvoy said.
So the US actually put some operators in jail for fraud around the question of organic farming. What about here in Canada? After all, we have a government that keeps telling us that our food is safe--even though there's been BSE found in Alberta, Tyson Foods was just recently forced into the biggest meat recall  in Canadian history, and the US Dept. of Agriculture recently gave the Canadian food inspection regime a grade of just barely "adequate."
Well, to no one's surprise, CFIA has done nothing. There has not been a single case of criminal prosecution involving organic production by CFIA. They have, on occasion, pulled organic certification from companies not following the rules, but these companies are both allowed to go on producing (albeit without the organic certification), and have not faced any serious discipline for the fraud committed on the consumers of their products.
We are dealing with a government that simply does not believe that there should be any outside, impartial inspection of our food system, and that the companies responsible for processing our food should be allowed to police themselves. The fox guards the hen house, and when we notice that there are considerably fewer fowl than there were a while ago, we're told to "move along. Nothing to see here." And we are left unable to trust our food supply, unable to trust in the regulations, and most certainly unable to trust our government.

Monday, January 13, 2014

A Philosphy of Food--In One Serving

Shaker Lemon Pie
via Cmadler / Wikipedia 

Over the last month or so, I've put my energy towards finally making a consistent, decent pie crust. Turns out, it's not all that difficult. It's not yet the perfect pie crust, but it is consistent and enjoyable.
I practiced making pastry by making a Shaker lemon pie (well, two at a time, actually). And as I mixed dough and prepped the filling, I realized that this is a pie that sums up my philosophy of food in one crazy intense dish.
I've made this pie for over twenty years, off and on. I think I first read the recipe in Esquire magazine (although I could be completely mistaken--it has been a lot of years, after all). Most of the time I cheated and bought premade pie crusts, as I regularly made the most inedible crusts on the planet. I've always cooked, but baking has been one of the forgotten skills around me. After getting married, I discovered that my Significant Other (the writer Paula Johanson) loved to bake cookies and cakes and the like, making my efforts at best redundant. I still occasionally made an Impossible Pie from a recipe out of the United Church Ladies Auxiliary cookbook produced by our local church. That's a pie where you mix all the ingredients in one bowl, and as it bakes it separates into shell, filling, and topping as if by magic. It kinda worked when I did it, and as it had coconut and sugar, was always quite snackable, but not what you'd call serious baking. And as Paula got into breads and rolls, I just backed away from baking and left the territory to her.
But while there was a plethora of baking powder biscuits, breads, and cakes, pie was one of those things that didn't get made very often. Until I found the recipe in Esquire.
The filling is simple: I've quoted it from memory many times.
    1. 2 large lemons (with the ends cut off and the pith and seeds removed)
    2. 2 cups 9500 ml) of sugar
    3. 4 eggs
Yeah, that's it. Three ingredients. As it was explained originally, the lemons are sliced so thin that it takes all of Appalachian Spring by Aaron Copland  playing to get through the task. Lemons are then macerated in the sugar, and, some hours later, the beaten eggs are stirred in. Into a pie shell, a lattice or full top, and into the oven.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Building The World We Want

The Wind River at the Wind River Indian Reservation, Wyoming
via James G. Howes / Wikipedia 

Two articles caught my eye this morning. One is from Indian Country Today Media Network, a trans-national news site that views the world through First Nations eyes, and the other is on AlterNet, and is an edited version of a talk given by Noam Chomsky.
The ICTMN article begins:
The two main irrigation systems on the Wind River Indian Reservation could hardly be more different. The Bureau of Indian Affairs manages one, a sprawling network of canals running south and east of the Washakie Reservoir and the Little Wind River. Local water users run the other, a smaller system in Crowheart (population 141) between Fort Washakie and Dubois. Much of the system that the BIA directly controls ran dry over the summer. The system that local users run—on paper they are contractors working for the BIA—will deliver water until the irrigation season ended in early October. 
 The larger of the two irrigation systems runs out of water about halfway through the season. The other does not. The first system is managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the second by two users groups working in concert.
It's tempting to simply label the poor management of the larger irrigation system as one of those situations where government bureaucracy is simply incapable of managing anything, is wasteful and terrible and shouldn't be allowed to exist. This is the common narrative we here in Canada and the US--particularly from the conservative right. As a conservative leftist, I have a certain belief in the utility of government--particularly in reigning in the excesses of the sociopathic 1%--but I tend to think that the problem behind the poor management by the BIA is not innate incompetence, but rather a lack of democracy. It doesn't help that the BIA has a history that roughly parallels that of the Canadian Department of Indian Affairs, where the goal is to "drive the Indian out of the man"; that is, to destroy First Nations culture and society and replace it with that of the colonizing power. So BIA faces a fair bit of suspicion when as the article contines:
“This board directed BIA and Mr. Allen to not do what you just did,” Robinson told Allen and his superiors, John Anevski and Ed Parisian of the BIA regional office in Billings. “That is, drain the dam and let Ray Lake continue to run so that all of those non-Indian farmers down at Arapahoe can continue to irrigate while all the tribal farmers have no water.”
The contrast with the smaller Crowheart irrigation system is marked.
The Crowheart system is open. Users talk among themselves about how to push enough water to everybody’s fields. Headgates are not padlocked. Water users make collective decisions about who gets how much water and when. Irrigators open and close their own headgates. The board encourages everyone to think about water for their neighbors downstream in addition to water they need themselves. “The moment you think about your own water and not everybody’s water, you’ve lost the battle,” said Lyle Alexander, head of the Crowheart Bench Water Users Association. “The moment you put a padlock on the system, you’ve lost.”
For the most part, users hold practical, civil discussions at those meetings. If a user goes rogue and insists on more than his share of the water, the local board can lock his headgate. But by all accounts this happens only rarely—not least because everyone usually has enough water.
“The best way to handle an issue is to put it in the hands of the irrigators,” Alexander said. “Water users know more about their land and water than the BIA.”
Putting aside questions about water use and irrigation on the Great Plains, what we're seeing in the Crowheart system is small scale democracy at work. And it takes looking outsid eyour own narrow interests. As Tim Schell, one of the founders of the Crowheart water users association put it: “I used lots of water, but then I shut it off. If I get more water, I have to make sure that everybody else on the canal gets as much or more water than me.”
I love that-- "I have to make sure that everybody else on the canal gets as much or more water than me." According to neo-liberal economic theory, this water is a commons, and as such should be quickly destroyed because of each farmer looking to put his or her own interests first. The "tragedy of the commons" is that by putting their own interests first ("beggar thy neighbour") the carrying capacity of the commonly used resource should be quickly overrun and the resource destroyed. But contrary to the theory, commons, like the Crowheart irrigation system, are managed well, by everyone taking the position that if we think of the needs of the others--and value those needs as much or more than our own--we can maximize the collective without destroying the commons.
td class="tr-caption" style="text-align: center;">The Wind River at the Wind River Indian Reservation, Wyoming
via James G. Howes / Wikipedia 
Noam Chomsky via Wikipedia 

Noam Chomsky puts it: "Concern for the common good should impel us to find ways to cultivate human development in its richest diversity." Chomsky links this to the ideal of anarcho-syndicalism. To quote Wikipedia: "Syndicalists consider their economic theories a strategy for facilitating worker self-activity and as an alternative co-operative economic system with democratic values and production centered on meeting human needs."
Neo-liberal capitalism doesn't center on human needs, rather it follows its own self-destructive logic of perpetual growth and increasing consumption. Chomsky points out that anarcho-sydicalism "doesn't depict "a fixed, self-enclosed social system" with a definite answer to all the multifarious questions and problems of human life, but rather a trend in human development that strives to attain Enlightenment ideals." And that "this broad tendency in human development seeks to identify structures of hierarchy, authority and domination that constrain human development, and then subject them to a very reasonable challenge: Justify yourself."
What do we want in a better world? A food secure world? Farms that don't actively destroy the commons which they depend upon. Our current industrial farms do exactly that, being significant contributors to global greenhouse gas emissions. 
We want a form of agriculture that values the farmer and farm labourer, helping each to achieve both the respect and income necessary to encourage sustainable, long-term agriculture.
We want an agriculture and food system that feeds everyone a healthy diet with minimal waste--and what waste there is should be recycled back into the food system instead of contributing to global greenhouse gas production. The modern, capitalist, industrial food system does not do this. Waste is paid for in the price of food, and then ignored, or shunted off to the desperate and the poor.
The food system as currently constituted is driven by the needs of capital, not by the needs of those who eat, and that makes its impact on the environment a problem. Perhaps it is about time to give sustainable a try, to see if we can't make a go of a more co-operative, steady-state economic system that values human needs over the needs of capital.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Canadian Food Inspection--Fail?

Back in November 2013, Canada's Auditor General raised some concern about Canada's food inspection regime. We had just come through some of the largest meat recalls in Canadian history, and considering that the focus of the Canadian food system is not feeding Canadians, but on export markets, these concerns took on an international flavour. The AG's report said (according to CBC News):
The auditor general found, for instance, that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency did recall unsafe food products in a timely fashion, but the recall system fell apart once a major food recall was announced.
"While illnesses were contained in the recalls we examined, I am not confident that the system will always yield similar results," Ferguson said.
The CFIA did not adequately manage the food recall system between 2010 and 2012 said Ferguson, who found that the agency did not have the documentation necessary to determine whether recalled food products had been disposed of, nor did it have the information necessary to identify and correct the cause of the recall in a timely way.
While registered meat establishments are required to maintain product distribution records to quickly help locate products during a food safety investigation, the audit report found many examples of incomplete documentation.
Our largest export market is the United States, and the US Department of Agriculture, charged with overseeing food imports to the US, took notice of the problems developing in Canada. Today, the Globe and Mail is reporting:
A U.S. audit of Canada’s food-safety system calls on the federal regulator to strengthen oversight of sanitation and the humane handling of animals at meat-slaughtering plants.
The findings from the tour of seven food-processing facilities, two laboratories and five Canadian Food Inspection Agency offices in the fall of 2012 were kept confidential until recently.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency received an “adequate” rating, the lowest of three scores that are meted out to countries deemed eligible to export food to the United States. The designation means Canada will be subject to more robust audits and its food exports will undergo more inspections at the U.S. border than those of countries whose food-safety systems were rated “average” or “well-performing.”
Canada’s food-safety system faced heightened scrutiny after 23 people died in an outbreak of listeriosis linked to a Maple Leaf Foods plant in Toronto in 2008, and E. coli contamination in 2012 at the former XL Foods facility near Brooks, Alta., led to the largest meat recall in Canadian history.
The full text of the US review can be found on the Department of Agriculture website (.pdf).
The Canadian government under Stephen Harper, has made some changes to food inspection practices--notably transferring responsibility for CFIA to the Health Minister from Agriculture, but there is no evidence that this has made the food system any safer.
This problem is, and will continue to be, a government that has no interest in regulating corporate behaviour. CFIA has seen its staff and budget cut and the responsibility for food safety inspections farmed out to the very corporations being inspected, with only minimal (at best) CFIA oversight. And until we restore regulatory oversight to a democratic government as opposed to the corporate-owned one we currently have, we can expect food safety to be barely adequate at best for the foreseeable future.

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Coming Crisis

About 30 percent of the major global cereal crops – rice, wheat and corn – may have reached their maximum possible yields in farmers' fields, according to University of Nebraska-Lincoln research published this week in Nature Communications. These findings raise concerns about efforts to increase food production to meet growing global populations.
Yields of these crops have recently decreased or plateaued. Future projections that would ensure global food security are typically based on a constant increase in yield, a trend that this research now suggests may not be possible.
Estimates of future global food production and its ability to meet the dietary needs of a population expected to grow from 7 billion to 9 billion by 2050 have been based largely on projections of historical trends. Past trends have, however, been dominated by the rapid adoption of new technologies – some of which were one-time innovations – which allowed for an increase in crop production.
As a result, projections of future yields have been optimistic – perhaps too much so, indicates the findings of UNL scientists Kenneth Cassman and Patricio Grassini, of the agronomy and horticulture department, and Kent Eskridge of the statistics department.
Source: UNL news release
Isn't that good news to start the New Year off with?  Thirty percent of current cropland has topped out its productivity and may actually begin to decline in yields. The authors of the paper suggest that regardless of how much money we dump into research into crops and productivity, "return on these investments is steadily declining in terms impact on raising crop yields." That's the "high-production" industrial agriculture we're talking about. And that's not including increased salinity, loss of cropland to desertification (particularly in Northern China), climate change effects, or any of the other threats to food production we might be facing.
All the indications are that we're facing an extended "Special Period" similar to the one experienced by Cuba after 1991. Which is one of the reasons why I've been reading a lot on the Great Hunger; the Irish famine of 1845-1847.
I expect to be writing a great deal more on the famine in the near future, but for now, let me just hit a few of the high points:
  • The famine happened with a short-term change in historic climate patterns in Ireland. Temperatures went up a little, allowing a previously quiescent mould to get a grip on the potato crop.
  • The Irish were utterly dependent on the potato. Worse, primarily on the "Lumper" cultivar.
  • The Irish economy was crap, undiversified, and beat down over the last century by the English in response to some poor choices on the part of the Catholic Irish on who they supported politically.
  • The English were in the grip of a religious revival that was very Old Testament, and were busy blaming victims for religious reasons rather than looking at political solutions.
  • The English were in the grip of a neo-liberal economic philosophy that demonised interference in the market, and exalted free-trade.
I'd go on, but you might be ahead of me here. Amartya Sen says that there's never been a famine in a democracy, but doesn't say anything about failed states that were once democracies.