Wednesday, October 21, 2015


The prize-winning quince
Photo by E. B. Klassen CC BY-SA
Creative Commons Licenses

I've had a bit of luck recently and come into possession of about 4 kilos (10 pounds) of quince. This has meant that I can do a bit of experimenting with new recipes above making some quince jelly.
Quince likes to be cooked--in fact, without it, quince is almost inedible. It's like medlars in that way. Medlars need to be bletted, quince really need to be cooked. I found a recipe for "rosy poached quince" that I decided to try. It involves simmering the quince in a poaching liquid for at least an hour, during which the quince go from white, hard, fibrous pieces of fruit to a beautiful red, soft morsel.
I got the poaching liquid ready and peeled and cut up the quince. Peeling's easy, but the coring and cutting is a bit harder. Quince, before cooking, are pretty tough. I saved the peels into a small pot, covered them with water an set them to boil and then simmer for an hour, while the fruit went into the poaching liquid. Quince are very high in pectin, so the thinking was to extract both pectin and flavour from the peels while preparing the fruit.
The other recipe I really wanted to try was for slow-roasted quince. Technically, this is braised quince, because you're cooking them in a moist environment. And you slow-roast them for five to six hours. I started both batches in the morning, so the poached quince was something to try for lunch, while the slow-roast was clearly for dinner.
Because the poached quince can and do keep for a week in the refrigerator, the volume of prepared quince wasn't daunting. We had some poached quince for lunch, and then had three or four dinner deserts out of them over the subsequent week. And they were excellent. Quince are delicious and have a lovely scent, so keeping a close rein on spicing is important. I added a couple of allspice berries and a clove to the poaching liquid, and didn't find them necessary at all.
The slow-raost quince have an apple grated over them to help keep thedm from drying out in the oven. I used an Ambrosia, which worked well. Crisp enough to grate well; almost flavourless, so it didn't interfere with the flavour of the quince; and moist enough to keep the quince from drying out.
The braising liquid from the slow-roast quince was added to the liquid saved after boiling the peels, and a bit of the poaching liquid was also tossed in the pot. I broaght it up to a boil, simmered it until the volume was reduced by about 30%, and then jarred the result. This has given me a beautiful, deep red quince jelly. And with the high pectin content, nothing had to be added to jell it. In fact, quince is often used as a jelling agent for other fruit.
We had guests in this weekend, and to amuse their palates, I put a small amount of quince jelly on a cracker, added a bit of liver pâté on top, and topped it with an unknown herb cheese.*  The sweet floral of the quince jelly pairs extremely well with the savoury of the pâté.
The braising liquid also worked well as a drink vinegar. A small amount in a glass then filled with carbonated water was delightful. Next up: Membrillo.

*This came from the remains of a cheese brought back from Amsterdam, passed on to my Significant Other's aunt, who passed it on to us. It's insanely good, creamy and toothsome with a wonderful flavour, and we have no idea what it's called or how to get more.

Monday, October 5, 2015

The Secrets of Soil

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. has produced a series of educational readers on the secrets of soil for kids between ages 5 and 14. The guides are free,as is the educators guide. This might be a great take-away for compost educators....
The FAO hosts a terrific amount of information about the world food situation, including an interactive map on hunger levels around the world.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Apple Festival--Sooke

Northern Spy apple photo by Red58bill

We made it out to the Sooke Apple Festival on the weekend. This is part of our current "get to know our new neighbourhood" programme. We've been here about three months and have had nothing but a great time; the farm and garden tour, the fall fair (where the significant other took a couple of blue ribbons in the knitting categories), and now Apple Festival.
We found the Sunriver Community Garden and Community Orchard with no real problems. They are tucked away on a couple of acres in a bit of a hollow surrounded by new housing. The housing seems a bit out of place: it looks like standard subdivision/bedroom community housing, when the rest of the town is mostly older vernacular architecture.
The community garden is only a couple of years old, but looks terrific. I talked to one fellow working on his greenhouse door. I mentioned that the 5 metre tall sunflower growing out through the roof was an interesting choice. His reply? It was a volunteer that he decided to let grow and cut a hole in the roof so it could keep going. Which seems typical of the attitudes around here.
The hundred or so plots are well-tended with a lot of work having gone into making the whole garden attractive. Beautiful paths, split-log bench, various decorations, all contribute to a feeling of joy. Which is one of the big differences I noticed between farming in Alberta and farming on Vancouver Island: On the Island, it is not enough to be growing stuff. The farm itself must be beautiful as well. People go out of their way to add beauty to their surroundings. Like the grape arbour we saw that could have been utilitarian and functional. Instead, it was built from four corner-posts with arches meeting in the centre. A stained-glass light in the centre was over a concrete pad studded with coloured glass and other inclusions. Walkways lead in from the four directions to meet under the coloured light. What was originally a structure on which to hang grape vines has become a place, an experience. 
The Apple Festival was held in an open area attached to the community garden, a pop-up venue with a dozen or more of those ubiquitous 3m X 3m pop-up canopies. With everything from pies to pies to pies (there were a lot of pies), there were several local food artisans in attendance. BBQ salmon burgers, these insanely wonderful amuse-bouche of crab-apple jelly and duck-liver pate on little rounds of crusty bread that almost made me cry. Sooke Harbour House had samples of a sorbet made from locally foraged berries and lemon verbena that lifted your taste-buds as it melted around your tongue. And the waffle-maker had a salsa that, when you first put it in your mouth was all about the little berries popping, then about the fruit/savoury combination before sliding away into spicy finish.
There were apples for sale (both cooking and eating apples), with opportunities to sample tastes of different varieties. I finally got to try a Northern Spy (a little tart, firm, moderate crunch), but there were a dozen or so varieties around. There were also a half-dozen or more varieties available as trees for sale. An unexpected plus was the availability of quince--I bought a couple of pounds, including, apparently, the one which had taken the blue ribbon at the fall fair. I'm looking forward to eating the jelly I'll make from them.
The logical comparison to make here is with the Saltspring Island apple festival. The Island festival has a couple of dozen orchards with over 200 varieties of apples. On the other hand, Sooke was more intimate, fun, and had live music from local musicians (including a Hang). And I could walk there. Great time!

Friday, September 18, 2015

The Emergent Agriculture--a review

There is not a lot that is new in Gary Kleppel's book The Emergent Agriculture: Farming, Sustainability, and the Return of the Local Economy. A cogent, well-reasoned take-down of industrial ag--but then, there's a herd of those, ranging from succinct to verbose (for the record, Kleppel is more towards the succinct end of the spectrum). A call for a more appropriate agriculture? Read that. An overview of New Ag farms? Nice, but seen that. 
Where Kleppel's book shines is in the discussion of  the new/old structures of how food moves from producer to consumer. And it should; Kleppel is himself both an academic and a farmer.
Antonio Gramsci described a group of people who, though members of the working class or the bourgeoisie, are an organically developed "thinking class" that "articulate, through the language of culture, the feelings and experiences which the masses could not express for themselves." He called them "public intellectuals." There should be a name for those who, although they hold membership in the traditional academic intelligentsia, chose to immerse themselves in traditional forms of work. We need more of these two groups, and Gary Kleppel, professor of biology at SUNY Albany, is definitely in the latter group.
When trying to see the shape of a new way of living, a new societal paradigm, it helps to have the kind of training given to those who pursue an academic career. Such training helps one to see both the large view and the details. When your talking about agriculture, it really helps to have gotten your hands dirty.
When Kleppel talks about the new/old methods of marketing food, it helps that he's worked a farmer's market and participated in a CSA (community supported agriculture). When we grew food, it was quite clear that the place most farmers fell down was in the marketing of their products.
When farmers get $0.02 out of the sale price of a loaf of bread, the correct response is not to grow more wheat. The better response is to find ways to capture more of the profit from your production.
I kept saying that our customers didn't come for the vegetables as much as they came for the connection. They wanted the story. An example: We had a number of zucchini that were not straight, but curved around small scars in their skins. People hesitated to buy them until I pointed out that these scars came from our pesticide; chickens. The occasional peck at a bug would scar the zucchini skin, leaving it to heal slightly bent. The damage was quickly seen as a mark, not of failure, but of superiority. These were not perfect because of the type of farming we did.
These are the connections celebrated in Gary Kleppel's book; unmediated links between producer and consumer. But not every farmer is ready to be a farmer, an ecologist, and a marketer. This is an area that he misses--the role of the co-operative movement. Co-ops can fill the gap of missing abilities. Small cheesemakers. Farmer's supplying a group-owned store. While the future may play out the way The Emergent Agriculture suggest, it will also be more complex, more intricate, than it suggests. Good book, though.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Sooke Farm Tour part 1

Yesterday, 19 July 2015, was the annual Sooke Farm and Food Tour, organized by Sooke Region Food CHI (Community Health Initiative). There were eight stops on the tour, and it seemed like a good way to get to know some of our new neighbours and start to integrate into the community.
We, Paula and I, started our tour with a visit to Saltwest Naturals, our local salt production headquarters. Jessica and Jeff Abel have a small, artisanal operation producing a range of salt products from local sea water. When we arrived, a little after 11 am, the temperature in the “greenhouse” was already 55°C, and the day hadn't really got going yet.
Jeff walked us through the process of making salt: collecting, concentrating, evaporating, washing, and then any final preparation.  Collection is done a few hundred litres at a time, filling a 1600 litre tank. The first step is to concentrate the seawater. Jeff mentioned that our local waters are only about 2.5% salt, much lower than is common. This is an artifact of the tremendous amount of fresh water than pours into the ocean. The local waters are also higher in magnesium (which, if left in the salt in the amount it comes naturally, makes salt taste bitter), and also a broad spectrum of other minerals (a broader spectrum, but lower concentration than Himalayan pink salt blocks that are so popular).
Saltwest uses a small reverse osmosis system to concentrate the brine from 2.5% to about 5% (nifty tool: the refractometer. A few drops spread on a screen, and you can check the salt content of the water).
Handheld Refractometer
Fernando G. (FGM)

CC BY-SA 3.0

 The demineralized pure water that comes from the system is bottled and sold as Canada's first desalinated bottled water.
The brine then gets split between two processes; the first is the raw boil, where large aluminum stock pots are filled and brought to a boil. Aluminum is used because it resists salt damage even better than stainless steel (I had no idea....). Once the brine is concentrated to about 80%, the heat is lowered to ~155°F and held, until flat crystals of salt begin to form and clump on the top of the water. This is salt flowers, fleur de sel, the prized, ultra-fine salt.
Jeff explaining the fleur de sel process
The other process is to fill trays with the brine, and spread them out in the... well, greenhouse is the word we used, but perhaps brine-house would be more accurate. Very quickly, the brine concentrates and the salt crystallizes out. Once the water is gone, the pans are left overnight, and the salt re-absorbs some moisture from the night air (salt is hydrophilic), making it softer and easier to take out of the evaporation pans.
The greenhouse where the brine is evaporated

Salt forming on the brine

At this point the salt is not yet ready for prime time. The next step is to wash the salt. Yes, in water, which seems to defeat the whole purpose of evaporating the water out in the first place. But a brine solution of 25% salt is the most salt water can carry, so washing salt in this brine means the salt doesn't dissolve. Who knew? Washing also removes much of the excess magnesium from the salt, making it taste much better.
Raw salt before washing

For some of the salt, this is the end of the line; dried in an oven to quickly take the last of the moisture out, packaged, and shipped to one of over 350 distribution points (or “stores” as the lay public calls them ). Other salt is re-brined and cooked with onions and garlic or other plants, and the flavours are infused into the salt. Yet more salt in run through a smoker, adding scent and flavour. Salt is bottled, bagged, or tinned up and shipped out, keeping Jessica and Jeff (and a mother-in-law two days a week) very busy.
Now, if you had asked me four years ago if I wanted to get into the salt-making business, I'd have stared at you like you were nuts. I didn't see it coming—there was Sifto and Morton and that was about it. I'd have been interested in learning how to make salt, but not as a business. Four years later, there's several local salt-works; Saltwest, Vancouver Island Salt Co., and Sea To Sky—which makes “Vancouver's Hottest Salt,” a claim I absolutely believe after having tried some (it's infused with ghost chilies, cayenne, habaneros, and pepper sauce). Jessica was saying that the market had gone from zero to highly competitive in a very short time.
So far, most of the salt makers have remained smaller, artisanal operations, very hands-on. But I fear for the future. Too much competition brings the fear that you might be missing out on something you could have—and that brings concentration rather than co-operation. It becomes easier to buy businesses and fold them together to maximize profit, rather than to co-operate and maximize the number of producers and grow the market. Or the lure of profits brings in outside money to do the damage.
Most of our salt these days is mined salt—salt dug from massive underground deposits or washed from deep deposits. Salt-making is one of those processes that goes way back in human history. Salt-pans are common through much of Europe and the Middle East. Salt is one of the ways Gandhi showed the insanity of colonialism—the British passed laws against Indians making salt from ocean water, in order to maintain a profit-maximizing economic control over the country. Salt is what opened up the Canadian east-coast cod fishery—without salt, European fishermen could not have transported fish from the Grand Banks back to the continent. 

MarkKurlansky's Salt: A World History is an exhaustive look at the effect salt production has had on world history, and is certainly worth a read. 

The chapter on salt in Twinkie, Deconstructed: My Journey to Discover How the Ingredients Found in Processed Foods Are Grown, Mined (Yes, Mined), and Manipulated into What America Eats is also an interesting look into modern North American salt production. 

All uncredited photographs are by me and released under CC BY-SA 3.0 except the covers of Salt And Twinkie Deconstructed, which are copyright by their respective publishers.

Friday, March 27, 2015

The Word: It's Worse Than We Think

via Simon and Schuster

Looking at the UCL-Lancet Commission on Managing the Health Effects of Climate Change report and one thing becomes clear; the future is going to be so much worse than we think.
As the project summary says:
A major report on managing the health effects of climate change, launched jointly by The Lancet and UCL, says that climate change is the biggest global health threat of the 21st century.
The commission reviewed the likely health impacts of climate change on human societies – and documented ways to reverse those impacts. It concluded that there is a need for policymakers, practitioners and the public to act urgently on the human health effects of climate change.
The report is already six years old, and the major problems identified still haven't made it into public discussion in North America. As the Lancet editorial opens:
Climate change will have its greatest impact on those who are already
the poorest in the world: it will deepen inequities and the effects of global warming will shape the future of health among all peoples. Yet this message has failed to penetrate most public discussion about climate change. And health professionals have barely begun to engage
with an issue that should be a major focal point for their research, preparedness planning, and advocacy [...].
Climate change and the projected effects of a changing climate develop quickly into a highly complex group of  inter-related problems: including disease, food, water and sanitation, shelter and settlements, extreme events, population and migration, and politics.
In the Commonwealth Health Ministers briefing on food [pdf], the study points out the following:
  • Climate change will worsen any existing food insecurity--anything bad now will only get worse.
  • The changes brought about by global warming will necessitate changes to agricultural practices--this is everything from what is grown, where it is grown, to how it is grown. But when it comes to the necessity of using GMOs, "the Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (also known as the World Agriculture Report), which was written by over 400 scientists, rejects that view. It sees ‘...a major role for agricultural knowledge, science and increase adaptive capacity and enhance resilience through purposeful biodiversity management’. The options set forth include ‘...irrigation management, water harvesting and conservation technologies, diversification of agriculture systems, the protection of agro-biodiversity and screening germ-plasm for tolerance to climate change."
  • The globalised food and agriculture system serves the interests of large
    corporations, while neglecting the needs of the increased numbers of
    hungry people. Can't say that much clearer, can you?
  • Agricultural practices and the global food system are major contributors to global warming. So, business as usual is just not an option.
  • The current methods of dealing with disaster and distributing food
    aid tend not to alleviate the long-term situation, often resulting in
    dependency upon aid. And that doesn't solve any long-term problems.
  • The impact of climate change on global food security, and in turn the public health risks, need to be tackled holistically. Simply put, there's no single solution. Because the problem is the system, the system must be attacked simultaneously from multiple angles in multiple ways. Which is good, because the only way the system can be taken down is to hit it hard, hit it fast, and hit it in so many ways that the corporations cannot respond effectively.
Six years on, and this still isn't in the everyday discourse. Frankly, every news report should be seen through the lens of climate change. Collapsing economy? Probably good news, as people in economic trouble burn fewer fossil fuels. In Canada, Bill C 51? A tool to prevent concerned citizens worried about climate change from interfering with the corporate right to profit while destroying the world. As Naomi Klein says, This Changes Everything.
Film: ‘Managing the Health Effects of Climate Change’

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Profits First, You Know

"RawBacon" by Jonathunder - Own work.
Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

CBC is reporting on how food manufacturers are handling their desire to maintain their profit margins. Because consumers are "sensitive to price increases," manufacturers are shrinking volumes rather than pushing a higher price at the till.
While this allows prices to be kept stable, it also allows for massive profit increases.Shrinking a package of bacon from 500 grams to 375 grams is the equivalent of a 25% price hike. You may also have noticed that the slices are thinner as well--to make it look like the same number of portions.
Lay's potato chips--already renowned as being more bag than chips, has also shrunk their portions from 200 grams to 180 grams; a 10% change.
And even in the world of milk, where producers (at least in Canada) are generally guaranteed a fair price for their production by provincial milk quota, dairies are messing with standard sizes. Instead of 1, 2, and 4 cup volumes (250, 500, 1000 millilitres), they have begun selling 237 and 473 millilitre volumes.
From an historical perspective, we are paying a remarkably low portion of our income for food. And here in BC, we depend on California for an amazing amount of our produce. So with the extended drought in Cali and the neglect of our local production, consumers here have been getting progressively squeezed. It just happens to come at a time when corruption in the financial industry has left the real economy reeling worldwide. Massive speculation in food markets led to price spikes in 2008 - 2009, and had various countries stopping exports of various foods (such as wheat from Russia). Since then, things have settled down, but both the race for profits and climate change have kept consumer prices for food on an upward trending line.
Things are not going to get better. Research in Canada has shown that farmers growing patented seed may see production of up to $350/acre, but may see net profits as low as $1.50/acre. This is not a recipe for bringing more farmers on-stream (although it will continue to maintain the massive profits seen by their suppliers and those buying their product).

Monday, March 23, 2015

Spring Garden, 2015


Well, the strawberries are replanted, the raised bed has more soil in it, and there should be plenty of berries by June. Spring is officially here!
I'm feeling pretty good this year, because while I'm not pushing the season, at least I'm not dragging behind it. A couple of weeks back I got the cabbage sets in, planted a small amount of radishes, and then planted broccoli a week or so later. So as of Equinox, there is stuff growing in the garden!

Sure, it's a small bed. But it's growing!
The goal is to grow enough radishes each week to supply the family Monday night dinner salad. As you can see, the cabbage (on the right) has already had a run-in with some slugs. The terracotta saucer has run out of beer and needs replenishing already (and, I suspect, changing over to a deeper plastic saucer).

Yeah, it's been raining again...
The kale (on the left) has done reasonably well over the winter. Of course, it was a drier and warmer winter than usual. The rhubarb (on the right of the bed) recognizes spring--it's doubled in size over the last week. Soon there will be that glorious sour, astringent taste from eating rhubarb. I'll have to save some for mixing with the strawberries in a pie.

Love all the spring green.
I've also started the trellising for the beans and peas. Scarlet Runner beans again (why mess with success), and Oregon Giant snow peas (same reasoning). I'm hoping for an all-time early crop of each this year. Now if we can just get back to those sunny +15ºC of February....

Friday, March 13, 2015

Grease My Palm With Oil

 Via Al Jazeera English

Palm oil. Already a $40 bn/year industry. You can find its derivatives in chocolate, shampoo, toothpaste, detergent, ice cream, floor polish and a host of other products filling supermarket shelves. And, just as you'd expect, that kind of money brings with it capitalism, corruption, and colonialism.
Al Jazeera has produced a series on the effects expanding palm oil production is having in Africa. To quote from the article:
(...) palm oil cultivation does not come cost-free. If not done sustainably, say conservationists, it can have disastrous consequences for people and the environment. In Indonesia, for example, it has played a major role in deforestation which has seen the loss of more than 6 million hectares of primary forest over the last 15 years.
As rainforests are home to least half of this planet's species of plants, animals and insects, the negative impact on global biodiversity can only be imagined. In addition, indigenous communities are also destroyed as people who have lived happily off the forest's resources for generations, often do not own the land (at least not in a form recognised by governments, corporations and their lawyers) and are frequently displaced to make way for new plantations.
There's also the problem that as foreign corporations look to create oil palm plantations, they are finding that indigenous communities have much wider ranges than previously thought or understood, traditional use of territories frequently overlaps between different indigenous groups, and indigenous peoples are often more difficult to buy off or remove than originally thought. Precisely the same issues facing the exploitation of British Columbia's natural resources by multi-national corporations: First Nation's have been here all along, have claim to the land, and aren't really interested in making colonialists richer at their expense.
Having seen the "benefits" of forcing the Inuit off their land and into towns, and the exploitation of resources in the north, this Al Jazeera documentatry looks all too familiar.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Re-Cycle

From Al Jazeera English

Phosphorus is one of those elements necessary to plant growth, but also seriously abused by modern farmers. Excessive fertilization contaminates runoff, causing algal blooms and killing off lakes and rivers (and, during the Eighties, lead to the deaths of beluga whales in the St. Lawrence river).
Technology, developed in Canada, looks to make us less reliant on mining phosphorus, instead allowing us to recycle it. Amandeep Bhangu, an Al Jazeera reporter in London, UK, visits Europe's first facility that is turning raw sewage into fertiliser.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Why Modern Farmer Rocks...

Because of articles like this. Sarah Baird spotted an old Tex Avery-directed cartoon and decided to have fun with it. My kind of people.....

Wednesday, February 18, 2015


That's what economics calls services that business doesn't pay for. Katherine Paul has an excellent article at Common Dreams called Who should clean up Big Ag's mess?
An excerpt from the opening of the article should suffice to get you over there to read it:
A “Cow Palace” in Washington State threatens public health with its acres of untreated animal waste.
A city in Iowa spends nearly $1 million a year to keep illness-causing nitrates, generated by farm runoff, out of public drinking water.
And who can forget the plight of Toledo, Ohio, residents whose water last summer was so contaminated by farm runoff that they couldn’t even bathe in it, much less drink it?
For decades, America’s chemical-intensive, industrial farming operations have spewed nitrates and other toxic chemicals, animal waste, ammonia, antibiotics, carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane gases into public air, waterways and communities.
How do they get away with it? Largely because lobbyists have seen to it that Big Ag is exempt from many of the rules and regulations that other industries, and even municipalities, are required to follow under the Clean Air Act (comments on exemptions here), the Clean Water Act (comments on exemptions here), the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), the Safe Drinking Act, and others.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Landrace Preservation

Landraces of Andean maize
credit: Karl Zimmerer, Penn State

Science Daily is reporting that what is left of the world's crop diversity is being held by small farmers--that is, farmers who hold between three and seven acres (1-3 hectares) of land.
To quote from the Penn State news release:
What the census shows is that small farmers, in many cases women, are the ones preserving landraces of food crops. A landrace is a locally adapted, traditional variety of a domesticated species. Depending on the crop, farmers may plant anywhere from one to 15 different landraces. While the livelihoods of small land users are often precarious, these landraces provide vital farm and food resources. 
 Small farmers tend to plant different landraces in the same field, encouraging hybridization. Maize, for example, hybridizes quite easily, while potatoes do not. This means a farmer may plant 3 or 4 landraces of maize, but up to 30 or more landraces of potatoes.
But the landraces are not just preserved by farmers in remote rural areas. Frequently they are found also in peri-urban areas--where people live near, and depend upon urban areas--where people are growing local food for local consumption.
The press release alone makes for fascinating reading, and leaves us with some hope for the diversity of foods.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Plus ça Change c'est la même chose. CBC news is reporting that, while we may think that infant and toddler foods are made to the highest nutritional standards, in fact, they are still being made to shape tastes as the kids grow up. As the article puts it: "The sodium concentration in infant and toddler savory snacks in the latest study was comparable to plain salted potato chips." Are we surprised? We shouldn't be. This first came up back in the 1960s, with exactly the same problems, for exactly the same reasons, and with exactly the same defense.

Monday, February 2, 2015

American Samoa Crosses Their Collective Fingers

Hoping that the next scheduled cargo ship from the US arrives February 2nd. Apparently a dispute between dock workers and their employers at US ports has left Samoa concerned about their food supply.
Radio New Zealand reports:
American Samoa is beginning to feel the effects of shipping delays due to a work slowdown as union negotiations are underway in the United States.
The last food freighter that brought essential food supplies was four weeks ago and most stores have run out of eggs and milk.
Fresh produce is also in short supply driving up the prices of what's available with one store in the Tuala-uta area selling a single tomato for more than $2.
The Manager of the School Lunch Program Christine Fualaau says they have enough supplies for the 18,000 students at the moment but if there's any further delays they will run out.
Ms Fualaau says they bought milk from local suppliers anticipating delays.
She says they have enough to tide them over until the arrival of the next freighter set for February 2.
For produce the school program is using local vegetables and fruits.
The shipping delays have also postponed the start of production at the new Samoa Tuna Processors cannery.
 A similar problem is occurring in Canada's North; CBC is reporting that prices are so high, and the government of Stephen Harper's response has been so ill-thought-out, that they are now trying a boycott of the Northwest Company's grocery stores.

Friday, January 30, 2015

History Lessons

stock image
There was a time, during the late sixties and early seventies, when food hit the top of the agenda in the US. Part of the reason was the politicization of a wide swath of the "Boomer" generation, and part of it was the "inside the beltway" work of Ralph Nader and his crusaders.
The underground press, in conjunction with political bookstores and health food stores, spread the word among the newly politicized public, while Nader's appearances in front of Congress put the word out in the above-ground media. What is appalling is how many of the issues raised then are the issues that are still being raised, as this short excerpt from Harvey Levenstein's Paradox of Plenty shows:
[The three major television networks] repeated charges such as that meat packers relied on the “4D' animals—dead, dying, diseased, and disabled—for processed meats. Realizing that public confidence in all of their products was being shaken, the large meat packers, some of whom owned intrastate packing companies, abandoned their opposition to the bill [to enable the USDA to enforce standards at state-level meat packing plants], enabling it to pass easily.

The quick victory amazed the reformers. Rarely had a bill shot though Congress in less than six months, particularly in the face of stiff opposition in the key committees responsible for it. It showed, some Naderites said, that American politics was not, as current intellectual fashion had it, based on irrational appeals; the public had been given the facts, and its representatives had been forced to respond. Yet in fact the critics soon began to use food issues for quite the opposite reason—their emotional punch. After all, the news that hot dogs contained rat hairs and that breast milk harbored DDT hardly provoked cool reasoning. The activists hoped that a public emotionally aroused by issues such as these would support their wider campaigns to protect the nation's health and welfare from the effects of business greed. Nader was rather rueful about the packers' quick cave-in. They had thereby managed, he said, to put the lid back on the Pandora's box of other issues—chemical adulteration of meat, microbiological contamination, misuse of hormones and antibiotics, pesticide residues, ingredient standards—that would have been useful in rallying the public to his larger crusade to curb corporate abuses.

But the food industries were hardly more successful than Pandora. After confidently announcing to a skeptical audience of newspaper editors in 1968 that food would become the top news story of the coming year, Nader recruited enthusiastic young law and college students to ferret through the food industries' dirty linen—combing the obscure reports of government agencies, analyzing lists of ingredients, asking chemists and biologists about their additives, assembling statistics to document the continuing concentration of economic power in fewer hands. By mid-1969 he was ready with enough evidence to begin the massive assault along the broad food-processing and agribusiness front he relished.

Appearing before the Senate's new Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, he charged that the food industry was dominated by immensely powerful oligopolies who cared only about selling their products, not about their nutritive value. Their “manipulative strategies” bilked the consumer; “the silent violence of their harmful food products” caused “erosion of the bodily processes, shortening of life or sudden death.” Geneticists feared that “the river of chemicals

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Modern Farmer

via USDA Photo by by Keith Weller
 Modern Farmer has a great article on the diversity of potatoes and the efforts to expand the number of varieties being grown in the US. It's a great example of what I love about MF; an in-depth article about something not enough people know about, and, in this case, a great partnership. Written by Ferris Jabr, the article notes "This article was reported with support from the UC Berkeley-11th Hour Food and Farming Journalism Fellowship." So, yay!
But, depressingly, the New York Times is reporting that this wonderful, quirky magazine may by about to disappear. Currently, the magazine part of the operation has suspended after the departure of the magazine’s founder, Ann Marie Gardner, followed by the remainder of the editorial staff. The editorial content has been left to two interns--and they're gone February 1st
Sadly, there is a Canadian connection to this story. The Times reports;
At the center of Modern Farmer’s collapse is the magazine’s financial performance. Mr. Giustra, who made money from mining interests, founded Lion’s Gate Entertainment and is a major contributor to the foundation headed by Bill Clinton, had been eager to move into food. He started an Italian olive oil company, invested in both industrial and small-scale farming operations and financed a specialty food company based in San Francisco.
Modern Farmer was part of that portfolio. But after a handful of issues, Mr. Giustra was disappointed in Ms. Gardner’s performance regarding early revenue figures and her ability to deliver additional investors. In the end, the chasm between the two became too wide to bridge and she left.
 Modern Farmer has been a great read. Mr. Giustra has said that the spring edition will be cancelled, but after some new hires, he plans a summer issue. I'll be surprised if he finds writers and editors who can catch that same quirky tone--ranging between global warming and chicken breeds with passion and good humour.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Talking About Food-- Nationally

Food Secure Canada is making it's bid to place a national food policy on the table as an issue in the nest federal election (expected this fall). According to a survey they've taken of their members, this is how the election issues shake out:

via Food Secure Canada

Their recent newsletter was pretty upfront about their push:

We are calling on politicians of all political parties to Step Up to the Plate!
We need a national food policy - a new vision for our food system that encompasses the goals of zero hunger, healthy and safe food, and a more sustainable food system.
We want the next Federal Government to be committed to our agenda. As New York Times columnist Mark Bittman so eloquently put it:

"You can’t address climate change without fixing agriculture, you can’t fix health without improving diet, you can’t improve diet without addressing income [...]. The production, marketing, and consumption of food is key to nearly everything."
The bottom line is that we need a national food policy that will eliminate hunger, ensure safe and healthy food for all, and set us in the direction of a more sustainable food system. Our ambitious vision is outlined in Resetting the Table: A People’s Food Policy for Canada.
In the past four years, we have witnessed increasing levels of food insecurity, an untreated epidemic of diet-related illnesses that costs billions, and an aging farming population that newcomers cannot afford to replace. The current government has not shown leadership on these issues. With a coordinated national campaign, we think the food movement can speak in a united voice. Strengthening our movement and building our membership goes hand in hand with advocacy.
FSC is a pretty good group. I recommend heading over to their website and signing up for their newsletter, or check them out on facebook. You can also tweet them  @FoodSecureCAN

Monday, January 26, 2015

That Crushing Sense of Doom

Welcome to a Monday morning--and some lovely news.
First, Grist has reported on the application of nanotechnology to the application of pesticides. It's felt that by creating these ultra-fine droplets (we're talking about sizes in the billionths of a metre), it will take far less volume to treat the same area. So join me in a (very) cautious "yay" (no exclamation point).
Of course, new technologies bring a host of potential problems with them. And in the case of nano-droplet pesticides, these concerns involve how the nano-particles will react with the macro-world. Tiny particles may allow broader contamination of groundwater, leading to higher levels food-chain concentration. Or new ways in which these pesticides might react with mammalian nervous systems (you know, like ours). Things act very differently in the nano-world.
This is, of course, part of the ongoing commodification of technology that Marx and Engels wrote about over a century ago. Research is only seen as valuable if it can be monetized. Ask our Prime Minister, Stephen Harper; he has stopped pretty much all research that is not in the service of capital. This commodification is one of the reasons that so little pure research is being conducted on Canada (as well as the rest of the developed world). It's all about engineering older discoveries into forms suitable for our commodity culture.

In different news, it looks like 2014 may be one of the top five hottest years on record. But of much more concern is the news, reported in the Guardian, that ocean temperatures are spiking so high that NOAA is having to re-calibrate their scales to accommodate the speed of temperature rise.
Ocean heat content data to a depth of 2,000 meters, from NOAA.
The ocean has been absorbing about 90 percent of global warming energy, so the atmosphere has warmed slower than might have been expected. Because global warming science looks at the amount of energy in the entire climate system, ocean temperatures are essential to understanding how rapid is the rise in global temperatures.
Denialists, by cherry picking atmospheric data, claim that either warming is not happening, or is happening at a much slower rate. The graph above shows the lie in that. So, yes, ocean populations are crashing; yes, we are in the late middle of the Sixth Extinction; and no, humans aren't going to make it. There's simply too many of us too invested in continuing the current system at the cost of everything else. Best case scenario? The koalas take over--all they want is to get stoned and sleep.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Halibut Is...

...that millions of kilograms of halibut are being caught by the big boats while they're trying to catch other species. A problem called “bycatch”.
Pacific halibut from Cook's Inlet, Alaska.
Photo by Jlikes2Fish via Wikipedia

The problem on the west coast of North America is primarily in Alaska, where the rules state that all fish, bycatch or not, must be identified, measured, and sexed by below-deck observers. The process can take up to two hours, and even though part of that time is spent in fish tanks with some water, when they are finally returned to the ocean, most halibut don't make it alive.
Other jurisdictions, such as British Columbia, allow the fish to be sorted on deck, making for a quicker return of bycatch into the water. A practice that significantly lowers the mortality rate.
The head of Seattle's Groundfish Forum, Chris Woodley (representing five companies operating 14 factory fishing vessels in Alaskan waters), has said that trawlers have cut down bycatch, making flatfish only about 0.5 percent of current catch levels of flatfish.
This brings up the question “If 0.5 percent of the flatfish caught in the Bering Sea is millions of kilos, then how much is being caught overall?” It's no wonder that modern fisheries are unsustainable and our oceans are collapsing into nothing but jellyfish, krill, and plastics. Halibut, for example, can grow larger than 2.4 metres (~7 feet long) and weigh over 225 kilos (about 500 pounds). But they cannot grow that big overnight. Fish of that size are survivors, maximum breeders, and targeted by us. Fish that big don't get taken by canoes, dories, or small boats, leaving them plenty of opportunity to re-stock any volumes humans take. But the advent of trawlers and big factory ships meant that these big fish became prime targets.
Overfishing of all species has lead to a quota system, where boats are only allowed a set amount of a specific fish over a limited time. But by allowing the factory ships and their massive nets into productive waters has meant that while the ships might be limited in their catch size of a target fish, bycatch numbers have stayed very high. And this is a worldwide problem.
Current quota-based jurisdictions on the West Coast, other than Alaska, have also instituted a bycatch quota, meaning that vessels must stop fishing when they hit their bycatch limit. I won't say that this is best practice, but it is better than the unlimited bycatch allowed in Alaska.

This piece references Keven Drews' Canadian Press article printed in the Times-Colonist of 20 January, 2015.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Professor Elliot, Horsemeat, and the High Cost of Cheap

"Paardenrookvlees" by Takeaway - Own work.
Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Well, after many delays, concerns, and political panic attacks, the Elliot report (pdf), (precisely, the Elliott Review into the Integrity and Assurance of Food Supply Networks) has finally been released in the UK. Professor Elliot, a food safety academic from Queen's University in Belfast, chaired the committee, and the final report bears his name. Like the IPCC climate report, the final version has been subject to intense political negotiation by the affected parties before the report's release, which makes, like the IPCC report, the observations and recommendations pretty amazing. Professor Elliot, in the opening paragraphs of the report says:
I published my interim report in December 2013 which set out what should be done to address weaknesses in the system.Stakeholders welcomed the interim report and the opportunity to provide further feedback before I published this final report.I have since completed a further round of meetings and evidence gathering. Stakeholders felt that the final report should provide additional background about the recommendations and their implementation. Feedback has further shaped my recommendations and this, my final report, sets out the issues and the best way to tackle them in more detail.
 Had Professor Elliot been able to be a bit more frank, the passage might read "My preliminary report freaked out the government and food industry so much that they threatened me, my crew, and my university until I was forced to use much less dangerous political language--particularly that I should make it clear that it wasn't business' fault." You know, just like the IPCC.
The most media-friendly takeaway from the report seems to be that organized crime has a pretty big share of the UK food supply, and that it doesn't play by the rules. Which, to be fair, is pretty interesting. But the report also makes the point that the only way organized crime got a foothold in the food system is through 1) the complexity of the food supply chain, and 2) the concentration on price as the only significant driver on the food supply.
The report points out the difficulty of knowing how bad food fraud and food crime are in the UK:
[M]ore information about the extent of food crime was sought. The review contacted food businesses through trade associations and also territorial police forces. [...] Whilst it may appear from this feedback that food crime is not widespread in the UK, it is more likely that this confirms that evidence of food crime is not currently sought at the required level or with the necessary expertise. [....]
A total of 18 police forces responded to the request for information, 12 of which recorded no such cases [of food crime]. Several police forces highlighted a problem with extracting data on cases involving food crime as there is not currently a Home Office Crime Code for food contamination meaning it is not possible to search crime recording systems for food fraud. Food fraud may be costing UK food businesses a substantial amount of money and risks causing significant reputational damage. Importantly, some of the examples uncovered pose food safety risks. However, due to factors such as a lack of intelligence-based detection, the scale of the problem remains unknown. [sections 1.16 and 1.17]
 Nobody wants to know how extensive food fraud/food crime is in the UK. Food inspections agencies have seen their budgets cut (as had the CFIA in Canada) to the point where they are really just barely functioning fronts that perform minimal actual work. Food inspections have been off-loaded onto the companies producing the food, which have incentives for not finding any problems with the products flowing through the factory. The idea that the food industry needs impartial non-corporate oversight seems to have fallen out of favour with everyone except the public.
But the report also points out that:
Consumers have been accustomed to variety and access at low cost, and at marginal profit to suppliers. These factors have increased opportunities for food crime. [section 1.9]
 How do corporations maximize profit when they have trained consumers to concentrate on price over everything else? This is the Walmart principle of putting pressure on suppliers to lower costs to, quite frankly, levels that are impossible for manufacturers to survive on. They, in turn put pressure on their suppliers and workers to lower costs, or offshore to lower cost regimes. This system is detailed at length Ellen Ruppel Shell's book  Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture.

In terms of the food system, this manifests in adulteration of ingredients

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Things We Miss

Like the amazing amount of labour that goes into producing and distributing food so that we might eat.

I am so tired of royal purple heads of lettuce, tie-dye heirloom tomatoes, luscious ears of corn and speckled kabocha squash. Fan-like collard greens plague me and I do not want to discuss melon season. Every week during CSA season I haul 4,000 pounds of produce with my bare arms, and I’m seriously over it.

This is what life is like for a fruit and vegetable delivery girl in New York City.
I’m a small but very legitimate part of the invisible logistical web of our food system. I work for Katchkie Farm, an organic farm in the Hudson Valley with over 600 workplace Community Supported Agriculture members. These aren’t your average workplace CSA members, either. I deliver produce to the folks who more or less run the world at companies including WNYC, employees from the New York City government, NBC (I deliver to 30 Rock!), and a sprinkling of gigantic companies at the Empire State Building. In this way, I guess I play a small part in running the world, too.
Do check out the rest of the article, and the site as well.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Guest-Post Relationship

I doubt that anyone will get the reference to Laurie Anderson in the title, but I couldn't resist.
Back on December 20th, Valerie Leithoff wrote an op-ed piece in the Victoria Times-Colonist titled No Need to Fear Genetically Modified Crops. As usual, it puts forward the argument that GM crops are safe (the same conclusion reached by Nathanael Johnson at, and takes up the company line that only GM crops will save us in the uncertain future.
Local author and former organic farmer Paula Johanson  begs to differ in her response. She's also let me post that response here.

Paula Johanson
By permission of the author

In response to Valerie Leithoff’s commentary (“No need to fear genetically modified crops,” Dec. 20), it is more correct to say Canada is going to need thorough testing of genetically modified organisms in the future.
The typical public response to GMOs can only be characterized as “generally strong, negative, passionate and extreme” when people become aware of unlabelled, incompletely tested GMOs in the food industry.
Leithoff is accurate when she admits people “distrust or fear the unnatural essence of GMOs, and transferring genes from unrelated species is comprehended as a Frankenstein-type experiment” and “when people don’t understand things, there is a natural tendency to fear them.” It is not things I don’t understand that cause me to distrust GMOs: it is things I do understand that cause me to call for more thorough testing and for labels on any resulting food products.
I write on science and health for educational publishers. For 15 years as a market gardener, I sold produce at farmers’ markets. As well, for eight years, I wrote columns for a newspaper in a farming community. I have studied considerably to find out what the scientific community is actually saying about GMOs. There is no need to fear genetically modified crops simply because they exist, but there are plenty of reasons for distrusting the motivations of chemical engineering companies that produce GMOs and market products such as terminator seeds.
It’s not only GMOs that need to be more thoroughly tested, but the results of how GMO crops are grown in field conditions. Leithoff states: “Farmers growing GMO crops that contain biological insecticide have greatly reduced their use of highly poisonous chemical insecticides, cutting their costs and harmful effects.”
Rather than using fewer chemicals because of growing GMO crops containing biological insecticide, factory farms commonly grow GMO crops such as Monsanto’s own Roundup Ready canola that survive being sprayed with glyphosate (sold by Monsanto as Roundup) not only after planting, but close to harvest. The result is the presence in the food-processing industry of wheat, canola and corn that contain residues of pesticides. New studies are being done to measure the effects of pesticide residues in GMOs on animal and human health.
New and long-term studies are needed, because the papers Leithoff mentions as showing no evidence of dangers were for short-term testing in which laboratory animals were fed GMOs for 12 to 20 weeks. Some of these tests have been discredited after independent analysis. New studies are being done in which animals fed GMOs with pesticide residues show sharply increasing health effects after six months to a year.
Leithoff mentions the future of climate change, saying “the use of GMOs will allow us to adapt to the sudden, unpredictable changes [in climates], since new varieties can be created quicky.” She states: “Conventional crop breeding can take up to 15 years to establish a new crop variation, but with genetic engineering we can establish a new GMO variation in less than six months.”
Though our farmers will need to adapt to the reality of climate change, Leithoff is in error: New GMO varieties cannot be produced and come to market in six months or less. Wilhelm Peekhaus, in his book Resistance is Fertile: Canadian Struggles on the BioCommons, says:
“While traditionally bred varieties typically come in under US$1 million, Monsanto has stated that a genetically engineered variety requires at least 10 years to develop at a cost of between $100 million and $150 million.
“By comparison, conventional breeders, assuming they had access to sufficient research and development funds, could introduce between 100 and 150 new varieties in less time.
“Despite claims advanced by the biotechnology industry, intrinsic yield increases, as well as disease resistance, grain size, maturation period, and responses to biotic and abiotic stresses, are attributable largely to the robustness of the traditionally bred germ plasm rather than to the one or more genetically engineered traits inserted into the seed.”
Many B.C. scientists are speaking about GMOs. Marine biologist Alexandra Morton has written about GMO salmon. Herb Barbolet works in food security and sustainable community development at Simon Fraser University. The University of British Columbia’s faculty of land and food systems conducts careful studies on some GMOs.
While it is refreshing to read an opinion from a local undergraduate student of geography, it would be better to read an informed opinion from a working scientist in an appropriate discipline.
Paula Johanson of Saanich is a University of Victoria graduate student, and the author of several books on food and sustainability.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Will the Soil Save Us?

The model projected changes (above) in
global soil carbon as a result of root-soil interactions,
with blue indicating a greater loss of soil carbon to the atmosphere.
Courtesy: Benjamin Sulman, Princeton Environmental Institute

Conventional projections of global carbon dioxide emissions suggest that enhanced plant growth may help to sequester more soil organic carbon (SOC)--particularly in our soils. Under this scenario, Canada comes out a winner in Global Climate Change (GCC), with the prairie provinces expected to grow a wider range of crops with a lengthened growing season.
But, as with every aspect of GCC, this may not be the case. The paper Microbe-driven turnover offsets mineral-mediated storage of soil carbon under elevated CO2 in Nature Climate Change suggests that this is only partly true. Morgan Kelly's piece for Reporting Climate Science says:
Researchers based at Princeton University report...that the carbon in soil — which contains twice the amount of carbon in all plants and Earth’s atmosphere combined — could become increasingly volatile as people add more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, largely because of increased plant growth. The researchers developed the first computer model to show at a global scale the complex interaction between carbon, plants and soil, which includes numerous bacteria, fungi, minerals and carbon compounds that respond in complex ways to temperature, moisture and the carbon that plants contribute to soil.
The study in NCC suggests that SOC sequestration increases under rising atmospheric carbon--but only in stabilization of ‘new’ carbon in protected SOC pools which may equal or exceed microbial priming of ‘old’ SOC in ecosystems with readily decomposable litter and high clay content (emphasis mine). However, carbon losses induced through accelerated decomposition dominate the net SOC response in ecosystems with more resistant litters and lower clay content.
So, little from column A, little from column B. An undisturbed deciduous  forest with readily composting leaves and grasses might sequester more SOC than, say, a coniferous forest. And there's no guarantee that farmland will sequester more SOC.