Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Watching FRESH with my five year old

FRESH the movie is streaming for free until tomorrow, so I thought I'd finally get around to watching it, and write a review. Eleven seconds in, Joel Salatin starts calling, "Pig, pig, pig, pig" and my 5 year old son, Vincent, ran over to the laptop to take a look. I had a brilliant idea. I would watch the movie with him and then use his insights to write a review from a child's point of view. You, blog audience, would eat it up.

Happy to be exploited for purposes of education.

We watched the pigs happily graze the pasture, and I remarked on how healthy they looked. I explained what "inconvenience" meant when Vincent asked, and guided his responses to the subsequent shots of supermarket packages - "That doesn't even look like food, does it?". I was being so educational!

And didactic. Then, at 2:29, the crates of baby chickens appeared on screen and Vincent was instantly on the verge of tears. "Why are they in cages?!"

And from that point on, I let him lead the viewing. We talked about the metaphor of the factory being applied to all areas of life. He asked what monocropping meant and we talked about the benefits of biodiversity. He was fascinated by the pictures of fluorescent bacteria, and we talked about antibiotic resistance. Half way through the movie, he started putting ideas together about how we could keep weeds out of our garden without using chemicals. "We could put a small greenhouse in it with not too many cracks and a small door so it would be hard for weeds to get in, plus there would be a fence of corn outside it, to keep the plants that are living healthy."

Then he threw me for another loop. As we were learning about the nutrient cycling through the tilapia tanks at Will Allen's Growing Power, Vincent said, "I think the fish should be free to swim about." Hmm. "Well," I hedged, "People think that fish don't have the same kind of ...brains... and feelings... as..." He stared me down. "I think they should have lots of room to swim about."

I didn't come up with a good answer for that one, but I know the topic will come up again - and it should. These are big questions - what makes us human, yet animal, and how do we decide what sentience is? How and why do we, and should we, play gods? What is our role in the food system?

Watch this movie with your kids! Or grab someone else's kid and watch with them. I promise you that you will learn something you didn't know, and see something in a new way.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Search for Delicious

In Natalie Babbitt's children's story, The Search for Delicious, the prime minister is writing a dictionary. "Affectionate is your dog" and "Bulky is a big bag of boxes" are met with general approval from the court, but when he writes, "Delicious is fried fish", the king objects. Delicious is apples. No, says the queen, it is Christmas pudding. Beer! says the general. Discontent ensues, and soon there are brawls in the street over the definition of delicious.

The prime minister's young son, Gaylen, sets off on horseback to survey the kingdom in hopes that enough people will agree on what is delicious for the prime minister to complete his entry. Just ahead of him, the queen's brother rides out to foment civil war in the kingdom.

I won't spoil the ending, but I will reveal my choice for Delicious:

Ice chips. Delicious is ice chips after several hours of abstinence from food and drink during which the contents of one's guts were exploding from several orifices.

D is also, as it happens, for Dysentery, specifically the food-borne shigella variety. And, because one million children in the world do not have the benefit of intravenous drips as I did, D is for Doctors without Borders, and Donate.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The State of Science Journalism Today

I can hear the voices of a hundred neglected tasks setting up a cheap, jangly tintinnabulation in my ears. My to-do list for this afternoon stretches to the horizon - and I live in a province where you can watch your dog run away from you for three days. So today will not be a feel-good post. I'm going to engage in some catharsis; in other words, I am going to irritably complain about the state of food reporting.

While I do have post-secondary education in the area of food, agriculture and social justice, it doesn't make me an expert on food issues; nor does my reading, my gardening practice, or what I like to think of as my common sense. But surely, some things are obvious to thinking people? I stumbled on this article, "Expert spills the beans on organic food: new article stews over the advertising myths of the corporate organics industry" by accident through an offhand Twitter link. It is absolutely appalling

Although it pained me to do so, because I taught English for several years, I overlooked the error in each of the first four sentences. I am more concerned with the lack of science knowledge demonstrated by the reporter - and, possibly, the cutbacks in media that allow a poor paraphrase of a press release to pass as journalism. Here are my quibbles with the article:

1) Claims to authority are unsubstantiated
The article, and its place of publication, are not listed. Google tells me that the author quoted works in a lab at the university mentioned; I could find no mention of a degree he may possess. I do not see how he can be called an expert. His publications, listed on his website, are primarily letters to newspaper editors.

2) Claims about organic food are misleading
While the article is not detailed enough to give specific examples of advertisements that make the claims that organic food is healthier, not grown with pesticides or antibiotics, and more natural, I can still argue against the author's oversimplistic refutation of these claims.
      a) He claims that "Every scientific organization that's in charge of food safety, that has looked for a health benefit in organic food, cannot find one." I wonder if he has looked at claims by organizations who are "in charge of" nutrition, rather than food safety. In truth, the evidence is inconclusive. It is clear, however, that organic food production is far healthier for growers, farmworkers, flora, and fauna. (Please note the credible sources I have linked to, as this is an essential part of science journalism.)
Organic insecticide used: thumb and forefinger.

     b) He claims "Organic foods do use antibiotics and toxic chemicals, they just aren't synthetically produced." This is true. However, there are strict regulations in place around the use of antibiotics: an organic dairy cow in the US, for example, can no longer be used for organic production when antibiotics are given. It is also true that organic growers can use some toxic chemicals, such as copper sulfate in orchards as a fungicide. The author does not say how widespread this use is, while implying that it is ubiquitous, and dangerous. But pesticides are not necessarily so. My brother set out dishes of beer for slugs - a potent and compostable insecticide. Many organic horticulturalists that I know use Bt, a biological insecticide that is non-toxic to humans and animals, biodegradable, kills only specific insects, and is non-toxic or only mildly toxic to beneficial insects.
     c) His last claim, that organic food is no more "natural" than say, genetically modified food because all agriculture is a human modification of the environment, is a simplification of the issue - I may post about it later. However, if he had said that the word "natural" as employed in advertising is meaningless because it has not been codified or standardized, I would have agreed.

Such is the state of science journalism today. I offer this complaint in the hopes that you, at least, will not let these facile arguments thwart your pursuit of the truth.

Yes, I sent a comment to the editor of this news source. No, I have not received a response.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Feel-Good Friday

Here's a story to warm the cockles of your heart - especially you Saskatchewanians in -30 weather.

You may be familiar with the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model of farming. Eaters subscribe to receive a weekly box of vegetables over the growing season, and pay up front in the spring when the farmer needs to purchase major inputs. They also share a bit of the farmer's risk; if the farm is flooded and some of the vegetables are unharvestable, the subscribers do without. They are supporting local agriculture, typically small family farms, and sustainable growing practices.

Paul's cow*.
CSAs are springing up all over the place, and 30-year-old farmer Paul Slomp has taken the idea even further: he has a beef CSA called Grazing Days, just outside of Ottawa. This article explains how he serves people who want healthy, sustainable local beef but lack freezer space or desire to buy a half a side of beef as they are often sold from a local farmer. “People sign up for how much beef they would like over the course of nine months, and we deliver it to people’s homes in small 10lb to 20lb portions once a month or once every other month – depending on the household’s needs.”

The article mentions Slomp's sustainable practices:

Grazing Days’ Paul Slomp – who often calls himself a “grass farmer” – frequently stresses that properly managed grazing of cattle improves the health of our soils. Managed grazing, he says, protects our streams, rivers and aquifers; it sequesters carbon, and is an effective way to harvest solar energy.
I learned a bit more about Grazing Days this week, and this is why I really get a kick out of it. Slomp started the business when he had $10,000 to his name. He wanted to avoid the debt that hobbles so many farmers, so he sold bond-like contracts with 4% interest to friends and eaters, pre-sold a season's worth of beef, and was able to purchase 14 head of cattle that first season and pay rent on 75 acres of land. He didn't have enough money for a vehicle, so he rides his bicycle 21 km daily to his land from his home and rents a car for delivery days. He also rents freezer space from a warehouse in Ottawa. He's also building up to forty head this coming year.

That's what I call ingenuity!

Happy Friday. I'll be enjoying my evening with family, a grass-fed beef roast, and some Okanagan wine.

*This isn't Paul Slomp's heifer, but it is a heifer (or steer) belonging to my dad, whose name is Paul. The picture is from about 1960. As you can see, the animal is also grass-fed. Cut me some slack. I don't have a lot of cattle pictures on this computer.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Tying up loose ends again

I'm a bit scattered lately. Yesterday, for example, I knew I had a meeting for an organization I volunteer for. Knew it when I checked the calendar in the morning, when I planned supper. Knew it again at 8:30 pm when I got an email from another volunteer about the meeting that had just occurred.

So, I need to tie up some loose ends here, for peace of mind. I need a tidy accomplishment to point to!

1. First, the squash recipe contest:

Try the recipes. They are all good! My 5 year old son especially liked Riv's soup, which he named "Creamy Delight". My aunts and cousins loved Glenna's squash casserole when I brought it to a Boxing Day dinner. My husband and I really enjoyed the risotto - the first risotto I've ever made. My aunt sent me a soup recipe by email that includes a maple syrup and balsamic vinegar reduction - fascinating! (I'll publish it in the comments of the contest post for you all.)

I don't want to have to choose a winner. So what I am going to do is ask participants to send me their mailing addresses if they would like some exclusive Bohemian Flat Podded Sugar Snap Peas. I'm pretty sure I can't send seeds out of Canada, but if I'm wrong, international participants, send me your address! I'm going to award the Waltham Butternut seeds to Glenna because I know she has her own source of Bohemian Flat Podded Peas.

2. Farm Subsidy Information:  

I didn't get any answers on this blog, but I had a couple tweeted and emailed to me. So, if you, like my friend, are curious about US farm subsidies and their effect on other nations, you might want to peruse this primer on US subsidies, take a fairly general yet comprehensive look at their role in the global food crisis, then read about the effect of US subsidies on Mexican agriculture. Keeners can check out the following books:

Peterson, E. Wesley. 2009. A Billion Dollars a Day: The Economics and Politics of Agricultural Subsidies. Wiley.
Anderson, Kym . 2010. The political economy of agricultural price distortions. New York : Cambridge University Press.
3. Finally, my request for a weather recording system. No answers yet, but I haven't abandoned hope.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Needed: Weather Recording System

This winter has been absolutely wacky so far in Saskatchewan. The first frost was on September 13th; the next day, night time temperatures dipped to -5C. It didn't get that cold again for another month. November 3rd had a daytime high of 11C, and the 19th a daytime high of -18C. The week of the 19th was the one cold week of winter that we have had, until today. I'm currently sitting at -15C, -30 with the windchill. These current temperatures are exactly what Environment Canada says are average for here this time of year. Environment Canada also says, however, that it is increasingly difficult to accurately predict the weather. (Yep, they forecast a cold winter.)

What does this mean? Well, a couple of things. First, I could have extended my growing season beyond my previous wildest dreams with very minimal equipment. My chard was actually sprightly well into November, but I'd mentally decided the gardening season was over and didn't pick it. I will plan better for next year (although I don't know if I'll start any earlier this year - the thought of having to plan what seeds to start right now fills me with panic.)

Second, I need a good system of weather recording. A system where I can record minimum and maximum temperatures, precipitation, and any other information of note, such as whether leaves are budding and if pollinators have appeared. And one that allows me to compare days or weeks with those of previous years. Ideally, it would have some graphing functions. I like seeing information pictorally.

Does anyone know of any software that can do some or most of this for me? What do you do to keep track of the weather?

Third, I am trying hard not to panic about climate change - what good does panic do? - and mitigate and adapt. Perhaps a future post on this?

Monday, January 9, 2012

What are those Scots up to?

I apologize to those I have kept waiting on tenterhooks for the next installment of the Radical Land Tenure series; illness has severely curtailed my energy. But I have dragged myself out of bed to tell you about Scotland, because it is really just so cool. Now, actual Scots are welcome to comment and agree or disagree; I'm going by the literature, here.

Until very recently, the Scottish system of land ownership was literally feudal, with the concentration of land ownership amongst the rich that one would expect. In the Highland Clearances of the 1700s and 1800s, rural tenant farmers were forcibly displaced from their small plots to make room for sheep and later sport hunting. These farmers ended up concentrated in the outlying and less desirable parts of estates in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, where there are 30,000 of them today on 7% of Scotland's total land area.

Because of this history, as of 1996, and perhaps yet today, Scotland had the “most concentrated pattern of large scale private ownership of any country in the world” (Wightman, 2004: 3). (Two-thirds of this land is owned by 1252 landowners - 0.025% of the population - in large estates. One quarter of the privately owned rural land is in estates of 30,700 acres and larger, owned by just 66 landowners.). Many landowners were (and are) renowned for their neglect, paternalism, and iron-fisted control over the land and any changes or developments to be made to it. The feudal system of land tenure was only abolished in an Act of Parliament in 2000. Scotland is in many ways in a post-colonial situation.

In 1993, the crofters of Assynt took a historic step, coming together as the Assynt Crofters Trust to purchase the 21,000 acre estate on which they were tenants from a bankrupt Swedish land speculation company. This stimulated land reform in Scotland and became emblematic of the “social sector” in land ownership. Further community land purchases followed, and in 2003 the Scottish Parliament introduced the Land Reform Act. This Act granted rural communities in Scotland the right of ‘first refusal’ on the sale of estates and granted crofting communities the right to buy their croftlands on a collective basis, even over the objections of land owners. At a time when Canadian farmers are encouraged to lease land from investment companies, Scottish communities are becoming owners. As of 2009, some two hundred groups have been helped to achieve buy-outs by the Scottish Government’s Community Land Unit. More than two percent of the nation’s land—a third of a million acres—is now under such ownership.

Individual crofts (small farms) are typically established on about 5 hectares of “in-bye” for better quality forage, arable and vegetable production. Each township traditionally manages poorer quality hill ground as common grazing for cattle and sheep. Because of the poor quality of this land, crofters traditionally rely on income from other activities in addition to agriculture.

Community buyouts take different forms: they form or use a democratic body to represent the community and then usually make a company that owns and manages the property on behalf of the community. Other ones may share control over the land with partners such as conservation organizations (community partnerships as in Eigg) or sometimes it's only crofters that purchase (crofting trusts). Communities get all the security and rights of conventional land ownership under Scots law (unless under easements for example, or charitable status). Crofters still lease their inbye land, but they lease it from the community organization, that also owns the common land. Other than whole estates, community property includes community facilities, heritage assets, economic resources such as wind turbines. Community ownership allows diversifying croft activities that require collective action: developing horticulture, sheep's wool for house insulation, stock clubs, planting trees, sensitive tourism, or a small hydro scheme as in Assynt.

There's a variety of ways to obtain the purchase price of land. Funding for community buyouts is available through National Lottery money in Scottish Land Fund, as well as other grants such as those the Highlands and Islands Development Corporation provides. Some money comes from the purchasing community, other from donations and loans. Community ownership has many potential benefits. It can provide greater security allowing people to plan for the future, greater freedom to use assets, facilitate access to greater funding, encourage social networking, allow profit to be retained in community, promote community cohesion and pride, provide greater transparency and accountability in decision making.

Because this system involves community development, it speaks to the issue not just of land reform – everyone being able to access an equitable share - but agrarian reform. It recognizes that, as Borras and Franco say, “while land redistribution is the 'heart' of agrarian reform, post-land (re)distribution support service packages and favourable rural development policies are the 'soul” (2010: 114).

There seems to be an attitude towards land and rural development on part of the Scottish government that is very different from that of neoliberal governments in Canada. The government justifies intervention in the land market/private property rights on the grounds of social justice, capture of economic opportunity, population retention and self-determination (Brown 2007). This helps convey the moral authority that communities need for feasible ownership. So does the ethic of community rights trumping individual rights that is rooted in Highland culture. It seems to be recognized in Scotland that the land tenure system doesn't just affect usage, and doesn't even just affect economic factors such as the labour skills of the population or access to employment and thus migration, but the social structure; and the distribution of power and influence.

There is debate within the crofting movement regarding private ownership, though. The 2007 Committee of Inquiry on Crofting found that there was division over the fundamental question of whether, with the cessation of feudal tenure, a croft is an individual/family asset, to be bought and sold freely, or a wider social and cultural asset, for generations now and in the future. Thus far, the weight is on the latter side with those who see crofting not just as an economic asset/means but as a social, cultural, environmental, and agricultural practice that is collectively beneficial, and threatened by an open market in crofts. That putting crofts on the open market would eventually mean the demise of crofting is acknowledged by the proponents of that market.

The collective vs the individual. We've seen this many times in agriculture here, and will no doubt see it again. Which way do you think we are trending? 


Borras, S. (Jr.) & Franco, J. (2010). Food sovereignty and redistributive land policies: Exploring linkages, identifying challenges. In H. Wittman, A. Al Desmarais, & N. Wiebe (Eds.), Food sovereignty: International perspectives on theory and practice. Nova Scotia: Fernwood Publishing.

Brown, Katrina. 2007. Understanding the materialities and moralities of property: reworking collective claims to land. Journal compilation: Royal Geographical Society (with The Institute of British Geographers.

Bryden, John and Charles Geisler. 2007. Community-based land reform: Lessons from Scotland. Land Use Policy (24), 24–34

Chenevix-Trench, Hamish and Philip, Lorna J.(2001) 'Community and conservation land ownership in

highland Scotland: A common focus in a changing context', Scottish Geographical Journal, 117: 2, 139 — 156.

Mackenzie, Fiona. 2010. A common claim: community land ownership in the Outer

Hebrides, Scotland. International Journal of the Commons, 4: 1, 319–344.

Shucksmith, M. Committee of Inquiry on Crofting: Final Report. 2008. Available at http://www.ecology.ethz.ch/education/BE_documents/Crofting_final_report.pdf
Wightman, A. 2004. Common Land in Scotland: A Brief Overview. Available at http://www.scottishcommons.org/docs/commonweal_3.pdf

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Bat Signal Up: Farm Subsidy Information Needed

I had a request from a friend that I am going to send to you, Internet denizens. I think her basic take on the topic is sound, but I know much more about Canadian agriculture than American, so I can't help her much. Here it is: 
What would your #1 recommendation be for a book or article about farm subsidies?  I guess generally I'm interested in how they destroy both the economies and national production of small poor countries (e.g. Haiti) as well as actual small family farms in North America (while all the while coughing up rhetoric about "helping family-owned  farms").  Anything that also talks about the relationship to food aid (big sacks o' cheap American rice) would be great.