Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Friday, February 24, 2012

Starting 'Em Young

I asked my five year old what he would like to grow by himself this summer (note, I didn't give him a choice about growing something), and he said, "Edible flowers!" He thought the calendula in the Richters catalogue looked pretty good (although there is a divide on the internets: is it peppery, or bitter?)

I figure the earlier you start them, the better. This is good advice for getting kids to do chores, so why not with food production and preparation?

Here he is at age two, already taking it seriously.

With a farming grandpa, how could he help but?

 It wasn't all work, though.
There was reward.

 And, idealist that I am, I am hoping that the pleasure of work will become its own reward.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Test Tube Meat

Test tube meat is here. Well, it exists, but at $300 000 for a hamburger, it's not yet on the market.

Is it disgusting? Possibly. Tasteless? Potentially. Environmentally sound? Some say yes. I can't tell. I'm in favour of ridding the world of factory farming, but I'm not convinced this is the best way. 

"I want to live!"

The lead researcher, Dr. Post, tells us, "To produce the meat, stem cells are placed in a broth containing vital nutrients and serum from a cow foetus which allow them to grow into muscle cells and multiply up to 30 times." The first question I had was from what, and where, do the nutrients in the "nutrient broth" come from? I had to search for the answer, which is a form of cyanobacteria that grows in ponds. But none of the news articles have commented on its production - what are its requirements? What does it cost, environmentally, to produce these nutrients? Is it a closed loop, as cattle eating grass, excreting to fertilize it, being eaten, and (if humanure was widespread) fertilizing some more can be?

Is there anything else going into this nutrient broth? "Dr Steele, who is also a molecular biologist, said he was also concerned that unhealthily high levels of antibiotics and antifungal chemicals would be needed to stop the synthetic meat from rotting." How about growth hormones? MSG?

Surely it is still healthier, grown in laboratory conditions? This blog post had an interesting comment: "We're supposed to be so divorced from food origin and growing practices that this is just the next step in the American culinary continuum." Think of people who are grossed out by the fact that plants grow in dirt, or scrub themselves obsessively with anti-bacterial soap, unaware that we have over 500 types of bacteria in our own digestive systems. I guess lab-cultured meat (how do they sterilize the vats?) could be as healthy as a Lysol-drenched home.

But we can always rely on the "it can feed the world!" argument to surface. In response, I will quote a very lucid comment on this article (I know, a good comment!?!): 
"This makes as much sense as trying to resolve the problems of industrial pollution by manufacturing fresh air in a laboratory. How is the output from an industrial process going to find its way into the mouths of hungry people more easily than the flesh of the poultry and cattle which already exists - everywhere - in sufficient abundance to make our whole species obese?"
And, because you know I'm political, one last question. Who is going to gain control of this technology, and thus, who will benefit from it? If you're guessing Big Agribusiness, and their shareholders, rather than All of Us and The Poor, I think you're on the right track.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Hospital Food - Symptom or Cause?

I've spent way more time consorting with our fine, single-payer healthcare system in 2012 than I have in the past few years combined. I'm just back from an overnight stay on the pediatrics ward. All is fine, or so we are assuming until tests come back. In fact, my daughter had such a good time there that she didn't want to leave. And she discovered a new, delicious food - peanut butter and banana sandwiches.

The pediatric toddler menu was very interesting. Breakfast was milk, cornflakes, a slice of wholewheat toast with strawberry jam option, and apple juice (which my daughter insisted on eating with a spoon). Lunch was the aforementioned sandwich, chicken noodle soup, milk, canned peaches, and apple juice. Notice anything missing?

That's right, the fruit-and-vegetable category was entirely filled by fruits. I don't know if the hospital has assumed that children won't eat vegetables, or has discovered from experience that they don't (in which case, do they only not eat vegetables prepared in typical hospital-food fashion, boiled to death?). I admit that I have little experience with children not eating vegetables - whether because of luck, parental modelling of finding delight in vegetables, or perversity, our kids like almost all vegetables, and as they age they discover the odd vegetable they refused has become tasty.

I mostly keep quiet about this, though, because perusing the internets tells me that my children have freakish tastes and I'd better not offer advice or brag about them. It's a very touchy subject, and people tend to assume that opinions are actually judgments on their parenting. Especially since it often takes the form of a struggle: parents puree and disguise vegetables, bargain with their children to get a few tastes past the gag reflex, and sometimes, give up and only serve the vegetables that are tolerated.

I am of the generation that ate what was on their plate Or Else, and I have vivid memories of crying while I choked down purple cabbage with soya sauce and sesame seeds, and bit beets in half to swallow the chunks down with milk. I still don't like beets, although I'll cook them for my husband and son (as of last summer, my daughter didn't like them yet). I have a bit of the Or Else mentality - not enough to cause a major power struggle - but I've rarely felt the need to employ eating rules.

What do you think? If children are presented with a variety of good food, eating is joyful, and coercion is not employed, will they come to eat their vegetables? And can this be done in a hospital?

Monday, February 13, 2012

Monsanto wants you to vote with your dollar.

A lot of North American food movements ask you, the consumer to "vote with your dollar'. You can hit Walmart where it really hurts, in the pocket book! Buy local! Buy non-GMO! Buy at farmers markets!

With the lobbying power of agribusiness, and the revolving door between government agencies and agribusiness corporations, it can seem that voting with your vote is useless.

But guess what? Monsanto secretly loves the "vote with your dollar" campaign. So does Nestlé. And McDonalds. Here's why:

They know that an average Canadian spends only eleven percent of their income on food. Most of us expect our food to be cheap. We whine and wail when prices go up. We complain about adequately remunerating farmers if it means our cheese might be a few dollars more than across the border where dairy farmers commit suicide because of low prices. Very few of us will buy higher priced food if lower priced food is unavailable. This is a major reason why organics is still a niche market, making up less than one percent of total household food purchases in Canada.

It gets worse. There are many of us, despite that 10% average, who cannot spend more on food : 851,01 people used food banks in March of 2011, and this is not the highest recorded number in the past few years. So, this campaign effectively excludes these people. Now those who vote with their dollar can be framed as elitists and sneered at, and those who don't can be judged as morally inferior.

Putting our trust in niche markets allows the co-optation of food movement initiatives. They become another segment to either capture or hedge. We see this with Walmart introducing a line of organic food, but the most blatant example is that of Gerber the baby food producer, which vocally prohibited GMOs in its products at the same time as its owner, Novartis, continued to develop and sell genetically modified seeds. They got you coming and going, damned either way.

And that's not the worst part. I've been wanting to write about the worst part for a long time, but I also want to support these progressive people who encourage us to vote with our dollar and are doing good work in the food system. I don't want to seem overly critical. But when I watched "Fresh" - an excellent movie - I cringed at the end when the co-op manager told us voting with our dollars was the best way to make change. When an anti-GMO campaigner insisted that labelling and avoiding GM foods was the best way to make change, I almost bit my tongue through. Finally, I've been pushed past the point that I can keep silent by an excellent article by Robin Jane Roff, "Shopping for change? Neoliberalizing activism and the limits to eating non-GMO".*

Here's the essential problem with voting with our dollars. It posits the market as the answer, when the market is the problem. It's like that definition of insanity - doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

When we turn to the market to fix what's wrong, we are putting the (super)market, rather than governments (and voting citizens) at the centre of the food system - as Roff puts it, the market becomes"the ultimate arbiter of socio-environmental quality". This is the same market that works on the principle of deregulation and privatization that has lead to disastrous environmental problems and social ills in the pursuit of shareholder profit – that indeed benefits from these ills, because it almost always does not have to account for them. This is the market that gives us cheap pork – and creates a giant dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. It gives multinational agribusinesses record profits during the food crisis in 2008 when millions became food insecure and faced starvation.

When we decide that the market is where we must turn our efforts, we change from being citizens with food rights and entitlements to consumers with food choices and responsibilities. Are the problems created by the food system, then, of our choosing – we didn't spend our dollars in the right place? Do we decide then, that it is our responsibility, through charitable donations, to feed the hungry, rather than the responsibility of governments (by the people, for the people) to respond to society's needs? Is it our fault, because we didn't choose the organic pastured pork, that Lake Winnipeg is choking to death? What's that you say, they didn't have the choice of organic pastured pork at Superstore? Did you want it enough?

Voting with our dollars encourages us (not that we need more encouragement) to think of ourselves as individuals, making individual decisions, rather than a community or a society. One thing this allows is the belittling of problems. For example, if you look into the pro- and anti-organic arguments, you'll soon find the claim that organic food has minimal health benefits over non-organic food, and the pesticide residue on produce is negligible for the consumer. This blatantly ignores the benefits of organic growing for pollinators, birds, the water table, and farm workers – to name a few non-consumers.

Framing eaters solely as individual consumers is also much more limiting than framing them as citizen-activists. As Roff says, “by replacing ‘‘consumer ’’ with ‘‘citizen’’ not only does the problem suddenly become political-economic not just economic, but a wealth of solutions and counter movements become imaginable. The space of opposition is no longer restricted to the domain of the market, but now encompasses the full breadth of structures and social relations. The idea of the market and consumption can themselves become targets of critique.” 

Fundamentally, consumption-based change is not transformative. Which is preferable - to label foods containing GM ingredients so that consumers can avoid them if they can afford to, until so much of the soy and corn and alfalfa are contaminated and so many new GM varieties are introduced that very few non-GM products exist - or, to ban GMOs? Which is preferable - that a few supermarkets that succumb to the pressure of privileged consumption choices decide to source tomatoes from growers that pay a living wage, or that a minimum wage is legislated for farmworkers (as it isnot, with few exceptions, in Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, andSaskatchewan). So, it's political. And yes, governments are corrupted and hard to influence; this tendency must be challenged.

But a bigger point is that the food system is not only about the food system. A truly healthy, sustainable food system would require, for consumers, living wages, a shorter work day, an end to gender inequality, and participatory democracy. Problems with the food system can not be dealt with solely by the existing power of a relatively wealthy middle class, but by empowering marginalized people and disempowering giant corporate entities.

When you buy food, please do buy ethically grown, low-impact, and healthy food. But I challenge you - if you think the system needs to change - to do a little more, and do it together.

I'll end with a final note from Roff: “If we truly want a socially and environmentally equitable food system then we can not continue to rely so heavily on the mechanisms that created the one we currently have.”

*Agriculture and Human Values (2007) 24:511–522.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The next logical step

At lunch today:

Me: What did you do in school today?

V: Mrs. C made jello.

Me: And what did you learn?

V: That you need to put boiling water on it. Why can't it be cold water?

Me: Boiling water helps the crystals dissolve more quickly.

V: Why couldn't it just be hot water?

Me (guessing, because I don't have a hand-held internet-capable device and have made jello twice in my life): It might be because of the gelatin in it. (Turns out, I'm right, if imprecise)

V: What's gelatin?

Me: Well, it comes from bones and horses' hooves. (I'm wrong about the latter. Oops.)

V starts looking sad. "Some people think that it's best to use all of the animal, if it is killed for meat," I say. His lip trembles. "Do you want to stop eating meat?" I ask.

"I like how it tastes, but I don't want animals to be killed," he says. "Why don't we eat meat from dead people, like if they're old?"

Hmm. "Well, people tend to think that eating other people is gross. And old people would likely be tough and have medications infusing their flesh." (Can you tell this is off the cuff?)

"I'd rather eat meat from people," he says. "Unless they were murdered. Because then people might think we are murderers too."

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

What's so appealing about seeds? Possibility.

There is no possibility that I will spend an evening with Ryan Gosling, but a girl can dream - about seeds.

I am looking forward to seed shopping from Tourne Sol, Heritage Harvest, and Prairie Garden Seeds. (Sure, I saved a bit of seed, but I'm getting that shopping bug that apparently other women feel when thinking about shoes.) Some of these companies will be at our local Seedy Saturday in early March. Is there a Seedy Saturday near you?

I've been hearing good things about Johnny's Selected Seeds. What are your favourite seed sources?

I remember opening up a peanut in grade two and being told that the tiny pineapple-shaped embryo embedded in the bottom was the future plant. I'm not going to belabour the "possibility" metaphor, but I think you gardeners can fill in the blanks.