Posts Tagged ‘food’

SoilThe Soil Will Save Us, Kristin Ohlson 

At last, a book offering a glimmer of hope to pierce the all-pervading environmental gloom!

Author Ohlson digs deep into topics like soil science, mob-herding, no-till farming and cover crop husbandry to outline how we might yet undo the damage we’ve done to our ecosystem.

Better care of the land means healthier crops and animals, fewer flash floods, greater drought resistance, fewer chemical inputs, fewer issues with run-off and – best of all – massive amounts of carbon sequestration.

Modern agriculture, she says, has led to the loss of 80 billion tons of carbon from the world’s soils and her hope is that scientists, researchers and agrarian free-thinkers, working with nature, can put it back.

Much of what’s written in the book has its roots in far earlier layers of knowledge. As Ohlson points out, Pliny the Elder knew all about composting.

Pastoralists have long practiced crop rotation, green manuring, animal grazing and companion planting and many an old-time gardener grew up with the mantra “feed the soil, not the plant”.

What’s new is our grasp of the complex microbiological activity going on beneath our feet.  Full understanding remains a massive challenge, but the progress of soil science is starting to yield answers – and some spectacular results.

Examples of regenerative farming, where overworked land has been carefully managed and restored to rich earth, are as compelling as they are heartwarming.

And the people behind it – the scientists, foodies and farmers harnessing partnerships between plants and microorganisms – are the book’s heroes.

Up against them are skeptical minds and the political and financial might of Big Ag. In 2009 the sector spent $133m on lobbying, that’s almost as much as the nation’s defense contractors, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

If the odds look unfavorable, then Ohlson suggests a grass roots campaign waged on the unlikely battleground of America’s lawns could be a turning point.

“What we do with our urban green matters, whether it’s in our yards or in our parks or even our highway median strips,” says Olson. And lawns are the largest irrigated crop in the country, taking up three times as much space as corn.

It’s going to take much more than that, of course, but it’s a start. And with farmers and ranchers trying to work the land in a more enlightened way, the seeds of the next agricultural revolution have been sown.

Postscript: The Guardian’s George Monbiot is highly sceptical of claims made by one of the book’s heroes

Landgrabbers

As the world’s population rises, land and water availability dwindles, eco-systems succumb and climate change havoc sets in, the need for secure future food supplies is driving a worldwide agrarian power struggle.

The sheer scale of what’s taking place is matched only by the greed and venality of the players involved – countries, governments, agribusinesses, drug cartels, commodity traders, bankers and chancers all competing for fat profits from a carve-up of continents.

Journalist Fred Pearce spent a year visiting places as far apart as Patagonia and Zimbabwe, Ukraine and Australia to report from the emerging frontlines of the politics of food.

What he found were neo-colonialists being aided and abetted by a parade of despots and dictators, corrupt politicians and cut-throat businessmen. And, as ever, the big losers are the pastoralists, the subsistence farmers and the poorest, marginalized peoples.

So-called “empty lands” are the prime target for much of their attention; bribes are paid, locals are forcibly evicted, promised jobs, schools, hospitals and improvements fail to materialize and the environment takes a beating from which it may never recover.

It was soaring food prices that fueled the revolution in Egypt which led to the overthrow of the Mubarak regime. That may explain why Middle Eastern petrodollars are pouring into farming in Africa: Food insecurity equals political unrest.

But there are other factors too: Rising demand from China and the Far East for meat, an increasing requirement for biofuels from the US and Europe, a need for more rubber plantations as car use climbs in emerging economies and a growing appetite from agribusinesses for soy and palm oil products.

Pearce’s big picture reporting gives the Who, What, Where and Why of what’s taking place in a way that piecemeal mainstream news fails to capture. And, bleak as the landscape is, he doesn’t cloud his writing with hyperbole or environmental evangelism.

Best of all, he gives voice to advocates for alternative agriculture options that don’t destroy the environment, don’t displace people from tribal lands and don’t end in a Malthusian nightmare of famine and death.

The David and Goliath battle being fought in Washington State over the labeling of genetically modified food (I-522) goes to the vote on November 5, but whatever the outcome it won’t deal with an underlying lack of transparency about what’s in our food.

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 “Big Ag” has plenty to answer for in this regard with its squalid practices, revolting standards and profit-at-all-costs attitudes; it also makes an easy target for consumer ire in the current debate.

Much harder to swallow is our part in this sorry state of affairs. For the most part we passively tolerate the behind-the-scenes manipulations we all know of but would rather not think about.

Time and again we choose price over quality, price over decency and price over compassion.

People coyly describe things as being inexpensive or good value when what they really mean, but can never quite bring themselves to say, is cheap. Cheap is synonymous with tawdry, with nasty, with poor quality, with corner-cutting, which is where we are with much of our food chain.

Yet cheap is what we require of “Big Ag”. And we reinforce this message every time we go to the supermarket. Cheap chicken is cheap for a reason. Every time we choose one over more expensive alternatives we are endorsing practices we claim to dislike.

Cheap is the reason corn oil finds its way into bread and chocolate and infant formula and thousands of other unlikely places. Cheap is the reason antibiotics are routinely used in meat production where animals are kept in close confinement. Cheap is why we have monoculture crops needing genetic manipulation to resist pesticide sprays. Cheap is why we have habitat loss and wildlife population crashes.

When viewed in this way our food choices aren’t quite so cheap. In fact they come at a very high price. And they’re paid for by the animals we eat, the landscapes we despoil and the water resources we plunder.

The “No” lobby on I-522 will continue to claim that the GM labeling requirement is ill-conceived, unworkable and will add to weekly grocery bills. They will continue to obfuscate and sow doubt and promote confusion.

But as consumers we shouldn’t allow that to cloud the real issue: We have a right to know what’s in our food, a right to transparency about its production and a right to hold the industry to higher standards.

Until we accept that we’re prepared to pay more and start showing that through our shopping habits “Big Ag” won’t budge. If things are to change we have to start by rewarding the producers who meet these requirements and by leaving on the shelves the products of those who do not.

It would be funny if it weren’t so serious. Our food supply, that is. It’s so mislabeled, adulterated and tainted it’s a joke – except this is no laughing matter.

How did we get into t7740699350_d1548b91a7_zhis position? Why do we allow this nonsense to continue? Who’s to blame and who’s going to fix things?

The scandal of horsemeat being sold as beef in Europe isn’t confined to one or two dodgy deals. It’s not just horsemeat. And it’s not just Europe. This is the dark side of business; highly profitable, sometimes illegal and poorly policed.

It’s where vested interests steer government policy, where political ideology insists on “light touch” regulation, where ‘red tape’ has been cut along with burdensome tests and inspections.

It’s where the industry insists it can police itself and it’s why in the UK watchdog, the Food Standards Agency, has had its budget slashed and the number of inspectors has fallen.

The agency’s former CEO Tim Smith – now at supermarket chain Tesco – said in his final annual report that the FSA had saved almost a quarter of its previous year’s budget and further cuts of a third would follow.

We’ve naively bought into the idea that government agencies are protecting our backs but they aren’t. They’ve been emasculated.

Horsemeat is only the latest in a long line of food scandals to affect the UK. Twenty-or-so years ago it took the BSE scandal (commonly known as mad cow disease) for us to learn about the practice of diseased cattle being ground up and fed back to healthy animals.

When fears arose that the disease of the cows’ nervous system could pass into humans millions of cattle were incinerated in vast pyres. Images went around the world, the tragic end result of the folly and greed in our food chain.

In recent times we’ve had:

  • imported Italian wines laced with ethylene glycol (more commonly found in windscreen wiper fluids)
  • hydrolised protein injected into chicken (leaving residues of beef or pork)
  • dioxin in mozzarella (said to have been caused by illegal waste dumping by Naples gangsters)

Go back to the days of Charles Dickens and there are stories of bread being laced with chalk, alum and even ashes and bonemeal.

The chicanery persists in all kinds of areas. Have you bought good olive oil recently, or at least what you thought was good olive oil? There’s lots of reassuring imagery on the shelves, bottles with Italian-sounding names, tricolor flags, extra virgin labeling and overtures about natural goodness.

There’s no mention of it being tankered around like crude oil, or cut with cheaper, undetectable seed and nut oils – or worse. Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil.

How about fish? The fashionable sushi bars and restaurants aren’t necessarily giving you what you’ve paid for. A recent survey by ocean protection group Oceana found 28 different species of fish in 120 samples they took from products labeled red snapper. Seventeen of those weren’t even in the snapper family. Full story at the New York Times.

Corners are being cut everywhere, in the worst cases by out-and-out criminality and in others, more surreptitiously, by food scientists and marketers seeking to pare costs to the bone to maximize profits.

In the current crisis I’ve seen any number of misguided comments about how there’s nothing wrong with eating horse anyway. How the response has been hysterical because of the relationship humans have with horses. It’s not as if eating them poses a risk to health; the French have been eating them for ages, and we eat cows, pigs and sheep, so what’s the beef, so to speak?

That’s not what this is about at all. It’s about trust and integrity and allowing consumers to make informed choices about what they’re paying for. If it’s labeled as horse and sold as horse then fine, otherwise it simply shouldn’t be there.

We trust supermarkets to honor their bond with customers (the best ones do), to ensure that the producers and suppliers they use give us what we pay for, without adulteration.

We also idealize about organic, cruelty-free, food that fits our idea of pastoral harmony, where man is in balance with nature, where animals live happy lives and where farmers manage the land as custodians for the future.

Above all though, we want all this to be cheap. Not cheap and nasty, but cheap and valued or, as Americans say, inexpensive.

That’s the dilemma we have to face and the one supermarkets have to overcome. We endorse the best practices for food production but we can’t, or don’t want to, swallow the price tag that comes with them.

Not everyone can do their shopping at high-end organic stores, or buy heirloom this and hand-dived that from farmer’s markets, but as consumers we have a power that can be exercised every time we shop. We have the power to change the status quo and the power to change what appears on the supermarket shelves.

Every purchase we make is a casting vote that registers approval of a product, an acceptance of the air miles, or the husbandry, or the out-of-seasonality that puts it on the shelf.

And every purchase is logged and recorded by the store, signaling to them that they’re getting it right, that they’re delivering a product – at a price – that consumers want and that is earning its keep on the shelves.

Until we accept that some things need to be reassuringly expensive, that we’re prepared to pay for quality – even if that means we eat something less often – and that the choices we make really matter, then the next food scandal will be just around the corner. And we’ll all be complicit in it.

For those of us living outside the US many of the impressions we form about America comevegetable display from the images we see on TV.

Cop shows, freak shows, reality shows, a world of extremes and a world of excess – TV portrays polarity in all its forms.

We see fabulous wealth or rust-belt poverty, gross obesity or stick-thin waifs, we see the mad, the bad, the sects and the weirdoes.

As a counterbalance, I wonder if there’s a better way to picture life in the US than by way of a State Fair like the one at Monroe?

Here is Middle America, in all its rich variety, and thoroughly at home with itself.

My visit on the opening Friday was sun-kissed and spectacular. Gaudy, frivolous, competitive, intense, but above all great fun.

I filled my face with pulled pork and curly fries, washed them down with an enormous Diet Coke, but just couldn’t cope with an Elephant’s Ear or a Corn Dog. Just. No. Room.

How is it that such artery-clogging, salt-surging, sugary highs are accompanied by such stomach-churning entertainment?

One of the rides was a 360-degree loop with a terrifying delayed upside down pause at the top for its paying punters. I’d have paid – to come down before my lunch did.

Another, featured a slow ratchety ride to the top of of a tall column of steel followed by a gut-wrenching, accelerated drop.

All the fun of the fair to be had and no shortage of people wanting to frighten themselves, or gawp in crazy mirrors, or impress a gal with their dead-eye shooting and win a cuddly toy.

But the bits I enjoyed best were the craft and livestock and agricultural sections.
Dazzling quilts, glowing pots of honey, primped and preened animals, vegetable displays of abundance and perfection.

This is the best of the best from a rural community that is still close to the earth, that understands the rhythm of the seasons, that knows about good husbandry and passes the hard-won knowledge down through the generations.

Rosettes are the currency craved by teenage girls with ramrod straight backs, riding plump ponies.

Prize cards for the best coney or biggest squash or longest bean may seen scant reward for the dedication and care required.

But they come with a quiet satisfaction and a glow of pride at being the best and fulfil a deep-rooted instinct in all of us to strive, to improve, and to progress.

What a fabulous day out.