Category Archives: Food Choices

Growing Food In A Dryer, Hotter Future

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Yesterday I got a pleasant surprise when WordPress notified me that I had 500 posts. It seems like a long time ago that I started this blog, a journey prompted by the food safety scares of 2008: e coli in lettuce and tomatoes.  And while some of today’s stories are similar, I do see many hopeful notes of progress. One area in which encouraging news is growing is the issue of food production in a time of climate disruption. How will we grow rice in drought like conditions? The solution could be “Sahbhagi Dhan”.  Research is ongoing on how plants “remember drought”, or how they are equipped to deal with total water deprivation: efforts that could create varieties of alfalfa, sorghum, corn and soy beans that will flourish and nurture us in a very different environment.

And sometimes the research yields not only good results for nutrition but is also a treat for the eyes, like this lavender lime, full of beneficial bioflavonoids , that will add a lovely burst of color to our plates!

(Image Courtesy: “Agriculture Rice Green Field and Blue Sky Background” by blackzheep, freedigitalphotos.net)

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What Is the EU Policy on GMOs?

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In forums across social media, opponents of  agricultural biotechnology often argue: “Ask why would Europe ban it?” But has the EU really banned GMOs? And what impact does this have on Europe?  A recent piece in the New York Times laments the turning away from science that forms the basis of the EU policy on GMOs. In April, following a decision from the European Commission allowing member countries to ban the cultivation of  GMO foods, 19 countries have so far announced that they would implement the ban. Does this mean the end of the road for GMO crops in Europe? Actually, no! Some countries are still open to adopting and growing genetically modified crops.

Romania was a leading cultivator of GMO maize before it joined the EU in 2007 and, being aware of the potential of this technology is seeking to expand further. Portugal and Spain also continue to grow genetically modified maize.

So some countries are continuing to weigh the benefits and follow the science in their policy toward cultivation of GMO crops. But what about genetically modified feed for livestock? In 2013, the EU imported about 35 million tonnes of GMO soybean to feed its livestock.  Nothing has changed there and not much is said about the apparent contradiction in allowing GMO feed while opposing the cultivation of crops.The European Parliament has just rejected a proposal to allow member countries to take individual decisions in banning GMO food and feed, insisting that the EU take a decision as a whole so the validity of the individual country bans appears unclear.

The ramifications of EU policy go beyond its borders. It impacts the adoption of new technology in African countries which are hesitant to adopt policies that would put them at odds with their traditional trading partners in Europe. If there is no possibility of selling crops in a market with robust profits, there is less motivation to pursue new technologies. Some indications of change here are encouraging as Tanzania and Uganda move toward adopting a science based position.

Interesting fact sheet on EU GMO policy is here.

(Image Courtesy: “Soybean in Glass” by Teddy Bear (Picnic), freedigitalphotos.net)

The Chipotle Saga

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Much has been written about Chipotle’s recent GMO policy announcement, most of it amazingly sane and factual. This is quite a change from the reflexive aversion to anything GMO that the media often comes up with. It is cheering to think that the fog of hysteria is slowly lifting to let the facts shine!

  • Here are some interesting reads on this:
  • From The Washington Post
  • From the Iowa Farm Bureau
  • From a farmer who raises pigs
  • From NPR who can’t take it seriously
  • From Quartz who point out that all corn is genetically modified so what about the tortillas?

 

(Image Courtesy: tsunamistudio at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

The Plate, the Pot and Climate Change

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At the IFAD (International Fund for Agricultural Development) website, there is an interesting series on the impact of climate change on staple foods around the world: recipes that were passed on over bubbling pots in the kitchen might have to adapt, memories of childhood meals might no longer be reflected on our children’s  plates.

In the eastern highlands of Morocco, truffles (Terfass) that were a major ingredient in the local diet, are threatened by overgrazing and changing climate making the already vulnerable inhabitants of this area (75 % of the farmers here live below the poverty line) more food insecure. Rising sea  levels push saltwater into the Mekong delta of Vietnam destroying rice fields and catfish, staples of the sweet and sour catfish soup , so beloved in the region. In Bolivia, the local favorite Chairo soup needs a key ingredient: freeze dried potatoes. The potatoes are frost resistant, so they are put out in freezing temperatures for 5 to 6 nights and exposed to the hot sun in the daytime for freeze drying. Once ready, they can be used up to years later! Now, potato harvests are pressured by  uncertain growing seasons.

But there is good news as new varieties of crops are being developed to withstand the impact of climate change such as flood tolerant rice, or the 30 new varieties of beans that can grow in higher temperatures. Beans are an affordable, lasting source of protein for millions of people in the developing world so this is a crucial achievement. One of the varieties was developed by cross breeding the popular pinto beans with the less common tepary bean to come up with the heat resistant strain.

So, yes, some things will change: the beans may look a little different, the rice may taste a little different but the important thing is that we can find solutions to the challenge of growing food in a climate uncertain world. There will be new memories and new stories to share!

(Image Courtesy Sira Anamwang from freedigitalphotos.net)

Fair Standards for Animals Raised for Food

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 When Chipotle made its pork shortage announcement recently, I was somewhat skeptical. How low were the standards that Chipotle was concerned about?One could be led to think that this was some horrible factory farm scenario gone wrong. But, in fact, it was simply that Chipotle objected to two standard and widely accepted practices used by farmers: farrowing crates which enable them to ensure the safety of newborn pigs and slatted floors which are critical to maintaining cleanliness. NPR spoke to a farmer whose standards meet and extend those of Chipotle  but who was skeptical of this demand from Chipotle. He pointed out that while a small farm with fewer pigs could allow them to roam outside, this is not practical in a large scale operation. And the demand for pork, not juts from a particular fast food chain but from the market as a whole is huge. To meet this, large scale operations are essential. While no one wants a dilution in the care of animals, the demands often come from the consumer side. Most of us, to be perfectly honest, have little or no clue about the raising of pigs.

Yes, as this farmer describes it, we want to think about pigs being raised outdoors because we have a mental image of a gorgeous , sunny summer day. Th reality of a winter day in Minnesota, as she relates might mean broken legs and frost bite for the animals. The writer also takes issue with the vilification of farmers for brand enhancement. Perhaps it is not so much about the pork as it is about nudging consumers toward other options:  Chipotle recently debuted a tofu item in an effort to keep costs down. Maybe the concern over animal welfare would make us pick that instead. And for those who would like their usual options but worry about how green it is, there may soon be an app for that!

(Image Courtesy: freedigitalphotos.net)

The Tower of Label: What We Do Know

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This is a somewhat delayed post, and I almost did not write it, but then it sort of kept going around in my mind and I just had to put it down. It all started when I realized that it was the middle of December and my to do list to prepare for the holiday season was untouched. And though the chilly days were calling out for soup, the only thing that was likely to be simmering in my home, given the mountain of unfinished tasks, was me. So I ventured into the soup aisle to pick up a few options for back up.

Since I usually do not buy soup I was again amazed at the variety of options, somewhat overwhelming, really! Within moments, though, this became a real time experiment to see how much information is already on the cartons or cans and how much of it is accurate or, useful.I see so much about the labeling debate on social media, here was the opportunity to see it in action. Consider the first example, in the image above: it said, “natural” which, while vaguely comforting , does not give any real information at all. Although, some consumers might confuse this with “organic” or “sustainable” though there is no evidence that it si either of those things.

In the second category were the soups which came with volumes of information:

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“New”, “No GMO” (so, conventionally grown corn but not organic I suppose), “No MSG”, “All Natural” “Low in fat and calories” and “No Cholesterol”, that is quite a lot to, well, process! Pressed for time, surrounded by kids asking for treats, not many of the shoppers around me were actually reading the carton at all. “What soup do you want?” they would ask and into the cart would go the choices that were voiced. The one criterion that they did stop to consider? the price. “Let’s get one of those, they are on sale” was frequently heard. This was interesting to me and bore out what many believe: the push for labeling is less about information and more about marketing. Just as labeling spiked the prices of  GMO related products in Europe,  forcing them off the supermarket shelves, the same would be seen in the US were mandatory labeling to be introduced, and this would give a huge advantage to other players in the market notably the organic producers.

I was pleasantly surprised by the third category, the cartons with minimal information:

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“Gourmet Bisques” is all it said and named the soup. Just for that it did get my vote and, subsequently, came out at the top of the taste test of all the soups I got that day. When I ask around, most people say they pick the flavors they like and keep in mind the price, that is all. Of course, there are those who will not buy anything but organic ( and those soups were in the organic aisle, easily sorted for their convenience). Since that label already exists, it is hard to understand why another label needs to be added.

But, of course, one must consider the pro-label point of view. And that is where this piece  is so insightful. The writer believes in the “right to know” and sets out to research whether costs would really go up in a prohibitive way if labeling was mandatory. A survey of work in this area does support the position that costs would rise: to the farmer,  the state and of course, the consumer. Added to the dollars and cents price, there would be a larger price to pay. If rising costs lead to the substitution of GMO ingredients with non-GMO ones, there would be a decline in the research and development of GMO technology and this is crucial. GMO technology is not simply about yield or profits, it also offers the ability, for instance, to combat malnutrition by fortifying foods that people eat daily with essential nutrients. The most famous example of this is Golden Rice which can be used to prevent deaths from Vitamin A deficiency. Equally crucial is the potential of biotechnology in developing drought resistant or flood and salinity tolerant varieties of crops which would be able to combat the challenges of a changing climate. The choice of GMO  crops also has other environmental consequences which are often overlooked, discussed here.

Ultimately, the writer decides that the right to know, while important, has to be considered in conjunction with the realization that while some have the luxury of choice, for others, even the right to eat is an uncertain one. A show I was watching recently had the now familiar scene, where the server recites the provenance if each item in the menu to the diner. After describing in glowing terms the grass fed beef, the carrots and broccoli from the local farm “only x miles from here”, when the server kept it short with the “fresh asparagus”, the irritable diner snapped back “That’s it? You expect me to eat my dinner without any clue about the early life and upbringing of the asparagus?” Our world includes this diner and also the one who will go to bed hungry with no asparagus at all, and our policies need to work for both of them.

What if we were provided information like this: “This crop was grown using biotechnology which meant that less cropland was required to grow it and some land could be left for conservation. It  requires less pesticide use making it gentle on our planet and on our farm workers. This is a variety that was developed to grow with less water so we could conserve our shrinking water reserves. It is fortified with a nutrient that will prevent a common deficiency and ensure better health for children.”Now, that is a label which would have my support.

Taking Up a New Food Tradition: “Hoppin John” on New Year’s Day

 

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Though I have lived in the US for  a while now, I just learned about the tradition of eating “Hoppin John” on New Year’s day. The first description I read of it involved black-eyed peas, pork, rice and some greens. The black-eyed peas represent coins and the wish for prosperity, the greens of course represent cash. This immediately reminded me of a favorite recipe from India  and I thought I would use it. And so our first meal of the year was this bowl of golden goodness, glowing with turmeric and a little chilli powder, with a sprinkling of cilantro standing in for the greens. To me, this represents the best of all possible worlds, memories of the infusing the adventure of the present.

Further reading brought interesting facts to light: the original dish used red cow peas not the black-eyed peas used today; the rice used was  Carolina Gold and the story of how this variety disappeared from the market is a fascinating story: the soft lowlands on which Carolina Gold rice was cultivated were unsuitable for the use of machinery and there was not enough labor for the intense work required, a hurricane added a further blow. So rice production shifted to other states and other varieties. But a resurgence of this variety was brought about from grains obtained from a seed bank and a small number of farmers are growing it. (One wonders though how the issue  of labor/mechanization was resolved, material for another post perhaps!)

As I write this, I discovered yet another Indian take on black-eyed peas, this time with curry leaves, which I love, and coconut, looks like day two of the new year may also involve black-eyed peas…