Category Archives: Food Choices

Recipe for a National Food Policy

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 Recently, The Washington Post featured a piece calling for a national food policy. It started off with the statement that food impacts every sector of the economy and the lives of every person in the country and therefore it is essential that it be regulated by a national policy. The first idea we can agree with, regarding the second though, many may have reservations. The writers then go on to assert that the food system has caused “incalculable” harm to the health of people and the environment, and such harm would warrant waging a war in response, if it were the act of a foreign power. Yes, there us much that needs a strong effort: from the obesity crisis to hunger in our communities; fair working conditions for farm workers to the challenge of growing food while facing climate disruption but we could surely agree on ways to find solutions in a productive way without call to hostilities.
And exactly how would the national food policy tackle the situation (first step, of course, would be to nominate a Food Czar!)? The recommended objectives are:

  • to assure access to healthful food for all: no disagreement there although how the access would be ensured remains to be determined
  • support public health and environmental objectives: ditto
  • climate resilience: how? not discussed. Would the application of biotechnology be considered an option, for example?
  • care for livestock: agreed
  • “our food supply is free of toxic bacteria, chemicals and drugs” ,which looks very much like “organic or nothing”
  • “Food marketing sets children up for healthy lifestyles by instilling in them a habit of eating real food”: some confusion here, children acquire eating habits in the context of home and family. As a parent, I cannot imagine letting a corporation teach my children what to eat, that is my responsibility and most parents would agree.
  • Production and marketing are transparent and the food industry pays a fair wage: while laudable, this refers to the food processing stage, what about farmers and farm workers?
  • To increase carbon sequestration on farmland and reduce the food system’s carbon footprint: what changes or innovations this might require in agriculture are not discussed.

The first thing that stands out is the consumer centric nature of the demands.  It makes demands about how workers should be paid, livestock should be cared for and how agriculture should respond to climate change. What, one wonders, would those who grow food actually think about this? How would they define a food policy?

And there we come to a core question: what is a “food policy” anyway? The piece states that “an agriculture policy is not the same as a food policy” but then neither is a food consumption policy a true food policy. If we want to chart out the path ahead for the food system, we need to take into account both the growers and the consumers of food, and reconcile these interests instead of pitting them against each other. A long argument is made on how and why the government needs to put a policy in place but it mainly comes down to dismantling the “agricultural-industrial” complex. That is a good objective but that alone cannot fix the food system.

No industry can flourish if there is no demand for their products and that demand comes from the consumers. If there is a demand for mashed potatoes in a box, then that is what we will find on the shelves. Of course we should be boiling and mashing our own potatoes, but for that, deep rooted lifestyle changes are required, changes which cannot simply be mandated by policy, and changes which, if we are honest, we are rather reluctant to make. Getting back from work only to have to ferry the kids to classes and practice games or even to have to go to a second job to make ends meet leaves little time for cooking. We need a discussion and changes in why we are living this way and how we can make changes. You can mandate whatever food policy you like but the basic question is how do I find the time to cook? And I say this from the experience of someone who does cook everyday. It is hard, and it is exhausting, it is nothing like the cooking shows on TV, that is for sure. So blaming the food industry for all our problems is  not sufficient for change.

This gap in perceptions was highlighted at another event convened by the New York Times to discuss the future of food which initially had no farmer or rancher involved in the discussions! Once this was rectified, a participating farmer was able to urge the panelists, to involve farmers in the discussion on food, a sad disconnect! But it was encouraging to learn that there was at least an awareness of the need to work together. The food movement  seems to have fallen into an us vs the food companies pattern, but in reality any successful food movement would need to include everyone: those who grow, process and sell, and consume food. Yes, food impacts everyone and everything and it is precisely for that reason that there are no easy answers here, the solutions are complex and everyone has to make an effort.

Finally, a national food policy will find it increasingly constrained by outside factors. Climate disruption is impacting agriculture everywhere and lack of food is expected to spark social unrest and large scale migration of people from affected areas. The struggle for resources could lead to actual wars, not just ones that can be debated in newspaper columns. An effective food policy will build a path forward which is able to respond to climate change and achieve goals of conservation and food production for the planet’s inhabitants at the same time. So it might be tempting to reach for avocados for that healthy lunch salad but it is also important to remember that it embodies a cost in terms of depleting water resources in another country that has to be accounted for as we set policy goals.

(Image Courtesy: freedigitalphotos.net)

The Problem With Solutions to “Feed the World”

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It seems like everywhere on social media there are pieces on meetings and  conferences to discuss the challenge of “feeding the world”. There are lots of lists of solutions, assertions that this innovative project from Country Y is the perfect answer, it just needs to be replicated across the globe and then objections that this would completely destroy the food heritage of Country Z and should be abandoned. At first, it appears to be just a muddle, but the debate is intense and sometimes severely combative: scientific research is targeted and destroyed and websites dedicated to scientific communication are hacked and prevented from functioning.

Perhaps it might be helpful to take a closer look at the question to begin with: at issue here is the intent to tackle global hunger and malnutrition, with population still rising and arable land in short supply, and all this in a time of probably the biggest challenge humans have faced: climate change. Often the aspects of the food system which get the most prominence in the media are those of individual consumers: so consumers in one part of the world might vote to ban GMO crops but how do we justify this to parents who are watching their children struggle and suffer from Vitamin A deficiency but have no access to Golden Rice. The food system debate touches everyone so solutions have to be evaluated in that context as well.

Sometimes we hear the argument that our ancestors did this/did not do that so we should continue to follow that path or return to it. Certainly we can carry forward the knowledge of the past but the future is not a replication of what we have lived through and needs different approaches. Small farms existed before the growth of agribusinesses but that should not preculde the idea that big farms as well as small ones can participate together in creating and being a part of a better food system. Faced with altered growing conditions, can we adopt ways to conserve water in rice farming as well a technique that can help plants process excess salt and flourish? There is no reason why we cannot do both, other than the desire to maintain entrenched positions.

Another source of controversy arises from viewing climate change as solely related to the environment, and the effort to nurture and conserve nature is in opposition to agriculture. Worsening air quality hurts our health but also impacts the productivity of our crops.  So cleaner air brings even more benefits than we might have considered earlier. Agriculture does not have to mean the end of habitats and indigenous plants. Conserving nature can work with the goal of sustaining people as these successful projects show.

That so many lists of solutions are available is great but we cannot stick to one or the other set of answers. The clock is running against us on climate change and we need to use the best tools possible.

(Image Courtesy: freedigitalphotos.net)

About Those Cows….

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When work , laundry, dishes are all piling up and you want to run away from it all, the best place to go is Pinterest. I know because I have been there a lot. Scrolling down the crafts feed is bewildering:  it is simply bursting with ideas for rustic, barn weddings: lots of burlap, distressed wood, tables laid out on emerald green fields with a picturesque cow or a duck adding an idyllic note. This gorgeous visual has very little to do with an actual, working farm as one writer pointed out here, but neither is it true, as the piece describes, that in the real world cows are raised in “warehouses” and are a source of pollution. In the comments, those who actually raise cows contributed facts to the discussion, most of which would be new to that many among us, far removed as we are from the realities of food production.

It is common to read about cows contributing to global warming by releasing methane into the atmosphere. It is argued that if we stopped raising cows for food, this would be a greener choice. But if we just stopped eating beef what would happen to the cows? Well, they would live long and prosper, (check out the calculations in this excellent blog) leading to exploding cow populations which would be standing there chewing, polluting and watching barn weddings and wondering what this was all about. The only way to do away with the methane problem would be to actually kill all the cows.

The other great debate centers around the question : “what is an authentic cow?” What is the difference between a cow grown on GMO feed and one that is not? Surely, there must be a difference, the former cannot be the same as the cows our ancestors raised. But, in fact, they are exactly the same: the animals are the same,the milk and the meat are the same. This study looked at livestock productivity and health from public sources for 100 billion animals, starting at 1983 before the introduction of GMO feed in 1996,  through to 2011 which had high levels of GMO feed in use; and found no negative effects on livestock health or humans who consumed animal products.

And still, today, social media is bursting with people who are concerned because not enough tests have been done over a long enough period of time. “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” Neither, sadly, do dishes, no matter how beguiling the alternative!

(Image Courtesy: freedigitalphotos.net)

 

#Farming Friday 23: Urban Farming for Food Security

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First, Hurricane Katrina destroyed the local food supply system in New Orleans and then the BP oil spill wiped out the fishing industry. The fishermen were mostly from the Vietnamese community which had a history of urban farming to meet the local demand for vegetables for Vietnamese cooking.  In an interesting convergence, the Vietnamese fishermen drew on this practice of urban farming to offer locally grown vegetables to area residents still awaiting the return of grocery stores destroyed by Katrina; a solution which worked towards food and income security.

Is Your Dinner Home Cooked?

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An article in Slate magazine argues that cooking dinner at home is a glorified ideal which actually results in nothing but drudgery for the one who prepares the meal, most often the woman in the household. The article references a study from researchers at North Carolina State University which argues that the benefits of a home cooked dinner, often cited by well known food writers such as Michael Pollan,  might be overestimated.

Predictably, this lead to much debate and dissent. A response  by  Joel Salatin that there should be any reaction other than reverence for the ritual of the dinner cooked at home. He exhorts us to stop the soccer run, ditch the TV shows, “get out of the car and get in the kitchen”. This is directed mostly again at Mom who picks up chicken nuggets on the way to practice rather than taking advantage of the slow cooker, the refrigerator and today’s “techno enabled kitchens” to cook the family a healthy meal. There is a mention, at the end of the piece, of men who are part of the problem as they spend their weekends rider a mower on an “ecological dead zone” aka the suburban lawn instead of growing a vegetable garden to feed their families.

The first step in making sense of this would be to ask the question: what, exactly, is a home cooked meal? Does heating up frozen dinners at home qualify? A family sitting and eating together at a table,  each with their own frozen choice perhaps,  is certainly a component of the dinner-at-home scenario.  Does it matter of the meal was actually cooked at home from scratch? It is important to think about this because the problem with the idea of the home cooked dinner is really twofold: the problem of time and the problem of choice.  Cooking a meal from start to finish: including cleaning and cutting vegetables and meat, actual cooking time, serving and cleaning up afterwards is an enormous time sink. In the real world we are all dealing with several chores and errands plus working at earning a living and there is never enough time so those frozen dinners or pasta in the box becomes an important resource.  This option also allows each member of the family to pick the option they want. Nothing is more energy sapping than cooking and serving up a nutritious dinner and have kids (and adults!) say they do not like it or want to eat it.

The frozen scenario is not really the one that  the pro-cooked-dinner writers favors. They paint a picture of Mom coming out of the kitchen with heaping bowls of  steaming hot food , fresh from the kitchen.  This picture has really no basis in reality. In every society at every time of human life, those who were financially able to, employed cooks and maids to cook and serve food, this was not just for royalty or the very rich but even true for middle class families.

Today, no one has a cook other than the 1% . So, it is mostly up to Mom to come home from work, tidy up the house, take care of errands, laundry, help with homework and cook dinner. Many mothers would prefer to heat up the frozen meal and use the extra few precious minutes to be with their children. Are these parents unaware of the results of the trade-off? No, they are simply trying to make sense of the options in our increasingly hectic and complicated lives. It is not easy to ditch soccer and ballet if every other parent around you is fixated on the “best activities” to put on the college applications of their kid who is , at the moment, just learning to tie his shoe laces.

It takes  organizing to plan meals for a family for a whole week, to shop accordingly and have the meals appear on time. Let us start by acknowledging that. When was the last time someone said of their spouse, with pride, that they cooked dinner at home every day? Did we as adults recognize that while today’s meal may not crack our top ten, it does represent a whole hour of labor and caring from someone? And do we encourage our children to recognize this as well? It is not simply about who makes dinner but the true value we assign to this task.

 

 

A Reason to Love Okra

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When I first moved to the US, I was surprised by the prevailing wariness toward okra that I saw on the cooking shows. I always loved okra, or ladyfingers as they are known in India (part of the British legacy). It was one of the delights of summer, cut fine and crisped up with sprinkle of turmeric and salt or in a variety of other recipes brimming with flavor. And then I realized that okra (I finally got used to calling it that) was mostly eaten in stew form and realized that the American and Indian okra experience were fundamentally different.

For me, okra cooked and served as almost a stir fry without any sauce (or gravy, as it is sometimes called in India) is the most alluring option. The main difficulty in cooking okra is the slime that suddenly oozes out during cooking , catching the novice cook by surprise and leaving them bogged down with a goopy mess instead of the crisp, green slices of flavor that was their goal. I found the easiest way to deal with this is to cook rapidly on fairly high heat. If the recipe calls for cooking slowly on medium or low heat, then I turn to the trick recommended by grandmothers; add some acid, slices of tomatoes will usually make the slime disappear.

And, why, you are thinking, do I need to learn slime slaying techniques anyway? Well, it turns out that a study in China found that okra may be helpful in treating Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. Rats who received the okra supplement had lower glucose and insulin levels and their triglyceride levels were also lower than the rats which did not consume okra. More than enough reason to try out some new okra recipes!

Farewell To Our Favorite Fish?

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For a Bengali, fish is not just food, it is connected to everything in life. We celebrate our cricket and soccer team wins with fresh fish curry; and send out gorgeously decorated fish to the bride’s house as part of our wedding rituals. Our culture grew in the low islands and mangroves of the Bay of Bengal, awash in tales of the delta and the fearsome legends of the Bengal tiger. With climate change, some of these strands of our heritage will disappear forever. The tiger is in danger of extinction, the mangroves are shrinking and the lowest islands of Bangladesh are being reclaimed by the rising waters.

Still, we thought, we had our favorite fish, “ilish”( Tenualosa Ilisha). It was a momentous treat when I was a child: the first elish of the season which would be prepared in a golden mustard gravy with a bright green chilli pepper, served up with steaming rice. It was an expensive fish, not to be eaten everyday and certainly not during the breeding season. But somewhere along the way, all this changed. With prosperity came an insatiable demand, ilish was being eaten around the year and exported all over the world. Now, we may have to live in a world with only our memories of the delight it brought to our lives.

Efforts are on to conserve ilish by several organisations and the Bangladesh government.  Bengalis all over the world are praying this will work (watching our own ilish consumption would also help!). Perhaps we can look to a conservation success like the blue crabs  in the Chesapeake Bay or the mix of restrictions and incentives that Brazil has used to successfully reduce degradation in the Amazon rainforest to ensure that the ilish continue to thrive.

For a look at the life of people living in the ecosystem of the Bay of Bengal,   “The Hungry Tide” by Amitav Ghosh is an absorbing read.

(Image Courtesy: freedigitalphotos.net)

Tastier Tomatoes?

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This is a quick post. I just saw this piece on hydroponic tomatoes   that are reported to be as flavorful as heirloom varieties. What is the environmental impact of large scale greenhouses used for growing crops that would otherwise not be grown in that area, one wonders?  Time to plug in my favorite food rule: Eat in Season. In summer, enjoy the tomatoes, can them if you like for winter but when the snow comes in do think about all the root vegetables you could savor. The comments are also worth a read and it took only a quick glance to note that, yes, Monsanto had been mentioned, never mind that it has nothing to do with the story!

(Image Courtesy: freedigitalphotos.net)

Farmers’ Markets Dwindling in Paris

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Yesterday I discovered that Italians are no longer cooking at home like they used to and today I learn that those wonderful farmers markets of Paris are disappearing! Truly, the world of food is not what it used to be.Again, why? what has changed and led people away from the fresh produce, breads and cheese of the neighborhood market to the all in one hypermarche? Perhaps it is convenience, we are all pressed for time these days, or perhaps tastes have changed….

Have you been traveling or relocated and found the local food culture to be different from what is generally known about that country/region? If so, I would love to hear from you!

 

Do You Microwave Your Pasta?

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No need to feel guilty, though, because even the Italians are doing it now! Yes, the land of  fresh tomatoes, cheese and olive oil is succumbing to the allure of processed food, sodas and even MacDonald’s . All this I discovered on reading this excerpt from a new book “The Lost Art of Feeding Kids: What Italy Taught Me About Why Children Need Real Food”  by Jeannie Marshall.

Apparently, only old ladies go shopping for fresh groceries, most adults do not cook  and children are drinking Coke with their pizza. All this was interesting but what I was dying to know was: why? why has the Italian lifestyle become so much like the American one? Does the book provide an answer? No clue but if you read it, please let us know!

Image Courtesy: Apolonia, Freedigitalphotos.net