Category Archives: Hunger

Something Old, Something New….

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It was an unexpected delight to read this piece on the Moringa plant! Unexpected because I have grown wary of the term “superfood”, but I was curious: what is this moringa? The delight was at discovering that the spotlight was on a favorite vegetable from my childhood, known to us as “drumsticks”.

The spotlight on the Moringa tree is welcome as it thrives under very hot and dry conditions which bodes well for its cultivation in times of climate uncertainty and water scarcity. And that is just the start, because here is what we learn about the Moringa:” it produces edible leaves that are unusually rich in protein, iron, calcium, nine essential amino acids, and Vitamins A, B, and C. Its seedpods, which are as thick as the meaty part of a drumstick and about a foot long, are also high in protein and omega-3 fatty acids. Jed Fahey, a biochemist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who has collaborated with Olson on Moringa research for more than a decade, has found that the tree’s leaves and pods have strong anti-inflammatory and anti-diabetic properties, and may also contain enzymes that protect against cancer. Mature Moringa seeds can be pressed for vegetable oil, and the seed cake that is left over can be used to purify drinking water. (It contains a protein that makes bacteria glom together and die.) When dried, crushed seeds can also serve as a good fertilizer.”

As I read this, I can almost taste the steaming bowl of stems cooked in lentils from all those years ago, for once, “superfood” might just be an accurate description!

If one front in the effort to combat the impact of climate change on food production involves taking a second look at resources that have been neglected in the past, another strategy is to use technology to bring to farmers the information and data they need to make optimal decisions. An interesting read on how this is working in Africa is here.

Combating global hunger in a climate uncertain time will require all the tools we have, taking another look at old ones and trying out some shiny new ones as well.

(Image courtesy of zirconicusso at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

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Will Humans Let Science Save the Banana?

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The answer, it seems, is at best a weak “maybe”. Still it was heartening to see an article in the media that was nuanced enough to acknowledge the public’s unfounded wariness of biotechnology with the pragmatic acknowledgement that in this instance, genetic modification is the strongest option in the tool box.  The piece also explores the reasons why relying on banana biodiversity alone cannot suffice. This is really the middle ground that we should be focusing on, instead of the yelling-across-lines-in-sand  type of communication which characterizes most food debates. The problems are real and the solutions will be a combination of various options and  rejecting some options out of baseless fear is not an optimum step. Some solutions and even, improvements, have been suggested, the hope is that they will not be blocked.

(Image Courtesy: bplanet 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.

Weekend Reading: Future Food, Subsistence Living and the Problem with Solutions

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It is a cold, rainy Saturday, and the plan was to catch up some long deferred reading and stay off grid. The first worked beautifully , the second, not so much!

The first sentence that jumped out at me: “…urging a back-to-the-land movement as a  cure for what ails America. Nostalgia for a direct, uncorrupted relationship between between people and animals and plants that sustain us may be as old as civilization itself, and it cycles in and out of fashion, but it seems particularly potent in times of economic crisis..” An excellent explanation of the pull toward “natural” that takes up so much space in the food debate, from “Off The Land” by David Treuer in the November issue of Harper’s Magazine (paywall).  Writing about people following a path of subsistence living, the author finds that “Subsistence…isn’t a philosophy of quiet, inward-turning wonder about how we relate to the land. It’s a mad, violent pragmatism intent on extracting calories and advantage.”

A very interesting piece on how and why development solutions are effective or not and what might be the ways to go forward suggests a change of perspective. Instead of fixating on one, big, perfect idea and trying to, as the author puts it, unfurl it over the whole world like a picnic blanket, perhaps the answer lies in thinking small, trying what works in a particular context and tweaking as we go. Also relevant in the food world where there seems to be so much conviction that there is only a single perfect solution, when a more realistic focus would be to incorporate different approaches in the most optimum combination for the particular problem/part of the world.

In an NYT article, the writer is convinced of the need to stop interpreting  “eating locally” in a narrow way, but is equally sure that organic agriculture is the only solution to food system issues. Looking into the future however (via the popular YA novel, Divergent) shows us that a very different solution could unfold: “Most of what we eat is frozen or canned, because farms these days are far away. My mother once told me that, a long time ago, there were people who wouldn’t buy genetically engineered produce because they viewed it as unnatural. Now we have no other option.”

Hope you enjoy the reads, and let me know what you think!

(Image Courtest: freedigitalphotos.net)

Experimenting With School Lunch

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The school lunch is in turmoil: efforts to ensure that students get nutritious food that will keep them healthy have run up against problems. Sometimes, schools do not have the resources to provide all the recommended elements of a healthy lunch, sometimes parents object to what they perceive as an imposition by the government on their child’s diet, and sometimes the children reject the new menu. Still, it is good to know that the efforts to make sure kids eat properly continues. In Washington DC, a chef and a dietician collaborated to offer new choices to the students in a local school. Instead of the usual carrot sticks, children were presented with three differently prepared options and the Asian style version won the day and will form a part of the school menu. This experiment gives an interesting insight: today kids, specially in an area as diverse as Washington DC are exposed to a variety of cuisines, what they eat at home might be quite different from the food served at their friend’s home and also differ from what is offered at school. Where possible, substituting the somewhat sad looking boiled sides with more flavorful options might mean that less food is thrown out. of course, a major stumbling block remains: school kitchens are often equipped with only heating and freezing appliances, so the possibility of actually cooking food is limited.

When we hear demands for changes or objections to the new rules, we must remember that these need to be looked at in the context of the troubling problem of childhood hunger. In many households, children are going to bed hungry and rely on school meals for a significant source of nutrition. All too often, we read about children who have to go hungry when snow days are called. In such cases, the school lunch is not so much a matter of taste or liking but one of making sure children do not go hungry.

In another example, experimenting with the school lunch not only helps to achieve the goal of keeping children from going hungry but it also addresses the problem of malnutrition. In India, a government sponsored program provides freshly cooked meals to children in an area with high rates of anemia. The program serves the dual purpose of bringing  the children in to school with the promise of a meal and getting them an education; and by incorporating iron fortified rice in the meal, the widespread problem of anemia is also being tackled.

The shape that a lunch program takes would seem to rest in the context of its use, we can use it to address big challenges. That is an important lesson to remember when we start to get disappointed because the lunch plate does not look exactly as we might want.

(Image Courtesy: freedigitalphotos.net)