Tag Archives: Book Review

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)

Summer Food Reads

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Summer is finally here!Time to head to the beach or, perhaps Paris(always my dream!)? Wherever we go, along with the flip flops and passports come the books. So, here are some interesting food related books that I came across:

Good and Cheap” by Leanne Brown offers recipes and  cooking ideas for $4 a day, or what could be spent on food based on a SNAP allowance. The recipes are mostly vegetarian, many are grain based and would be of interest to many of us trying to put healthy food on the table but also trying to vary the diet. Is it a good resource for those actually living on assistance? Would this work for a family? Read the book to decide!

Blue Plate Special” by Kate Christensen is described as a personal account of the power of food to transform a person’s life. One of the interesting things about the food world is precisely the intensity of people’s relationship with food one reason why making changes in diet or in policy is often so fraught with difficulty.   The story of a life in relation to food sounds intriguing.

American Catch: The Fight For Our Local Seafood” by Paul Greenberg journeys from the local to the global: the disappearance of oysters from New York, the startling statistic that reveals how most of the nutrient rich salmon caught in the US is actually shipped over to Asia and the battle for the market between local and imported farm raised shrimp form the subject matter. But it is the exploration of people coming together to bring changes to these situations that I am waiting to discover.

I would love to hear your thoughts if you read/ have read any of these books so please do share!

(Image Courtesy:freedigitalphotos.net)

Revisiting the “eat local” Idea

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I just came across this review of a book called “The Locavore’s Delusion”, and yes, it is a nod to that other book, in case you were wondering! The authors of the book tried to answer the question: why did we start eating a more global diet anyway? The article gives a summary of reasons that most people offer for opting to eat local: more tasty, nutritious, helps local economy etc , and the most often cited reason: it is good for the environment. This has been the subject of much discussion (some of which I wrote about here) and the point at issue is that the contribution to greenhouse gases comes more from the actual cultivation of crops rather than their transportation.

The answer the authors provide to the query, why did global food trade develop, is that it provides increased variety of foods, reduced prices and stability of supply. They also argue that efforts to counter this are really an effort to turn back the clock with negative consequences. If a region was hit by unexpected weather events or pest infestations and the crops failed, there would be no relief available if we functioned as closed off food islands. Indeed, they see the problem as being one of inadequate globalization where subsidies, trade barriers and other distortions are hindering an optimum situation of low prices and assured availability of food.

Some of the discussion here has been heard before but I liked the way the question was posed: why did we start expanding out of the local market? Perhaps we could ask the same question for the GMO question: why did we start developing them in the first place? Was it because some evil people were working up weird stuff in their labs and injecting it into food to try and rule the world like in some bad movie? No, it was because we need to tackle pests to stop crop loss. We will need it in the future to combat climate change. Imagine a flood event that submerges crops. Since genetically modified crops that could withstand the submersion were not planted, there is no food. But there is also no way to acquire it from anywhere else because food trade has given way to purely local markets. It could happen….

 

(Image Courtesy: freedigitalphotos.net)

 

 

The Episode of the Disappearing Oysters

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Thanks to a free weekend from Showtime, I was able to catch up on another episode of their show on climate change, “Years of Living Dangerously”. (I reviewed the first episode here).This episode had two story lines: one, in which Ms. Lesley Stahl travels to Greenland to explore the melting glaciers; and the second, where Mr. Ian Somerhalder brings us the climate debate going on in the evangelical community in the USA, a debate that has a significant impact on actual policy making.

We were treated to stunning views of glaciers which drove home the point of how beautiful our planet is and how callous we are in our stewardship of all that it offers. The rumble of the glaciers cracking served as reminders of how quickly all this could vanish. In fact, the melting of glaciers is also opening up possibilities for oil exploration and there is more investment going on in this right now than the GDP of Greenland! This provides income boosting opportunities for the inhabitants of Greenland and here we come up against the reality of climate change: when the environment changes and people’s livelihoods are threatened, policy making and taking action becomes more fraught.

The other narrative thread revisits some territory from the first episode: the attempt to establish that climate change is real and happening now to those whose belief in their faith casts doubt over this. The starting point is the campaign to shut down coal plants in North Carolina and elsewhere in the country. Mr. Somerhalder’s foundation has been committed to calling attention to the issue of  the impact of coal in an effective campaign on social media. But, initiatives like this are being met with resistance by certain faith based groups. We meet pastor Rick Joyner who remains unconvinced about the evidence on climate change despite his daughter’s efforts. She is joined in her effort by Dr. Katherine Hayhoe  who also featured in the first episode; and is a skilled and dedicated communicator on climate change issues.

To illustrate the impact of climate change, we are introduced to the oyster fishermen of Apalachicola Bay which was once full of oysters but is almost empty today. Increased use of water upstream due to drought, and a rise in the sea level, has changed the salinity level of the bay waters making it unsuitable for oysters. A source of income and food has disappeared and, as we know, this story with different players is being repeated all over the world.

The show does not present easy answers: we hear the dilemma of the leadership of Greenland, “our country is not a museum”, people have to survive and they want to give their families a good life; we watch as a tentative coexistence between faith and science develops,  but finally it is up to each of us to find our position and act on it. What is worrisome is that time is not on our side and we need to make changes soon.

I wish that the potential impact of climate change on our food system was highlighted in Years of Living Dangerously. Perhaps that will come in other episodes, there is certainly enough material on it for a whole show to itself!

 

(Image Courtesy: freedigitalphotos.net)

 

 

“Years of Living Dangerously”: Climate Change in our World Today

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Yesterday I watched the première episode of the series “Years Of Living Dangerously”. I had heard a lot about it and was curious to see if it would touch on  any links to agriculture/food system. It started off with Harrison Ford, one of the celebrity correspondents helping to tell the climate change story, taking off in a plane repurposed by NASA to collect samples of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.  Other aspects of the story unfolded as we visited Plainview, Texas where long years of drought decimated the cattle and shut down the local meat-packing factory, rendering people unemployed; to Indonesia where centuries old forest growth is being cut down everyday to make room for palm oil plantations; and to Syria where the roots of the current conflict are traced back to a devastating drought that displaced farmers and forced people into extreme poverty. (I wrote about Syria earlier here).

The science of climate change is well presented and the most fascinating part of the hour, for me, was watching  Dr. Katherine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University explain how her personal faith and  her work in climate change coexist. Often, communication between scientists and the public is less than successful so it was great to see this work well here. The question of palm oil plantations is a fraught one and it points toward a very difficult challenge: getting people to change their habits. Palm oil appears as an ingredient in a variety of  products ranging from Nutella to soap and is crucial to the profit lines of many companies. It is these business interests which ensure that the burning down of forests continues (thereby releasing carbon into the atmosphere and lowering the ability of forests to absorb carbon) and they are strong enough to push their agenda ahead.  While disappointment and frustration at this situation is justified, I do think this part of the puzzle would benefit from a bit of reflection. If there was a time for calm conversation,for careful expression of opinions it is this time. Countries like India, Indonesia and others often complain about developed nations speaking loudest and that needs to be avoided in the interest of finding solutions for all. Going back to the habits issue: if the production side is intractable can we try to reduce consumption of products containing palm oil thereby reducing making it less profitable? That does not seem easy, either.

The piece on Syria connected the dots between  prolonged drought, the struggle for resources for survival, and social violence.From Turkey, across the border into Syria, we got a riveting glimpse of the people at the center of the struggle, people like the commander of Syrian fighters who used to be a cotton farmer and whose comment stayed with me long after I heard it: “Starving makes you do anything.”

This, then, is the future: unpredictable and severe weather events leading to a struggle for resources (land, water, food), spread of diseases leading to public health crises and escalating social conflict. What are we going to do about it?  We seem to be still arguing over who did what and when, while the clock is ticking down to disaster. Sure, adaptation and mitigation efforts are being made but as this article argues, a challenge like this deserves an extraordinary response. After all, the future of the planet and its people depends on what we do today.

This episode of “Years of Living Dangerously” left me wishing that it was available for all to see and not restricted to one channel. Based on how well made this episode was, I want to know all the stories. Indeed, I would have “binge-watched” it, if that were possible! In the meantime, you can watch the first episode online here.

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

“The Lowdown on GMOs: According to Science” Book Review

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The use of biotechnology in agriculture is a topic you hear  a lot about these days: farmers in distant regions of the world, looking to improve their yields, receive two versions (this will save you/this will poison you); voters in conditions altogether more comfortable than those small holder farmers weighed down by debt, are driving up to vote on whether products should be labeled to let consumers know they were grown using biotechnology. All of this and more is contained in 3 letters GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms). But what exactly does this mean? To anyone advocating for food policy issues, the superficiality of information (or, in some cases, complete misinformation) which form the basis of debates on GMO are held is worrisome.  So I am happy to be the bearer of some good news: “The Lowdown on GMOs: According to Science” by Fourat Janabi  is here and is going to be an excellent source of information for anyone seeking to learn more about this issue.

The book is put together with articles from a range of experts in this domain:  molecular biologists, Alan McHughen and Kevin Folta ; plant pathologist Steve Savage and plant geneticist Anastasia Bodnar, among others. The scientific viewpoint, often so frustratingly opaque to those of us who were relieved to be done with science on high school , is presented here in clear terms and the reader can come to their own conclusions.

Also interesting are the accounts of  the journey of those who started out as skeptics but after doing the research became convinced by the actual facts to support the use of biotechnology in agriculture. This is specially useful because it resonates with those of us who may still be educating ourselves but feel intimidated by all the noisemakers into taking up a hasty position. This perspective is a nuance often lost in the noisy and often vicious debates that characterize this topic. It also helps that one of these journeys is that of Mike Bendzela  who is a farmer. That farmers’ voices are not heard often enough in the food debate is something I have often blogged about. You may think you know all that is there is to about Monsanto, but after reading Brian Scotts’s views on using Monsanto’s products on his farm, you might look at the picture differently. Of particular note is the piece by Mark Lynas, the British journalist and environmentalist who recently changed his viewpoint and came out in strong support of GMOs

In his own piece, Fourat Janabi replies to the “Nature does it best” argument that the anti-GMO lobby is so fond of, pointing out that nature is full of experiments which created our diverse world; also drawing our attention to the fact that the Big Ag lobby is matched by a robust Organic lobby!). He also takes up the question of how to feed 9 billion people in a time of climate change and it is here that biotechnology is going to prove crucial. The use of biotechnology can increase yields, enable climate resilience and improve health outcomes through biofortification of crops . It is not the only or perhaps even the most important tool but it is a crucial one and throwing it away on the basis of misinformation and fear mongering would be a grave mistake.

The conclusion consists of an impressive list scientific bodies from all over the world that have found that biotechnology is no more risky than any other conventional breeding technology and is safe for human consumption; hopefully this book will convince many people of that point of view.

“The Lowdown on GMOs: According to Science” has been published by Smashwords and is available, free, in a variety of formats here.