Tag Archives: food decisions

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)

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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)

Climate Change and Food Security for All: Is it Possible?

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This week most of us felt hopeful as we heard President Obama announce new measures to respond to climate disruption. Although we have been hearing the discussion on climate change for a while, most people think of it as something that might unfold in the future. The fact is that climate change is here and is already altering the world as we know it.

Consider the case of the puffin: parents of baby puffins are bringing in food for them that they are not physically capable of ingesting. Why? Because the fish they usually feed on, hake and herring, are no longer found in the waters around them: the water is simply too warm for the fish to survive. So fewer baby puffins are surviving into adulthood. Their life patterns are also changing and the are coming in late this year to their summer habitats.

Meanwhile, humans too are faced with the challenge of feeding 9 billion people in a time of uncertain climatic conditions. The melting ice in the Antarctic could raise sea levels to an extent where China, India,Bangladesh, and Vietnam would lose millions of hectares of arable land and food production would fall. At the other extreme, higher temperatures threaten crop yield in the USA. A warmer climate also means an increase in disease and pests. The cloud of grasshoppers gathering in New Mexico is not from some movie set in the future, but happening right now.

The challenge is not just to create a more productive, climate resilient agriculture sector but also to ensure that all of our food is produced in a way that reduces pressure on a planet where everything is interlinked. If we look at discrete solutions we risk generating more problems: the effort to limit over fishing in the ocean by raising fish in farms, for example, has resulted in the destruction of mangroves and zones algae blooms that suck up oxygen and kill the fish.

The need is to consider the whole problem: whether we live in the Maldives or Mexico, on a farm or in the city, our lives are about to go in a direction different from what we known for centuries and the solutions we devise must take into account the needs of all the whole planet; humans, puffins and all.

And all this, without some coffee to help us along, because that too is likely to disappear as the climate changes.

(Image Courtest: Freedigitalphotos.net)

Food Prices on the Rise

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So food prices are on the rise …again! And it looks like they might continue on that path given the pessimistic outlook for wheat in the US given the dry growing conditions. In addition, the situation in Ukraine spells uncertainly for the world wheat market. As I read more about this I also discovered the interesting fact that farmers in Ukraine have apparently breached a ban on GMOs and are growing GM soy and corn in response to market demand!