Tag Archives: food decisions

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!

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

Non-GMO Cheerios: Something to Cheer About?

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The news that General Mills is going to eliminate genetically modified elements from their line of Original Cheerios was greeted with cheers by many. If true, it would represent a big change in the way the cereal is produced. But how big is this change, I wondered.  Reading closely we find that the main ingredient, oats, were not GM anyway, it is the corn starch and sugar that are being sourced differently and this will only happen for the Original line not for others like Honey Nut, Fruity Cheerios , Apple Cinnamon etc. It is, then, only a small tweak in only one cereal, right. Wait, there is more: on her blog, the Farmer’s Daughter  USA quotes Margaret Smith, Professor of Plant Breeding at Cornell University.

“In reality, Cheerios isn’t changing at all. Margaret Smith, professor of plant breeding at Cornell says:

Corn starch and sugar are highly refined products, so they contain no DNA (which is what is introduced into a genetically engineered organism) and no protein (which is what the new DNA would produce in a genetically engineered organism). Because of that, corn starch and sugar from a genetically engineered corn variety are nutritionally and chemically identical to corn starch or sugar from a non-genetically engineered variety.

It is the exact same cereal.”

The statement from the company seems to indicate that the corn and sugar General Mills uses in future will be conventional, non-GMO (there is no mention of use of organic crops). The main reason for using GM corn is to prevent crop loss to pests,  not world domination ,as so much of anti-GMO propaganda insists. So, how are the pests going to be dealt with? Would this mean increased pesticide use to prevent crop losses? Everyone agrees this is not such a good thing: for the farmers who have to handle and apply the stuff, for the consumers or for the planet. The use of non-GMO crops involves a real cost in terms of crop loss which in turn would impact prices of these crops and the quantities produced, more here.  For example, if in a given year,  x hectares of corn was planted with the expectation of a yield of  y tonnes, and the yield is lower due to crop loss to pests; global demand for corn stays ahead of global supply, next year the farmers might respond by growing x+some hectares by cutting down forests. That is not a great outcome. Would it be better to switch to organic corn and sugar? There are doubts about organic cultivation bringing in the required yields . Besides, organic farming also uses pesticides, just different ones from those in conventional farms.

So far, none of this is positive. And the question remains, why this decision now? What does the producer get out of this?  Well, the company can, for example, put on a big label on its package saying “No GMOs Used” (or something to that effect). This highlights exactly my misgivings with the labeling issue. Basically  a label can obscure as much as it reveals. Consumers, overwhelmed with all the fear mongering on the GMO issue might be persuaded to buy more of what they think is “safer” for their families. This means more sales and more profits, good news for the company.While General Mills has a big chunk of the market, its share has slipped in 2013 (by a tiny bit) and this would be a good time to bump up the numbers.

Just as the insistence on a tortuous and long drawn out approval process for GMO crops tips the balance in favor of big corporations; the clamor for labeling can also have unintended consequences. It will make a difference , yes, but to the big  producers and not to the consumer. Not much to cheer about, after all.

The Whole Foods-Chobani Episode: The Whole Truth?

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When Whole Foods recently decided to discontinue carrying Chobani Greek yogurt, the first news reports attributed this to Whole Foods’ decision to eliminate GM products from their stores. But now, another reason has emerged. Whole Foods, it is argued, wants to reap larger profits from the current Greek yogurt frenzy by introducing their own version of it; a “private label”, apparently, is the term although I always thought of it simply as “store brand” ,the plain cousin of the glamorous big brands but just as good and a boon for a mother on a budget! So the issue of GMO/Organic was simply not relevant here.

This comes just after another GMO vs Organic issue which grabbed the headlines: “Organic Milk Better for You” the media announced quoting a study which found higher levels of omega 3 in certain types of milk. Read a little deeper and you will find that the real cause of higher levels of fat in the milk was determined by the what the cows ate. Grass fed cows produced milk with higher levels of  omega 3. Is this true for all organic milk? Well, it depends. It turns out that cows can be fed grass for only 4 months a year and still qualify for the organic label. Are they living on fresh air the rest of the year? No they are eating feed which would mostly consist of corn. So technically, it seems, you could have a cow feed partly on GMO corn  and partly on pasture and that cow would have healthier levels of omega 3 because it was grass fed, organic feed is not the determinant here.  So next time you think about paying the steep price of organic milk because you think it will be better for your children, remember that in this case “from grass fed cows” would really be the label you need to see.

This kind of smudging of facts is not uncommon in the charged discussions on GMO foods, but then I found something that went beyond mere dancing with words. Consider this label:

IMG_0005The label says “NON GMO Project VERIFIED” . So, what is n0n-GMO here? The potatoes? salt? pepper? Genetically modified potatoes are not a part of the food supply of any country on the planet. It is not possible for me to enjoy a genetically modified potato chip even if I was craving it, so why this label?  Perhaps in the hope that the consumer who hears a lot of fear mongering on this issue and, without actually checking on the particular details in the midst of a grocery run, will make a decision to buy this product instead of another.

From all the studies and research that I have followed so far, there appear to be no safety issues with GMO foods so there seems no reason to slap on what is tantamount to a warning label. But faced with the argument that no label indicates something is being hidden, I would advocate labeling because this is only one variable influencing the consumer’s decision to buy; and price is, I think, the variable that carries the greatest weight in that decision making process. But the real troubling issue here is how labeling can be subverted so that the concerns that are supposedly being met here (health, food safety etc) are simply a facade for the drive toward higher profits.

Farming in a New Land: Syrian refugees in Lebanon

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Sometime ago I wrote about the drought in Syria that had been an underlying cause of the unrest there. Here is some news now on the farmers who are trying to make a new life in Lebanon. While some of them used to come in as temporary workers in the past and are now moving for good, some people are fleeing the violence and taking up farming jobs to support their families. Life has also changed for the farmer in Lebanon who finds it difficult to market his produce but the stories of the woman who has planted a few flowers because she misses her garden back home; or the girl who dreamed of being a doctor one day are poignant.

Just Label It!

 

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I watched the GMO labeling debate closely in California and cheered when the proposition was defeated there. But when I read the arguments from the pro-labeling side,(based mostly on misinformation and unsubstantiated fears) I began to think that blocking labeling is perhaps not the best strategy. GMO foods, it has been proven, again and again, are  safe for human consumption. The pro-label lobby has therefore, framed the debate in terms of the “consumer’s right to know what is in their food”. It is hard to make the case that the consumer should not know/does not need to know what is in their food and so, blocking labeling makes it seem like the producers of food containing GM ingredients are hiding something. One would like to ask the question: how would knowing this be useful to the consumer anyway? If they do not want to purchase GMO products, there is already a label for them: it says “organic” or that fascinating mystery term, “natural” which many seem to rely on.

It is important to remember that this debate is being played out in parts of the world that have the luxury to debate about food. In other areas, where people are going hungry every day, children are malnourished and suffering from dietary deficiencies, food on the table is a survival issue. Biotechnology offers a way to combat global hunger. By  blocking labeling and letting the “there is something to hide” misinformation gain ground, we are denying choices precisely to those who are most vulnerable. If we continue to block labeling, the ultimate aim of the anti-GM lobby; to take biotechnology out of the options forever, would be achieved and this would be a disaster in the struggle to deal with hunger and malnutrition.

Instead, imagine a situation where the labeling issue is actively owned by those seeking to make sure the benefits of GM foods actually reach the public. Companies need to proactively steer the labeling issue in a positive direction: uniform labels for the whole country so that the same chaotic battles do not have to be fought over and over again in each state, providing more opportunities for spreading misinformation. The actual words on the label are crucial and that should not be dictated by the naysayers. Ideally, I would propose :”This product contains GM ingredients which have been more rigorously tested than most products in your grocery store. They are produced using less pesticides and so are better for the farmers who grow them and our planet. They are also fortified with Vitamin A (for example) which will prevent blindness and death in millions of children.” But that is a dream and in the real world, companies will have to work hard to merely ensure that negativity is minimized.

In purely economic terms, there is a far bigger market out there as measured by currently undernourished/malnourished people than the few who might switch from buying products post labeling. And, most important to remember, the one piece of information on the label which seals the deal for a consumer on a budget is the price.If there is an initial cost increase involved, companies need to refrain from passing that on immediately to the consumer. Instead, let them read the label, see the price, compare it to the high priced organic option and make their decision.

You can read more on both sides of this here and here.