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!
Sometimes just looking at my Twitter feed can be overwhelming: people calling attention to melting glaciers, deforestation, endangered animals, submerging islands, and then some people saying this is untrue; and then even more squabbles on what to do about it all. But take a step back and block out the noise and you might find that there is something that can be done, by all of us. That is the key actually. Each of us needs to take action. Governments have their responsibility but are often slow to move and cannot carry this through alone. There is much for us to do at our level. I liked this article because it sets out concrete action options for agriculture.
First, we should not sit back and “accept” climate change”. Taking steps to reduce emissions in agriculture, switching to climate resistant crops are among the possible solutions for growers to implement. However, there is a huge shortfall in the investment needed for research to come up with such solutions, that could be an area for governments as well as private individuals and corporations to make an impact. For consumers, we need to reduce food waste: buy according to a plan so nothing is thrown away unused, put smaller portions on the plate, work with restaurants to channel extra food to shelters or food banks. A big help would be to reduce meat consumption as well.
Even before we take these steps, a basic truth must be acknowledged: people, animals, crops and the environment they exist in succeed or fail in dealing with climate change as a unit. Conservation and preservation activities have to be in tandem with ensuring that people are able to maintain a decent existence. Where the goals are unclear or weighed excessively in one direction, conflicts will inevitably erupt. So instead of bringing all our resources to bear on meeting the challenge of climate change, we might be stuck in the trap of dealing with escalating social unrest as the struggle to control and access scarce resources becomes sharper and are thus, left vulnerable to climate shocks.
Ideological positions will have to be tempered with pragmatic solutions. All those wars on social media, passing judgement on the best/only way to grow/consume food, demonizing the other side, trying to score points, that is such an absurd waste of time and energy. It will take all options to walk through this storm; so technology and better farm practices, urban farming and ranches all will be part of the solution and throwing one or the other out is the equivalent of scoring an own goal.
The time to act is now, find a way to help and try to make it happen. And yes, this means going out and actually putting an effort into a program or an initiative; putting up a cute profile picture or retweeting to make a hashtag trend is not enough. We know what we must do and there are no excuses for not doing it.
Posted in Climate Change, Farm Technology, Food Security, GMO, Green, Hunger
Tagged biotechnology, climate change, Farming Technology, food security, Green, Hunger
When I first started reading about the food system and following discussions on social media, it took no time at all to realize that there was a sharp divide in this world: “organic” to this side, “conventional” to the other and judging by the shrillness of the debate, never the twain would meet. But I am now learning that each of these worlds has their own variations, differences of opinion and intense debate. In the organic community there is a debate over the use of natural substances as opposed to synthetic ones. While some organic farmers see the utility of substances which may not have been used historically but are useful today, others remain firm on excluding synthetic substances.
There are no magical powers attached to one or the other set of substances: an organic pesticide like rotenone can be more hazardous that synthetic pesticides and arsenic or mercury which are poisonous occur in nature. Part of this attachment to “natural” is fueled, I suspect by all those memes of scary syringes stuck in produce by people in lab coats. While the Internet may helpfully suggest a mix of salt, vinegar and dish soap as gentler, more natural alternative to other synthetic weed killers, this study showed that both are as gentle and as effective, it all depends on how they are used.
A lot of misinformation floats around about both types of farming: while there have vocal demands for labeling foods containing GMOs , not many consumers realize that organic producers are not overseen by the USDA and in fact, the organic certification comes from the National Organic Standards Board (how many of us had heard of this?). This Board is now protesting any involvement by the USDA.
And while we are all getting worked up about which system is better or “purer”, climate change is casting its shadow over our crops, even grape juice , it turns out, will not go untouched! Let us focus on the main thing here: the planet is at a point of crisis. It is time to focus on adopting all those tools and practices that can help us ensure that the growing population can be fed in a way that exerts the minimum pressure on the environment. Can we agree to stop arguing about just two systems and widen our approach to adopt practices that would keep production growing with demand in a way that is compatible with the new climate reality we are living?
Posted in Climate Change, Farm Technology, Food Safety, GMO, Hunger, Uncategorized
Tagged biotechnology, climate change, Farming Technology, food security, Genetically Modified Organisms, Hunger
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)
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)
Posted in Climate Change, Farm Technology, Food Policy, Food Security, Green, Hunger
Tagged climate change, Farming Technology, food decisions, food policy, food security, Hunger, Living
Ask someone what comes to mind when they hear the words “Indian Farmer” and the reply, in most cases, sadly is “suicides”. A while back they might have said “Green Revolution”, but the myth of the Indian farmer planting a GMO crop and then taking a desperate measure when it fails, has taken firm hold of the Internet. (It has been debunked, for example, here ). Confronted by this, I try to explain the facts on chronic indebtedness which follows farmers through generations, this information is mostly ignored. But, here is a piece that one cannot ignore: an Indian farmer writes about his hopes from the new government. He says, of farmers growing Bt Cotton, “No one forced them to do it. They chose to adopt GM cotton because it makes sense.” The food system needs to make sense to people at both ends of it. Most often, however,consumers’ voices, specially of those consumers who are unfamiliar with hunger or chronic malnutrition in their own experiences are the loudest.It is time to listen equally to those who actually grow our food.
(Image Courtesy: freedigitalphotos.net)
Posted in Farm Technology, Farmers view, Food Security, GMO, Hunger, India, Nutrition
Tagged biotechnology, Farmers voice, Farming Technology, food security, Genetically Modified Organisms, Hunger, India
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)
Posted in Book Review, Climate Change, Farm Technology, Food Security, GMO, Green, Hunger
Tagged biotechnology, Book Review, climate change, Farming Technology, food security, Genetically Modified Organisms, Green, Hunger
I have grown weary of reading the “Bt Cotton causes farmer suicides in India” story and attempting to refute it. However, refuting it is essential because it is not just untrue, but also used as a trump card in the anti-GMO narrative. There are several studies which have examined this question and determined that there is no causal relationship between the use of biotechnology and farmer suicides. The adoption of Bt Cotton in India has actually resulted in gains. And the issue of farmer suicides is a growing concern in many parts of the world, including the USA.
The Indian farmer has always had to deal with an overwhelming burden of debt because the debt passed on down the generations of farmer families. Long before biotechnology arrived on the field, this narrative could be found in academic texts and popular literature. Here is the study from the Lancet which again upholds the result that small holder farmers, faced with crushing debt sometimes can only see suicide as an option. When the next government takes over, will this change? We can only hope so.
“The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the teacup opens,
A lane to the land of the dead.” – W.H. Auden
Climate change presents a unique challenge to the way we live on our planet. Today’s edition looks at this from a farmer’s point of view.
Also, tonight is the first episode of “Years of Living Dangerously”. Please watch if you can, and share what you felt about the links between climate change and the food system.
Posted in Climate Change, Farmers view, Food Security, Green, Hunger, Living
Tagged climate change, Farmers voice, food security, Green, Hunger, Living
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.