Tag Archives: Living

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.

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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)

Is Your Turkey Organic/Humane/Conventional/Too Big?

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It seems like fretting over the kind of turkey on the table is becoming a new Thanksgiving tradition. There is certainly an air of my-turkey-is-better-than-yours creeping into daily chats at the bus stop; based, not on the crispiness of the skin, the moistness of the meat or the flavor of the glaze but on how the turkey was raised. A flippant reaction this is, of course, that no matter how humane the raising, if the objective is killing and eating then the superiority sort of loses steam.

But let’s get serious and see why we should pay what seems to be a really high price for an organic turkey: while “conventional” turkeys cost about a dollar a pound at regular grocery stores;  heritage, free range, organic turkeys cost almost four times as much per pound. Organic here relates to the feed and organic feed costs more, the processing of the organic turkey also costs more. Organic producers may lose more birds to disease as they are limited in the methods to cope with sickness so that adds to the cost as well. The cost of turkeys that are not confined is higher also because they can contract more diseases from being outdoors.

“Conventional” is generally supposed to convey that the turkey was raised on regular feed and the feed may consist of GMO corn.  Being less expensive, the customer gets more for his dollar and is able to put as huge a turkey at the center of the meal as he/she likes. And that bring us to the “too big” issue: why are turkeys so huge? the answer lies in consumer demand. The most commonly bred turkey, called the broad breast white, is popular because consumers want big portions of lean white , breast meat instead of dark so turkeys have been bred (conventionally, there are no GMO turkeys) to meet that demand. The disproportionately large breasts also means that they cannot breed naturally and must be artificially inseminated.

Now that we have this information, how will this impact what we buy? One, perhaps some might stop eating turkeys altogether if the process of bringing them to the table causes discomfort. Second, for many among us, the organic version just will not fit the budget so it helps to have alternatives so the two markets might coexist for a while. Third, if you want a turkey, then using  the whole turkey instead of only a certain portion is a better option, and a better use of the resources needed to raise turkeys. No matter what we choose, we are thankful to have choices and not be in the grim circumstances that preceded the very first Thanksgiving dinner.

(Image courtesy: freedigitalphotos.net)

#Farming Friday 25: Drought in California is Changing the Way Farmers Work

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The drought in California has thrown into focus a harsh reality: climate change is going to disrupt the way we grow our food. Unprecedented events like this not only hit jobs and incomes hard, they also compel us to look at the tough questions: how are we going to deal with this challenge as we go into the next growing season? Sometimes that brings out interesting solutions: farmers are trying not new experimental varieties of grasses that require less water for seeding pastures, or conserving waste water that was earlier and allowed to go back to the environment; for farming, to ease pressure on ground water.

 

(Image Courtesy: freedigitalphotos.net)

#Farming Friday 24: Renting to Young Farmers

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Although farming is attracting  interest among some younger people , they are often prevented from pursuing it because land is too expensive to buy. On the other hand rural areas which have emptied out, have older farmers who no longer farm the entire land they own but have no children to carry on either. But a program that encourages older farmers to rent out land at low rates to younger farms just starting out might provide a solution that works for everyone.

#Farming Friday 23: Urban Farming for Food Security

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First, Hurricane Katrina destroyed the local food supply system in New Orleans and then the BP oil spill wiped out the fishing industry. The fishermen were mostly from the Vietnamese community which had a history of urban farming to meet the local demand for vegetables for Vietnamese cooking.  In an interesting convergence, the Vietnamese fishermen drew on this practice of urban farming to offer locally grown vegetables to area residents still awaiting the return of grocery stores destroyed by Katrina; a solution which worked towards food and income security.

Conservation and Agriculture in the Age of Climate Change

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When I first started learning and writing about food issues, it was the food landscape that was in my mind: the growing of food, its journey to markets and stores and, finally, to our homes and the table. As climate change moves into the center of our lives and we realize its enormous impact  on our environment, I am starting to look at the landscape in a different way, one where the need for conservation and food production exist in the same landscape. The challenge, I am learning, is to balance the need for food with the need for conservation at a time of climate uncertainty.

We depend on the land and water sources for food but no farm land has important benefits too. Woodlands, grassy areas, slow down the movement of pathogens and pesticides into the rivers and lakes, are providing a sort of natural filter for our water supply. Preserving natural habitat on farms provides a living area for pests that serve as predators for primary pests that attack crops and thus reduce the need for pesticide to control agricultural pests. There is a perception that  food production and biodiversity conservation are opposed goals, the solution actually lies in achieving the best balance we can between these ends.

What is crucial is recognition that there are competing uses of land and we have to find the optimum strategy to achieve biodiversity conservation, agriculture, urban development and carbon storage. I wanted to share in this post some examples of  an approach that looks at the entire landscape and handles several variables at once:  improving soil health, conserving habitats, lowering emissions, and ensuring food and livelihood security.

So what tools can we use, what are the strategies to follow? There are examples from different countries which have all looked at this issue.In essence, the idea centers around a more considered and thoughtful use of the landscape and its resources. Different policies give varying results and solutions that arise in response to local circumstances are likelier to succeed. In an example from Argentina , market led agricultural expansion resulted in the  deforestation of 8,000 hectares in one area but also led to a fall in grazing intensity. This meant a better recovery of wildlife habitat in the remaining area which is not being cultivated. In another part of the same region, government support for farms to provide incomes and increase food production has negatively impacted the local fauna and resulted in forest degradation because more people have moved in but the food production continues to be low.

In Kenya’s Kikuyu escarpment area, old forest growth, tea plantation, rare bird habitat, subsistence agriculture and dairy farming all coexist. Recognizing the negative impact of increasing population growth in the area on these activities, resources, habitat etc, a landscape approach was adopted which took into account food security, reliance on the environment for food, fuel and fodder and rural poverty. Having recognized these needs, the people of the community integrated agriculture, fish farming, confined livestock management, agroforestry into their farming practices. This helped them to work toward their goals of confining farming sprawl, maintaining soil quality and nurturing bird and wildlife habitat in the farmed areas.  To achieve the goal of livelihood security, this program is taking advantage of “landscape labeling” where products are able to command a price premium not only because of their quality but because they also meet green criteria such as maintaining wildlife habitats, clean water, carbon sequestration etc.

In California, urban expansion and drought have significantly reduced the wetlands where migrating birds would collect before moving further south. A conservation project initiated here involved a reverse auction, which paid farmers to flood their rice farms and create a wetland refuge for the migrating birds. The existing practice of flooding rice fields post harvest was used to engineer a “pop up habitat” for the birds and integrated conservation goals into a farming landscape.

And, in a really wonderful “when life gives you lemons” story, farmers in Bangladesh decided to grow pumpkins on the sandbars left by receding flood waters which destroyed their fields. After the floods, holes were dug in the bare islands of sand and silt and pumpkin seeds were planted. Farmers had a rich harvest and could store some of it to supplement income later in the year as well. In the dry winter season, the greenery that had sprung up as a result of sandbar cropping supported birds, insects and other fauna.

It is encouraging to know that innovative solutions exist, bringing them into practice is  a matter of working together on a bigger picture, we need to zoom out!

(Image courtesy:freedigitalphotos.net)