Food News #17 – by Ivan Emek
“Who is this St. George of which you speak,” you may well ask. Well, he is the Patron Saint of England, and his alleged day of death (April 23rd) is a provincial holiday here in NL. According to tradition, St. George slayed a dragon. That is how they always put it. Not that he “killed” or “conquered” or “subdued” or “pacified” a dragon, but that he “slayed” it. I suppose that is the kind of repetition that is needed to make something into a tradition. While he is based on an actual person, an officer in the Roman army who died somewhere around the year 300, there is no good evidence that he ever set foot in England, let alone slayed a dragon. (Who knows, maybe he was slayed by a dragon?) But we can’t let the facts get in the way of a good holiday, right? Just like we can’t let nutrition advice get in the way of a good Full English Breakfast! Let’s see what agriculture and food topics have been in the news these past few weeks.
Let’s start with waste – with what to do with food leftovers. I must admit to being susceptible to some kind of magical thinking when it comes to leftovers (and any possible sense of science and biology seem to go out the window). I’ll look at, and smell, a container of leftovers, and decide that it doesn’t seem very tasty, at the moment. But I put it back in the fridge, maybe in some weird thinking that somehow it will improve in taste and look if it stays there at the back of the shelf long enough? Or maybe I just figure that my standards will plummet as I get hungrier. Here are examples of some projects to use leftovers from restaurants.
Here is another solution for food that is often wasted – use it to feed animals. I have it on very good authority that some animals may not be as picky about oddly-shaped potatoes or small blemishes on tomatoes as human animals are – at least the homo sapiens modernis consumerensis variety of humans.
One of the other broad developments around food waste is to create the infrastructure to gather up the food that becomes available in a city and redistribute it. Here is an example of what is being set up in Edmonton to gather food waste from restaurants. It is appropriately called “Leftovers.”
One suggestion is also to collect up the “ugly” produce that farmers cannot sell at retail outlets, and make up a box of such veggies and fruits and deliver them once a week, at a discount to consumers (but which still provides additional revenue to farmers, who would otherwise have no commercial outlet for this produce). This is called the “Ugly Produce Box,” and it is currently available in limited locations. But watch to see if it catches on. Check out the prices and what is included in the different boxes for this week (see the second link).
In case you’re still not tired of food waste ideas, here is an example of a startup agency that is focussing on setting up new businesses that focus on using up what may be considered food “waste” by others.
Or, as another example, here is an app, FlashFood, that helps you find out about surplus food that may be at your local supermarket (if the latter participates in this program).
And if you are still unconvinced about the amount of food that is wasted, there is a recently-released large study from the US, showing that the average person wastes about a pound of food a day (25% of the food available for consumption), and that the most-likely to be wasted is often the most nutritious (fruits and vegetables, followed by dairy and beef). Indeed, one of the controversial findings is that “higher quality diets actually result in higher amounts of food waste.”
Like me, you may also follow cool new trends in food – many of which turn out to be rather old trends with a new shine. One of these is the rise in bone broths. These are made by simmering bones, along with vegetable stock at times, for long periods of time. They can be used as soup base, but also simply used as a nutritional drink. For those on a paleo diet, it can be one more thing they can use to get protein – even without chewing (since paleo teeth used to be rather marginal at times…). Anecdotally, it is supposed to be very good for you. However, as is often forgotten these days, the plural of anecdote is not data. Some fancy cities have equally fancy bone broth outlets where you buy it by the litre for about the same price as a fine cognac.
Just north of Toronto, on the site of some of the finest agricultural land in the country, an interesting drama has played itself out over the past several decades. Originally, thousands of acres were purchased (and expropriated) by the government and set aside, in the anticipation that another large airport would be built there (on the north east end of the GTA). Much of this land was then rented back to farmers, to await the coming of the bulldozers and cement trucks. But the latter never came, and the appetite for another airport has waned. Part of that land was recently used to create a new National Park (the Rouge National Urban Park), which boasts “a rich assembly of natural, cultural and agricultural landscapes.” However, there is another large pocket of farmland that is still in limbo. In response to this, a local group from the area has been lobbying and researching the value of protecting that space as agricultural land and working on ways to ensure its survival as productive and economically viable. The group, called “Land Over Landings,” commissioned a study on potential agricultural-related uses of this large tract of land. Part of the goal was to quantify the value of agricultural land, to protect it. Indeed, by making solid arguments, the attractive value of sustaining the agricultural productivity of that land can sound pretty convincing. The study also looked at a variety of other ways that a large section of working agricultural land can become not only productive in terms of food, but also as an educational and cultural space of value. This kind of evidence-based report has long been needed to address the knee-jerk fanaticism of many development-happy municipal officials. The second article below has a link to the study itself.
I don’t suppose that climate change is coming off the agenda anytime soon. While we generally love to talk about the weather of the present and the recent past, theories around climate change allows us to talk about potential weather patterns of the future as well. Soon, we’ll hardly have any time to talk about anything else but weather! In the meantime, we are aware that we need to keep warming trends to a minimum. Here is a study that argues that even being able to keep the change to 1.5 degrees, rather than 2 degrees, would have a significant impact on food production.
There has been a problematic litany here in our province (NL) that climate change will be good for agriculture. I think it is important to be very careful with this kind of wishful thinking. While there may be new crops possible, new insect infestations and new weeds will also be possible. And the increasingly-erratic weather patterns can be a problem as well. Here is a link to a thesis looking at some of those factors in the Nordic countries. Maybe we need a similar study here?
I warned you about this in an earlier edition – the rise of cannabis-infused foods that will be needed after the legalization of marijuana takes root and buds and flowers this summer. “Why will people choose to not smoke marijuana, and ingest it some other way,” you ask? Well, thus far, you still don’t have to go outside and stand in a corner of a field to eat a brownie. The same is not true for smoking. A Dalhousie University study from last year found that 46 per cent of Canadians would try cannabis-infused food products. That’s certainly a higher percentage of potential purchasers than for a number of products still on the market, like Spam or Lyle’s Golden Syrup. I wonder if there may be a new product on our shelf soon, “Cannabis Helper?”
It is certainly time to be creative about how to get more folks into farming, and how to make land available to them. And we are certainly working on that. Here is a jurisdiction that is purchasing land at market values and then selling it to farmers at a preferential price. Governments have sometimes done that in other sectors and industries, where private interests get significant benefits from public money. Maybe we should expand that to the level of family farmlands?
Speaking of young farmers, here is a video clip about young farmers, including a couple of theme who are just up the road from me. The video was made by Farm Credit Canada, who certainly rely in part on young farmers who are eager to make investments.
Speaking of young farmers, the array of skills that one needs to possess in order to be successful is a bit staggering. Now, these days, we can add another set of skills that may be needed – social media smarts. Here are some tips on that from Farmer Tim:
In case you like to make the argument at parties about how important agricultural research and innovation is to our country, here is a fine handout from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation to give you more data. Like some other large national science and innovation bodies, they are a bit obsessed with huge projects with big budgets and modest results. But in spite of that, they do often support some important developments. And they make good visually-appealing public relations items. It is important to note, though, that their investments in agriculture and food production represent only 4% of their total investments in innovation. That looks like a pretty small piece of the pie for an industry that provides the pie to cut up in the first place.
I don’t know if you’ve heard those old-fashioned arguments about the need to go for what they call “economies of scale,” or the more popular manifestation of “go big or go home.” Many remained unconvinced at such suggestions (as the data to support them was pretty thin). Indeed, there are increasing pieces of evidence to show that big agriculture is less efficient (if we consider all of the factors) than smaller-scale agriculture (or even “peasant agriculture”). Of course, the latter takes a lot more labour power, and we are lazy these days (I include myself in this category). But we really need to re-think the kind of agriculture that we have supported (as a province and as a nation as well). Here is a brief article that introduces you to a change in thinking. After all, if large-scale industrial agricultural production uses over 75 per cent of the world’s agricultural resources but feeds only around 30 per cent of the world’s population, that is not a very good record. You can download the report that this article is based upon from the web page on the second link.
Here is a related story, about what the author calls the “peasant food web,” which is important to food production and sustainability in many countries.
There are some very positive trends that are emerging in agricultural these days. To use a barnyard analogy, there are a variety of “sheds” in which we practice agriculture. Our food system is a yard full of sheds, and each of these sheds has a slightly different set of tools that they use to farm the land out behind their shed. But there occasionally is some consensus that develops around what kinds of tools to use (even if some cannot perceive that they can “afford” it yet). One of these areas of consensus seems to be developing around soil health. This has been a long time in re-emerging, but it is here (and climate change is making it even more important). The trouble is the length of time it takes to realize an economic benefit in going to practices like no-till and continual cover cropping. Some farmers, so close to the red ink of bankruptcy as it is, cannot afford the multi-year investment it would take to then get to higher profitability. I wonder if there is any chance that FCC and other banks that lend money to farmers can maybe provide investment funds for such a new direction for farmers? They provide money for new sheds and herds and equipment. How about money for new relationships with the land? Sorry, I got a bit too idealistic there, I guess….
And if you want a more thorough discussion of not only the benefits of focussing on soil health (in terms of lower costs for synthetic fertilizers and herbicides and pesticides), but also how these practices may help to sequester carbon and assist with limiting climate change, here is just the article. Pour yourself a cup of tea first though, as it will take awhile to get through it.
Sometimes passion can go a long ways. Though it may be the case that one person’s passion is another person’s preachiness. I’ll take the risk here. This is a little opinion piece from Pippa Hackett, a beef and sheep farmer in Ireland, which relates some frustrations about how they are very much caught in the middle – having to compete on price with agricultural produce from around the world, feeling the effects of climate change, and being squeezed to produce more in the short-term, even if will have long-term negative effects. So many of the items in this list are familiar to farmers here in Atlantic Canada (and beyond). I love the passion in the piece. For example, when Pippa gets going with: “We do not need more leaflets from Teagasc [the agriculture branch of the Irish government] on how to maximise production. We do not need more monoculture and single species farms. We do not need more grants to build more sheds to hold more cattle. We do not need our farming media full of advertising features touting fancy machinery, fertilisers, pesticides and pharmaceuticals, scaremongering farmers into purchasing their goods.”
I like to include some link on northern and Arctic food production in each episode. This time, there is a link to food production in the Antarctic. Of course, the cost of such production is rather high, but maybe it changes our views on what is possible.
Our world is a tight web of connections. If there is a weather event on an island off the coast of Africa, it can influence a small family-run artisanal ice cream maker in rural Manitoba. This story shows that close relationship, across immense territories. When a number of climate-change-related weather events destroyed much of the vanilla crop in Madagascar, the price for natural vanilla rose dramatically, squeezing the little profit that existed for an ice cream maker in Manitoba. So, tell me again why climate change is going to be good for places like NL…?
You’ve heard of farm to table. How about all of that happening within your own restaurant? Here is a model of that.
You’ve likely seen the ads – fast food outlets stating that all of their meat is grown without anti-biotics. Maybe it has even influenced your behaviour. This article starts with a rather good question – if fast food outlets can promise to serve meat grown without anti-biotics, why can’t hospitals (which are concerned about antibiotic over-use) do the same?
One of the signs of the emergence of successful new technologies is when large corporations invest in start-up companies. In this way, they can benefit from the natural innovation of smaller companies. Here is an example from agriculture in the Maritimes.
It is important to learn from the past, not for its own sake (or some kind of training for the mind), but as a way of thinking about adopting the wisdom of the past for survival in the future. Some agricultural “innovations” have been around for a long time, but there is a need to preserve them. Here is a short piece on the importance of sites of agricultural heritage around the world.
You may be very familiar with CSAs – community supported agriculture. You may be part of one. Or you may operate one. They are spreading around the world. One of the late adopters is the Flanders area of Belgium:
And for those living in Alaska, here is an example of the food subscription boxes that are available in that part of the world
At the risk of angering some folks, and bringing a dragon to life that may later need to be slayed…, I’ll provide a link that questions our move toward more reliance on GMO. And, since this is late in the edition, only the most truly thoughtful of readers are still with us, so you’ll be able to make up your own mind. However, I’ve been intrigued by how many people I’ve met who believe that the advantage of GMO corn and soybeans and canola is that such crops do not have to be treated with as many herbicides. They are surprised to hear that one of the benefits of some prominent GMO crops is that they are resistant to certain herbicides or pesticides (which means that more of the –cides can be used on the crop). This little article clearly takes a point of view. And don’t be thrown off, even if they are from Oxford. As they state, GMO foods are “not inherently unhealthy in themselves. The problem is the company they keep—the additional layers of pesticides of ever-increasing toxicity – pesticides that farmers and growers are beholden to because their seeds are genetically modified to accommodate them.” However, the issue of the timing of the herbicide application is not addressed in this article (spraying is done at a very early stage of growth and will degrade and dissipate before consumption). So you really need to be careful to take this (as with anything) as being just part of a balanced information diet. But it is worth listening to.
That’s it for this episode. Do take care. I hope that you actually have some spring wherever you are. (We don’t, as of yet.) Pass this little experiment in communication along to others if you wish. Do take care.
Associate Professor, Social & Cultural Studies
Grenfell Campus, Memorial University
20 University Drive
Corner Brook, NL, A2H 5G4, Canada