Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Food prices

I feel like I'm closer to understanding why the cost of food has shot up this year, thanks to the first of a new four part radio series from BBC. Our Food Our Future looks at the reasons behind current price rises and what may lie ahead in the future.

In the program, Tom Heap investigates the truth behind what we've been told: that higher costs are due to the rises in costs of raw materials (and yet EU figures say that, for example, raw material costs of bread and cereals were 19% of the supermarket costs, and in 2008 they are 4%); increased consumption of wheat by India (actually 2% per year) and China (static); increased production of biofuels (increased in USA from 43 million tons to 63 million tons in the past year, but has also increased exports); and climate change, in its most popular recent example the Australian drought (but Australia only produces 3% of world wheat: the drought meant loss of 10 million tons out of worldwide production of 600 million tons).

His conclusion was that there is in fact some truth in all these things, but not only that: because the production and consumption figures worldwide are now so close, any small change in any aspect of production or consumption will shake the whole system.

The whole thing began with postwar agricultural subsidies that aimed to boost production at any cost; other factors like political liberalisation of countries such as Russia (with the collapse of farming collectives) and global shifts in production and agricultural land availability have all affected global food production.

When the postwar subsidies were withdrawn in Europe, farmers began finding ways to cut costs rather than boost yields, so yields stabilised, production went into decline (with supermarket pressures for low prices and no government guarantees to shore up farming incomes) and the global food surplus was shrinking.

So we have less surplus right now to pad out shortfalls caused by climactic or economic crises, and any little thing can tip the world into shortages. As well, wealthy western shoppers, instead of adapting to high prices (caused by shortages) by traditional behaviours such as substituting cheaper goods, are pushing prices up still further by simply paying whatever it costs to buy whatever they're used to having. Because they can.

And finally, food commodity markets are being used by derivatives traders to offset other debts, adding another factor that makes food prices more volatile.

The technology that we depend on now to boost agricultural yields is artificial nitrogen, created through heavy use of oil; an estimated 50% of agricultural costs now are tied to producing fertiliser. The commentator drew one scary comment from an interview subject: since its introduction after WW2 artificial nitrogen has allowed the world's population to increase unchecked, by boosting yields (with less and less nutritious crops). The global population is such that now we have outstripped the yield that could be generated by natural nitrogen cycles, so we are facing the real possibility of not being able to feed the world even now. Which I guess is why the recent Unesco report on world farming was so firm on the use of organic farming practices, which include natural means of soil enrichment.

Part 2 airs on Monday.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Zucchini glut? Try making music...

I've had this for a while, but the imminence of summer bounty reminds me to share. More about these crazy Austrians on their website, and all I can say is I hope they are composting their instruments at the very least.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Berries 'n Cherries

I think while the fruit's still with us, we should go on celebrating National Cherry Day in England! Read all about it at CherryBites, or join the CherryAid group on Facebook.

Over here, we too love cherries. Some of us might be lucky enough to be in Bruno for some sour cherries 'n poetry... But if you can't make that, how about heading to bing country in Kelowna for their festival?

A happy discovery on my walk the other day: it's native (Rubus ursinus) blackberry season and I found a bowlful's worth in a secret location.

Smaller, sweeter and much less numerous than the Himalayan blackberries, which have overrun the Island, they pack an aromatic punch and flavour. After gorging on them (well paired with Udder Guy's vanilla bean ice cream)

I've frozen a precious handful to wait for my Yellow Transparent crop to ripen, which won't be long now. That will be one fine pie.

The Himalayans are still feeding the bees, and won't be ready till later in August from the looks of things.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Bread and dirt

It's been a pleasant summer here at the Iambic Cafe. I've recently been on a bread binge, using the nearly no-knead bread recipe

that was featured recently in Cook's Illustrated - which I always pick up to read on the plane. The bread is refreshingly easy to make, as long as you plan a day ahead (it takes 18 hours resting time plus another couple of hours rising). And this one from the New York Times sounds very easy and convenient. I might start experimenting with levain breads; this blog entry gave me some inspiration.

I also visited a couple of organic farms this week. Local Yokels is a group which provides an acre of cultivation, a cluck of chickens and a well-cleared blackberry trail to groups of children and adults with disabilities for use in therapeutic gardening. It's a great example of how much can be achieved with very little: there's a lot of innovation and re-use of building materials, augmented with organic growing practices like micro-drip watering and companion planting. The scarecrow, built by visiting children, is rather splendid.

Haliburton Farm is, thanks to citizen action, city-owned and volunteer operated. I took up tools for the cause

and weeded a patch of golden beets one sunny day. Nasturtiums dressed up one of the fields...

some laying ducks another.

The university has been tending the wetlands area and installed a bat house

and a mason bee house.

Only one of the tubes appeared to be filled when I peered in. The bees lay their eggs in the tubes, separated by their own mini-concrete walls, and when they fill a row they wall up the end, so you can easily see which ones are occupied.


Thursday, July 10, 2008

Scared of our food

Listening to the periodic updates on the salmonella in your fast food tomato (or is it the peppers or is it the salsa or what the heck is it anyway) made me run back to Michael Pollan for comforting words. His 2006 article (remember the spinach E. coli scare?), the Vegetable-Industrial Complex, has a lot to say to today's issues and is worth revisiting, or just plain visiting if you missed it the first time.

If you don't want to read the whole article, I like this bit in particular:
Wendell Berry once wrote that when we took animals off farms and put them onto feedlots, we had, in effect, taken an old solution--the one where crops feed animals and animals' waste feeds crops--and neatly divided it into two new problems: a fertility problem on the farm, and a pollution problem on the feedlot.
Timely thoughts, now that we're in the season of growing and farmers marketing. The trust that Pollan talks about with respect to produce he buys from stallholders he's known and patronised for years is missing from what you pick up off a supermarket shelf, or from a fast food counter. And he makes another important point, one that small BC meat producers will recognise, about governments punishing small farmers in their efforts to impose safety measures on industrial-scale farming.

On that very topic, I happened upon a recent podcast of the always interesting Kootenay Coop Radio program, Deconstructing Dinner, which was about The Culture of Meat and features an interview with Susan Bourette, the author of Carnivore Chic: From Pasture to Plate, A Search for the Perfect Meat.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Organic Islands, featuring Percy Schmeiser

The Organic Islands festival took place last weekend, and we went for a sunny Saturday afternoon of tastings and talks and music. Found some Emmer (aka Farro, in Italy) an ancient wheat now being grown for the first time on Vancouver Island.

There were interesting causes to support, like this one where you can register your fruit tree and have others pick and use your fruit if you don't want all of it.

A lost tree being tormented by small children.

One of the events we wanted to catch was the GE Free BC panel, featuring Yukon farmer Tom Rudge,

Powell River politician Colin Palmer,

activist Josh Brandon from Greenpeace,

and special guest Percy Schmeiser,

whose story I knew from CBC coverage and films like The Future of Food and Life Running Out of Control.

Schmeiser impressed me with his speaking skills. I hadn't known he was a former MLA as well as a farmer. I did know he was a life-long seed developer who had spent $400,000 and 7 years of his life fighting Monsanto on the grounds of patent infringement when Monsanto found GM (Roundup-Ready) canola growing on Schmeiser's field in 1998.

The rather alarming issue of GM canola crossing itself with non-GM canola is something Schmeiser talks a lot about: "You can't contain nature" is his mantra, and the message he dearly wants to deliver to regions tempted to introduce GM crops alongside non-GM.

Canola, a Canadian cross-bred (not genetically-modified) brassica plant that was developed in the 1970s, is an important crop because it is used for vegetable oils (lower in saturated fats than any other oil) and animal feed as well as a rotation crop.

Canola has proven it doesn't obey corporate laws of ownership and whether through wind, rain, pollen drift, flood or spillage, GM and non-GM canola have interbred right across Canada and pretty much killed the country's organic production of canola (no GM crops or products are allowed in Canadian organic production).

Not only does being GM make the contaminated crops unexportable to the many countries which do not allow GM imports, it also - from Schmeiser's experience - makes those crops, and their seeds, the property of Monsanto, since you have, willingly or not, and no matter to what degree, ended up growing a Monsanto-engineered plant. This is anathema to farmers who have traditionally saved seed from their own crops to plant the next year. But if you grow GM plants, Canadian patent law prevents you from saving and sowing or trading or selling that seed, since it includes Monsanto technology and is therefore not yours to do with as you please. To reinforce this message, farmers who buy the seed are required to sign Technology Use Agreements which forbid farmers from re-using seed, and require that they purchase new seed each year

Schmeiser also talked about the promises Monsanto had made: higher crop yields, better nutritional content, decreased use of pesticides (insecticides and herbicides), an end to world hunger. Instead, the crop yields from GM crops are lower, nutritional values from industrial crops are demonstrably down, and the potency of today’s Roundup is 4x what it was ten years ago because glyphosate-resistant strains of weeds (superweeds) have evolved; the content of new herbicides currently used in Saskatchewan includes Dioxins, which have toxic effects on human health and are largely passed to humans through the food supply.

Standing ovation...

Also discussed by the panel was the point about there being no research about GM crops aside from what Monsanto itself funds, selects and publishes, and how that just might be a problem in terms of credibility and human safety.

The GE Free BC campaign aims to make BC a GE free region. They're also linked with campaigns to promote that seemingly elusive goal of requiring food containing genetically engineered substances to be labelled in this country, and another worth-while movement to ban Terminator technology, which would allow corporations to genetically sterilise their crops, ensuring farmers would have no choice but to purchase seed from them each year.

After that we needed a hot dog, from the eternally popular organic hot dog stand where we managed to get the last three hot dog buns on offer for the day.

Then we wandered beneath the attractive drystone arches of the Green Drinkery

for a glass of local wine

and a prime location to hear former Victoria resident Jeremy Fisher play us out.


Friday, July 04, 2008

Canada Day on the Gorge

I got back to Victoria just in time for Canada Day, last Tuesday, which is a happy time on the Gorge, as they block the road off and throw a big party, starting with a parade

and featuring music

(Morris) dancing

and food, including these popular items from Café Vieux Montreal.

We had earlier seen some besieged diners walking down the road bearing bbq salmon with pea shoot salads, asked at every turn where they'd got them, and this was where. They also served cream puffs with maple syrup, chocolate tarts with strawberries and Montreal smoked meat sandwiches.

But nothing beats the popularity of Mr Tubesteak.

Walking along the pathway, we saw what looked like an alien invasion on some wild roses and asked the plant guy, who told us it was rose canker. But it doesn't look like any picture I've seen of rose canker, so I'm still thinking it's more likely extraterrestrial.

There's a vintage car show and a few crafts stalls and eventually everyone wanders off for a Canada Day barbeque. By the time night falls on the Gorge

gangs of youth, red and white and drunk all over,

make their way to the Inner Harbour to see the fireworks.