Friday, October 30, 2009

The Cove and other animals

Went to see The Cove last night. Billed very accurately as an eco-thriller, it took on the Japanese dolphin trade in a clever and compelling way. It starred the director, Louie Psihoyos, and dolphin activist Ric O'Brien, better known as the trainer of Flipper, both appealing and articulate men, accompanied by an equally appealing handful of idealists and adrenaline junkies (including a couple of divers from Vancouver).

Well and imaginatively shot and scored, its aims were simple: to take viewers along as the team planted cameras and recorders in order to document the dolphin slaughter in the whaling village of Taiji, Japan which has seemingly been targeted by whale activists for some years, to judge by this statement dated 1994. Its annual kill as reported by the film is 23,000 dolphins, which are harpooned by local fishermen between September and March, after a number have first been selected to sell to aquariums, where the real money is.

The questionably less fortunate dolphins who are slaughtered for meat are sold for a pittance, despite the film's assertion of breathtakingly high levels of mercury in their flesh (2000 ppm in dolphin vs the recommended Japanese limit of .4 ppm). Big carnivorous (piscivorous?) fish, at the top of the food chain, absorb all the mercury of the smaller ones they eat, so they are expected to be more toxic. Cheaper dolphin has for some time been fraudulently sold as whale meat (whale is less prone to mercury toxicity than dolphin due to the difference in diet between larger cetaceans and dolphins).

The film's sharpest anger is reserved for the International Whaling Commission, which cannot seem to decide if it is interested in the smaller cetaceans (i.e. dolphins) or only the larger whales. The Cove paints the IWC as a lumbering, toothless body, which the Japanese have made a mockery of by vote-rigging: building useless seafood plants in impoverished countries and paying their representatives to come and vote with Japan.

It is difficult to have much sympathy for the fishermen of Taiji, when you see that to them a dolphin is just another fish to be speared, but then I am of a culture raised on affection for dolphins, and as squeamish as most urban eaters about the realities of killing my food.

The other side of the story - what happens to a whaling town if it's not allowed to kill whales (of any size) - is one that will resonate with the other economic outcasts of our time, including forestry, cod, sealing and manufacturing communities, down the road and around the world. Not to mention the town centres and family farms and businesses that are being ruined and bankrupted by large scale retailers and industries.

Even those communities that choose to prostitute or lampoon themselves by taking up tourism are not winners in this; tourism is a fickle and usurious source of income with a short attention span and a great hunger for unsustainable practices.

As we use up our natural resources, or force ourselves out of the economic picture by voting for "efficiencies" and low prices rather than jobs, the ghost towns of our time will have many different faces, all left with that same big question: so what do we do now to make a living?

Monday, October 26, 2009

Monday morning musicals

A couple of barmy musicals to get your week off on the right foot. The agents of have been staging such antics at various places for ages, and I have to say that the Grocery Store Musical

is an improvement in quality over last year's Food Court Musical,

although, frankly, I would be delighted to witness either one of them in an establishment near me. Being the single minded creature that I am, though, I would have preferred some kind of clever statement about the toxic environments in which these two musicals are staged over the actual and frankly inane lyrics, however amusing. A wasted learning opportunity, the adult educator in me might whisper.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Climate Action, transgenic aubergines, chickens, food policy and CBC awards

Today is the International Day of Climate Action! To... er... celebrate it I'll be attending a screening of A Sea Change, about the acidification of the earth's oceans.

In Sweden, consumers are being offered new climate change food labelling in order to help them make climactically healthier decisions about what to eat.

Other interesting items to cross my vision include a story published in Nature about the Indian government's having said no (for now) to transgenic aubergines (eggplants; aka Bt brinjal) on the grounds they can't evaluate how likely (or not) the transgenic varieties are to cross with non-GM varieties, a well-worn concern that somehow keeps getting overlooked by biotechnology firms.

An article in the New York Times paints a cautionary picture about kind of issues that can result from overenthusiastic backyard chicken-rearing by people who haven't quite thought the issues through carefully. It's very much the sort of thing the SPCA argued would happen before bylaws were relaxed to allow it in Vancouver.

And if you want to put your oar in about Canadian food policy, the People's Food Policy Project website is the place to go. Because Canada hasn't got a food policy: although one was researched, discussed and proposed a few years ago, it fell into the cracks between elections and died, unknown and unloved on the mean streets of Ottawa. The people's project is inviting stories and policy suggestions by December 1.

Other deadlines looming include the CBC Literary Awards, which I hadn't - until last night - realized had tightened their terms to exclude any work that's had a public reading. Which made me despair, for I have read a lot of my poems aloud and I really couldn't tell you which ones. It also made me foresee ugly scenarios of literary whistle-blowing by disenfranchised contestant audience members. (Surely there's a novel in that?)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Bye Bye Banff and WordFest

I left Banff on Monday morning, having spent much of the weekend dodging in and out of literary and visual arts events.

Saturday afternoon I slipped into and then fled screaming from the most bizarre and numbingly dull curatorial talk I've ever experienced. We heard scarcely a shred of information about the Laid Over to Cover: Photography and Weaving in the Salishan Landscape exhibition that we were all interested enough in to show up, and after an hour I couldn't take it any more.

When I went to see the show on Sunday, its very point was a bit difficult to grasp (but then I had no curatorial context for it!) given the dearth of labelling - which was, according the one point I recall from the talk, a curatorial decision, though the reasoning for this eludes me, if the point of the show was to right an historical wrong of omission.

We were presented with some interesting archival photographs of the building of transportation infrastructure through BC and Alberta; and some rather lovely woven baskets dating from about 1900 through 2009. The baskets were numbered, with no contextual information, placed in apparently random order, and interspersed with modern ceremonial blankets. We ran into a textile artist who'd visited the show and who was galled and mystified as to why these blankets were there - as they were woven not from traditional materials (goat wool and cedar) nor using traditional plant dyes, nor even using traditional weaving methods (one weft she recognized from a loom in New Brunswick). Oh well.

On to literature, and another massively disappointing presentation, this time from Douglas Coupland who read in a manner that struck me as that of someone who had never before encountered the text in front of him.

In a many-signed theatre that reminded me of Italy in its enthusiasm for public instruction,

a poetry cabaret followed, of which I would say Gregory Scofield gave the best reading, but which irritated me in the way that poetry cabarets always irritate me. Luckily I was able to vent my irritation on a hapless festival survey-monger who crossed my path the next day: why, I asked, can Canadian literary festivals not treat poets as writers? Why must the only way to include them in a litfest be to herd them in nines or twelves onto a single stage at a single event instead of including them in literary panels with the prose writers? The other irritant to that event had me asking why spoken word artists must be lumped in with page poets? It would be like pairing water-colourists with metal sculptors on the grounds that they are both visual artists.

Anyway. A talk and mini-readings by fiction writers on Sunday - Debra Adelaide, Jeanette Lynes, Thomas Trofimuk and Tom Wayman - was slightly better. Although to me the supposed theme of the event, "making the most of the hand you are dealt," was somewhat mystifying in light of the very different themes of the four books. It is a difficult and sometimes impossible task to corral every writer into thematically coherent panels; too many square pegs in the creative realm.

The winning finale to the weekend though was a visit to the Maple Leaf restaurant in Banff, where we dined happily and well on bison stroganoff.

And a parting view, first thing Monday morning, of a trio of antlered elk who posed heroically at the edge of town, seeing us off. Given the damage sustained by one writer's vehicle during this, the rutting season, we deemed it unwise to linger for photographs, so I'm afraid you'll just have to imagine them.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Olympic-sized arts cuts and global land grabs

As artists of many Olympic cities have discovered to their cost, when the lure of international trade beckons, arts funding goes out the door and into sports infrastructure, or roads, or trains, or any number of expensive and often worthy developments.

The Vancouver Olympics has caused both federal and provincial government purse-holders to grab and redirect funds intended for arts groups, tossing them into the Olympic abyss. The past year's downturn has perhaps helped to accelerate the process in recent months.

Now BC Bookworld has had its funding pulled. If it goes down, so too perhaps its comprehensive reference offshoot, the BC Author Bank database. Rather than letting the loss of a $31,000 annual grant drown it, the magazine is asking interested readers to subscribe, for a pretty meagre $25 per year. Email them if you're willing.

The individual amounts we're talking are tiny, particularly if measured against Olympic expenditures, but they make the difference between life and death to non-profit arts organizations. BC already has one of the lowest levels of support for the arts in Canada, and the province wants to shrink it by 88%. Artists are hugely vulnerable to such cuts; it may appear to a population earning a steady wage that grants and subsidies are needless fripperies, but the point and benefit to the wider society of supporting the arts has been long and better explained and supported by independent studies and statistics.

What is disturbing here is to see money creating rifts between artists - who's in and who's out of the official arts presence at the games - and the introduction of high-flown arts planning; even though it must be obvious that the money has to come from somewhere. Obvious too that funding any grand Olympics arts program from the existing pot would necessarily cripple existing arts programs and that grand schemes often provide direct benefit to only the already well-rewarded big names.

We probably all know (having witnessed Montreal's experience) that the costs to the local population of any Olympic event are astronomical, and are learning how the long-term "Olympic Effect" benefits international trade, not local industry. About which we should surely have questions - ethical as well as financial - after the hardships that people around the world have suffered this past year. And the very serious questions we should all have been asking for years about the effect of global trade and consumerism upon our world.

I am thinking dinosaurs today, but man-made dinosaurs with engines fuelled by collossal-sized greed. The Olympics has become a huge corporate machine in a world crawling with them. How do we small squashable individuals manage to keep from being crushed beneath it?

Speaking of which, this article about corporate ownership of arable land around the world came through my inbox today. Corporate greed seems hell-bent on removing human ability to feed ourselves in any sane and sustainable manner. Check out the article's table that explains who's behind the rush to control our food in the future.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Food in cities and snow on mountains

This TED talk by architect and author Carolyn Steel has been circulating recently and, while it does simply discuss a lot that's pretty well known now - urbanization, the planetary cost of meat and dairy consumption - gives some historical context to urban food production, asking us to think about food as an essential aspect of city planning, and how we've severed that connection in recent decades.

Speaking of cities, I was sad to see this message appearing on Victoria's public library website. Municipal budget cuts are, ironically, impairing a service that is enjoying peak demand right now as people turn from bookstores to libraries to help them save money:

Here in Banff we've had our first snowfall and it's warmed and cooled enough to make paths slippery. But not too cold or slippery for some of the walks we've had between the literary doings. Yesterday to the Hoodoos

and Saturday's treat was a visit to Johnson Canyon

followed by a soak in the hotsprings. We've also been visiting the Wild Flour Bakery in town, which has fantastic cookies and beautiful bread.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Watch those salads

This article about the top foods linked to food-borne illnesses is worth reading if you're going on holiday, particularly if you're going anywhere with large scale industrial food growing and processing (like, oh, Canada or the US?). The items on the FDA's top-10 list are not always what you'd think (potatoes?? ice cream???):

Leafy greens: 363 outbreaks involving 13,568 reported cases of illness.
Eggs: 352 outbreaks with 11,163 reported cases of illness.
Tuna: 268 outbreaks with 2,341 reported cases of illness.
Oysters: 132 outbreaks with 3,409 reported cases of illness.
Potatoes: 108 outbreaks with 3,659 reported cases of illness.
Cheese: 83 outbreaks with 2,761 reported cases of illness.
Ice Cream: 74 outbreaks with 2,594 reported cases of illness.
Tomatoes: 31 outbreaks with 3,292 reported cases of illness.
Sprouts: 31 outbreaks with 2,022 reported cases of illness.
Berries: 25 outbreaks with 3,397 reported cases of illness.

As the article makes clear, the problem is with the scale of manufacture and processing, not inherent in the foods. Illnesses are usually carried by cross-contamination through equipment and handling, or unsafe storage that typically results from using poorly trained (and badly paid) factory workers. These same foods might be perfectly safe if obtained from small organic growers or artisans working with local, fresh produce.

Here at the Banff Centre we are enjoying many salads, but following them with perhaps too many desserts.

It is all fuel for the writing of course, and last night we had some introductory readings, with more to follow on Friday. Three of the faculty read: Caroline Adderson, Sid Marty and Stan Dragland. A measure of the quality, I think, that fourteen readers did their five minutes each and the time flew by. Of course not having a watch might have helped with that...

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Sustainability on land and sea

Glad to see Red Fish Blue Fish get some more media attention. They produce some excellent grub from their tiny home in a green-roofed shipping container in Victoria's Inner Harbour.

Had a note from BCSEA giving some follow-up NotStupid suggestions for positive actions following last week's screening of The Age of Stupid. They are local to BC but I offer them in case they inspire thought for elsewhere. Here they are:

A. Five Political Actions
1. Sign BCSEA’s online petition to Let LiveSmart Live -- to be presented in the BC Legislature as soon as possible. Sign the petition now. We know there’s a desire among many people within government to get the program renewed, but we must apply pressure.
2. Send an email to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, urging him to stop messing around with our children’s future and make a serious commitment before the Copenhagen Conference to reduce Canada’s GHGs by 25% below 1990 by 2020, as Japan has done.
3. Send a similar email to Michael Ignatieff, leader of the Liberal Party.
4. Attend the free lunchtime lecture on Friday, October 2, Greening the Future? Climate Change, Energy Systems, and Sustainability with UVic’s Dr. Kara Shaw . Call 250-472-4747 to register (Lecture Code: ASDS240 2009F E02)
5. Plan to join the October 24th International Day of Climate Action, starting in Centennial Square at 12 Noon. At the time of writing, 1528 actions are being organized in 125 countries. See and This day brings an amazing opportunity for us all to work together. If you can’t make Centennial Square, create your own event, however small.
B. Three Personal Actions
1. If you are not already a member of the BC Sustainable Energy Association, please consider becoming one. Members not only allow BCSEA to put on events like The Age of Stupid, but they’re the driving force behind our projects too. Join now!
2. If you do not already receive EcoNews, Victoria’s monthly environmental newsletter, click here to receive it. And check out the EcoNews monthly Green Diary.
3. Adopt your local MP or MLA, and become their personal climate solutions email service, sending them regular stories that make you concerned or hopeful.
C. Five Household Actions to Reduce your Carbon Footprint
1. Get your home energy-audited, and invest in measures to save energy (EcoEnergy grants available).
2. Take advantage of special homeowner grants – still available for a limited time – to install a solar hot water system. See BCSEA’s SolarBC website for details.
3. Grow your own food, and buy more locally grown organic food. Start eating a more vegetarian diet. There are lots of courses at the Greater Victoria Compost Education Centre and elsewhere.
4. Dust off your bicycle, or buy a new or a second hand one. Join the Greater Victoria Cycling Coalition, and work with them to push for more cycling paths and lanes.
5. Think about ride-sharing for regular trips to work, school, sports, choir, or church. Consider selling your car and joining the Victoria Car Share Cooperative.
The poetry part of this blog is about to make a return as I set off for Banff to work on my food poems for a couple of weeks. See you over the mountains!

Thursday, October 01, 2009

End of summer Hali-days; Farm Food Freedom

It was my last Wednesday work party at Haliburton yesterday, which we spent harvesting tomatoes (growing very interesting shapes!)

and weeding the squash patch which was full of mustard weed and smartweed in flower and seed. Meanwhile the farmers are gearing up for squash season and the Halloween extravaganza: pumpkin carving (for which they are not using certified organic pumpkins, I believe, though some of the farm's produce will be turned into food to munch on during the events) and composting party, held in conjunction with the Compost Education Centre. The Sunbird farmers as always have an aesthetically superior arrangement

though the Terralicious greenhouse also sports a nice line of pumpkins

and some beautiful squashes indoors as well.

The best finale - in addition to seeing the well-named everbearing raspberries still on the farmstand - was taking home the last watermelon! Not a great example of the variety since it's missing its stars, it's an heirloom Moon & Stars - thought to be the oldest watermelon.

An amusing account came through on the COG listserv, about a recent Farm Food Freedom dinner to raise awareness and funds for the campaign against mindless government restrictions on farming (affecting meat and milk and eggs etc.), which featured a quiz that people could attempt, with questions such as the following:

1. Which of the below items are illegal in British Columbia? Put an X by the illegal activity.
1. Selling a rifle from your home.
2. Selling food with measurable pesticide residues from your home.
3. Selling an organic freezer turkey from your home.
2. Which of the animals below are illegal to own in the town of Sechelt?
1. A pair of pit bull terriers.
2. A Rotweiller/mastiff cross.
3. A lamb.
3. Things that cannot be legally purchased in Canada – Cross out the illegal item.
1. Fireworks.
2. Bullets.
3. Red Fife Wheat seed.
4. Farmers must now submit recipes and completed laboratory test results of all cooked foods to Health Departments before selling them at the Farmers Market. This new move apparently protects our health. Circle the items that the Health Departments are not concerned with as an ingredient.
1. Pesticides.
2. Herbicides.
3. Fungicides.
4. All of the above.
5. The vast majority of food borne illnesses result from errors at:
1. Unregulated farms.
2. Farmers Markets without Health approval.
3. Government licensed food processing plants.
6. How many cases of food borne disease per annum have been attributed to eating un-inspected meat? Circle it.
1. Over 50
2. Over 100
3. None
7. Which of the fines below apply to farmers proven to be selling farms meats from their homes? Circle it.
1. $500 - $800.
2. $1000 - $3000
3. $25,000 - $50,000
8. Which of these items was confiscated by inspectors from a Canadian Seedy Saturday as an illegal product? Put a dark line through it.
1. GM beet seeds.
2. Roundup ready canola seed.
3. Small Yukon gold potatoes.
9. Which of these common farm practises are illegal? Cross it out.
1. Using large tractors with un-tuned engines for small jobs.
2. Applying excessive nitrogen fertilizers that destroy soil.
3. Selling fresh eggs in a clean container at an un-refrigerated farm stand.
10. Put a big X by the item that you can only purchase on the black market.
1. A 26 oz bottle of Vodka on a long weekend.
2. A case of Player’s Light from a corner store.
3. A jar of milk fresh from the cow.
And yes, the correct answer number is the same all the way through. A good way I thought to make some serious points about local food supply and irrational government restraints on meat, milk and egg farmgate sales. If you'd like to join the freedom fighters, you can find print-your-own stickers and bumper stickers on Farm Food Freedom or under "Be Subversive" at Edible Landscapes.