Friday, January 29, 2010

Sweet stuff

A recent article asks if maple syrup is the new sugar? A timely question with the Bigleaf Maple Syrup Festival seeping up on our horizon. The instigators of this festival go by the charming name of the Sapsuckers, and for a couple of years now, they've been promoting what is news to most of us: that even out here in the west, our local bigleaf maple trees (Acer macrophyllum, aka Oregon maple) can be tapped and the sap boiled down to make maple syrup.

The reason this isn't more well known, or more frequently done, is that the more commonly known and aptly named sugar maple (Acer saccharum) - growing in Eastern Canada - has a higher sugar content. So although both need to be boiled down to acceptable levels of sweetness, the Eastern variety will take less sap and therefore less cooking time to reduce to a syrup.

Before you rush out to tap all your trees to see if there's more sweet gold in them thar trees, the research has already been done: the only other tree you can tap for syrup is the birch, and its syrup has a distinctive flavour that not all will enjoy. Like the bigleaf maple, birch sap is lower in sugar than sugar maple sap, so will take much longer to boil down. But if you want to go for it, here's how it's done:

And if you're looking for syrup recipes, here's a good puddle of them. When I was in Nova Scotia a year or two ago I picked up a couple of interesting alternatives to syrup: maple sugar (sinzibukwud) and maple butter, both of which are produced by boiling past the syrup point.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Happy farmers and googly-mad writers

The blessed 60 day extension to the Madrona Farm fundraising campaign has yielded some truly gratifying results. Written up in Guy Dauncey's EcoNews, it caught the attention of a right thinking reader, Mel McDonald, who came up with the $200,000 that was needed for a matching donation by Ed Johnston, which reduced the amount needed to an entirely manageable sounding $287,000 - by March 31st. Still a lot of money to come up with, but "a lot" is certainly less than "a staggering amount". And it's a pittance compared with the amount that's been raised - $1,413,000 so far.

A group of BC writers are carrying on their declamation of the Google Book Settlement as the final opt-out date looms hugely (January 28) before us. This is the date to opt out or opt back in if you went out but changed your mind. If you're just plain mad, there's a letter of protest (Canadian Writers Against Google Settlement petition) being sent to the US courts: to add your name, send it quickly to . Writers who are spending this last day on the fence are advised to devote some small part of it reading this FAQ on the settlement by the (US) National Writers Union.


Tuesday, January 26, 2010

David O'Meara reading, A Chemical Reaction, and Slow Food Pasta

Food and poetry reared their twin heads last week, with a sprinkling of pesticide in the middle.

On Tuesday, Ottawa poet David O'Meara came into town to read from Noble Gas, Penny Black as well as older and newer work, at Open Space Gallery. The reading was probably the highest he'd done; we were up near the ceiling becoming part of an installation (Bamberton: Contested Landscapes). Here, he sizes up the pulpit with Tim Lilburn.

Introduced by Garth Martens...

O'Meara took the.. er.. floor, and after the reading was interviewed by poet Steven Price.

Thursday I attended a screening of A Chemical Reaction, sponsored by the Canadian Cancer Society, which is lobbying for a cosmetic pesticide ban in BC (you can send the government an email: they are seeking input on this matter till February 15). The man behind the film, Paul Tukey, is a former landscaper who through his own and his son's experiences learned the personal and health costs of cosmetic chemicals.

He wanted to tell the exemplary story of the town of Hudson, Quebec, which imposed the first cosmetic pesticide ban in North America - due to the fearless work of local dermatologist Dr. June Irwin, who continues - at her own expense - testing skin and blood samples from all her patients, to monitor the presence of toxic chemicals in their bodies.

The film was an instructive lesson in the hard work of pushing municipal legislation through, particularly when it puts a multinational's revenue stream at risk. Because of the town's wish to stay chemical free, chemical companies sued it all the way up to the Supreme Court (it won!).

But those guys don't give up without a long, expensive fight. Now Canada is being sued by Dow Chemical for violating the terms of NAFTA, which it feels, give it carte blanche to make its money unimpeded by pesky legislation or trivialities like long term health costs caused by recommended application of its products (hmm, why does that sound so familiar..?)

Dr Irwin's advice to those who wish to follow her example and don't know where to begin? "Letters to the editor are free" she says, and makes full use of that avenue. Her other strategy was to attend - live and in person as we all have the right and privilege to do - municipal council meetings, and speak up about her concerns, supported by her findings. Even so, with her more or less constant presence and insistence that they read her findings, it took her six years to convince them to act. The film asserts that had it not been for a receptive mayor, the bylaw would never have gone through. Despite the medical evidence.

The film also explains the systematic way the pesticide companies have exerted influence on state legislators in the US to make sure no municipality can follow Hudson's lead. But as Tukey observed: we all have the right to vote with our wallets. Just stop buying the stuff.

To round out my week, on Sunday, Slow Food Vancouver Island held a pasta workshop and tasting at Ristorante La Piola in Victoria. About 40 of us milled about the place listening to various people talk pasta and sauce. Here's Mauro Schelini, of The Tuscan Kitchen, advising us only to buy pasta machines that are made in Italy (the Chinese ones, he says, are too frail and have a tendency to spit metal filings into your pasta when they are new).

Don Genova shows us how to roll...

La Piola's executive chef Cory Pelan catches and cuts the pasta as it comes out of the extruder.

The best part of any demo... seeing the tasting plates fill.

Eric Whitehead, mushroom forager, of Untamed Feast, shares a few morels and his special way with pasta sauce.

...Resulting in more tasting plates...

And very happy endings:

Monday, January 25, 2010

Milky justice

Last week's Ontario court case decision on the Michael Schmidt/raw milk issue - which has been dragging on since Schmidt had his farm raided in 2006 - has lactivores bubbling over with questions. Schmidt had been charged with illegally selling unpasteurized milk to people who chose to drink it, and exercised their choice by the only means legally open to them, by subscribing to a 'cow share' enterprise. This means buying a share of a cow and contributing to its upkeep, in return for which receiving a quantity of raw milk. There is a similar system - Home on the Range Dairy - in BC which has been subjected to a sustained attack by our own public health buttinskis in recent weeks.

One part of the public health attack has been to publish a misleading press release that mentions the presence of fecal matter in the dairy's milk. What the release fails to mention is that fecal matter is present in just about everything we eat, drink and touch, including soft drinks, spinach, government-inspected beef, and public health-approved pasteurized milk and milk products. It can certainly cause serious health problems, but the important distinction where testing is concerned is the fecal count, not the mere presence of fecal matter, and the press release is curiously shy of mentioning this. Nor do the public health officials claim to have tested for or found E. coli, which is, according to the Food Safety Network, the best way of testing for fecal contamination. In fact the whole manner of testing in this instance is considered highly biased.

Raw milk is a murky subject, much debated. It is hard to separate the views of the pro-pasteurization side from their vested interests in industrial scale production - which can by their very nature cause so many health problems that some kind of public protection is certainly called for. Most of the pro-raw milk defense comes from the Weston A. Price Foundation, which is not universally revered, but does have many sane and healthy supporters. There are genuine causes for concern about raw milk, as there are for production of any animal food likely to be consumed by people with delicate immune systems.

My personal experience with raw milk was in Italy, where the law allowed me to purchase raw milk from a machine in a shopping mall - the provision being I had to fill the bottle myself. There was a large sign posted on the machine warning pregnant women that raw milk could be dangerous, but I saw at least one near-term consumer ignore this. The milk was fabulous, rich and flavourful and made impressive custards and puddings. When we visited Epoisse producers in France, we were given a tasting and demonstration at which it was explained that the runniness of a ripe Epoisse is due to EU and North American market requirements that they use pasteurized milk. When the cheese is properly and traditionally made with raw milk, the paste shouldn't collapse, but be soft and firm. Pasteurization also kills off many of the microflora that give any artisanal cheese depth, texture and flavour.

So. Canadian raw milk consumers are rejoicing in what seems like a great victory in the Schmidt case, but is in fact only a local affirmation by the Ontario Court of Justice that he operated within the law in Ontario. It's unlikely the ruling will give strength to either side of the pasteurization argument, as the presiding judge made clear in his closing remarks:
I wish to make it perfectly clear that my decision to acquit the defendant on all charges-
* In no way stands for the proposition that henceforth it is legal to market unpasteurized milk and milk products in the Province of Ontario;
* In no way purports to undermine or invalidate the milk marketing legislation in this Province, which has been held to be valid legislation byt he Ontario Divisional Court in Allan v. Ontario (Attorney General) (supra);
* In no way supports either side of the debate on whether the consumption of unpasteurized milk or milk products is healthy or constitutes a health hazard
CBC has a poll you can take to share your opinion on whether or not people should be allowed to drink raw milk. Take it here.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

GM Alfalfa... again

An issue that may affect any of us who like to buy organic food is rearing its head south of the border. In Canada, a large percentage of our organic foods are imported from the US, so anything they do affects us directly as consumers. In the last (failed) attempt to get GE labelling on our foods in this country, our own politicians told us that if we wanted to buy GE-free products, we should buy organic.

In 2007, Monsanto was blocked temporarily and nationally from introducing genetically engineered alfalfa into the US, because they had failed to do an environmental impact study proving no harm to other farmers (etc.). They have fought this ruling up to the American supreme court, which expects to rule on the matter by the end of June, and reapplied to the USDA to introduce their GE substance again. The matter is to be decided by mid-February when the USDA releases its environmental impact statement. Because favourable USDA rulings usually mean subsequent rubber-stamping in Canada, this puts us at risk too.

The reason we should all be concerned is because alfalfa is a widely used rotation crop – in both conventional and organic agriculture – and is also a hugely important animal feed, for livestock and dairy producers among others. And it is consumed directly, as alfalfa sprouts, juice or teas. Importantly, alfalfa is a perennial, unlike all other licensed GE crops in this country.

If GE alfalfa is planted, non-participating farmers are at high risk of cross contamination, and ending up, like Canadian canola farmers have done, with an almost entirely contaminated product. Once cross-contamination happens, organics go out the window, because no organic farmer who uses alfalfa can claim to be GE-free as the certification requires, and even conventional exports suffer because many countries don't want to import or eat GE foods. This would mean Canadian milk and cheese products as well as meat would be unexportable to those countries. (More information on the organic trade arguments here)

Here, from The True Food Network (who helpfully offers a handy downloadable GE-free shopping guide on its website), is the US campaign, which includes a template for a lobbying letter you might like to customize and send to the USDA and to your favourite Canadian politicians. They need to know we care.

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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A little more on beef and climate change

Think it and it shall be published. Time magazine features an article this week called "Save the planet: Eat more beef" which offers much the same arguments that Joel Salatin gives: feed ruminants what they are designed to eat, manage them properly and they will replenish the soil that produces their own feed.

The basic message about environmental damage caused by eating beef remains the same, of course, when that beef has been fed grain instead of grass, raised industrially in feedlots, and slaughtered inhumanely. And as long as meat production is in the hands of industrialists instead of small scale farmers, it will be treated as an industry - subject to economies of scale, cost and corner-cutting - rather than a virtuous circle.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Meat & Methane

Last Monday's meeting of the BCSEA was billed as "Getting to Zero Carbon: What's Meat Got To Do With It?" but there was in the end little discussion of meat. Instead the speaker, Dr. Peter Carter, spent most of the time building the case for removing meat from our diets by updating us on climate change research.

According to the FAO report (Livestock's Long Shadow), meat production accounts for 18% of greenhouse gases. The World Watch Institute (in State of the World 2009: Into a Warming World) upped the figure to 50% (although it was pointed out that there were a great many errors in this report and many have discounted its findings).

A point made repeatedly was the urgency of the situation: even going to zero carbon right now will not stop the climactic damage, but zero carbon is the only way to slow it. Carbon trading (cap & trade) will not work; only a carbon tax will.

Carter's key observations on meat specifically were on a slide that identified three aspects of meat production which produced three different greenhouse gases:
  • Methane - CH4 - from livestock digestive processes;
  • Nitrous Oxide - N2O- from manure (and synthetic fertilizer used to produce feed);
  • Carbon Dioxide - CO2 - from the slaughter industry (with its demands on heat and hot water; CO2 gas may also be used to stun pigs before slaughter) and deforestation (to create cereal cropping to feed livestock)
We had some helpful refreshers on several of the greenhouse gases. Methane is one of the most damaging of greenhouse gases, causing 100% more heating than carbon dioxide, and lasting 12 years in the atmosphere. Nitrous oxide has an atmospheric lifetime of approximately 120 years and has a heat-trapping effect which is about 310 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide's atmospheric lifetime is apparently very difficult to pin down because from the air it moves into the ocean (causing ocean warming and acidification which are at unprecedented levels of increase). He mentioned as well the enduring presence of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) (most commonly from refrigerants, solvents, and foam blowing agents) which are implicated in ozone layer depletion as well as climate change, and which also have lengthy lifespan (tens to hundreds of years depending on which source you consult).

Regarding the skeptics' assertion that global warming is a myth because of a decade's worth of low average temperatures, he pointed out that underlying this is a common mistake: confusing temperature with climate. The climate as a whole is warming despite a 10 year blip in temperatures; the ocean, which tempers climate, has incontrovertably continued to warm. (We'd also heard at an earlier BCSEA talk that although 10 year dips have been seen through the earth's history, dips of longer than 10 years have not. And were reminded that climate change is not a gentle, steady warming, but presents as a drastic climactic change that produces unpredictable and extreme weather, which we are seeing now.)

Another concern Carter raised was the release of greenhouse gases that had been stored within the earth and ocean. In the Arctic, massive methane deposits (four times more than is currently in the atmosphere) have been held in permafrost, which is of course at risk of melting. If/when this happens, global temperature rises would be accelerated at unpredictable rates. There is as well methane on the ocean floor, which is being released by global warming.

In conclusion... Carter's suggestion was to stop eating meat right now and forever. But he didn't have the time or space to say how to do that: what happens to the livestock currently out there on the hoof? An overnight global elimination of meat-eating is unthinkable; and what would we replace it with? Would we carry on clearing rainforest to grow GM soya for human consumption? And how would we alter our growing practices to avoid releasing more greenhouse gases?

The idea of global vegetarianism is an intriguing one but would call for a complete reconstruction of food and agricultural practices worldwide, which doesn't give nature its due either, since a new diet needs to be grown, harvested, processed and distributed.

Missing, too, was any analysis of the difference in emissions between industrial production vs. small-scale farms where animals are integrated into overall crop management as well as providing protein products (including the Duck-Rice project and Joel Salatin's ideas).

So, the talk was great for outlining the problem, but fell short on considered solutions. But certainly, it would not hurt those of us who have the power to act to reduce our meat consumption drastically while that solution is being formulated. And so here we are: a good day to celebrate with a Meatless (and Meat-Free) Monday!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Who owns our news?

If you were wondering why it seems we have no free press in this country, the point was driven home with even more force than usual when I received a notice from the Writers Union of Canada, regarding the Heather Robertson legal action against the unlicensed use of works by the Thomson Group.

The suit, which has dragged on through Canadian courts since 1996, and has finally resulted in a settlement, "concerns media outlets that reproduced the work of freelance writers and artists on electronic databases without consent or additional compensation."(Deadline for claims is 5:00 p.m. Eastern Time on January 18, 2010 by the way, unless a requested extension is granted; more details on the Cole & Partners website.)

The length of the list is staggering. It would have been easier, I think, for them to send out a list of titles that were not owned by Thomson. Here's the first list they sent out, which consists of titles affected by virtue of inclusion on a searchable database; and here following is the supplementary list:

Toronto Star
The Hamilton Spectator
The Record
Guelph Mercury
Acton Free Press
Ajax News Advertiser
Alliston Herald
Almaguin Forester
Almaguin News
Almonte Gazette
Ancaster News
Annex Guardian
Anrnprior Chronicle-Guide & Weekender
Arthur Enterprise News
Aurora Era-Banner
Barrhaven Weekender
Barrie Advance
Beach Mirror
Bloor West Villager
Blue Mountains Courier Herald
Bobcaygeon Independent
Bracebridge Examiner
Bradford West Gwillimbury Topic
Brampton Guardian
Brock Citizen
Burlington Post
Caledon/Bolton Enterprise
Cambridge Times
Canadian Statesman
Carleton Place Canadian
City Centre Moment
Clarington This Week
Collingwood/Wasaga Connection
Dundas Star News
Dunnville Sachern
East York Mirror
Elmira Independent
Erin Advocate
Etobicoke Guardian
Etobicoke Guardian Apartment & Condominium Edition
Exeter Times Advocate
Fenelon Falls Gazette
Fergus-Elora News Express
Flamborough Review
Georgetown Independent
Georgina Advocate
Glanbrook Gazette
Grand River Sachem
Gravenhurst Banner
Grimsby Lincoln News
Guelph Tribune
Haldimand Sachem
Hamilton Mountain News
Huntsville Forester
Innisfil Journal
Iroquois Chieftain
Kanata Kourier Standard
Kawartha Lakes This Week
Kemptville Advance-Accent Weekender
Listowel Banner
Manotick Review
Markham Economist & Sun
Meaford Express
Midland/Penetanguishene Mirror
Milton Canadian Champion
Minto Express
Mississauga Booster
Mississauga News
Mississauga This Week
Mississippi Weekender
Mount Forest Confederate
Muskoka Sun
Muskoka Weekender
Nepean This Week & Weekender
New Hamburg Independent
Newmarket Era-Banner
Niagara This Week
North York Mirror
Northumberland News
Oakville Beaver
Oakville Today
Orangeville Banner
Orillia Today
Oshawa This Week
Ottawa South Weekender
Parry Sound Beacon Star
Parry Sound North Star
Perth Courier & Weekender
Peterborough This Week
Pickering News Advertiser
Port Colborne Leader
Port Perry Star
Renfrew Mercury & Weekender
Richmond Hill Liberal
Riverdale Mirror
Scarborough Mirror Apartment & Condominium Edition
Smith Falls This Week
St. Mary’s Journal Argus
Stayner Sun
Stoney Creek News
Stouffville Sun & Tribune
Stratford City Gazette
Stittsville News & Weekender
Thornbury Courier-Herald
Thornhill Liberal
Uxbridge Times Journal
Vaughan Citizen
Walkerton-Herald Times
Wasaga Sun
Waterloo Chronicle
West Carleton Review
Whitby This Week
Wingham Advance-Times
York Guardian
Red Deer Advocate (PD)
The Stettler Independent
The Castor Advance
Bashaw Star
Rocky Mountain Outlook
Ponoka News
British Columbia
Lower Mainland
Abbotsford News
Agaassiz Observer
Aldergrove Star
Bowen Island Undercurrent
Burnaby/New West News Lewader
Business Examiner Fraser Valley
Chilliwack Progress
Hope Standard
Langley Times
Maple ridge News
Mission City Record
North Shore Outlook
Peace Arch News
Richmond Review
Sought Delta Leader
Surrey Leader
The Tri-City News
Vacouver Island
Alberni Valley News
Business Examiner
Campbell River Mirror
Courtenay Commox Valley Record
Duncan News Leader and Pictorial
Goldstream News Gazette
Ladysmith Chronicle
Lake Cowichan Gazette
Monday Magazine
Nanaimo News Bulletin
North Island Gazette
North Island Midweek
Oak Bay News
Parksville Qualicum News
Peninsula News Review
Saanich News
Sooke News Mirror
Victoria News
Real Estate Victoria
BC Interior North & South
100 Mile House Free Press
Arrow Lakes News
Ashcroft Cache Creek Journal
Barriere Star Journal
Burns Lakes District News
Castlegar News
Clearwater Times
Fort Saint James Courier
Golden Star
Houston Today
Invermere Valley Echo
Kamloops This Week
Kelowna Capital News
Kitimat Sentinel
Kootenay News Advertiser
Kootenay Western Star
Merritt Herald
Northern Connector
Penticton Western News
Prince George Free Press
Quesnel Cariboo Observer
Revelstoke Times Review
Salmon Arm Lakeshore News
Salmon Arm Observer
Sicamous Eagle Valley News
Similkameen Spotlight
Smithers Interior News
Summerland Review
Terrace Standard
The Northern View
Trail Rossland News
Vanderhoof Omineca Express
Vernon Morning Star
Winfield Lake Country Calendar
Williams Lake Tribune
Wine Trails

Friday, January 15, 2010

Cosmetic pesticides, and a poetic loss to Planet Earth

The Government of BC is seeking public input on cosmetic use of pesticides as they consider whether to ban pesticides in BC; email form makes it easy at the Canadian Cancer Society website.

Screenings of A Chemical Reaction - documentary about community action against pesticides and cancer - is being sponsored by the Canadian Cancer Society. Here's the trailer, followed by two screening times. I think the book that's being signed might be Paul Tukey's Organic Lawn Care Manual. But I'm not sure.

Jan. 20 — 7 p.m.
(doors open at 6:30)
Park Theatre
3440 Cambie Street
Admission by donation
Book signing
For more information, contact:
Kathryn Seely, Canadian Cancer Society or

Jan. 21 — 7 p.m.
(doors open at 6:30)
David Lam Auditorium
University of Victoria
Admission by donation
Book signing to follow
For more information, contact:
Nancy Falconer
or 250-380-2358

On a final sad note, we in BC - and everywhere her poetry touched - are mourning the loss of our lovely poet PK Page, whose poem Planet Earth sparked much admiration, and a frenzy of glosas in this part of the world.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Inconvenient truths: dogs

We of the high minds will inevitably run into problems if we try to follow our principles to the letter. If we are pursuing sustainability in all realms - food, finance, environment - we will find along the way some aspect of our lives that does not fit completely, that cannot be perfectly adapted. We are human, living imperfect lives in an imperfect world.

One such imperfection is pets; in my case, elderly dog Anton. The higher principles under which he came to join my household are that he was abandoned - his owner unable to look after him - at too great an age (aged 9, five years ago) to be adoptable. His temperament is not one that allows him to live happily with other dogs, and he is potentially dangerously grumpy if manhandled, which would probably exclude most households with children. So had he ended up in a shelter he'd probably not have made it out the door to a new home. And now we are 14, the complaints and considerable expenses of age are descending with some force.

A recent article in the Calgary Herald points out the large ecological footprint dog ownership leaves, which likens the overall burden to that of a carelessly driven gas-guzzler. The concerns are many: food (largely meat and cereal, usually packaged in plastic bags or plastic-lined tins); poo bags (any old plastic bag has been the norm till recently); water and food dishes (metal and plastic); pet toys (usually plastic, often very cheap and breakable); mileage (driving to walks, grooming, obedience training or veterinary appointments); leashes and collars (a lot of plastics involved); dog houses (lots of plastics unless you build your own); beds (very often man-made fibres covering pillows made of plastic foam or styrofoam beads); veteriarian and grooming supplies (plastic bottles of pharmaceuticals and grooming supplies, pesticides to treat external parasites, plastic syringes, chew collars, combs, brushes, hairdryers, toothbrushes etc); and a whole other world of expenses if you get into dog trials or invest in extras like raincoats, boots, reflective or illuminated clothing/collars, etc. When you look at that list you can see the problem. Which was already indicated by the very presence of pet superstores.

We have got away from the idea of the family dog as a working animal who eats scraps, chews on sticks and defends the household, washing itself when it swims and getting veterinary attention (or the shotgun) when injured. Though some still work - as guide dogs, sniffers or farm animals - more often today's pet is a sporting or fashion accessory, living therapy to shut-ins, or friend to those isolated by modern life or circumstance. These four-legged child-substitutes end up requiring the same array of appointments as humans - vaccinations, dental treatments, pedicures. We are the problem, and modern pet ownership is costing us dear.

Dog lovers have responded with suggestions on ways to lessen the impact, which are feeble at best. But I've been working on changing some of my things that can be done.

Food is something I think a lot about. I do spend about $65 a month on good quality dry dog food, packaged in large paper bags. It is made of meat and cereal, which do have those giant ecological footprints. I supplement this with home made wet dog food, which is made from rice, potatoes, grains and (usually discounted) meats like heart, liver, kidney. I used to buy carrots and frozen spinach, but now incorporate table scraps - very few of these since I seldom cook meat nowadays - and peelings instead, which I throw into the freezer till I have enough. It's an imperfect mix, but it puts some variety into the dog food. Moreover I found that I could put wet food in the blender, add a bit of starch and bake it for dog cookies - though they also need an energy-intensive spell in the dehydrator as well, to store properly.

Suggestions like biodegradeable dog poo bags are kind of annoying, since biodegradeable plastic won't degrade if it's buried within the anaerobic mountain of a landfill. (Compostable bags - which at last sighting cost somewhere around 50 cents each - might do better; and a digester - placed away from food plants - would probably be best.)

The mileage question is a tricky one, and I've been thinking that although I can probably cope without a car, even in public-transport-starved Victoria, I can't cope long-term without a car as long as I am responsible for an old dog. Unlike London, at least in days of yore, there is no option to take a dog on a bus here (unless you can put him in a carrier). Depending on the ailment, I can walk Anton to the vet for most things. But he's old, and his joints are going, and some of his recent visits have been for cuts in his feet (I suspect thanks to local youth who find evening entertainment in smashing bottles on sidewalks). And the vets within walking distance might not be the ones who give best care. Because he gets hysterical in groomers, I end up having to drive him to a saintly woman in Sidney (about 25km away) for pedicures once a month or so: his nails were not well-tended from the start and do get overgrown and, particularly now he's getting doddery, cause him mobility problems in the house.

Other things - leashes, collars, dishes - could and should be recycled through thrift stores. Bedding can be made from old blankets and cushions. Home grooming saves money and driving. I grew up with pets, often dogs, which were always treated as animals: they stayed on the floor and they ate what they were given and in return they gave us exercise, affection and entertainment. I am not ready to pull the trigger on old Anton, but when this dog has finally had his day I will have to think hard about whether to replace him.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Wicked chicken; meat and methane

Chicken is a pretty easy food to like, if you're a meat eater. It can be made to suit almost any taste, and it's grown remarkably cheap in my lifetime. The much quoted "chicken in every pot" promise made by - well, it turns out to be Henry IV of France (1553-1610) - suggests it was once a far more exotic food than we make it out to be today.

As usual, it's a question of getting what you pay for. If you want to eat cheap and easy fast-food chicken strips or nuggets, you may be aware just by looking at them - assuming that you are familiar with what chicken meat looks like that these are certainly not made from strips of meat; rather, from a lot of re-formed chicken bits (mostly skin and fat) surrounded by a lot of salty batter.

If you buy skinless, boneless chicken breasts, or ready-to-cook products, read the label: is there a mention of "seasoning" among the ingredients? If so, you might well be paying for, in essence, salty water which plumps the meat up, adding weight that it will lose when this oozes out during cooking. All quite legal: Canadian Food Inspection guidelines allow it. And the Americans do it, as does Britain and the rest of the EU.

It's not just chicken that is "seasoned" in this way: our guidelines allow any kind of meat to be injected with flavoured water. But in its industrialized state, chicken breast in particular is so lacking in flavour and texture that it needs something - anything - to try to make it remotely palatable. And if that's what you get used to eating, that's what you're going to think chicken is. Someone told me recently about a colleague who doesn't much like to cook, so buys those whole rotisserie chickens for the family; but none of them likes anything but white meat, so once they've stripped that off, they chuck the rest of the carcass.

And I've met people on my dog-walks who buy fresh chicken breasts to feed to their dogs. Indeed, I think Anton's previous owner, if her departing instruction is to be believed, fed him this way as well.

Honestly. Do we deserve to eat chicken? If it's only to provide cheap food for the white meat eaters and dog-cosseters that we subject all those miserable birds to short, sad lives, then we don't deserve our plucky friends.

However, should you wish to right some wrongs and rear your own, wouldn't it be lovely to do so in one of these darling Eglus? You can meet some other chicken lovers in this sweet documentary, Natural History of the Chicken, which is available (in 6 parts) on Youtube.

And if you're in Victoria, you could come to the next meeting of the BC Sustainable Energy Association, Burnside Gorge Community Assn., 471 Cecelia Road, off Jutland Rd., 7-9pm, where we'll have a talk about meat and methane from Dr. Peter Carter, of of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment:

Getting to Zero Carbon: What's Meat Got To Do With It?
Not only is the industrialized livestock industry one of the biggest emitters of potent greenhouse gases (methane and nitrous oxide as well as CO2) in the world, but
refraining from eating meat is the easiest and quickest way for individuals and families to reduce their carbon footprints on the way to the new age of renewable energy and zero carbon. Dr. Carter will focus on the methane part of the meat equation, since research shows its importance in potential runaway global heating.

And I imagine we will be referred to the UN's report (also cited by Mark Bittman, in Food Matters), Livestock's Long Shadow.

Let me in closing refer you to this fine poem, Chicken Pig, by Jennifer Michael Hecht.

Monday, January 04, 2010

New year's edification

It's new year resolution time, and the tireless Guy Dauncey offers a few departure points for inspiration on his Climate Challenge page - including a Week-by-Week Guide for people wanting to join with others in "climate challenge circles." I like his link to the Eat Low Carbon Diet Calculator.

Meanwhile I've already seen a couple of inspirational movies this year. Not new ones, but worth digging out from your library or video rental store.

Addicted to Plastic is surprisingly upbeat. It is not shy of the issues, but balances them with lots of airtime for people making positive changes to the consumption and waste of plastic. It starts in the North Pacific Gyre and explains there and in the sections about plastic that is in contact with our food and drink about plastic's gift for attracting toxins and how these toxins travel into our food system. It's not exactly news that the chemicals end up in our bloodstreams through ingesting seafood, which accumulates toxins up through the food chain in our oceans; or from the plastic bottles many of us have started avoiding already. But there is plastic lining our food tins as well, and the lids of glass jars - and artifical wine corks, come to think of it. The scientists quoted in the movie were certainly avoiding plastic food packaging in their own lives.

So. It will be tough going, but I'm going to double my efforts to avoid buying plastic this year.

Here's the trailer for the movie:

The grimly amusing Radiant City, filmed in Calgary, finally unlocked some of the cultural attitudes I really dislike about North America, and reminded me of why I had been in no hurry to move back here from England. It shows the damage that has been done to the cityscape, the sense of community and the economic environment by building the monster single family dwellings that now mar the landscape around Calgary and Edmonton, and anywhere in North America where development is running rampant - more and more built on fertile land even here on Vancouver Island. Some trade-off.

The houses are huge, and remote from urban centres, turning occupants into commuters; all single-occupancy, these developments provide dwellings (per square kilometre) for too few people to make public transport viable, so what might be on offer is patchy. Which means every family living there needs at least two vehicles; the children raised in such an environment will expect likewise to own their own car, as they'll be used to being driven everywhere. One statistic cited was that North American suburbanites typically spend the equivalent of 55 eight-hour weekdays driving each year.

Since the housing development areas are vast, there is nothing within walking distance, and all amenities are offered through malls. That means no common local meeting places, and that food and other consumables will have to be purchased almost entirely from chain stores owned by multinationals.

Each home is fronted by a massive garage, so each home literally looks inward, and discourages contact with neighbours. It reminded me of a house I visited here in Victoria, where the existing bungalow - in that neighbourhood, probably built sometime between 1920 and 1950 - had been torn down and replace by just such a house: I remember feeling riled by the sheer size of the home, and by the fact it had no front, just a massive driveway and garage. Somehow that garage really got to me, it seemed so unfriendly. The occupants told me that their neighbours had been offended by this new home, and I'm not surprised, faced as they would have been by big new walls. This kind of building is mercifully rare - so far - in existing Victoria neighbourhoods, although it's certainly contaminating new developments.

It's a struggle to be sociable in any modern urban environment nowadays, but I find it doubly offensive that isolation is being built into the equation, and that the developers have appropriated the term "community" to describe their pods of detachment. What lunacy is this to think we can live independently and separately from those with whom we share this planet and its future?

The vision of suburbia shown in the film - and by any visit to Calgary - is spectacularly unsustainable in just about any way you could think of, but particularly in anticipation of rocketing fuel prices. I suppose - if the developments actually offer back yards - it is possible there will be some room to grow food (though I imagine most of the topsoil will have been scraped away during development).

Here's the trailer for this one:

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Natural Capitalism & last call for Madrona Farm fundraising

Some fresh ideas for the new year...

Emerging Green Builders Victoria presents Natural Capitalism: Creating The Next Industrial Revolution
Thursday, January 7th, 7:00pm; Burnside Gorge Community Centre, 471 Cecilia Road
- 90 minute video presentation followed by discussion and social time -
Please RSVP and BYOMug. Refreshments provided. RSVP to: egbvictoria [AT] gmail [DOT] com

Natural Capitalism (1999) by Amory Lovins, L. Hunter Lovins and Paul Hawken, describes how to do business and make money without destroying the environment and the communities and people who live in it.
"Industrial Capitalism recognizes only money and goods as capital, according little value to people and nature. Natural Capitalism, on the other hand, extends that recognition to include human and natural capital. Join us to learn how investing in people and nature alongside money and goods can lead to greater prosperity and a sustainable society."
Meanwhile, Madrona Farm, our local good cause (aiming to raise a terrifying amount of money by the middle of this month to safeguard the future of its land for farming) is having one last fundraiser: Madrona Farm Benefit: a Grand Old Shindig (Co-sponsored by Share Organics)
Saturday January 9th, 7:00 - 10:00 p.m.
The Orange Hall, 1620 Fernwood Road.
Price: $20 regular / $15 for the underemployed. All proceeds donated to Madrona Farm and the B.C. Land Conservancy.

Performers: Poets Lorna Crozier, Tim Lilburn, Carla Hesketh/Funk, and Melanie Seibert; Flamenco Guitarist Gareth Owen & Alma de España; Island Thyme Morris Dancers; The Rabbleberries; and the Great Giffoni, Magician.