Jeremy at the Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog wrote a good summary on all of the important arguments made in the press and Internet media on Quinoa.
You read it here first!
I think Black Salsify will be the next ‘powerfood’ in the US. Already, the number of people searching for information about it and ending up on this blog is way up.
It’s best prepared peeled, cut into bit sized pieces and steamed in a small amount of water for a few minutes until tender. You can test it with a fork. Some people eat it unpeeled, and in any case it’s not necessary to remove all the peel, 70-80% is good enough. To prevent browning put the cut pieces in acidulated water (water with a little lemon juice or vinegar added), until ready to cook.
Black Salsify has a sap like substance that’s difficult to remove from your hands. To make cleanup easier afterwords, rub a little cooking oil on your hands before you begin.
Serve black salsify with a pat of butter on top, and salt and pepper to taste. It’s nice on a bed of quinoa, which is how we often have it!
The taste is often compared to oysters, and it’s sometimes called the oyster plant.
Across the Internet, the debate is raging. Which is more ethical, eating meat or quinoa? I posted about this a few days ago, and I’m pleased to see a different point of view has appeared on the Guardian website today. I was a little brief in my last post about some of the underlying issues, so I thought I would take the time to expand on them a bit here in plain English.
I’m really happy more people are getting interested in this!
Commodity Crops and Subsidies
The basic problem is the majority of the world’s food depends on commodity crops, like corn and soy. In the US more corn is used, and in Europe more soy. Corn and soy are not normally environmentally unfriendly to grow, but the same companies which sell the seeds also sell the chemicals, so there is more profit is growing it in energy intensive and environmentally unfriendly ways. Views in the world have also changed in the last 100 years or so, and we now look down upon the idea of producing food with manual labor. We expect all of our food will be produced with a minimum of labor, and with as much heavy equipment as possible. This heavy equipment also causes a lot of damage to the topsoil, severely inhibits it’s ability to sequester carbon and releases significant amounts of greenhouse gases. It’s not cheap to grow food with all this heavy equipment, chemicals and fossil fuels, so governments step into subsidize the costs, in the end making it far cheaper than all other kinds of foods, anywhere. These foods then get exported around the world, where they compete unfairly against other small farmers.
The commodity crops are then used to produce ‘processed foods’. Processed foods are nearly everything you buy at the supermarket or eat at a restaurant, with the exception of fruits and vegetables. In a sense even fruits and vegetables can be processed, because these are often grown with lots of chemicals and fossil fuels too. Meat and dairy rank among the most processed foods, because far more raw ingredients are used in their production than other foods, with meat representing the highest level of consumption.
Unprocessed foods are generally those bought at the farmers market, from a local farmer. You can even buy environmentally friendly meats this way, pasture raised, instead of on commodity crops. The problem is this sort of meat is very hard to come by, and in very high demand. A single cow needs about 5 acres or 2 ha of land to meet all it’s needs, and when it’s 4 years old, will perhaps only provide 500-1000 meals. That’s only one person for a year, who eats meat twice per day! Even if we used all available space in the world, we still couldn’t meet current demand with pasture fed meat.
When you consider all aspects of processed food production, and all sources of greenhouse gases, it means processed food production is the single greatest contributor to climate change — more than all the worlds transportation systems combined! This includes the release of carbon from the soil, the fossil fuels that go into the chemicals and fertilizers used, the transportation involved, the processing, flatulence of the animals, retail and so on.
In addition, minerals are and ground water are mined unsustainably in order to make all of this work.
One way or another, something needs to change. We need to eat less meat, or we need some new technologies for meat production.
One of the problems with our current food system, is we are effectively trapped, in many different ways.
All over the world small farmers have been disadvantaged for decades, and there aren’t a lot of them left. We certainly aren’t in a position to turn to them and expect them to feed the world today. They certainly have the potential to do it over time, but not immediately.
One of the major obstacles to small farmers are all the laws, rules, regulations, intellectual property rights and consumer expectations. The big seed and agricultural companies have had decades of exclusive control over these things, and they all take time to change. For a long time now, the agriculture companies have been collecting patents and other rights on almost all of the worlds food supplies or potential food supplies, that it’s unlikely anyone except them will have future rights to sell us food.
The big seed and chemical companies of today are making good money, and have little reason to change. Occasionally there is a concession here or there, like providing certified organic or fairtrade foods, but these often come at much higher cost to the consumer. It’s often argued that organic or fairtrade foods aren’t ‘special’, they’re normal! It’s processed foods and foods grown with chemicals that are special, and these should be sold at their true and unsubsidized prices. But even if the big seed and chemical companies were to see the err of their ways tomorrow, there’s too much momentum in our current food system, and it would take decades to unravel. A big issue in unravelling the current system is meeting consumer expectations, because there would be big changes in the food we eat.
There are huge environmental obstacles to overcome. Nearly all of the worlds agriculture land has been seriously damaged by modern farming methods. There’s a common myth that all land is suitable for organic production after 3 years, no matter what, because this is part of the definition of certified organic foods. There’s a big difference between certified organic, and being able to produce abundant food with organic and environmentally friendly methods.
Finally, governments are trapped into paying huge subsidies. The big agricultural companies control the laws, rules, regulations and intellectual property rights, then turn to governments for subsidies. It’s a sort of legalized extortion. If they don’t get their ever increasing subsidies, they won’t produce food. Politicians don’t want to see food shortages! There’s no indication subsidies are coming down any time soon.
What Can you Do?
Forget everything you’ve ever learned about nutrition. Forget about calories, protein, carbohydrates, Omega-3, sugar, salt — everything. Don’t buy any food that has related health claims. Food companies regularly spend billions of dollars on this sort of education, and in Europe alone recently spent €1,000,000,000 (that’s right, 9 zeros) lobbying for the new European food labels, to teach consumers how to buy processed foods. There is no proof that any health benefits can come by eating more or less of any of these things. Don’t pay attention to these labels.
WHO guidelines state the healthiest diet is one that’s varied and based mostly on starchy carbohydrates like potatoes, rice, pasta, bread or other grains, and fruits and vegetables. It should have some protein sources, like meat or fish if you eat it, but vegetables and whole grains are also a suitable source of protein if you’re vegetarian or vegan.
Buy food that’s as unprocessed as possible, and preferably directly from local farmers. Choose normal, non-GMO sugar, over highly processed sugars like GMO high fructose corn syrup. If it’s not possible to buy from local farmers, eat as low on the food chain as possible, emphasizing natural grains, fruits and vegetables, and other minimally refined foods from trusted sources. Remember chain health food stores are often not any more ethical or environmentally friendly than supermarkets, and many of those are often accused of selling GMO products.
Don’t buy GMOs.
Eat vegetarian or vegan food, partly or completely. You don’t need to be a raving lunatic who demonstrates in opposition to fur coats and leather shoes, or indeed even think meat doesn’t taste good, in order to enjoy good vegan food. In fact most of the worlds population is vegan or nearly vegan, and not political or outspoken about their diet. It’s not at all deviant, haute, trendy, lower class or unusual to enjoy vegan food. There are no common or credible health issues associated with vegan food, and it’s not necessary to supplement it in any way. You can just eat and enjoy it, and you don’t have to pay attention to any insensitivities, accusations, demands, requirements or fear mongering from others. Vegans are naturally just as healthy as anyone else, and in fact avoid many diseases associated with eating too much meat. By eating vegetarian or vegan, you avoid all or most of the environmental and social issues that go along with meat and processed food production.
Think about where your food comes from and how it’s been made! Use common sense, and avoid novel foods. Read the label, and if it has too many or unfamiliar ingredients, don’t buy it.
Choose heirloom or world foods. Quinoa is a great example! These foods are often not yet patented, and farmers are able to save and replant their own seeds. Like with quinoa, they have well established and sustainable methods for growing it, and high demand means more profits for small farmers! Lots of other examples can often be found at farmers markets, or small local health food stores.
Choose foods with as few pesticides and grown as sustainably as possible, for example vegetables usually have fewer pesticide residues than fruit; cabbage family vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, sprouts) usually have very few pesticide residues; and citrus and grapes are among the worst for residues. Avoid certified organic unless you are buying a normally high pesticide residue food, or it comes from a local farmer. Certified organic food is often unfair competition against small farmers who can’t afford to spend the time or money for certification. Most small and local farmers can’t afford chemicals, so their produce is usually naturally pesticide free.
If you eat meat, think about where it comes from. Raise it yourself, or buy it from a farmer who raises his animals on pasture. Think about eating less meat.
Worldwide Shortage of Quinoa!
I came across this silly article on quinoa the other day on the UK Guardian website. I think it goes to show how uninformed many people are, about the food they eat and the world around them. Have a look at some of the comments too, many of them are way off the mark. Just for the record, it’s the nature of being a vegan that they try to avoid disrupting food supplies in this way, and it’s very unlikely they ever would.
Quinoa is a member of the Chenopodiaceae or ‘Goosefoot’ family, more or less a domesticated weed. It grows in pretty much any agricultural area, and can even be grown in home gardens. In spite of what the above article says, it has been grown by the Fife Diet people in the UK. It does require some special equipment for processing like seed cleaning screens, and a way to remove the bitter saponins from the seed coats. I’ve grown it before, here in Amsterdam. It does not use an unusal amount of water, and there’s no reason for it to be imported from Bolivia or any area affected by drought. If any unusual demand for this grain is disrupting supply and demand in any region, or markets are flooded with cheaper alternative foods that are less healthy, it’s only a symptom the world’s food supply is very broken.
It’s a good thing if more people eat quinoa.
If you’ve never had quinoa, it’s very nice! You can eat it like rice. It cooks just like white rice, with the same proportion of water. It works fine in a rice cooker, which is what we use. The flavor is more complex and a little bitter, and it’s a bit more filling than rice. Start by making about half as much as you would normally rice, and taste it before mixing it in with other foods like fried rice or soup.
Quinoa is one of the so-called Lost Crops of the Incas, sometimes called Incan Rice. It’s from the Andes, the same region as the potato, and has the potential to become a food as important as the potato.
Don’t be afraid to eat and enjoy it!
Have a look at this blog post by EcoSuave.
The other day I was reading a post by Stonehead, and thinking how it relates to food available to me here in Amsterdam and my own family Thanksgiving plans.
At the supermarket, which is more important, quality or price?
This was the question I was asked in a survey recently. Indeed, like Stonehead mentioned in his post, here in The Netherlands most people are saying price is more important now. This is mentioned from time to time in the media here. The bad economy is taking it’s toll everywhere, and everyone is trying to save money on food at the supermarket.
What really gets me however is the black and white nature of this question. You must choose between A and B. You must accept the underlying logic that if you pay more you will get higher quality, and conversely in if you pay less it will be lower quality. You have to accept that all food comes from the supermarket. You have to believe the price you pay for your food at the cash register is the true cost of production.
In my case for example, more than 80% of my food comes from the local farmers market. Most of what I buy at the supermarket are non food items. Thanks to the structure of food subsidies, what I buy at the market is generally cheaper, and also of much better quality in my opinion.
So think about answering this question in terms of purchasing a roll of kitchen paper towels. If I choose the 19 cent roll over the 29 cent roll, does that mean I’m choosing price over quality? Is this a quality or a marketing decision? Am I giving up something by buying the scratchier, less absorbent and unbleached paper? In this case at least, I don’t see any advantages in buying the more expensive item, and in fact prefer many of the qualities of the cheaper one. In fact, I’m dissatisfied with the quality of most of the paper towels in the supermarket. In fact I’m dissatisfied with the quality of most things in the supermarket. How can anyone assert I’m choosing quality over price? In the end, I’m buying what the supermarket chooses to sell me.
Even if I buy food at the supermarket, I always have the same feeling. There’s hardly ever any quality available for purchase, and the idea of paying more money to get something better is not sensible.
In fact, another study in The Netherlands recently showed people who go to discount supermarkets in order to save money, don’t really end up saving any money in the end. This is because where they might save money on a specific item, they make up for it by buying something else they don’t need or at too high of a price.
Okay, on to Thanksgiving. I live in Amsterdam, but all of my family is in the US. This year we’re going to visit family for the Thanksgiving holidays.
In fact we frequently visit family for Thanksgiving, and there’s often tension over the food. Steph and I are vegetarian, and most of the others don’t have any real idea of what a vegetarian meal consists of. If we do nothing, we’ll be served specially prepared vegetarian bread stuffing cooked apart from the turkey and a spoonful of cranberry sauce, and the topic of discussion for the entire meal will be that it doesn’t look like we have enough to eat and do we like the stuffing they cooked specially for us? If we cook our own meal, it comes under intense scrutiny and the subject of ongoing negotiations. There will be 9 other non-vegetarians at the meal to share with. If we cook something too tasty we will be in competition with them for our own dinner, and if we cook too much vegetarian food it will be our fault for flaunting our own food over that of the others and making too many leftovers that get wasted.
Then comes the topic of the Thanksgiving turkey.
As I’ve done the last few years, I’ve suggested getting a fresh turkey from a local small farmer. It was pretty hard to find these turkeys a few years ago, but they are becoming more common in the US now. These have to be ordered some weeks in advance, and I offered to look around for one. Since Steph and I are the vegetarians, it’s not for us, so it’s nothing that’s being forced on anyone. It’s just an offer. Of course a fresh turkey needs to be basted as it cooks, and will come out a little drier, because it’s not injected with all the juicy chemicals of a Costco Butterball turkey. It will cook a little differently, and doesn’t have the built in plastic thermometer, so you have to use a normal meat thermometer. The cost? Well, I looked into this, and the larger sized turkeys from a local farmer were nearly $200. $200 for a turkey?
Well, $200 for the turkey is too much, and if it doesn’t cook or taste right, dinner will be ruined. It might taste weird.
Steph and I are spending something in excess of $2000 for our plane tickets, hotel, rental car and so on. The two other families coming are spending pretty much the same; they don’t have as far to travel but are with kids. It’s honestly more than any of us can afford, and a huge waste of fossil fuels. It upsets me a little every time we make the trip to the US. $200 for a turkey is too much? I might have even been willing to pay for it, if it truly came down to the cost. I think as much as anything, it’s more sort of meat eaters versus vegetarians thing or something.
It doesn’t bother me. Steph and I are the vegetarians. It was just an offer. It’s their meal. We weren’t going to eat it anyway. DO I SOUND ANNOYED?!
The Tesco £1.99 Value Chicken
Stonehead mentioned this in his post I linked to above, and a few years ago this triggered a wave of protests across Europe over cheap chicken in supermarkets. There’s hardly a supermarket left that dares to offer chicken at that price around here.
Basically what happened was factory chicken farms were starting to become more common in Europe, and Tesco could make more money off selling the cheapest chickens, and so stopped selling the others. Basically, the whole factory farm industry was very heavily subsidized in the first place. They buy feed from subsidized farmers, transported with subsidized transport and so on. The farmers then raise the birds very intensively and inhumanely, in very unsanitary conditions, ignoring all safety and environmental considerations. But then, after all that, by selling to their customers in volume, Tesco is in the position to demand the farmers lower their prices below their cost of production.
What’s really important here, is besides quality, health and safety issues, this is all only possible because of the massive government subsidies and policy support behind it. In fact, this is the most expensive and energy intensive way to raise chickens. It’s also the most unhealthy for people, chickens and the environment.
Since this consumer revolt never took place in the US, this is very much the model behind how poultry is raised there. It might not seem like it to consumers now, but $200 is not all that an unreasonable price to pay for a turkey. Paying the ‘real’ price for a Costco Butterball turkey in the US would likely be many times it’s actual sale price. It wouldn’t surprise me if the actual, unsubsidised, cost of a Butterball turkey were closer to $500 or more. Local and small farmers have to unfairly compete against this.
The EU spends about half of their budget on food subsidies, and the proportion in the US is similar. It’s true the US has spent a lot of money on bank bailouts and wars recently, and this probably dwarfs food subsidies. Under ‘normal’ circumstances, food subsidies are one of the largest, if not the single largest, government expense in the US.
Not only do governments subsidize their own food production for their own people, but a large portion of foreign aid costs are because trade policies first destroy local agriculture, then make them dependent on food aid.
So as Americans get ready to vote, and many other countries are debating solving their budget problems through cuts or taxes on the middle class or wealthy, think about this. In most places, the largest part of tax burden is disproportionately on the lower incomes. Of the money that is collected in taxes, the bulk of it will go to subsidize food.
The food that’s produced with these subsidies is the most expensive and energy intensive food in the world to produce, and will be sold at the lowest price to people who can’t afford anything else. Either that or it will be given away as food aid. It will be distributed in a way that disadvantages farmers, but benefits the larger supermarket and distribution chains, food and agricultural companies and other patent holders, owned by the wealthiest people. It will in turn create a dependency on more cheap subsidized food, resulting in more taxes and more energy consumption.
Many people think in the era of austerity measures that if government spending is going down, it must be going down on food too. This is simply not the case. This is government spending the wealthiest don’t object to, because it’s a tax on the poor and middle class, that primarily benefits the wealthy.
So the next time you go shopping at the supermarket, ask yourself the question. Which is more important, quality or price?