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Friday, March 19, 2010

Comparing apples and avocados

  Every so often, something comes out that reminds you that (a) people in the US, on the whole, have no idea where their food comes from, and (b) some of those same people are kind of interested in having some kind of relationship with something they understand, perhaps including their food.

There is quite a bit of reposting and linking to the store Biography of a Taco Mission Loc@l -- San Francisco Mission District's News, Food, Art and Events (, which is heartening. The article has some charming moments about a class project on figuring out where each of the ingredients from a local taco truck originate.
"It was very difficult to trace the origins of these foods," said John Bela, a director at Rebar and an instructor for the class. "There was an intentional obfuscation of food origins that we didn't anticipate. We were stonewalled by corporations. So we had to use subterfuge, like having our Puerto Rican aunt call to ask."
It was interesting to learn that the salt used in the tacos is local -- those salt ponds that turn wild colors in Google maps actually are in use!

If I have an objection to the article, it is to the attempt to be balanced by suggesting that choosing local can be stupid by setting up a bogus example:
To grow avocados local to New York City, for example, imagine the energy it would take to mimic the climate of Chile in the middle of winter, Yu and her classmate Annalise Aldrich pointed out.
Since the localvore movement has emphasized local specialties -- eating what can be grown near you, and what is actually grown in your region - this hypothetical totally misses the point. None of us are suggesting growing pineapples in the Sunset district. We are suggesting that we grow some mighty fine artichokes in Half Moon Bay, however, and that a healthy diet could always include more artichokes.

Mmmmm. Artichokes.

It was good that the students had a look at how far food travels before getting to your plate, and that they considered the energy required to grow food. It seems like they started to touch an idea, and then dropped it: they noted that food transport is a relatively small energy consumer relative to... Well, to what? The California Academy of Sciences has a great, straightforward exhibit on the environmental impact of food choices currently, and it isn't just about the energy used to transport it.

You know where I'm going, right? We've known it for years, and the UN FAO's magazine covered it back in Spotlight / 2006: Livestock impacts on the environment (
A new report from FAO says livestock production is one of the major causes of the world's most pressing environmental problems, including global warming, land degradation, air and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity. Using a methodology that considers the entire commodity chain, it estimates that livestock are responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, a bigger share than that of transport.
So, if the students are considering the implications of the transport of the food, but not of production of the food itself, they're missing the bigger picture.

But it's a start! A good start.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)10:30 PM

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Frequently flying fruit

  Parkmerced Farmer's Market
[Image: Parkmerced Farmer's Market, San Francisco, open on Saturdays from 10-2 in summer.]

One of the many wonderful things about living in California is the availability of fresh produce. Within a few hours in any direction, nearly every wonderful fruit, nut, or vegetable can be had: tomatoes, strawberries, cherries, and kiwi fruit out near Modesto; olives from up near Redding; apples and grapes from the Anderson valley (and grapes from just about every valley, now); artichokes and cool weather greens from Half Moon Bay; berries from the foothills... Going further 'afield' brings even more choices.

We are so lucky.

Yet, there are times when international commerce complicates the delivery of fresh local goodness to my neighborhood. Kiwi fruit vines are abundant out near Oakdale, where my father used to live, about two hours east of here. Yet, the little green grocer four blocks from my house sold me some from Italy.

Gilroy, down past San Jose, is famous locally for its garlic. Yet the garlic in the other corner grocery store in my neighborhood is from China.

[Image: local gold and red tomatoes from the Parkmerced Farmers' Market, photographed with an iPhone and a Fresnel lens (for special effects).] iPhone-fresnel lens image of fresh tomatoes

Nectarines? Chile. Grapes? Chile. Tomatoes? At this very moment, my closest grocer has an entire display of tomatoes... from Canada.

Canada?!? I love Canada more than most Americans [insert rousing chorus of O Canada! here] , but that doesn't mean my tomatoes should be grown there. This means that there are such extreme subsidies on agricultural exports from most places that it is marginally cost-competitive to drive fresh fruit from a field to an airport, fly it halfway around the world, and then drive it to a distributor and still compete against a farmer an hour or two away by land.

Which is creepy, when you think about the vast amount of pollution this causes, plus the investment of agricultural funds in fuel rather than local services, improved irrigation, soil improvements, and people. Of course, we do the same thing with our subsidies: I just can't tell from here.

This is part of why I love farmers' markets so very much: they skip the international shipping intrigue and bring me fruit picked within the day. And I can TASTE the difference. (There are a few fakers: there is one stand at the Alemany market that often has out of season produce, which usually looks like it's been roughed up a bit. That vendor is filling out his booth with distribution-bought produce. The same goes for some of the charming little "fruit stands" along the highways: when you see pineapples next to the local cabbage, you know they are cheating.)

Farmers' markets are a great deal: farmer's get more money directly at market than they do through distributors, and I get fresh food that hasn't spend its time on planes, trains, refrigerated shipping containers, and in distributor warehouses.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)10:10 PM

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Michelle Obama's terrifying pesticide-free garden

  Michelle Obama isn't using pesticides, and it is freaking out lobbyists. You often hear that the personal is political, that little things can make a difference. This is apparently all the more true for the President's wife, because the fact that the First Lady's little garden is organic is, apparently, a threat to big Ag.

At least, they are treating it that way.

The Nation referenced a strange letter that big Ag recently sent to the White House in protest of the absence of poison. They also circulated the letter and advised others that the entire idea of a garden without chemical pesticides made them "shudder." The idea of food with chemical residues gives someone nightmares, it turns out. Thankfully, this someone does not cooks my food.

La Vida Locavore:: Organic White House Garden Puts Some Conventional Panties in a Twist ( has the whole text of the letter, which is quite a piece of propaganda... against home gardening. Scary, scary gardening. A sample:
We live in a very different world than that of our grandparents. Americans are juggling jobs with the needs of children and aging parents. The time needed to tend a garden is not there for the majority of our citizens, certainly not a garden of sufficient productivity to supply much of a family's year-round food needs.
It takes a moment to figure out what they are trying to say. Apparently, my grandparents had lots of time to mess around growing food without pesticides, and they could ignore their families, which is a luxury modern people cannot afford. Also, if I garden, my goal must be to produce a year-round supply of food.

I hate having to choose between caring for my family and growing food. I'm so glad that farmers are willing neglect their families so that I can live a modern life... Sorry I trailed off, I was laughing again.

Lobbyists are not paid to make sense: they are paid to put the interests of their industry first. Their industry now employs very few people; requires lots of chemicals and energy inputs; requires heavy taxpayer subsidies; is so successful that farmers produce more output than can be profitably sold in this country, so that farmers may be paid not to farm because their output will further depress consumer prices and worsen the glut of overproduction... Fewer and fewer people are benefiting from this arrangement. And so the lobbyists feel the need to write letters like this, which somehow manage to make their entire industry look ridiculous.

Farming is really hard work. Farming organically, which everyone in the world did until the 1940s or so, is even harder. But it produces some really great products, it improves the land if managed properly, and farmers are paid a premium for their work. Reading letters like this one makes me take the industry position to its natural, illogical extremes: microbreweries are inefficient, and you don't have time to brew beer, so just drink Bud; you really don't have time to cook your own food or run a restaurant, so just eat frozen entrees made by professionals in modern factories; styling your hair that way takes up too much of your time, you should shave you head and wear one of our wigs, which will save you thousands on shampoo; why spend so much time writing individual e-mail messages, when professionals can send one note to all of your friends at once...

Quality and quantity are not mutually exclusive, but it is strange to see the quantity position aggressively put forth in an age when (I like to think) there is abundant evidence of quality coming back into style.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)8:33 PM

Sunday, September 02, 2007

  Food as an industry. Now that I work at a company that is in the quick service restaurant business, I have even more ways to read about food from the food service industry's perspective. I sympathize more with companies that are humiliated by health violations or have recalls for their products. I am also much more aware of the global nature of large food service companies.

I am someone who eats locally. Living in California, with its abundant supply of fabulous markets and farmer's markets, where just one county away in two directions just about anything I would want to eat can be grown, this is a relatively easy proposition. I will even choose locally grown produce over organic produce from far away, since that is better for the communal good: the pollution that transporting organic frozen dessert from some distant state doesn't seem as advantageous to my neighbors as the benefit I'll get from eating pesticide-free dessert. (I know what I get out of it, but I can't see what they'd get.) There are certainly specialty foods I buy from abroad, but most of what I eat and drink is grown in California.

The food service industry isn't interested in such issues, and so all sorts of processed foods are sourced abroad. This poses some interesting challenges.

China food safety woes show U.S. vulnerability: It's not what you eat but where it comes from (, 8/29/07) has a slightly misleading subtitle (what you eat is ALWAYS important), but some interesting facts about food imports. The U.S. was importing 15% of "total food consumption" in 2005, and that number is going up. Considering our country's agrarian history, that's odd. It shouldn't be a surprise though: growing food can be labor intensive, and while that is a benefit for any country trying to keep people employed, it means that the rush to cut labor costs by industry leads naturally to outsourcing food-making, too.

While there is some degree of panic right now, in the wake of food imports that have killed thousands of domestic pets, the U.S. has its share of domestically produced food safety crises also. Interesting item from the article:
Unsafe food takes a significant toll on the public. Each year, nearly 76 million Americans contract food-borne diseases, about 325,000 require hospitalization and about 5,000 die, according to a Government Accountability Office report released in February.
To accompany that, Marketwatch also has a Food contamination timeline (undated) featuring famous health crises precipitated by industrially packaged, processed, and distributed foods. Most of the crises listed were created by domestically produced foods.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)10:00 AM

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