Saturday, October 31, 2015

Scaring Away Waste

Tonight millions of orange skinned leering faces will peer from windowsills, or perch guarding doorsteps. Their sharp features, gleaming in the autumn night, will welcome witches and warlocks, and greet gobbling and ghouls. But over time their faces will wrinkle, the chiseled features that terrorized small humans will soften and sag. What begins as a slow and graceful decline, hastens to a rapid fall. Ultimately, most end up in the rubbish, destined for landfill. A sad end to the mighty jack-o-lantern, I know.

Millions of pumpkins meet that fate each Halloween. While some lucky few make it into a backyard compost, 18,000 tones of organic matter is literally trashed annually in the UK (so just imagine the US...). The crazy thing in my mind is that most pumpkins are perfectly edible. While I'm sure you want to let the fanged face linger in front of your house, it is perhaps a wiser and less wasteful move to salvage the usable flesh (and compost the rest) after this day of trickery and treating. Here's what I ended up making with a slice of pumpkin:

Chocolate Chunk Cucurbites*
1 cup pumpkin purée (about a 6inch slice from a medium pumpkin with a decent amount of flesh, roasted, skinned, puréed, and then allowed to train through sieve for 30 minutes)
1/2 cup oil (sunflower or perhaps melted coconut)
1 cup unrefined sugar
1 tbs maple syrup or dark agave
1 orange, zested

1 1/2 cups plain flour
1 tbs arrow root powder
1/2 cups rolled oats
1 tbs cinnamon
1 tsp all spice 
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt

1/2 cup pumpkin seeds or chocolate chunks 

1. Whisk together oil and sugar until viscous. Add pumpkin, zest, and syrup, mixing until smooth.
2. Sift in flour, arrow root, salt, soda, and spice. Incorporate but don't overmix.
3. Fold in oats and chips or seeds (or both?!). If too much like a batter than cookie dough, add a bit more flour or oats.
4. Preheat oven to 175C or 350F. Dollop tablespoons of dough onto a lined cookie sheet. Bake for 10-15 minutes until starting to brown. Cool on a wire rack.

Read More
Pumpkin Power:
Pumpkin Rescue:
Eating Pumpkins:

*teehee, winter squash are Cucurbites! And many of the winter squash we designate as "pumpkins" are Cucurbita maxima (with some exceptions).

Friday, October 23, 2015

Ode to My Chacos

I've been wearing my Chacos. Not just as the sandals you put on at the end of a day of hiking, when the thought of one more moment in boots sends you into a panic. No, these babies have recorded not just a few miles. The end of my five day trek along the West Highland Waylast month merited a musing, at least.

Ode to My Chacos
It was seven years ago, summer 2008,
(Little did I know, it must have been fate).
I was given a gift, some money to spend,
On more practical footwear, whose soles did not bend.
I settled on Chacos, Tevas gone out of style,
And I'd wear them on sunny days, every once in a while.
Then over time, they came out more and more, 
From walking to hiking to cycling galore.

Pair one, alas, left me prematurely,
Though made it through Europe, before not strapping securely.
The second lived to a grand old age,
Six years could be considered quite sage.
Treking through Costa Rica, Ghana, the Pyrenees too.
Also Sicily and Croatia - a well-traveled shoe.
The third, the current, is just finding its place,
Walking the Highlands, across wide open space.

So the next time someone tells you it will not do,
That you need water-proofed and close-toed, it just ain't true.
A cross-border club of strap-tanned feet,
Without which life just would not be complete.
You may think it crazy, even a bit hardcore,
But I've found Chacos my choice when I want to explore.

This little poem could never do justice to the sandals that protect my feet each day for the majority of the year. But hey, I tried. We will return to regularly scheduled programming next week (ie food and environment). 

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Vocal Consumers and SIlent Producers

It's amazing how quickly Blog Action Day rolls around every year; it increasingly catches me off-guard (which is also why this post is a bit tardy)! Perhaps fortuitously, it also happens to fall on the same day as World Food Day, allowing me to write for multiple purposes. This year's theme for the former is "Raise Your Voice", and for the latter it is "Social Protection and Agriculture: Breaking a Cycle of Rural Poverty". While social support programmes include things like supplemental nutrition programmes and accessible loans, other types of safeguards or systems also serve to protect marginal or underserved populations and can be critical in overcoming poverty. Fair trade certification has been touted as a means of boosting incomes for rural producer populations, and is supported by a rather passionate and vocal consumer base. However, as I've written about before, this fair label does not necessarily yield the anticipated benefits on the ground. This potential disconnect between the two themes of the day - the level of vocality on one hand and the actual "breaking a cycle of rural poverty" - makes for a relevant topic on this day.

Consumer activism is often approached as the primary, and sometimes only, way of individuals influencing the ethics and sustainability of large-scale and distant supply chains. People ran with the Green Peace campaign against McDonald's "rainforest beef" nearly a decade ago, and catalyzed action on the fast food giant's sourcing policies. Around that same time, millions of people followed Michael Pollan's advice to "vote with your fork" three times a day. As for Fair Trade, the 2000 activist campaign prompted a massive incorporation of certified coffee into Starbucks' retail outlets. So obviously people demanding that their products meet some social and environmental standards does have some impact on the practices of these corporations. But I wonder how much this reflects the reality and, perhaps, what producers even want.

Last year, I did a bit of research on the impact of Fair Trade certification in the coffee value chain, and it was interesting to find the few studies that had actually looked at impacts found a wide range of outcomes. The most tangible finding was that the ideal expectations of consumers, the values displayed proudly on campaign materials and in marketing, did not often match to the realities of coffee farmes. Largely focused on a fair and equitable distribution of funds, Fair Trade fails most soundly in this area, with little of the added end-cost reaching producers.

But it's rather complicated, and probably necessary to find a balance between outspoken consumers and letting things arise from the producer end. As usual, I've answered no questions and added a few. I especially wonder what happens to those not involved in Fair Trade. Are those that would most benefit from social protections excluded from participation due to the other factors necessary to ensure the certification functions?

Interested in reading about an additional Paradox of Fair Trade? Check out the Stanford Social Innovation Review article...

Read Previous B.A.D. Posts
BAD 2011: At What Cost?
BAD 2010: Water

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Tea Time and Trains

Those of you who read this blog know I have a thing for trains. When confronted with the option of flying, busing, driving, or traveling via rail, I most often choose the latter. I don't mind long train trips, either. In fact, I began writing this post from one leg of a trip from London to Amsterdam (five odd hours) before my computer battery died, but you may also recall the post I wrote on a cross-country trip from Washington, DC to Seattle. Trains are hailed as a less carbon-intensive way to get from point A to point B, compared to flying, and enable reasonable mobility for those of us who cringe at the thought of sitting behind a steering wheel. On the other hand, trains are not cheap and thus maintain a bit of an elitist reputation. And as I discovered during a recent literary indulgence, the history of railways is shrouded in a fine mist of colonialism, corruption, and changing landscapes. Among other things, the creation and spread of railways across the world facilitated the transport of agricultural products, changed diets, and hurried us along a path of a globalized food system that is conspicuous today.

This brings me to tea, which is quite an oddity. Stereotypically (and yet truly) central to the daily lives of Brits, this brewed beverage of steeped, smoked leaves hails only from tropical climes, and serves as a constant reminder of a colonial past. Like the trade of spices, which drove tensions and tiffs between European powers as they clamoured to control the supply and sale of these goods from the Far East, the tea industry prompted considerable investment and infrastructural development, still evident in today's largest producing countries. According to this book I alluded to earlier, in many territories of the empire, rail lines were built during the mid and late 19th century for the primary purpose of transporting commodities (often agricultural or mineral) to ports for shipment overseas. The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway is an example of this, built originally to move rice and to enable a viable trade in tea, it is now relegated to the realm of touristic attraction. Similar phenomena occurred in East Africa, particularly Kenya, in the early 20th century.

On the one hand, these railroads spurred economic growth, broadened access to transit, and facilitated an entrenched tea culture. Yet it is also interesting the consider that the mode of 'green' transportation was one of the initial enablers of large-scale landscape change and habitat loss. While it's hard to get a sense of the extent of change historically, there is documentation of contemporary forest incursion from tea plantation expansion in countries like Uganda, India, and Kenya. Well, it's something to mull over with a nice cup of tea!

Sunday, September 20, 2015

A Taste for Travel

Many travelers, especially self-proclaimed 'foodies', visit new places to try on a different culture, a different cuisine. While I support and often even embrace that mentality, anyone with dietary restrictions understands how difficult that can be at times. The is particularly the case in countries where diets centre around meat or dairy. So at some point, any traveler following a restrictive diet voluntarily must ask his/her self what are the reasons for eating this way and could there be negative social implications by doing so. Because food is such a central part of our existence as humans, refusing a meal can offend a host, or you might diminish the experience of a place by avoiding a traditional regional dish. Perhaps now you might begin to grasp why, when presented a menu of vegan versions of 'typical' cuisine, I find it difficult to contain my joy and enthusiasm.

This past week I spent in Berlin, the capital of a country known for its love of sausage. While I'm not a huge fan of meat substitutes, I was feeling the deprivation when confronted with some cheesy spätzle (an egg noodle). Luckily, after late nights reporting on a tropical agriculture conference, I was able to tuck in on the last night. We went to an apparently more posh vegan restaurant, Viasko, where spätzle and flammkuchen, a flatbread usually with meats and cheeses, were on the menu. Though I doubt its complete authenticity, the food was tasty (if the service excruciatingly slow), and I felt like I walked away with at least a little taste of Germany.
But now I'm in Scotland, the land of sheep and haggis. Perhaps if I were in Edinburgh, but I am hiking the West Highland Way through and away from the big metropolises. That said, I've been pleasantly surprised by the options: stirfry at the first hostel, authentic Indian curry at this bunk house, but no veggie Scottish fare. I guess I must be satisfied with Scottish oatcakes and jam...
Amendment! My last night on the trail I supped at the Bothy Bar next where I stayed. Veggie haggis burger with chips and pickles on the menu, score!