Friday, December 19, 2014

Confessions of a Fair Trade Skeptic: Some Holiday Cheer

PB; Mocha; Atzec Chocolate; Spiced Pumpkin; Straweberry
Every year around this festive winter period I throw some tasty things together, enrobe it in chocolate, and call it a truffle. It has become sort of a tradition for me, with my sister's 21st birthday being the inaugural affair. This year was particularly exciting because the Cooperative (it's a member-owned grocery chain like the name implies...for those of you not in the UK) started making their Fair Trade dark chocolate without dairy! So, I loaded up on the ethical confection, ready to melt, mix, and mold into a suite of bonbons.

Wait, hold your horses! You might be thinking - What about that post she wrote on 'How Fair is Fair Trade?' And what about that disparaging piece on Fair Trade and Chocolate? Well, that's exactly the point. Unfortunately, in most cases we don't have evidence that ethical certifications, including Fair Trade, deliver on their mission statements. In some cases, we actually know they may be counter-productive or have untinended impacts on people excluded from participating. Furthermore, it is difficult if not impossible, to demonstrate any sort of causality, to tease apart what is the on-the-ground outcome of a certification versus government policy versus a development project.**

Sitting on the consumer end of the supply chain, we have even less information at our fingertips, and must essentially trust in a company with advertised good intentions. I might even go so far as to suggest we have insignificantly, if any, more information about a labeled product's realities than any other product off a grocery shelf. Yet, when I see that little blue and green ying-yang (especially if the price is not markedly more than uncertified...), it's as though the choice has already been made. Of course I will buy the product boasting a shiny label, the beacon of social responsibility.

Why, when after over 3 decades there is still so much uncertainty about impact, do I put my precious pennies into something I don't entirely trust? In part, I think it is a resigned reaction of the "it's better than nothing" variety. We have so little information about the backstory of anything purchased in a grocery store, that it is easy to latch onto something even marginally more tangible, such as an ethical label. On the other hand, the number of different certifications and associated labels has ballooned in the past decade, and can be rather overwhelming and difficult to wade through. For most people, diving into what's behind the sticker is an additional, more difficult, time-instensive, and therefore undesirable step. Berkeley's Journalism School held a contest a few years back for a rethink, a redesign of food labels. A similar concept could apply to the ethical labeling genre.

But this brings us back to issue at hand. While the US is worse than its European counterparts, overall sound regulation on what is required by food labels (and others) is sorely lacking. However, even with stronger requirements, there is still a lack of impact assessment mentioned earlier. Networks like ISEAL Alliance and the Ethical Trade Initiative are trying to drive better accountability within supply chains. As consumers, we actually have a lot of power. Ask questions in stores; write letters or emails to companies; find certifiers on social media and join their discussions!

Further Reading:

** If you want references, I've got 'em! I'm writing a paper at the moment on impact assessment and consumer perceptions around Fair Trade, which I will hopefully be able to share in the first quarter of 2015.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Fifteen Years and 'It's Complicated'

The questions come up a lot. It is a main topic of conversation after meeting someone for the first time. 'How long have you been a vegetarian?' in a tone of mild interest. This is generally followed shortly thereafter by some variant of 'why'.

I don't mind the questions. In fact, they make me constantly revisit and reflect on my dietary decisions. Thanksgiving - the holiday for which 45 million turkeys are destined to sate one country's appetite - achieves the same end. My earliest vegetarian memory dates back fifteen years to my middle-school self celebrating the first meat-free Thanksgiving - a day I now mark as 'the beginning'. Yet it dawned on me last week, as I gathered with friends over a meatless meal, that in the intervening years the rationale for abstaining from meat and subsequently other animal products has become increasingly nuanced and complex. It makes the explanations in conversation trickier, while also making everyday choices more difficult.

So why am I a vegetarian (or rather, vegan at this point), and what makes it so complicated? If you care about climate change, then you should care about what you eat. Generally speaking, eating no animal products has a lower carbon footprint. Livestock release 15% of the global greenhouse gas emissions, with beef and dairy cows contributing the most (hence vegan, and not just vegetarian). There is strong evidence that reducing meat consumption, especially in developed countries and the big emerging economies, will be necessary in order to have any meaningful impact on our warming planet. If you think about it, it makes sense. In an herbivorous diet, you are simply eating the product of photosynthesis - the conversion of photons (sunlight) into sugars - whereas animal products require intermediaries (the animals...) to convert plant material to calories with associated lost energy along the way.

But, like I said, it's complicated. There are all types of vegans and vegetarians, and if your plant-based diet happens to consists primarily of processed soy (read: tofu), oils (like canola, etc.), and hothouse tomatoes in the winter, not to mention lots of frozen vegetables, you are still running up a pretty hefty carbon bill. This calculator will give you a sense of what's big.

2. Not all places or contexts are the same. It's incredibly important to be respectful of other cultures and ways of living, especially as a stranger in a strange land. When I say that I've followed a vegan diet on-and-off for six years, it is for the very reason that some places my rationale for herbivory just doesn't hold up and insisting upon it could be just downright rude. Particularly in developing countries, in many cases consuming animal products and not just staple grains signifies a special occasion or is a gesture of respect, gratitude, or hospitality. Over the summer, many of the households I visited in Ghana prepared stew for us (usually a groundnut or green), and to refuse would be the pinacle of offensive behaviour. One woman in particular would offer up two perfectly oblong chicken's eggs whenever we came through the community - despite being ill and barely able to provide for her three children.

Sure, it is one thing to dictate my own grocery purchases, and align my diet with a certain notion of what I perceive as sustainable and ethical. But coming from a place of priviledge, having the luxury to choose not to eat certain things, I think it wholly unfair to transpose that value system on others when I am a guest in their home (be it house or country). I'm not saying throw in the towel and go carnivore if you happen to find yourself in a remote corner of South America, but be conscious of local customs and propriety and the potential implications of saying 'no' in certain contexts.If the thought of sometimes just not knowing is terrifying, perhaps sticking to these 'safer' countries is a better bet.

3. Ok, ok, enough with the soapbox. But really, at the end of the day, it's about what you care about, your values, your objectives. Figuring out how to make that worldview of eating align with the complex realities of our modern world and food system is difficult at best. Though I would like to consume foods that are healthy for me and the planet, and that come out positive for both 'the environment' and for people in the supply chain, a black-and-white binary decision is often just not possible. I think we all live with those little (and some perhaps not so...) incongruities in our every day choices and underlying values.

While I don't eat meat, nearly every other week I sell it. One of the farms I work for raises pastured sheep and pigs, which they subsequently bring disassembled to the farmers market. The vast majority of people are not going to turn veg overnight or at all, but those same people can choose to eat meat fewer times per week and buy it from producers that treat animals well and as part of a larger system. Which brings me to the second point here, that domesticated animals and crops co-evolved and the interactions play an important role in closed-loop systems. Sadly, I'm not naive enough to think we will revert to these idyllic (and idealized) systems with chickens running around eating pesty insects and fertilizing vegetable row crops. But it is a direction we should probably veer toward, away from the energy and input intensive, and frankly vulnerable, agricultural production systems that dominate today.

Finally, if ethics are your thing, simply cutting meat from your diet still leaves a wealth of issues to confront. Most recently, there has been quite a stir about demand for quinoa, a favourite veggie 'grain', from western nations and the implications for traditional Bolivian farmers. But think about the child labour scandals, the exploitation and lack of fair wages in many commodity crops systems, the deforestation in the Amazon spurred not just by cattle ranching but also soy and sugarcane, and similar destruction in Indonesia for oil palm plantations. We can each try to live as closely to our principles as possible, but it is vital not to get too caught up in striving for an impossible goal and miss all the joys in food.

So, it is important to note that not all vegans and vegetarians are so for the same reason (though many would consider my "flexivegan" ways as misrepresentation). On this 'vegiversary', if we go back a decade and a half, the reasons would be vastly different (and something along the lines of "I like animals..."). That's the trouble with labels; they restrict us to a 2D plane when we in fact need a 3D, textured landscape.

Read More:
Livestock - Climate Change's Forgotten Sector - Chaltham House
Importance of food-demand management for climate mitigation - Nature Climate Change
The Carbon Footprint of 5 Diets Compared
What's Wrong with What We Eat - Mark Bittman Ted Talk
The Future of Food - National Geographic

Thursday, November 27, 2014

That Slice of Pie all the American readers out there, Happy Thanksgiving. With such a large expatriat community here in Oxford, observations of the aforementioned holiday don't diverge too drastically from previous States-bound celebration, except perhaps in that they are marginally more international in character and cuisine. Thanksgiving is one of my favourite holidays, and most definitely not because of the increasingly insane sales (which actually has relevance for the rest of this post...) or equally ridiculous amounts of food Americans consume and waste (also relevant to the rest of this post) on the day. Rather, I find that the general sentiments underlying Thanksgiving encourage reflection and gratitude instead of the materialism and excess that dominate narratives at present. I am not procrastinating on my school work to gush about harvest festivals or how important family is this time of year. I want to talk about pie. Pumpkin, pecan, apple, chocolate cream - it doesn't matter. The division of said pie is what is important. Last week I attended the launch of a book authored by a suite of Oxford academics - Is the Planet Full? - which got me thinking. After hearing an economist, a demographer, an ecologist, a zoologist (keen on food security), and an ethicist speak, it was clear that the punchline was not a Malthusian vision of resource depletion and societal collapse. Yes, we live on a planet with finite resources and a growing human population. But these variables are overshadowed by the decisions of a minority in excessively consumptive lifestyles, and the problem we face is the entrance of a greater portion of the globe at such levels. Right now the pie is grossly unequally divided, but one of the great fears for a sustainable future is everyone demanding a big slice of pie, and thus having to borrow the pie for next year and maybe the year after to comply with all requests. In this case, unfortunately, we only have one pie available (hoping it's pumpkin...) - this blue planet we call home. already know that the pie is not evenly divided, that so-called "developed" nations use vastly more resources than the lower income countries. One of my earliest memories of thinking about poverty and inequality involved a spinner and a bag of rice. In the Klutz book Earth Search*, you had the option to get born again. Based on the population at the time and the proportion living in developing countries, your odds were pretty strong against ending up in America again. To reinforce the divide, the book provide a bag of rice split into two portions - born into the developing world and you can have the smaller bit that day, an industrialized nation takes it all (plus whatever else you fancy, apparently). This is a very simplistic take on global inequality, as there are a vast gaps in wealth, education, nutrition, etc. within countries of similar income classes. But this concept struck a chord with my ten-year-old self (and perhaps inadvertently shaped my path nearly two decades later).

So, bringing this back to Thanksgiving, and taking this holiday as a space for a little contemplation. While there are indications of progress towards making the world a more equitable and just place, there are still vast inequalities. Thanksgiving itself has embodied some of those by being associated with consumption. I guess it's tricky as an individual, because there is little one can do to shift the structures and governance that underpin and perpetuate this state of affairs. But we can still turn current practice of Thanksgiving on its head - use it as an opportunity to be grateful for the great fortune to be where we are and practice moderation, not excess.

In the end, you may just want to forget about inequality, about environmental and social injustices, and just eat some pie. Maybe it's a nice vegan pumpkin pie, but at the very least, think about the slice you're take and what of the pie is left for the rest!

Past Thanksgivings:
2009 - A Holiday to be Thankful For

*sorry kids, no longer in print! But check out a fun an interesting Economist article on the best places to be born.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Smashing Pumpkins

It's pretty cathartic - taking a sharp-edged shovel and transforming an orange orb into a sloppy mess. Don't fret, as I have not become an All Hallow's Eve vandal. Rather, that's what it takes for a pumpkin to join a compost heap. Ghosts and gobblins are not the only scary thing about Halloween; the food waste statistics are also pretty frightening. Last year, 18,000 tonnes of pumpkin were tossed in the UK post-Halloween. While UK households have actually made good progress in cutting food waste, this is still a hefty loss of often quite usable produce. In my book, any edible winter squash landing in the rubbish is a crime against humanity and the planet.
Let's return to the smashing of pumpkins. With the wisdom of a Master Composter, Oxford's first ever Pumpkin Festival concluded with the preparation of half disintegrated jack-o-lanterns for the's compost heap. The goal of the festival was to raise awareness around food waste and to save pumpkins from ending up in a landfill. In the UK, US, and Europe, we produce around twice as many calories necessary to feed the populations, and yet between one third and half of that never makes it to our forks (maybe to our plates...).
To me it's incredible that in this technologically-advanced day and age, so much low-hanging fruit of systematic efficiency are left unpicked, waiting to fall into a rubbish bin. Partly this is a behavioural issue - Human behaviour, especially related to something perceived as very personal, is notoriously difficult to influence. Yet, small modifications - like reconceptualizing the 'use-by' and 'sell by' dates - could shift how people act. A WRAP report noted that over 1 million tonnes of food is thrown out in households because a product has reached its "Best Before" or "Use By" date, cited by at least 1/3 of the UK study participants as the primary reason behind disposing of a product. Confusion over the actual meaning of these labels, and not using common sense about the state of a yogurt tub or a box of biscuits, seem to be root culprits. Marketing and advertising, improper food storage, and cooking too much also play prominent roles that account for the ghastly amount of waste on the consumer end.
Yet practices by institutional actors contribute a considerable slice to the food waste pie. An aesthetic perception, the ingrained mentality that beautiful is better, results in rejection of fruit and vegetables that don't meet stringent size, shape, and appearance standards by market retailers. According to the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, 30% of produce is never even harvested for this very reason! Gleaning, anyone? If Tesco is any indication of grocery's importance, its announcement last year that almost 30,000 tonnes of food was wasted in just six months (with veg and bakery comprising 2/3) shows the state of play. It's a fine line to walk, but the retailers are starting to address the balance between reducing waste of food and money, and ensuring that there is adequate food and variety for an increasingly demanding consumer.
At the end of the day, a landfill destination for organic material is such a tragedy because it is largely avoidable, and where it's not, it can be returned to the ground from whence it came (in the form of compost...). I think it's important to add the caveat, that if impact on greenhouse gas emissions or energy use is your primary concern, in the food system methods of cooking and storage, as well as production, are probably of more interest. Perhaps that's why it's important to keep a systems perspective, with people working on all pieces of the puzzle.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

No Bees and Not Enough Thyme

What am I doing leading with a 'bees' headline? We just turned back the clock from British Summer Time last weekend, and the crisp chill in the air is a sign of the imminent winter. This talk of bees is six months late, no? No. In fact, this may be the most relevant time to discuss bees, because Autumn is when we feel the impacts of plenty or a paucity of spring-time pollinators. 

It's been rather hit-or-miss this year, depending on which farmers or gardeners I speak to. Some have told me that a windy spring deterred their essential pollinators, resulting in a very light fall fruit crop. Others have attributed a bumper crops to the combination of a rainy August when fruit mature and dry weather during harvest. This surplus is what has made the news. It means prices for farmers will go down, and puts us in the territory of how market demand and consumer preferences influence what farmers decide to grow.

But what about when the bees really don't fly? Two years ago, heavy rainfall in the UK during April and May not only has left some growers with blemished fruit, but many without any at all. According to a BBC article, bees should have pollinated during those spring months, but wet wings do not fly well. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that the unfavourable conditions for pollinators is only going to worsen. Temperature changes, shifts in seasonality, and more extremes, all coupled with other threats from pollution, chemical use, and habitat change, does not leave a rosy future.

If there is one lesson we can glean from all this, it is that farmers are resilient. They are used to weathering variations from year to year, trying to keep a long-term perspective. We have a lot to do in the face of climate change, and not much time ... but we do have some time for apple pie.*

Rose(mary)-Coloured Glasses Apple Pie
1.5 cup strong white flour
1 tsp salt
2-3 tbs sugar
1/4 cup coconut oil
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup iced water
1 tbs apple cider vinegar
1 tbs fresh rosemary**, chopped finely

8 medium apples, chopped
1/4 cup golden sugar 
1 tbs lemon juice
Lots of Cinnamon and a pinch of nutmeg and allspice
(optional) 1 tbs arrowroot powder or tapioca starch

1/2 cup oats
1/2 cup flour
1/3 cup sunflower seeds
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/3-1/2 cup canola oil
2 tsp rosemary, finely chopped

1. For the crust, use a fork to mix flour, salt, sugar, rosemary, and oils until flour is well mixed with the oil. Add the vinegar to the water and then add the water to the dough one tablespoon at a time, just until it comes together without being too sticky. 
2. Roll out dough on a floured surface and then transfer to a pie dish.
3. Fill with the apple mixture (optional thickener) and then top with the crumble.
4. Bake in a 360F/180C oven for 30-45 minutes. Consider covering with foil, so that crust doesn't burn and apples cook more quickly.
5. Serve warm with a nice cup of spiced cider!

*While supplies last...
** theoretically you could use thyme, instead, and which works better with my title and post content.