Sunday, April 24, 2016

Challenges of the Food Kind

So you may not know, but I recently moved (again). Not down the street to a new house; not even back to the US because my student visa expired. No, I decided it made sense to pick up and fly south, to the country where everything can supposedly kill you and I knew next to no one: Australia. You might imagine that a couple of things may have slipped my mind in the process. Well, both have made their way back onto my radar, and will now be on yours. 

The first, Friday at sunset the Jewish holiday of Passover began, marking the eight ensuing days of no grains and leavened products. It is an interesting holiday in that it actually touches on many salient issues in our contemporary world (e.g. slavery and freedom, injustice and inequality, agriculture and nature), and yet grasps firmly a set of archaic and at times illogical rules and restrictions. That said, an article I read this morning got me thinking about why we continue to follow these seemingly pointless traditions. The author noted, "I worry about making Passover too easy". And that's it; when something is easy, you don't need to think about it, take time to contemplate 'why am I doing this?', dwell on its relevance.

But this is not just a case for Passover (or the fasting holiday of Yom Kippur, either), but rather relates to many of the challenges that present themselves in our lives. So to me it is interesting that the annual Live Below the Line challenge* seems to coincide approximately with the completion of the holiday (and on occasion even overlaps). I almost missed the boat on having two food-related challenges over the course of two weeks, but luckily caught the oversight in time to begin living on AU$2 per day from May 2-6. Having taken part the last four years ($1.50 in the US and £1 in the UK), I can genuinely say it is a challenge, particularly considering I've always been in places with high costs of living (Washington, DC and Oxford are not known for their bargains...). But the challenge of it had made me think a bit more, empathize a bit more, pester all of you a bit more (donate!!). Tackling year five of the challenge in another new place has now made me research a bit more.
This brings me to the final topic of today's blog post: 'purchasing power parity'. Now, I am definitely no economist, so bear with me, but the concept of significance to understanding cost of living and affordability. It basically adjusts the price of good or bundle of goods to a common currency to compare against a baseline - for example, how many Big Macs could you buy in country X for US$1? The result is an idea of how expensive a place is to live (according to the Big Mac Index, we should consider moving to Venezuela for the greatest bang for our buck). And while it might explain why I now find the price of food in Australia to be a bit daunting (the dollar goes lessfar than in both the UK and the US), it also provides a rationale for those struggling in their home countries to migrate for work. My friend in Hong Kong pointed out the large number of Filipino and Indonesian women who come to the country for domestic work - not forever, just to send money home for a while. Price of goods is far greater in Hong Kong than either of the other two countries, but so are wages, much of which are sent back home where they can be stretched further.

Phew. Weighty stuff for a Monday morning (or Sunday evening). All of this is to emphasize the power of a little challenge to make us dwell a bit more on issues like hunger, poverty, and inequality. Stay tuned for more from my week Living Below, and don't forget to support the effort!

Further Reading:

*for some reason, it is not happening this year in the US or UK, so I have registered in Australia. This means that neither the Hunger Project nor the Rainforest Foundation, to which I have given in the past, will be on the receiving. But please do consider supporting the Oaktree Foundation working towards improving education!

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Eating for the Planet

“By eating meat we share the responsibility of climate change, the destruction of our forests, and the poisoning of our air and water. The simple act of becoming a vegetarian will make a difference in the health of our planet.”
Thich Nhat Hanh, The World We Have: A Buddhist Approach to Peace and Ecology from eating animal products has long been the domain of animal rights activists, hippies, and tree-huggers (at least in Western cultures). In academic circles, ethicists and philosophers have mused for decades about the moral implications of consuming meat, but not so much the scientists. Yet, these days it seems like studies connecting diet, health, and climate change are all the rage, building up an evidence base of why a meat-free diet is a key strategy for the planet and us. 
A few University of Oxford researchers published a paper this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (for those who don't know, is a well-regarded and widely-read publication), which shows on a global scale that the less meat consumed, the greater the greenhouse gas emissions reductions and the more health benefits. It was a win-win-win scenario: food-related emissions would decrease by more than 60%, fewer people would die 'prematurely', and the world would save up to $31 trillion otherwise lost to healthcare, environmental restoration, and missed work hours ... we just (all 7.4 billion of us) have to shift to an entirely vegetarian diet. No biggie.

A Nature Communications piece (a more main-stream 'pop-science' journal), which came out about a month ago, suggested that only plant-based diets are compatible with wide-spread re-forestation. This is both due to the sheer quantity of meat people consume (read: alot) and what we feed livestock (largely soy and maize). So vast swaths of forests are destroyed to grow grain to feed to animals. Let's just say it's not very efficient. 
Finally, this month a group of researchers at the World Resources Institute (awesome think tank based in DC) pubished the 11th in a series of the "Creating a Sustainable Food Future" brief series. They provide some nifty graphics comparing the environmental impacts of different protein sources, and then go on to model some scenarios of different diets (both for the world and the US). The takeaway? Animal protein uses a lot of resources, and the average American eats more than his fair share. If you're curious about how feasible they thinking shifting the American diet away from meat is, there are even more colourful pie charts that detail how.'re probably thinking, 'Ok ok, enough already, get off your vegan high-horse'. But, let me just say that I'm under no illusions that the world is going to give up meat tomorrow. Nor do I honestly believe everyone should (and if you want to know my thoughts, peruse this earlier post and this one). In fact, after traveling around Southeast Asia for a month, I feel even less convinced that people would willingly give up meat, fish, dairy, and eggs. It was actually a bit surprising, as I thought predominantly Buddhist countries would at least limit consumption (apparently that's not how it works...). Fish sauce was nearly impossible to avoid anywhere but explicitly vegetarian restaurants, and other animal proteins dominated the main courses.

At the same time, the proportion of meat to grain was usually pretty small. People are still living on very little, and meat is expensive. Following periods of food scarcity in the not-so-distant past, effort went into planting hectares of rice fields rather than prepare pasture. Sure, water buffalo graze on hillsides, and pigs and chickens roam rural villages, but it's not on the same scale as most industrialized nations (and increasingly China...yup, that's also a favourite of academics). So while I agree that diets around the world have been moving in an unsustainable and unhealthy direction for quite a while, it is important to remember in these broad global studies that the more local contexts matter a lot. The WRI report does mention poverty implications, and there are definitely people out there looking at regionally-specific 'sustainable diets'. But it is still a good thing to keep in mind when reading these broad-brush studies.

Well that's all for now. Happy Earth Day! With the theme of Trees for the Earth, it seems only right to focus on a driver of deforestation, no?

"My own view is that being a vegetarian or vegan is not an end in itself, but a means towards reducing both human and animal suffering and leaving a habitable planet to future generations."
Peter Singer
Some lovely plant-based pulses!
Most people in the region still eat a predominantly rice-based diet

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Mined Fields - Agriculture and Conflict

Since entering Vietnam, two topics - the war and food - have scarcely left my thoughts (granted, it's only been a few days). Hanoi's National History Museum depicted both the rebuilding of the nation's agricultural production under Ho Chi Minh after fighting French colonials as well as the atrocities of the war against the US. On the train the following day, I watched entranced as rice field upon rice field (interspersed with some other crop fields) flew by the window. And then the War Remnants Museum in Saigon displayes powerful images of the impacts of the war on rural life. For an industry so vital to a nation's well being, it is all the more tragic to consider its relation to war and conflict.

Agricultural destruction and warfare have been part and parcel even if we go back thousands of years (probably to the advent of agriculture itself). Biblical and historical texts describe 'salting the earth' to hamper enemies in feeding their populations. While this has been shown to be more symbolic, as it would be infeasible to actually salt fields to infertility, it demonstrates the tactical element of undermining agriculture in conquest and war.

Now here in Southeast Asia, we have a story of wartime misdemeanors - covert dropping of cluster bombs And usage of illegal chemicals - continuing to hinder the region's ability to grow food and develop economically. Bombs sent to Vietnam and Laos both decimated fields, leaving vast craters, and failed to explode, inflicting casualties to this very day. During the Vietnam war, the US dropped 2.4 million tonnes of bombs on Laos in an effort to cut off the north-south route to supply Vietnamese resistance. Tens of millions of those explosives never detonated and less than 1% have since been destroyed or removed. Nearly half of Laos is contaminated, resulting 300 injured or killed annually from a misplaced hoe or inopportune plow. While In the Lao hill villages I visited residents reforged empty bomb shells into tools and used large missile casings for fishing boats, the toll on human life and the hindrance to farming is a steep price.

Agent Orange, a dioxin containing defoliant, was also used during the war to reduce the vegetative cover hiding north Vietnamese soldiers. Besides direct exposure of civilians and soldiers alike, the carcinogenic and genotoxic chemical continues to contaminate soil and water (and this vegetables and fish) contributing to disease and birth defects among the rural population.
Graves strewn throughout rice fields

I think about this today while traveling through a region still recovering from a war over forty years finished. But the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and escalating conflict in Syria will undoubtedly have similarly long lasting consequences for innocent civilians caught in a fight they never asked to be a part of. Tanks, bombs, artillery, and other debris pollute and destroy fertile land. Especially in the arid Middle East, where water is a limiting factor (and likely to become more so with climate change), damage to irrigation infrastructure is a major problem for agricultural production.  Moreover, the debt and poverty inflicted by these wars cripple a country's capacity to rebuild and rehabilitate land. I remember hearing a speech at the Equator Prize ceremony this past year, in which an Afghani woman spoke passionately about her community's effort to restore their productive landscape in the face of conflict (link to come soon). But this is the exception and unfortunately not the rule.

Many of us see the stories and footage of civilian casualties, the photos of drowned child refugees or infrastructure crumbling after an attack. Yet, I at least have rarely thought of the 'after' bit; the resounding effects decades to come, which people will face if and when they return and try to resurrect their livelihoods.    

Further Reading:

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The Price to Eat

The gurus of healthy and sustainable diets hath taught us to cook from fresh, whole ingredients. In keeping with these wise teachings, I have tried to demonstrate how following such guidelines can also be economical. But there are cases when even living simply and cooking from scratch seem to break the bank. While staying with my sister in her Brooklyn flat, it quickly became clear that I was no longer in Kansas (or even Oxford). Grocery shopping can incite some serious sticker shock in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Few of my usual go-tos - dried lentils and grains, fresh seasonal veg - were in a price range I'd feel comfortable with on an everyday basis.

This is worth exploring a little, because it's not as simple as "food costs a lot". First of all, New York City is legitimately a more expensive place to live than the average US city. Cost of living generally is almost 70% higher than the national average and as much as 200% in the centre of the city. Food specifically is between 28-39% higher depending again on where in NYC. 

But what we're interested in is relativity (no, not Einstein's theory). Of course, cost of living is context specific and relative to earnings, which is why London salaries are often weighted higher, for example. Americans spend a lower percentage of their incomes on food than any other country in the world. And interestingly, New Yorkers spent only 11.6% of their budgets in 2013-14 versus a US average of 12.8%. Sure, housing is through the roof, but buying food is surprisingly not significantly higher - relatively speaking - than the rest of the country. It's a difference between discussing absolute costs and purchasing power. For example, going to stay in Thailand with Oxford prices as my baseline would seem like quite a bargain, but people living in the country onThai  salaries would find the prices normal and Oxford's unattainable.

So what ends up being the reasonable daily bread for an outside in the Big Apple? The sis said often eating out would only be marginally more expensive (if at all) than buying groceries. Even that assessment takes for granted access to cooking facilities (which not all housing comes equipped with), the ability to afford gas and/or electric, and the time to spend preparing meals - costs that never seem to be included in food expenditures. 

That said, where there's a will there's a way. A short stop at Trader Joe's set me up for a week of tasty soup (or freeze half for later). It's also possible to make this delectable dish in the microwave, for those without time or hob facilities.

Hearty Squashed Greens Soup
1 butternut squash ($1.29)
1 onion ($0.79)
8oz spinach (full 16oz bag $1.99)
5oz red lentils (full 16oz bag $1.69)
2-4 cups water (depending on how thick you want it)

Salt and pepper to taste
Garlic (a few shakes or 2 cloves minced)
Olive oil (a splash to sautée onions, or a bit of water if you're out)
1 tbs smoked paprika

Hob Instructions
1. Heat oil or a little water in a large pot, sautée onions until translucent.
2. Add water and bring to boil. Throw in lentils, squash, and garlic, cooking covered until lentils are soft and squash fork tender.
3. Add spinach and spice, covering just until spinach wilts. Turn off heat and purée with an immersion blender.

Microwave Instructions
1. Soak lentils overnight.
2. Microwave with water on high for 8 minutes. Add onions, garlic, and squash, microwaving another 4 minutes. Heat a final 2 minutes with spinach.
3. Mix in salt, pepper, and paprika (and garlic if using powdered). Puree the whole thing with an immersion blender or use a potato masher/fork to get it creamy. 

Monday, February 15, 2016

Making Tracks - Visions Cross-Country

For the second time in the course of twelve months, I find myself seated on a hulking mass of metal, setting a leisurely pace (of not more than 70 mph) across these here great United States of America. Without a thesis to write, and with no WiFi connection to do my online coursework, I have taken to gazing out the window as fields glide by, a landscape coated in a healthy layer of powdered sugar.

My infatuation with trains is no secret, and I've proven time and again that I'll opt for rail over other modes whenever possible. But the US rail system is a different beast entirely from its more sophisticated European cousins, and less well-travelled than the equivalents in Asia. With the American love affair with the automobile (thanks to the Interstate highway system and ridiculously low petrol prices) and predisposition toward air travel for any longer hauls, you might imagine that the experience of riding Amtrak contrasts with that of Eurail.
1. Pace - where US trains continue their sleepy stroll across vast stretches of country (yes, I just saw a car race past with ease), European trains have embraced the high speed efficiency of new technologies. One of the few reasons passenger even still exists in this country is thanks to the economy of shipping goods via freight. But that means passenger trains may be sidelined for extensive periods of time in deference to freight. Furthermore, the vehicles themselves seemed to have adopted the American reputation for super-sizing - looming two stories high and dwarfing the sleek speed demons that race fromLondon to Paris or across Japan. Yet no one can deny a transcontinental trip is a leisurely affair, enhanced by the reams of farmland loping past. Deer may appear foraging in a window pane, while wild turkeys scurry across.

2. Attitudes - distinctly American, there is a constant buzz of conversation during daytime travel, not always in the appropriate moderately hushed tones. Laughter may break on occasion like a wave against the shore, notes of rap music videos may filter through the car to the disgruntlement of some of the more particular passengers. Particularly in my experience as a UK rail rider, the atmosphere is much more subdued and austere; conversation above a whisper eliciting passive aggressive glares from neighbors sporting suits. Perhaps it's the more ubiquitous use among the well-to-do, or the US railcar history of communal seating and open cars. For those of us sleeping in coach, there is a pervasive sentiment that we're on this journey together.

3. Formality - I don't know how else to describe this aspect. While European train travel is very business-like, almost a machine operating in an automated fashion, the US retains some old-fashioned elements that set it apart from their more industrious relatives. For one, there are dinner seatings in the evenings. But there are also, airport-like queuing systems and checked baggage (thank god for that). Attendants roam each car, ensuring smooth operations, and some of the more scenic routes have volunteer docents describing tidbits of history and geography in the observation car. It's the experience being sold (much like Selfridges...), practicalities always trailing in second, and efficient people moving from point A to point B a convenient side effect. 

So there we are. The largest national rail system, a driver of progress and innovation during the 19th century rail revolution, now chugging along trying to prove its relevance in modern American society. Even with its shortcomings, it is a mode of transport that, perhaps unintentionally, works wonders in slowing our pace down and allowing us to revel in a distinctly alternative mode of mobility. It may not be for everyone, but an experience worth its while.

Further Rail Reading
Last May's Cross-Country Adventure:

The Economist's take:

Humorous Plug for Train Travel: