Friday, May 22, 2015

Can Biodiversity and Development Ever Get Along?

It’s the 14th celebration of the International Day of Biological Diversity, with the theme of sustainable development. I feel like these ‘days’ often focus on the developing world, the hotspots of biodiversity in the tropics, how we can ensure that ‘nature’ remains intact as incomes grows and standards of living improve. But the past week has caused me to think much more about biodiversity and America’s not-so-sustainable development.
Wheat fields of central Montana
As you know from my last post, I spent the better part of Saturday through Tuesday on cross-country trains. For miles on Monday afternoon we passed immense monoculture of wheat. The park service docents who hopped onboard at the border of Montana pointed out the occasional pronghorn or fox that dotted the landscape (though I was hard-pressed to see where they might make their permanent residence). Yet this vast swath of grain at one point was prairie grassland, an often underappreciated and misunderstood biome. It was home to bighorn sheep, wolves, grizzly bears, and elk up until the early 20th century. According to The Nature Conservancy, over the last 25 years 25 million acres of grassland has been lost and conversion to cropland stands as its greatest threat. As one docent informed, even up until the drought (AKA Dust Bowl) in the 1920/30’s, homesteaders maintained a relatively diverse holding of different wheat varieties, hay and fodder fields (for their draft animals, of course), and home gardens. After water scarcity downsized the pool of farmers, the State’s wheat market consolidated to a ‘family-owned’ corporate system that now dominates most agricultural production in the US.
Early 20th c. logging around Lake Sammamish
So there’s your agricultural example of unsustainable and anti-biodiversity development. But the harder hitting case for me rests much closer to home, and involves Washington ecosystems, including its forests, which house a sizable array of plants and animals. Just a little background – I grew up in a suburban plateau outside Seattle, on the cusp of rural Puget Sound and surrounded by floodplain farmland. The road running from Redmond to Issaquah (through the not yet founded city of Sammamish) looked like a page out of national park brochure when we first moved to the area 27 years ago (though the irony is the area was heavily logged in the late 19th century…). It has changed at a frightening pace in my lifetime; however that didn’t make the vision of rapid development from my bus window yesterday any less heart-rending. What were hillsides of evergreen ecosystems not more than five or ten years ago, have been reduced to an assortment of townhouses, big box franchises, and roads. This mode and rapidity of development embodies a lifestyle reliant on fossil fuels and focused on consumption, while insensitive to the long-standing culture and character of the area.
So while I applaud the United Nations’ attempts to tie together awareness on biodiversity and sustainable development, I mourn a lost opportunity to look more broadly at the challenges inherent in development. We need to really think long and hard about the tradeoffs between our current consumption patterns (particularly in the ‘developed’ world) and diversity - whether that's in ecosystems, flora and fauna and crop varieties, or even the types of transnational enterprises that seem to coincide with the process of development. 
Photo credits: (top) me! (bottom) Sammamish Heritage Society.

Monday, May 18, 2015

On a Train

Greetings from somewhere between Williston, ND and Wolf Point, MT. I've been en route from DC to Seattle since Saturday afternoon. It's an interesting place to be - on a train for days, glued to a literal window to the outside world. It's also not the most efficient way to travel across the US, in terms of time, pulling over and waiting for freight trains or 'our sister train' heading east to pass. And unlike the Western Europeans, we are working with rail technology that restricts speed to less than 80 mph (let the Amtrak crash last Tuesday be a warning to speeding with the current system). And yet our government may have just voted to slash the infrastructure budget, leaving the likelihood of an updated faster and safer railway more for the imagination. At this point, I suppose it is best to embrace our old school ways here, our four hour delays, and just enjoy the luxury of time. No place to be, no place to go.
In all this not going anywhere, it's been interesting to observe the change in landscape, and even to contemplate what it must have been like when the first transcontinental railroad made its voyage (more buffalos, I'd assume). We've made our way through forests and woods, across the great Mississippi River valley, and to the plains of the central states. We slept to vibrant purple and red skies, and woke to a white dusting on the ground and flurries in the air. Newly disked fields and acres of pasture now seem to stretch as far as the eye can see. It's a big country, to say the least. But it is quite a wonder to watch it pass by. Looking forward to Glacier National Park, though it may be too dark to see much, and then home sweet home on the morrow. 

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Hold the Sugar, Please

It didn't occur to me, when I purposefully bought bananas and flour, that I would be missing a key ingredient. While most items on my usual shopping list are conspicuously absent, I thought that a sweet baked treat would be a nice mid-way pick-me-up during the Live Below the Line week. So you can imagine last night, when I went to throw together some banana bread ingredients, how shocked I was to find that sugar had not made the £1 a day cut. Oh, woe is me!

Now let's be frank. For most of human's evolutionary history, there has never - let me repeat - never before been such easy access to simple, refined sucrose. With the availability of edibles anything but reliable, our ancestors capitalized on those rare periods when high sugar fruits and simple carbohydrates were in abundance. That's not to say sugar is only a recent phenomenon. People in the tropics have been munching on domesticated cane for 10,000 years, but primarily for medicinal purposes until around the 7th century (and then only for elites on special occasions). Nowadays, when sweet, salty, fat abounds, with minimal effort on the part of the eater - perhaps just a click of a button - our hardwired insticts are backfiring. The plight of our sugar-laden society is en vogue right now, and our media is buzzing about how much sugar is too much and whether we need a big, fat label to tell us we've gone too far. Our habitat has changed, but we're still catching up.

But obesity and diabetes are not the only sinister sides of this baking must-have. The history of sugar is rife with social injustice and environmental degradation. Enter 15th century Europe and a storm is abrewing. Perhaps the 'Age of Exploration' would be better  named the 'Age of Finding New Places to Grow Tasty Things', as Northerners had developed a sweet tooth with their conquests into the Middle East. The obvious solution to the sugar deficit was to travel across the ocean blue, to the New World, enslave the local populations in the Carribean and South America, and clearcut the rainforest for plantation. Jamaica is the textbook, and earliest, example of exploitation in pursuit of sugar. After the Spanish wiped out the Taino people with their guns, germs, and steel, the British shipped in tens of thousands of African slaves to work the fields, mills, and refineries. While the modern sugar industry may have tamed a bit (though is now pesticide-ridden, to boot), there are still cases of infractions against humanity.

So perhaps it's not a bad thing that sugar missed the shopping cart. You can go for fair trade sugar, or alternate less-refined sweeteners (like local honey or pureed dates). I still attempted the banana bread sans added sugar, with what I thought were pretty darn good (if not terribly sweet) results:

1/2 cup sourdough starter
1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1 large or 2 medium ripe bananas ( up: Banana Republic)
1/2 cup pureed butternut squash
1/2 cup water (I used the leftover liquid boiling squash)
pinch of salt

Night before: mash banana, combine with squash, and then stir in starter and flour. Maybe add a bit more flour as you start to work the ingredients together with your hands. It's not a full-fledged knead, and it will be sticky, but try to incorporate everything nice and evenly. Form some semblance of a dough ball and place in an oiled (a luxury I could not afford) baking dish or pan. Cover with a towel or wrap and place in fridge.

Morning of: remove from refrigerator at least 1 hour before you plan to bake. Preheat oven to 200°C and then bake for 35-45 minutes. I then left it in the oven while it cooled, but you can do so on the counter, as well. It will still be relatively moist.

You can still donate to my Live Below the Line fundraising!

 Image credit: Jenny Mealing, near Mossman, Daintree, Australia

Monday, April 27, 2015

What's My Age Again?
That number can be very seductive - a set of digits on the side of a bottle or the bottom of a bag that determines whether a food is destined for the dinner table or the rubbish bin. Not always conveying the same message, sometimes this number refers to 'best before' or 'use by', or it might be a 'sell by' date for the store's use. While these labels are intended to  safeguard people's health and avoid food-borne illnesses, they have also contributed to considerable waste of perfectly edible food.

Sure, you have heard the statistics, that 30-50% of all food in the world go to waste. In 'developed countries', the waste occurs most often toward the end of the supply chain, with the retailer and consumer responsible rather than the farmer and processer. Among the many reasons why people might toss out food, confusing or misleading labels definitely rank up there. Oftentimes this date is an indicator for grocery stores to pull an item from the shelves, and not the item to be eat. And even if it were, there are many comestibles still perfectly safe (though perhaps slightly less tasty) to eat after any and all of the dates printed. Most of the time, it is pretty simple to tell if something has gone 'off'. And yet people have stopped trusting their own good sense and powerful senses, trusting in a printed date when a smell, a glimpse, a feel can tell so much more.

So why, you might be wondering on this first day of the 2015 Live Below the Line Challenge, am I discussing food waste and sell-by dates when the topic should be poverty and hunger? The link may seem tenusous, but there are perhaps more connectios than at first come to mind. On moving to the UK, I was surprised by a shelf full of fruit, vegetables, meat, and dairy that had reached their sell-by dates, priced at a reduced rate. What struck me even more was how, towards closing time when items are being first culled, a crowd composed of people often seen scattered throughout the city soliciting change from passersby gathers to jump on the bargains. Something I hadn't seen before in US grocery stores (though apparently 'salvage' stores exist), this practice seems a practical solution to cutting back on waste of perfectly good food while also providing a means for more needy consumers to buy sustenance.

The second connection is perhaps even more direct. I remember during my short stint at Whole Foods, I was not only appalled by how much we had to pull from the shelves, but also surprised that the store partnered with a local foodbank or soup kitchen to donate still usable goods. In fact, there are charities and non-profit organizations across the US that bridge the gap between supermarket food waste and food bank queues. Food Donation Connection and Food Lifeline are just two examples of organizations facilitating the movement of food to those in need. And while retail food waste is dwarfed by what is thrown away at home, there is greater opportunity to help support those who are food insecure.

Finally, I just wanted to give an update on the week ahead. Though I didn't manage to nab anything from the discount shelves, it was still possible to find some deals. In the previous post you saw how my previous years stack up to Gwyneth's Food Stamp Challenge menu. I shook things up a bit this time around and decided to buy flour and hope for creative inspiration in the baking department!
1000 g  brown bread flour - £0.63
500 g yellow split peas - £0.53
500 g pearled barley - £0.55
200 g peanuts - £0.48
6 bananas - £0.68
225 g carrots - £0.14
1 butternut squash - £0.79
400 g tomatoes, canned - £0.34
1 onion - £0.15
1 pointed cabbage - £0.49
60 g Salt, cinnamon, and curry powder (scaled price) - £0.17
250g Sourdough starter - priceless (no but really, very difficult to price, fed with my flour)
Total: £4.85

Read More:
What a Waste - April 2014, My Munchable Musings

 WRAP UK Food Waste Estimates 2015

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Starting a Conversation on Hunger

The 'food stamp challenge' has been getting a lot of press recently. That's what happens when a celebrity signs up for such a trial, and even moreso when there is something for people to critique. While the word on the street is that Gwyneth Paltrow tried and failed, the commentaries surfacing are likely to make more impact than finishing off the week of frugal living ever could. Attempting to mimic the constraints placed on the 46 million Americans enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programme (SNAP), the Food Stamp Challenge allows for approximately $4 per day per person to purchase food from grocery stores and farmers markets. The actual amount any household would receive in actuality varies by income, location, and household size, and may or may not constitute the sum total of cash available for subsistence.
Gwyneth Paltrow's week on $29
But let's get back to Gwyneth. The first major critique was that no person on food stamps, in his or her right mind, would make such purchases in order to maximize the dollars in hand (my favourite quote: "Really, when you're eating on a budget, who prioritizes limes?"). Greens may be full of vitamins and minerals, but calories they are not. But let's say these verdant victuals are on the grocery list, the question of where to obtain them still remains. The low income that qualifies someone for SNAP often coincides with residence in less attractive lieus, perhaps 'food deserts' where processed and package foods at convenience shops dominate. Farmers markets and gardens are two ways communities and organizations are trying to combat this issue of access in food deserts, such as in East Palo Alto.

People on food support programmes also may struggle with how to allocate their other funds - to food, shelter, clothing, etc. - as SNAP is meant to support families with their food needs, not feed them in entirety. This is a tradeoff that someone following the challenge wouldn't confront, but leads people to be ill-equipped to provide healthful and adequate nourishment on a budget.

Another article raised similar issues about the suite of other difficulties faced by those living at a level in which food stamps are necessary. This is a risk any of these simplified fundraising efforts run, and people will assume that the problem is thus as simple, that the hardship of poor access to adequate or healthy food is the long and the short rather than one among many symptoms of a larger issue. In developing countries, poor infrastructure, insufficient sanitation and healthcare, and limited educational opportunities are more likely causes of the leading causes of death (e.g. HIV/AID, diarrheal ailments, etc.). Particularly since today is Earth Day, it's important to recognize that more deaths and much reduction in quality of life are in fact caused by pollution and environmental degradation. At the heart of all of these issues seems to be poverty and marginalization - an inaccessibility of resources, neglect by government programmes, and an absence of voice and power to actually catalyze change. Climate change, which is this year's Earth Day theme, is an added layer that merely exacerbates these social and environmental inequities.

However, the component parts of hunger are often glossed over for catchy phrases and simple campaigns. If Gwyneth Paltrow blogging about the Food Stamp Challenge or Hugh Jackman discussing Living Below the Line on video gets the discussion moving, then so be it! I did write about the limitations of the Live Below the Line Challenge the first year I decided to try it, so check that out. And if you want to compare what Gwyneth did on $4 per day to my $1.50/£1, here are my past three years of Living Below the Line:
Live Below the Line - 2012

Live Below the Line - 2013

Live Below the Line - 2014