Sunday, February 22, 2015

What is Natural?
Lush, verdant forests. Majestic and imposing snow-capped mountains. Those valleys and creekbeds that seem as though they are worlds away from human civilization. These are the images that usually come to mind when I think of nature. But the funny thing is that few places (if any) on Earth have escaped direct human influence (and not one is safe from anthropogenic climate change). And yet we try to preserve the things that evoke these images of untouched wilderness. A few days ago, I sat in on a presentation (followed by a quite stimulating discussion) on cultural landscapes and the practice of nature conservation in the United Kingdom. The conservation paradigm here contrasts drastically with that of the US, where small scattered reserves amongst towns and farms are the default in the former, and large swaths of seemingly untouched terrain dominate the latter.
Protected areas (Tier 1 = highest protection) in England.
Before we go any further down this road, however, I did not set out to write a blog post comparing the UK and US national park system. Rather, I wanted to mull over the significance of our conceptions of nature on our cultivated landscapes. Close to the entirety of Great Britain was in fact cleared of forests during Roman occupation around 3,000 years ago. Crop cultivation and livestock grazing has dominated the island's landscape ever since. Despite the increase in forest cover in the past century, the UK holds the office of second least forested country in the European Union. According to a report on the UK, 70% of land is used for agricultural purposes (including farm woodland). Furthermore, while nearly 30% of the terrestrial land surface is now protected in some way, many of these are small and dispersed throughout the countryside to include towns and villages. If you look at the EU generally (though, the UK is quite distinct...), the majority of protected areas are under 100 hectares in size.
Protected areas in the contiguous US
Now take the United States, with its vast swaths of untapped potential out west at the dawn of the 19th century. Some protected areas (at 27% of the terrestrial surface), particularly the ones in the Northeast, resemble those in the UK, but many are comprised of large tracts of connected land. The really big ones are out West, stemming from a frontier mentality, reminiscent of the sense of adventure and wanderlust stirred by such stories as the Lewis and Clark expedition. From my perspective (and I don't profess to be an expert, mind you), one of the biggest differences between the approaches to protected areas and national parks in the two countries, is their degrees of 'otherness'. Sure, it's going to be quite a haul to get out to Lake District National Park in NW UK, but it's accessible by train and there are plenty of towns skirting the area. Did I mention that there are ponies in a national park in the southwest of England? Going to a National Park in the US often requires moving one's self from habitation and civilization to something out there, apart from people, an escape.

Getting a wee bit too philosophical? The inhabitants of the British Isles have had millenia of interaction with their environment, to modify it, to cultivate it, to recultivate it, to 'tame' and then mimic what was considered nature. Naturalists abound here - birdwatchers control the small reserves and woodlands that pepper the countryside. Pastoral characteristics of the countryside are accepted as natural, as being part of a common resource to ramble. It seems to me that the definitions of nature and agriculture have gotten intertwined, not from either a more enlightened or perverse perspective of natural, but rather out of necessity due to land scarcity and a long history of land cultivation and pasture.* Despite knowing that North American human habitation dates back at least 14,000 years, large animal extinctions were attributed primarily to humans at that time, and considerable associated landscape change has occurred, we still hold this conception of nature as distant and separate from us.

So getting back to my initial interest in this topic, I wonder how the relative proximities to what is considered nature influences our relationship to what the land produces. Though the proportion of large farm holdings is pretty comparable (around 20% of farms are over 250 acres/100hectares) in both the US and UK, size may not always be the best indicator of character, nor of how people connect their food to the environment. In the US, are we doing ourselves any favours by sequestering so-called nature in large reserves, removing people from a daily (or at least somewhat more frequent) interaction with a non-concrete environment? But in the UK, is there a misconstrual of the concept of 'nature', a conflation of a heavily managed pastoral landscape (which produces our food and other services) with something 'natural'? It's a hard nut to crack - determining where the manmade ends and the nature begins. But even more difficult is deciding if it even matters.

Decidedly more muddled than when I began, I humbly welcome any comments, thoughts, and ideas.

* Since my UK wanderings are still limited, I should note that I don't know the extent of ruralness in the country. However, considering I do live within an hour of London, and it is only a hop, skip, and a jump (or a ten minute run) to "countryside", the lines seem pretty blurred between nature and human inhabited landscapes.

Monday, February 16, 2015

The Classist DIY

How is Chocolate made?Now this post is not meant to be critical or accusatory, simply observations and cogitation about their significance and implications. But have you ever notice the metaphorical chasm between categories of Do-It-Yourself projects? On the one hand, you have this ethos of self-sufficiency, of thrift. On the other, homemade has recently come into vogue, it has expanded its 'hippy' originas, become posh, trendy.

In the former circumstance is a time-worn tale. Take my housemate who mixed together a simple concoction of coconut oil and castille soap rather than fork over a heftier sum for 'natural' shampoo. Things like having a garden (DIY ingredients), canning surplus tomatoes (DIY Bertolli), and cooking dinner at home 'from scratch' (DIY restaurant), most of the times cut costs and are healthfully enjoyable. Plus, who hasn't learned some basic plumbing and carpentry to cut costs? (Ok, I haven't but that's not the point).

But Do-it-Yourself has also reached new heights. I write this after reading a New York Times article on making your own chocolate. Because of the involved process from bean to bar, making your own is not only more time-consuming than popping by a chocolatier (or supermarket), but also more expensive and potentially not as tasty. Even the subject of the article notes, "There is no rational reason for doing this”! Counter to the very practical roots of DIY, this is a seemingly superfluous activity.

Yet, we also should look beyond the purely utilitarian and economic arguments for and against certain "classes" of DIY projects. For one, the act itself of engaging in craft and hands-on past-times is enjoyable and rewarding. Sure, my mother spends much more on the yarn necessary to knit a sweater than she would a completed clothing item. However, there is something about the click of needles, the thought and artistry, and the pride at a finished product. Moreover, carrying out a process from start to finish is one way of better appreciating what is so often taken for granted. So no judgement, no normative proclamations about the merits of different types of doing-it-yourself. Regardless of motivation, it's good to see people in how and with what things are made. I still don't think making my own chocolate is in the future, though.

To avoid appearing to curmudgeonly in the wake of Valentine's Day, I thought you might want a DIY brownie cake to lighten things up...

1 1/2 cups cooked garbanzo beans
1/2 cup natural peanut butter
1/4 cup oil or melted coconut oil
1/2-1/3 cup almond or other non-dairy milk
1/2 cup unrefined sugar
1/4 cup sugar or 15 drops liquid stevia 
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp salt
1/2 cup flour (can use gluten-free or wholewheat)
50g dark chocolate, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup chopped walnuts or hazelnuts (optional)

1. Food-process all ingredients except flour and chopped chocolate bar (and nuts, if including) until smooth.
2. Fold in flour and chocolate, adding the extra milk if need to keep a moderately thick batter.
3. Pour into a small, greased baking round or pyrex dish. 
4. Bake at 360F/180C for 30-45 minutes, until it is firm to press. A knife will come out sticky, so this test doesn't work. You can serve warm (with coconut ice cream...yum...), but it won't adhere together as nicely as when cooled.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

A Wanderlustful Farmer?

A Wanderlustful Farmer...

Does such a person exist? There is definitely a cut of farmer that strikes me as a lover of travel and adventure, of innovation, of greener pastures. Most of the farmers I have had the pleasure to interact with have been warm and welcoming, a characteristic that suits a wayward traveler in a distant land. And just as farming is about taking calculated risks, weighing the costs and benefits of trying something new and exciting, so too is the art of travel.

The only catch is that a farm is not so easy to leave. Last month I volunteered at the Oxford Real Farming Conference, which not only attracted activists and civil servants but, as the name would suggest, a considerable crowd of actual farmers from all over the UK and beyond (over 600 total attendees). The fact that there were so many farmers was partially a product of timing. January is one of the few points in the year when it is possible to escape - there is little if anything to harvest; it is too early to plant and too cold to dig; and too dark to be much motivated for all of that anyhow. Parsnips, beetroot, carrots, potatoes, cabbages, pumpkins - the list goes on - have already been unearthed and stored (it's called a 'root cellar' for a reason). Markets even shut down for a time during that wintery holiday stretch.

Sure, animals - the cows, chickens, sheep, pigs, rabbits, what have you - add another layer of complexity (Farmer E shared his herd, so they always had a cow-sitter...), and there are always projects to take on even in the dead of winter. Unlike many other careers, I suppose farming is not just that, but also a lifestyle decision. Perhaps that is one of the reasons that the average age of principle farm operators* is 57 years of age in the USA (2007) and 59 in the UK (2010), as urban centres and their social, cultural, and economic promises draw in more young adults.** An interesting phenomenon is taking place in parallel that suggests a disatisfaction with this life trajectory. A growing number of individuals in their 20's and 30's are venturing into the field seeking greater connection to the land and their food, and an alternative to the 9-5 desk job. 

So I really had no earth-shattering conclusion or ulterior motive in writing on this. A comment in passing, an observation of farmers I know, and a reflection on personal priorities and values motivated the musing. But, that said, it is an interesting issue to contemplate. The Millennial generation has gained notoreity for making decisions based on all sorts of values and objectives outside of the cookie-cutter pathway of its parent generations. Might this be the seed of a movement back to farming for more young people? And how can multiple and often competing desires and goals (ehem, a desire to travel and a love of growing food...) be reconciled? If anyone has an answer, I'm all ears!

Read More:
An article run on Grist back in 2010 seemed to be on the same wave-length, discussing the difficulty - nay, impossibility - of leaving.

I promise more recipes in the near future...

*It's important to note that statistics account for principle operators, but that doesn't mean young people aren't still on farms!
**This is actually happening around the world!

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Wasting the World

You have heard the figures: 30-50% of all food globally is wasted or lost, in retail and grocery chains, at home, or between field and market. Food waste has become a pet issue for companies, for local environmental groups, for food security and development organizations. It's no surprise that among those arguments to cut food waste - the ethics of hunger; the waste of water; the price of lost goods - climate change has surfaced. 

National Geographic recently ran an article entitled: How Reducing Food Waste Could Ease Climate Change. It posits that the emissions embedded in the production, harvesting, transportation, and packaging of all that wasted food is on the order of 3.3 billion metric tons, or the third largest emitting country. And the crazy thing is, out of all of our options for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, for mitigating human-induced climate change, it's one of the low-hanging fruit. The article suggest things like consumer awareness, better industry practices, and effective storage technology for transporation. 

What it doesn't seem to consider is the inevitability of some food still being wasted, and that wasted food goes to the landfill, contributing not only to a literal pile of garbage but also methane emissions. Well, the Seattle has come up with a solution to that problem. As an add-on to their municipal compost programme starting January 1st, the city will now place a red tag (and a small fine) on those bins with wayward items: orange peels in the rubbish and plastics in the compost. 

But this move comes with a couple of questions. First off, such a programme will require considerable enforcement effort. That may be an understatement, considering that Seattle's population exceeds 600,000 (and we all know how good people are at sorting the rubbish). Second - and perhaps of most importance philosophically - is whether this is the direction needed to encourage more sustainable behaviour. Must we resort to regulation and punishment, or are there other means to naturalize such simple changes as sending organic matter back to the land? I don't know, but these are considerations as we try to pick this low-hanging fruit.

Monday, January 5, 2015

It's All About that Soil

It's all about that soil, 'bout that soil, no dirt. But seriously, soil is the foundation of our planet's natural and human dominated ecosystems. During one of the first lectures in my undergraduate soils class, the professor emphatically stated that 'soil' and 'dirt' are too often, and incorrectly, used interchangeably. Dirt is the lifeless collection of silt, sand, and clay particles - a soil taken out of context - often with negative connotation bestowed upon it. Soil, on the other hand, is what results from the interaction of climate, topography, biology, and geology, continually evolving over time. So as much as the Banana Slug String Band would like you to believe, dirt did not make your lunch.
However, soil does make our lunches. The composition (whether it's particularly heavy in clay or high in organic matter) dictates how much water stays in the ground and is available to plants and animals. Microbes, such as nitrogen-fixing bacteria, make essential nutrients available to plants. Other small soil critters - ranging from microscopic organisms to earth worms - break down dead plants and animals to recycle their component parts. What is in the ground directly reflects what will end up in plants and thus our food. Soil is everything. In the words of the International Institute for Environment and Development director in a recent interview, "if you get soil management wrong, you get hunger, you get famine, you get rising food prices..."
Click for nifty infographic
My activities last week included a long overdue farm visit. Settling in for the winter ahead, only some stalks of brussels sprouts and rows of hardy greens gave any signal about the bounty over the summer. The ground had frozen over, so the remnants of parsnips and leeks presented a challenge to unearth. But, I also saw fields currently under "soil-building" phases, covered in vetch and rye that will be plowed under before planting the next round of vegetables in March or April. These covercrops, or "green manures", add nitrogen and carbon to the soil while protecting it from erosion during heavy winter rains and winds. 

On the way back to town, we got to talking about the past year and the importance of having good soil in order to have a successful year of crops. For the smallscale organic farmer there may be nothing so important as the soil. When conditions - sunshine, rain, temperature - are optimal, there really is no competing with conventional agriculture and its pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. But in years that don't meet these narrow standards, healthy soil may be the key to moderating things like insufficient or excess rains or disease outbreaks. This is not to say that there aren't versions of synthetic chemicals used in organic agriculture. Yet where robust soils are a main objective, the farming system may experience higher resilience over time.

Two years ago I welcomed in the new year with a post on compost and soils. This year it seems even more appropriate as we embark on the International Year of Soils. The United Nations has this tendency to attach certain themes to days, weeks, years, and even decades in order to heighten awareness. For example, we just concluded the International Years of Family Farming and of Solidarity with the Palestinian Peoples, and just entered the United Nations Decade of Sustainable Energy for All. While soil scientists (and potentially agronomists) may have an unabounding enthusiasm for the earth beneath our feet, the rest of the world does not fully appreciate its importance. As soils around the world become increasingly degraded and depleted, it is probably about time that the topic made its way into more mainstream discussions. Here's to a fertile year ahead!

Read/Hear/Watch More:
No Ordinary Matter - Montpellier Panel (report)
Soil Food Web - Lexicon of Sustainability (infographic)
Let's Talk About Soil - Global Soil Week (animated video) 
Soil: The Foundation of Agriculture - Nature (online article)