Saturday, November 26, 2016

Where Art and Ag Collide
Giuseppe Recco's Still Life With Fruit
There is something magical about walking around an open-air market, glimpsing the varieties of fruits and vegetables, ones you'd never see - maybe never even imagine - gracing the supermarket shelves. It's like entering a gallery, a visual experience wherever you turn. 

I have never been much of a modern art person, usually drawn to the large landscape paintings that captured feelings of awe and humility (e.g. Romantic era paintings of nature), or sense of exploration and adventure (e.g. Hudson River School). This realism attempted to interpret humans' complex relationship with the 'natural world'. Yet this overlooks one of the most central interactions with the environment; it is not often the context in which we discuss another flavour of realism, the still-life paintings of flora and fauna particularly popular during the 16th and 17th centuries.
Four Seasons in One Head
There was an article in National Geographic, a couple of years ago now, which tries to piece together the evolutionary history of our modern-day watermelon. Cultivated crops are products of generations selecting fruits, vegetables, seeds, and grains that exhibit traits of better taste, more edible material, and ease of growing. Crops are in essence a most direct product of people's relationship to nature. Amazingly, some of this evolution is captured in art over the centuries, documenting how cultivars have ebbed and flowed with the passage of time. While the food still-life genre seems to bore some people to tears (sorry sis), it is a beautiful snapshot in time for the botanically-inclined. 

Perhaps a more explicit nod to humanity's direct confrontation with nature in the form of horticultural or extractive pursuits were Giuseppe Arcimboldo's series of seasons and elements (I'm a particular fan of autumn...). This vein of work seems to present a marriage between science and art, trying to meld botanical accuracy and metaphor within an image. At times I wonder how much effort was spent on studying rare or geographically-distant varieties of plants, how much the use of one particular cultivar was a carefully meditated decision, and how much we could learn from these paintings about the agricultural systems and trade flows of those eras. Perhaps it is not too late to change PhD topics, after all (...just kidding, I'm very content where I am!...)
Album Vilmorin. The Vegetable Garden (1850-1895)

Anywho, I had in mind no specific agenda for this post, no earth-shattering message; just a musing inspired by one of the various prints adorning my walls. So I'll end with acknowledging the artistry in marketing seeds themselves. Many a visitor returns from France with an A3 sheet adorned with a random assemblage of heritage varieties of fruits and vegetables. Little do most of us realise that we can thank the Vilmorin-Andrieux & Cie seed company (dating back to the 18th century) for this unintentional form of wall decoration. If you search 'vintage seed packet', a further array of masterfully depicted heritage plant varieties will emerge, testament to the beauty of agro-biodiversity and the skill of botanical artists. Not the obras we frequently find in halls of a museum, but a more subtle and everyday aesthetic.

So maybe, just maybe, you and I will look at still-life paintings (and seed packets!) with a more discerning and inquisitive pair of eyes. Art museum fieldtrip, anyone?

Monday, October 31, 2016

A Bitter-Sweet Reflection on Reefs was only a few days ago, the panicked cry that made brief headlines in the news. On the eastern coast of Australia, in the portion of the Great Barrier Reef north of Port Douglas, researchers have proclaimed that most corals are dead. It's the worst bleaching event recorded in the Barrier Reef. The decimation can be ascribed to a number of complaints - rising sea temperatures, strong El Nino conditions, crown of thorns attacks - yet there has been a longer history of impacts from degradation on the land and direct exploitation of the reef itself.

For the far north, temperature may be the biggest threat to corals. Moving further south in the Great Barrier Reef Catchment, there are other forces at work that derive closer to home. The sugarcane industry in Queensland dates back to 1861, fueled by south sea indentured (and forced) labour, not unlike its turbulent counterparts in Latin America and the Caribbean. But the troubled history of human rights infractions in most of the Western world is a topic for another time and place. Sugarcane, along with pasture and banana, replaced over half of the primary tropical forest in Northern Queensland. Even today, the management of grazing land and cane results in pollution that makes its way into coastal waters. those of you who are familiar with the challenges in the Gulf of Mexico, realize this is a similar (albeit, tropical in flavour) phenomenon. A large amount of cash crop (corn in the US, sugarcane in Queensland) is grown, using an associated amount of fertiliser and other chemicals. When there is a heavier rainfall, particularly during those summer storm months, soil is washed away along with the nitrogen, phosphorous, and pesticides, and eventually makes it to the Gulf or the Reef. This influx of nutrients stimulate the growth a algae (and the voracious crown of thorns starfish in the GBR), which ultimately use up oxygen when they die and decompose. The silt and other particulates block sunlight from penetrating the water column, making it difficult for marine plant life to survive. Basically, these conditions can become drastic enough that the coastal areas are uninhabitable for fish and other wildlife.

Now, the obituary to the Great Barrier Reef that has coral scientists up in arms may be a bit melodramatic, and could very well be counterproductive to actually doing something to increase the reef's resilience. Yet research shows that existing policies and management plans have so far proved inadequate to addressing the scale and severity of the problem. As an avid baker, it is quite concerning that by buying the Australian-grown cane sugar available in the grocery store, I inadvertently contribute to the reef's degradation. It's hard to find a meaningful indicator of sustainability when always worrying about greenwashing with labels, particularly when they involve partnerships between WWF and Coca Cola. But we do what we can, and try to stay informed as possible (particularly when feeding a bunch of conservationists...). For now, the Bonsucro certification (applicable to several sugar brands in Oz) does lay out thorough ecological and social standards that sugar production must meet - touching on labour, climate change, biodiversity, and downstream impacts. Maybe coral-inspired cookies will be my next [bitter]sweet baking adventure... 

Monday, October 17, 2016

Seven Years: A Blogiversary Post and Squash

On October 15th 2009,  I wrote the first substantive post on this blog (although technically My Munchable made its debut on the 11th). Under that third Blog Action Day's (BAD) theme of climate change, the logical subject was growing food, having recently returned from working on a small organic farm. Since then, we have cycled through a variety of topics from water resources to human rights and equality. However, this year there is no official theme; the organizers have suggested writing on "whatever you are most passionate about". Oh, no problem, there are only like a million things I feel passionate about (ok, exaggeration...). But then two things happened: World Food Day announced its theme of climate change adaptation and this article ran in the New York Times. We've come full circle.

The article introduces Sarah Frey, a midwestern farmer who just happens to be the largest supplier of pumpkins in the U.S. But what made news is her effort to shift public perception of pumpkins from ornamental to edible, to bring variety back to winter squash. Every now and then I muse about starting a pumpkin farm. While mostly in jest (unless you know of any eligible young farmers...), this draw to growing things stems not only from the physical connectedness to the land, but also an appreciation for the beauty and necessity of diversity among what we grow. I wanted to spend the rest of this post talking about just that - the vast potential of we can grow. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, over 250,000 types of plants have been document to grown in agricultural systems, yet a mere 3% are actually in use today. To further restrict that, three quarters of our food comes from just 12 crops, and rice, wheat, and maize comprise the bulk of that.

Now say instead this represented the collective expanse of wild plants and animals on the planet, and you were an ecologist or a conservation scientist. This would be tragic; people would be outraged that so much biodiversity had been allowed to ebb away. On one hand, this means the loss of considerable genetic diversity, reducing the chance of traits and mutations that might better suit a shift in climate or ecology. On the other hand, a focus of breeding efforts and training on just a handful of crops has probably contributed to the erosion of local diets. In some cases this has improved nutrition and reduced the prevalence of undernourishment related ailments (e.g. vitamin A deficiency and blindness), but in many instances this is leading to homogenization of diets. Our ubiquitous staples also seem to have very particular requirements in terms of optimal growing conditions - water, nutrients, etc. - that make them not-so-very adaptable to inter-annual variation and change over time.a

Wayward cabbage among squashes at Borough Market
So if we're talking about agriculture and climate change, a lot of the arguments around maintaining biodiversity go back to resilience theory - building redundancy into agriculture as an insurance mechanism. But back to the pumpkins. These thick-skinned orbs are not exactly at the heart of food security; yet it's hard to imagine the beauty of diversity more evident than in this collection of colourful cucurbites. While relegated to three species, the hundreds of varietals of Cucurbita maxima, moschata, and pepo span all sorts of shapes, sizes and shades. In the grocery store you may see only the typical butternut, acorn, and occasional spaghetti (unless you're in Oz, and Kents and Blues seem particularly prevalent), as with so many food crops the industry has downsized and streamlined. But pumpkins may also be at risk due to climate change. Perhaps we shouldn't let diversity slide too far; a little nudge from consumer demand may go a long way.

Finally, with Halloween only a couple of weeks off, it's also important to make sure your pumpkin doesn't contribute to climate change! Make sure to compost the remains...or better yet, cook it up before it goes off.

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

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Fasting for the Anthropocene

Around this time every year, millions of Jewish people shun food, from sundown to sundown. We don't eat or drink for those 24 hours in order to bring attention away from our physical beings and focus instead on repenting for the year's transgressions and seeking forgiveness from those we've wronged. Religious or not, I think we can all agree that a time for introspection and self-reflection is important. But while we fast from food on this day, there are other fasts we could undertake that are arguably more impactful, larger scale, and longer-lived. 2009, some scientists got together and said, you know, Earth probably has some limits in terms of safe operating space for humans (...we are a bit anthropoocentric). These 'Planetary Boundaries' consisted of biological and physical aspects of the Earth, such as freshwater, biological diversity, and  atmospheric composition, which underpin its ability to support most life. Within the past couple of years, scientists have broadly agreed that several of these boundaries have been surpassed. We can largely thank widespread agriculture for two of the big ones - loss of genetic diversity and changes in nitrogen and phosphorous cycling -  however, we have a much less complete understanding of things like invasive species and ocean acidification.

Right, so what does that have to do with Yom Kippur? Well, let's just say we have created a problem that could benefit from a bit of fasting. One of the major drivers of reaching and exceeding the planetary limits is the human population's level of consumption. We like 'stuff' and go through heaps of it: Americans trash 11 million tons of clothing annually (and buy 5 times as much as in 1980); Aussies exchange or upgrade their mobiles every 18 months; Brits put 3 billion disposable cups in the rubbish every year. Such consumption patterns can affect land and water systems both directly - through extraction of resources like timber, metals, and oil, to feed demand for this 'stuff' - and indirectly - by throwing away the used and unwanted (...even when there is no away) and polluting with this waste. They also have embedded impacts related to production, ranging from water and energy use to human rights infractions and labour conditions.

IMG_2800 Now is maybe a good time to note that the need to reduce humanity's level of consumption is not a new idea. Meadows & co addressed this issue back in their 1972 Limits to Growth, though the sheer quantity and ephemerality of consumables today would probably have been difficult to fathom back then. So recognizing the problem is not the tricky part - perhaps a 'fast' is a bit extreme, but humanity definitely needs to go on a bit of a diet. Yet coming up with feasible, effective, and equitable solutions is by no means easy, and is rife with challenges of feasibility and ethicality.  

One school of thought finds fault in the very nature of our growth driven economy, arguing the impossibility of a 'Green Growth' model that sees only an upward trajectory, contingent on consumption as a primary measure of success. Ultimately, we may just we have to choose: we either keep buying in to the system in order to grow our economy or live more simply to ensure our future existence. Sounds bleak. While this may seem austere, the principles are very practical and social. Proponents of the degrowth model support reaching for 'sufficiency' not simply 'efficiency'. This means repurposing existing infrastructure, buying second-hand, growing a "sharing economy", cultivating edible yards, and re-considering what makes us happy (I'm also partial to the tiny house phenomenon...). Nothing short of a revolution, that will ultimately involve changing the way our communities are designed and the laws and regulations in place. But many of these principles are already in practice at a small scale, and as individuals we can continue to take baby steps, and make more mindful choices as consumers. 

For those observing, have a safe, meaningful, and perhaps thought-provoking fast. For all of us, year-round, let's collectively move toward fasting from the unnecessary, the disposable, and the wasteful.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

A Sweet New Year
Shanah tovah u'metuka - these words express wishes for a good and sweet new year. We actuate these sentiments by dipping apples in honey, eating rich raisin-dotted bread, and reflecting on a year gone past. While the round loaf of challah bread represents the continuity and cyclical nature of a year, the honey is a reference to a 'land flowing with milk and honey' - Israel. Many other Jewish holidays also embrace sweetness, prescribing more ritual consumption of honey, dairy, and fruits.

We often, however, overlook the fact that the honey alluded to in biblical texts is not the bee-derived syrup so commonly used today, but rather a sweet liquid made from the fruit of a date palm. The date palm is suggested as the oldest cultivated tree, potentially originating in presentday Iraq, and feeding the populace of the Middle East for upwards of 8,000 years. But an equally extended history with humans exists for honey produced by bees, as well. Pre-dating the advent of agriculture by a hair (it is a forageable food), honey was probably first stolen from the hives of wild bees a bit more than 10,000 years ago. Apiarists may have started cultivating colonies in ancient Egypt, or perhaps back even further as documented in cave paintings. It was fit for gods, used as currency, and replete with medicinal properties. 

This is a sticky topic for a vegan. Yet while the staunch abstainers point to the poor oppressed worker bees, the fruits of whose labour are then cruelly seized, I'd argue that conscientious honey consumption is a more environmentally responsible. Local and in moderation, a recipe for healthier pollinator populations and more resilient ecosystems. While not quite at the level of concern as the recently declared endangered bee species in Hawai'i, bees do face huge pressures from habitat loss, pollution, pesticides, and more, while also playing pivotal ecological roles. We can do far more by supporting local cultivators who try to build a better environment for people and apids, than by boycotting the industrial segment. Let's leave it at that!

And because a Jewish holiday blog post is incomplete without a sweet recipe, here's one for the road...

Rosh Hashanah Honey Cake
2/3 cup sunflower oil
1 cup hot black coffee
1/2 cup non-dairy milk (or orange juice)
1 1/2 cup raw cane sugar
1 tbs treacle or molasses
1/2 cup honey (if you swing that way), agave, or golden syrup
10 large dates, soaked for 3-4 hours or overnight in ~1/4 cup water, pureed (or double and replace honey entirely)

3 1/2 cups plain or light wholemeal flour
2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp sea salt
3 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp allspice

2 tsp apple cider vinegar (if no orange juice)
1/2 green apple, chopped (optional)
1/2 cup walnuts, chopped (optional)

1. Mix oil, coffee, milk, and sugary substances together.
2. Sift in the dry ingredients and then combine just until everything is incorporated. Fold in sliced apple or walnuts, if desired.
3. Transfer to a large cake round or two loaf pans. Bake for 35-45 minutes at 180°C, until a knife comes out clean. Don't overbake! Allow to cool completely.

Inspiration: The Jewish Fruitcake - NPR The Salt