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)

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

One Hodge-Podge of a Year

Well boys and girls, it's that time again. The count-down has begun; the hours are ticking away. 2015 is only just around the corner. Looking back at last year's recap of 2013 just reinforced how every minute, every hour we spend living our lives, is integral to the people we are and will become. Not to sound too trite on the eve of a new year, but if not now, when? This time last year I was just beginning to question whether it was the right decision to come out here and rejoin the ranks of indebted young people in higher education. While I can't say those doubts have disappeared, I've come to terms with the uncertainty embedded in any decision. And it's not the choices themselves that dictate our futures; but rather we dictate our choices that illuminate paths we might be able to travel down. Could this current path be easier? Sure. I don't believe I have ever worked so hard, and in so many ways, before in my life. Yet that is part of the journey. To be fair, I would not not trade any of my hodgepodge of experiences this past year. So enough introspection, let's reminisce!

This year started out pretty wet, with record floods in the UK. Unfortunately, drought was concurrently wreaking havoc in California, a dry spell that continues to this day, leading to concerns that this may be a new normal rather than a severe extreme weather event. I seemed to have a thing for equality in 2014, and not just for inequitable water distribution. The 5th assessment report of the IPCC came out and we started talking about the differential impacts of climate change across the globe. 2014 marked the third year of living below the line for a week in May, this time on the UK equivalent of the poverty line at £1 a day (which, believe me, in Oxford is no small feat). Blog Action Day in October followed a theme of 'Inequality' and spurred a post on how women in Ghana are combating inequality in farming. And apparently Thanksgiving is now a time to think about wealth distribution and income gaps.

While no farm will ever replace Country Pleasures in my heart, I did settle into a routine working most Saturdays at a local farmers market. That meant blog posts waxing on about the 'dirt under my finger nails' and finally a day out on the farm playing with lambs and remembering why I love hanging out with farmers. My infatuation with winter squash came across strongly this year, and hasn't waned in the slightest (should I start a support group?). There was talk of seed saving and pumpkin pie. We were selling this funny-looking Black Futsu at market one week. And this Halloween surfaced some discussion about pumpkins and food waste (during the most exciting of Pumpkin Festival weeks!). I may also be harbouring a couple of buttercup squashes in my room.

On the (more) personal side of things, I did a bit of extracurricular wanderings to Malta (where I saw really old buildings), a Canary Island (where we saw old landscapes), the Pyrennees (where we saw our own dwindling food supplies), and Croatia (where I saw my baby sister after 2.5 years apart). Spring came, along with examinations (I passed!). I got older (28, yikes...) and My Munchable Musings did too (celebrated its 5th)! Not to mention, this was my 15th meat-free year (well worth a read).

But as I wrote last year, for all my good intentions I just can't seem to keep a consistent routine on the blog since coming back to school. This current academic stint comes to a close in September 2015, so look out for next year's recap to hear about adventures to come!

Past Recaps:

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.