Thursday, October 16, 2014

BAD Inequality: EnGendering a Resilient Future

Anti Faustina, wearing her teacher hat
I've been reading a lot about women lately - books on development paradigms; papers on gender dimensions in agriculture; twitter chats on women farmers. It is all for my thesis, so I'm delving a bit into the archives and seeing how the discourse has changed over the last 30 or 40 years. Perhaps not so surprisingly, a lot of what is in those papers, books, and the like, seems to stand the test of time (which is not really a good thing...). Themes around education, household labour, rights and resouce surface time after time. When it comes down to it, we're talking about inequality.

Before we get too deep, why am I writing about this? Well, today is an interesting day. For one, it happens to be Blog Action Day (or B.A.D), an effort in its eighth year to unite around a globally important issue - this time 'inequality' - and, well, communicate about it! Coincidentally, it is also the 35th World Food Day, which is focused on the sustainability of family farming. And if you just couldn't get enough, yesterday marked the eighth observance of International Day of Rural Women. Three different topics, but they actually have pretty strong ties.

Now that we've gotten all that out of the way, let's go back to today's blog action topic. The dictionary definition of inequality brings up charged issues like social disparity and injustice, as well as rather neutral things like uneveness and variableness. Gender issues in agriculture and rural development have largely been framed as a social disparity concern - most recently coined the 'gender gap'. The statistics paint a pretty bleak picture of rural women in developing countries (who are primarily family farmers). Across the board, women have a much lower literacy rate and enrolment in schools. It is not common for women to inherit land, and what they do have is smaller in size than their male counterparts. Demands on time is a particularly facinating topic, because much of what a female farmer does is not compensated housework (though, this comparison of men and women in the Zimbabwe's wet season is pretty telling...).

Anti Aso, our spritely veg farmer
Did I mention that I spent the better part of this summer speaking to women farmers in Ghana? Well, I was asking these wonderful ladies about how they've dealt with past environmental shocks, what most influences the "success" of a year, and how future climate change (in not so many words) could impact their lives. The literature depicts much of the same story we've already heard, with the addition of a mild plot twist starring climate change as the villain. However, one of the things I was really struck by was the many ways in which these women are already so resilient in the face of change. Many have started side businesses for multiple income sources. Many acknowledged adjusting the crops, timing, and location in response to variability of weather within a year. And a few after my own heart were passionate about building the health of their soil, limiting the amount of chemicals, and maintaining the long-term health of her family and the land.

In concluding this post for Blog Action Day on inequality, I have to note that this entire post (and several others) was dedicated to discussing women. In doing so, though, I have created another inequality. Men often get side-lined from the gender dialogue, and perhaps that is fair. But I would like to leave you with a thought; 'gender' is about the ways in which both men and women engage in a system, their roles, their challenges. At the end of the day, we are all human, all have a role to play. I wonder how much further we entrench the division between men and women by discussing it as such. That said, we have made gains by certain metrics, and there is great optimism, if we can find the most meaninful ways to join forces - to ensure a just and liveable world, that will continue for generations to come.

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

Friday, October 10, 2014

To Five Years - Happy Blogiversary

Lately, I've been feeling old - edging up to thirty, ushering in a new set of fresh starry-eyed post-graduate students, coping with chronic hip pain, oh and you know, celebrating My Munchable Musing's fifth year of existence. It was resurrected from a previous blog in order to fill an intellectual niche during post-graduation underemployment. As you can imagine, a lot has happened and changed in those intervening five years, and the blog has evolved accordingly. I don't think that 23-year-old me, living with the parents, would have seen myself living across the Atlantic, though perhaps would also not have been surprised about the other international wanderings.

View of a 'castle' on the Ghanaian coast, which
acted as port of departure in the slave trade.

The most recent wandering took me to Ghana for the summer. You may have read the other couple of posts on the topic, but I have not told you about the groundnuts. People in Europe don't do peanut butter ... and they definitely don't harbour this almost irrational desire to eat a peanut butter sandwich when you need a comfort food. But Africa is different. Ok, so maybe they don't consume PB&J in quantity, but the groundnut (AKA peanut) is a common ingredient in soups and stews. Another transplant from the Americas onto the continent, groundnut has become an important source of protein and nutrients across the developing world (where most consumption takes place).

What is more fascinting is the connection between current American consumption of all things peanut and our tumultuous historical connection to West Africa. After introduced to the region by the Portugese, peanuts were used to sustain African slaves on the arduous journey to the Americas. It stuck, and is conspicuous in the culinary tradition that developed among Southern African American communities. Over time (and with the help of George Washington Carver in the early 20th century), the little legume made its way into the mainstream of American cuisine and diet.

But let's bring it back to Great Britain, which is what I actually did. On my last day in Ghana, I was sent packing with two jars of freshly ground peanut butter. Somehow, my precious cargo made it through the intervening two weeks of intense European travels (complete with buses, trains, and a ferry), to arrive safely in Oxford. The joy of real peanut butter (as opposed to what is passed as such here) was insurmountable, but I felt like some fusion with my surroundings was necessary. And thus, the Groundnut Jammer was born. If you are unfamiliar with Jammy Dodgers (as I was until recently), you probably did not grow up in the UK. This sweet snack is composed of raspberry jam sandwiched between two shortbread biscuits. Simple, yes, but a veritable institution, like Oreos in the US (though the latter predates by about 50 years). With a bit of my Ghanaian peanut butter and some British jam, these turned out quite well, and served as an excellent way to celebrate another blogiversary!

Groundnut Jammers (~12 sandwiches)
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1/3 cup smooth peanut butter (use natural for best results)
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups flour
1 tsp salt (only if unsalted peanut butter)
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp vanilla extract (optional)

~1/2 cup raspberry jam (or filling of your choice)

1. Whisk together oil, sugar, and peanut butter (and maybe vanilla) until smooth and uniform.
2. Sift in flour, salt, and baking soda, combining until the dough no longer has dry bits, but is not sticky (may add more flour or a little bit of almond milk to adjust the moisture content).
3. On wax paper or a floured surface, roll the dough to about 1/4 inch thick. Using a cookie cutter or the rim of a glass, cut out circular forms about 3-4 inches in diameter. Using another cutter or the rim of a spice jar, remove 1-inch diameter circles from half of the biscuit forms. Reroll and repeat until all dough is used. 
4. Place cookies on a lined baking sheet and cook for 10 minutes (until edges brown) in a 180C/360F oven. Remove and allow to cool completely on a cooling rack.
5. Match up the circles and donuts. Place 2 tsps of jam on the circular biscuit and then cover with the donut. You're done; enjoy!

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Give it a Rest: A Day of Atonement

Today, Jews across the globe abstain from consuming either food or drink, reflecting on the past year of transgressions. Yom Kippur, literally the 'Day of Atonement', began last night at sunset and will conclude today at the same time. While initiating this period of self-analysis last night, I was quite surprised to hear 'climate change' and 'sustainability' creep into the sermon. Why was environmentalism creeping into this little collective of Oxford Jewry? 

The answer? Shmita.

Now, before you close the tab and write off My Munchable for Shmita is not what it sounds like it potentially means. Just like many religions provide the seventh day of the week as a sabbath, a day of rest, Jewish tradition likes to provide the seventh year as one of 'release' for the land. Historically, in society's agrarian age, this year would one in which farmers leave their lands fallow (and debts are forgiven, and a few other nitty gritty little details). Whatever grew naturally (kinda like One Straw Revolution...) could be harvested freely by the poor, and the rest left for the wild animals. Now, I've written about this connection between holidays and land management before - the ties with long-term sustainability and social safeguards for those marginalized and in poverty.

But think about it for a moment. Religions often either helped to explain nature phenomenon that we could not understand, or put in place rules that ensured resources would not run out. Setting a year aside for fallow lets the soil replenish nutrients and restore structure, so that the land does not become too exhausted and degraded. This isn't relegated to the Jewish faith; many cultures have taboos in place that regulate the amount of water taken at certain times of year, or days when venturing onto the farm or into the forest is forbidden. 

The problem, though, is that modern society does not encourage or appreciate these very practical pauses. In order to get around the whole not being able to farm dilemma, rabbis have created one of the many famous loopholes (see a previous Passover rant): you are a farmer who needs to make a living, so you sell your farm to a non-Jew for the year of shmita. Problem solved. Yet this commoditization just misses the whole point of good land stewardship! And in modern society this is not just an agricultural issue. We consume non-stop - energy, water, computer time, bad tv shows - with no thought that in the long-haul, this just can't last.

In his sermon, the rabbi last night challenged all of us to take a shmita year. Not from farming, as I would guess very few in the room farmed for a living. But rather, unplug a bit, take a break from all the external stimuli and constant distractions, and enjoy what 'Mother Earth' actually has to offer. This advice may seem painfully simple. That said, an appreciation for the natural world is in itself a step towards a sustainable future.

Want to understand shmita more? Read this nifty handbook from Hazon! It is pretty fantastic, laying out contemporary alternative farming tactics (and ways to live generally) to meet the shmita principles every day and not every seven years. To all those observing, may you have a meaningful fast.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Healthy Diet World - My Munchable Soapbox

The harvest in Ghana: oranges and cassava
It's October 1st, 2014. The year is rapidly winding down, which leaves little but the prospects for our future to consider. There's a good bunch of people - researchers, politicians, starry-eyed nonprofiteers - who are concerned because that future is one in which our same little planet must feed 8-10 billion people. Factoring changing dietary preferences and the degradation of land, not to mention insufficient increases in agricultural productivity, this concern does not seem unfounded. 

Since I think about agriculture and food a lot (OK, maybe all the time), it was exciting to see the proposal of a solution not focused on yield or production. A group of researchers published an interesting article in Nature focused on changing demand as a means to reduce the impacts of food on climate change. They set about modeling future food needs, the land able to support crops and animals, and a bunch of variables that influence the conversion of what goes in to what makes it to the dinner table.**

Ultimately, they wanted to determine the extent to which "sustainable intensification" (basically getting more from the same land/chemical additions, with a smaller environmental footprint) and shifting future demand could contibute to feeding Earth's 2050 human population.  The first conclusion? Producing animal products - meat and dairy - is terribly inneficient in terms of how much energy from biomass goes in versus usable calories that come out, and that amound of land needed! 

The harvest in Prague: cream puff and tartlets
Food loss and waste was also raised as a significant consideration (with reference to other studies currently estimating anywhere from one quarter to half of what is produced is lost). But, it matters when the waste happens. If you throw out a hamburger, there are more embedded calories than say a bowl of lentils. 

So, taking dietary preferences and food loss/waste as the main parameters, the authors ran a few different scenarios to see where we might end up. My favourite - the "Healthy Diet" - reduces consumption of energy-rich products like sugars and saturated fats (goodbye cream puffs...). If people start wanting more of the most inefficient foods, the whole system becomes "larger" and "less efficient". Therefore, it makes sense that a scenario, in which less of these things are consumed, would lead to less agricultural expansion and fewer greenhouse gas emissions. 

Now, I don't know how feasible this world of herbivorous eco-people is (not that this is what they propose), but they justifiably argue the need for demand-side action and not just agronomic research. Oh, by the way, happy World Vegetarian Day!

...And, for my nerdiest of readers, here is a pretty nifty figure from the paper, which you can gaze at until you are cross-eyed.

** Note, they admit to probably underestimating the importance of subsistence agriculture, and completely omitting forest and aquatic resources (which are really important in many parts of the world). Also, adapting to the consequences of a changing climate doesn't really factor into their analysis; we only get a sense for the environmental impact of agriculture not how well certain types of food prediction will fare under more variable or extreme weather. Fodder for another study?

Saturday, September 20, 2014

From Grit and Grime to Glitz and Glam...

Traveling from Ghana to Croatia after a couple of months is a bit of a culture shock. From bumpy rides on dusty, rubbish-lined roads and to harbours filled with yachts of the rich and famous. The extravagant waterfronts, lavish night life, and tourist-centred activities were neither what I expected nor sought after my summer in rural communities. The contrast was stark, though not quite to the extent that my title suggests. And while the views of the Adriatic were spectacular, I could not suppress a desire to be back on a farm. 

The good news is that Croatia actually has a quite strong agricultural and culinary culture, steeped in history and tradition. While the coastal economy relies more heavily on tourism, you don't have to venture far beyond the downtown area of a city before olive groves and vineyards start cropping up. The landscape reflects its Mediterranean climate, with figs and herbs growing well in the semi-arid, sea-side region. Traditional Croatian communities, essentially through much of the 19th century, centred around land on which multiple generations of extended family lived and worked. Even these days, the majority (some figures as high as 98%) are family farms.

One of the well-documented and seemingly (based on poor signage and overgrown paths) little  frequented wonders of Hvar island is the ancient character of the land. The Starigrad Plain, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has remained in cultivation since Greek colonization in the 4th century BCE. While the fact that grapes and olives have grown in the fertile plain for over two millennia is pretty incredible, the draw is the ancient land parcel system still evident today. Stone walls in various states of disrepair delineate the geometrical distribution of land common in the Mediterranean. Despite various threats from consolidation, mechanisation, and economic change in recent history, the landscape still maintains much of its historic character.

Remnants of bygone agriculture shaping fields today
What's astounding to me is the contrast with other agricultural systems. Starigrad Plain represents an agricultural approach that has proven to be sustainable in the long-term. While I am unsure what type of chemicals and fertilizers now are used, the same crops have grown continuously on the same land for 24 centuries! I cannot even fathom the conventional industrial agriculture in the United States, for example, sustaining such a long period of trials and tribulations.

The other thing it demonstrates is the stability of the region. Thinking about my recent discussions with farmers in Ghana, it is clear that what is possible in somewhere like Croatia, Italy, Greece, or other Mediterranean countries would not work in much of the world. Variability of rainfall, temperature, wind, etc. makes it essential to be flexible and constantly adapt. If you held firmly to planting the same crop in the same place year after year, at some point the crop would fail, and repeatedly. We are celebrating an agricultural heritage site because evidence of its longevity it's still visible. I suppose this is a constraint we face, where we believe and value what we see. One can hope that we also find ways to appreciate long-standing agricultural traditions that may not have such a public face.

Read more about other agricultural heritage systems.