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

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Let Them Eat Cake
Qu’ils mangent de la brioche. Those famous lines are often attributed (abeit incorrectly) to Marie Antoinette, Queen of France in the late 18th century, responding to food shortages and widespread  hunger. While the origins of the utterance are still hotly debated, the sentiment behind them and what they represent is quite powerful. An impoverished segment of the population complains of a lack of food - of no bread - and the wealthy, bourgeousie's response is to "let them eat cake". It demonstrates the complete lack of understanding of why people are going hungry, and the lack of empathy for the plight of those in poverty.

It's interesting that as a society we seem convinced that both the nature of and responses to contemporary poverty have changed drastically. We may no longer confront the feudal societies of lords and serfs, but there are vast inequalities present today, not only between countries but also within nations. Income inequality, one of the best studied of these topics, is still striking and a testament to the fact that capitalism and democratic societies breed elites just as do monarchies. But income is not the only measure of poverty, nor is it considered a complete one

Another school of thought, adopted by media sources like Fox News, reduces poverty down to material possessions, arguing that ownership of modern appliances like refrigerators and TVs negates any claims of need. Yet, it is increasingly accepted that material goods don't tell the whole story, either (see study on car ownership). Particularly where showy items are a sign of social standing - or are at least used to give this impression - people may opt for the seemingly less rational choice of buying a flatscreen rather than necessities. This complexity is part of the challenge, and why the questions of not only of how do we measure poverty, but also how we define it, continue to plague the 'development' sphere. These are no trivial matters, as what we measure and why to a large extent informs what we do.
There seems to be two tracks of interest for those of us who happen to study topics related to poverty. On the one hand, we spend a lot of time identifying where poor people exist. A recent study used an interesting combination of survey data from national statistics bureaus in Africa, 'night lights' or luminosity data, and daytime satellite images to build a model that predicts areas of poverty. This could allow poverty tracking to enter the 'data age', filling gaps and potentially replacing costly and often inaccurate household surveys.

On the other hand, what we really need to address are the root causes of poverty-driven inequities and suffering. For instance, groups that have historically been oppressed, because of ethnicity or social caste, may be more susceptible to the poverty trap. Some argue that freedom and empowerment enhance individuals' capacity to get out of poverty. Oftentimes, underlying factors are perpetuated and exacerbated by poverty itself, resulting in a viscious cycle. Poor neighborhoods many times have underperforming schools, fewer skilled job opportunities, and perhaps greater violence and drug use, making it difficult to break the cycle. These murky waters of poverty (and social injustice) were evident in a recent article in the New York Times, which explored divides resulting not just from wealth and education but by race. Of course, if this were all simple and straightforward, we would have met the Milennium (and now Sustainable) Development Goal of ridding the world of poverty ages ago. But acknowledging it's not clear-cut is a first step.

Now for those of you who only clicked the link because you thought I was offering cake, well you're partly in luck. However, rather than simply handing out sugar-laden baked goods or approving the act without providing means of obtaining or consuming, I'm giving you the first tool to enable you to bake your own cake. Sure, this assumes you live in a house with an oven and at least a bowl, spoon, and baking pan. It also assumes you have the resources to purchase the necessary ingredients. But seeing a roadmap (ie recipe) and knowing that eating your cake is possible, can be very empowering.

Citrus Polenta Cake
⅓ cup vegetable oil (canola, sunflower, etc.)
½ cup sugar (I used raw/unrefined)
1 tbs honey (or agave)
½ cup almond milk (or other non-dairy)
Zest of 2 oranges or lemons

1 ⅓ cup fine cornmeal/polenta (can also substitute up to ⅓ cup almond meal)
1 cup plain flour (unbleached)
¼ cup cornflour/cornstarch
½ tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda/bicarbonate

1 tbs cider vinegar or lemon juice
¼ cup chopped almonds

Juice of 2 oranges or lemons
¼ -⅓ cup sugar (respectively; or to taste)

1. Combine first five ingredients (‘wet’ ingredients) in a large bowl.
2. Mix five ‘dry’ ingredients (flours, salt, and bicarb) in a separate bowl* so that everything is well-incorporated.
3. Combine wet and dry ingredients until everything has come together. Add acid (vinegar or lemon) and almonds, mixing just to incorporate.
4. Pour batter into a loaf pan or small cake round (grease and flour, if not a silicone pan). Bake at 180°C for 25-30 minutes, until a knife comes out clean.
5. Meanwhile, heat citrus juice and sugar in a small saucepan over medium-high heat until it comes to a soft boil. Lower heat and simmer for 5-10 minutes. It should be a bit syrupy and lightly coat the back of a spoon.
6. When cake is done, remove from oven and allow to cool for 10 minutes. Pierce the top of the cake with a fork, so that the citrus syrup will the able to filter into the cake, then pour the syrup over the cake. Allow to cool completely. It will be dense!

*Can also do this in the first bowl, but make sure cornflour is added after the cornmeal and flour, otherwise it will clump.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The End of An Era? Some Perspective, that was a bit of a melodramatic title, but on Saturday I had my birthday (and according to societal norms, it was a big one), so I am going to proceed to making tenuous links between aging and decision-making! For starters, the longer I work on environmental issues the more relevant subjects like psychology and economics seem to become (which is perhaps very telling for someone who has mostly identified as an ecologist). I'm definitely not alone in this, if the surge in scholarship around behaviour change and environmental problems is any indication. Climate change policy has become a textbook example of the shift in focus, from providing people (in this case decision/policy makers) with loads of information to considering how to influence the context and underlying drivers.  Basically, we're finally coming to the realization that humans are not wholly rational actors - as in we don't always choose the option that yields the greatest "benefit" - and that we don't do particularly well making decisions solely on an extensive array of cold, hard 'facts'.

But let's get back to this whole aging phenomenon. I think we approach birthdays and getting older in a similar manner. A couple of years ago now, I remember reading a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) about big life decisions made at the end of decades. If you take a look at the studies themselves, they focus on the occurrence of extramarital affairs, suicides, and first-time marathon finishers by age (which to be fair are relevant to only a subset of the population). 'Participation' in those activities was highest among subjects in their ultimate year of a decade (e.g. 29...). The popular media interpreted the findings as demonstrating that the '9's are spent in self-reflection and in search of meaning (but the Jury's still out...), and when we reach these transitional years we become “particularly preoccupied with aging and meaningfulness, which is linked to a rise in behaviors that suggest a search for or crisis of meaning.” In reflection, this is very odd. It's not as though overnight the knowledge, skills, etc. that you've built up reset, or suddenly certain 'milestones' come due. Why then do perfectly reasonable and practical individuals go bonkers over hitting thirty?

So, having just spent the last year fretting* about the end of a decade, and making moderately 'big life decisions', albeit different from those in the study (e.g. starting a PhD, moving to Australia, adopting a cat...), I thought it would be interesting to take a step back and assess the situation 'rationally'. Much of the to-do about getting older stems from unmet expectations of accomplishment. In my case, we could look at income as a measure of success (figure a), but perhaps my life choices aren't especially optimized for monetary gain - most of the past decades' income consumed by educational instutitions or lenders.  If tertiary education qualifications are something we care about, then I'm doing a bit better (figure b). Now considering I suffer a bit from wanderlust and place a high value on exposure to different places and cultures, perhaps the map (figure c) of countries visited in the past decade is a better tool to assess success ... by my metrics, at least. And while some things haven't changed significantly in ten years (still a student, still working on environmental problems, still haven't lived in the same house for more than a year...), the fear of having squandering my twenties is obviously unsubstantiated!
c) Countries "added" in the last ten years (ignore the comma in the legend...)

Even when presented with this evidence, I can't help but feel some 'crisis of meaning' insinuated in the psychology studies. Returning to the behavioural economics reference earlier, the researchers behind these studies suggested future work could explore why some people respond to periods of pre-birthday reflection in the ways they do. The implications of examining underlying drivers of these decisions is that they could suggest means of direct that motivation for positive outcomes. You can imagine that this has also struck a chord with folks interested in environmental policy and sustainable behaviours, pinpointing social norms and other non-economic forces.

So there you go - tenuous connections between birthdays and big decisions. Hopefully, the end of my fourth decade of life won't result in any destructive life decisions. Here's to a new decade, and the one just put to bed.
Some things really don't change... NYC July 2006

A Decade of Birthday Posts (sans 2015):

* This seemed like a big birthday, but moreso because I still feel comfortably in the mentality of an early/mid 20-year-old...perhaps due to the perpetual state of student-hood. 
** Pre-2010 blog posts are also pre-My Munchable Musings. I apologise in advance for the writing not quite meeting current quality control standards...see, that's something else that has improved in a decade!