Thursday, November 13, 2014

Smashing Pumpkins

It's pretty cathartic - taking a sharp-edged shovel and transforming an orange orb into a sloppy mess. Don't fret, as I have not become an All Hallow's Eve vandal. Rather, that's what it takes for a pumpkin to join a compost heap. Ghosts and gobblins are not the only scary thing about Halloween; the food waste statistics are also pretty frightening. Last year, 18,000 tonnes of pumpkin were tossed in the UK post-Halloween. While UK households have actually made good progress in cutting food waste, this is still a hefty loss of often quite usable produce. In my book, any edible winter squash landing in the rubbish is a crime against humanity and the planet.
Let's return to the smashing of pumpkins. With the wisdom of a Master Composter, Oxford's first ever Pumpkin Festival concluded with the preparation of half disintegrated jack-o-lanterns for the's compost heap. The goal of the festival was to raise awareness around food waste and to save pumpkins from ending up in a landfill. In the UK, US, and Europe, we produce around twice as many calories necessary to feed the populations, and yet between one third and half of that never makes it to our forks (maybe to our plates...).
To me it's incredible that in this technologically-advanced day and age, so much low-hanging fruit of systematic efficiency are left unpicked, waiting to fall into a rubbish bin. Partly this is a behavioural issue - Human behaviour, especially related to something perceived as very personal, is notoriously difficult to influence. Yet, small modifications - like reconceptualizing the 'use-by' and 'sell by' dates - could shift how people act. A WRAP report noted that over 1 million tonnes of food is thrown out in households because a product has reached its "Best Before" or "Use By" date, cited by at least 1/3 of the UK study participants as the primary reason behind disposing of a product. Confusion over the actual meaning of these labels, and not using common sense about the state of a yogurt tub or a box of biscuits, seem to be root culprits. Marketing and advertising, improper food storage, and cooking too much also play prominent roles that account for the ghastly amount of waste on the consumer end.
Yet practices by institutional actors contribute a considerable slice to the food waste pie. An aesthetic perception, the ingrained mentality that beautiful is better, results in rejection of fruit and vegetables that don't meet stringent size, shape, and appearance standards by market retailers. According to the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, 30% of produce is never even harvested for this very reason! Gleaning, anyone? If Tesco is any indication of grocery's importance, its announcement last year that almost 30,000 tonnes of food was wasted in just six months (with veg and bakery comprising 2/3) shows the state of play. It's a fine line to walk, but the retailers are starting to address the balance between reducing waste of food and money, and ensuring that there is adequate food and variety for an increasingly demanding consumer.
At the end of the day, a landfill destination for organic material is such a tragedy because it is largely avoidable, and where it's not, it can be returned to the ground from whence it came (in the form of compost...). I think it's important to add the caveat, that if impact on greenhouse gas emissions or energy use is your primary concern, in the food system methods of cooking and storage, as well as production, are probably of more interest. Perhaps that's why it's important to keep a systems perspective, with people working on all pieces of the puzzle.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

No Bees and Not Enough Thyme

What am I doing leading with a 'bees' headline? We just turned back the clock from British Summer Time last weekend, and the crisp chill in the air is a sign of the imminent winter. This talk of bees is six months late, no? No. In fact, this may be the most relevant time to discuss bees, because Autumn is when we feel the impacts of plenty or a paucity of spring-time pollinators. 

It's been rather hit-or-miss this year, depending on which farmers or gardeners I speak to. Some have told me that a windy spring deterred their essential pollinators, resulting in a very light fall fruit crop. Others have attributed a bumper crops to the combination of a rainy August when fruit mature and dry weather during harvest. This surplus is what has made the news. It means prices for farmers will go down, and puts us in the territory of how market demand and consumer preferences influence what farmers decide to grow.

But what about when the bees really don't fly? Two years ago, heavy rainfall in the UK during April and May not only has left some growers with blemished fruit, but many without any at all. According to a BBC article, bees should have pollinated during those spring months, but wet wings do not fly well. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that the unfavourable conditions for pollinators is only going to worsen. Temperature changes, shifts in seasonality, and more extremes, all coupled with other threats from pollution, chemical use, and habitat change, does not leave a rosy future.

If there is one lesson we can glean from all this, it is that farmers are resilient. They are used to weathering variations from year to year, trying to keep a long-term perspective. We have a lot to do in the face of climate change, and not much time ... but we do have some time for apple pie.*

Rose(mary)-Coloured Glasses Apple Pie
1.5 cup strong white flour
1 tsp salt
2-3 tbs sugar
1/4 cup coconut oil
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup iced water
1 tbs apple cider vinegar
1 tbs fresh rosemary**, chopped finely

8 medium apples, chopped
1/4 cup golden sugar 
1 tbs lemon juice
Lots of Cinnamon and a pinch of nutmeg and allspice
(optional) 1 tbs arrowroot powder or tapioca starch

1/2 cup oats
1/2 cup flour
1/3 cup sunflower seeds
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/3-1/2 cup canola oil
2 tsp rosemary, finely chopped

1. For the crust, use a fork to mix flour, salt, sugar, rosemary, and oils until flour is well mixed with the oil. Add the vinegar to the water and then add the water to the dough one tablespoon at a time, just until it comes together without being too sticky. 
2. Roll out dough on a floured surface and then transfer to a pie dish.
3. Fill with the apple mixture (optional thickener) and then top with the crumble.
4. Bake in a 360F/180C oven for 30-45 minutes. Consider covering with foil, so that crust doesn't burn and apples cook more quickly.
5. Serve warm with a nice cup of spiced cider!

*While supplies last...
** theoretically you could use thyme, instead, and which works better with my title and post content.

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.