Browsing Tag

food

FOOD POLITICS - September 2018 Laura Alexander

Anthony Bourdain, The Memory Magician

Written by Laura Alexander

I’m lousy at food, and as far as I know his show was never broadcast in the UK, so when Anthony Bourdain died this summer, it was more or less the first I’d heard of him. Over the week or so before the next big story, obituaries filled my newsfeed and the home pages of my standard news sites. Reading them, I was amazed by the outpouring of love on the screen. My head is firmly up my own arse at the best of times, but it seemed crazy that so much love could exist for a person in the public eye without a word having even vaguely trickled through to me – I couldn’t even remember having heard the name. Before I knew it, clips of Bourdain were making their way into my killing-time-on-youtube-when-I-should-be-doing-something fare. He seemed nice, this gangly, grey haired figure standing around on street corners getting excited about things, asking questions and bouncing with enthusiasm. I searched for clips of him in the cities I’d visited, and the cities I’d hoped to visit, and salivated every time the camera zoomed in on some cheese. And then, while I was explaining to him how to make a Negroni (clearly the most delicious of summer drinks, as Bourdain, it turns out, also knew) the editor of this magazine asked me to write him a piece on the guy. All of which is a convoluted way of saying that I’ve been thinking about mussels.

My mum doesn’t like them at all, and my dad will eat them if they’re there, but isn’t really fussed, and so I went my whole childhood and adolescence without ever tasting a mussel. I knew they existed, sometimes I saw them on menus, but it would never occur to me to order them. The same is true of most seafood, but it’s the mussels that stand out. As far as I was concerned, I just didn’t like mussels, right up until the moment after my first year of university that I went to Istanbul for a week. It was the farthest I’d ever been from home on my own, and I was planning on staying there a week or so and then meandering down the coast and entering Greece through the islands.

I was nineteen and ready to explode with excitement. I’d been put in touch with a friend of a friend who could give me a couch to sleep on, and as soon as I arrived he took me out to hang on a street corner with his friends, drinking gin and playing the guitar and spitting the husks of sunflower seeds out onto the street. All of them were much older than me, nobody I’d ever met knew where I was, the night air was warm and I didn’t understand what anyone was talking about, I was in heaven. Someone looked up and across the street suddenly, at a vendor setting up a tiny stall, and then ran off and came back with a couple for mussel shells.

If you’re new in town you have to try this, they said, or something like it. I would have said I didn’t like mussels, but I was scared of losing face so I didn’t, so I slurped it down.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez

I found out later it was called midye, mussels stuffed with slightly spiced rice and served with a twist of lemon juice. Fresh, salty, ever-so-slightly spicy, smooth-mussel-texture against the slightly rougher rice. Down in one bite and swallow, you can just keep eating them without stopping until you’re full. Sold on every street corner, with judicious warnings from everyone that the street trade in them was totally unlicensed and possibly illegal, and if you happened to get a bad one the food poisoning would lay you out for days. I had at least ten every day for a week, and then I went away and I haven’t had them since.

That was four years ago, and yet I still find myself dreaming of them, in the nostalgic way a lost love is dreamt of, like remembering the look in someone’s eyes on a particular night, like the smell of jasmine. They’re still, probably, the best thing I’ve ever eaten (although I tried steak tartare for the first time a few months ago and that suddenly became a serious contender for the prize), but it’s more than that. Alone in a big new city for the first time, a romantic and impressionable teenager with no self-preservation instincts, they were the new, the unexpected, the opening of a door I hadn’t quite known was there.

Midye shows up in Bourdain’s work. Half an hour into an episode on Istanbul from 2010, there they were. Sampled fresh down by the water with the general lack of food safety highly emphasized.

“Nothing I like better,” quips Bourdain as he strolls along the waterfront, “than unlicensed seafood of indeterminate provenance”. They are favored with a quick these are in fact excellent before the camera moves on.

No matter. My magic doesn’t have to be his. But even a cursory glance at this guy’s output is enough to get you thinking of all those meals the memory of which locks into place with the right trigger. Neapolitan pizza out of a box on the steps of a church, whiskey old fashioned out of mugs in Paris, gyros in deep-fried pitta in Athens. So much food over the years since Istanbul, mostly eaten ad hoc, outdoors and in moments of such intense joy. I don’t know much about the guy Bourdain, and I probably never will, but this gift alone, to be able to share these little jolts of magic, is enough for me to mourn, just a little, that he’s gone.

FOOD POLITICS - September 2018 Jurek Wotzel

Will a modern apple a day keep the doctor away?

Written by Jurek Wötzel

Being conscious about the health effects of the foods you buy is exhausting. Meat gives you protein, but is often packed with hormones and antibiotics; fish contains so many beneficial omega-3s, but is contaminated with heavy metals; vitamin-stuffed fruits and vegetables come with a great deal of pesticides.

As though these problems aren’t enough, people have become worried about the depletion of vitamins and minerals in grains, vegetables, and fruits produced in industrial agriculture. Now, this is truly problematic. What if your apple a day isn’t going to keep the doctor away anymore?

Researchers such as David Thomas have been studying the composition of foods for decades and have found some alarming results. For instance, analyzing government food tables between 1940 and 1991, Thomas concluded that the calcium content of potatoes has dropped by roughly 35%, broccoli has lost 80% of its copper content and carrots lost 46% of their iron. A group of Canadian researchers found that between 1951 and 1999, potatoes lost 100% of their vitamin A and 57% of their vitamin C.

Nutrition scientist Donald R. Davis told the New York Times in 2015 that the decline in minerals in foods may be particularly present in crops that have a strongly increased yield today than, say, 50 years ago. This “dilution effect” means that there is an inverse relationship between crop quality and crop quantity. In his 2009 study, he added that the dilution effect is also present with regards to protein levels of broccoli and potatoes.

Irakli Loladze, a trained mathematician that turned to biology, reported to Politico in 2017 that the rising CO2 levels may be a reason for changes in the composition of plants. The increasing availability of CO2 for plants makes them store higher levels of carbohydrates, which crowds out other compounds such as minerals and vitamins. Thus, another dilution effect appears to take over; while rising CO2 levels are beneficial for plant growth, meaning that there is potential for higher food production, this will likely result in lower quality fruit and veg.

But is our diet really getting worse as a result of the decline in trace elements and vitamins?

Photo by Toa Heftiba

Robin Marles doesn’t think so. He acknowledges the dilution effect in some crops, like fruits and vegetables, but says that there are increases in other trace elements and vitamins. In addition, as broad groups, many fruits and vegetables naturally have wide ranges of variation in their mineral or vitamin content. Hence, different breeds of a plant may display different levels of certain compounds. Simply classing all breeds under the same category, as previous studies have done, skews the results because some breeds may be much more prevalent today than decades ago.

Richard Mithen from the UK Institute for Food Research says that our health is, in fact, largely unaffected by the changes in food composition. “We use different fertilizers now, we have different pollution which may have an effect. Some of these minerals may have gone down, others will have gone up. However, the health implications of this are not at all apparent”, he tells The Guardian. Slight mineral or vitamin deficiencies have been linked to chronic diseases of the cardiovascular system or diabetes, but it is unclear whether this cause-effect relationship holds. Nonetheless, Mithen, too, must admit that the dilution effect is real, and that many plants that have been bred for yield have not been able to take up trace elements and vitamins proportionally to their carbohydrate content.

So what’s the deal? For one, the composition of some of our foods is changing. Second, this may be due to a variety of reasons including climate change as well as industrialized agriculture. This does not mean that our diet has worsened to a concerning level, but it does mean that we have to be diligent in ensuring that we get enough of the right nutrients in our body.

It is worth considering reducing the amount of grains, fruits, and vegetables that one buys from large supermarket chains and, instead, switch to locally produced goods that aren’t affected by modern agronomic technology. Anthony Fardet and Edmond Rock from the French National Institute for Agricultural Research note in line with a great deal of other researchers that the reductionist view of food composition, as I have used it in this article so far, is insufficient to account for the true health effects of diet. The reductionist view presumes that we can isolate 1-1 cause and effect relationships when it comes to nutrition. Nutrition scientists such as Fardet and Rock think this is too simplistic. Rather, they support the view that the health effects of diet are nets of multicausal links.

Acknowledging this means adopting a holistic view of preventive nutrition. Vitamins and minerals cannot be isolated and simply be ascribed the same effects in different circumstances. For example, an apple may contain a range of different fibers and carbohydrates which ease vitamin C resorption, whereas a banana may lack those properties. Different foods have interaction effects with each other, enhancing or diminishing the benefits of their compounds. So the change in the composition of our foods can have long-lasting effects which cannot be measured by purely looking at the amount of mineral X or vitamin Y. Analysis needs to encompass a greater variety of variables.

Therefore, to take the safe route, one can buy the produce breeds people have been eating for hundreds of years. They are likely to be unaffected by modern production techniques that are thought to significantly alter dietary effects. In line with Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s philosophy, it is always a good idea to only expose your body to the foods that we have ancient wisdom about.

A great example of applying this principle is sticking to the Mediterranean diet, which has frequently been shown to reduce mortality and risk of chronic diseases. A holistic approach means that without yet knowing the concrete causal links, we know that something about this dietary pattern is good for us. Additionally, in Mediterranean countries, the degree of industrialization of agriculture is much lower than in the US, the Netherlands, or Germany, for instance. Foods are less subjected to intervention, and thus, their composition is not prone to quick changes.

All in all, if you generally eat well, your daily apple will probably still save you your trip to the doctor. Yet, if you want to be sure about what you eat or improve your diet even more, take a holistic approach and be aware that industrially produced foods may have different nutritional values and different compositions. In the end, it is difficult to know whether your otherwise healthy industrially produced diet has an immediate impact on your well-being; but given a choice, choosing the safe option is never a bad idea in itself, even if it is a little exhausting.

FOOD POLITICS - September 2018 Phillip Morris

Greenhouse Gases Fresh From the Farm

Written by Phillip Morris, Editor-in-Chief

Despite the efforts of a few backward individuals, the world has recognized the need to mitigate the impact of climate change by reducing GHG emissions. The world has however been slow to recognize the important part that food will play in facilitating that reduction. Even further behind is the acknowledgment that primarily meat-based diets are unsustainable.

Global agriculture emissions contribute 20-30% of the GHGs annually. The EU has acknowledged that agriculture contributes to climate change, but when it comes to policy the focus has long been on ensuring food security and economic performance, which helps explain why methane was excluded from the National Emissions Ceiling Directive even though methane emissions from livestock are a significant part of overall emissions.

Some of the agricultural emissions come from the CO2 exhausts of machines used in agricultural production; these will be reduced by legislation that limits vehicle emissions, and market forces that encourage hybrid and electric vehicles. What is likely to continue to be overlooked is the amount of GHG produced by the animals raised for food, and specifically bovines. When organic compounds break down in an anaerobic environment, like animals digestive tracts, they produce methane, a GHG 10 times more efficient than CO2 at trapping heat. These then get released in a constant stream of burps and farts.

Agriculture emissions would be significantly reduced by a cultural switch from meat to plant-based diets, yet, in the name of preventing consumer confusion, the EU, Germany, and most recently France have passed policies that make it more difficult to market plant-based alternatives to animal products by preventing the use of terms traditionally associated with animals. It’s such a bad idea, that 45’s head of the US FDA considers it a good idea and is making similar moves to crack down on the use of the term almond “milk”.

These policies hinder the adoption of plant-based diets because consumers are use terms like “burger”, “sausage” or “milk” when deciding between products, even for plant-based alternatives. The European Vegetarian Union has already released a position paper denouncing legislation banning “meaty names” as an arbitrary decision, but denunciations are rarely enough to bring change. When politicians are caving to industry lobbyists over common sense you’ve got to hit them where it hurts.  

Photo by Jez Timms

Taking Action

Article 11 of the TFEU, which it has been argued applies to Member States along with EU organs, requires public policies to balance their objectives with their impact on the environment, but it doesn’t appear that such consideration was given with these restrictive policies. On the other hand, the companies subject to the restrictions actively promote their environmental consciousness.

Professor Johan Rockstrom of the Stockholm Resilience Centre has stated that despite the benefits of a plant-based diet for the environment and human health, eating meat is too culturally embedded in the developed world to be easily changed. Indeed, studies have found that consumer awareness of the environmental impact of animal-based meals in Europe is less than 50%. Still, individuals have recognized that their diet can impact climate change and a growing number are making changes to reduce their contribution by reducing the amount of meat in their diets and reducing food waste. Where the embeddedness of meat consumption comes into play is in government policy, where there has been plenty of acceptance that agriculture overlaps with health and the environment in general, but less so for climate change specifically. Any policy that neglects to consider the industry’s contribution to climate change is worth challenging.

The French law is really ripe for challenge because it is based on a misinterpretation of a Judgement of the CJEU. In this instance, the National Assembly states “Names associated with products of animal origin may not be used to market food products containing a significant proportion of plant-based materials…” It then gives “steak”, “fillet”, and “sausage” as examples of such names. It cites June 2017 Judgement of the CJEU for Case C-422/16 Verband Sozialer Wettbewerb eV v TofuTown.com GmbH as the basis for its logic. However, that judgement differentiates between substitutes for meat and substitutes for milk, “In the present case, that the fact that, as regards sales descriptions, producers of vegetarian or vegan substitutes for meat or fish are not, according to TofuTown, subject to restrictions comparable to those to which the producers of vegetarian or vegan substitutes for milk or milk products are subject, pursuant to Annex VII, Part III, to Regulation No 1308/2013, cannot be regarded as inconsistent with the principle of equal treatment.” This should imply that meat substitutes are not prone to causing similar levels of confusion to consumers as substitute milk products and so don’t need to be included in the restriction.

Additionally, Regulation No 1308/2013, and related Regulation No 1305/2013, do not seem to address the relationship between agriculture and climate change, except for mitigating the latter’s impact on the former. This goes against Article 11 of the TFEU, whereby “Environmental protection requirements must be integrated into the definition and implementation of the Union policies and activities, in particular with a view to promoting sustainable development.”

Where I believe the error lies in the Judgement is its test of proportionality which references protecting consumers from confusion and finds restricting the use of the term “milk” appropriate for meeting that objective. I have not yet found a broad study on the level of confusion among EU consumers deciding whether “milk” or “soy milk” are both animal products, but that can serve as evidence that, in general, consumers can tell the difference. Other similar studies would support this conclusion.  In the late 1990s when McDonald’s tried to block the trademark for “McVeg” vegetable burgers, The Australian Trade Mark Office reached the conclusion that “the practical risk of deception or confusion is completely negligible.” In the lead up to Germany’s law, a study conducted by The Federation of German Consumer Organizations found that only 4% of consumers said they bought a plant-based meat substitute by mistake.

New Avenues for Climate Change Litigation

The trend in climate change cases has been to target the biggest and most obvious players: oil and gas companies, and the governments in charge of their regulation and licensing. This, of course, makes sense considering the share of greenhouse gases emitted from their products. These companies are low hanging fruit in terms of their obvious contribution to climate change, but they represent a challenge in securing favorable outcomes due to their deep financial pockets and political connectedness. A cost-effective strategy for fossil fuel companies is to drag litigation out as long as possible to the point where continuing is not a viable option for the plaintiffs, either financially or politically.

While in no way suggesting that these efforts should not continue, I do believe it’s necessary to explore other possible targets. A first step would be for the EU to roll back its unnecessary policies and direct its Member States to follow suit. The next step would be for governments to take the opposite policy position to support efforts to adopt a plant-based diet and in doing so support their citizens trying to make a difference, one meal at a time.

THE CITY - April 2018

Bridging the Urban-Rural Gap for Food Equity

Written by Abigail Hudspeth

Picture an urban city. You might envision skyscrapers, traffic, noise, bustling people, the city is alive. Now picture a rural town. In your imaginary town you might have a single main road, a sleeping dog on the corner of a café, and an endless expanse of surrounding crop fields.  These two pictures could not be more opposed. The growing distance between rural and urban areas extends beyond our imagination. In reality, this distance has major impacts on society, especially on the way consumers value food. With the growing divide between rural and urban areas, people are losing their connection to real food and the ancient tradition of farming, generating injustices in our food system.

Rural and urban areas are separated by more than mere geographic distance. A lack of public transportation between rural and urban for instance often discourages interdependence and travel. Moreover, the two worlds are separated in economic and political terms as well. The percentage of farmers in the United States has dropped from 30% in the 1920s to 2% in 1987 and has approximately flat-lined since. Today about 80% of the U.S. population lives in urban areas. As people migrate to cities, the tax revenue in rural areas decreases and with it the quality of schools, housing, and infrastructure. This exacerbates a cycle incentivizing migration to the cities and compounding economic problems. These economic struggles have indirectly led to the rise of political divisions. Beginning in the 1980s, Republicans in the United States sought support from the white, rural, and poor voters who historically had supported the Democrats’ welfare acts. By exacerbating racial tensions, the Republican party converted many of those living in rural areas.  These physical, economic, and political barriers drive a wedge between the metropolitan and the rural agrarian.

Even though the majority of the population who lives in urban areas finds it difficult to connect with people from rural areas, the rural agriculture provides everyone with a ubiquitous resource, food.  Farming over the 20th century transformed from being many small farms to a few industrial “specialized farms in rural areas where less than a fourth of the U.S. population lives”. Because of these changes, we are losing a vital connection to the value of real food. Can you picture a peanut plant? Did you know that cashews hang from the bottom of a large cashew fruit? Or that artichokes are actually the unbloomed flowers of thistles? Some of this unfamiliarity stems from never physically seeing the crops that produce the food. As we lose connection with agriculture, we also lose the knowledge and the respect that comes with it.  

Photo by Max Pixel

Our failure to appreciate nature’s gift has warped our perception of the value of food. We demand cheap food without taking into account the negative externalities of it. Government actions have only exacerbated consumer expectations for decades. The government shells out billions every year (16 billion to be exact) to farmers in the form of crop insurance. This helps minimize the risk of farming, but it also subsidizes certain crops making them cheap. Corn and soy are often recipients of huge subsidies, hence the reason soda, candy, frozen foods, and chicken nuggets (which are all derived from corn) are cheap as well. Not only do these affordable options drive the poor into obesity, but they also skew the value of food. Cheap food diminishes consumers’ appreciation of agricultural labor. Any visible reminder that could remediate society’s error, slips away as cities alienate from the countryside.  

The price of food is never cheap enough for the ceaselessly demanding consumer. Even I constantly bemoan my grocery bill. When I see a dozen free range eggs for 6 dollars, I don’t think about the value of the farmer’s work that brought them to me. At least, I didn’t use to. After working on a rural, organic family farm in Costa Rica, I gained a fresh appreciation for the labor a dozen eggs requires. Rising before dawn every morning, I fed and watered the 400 chicken, collected dozens upon dozens of eggs, meticulously cleaned each egg of bird droppings, blood, and feathers, and cared for the baby chicks. Each carton was packed with care and filled with the product of my toils. Selling a dozen eggs for about 4 U.S. dollars suddenly didn’t seem enough. I had leapt over the divide between urban and rural, and I gained an appreciation for farmers’ hard work. On the other side of a price tag, there are rural farmers making ends meet for their families. As the distance between grocery shoppers and farmers grows, so does the inequity between them.  

Creating inequality is not the only injustice caused by the rural-urban divide. While we lose sight of the value of real food, we create a culture of waste and animal cruelty. Throwing away a half-eaten plate of food is much easier without thinking of the glaring waste of water, soil, energy, and human resources necessary to bring you your dinner. As rural and urban populations separate, this glaring guilt fades into an abstract reality disconnected from the rest of society. In a similar fashion, meat CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) with their unventilated, tightly packed, squalid conditions, are purposefully placed out of sight of urban customers in the countryside. Maintaining distance is a purposeful decision by meat processing companies; a shopper’s conscience easily buys inhumanely produced meat, when they have never seen a CAFO with their own eyes.

Appreciating food for its labor costs begins with closing the social gap between rural and urban areas. As more people move to the suburbs and out of cities, this creates an opportunity for integration. Providing incentives for farmers to buy property near suburbs is a first step towards decreasing social barriers by decreasing physical distance. By blending the suburban with the rural, we can stimulate the rural economy and begin to reverse the process of urbanization. After knitting together a patchwork of farms and towns, we must sew together the divisions of community that come from political and economic differences. Community gardens have been used for decades to foster collaboration and a sense of unity. Community gardens also raise awareness about the value of food and provide healthy alternatives to the unhealthy cheap foods that flood the processed food aisle. Not only can community gardens be used to blend suburban and rural areas, but they can also be used in cities. Since farming in cities is impractical, community gardens compromise land scarcity with community awareness of agriculture. By increasing the proximity to agriculture we can reinstall appreciation for it. Community gardens are not the only way to increase agricultural awareness and practices in the city. Indoor farming is rapidly expanding in urban areas by refurbishing old warehouses. The most profitable type of indoor agriculture, aeroponics, grows high-value leafy greens and vegetables vertically in giant stacks of soilless plants under LED light. This precise technique cuts input costs by spraying plants with a nutrient mist and reducing transportation fuel because of its proximity to stores.

Knitting together our patchwork society sew together more than the physical divisions. We need government and business intervention to focus policy on bridging these divides. Reversing a process that took decades will take decades, but more is at stake than resewing the urban-rural quilt. By integrating rural and urban communities and fostering agrarian knowledge, we are protecting the integrity of the food and farmers we need every day.