Restoring Faith

I attended the Adelaide Showground Farmer’s Market for the first time about one month ago. They restored my faith in the possibility that a better food system is possible.

Having just recently spent two weeks camping on a permaculture farm – eating more or less direst from the garden – it was quite a shock to be forced into more distant food choices that come with living in Mission Beach. Occasionally I’m even forced into a head-shaking Colesworths visit to choose between four different options of ‘own brand’, or reluctantly pick a fake organic product off the shelf. At least there’s a small (proper) organics store in town to provide some sanity.

I was on KI recently and it was reaffirmed that they are not as focused on providing for their own needs as I think they should be. There is a once-a-month farmer’s market which is a bubbling community affair in an idyllic spot. Beyond that, if one wants to buy fresh produce, they must shop at the IGA. Very little in the store is made on KI; and though I (thankfully) haven’t done a full scale audit, I suspect not much is even produced in SA; and there is perhaps quite a high proportion of overseas products. Even products we think of as Australian are unlikely to be so, in today’s globalised marketplace. Follow the money and it is most certainly leaking very heavily off of KI, onto the mainland and flown overseas.

Compare these large supermarkets to the Farmer’s Markets, where the producer who is running the stall keeps all the funds of your purchase for themselves, save the cost of the stall. In the case of fresh produce, they have tended to the plants/trees/product from day 1, so have an intimate knowledge of what they sell you. Try asking a Colesworths employee the best way to keep capsicums fresh, or what a cow ate in the months before it became beef. These – and many others – are important questions, they increase our knowledge and create conversations about one of the few things that links us all together – our food. It’s not many steps between having a detailed discussion about potato growing and caring more about your entire diet, which leads to eating and acting in a healthier way, which leads to seeing the doctor less, which leads to saving money on medical expenses through not living with illness, which leads to being happier because you feel better about yourself. Talking about potatoes to happiness in 5 easy steps. One does not create this environment for one’s self by shopping at Colesworths, where if you even talk to a staffer they’re more likely to be concerned about an upcoming party than helping you.

Not every farmer’s market is weekly and not every one will have a membership card that entitles you to member’s prices (like the Adelaide Showground one), but they all will be a positive experience. Perhaps they will also restore your faith.

Small Habit Change – Find your local Farmer’s Market and go there once every month.

Violent Tendencies

I saw this photo on Friday when waiting for my car’s service to finish. It was on the gate to a rural supplies store and I stared at it for a while before it’s shocking-ness struck me. I think it’s the violence of it that is so unappealing, the desire to KILL everything. Proponents will say ‘we only want to KILL the weeds’, but even though the main target will be such and such a weed, anything in it’s path gets KILLED – directly or indirectly. I am part way through Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, where she cites case after case of aiming poisons at one target but the damage affects the entire area’s ecosystem. Spraying to KILL a beetle that transported a disease within elm trees (which arrived due to humans), and within two years there’s no birds in the area. The birds didn’t even eat the beetles, they ate the earthworms that died because the poison’s residue decomposed into the soil after the leaves fell off in autumn. Nature is pretty complex, therefore we must KILL it.

I’m pretty sure a correlation or study exists somewhere that connects our use of chemicals in agriculture to the KILLING of ourselves too. [I just need to research a little more]. Slowly but surely our desire to rule nature is coming back to get us, through minute traces of chemicals that make it through to our position in the food chain. Or in the case of this ad, large amounts of synthetic chemicals that are applied directly to the plant that supplies our bananas and sugar.

Another thought comes to mind when thinking about the ad, is the relationship it has not just to our willingness in KILLING weeds but also relationships with others. Yes, weeds are not people it’s true, and I’m not suggesting anything to do with KILLING humans, but KILLING anything is a violent act, especially when there are other methods available. For instance, a saying to come out of the Permaculture course I did a few months ago is – “You don’t have a slug/snail problem, you have a duck deficiency”. Nature has a way to combat everything, and when you consider the entire system as a whole, what you originally perceive as a problem might actually be a benefit. There are good and bad weeds/insects/diseases for every situation, blanket application of synthetic chemicals to KILL them all is violent. People who spray are ‘trusting their killer instinct’, whereas I’m going out on a limb here and saying people who buy organic bananas are not making wars…just sayin’.

Here’s an angry paragraph from Silent Spring that I quite liked – “Under the philosophy that now seems to guide our destinies, nothing must get in the way of the man with the spray gun. The incidental victims of his crusade against insects count as nothing; if robins, pheasants, raccoons, cats, or even livestock happen to inhabit the same bit of earth as the target insects and to be hit by the rain of insect-killing poisons no one must protest.” This is from 1962. 50 years later and we’re still fighting a struggle of market domination and hippy-labelling just for buying organic bananas. When we buy synthetically-sprayed anything (which is almost everything), we are supporting those who made and promote this ad, and KILLING.

Small Habit Change – Buy no-spray bananas and sugar.

Genetic Engineering/Modification…Part 1

Something I often wonder about is whether all the bad food industry practices that occur in the USA also take place in Australia. I’m a big business sceptic, so I assume they do….without really knowing. I’m going to start using this blog as an excuse to research some of them and develop a few ideas I have a little further.

The first example that crossed my path recently is that of GE (genetically engineered) crops/food. A lot of doco’s I’ve seen make reference to these – particularly soybeans and corn – in the USA, and here’s a brief outline of the problems as I see them, from my knowledge gained in the films.

**not related to anything in the text, just looks nice

GE crops are grown from a seed that is resistant to a pesticide which kills everything else in it’s path. OK, there’s the first problem – the crops rely on pesticide use to be grown. I am firmly pro-organic and anything that promotes the use of (invariably synthetic) pesticides is unhealthy in my book. In a broader sense, large scale cropping (which includes GE) has an over-arching issue of dependence on fossil fuels – through power for machinery, fertilizer and pesticide use. I buy organic food because I believe all the chemicals used to grow non-organic food are unhealthy for both the planet and my body.

Health concerns are the second major problem with GE crops. Science is divided, again seemingly into two groups that align with whoever supplies the funding for the research. Despite what the industry-backed science might say, I’m skeptical that GE has no adverse personal effects. I guess this issue comes down to ‘who to trust’ again. I feel that short-term studies miss out on long-term effects. Are there studies from the 50’s showing that high sugar consumption is OK? I’m not sure but willing to guess not, and I’m sure today’s diabetics will be unhappy with yesteryear’s scientists for that.

The third major problem, and the one of biggest outrage to me is surrounding the intellectual property of GE crops. The pesticide resistant seeds that are in a field of GE-whatever are patented by the manufacturer, so farmers are forced to buy new seeds every year rather than practice traditional methods of seed-saving from one year’s harvest to the next. If the farmer harvests a GE seed, and plants it the next year, he has created a product that is owned by the original manufacturer – and is in patent violation. Of course, the pesticide that is used to enhance the field’s weed-free status is made by the same company that supplies the actual seed – and so begins corporate dominance over small farmers. Farmers have a choice whether to plant GE or non-GE seed, but nature doesn’t stop at man-made fence lines, so contamination occurs and it seems rather easy for a non-GE farmer to have GE seed blown in from a neighbours property (just one of the ways), which brings on another patent violation law suit. This is just one of many bullying tactics used by the chemical giants to dominate the market. When GE soybeans started in the USA in 1996, they had a 2% market share, by 2008 it was 90% – that situation is only good for a handful of people within a few companies rather than the majority of the world’s population.

Ironically, this is the argument most commonly used by pro-GE (and increasingly pro-conventional or ‘anti-alternative’) folk – namely ‘this is how we will feed the world’. By appealing to our inner humanitarian, the companies’ propaganda machines play quite an effective hand. I see a few problems with arguing that GE crops are the best or only way to feed those starving in the world. Firstly – this thinking assumes that we can’t feed the world now, which is nonsense. As a planet we grow enough to feed every person alive – no-one should go hungry, but politics continues to allow it to happen. Growing a GE crop instead of a conventional one in Somalia will not reduce their starvation rates, but removing barriers that make it cheaper to buy first world grains than their home grown one will. Secondly – GE promoters claim they will feed more mouths through increased yield. Again depending on who you believe, this has be shown to be a fallacy – yield might increase in the first few years after switching but reduces to original rates over the medium term, 20 years or so. Thirdly, as mentioned above, it just doesn’t seem sustainable to me to be relying on crops that rely on fossil fuels. Lastly, it smacks a little of desperation to feign compassion for the starving – as often the only time anyone mentions this argument is within this issue. Anyone who mentions this and is not vegan, has no children (or at least one adopted from a starving country), and actively presses politicians to remove subsidies, is hypocritical in my eyes and probably cares more about ‘winning’ the discussion rather than feeding the masses. Yes, I care about the starving millions and it’s a horrible situation but I’m not going to pretend to solve it by planting a GE crop.

*nice picture of Aussie fields taken from carSo, where does that leave Australia? So far, there’s just canola and cotton grown using GE, but there’s trials for more including wheat. I’ve signed a petition on this issue and actually got a response from Tanya Plibersek (I’ll try to attach it somewhere here sometime). But I’m going to need to do some research and I think I’ve written enough for today….so more in Part 2. In the meantime, if one is interested, these guys are where I’m going to start the researching.

Small Habit, Big Change – Avoid GE foods by downloading the ‘truefood guide

Eggs Ain’t Eggs

The topic that welcomes me back into my blogging – postponed due to an action packed holiday schedule back in Australia – is timely for two reasons. The first is that eggs organically became the topic of conversation in Australia a couple of times; the second – and of equal importance – in the news this week is the EU enforcing their Jan 1st ban on battery caged eggs being sold within their borders.

Caged eggs still exist in Australia – in fact they hold about 70% market share – despite most people recognising that they’re a bad idea. If egg cartons had pictures of the conditions the hens live, and said “UNNATURALLY HOUSED EGGS FROM STRESSED HENS”, clearly no-one would buy them. The labelling is misleading, and often terms that we think mean better conditions for the hens are in fact still caged eggs or an equivalent – just with an opaque name. So, a quick look through the common terms.

Cage eggs (and assume anything without a description is as bad as this) – a laying hen that is unfortunate enough to be producing eggs from a cage is subjected to living it’s entire life on the equivalent of roughly an A4 piece of paper; never, ever sees daylight or fresh air; lives in a cage with between 3 and 20 other birds; with nothing but wire mesh for flooring; gets feed an unnatural diet; and after all that only lives for about one year. Something is wrong when this situation is PERMITTED BY LAW.

Barn-laid eggs – doesn’t this invoke images of an old farmer with a straw hat wandering out to pick up a few eggs, just for you? In legality, barn-laid means caged eggs without the cages. Essentially they build massive sheds to house the hens, who hang around on the ground, all 5000 of them packed in as close as they would be in cages. The never-seeing-daylight, unnatural food and lifespan all persist.

Free-range eggs – now we’re onto something, right. This is where the chickens are running around without fences and the farmer has to coax them into a coop at night to lay your eggs. Again, reality a lot different from the image on the box. Free-range eggs only differ from Barn-laid ones in that the hens must have access to the outside. That seems OK? Well, it depends on how one defines ‘access’ – if access is one small door in a shed housing 5000 birds then the outside just became a little more difficult to reach.

‘Certified’ Organic eggs – this one can be just as confusing as the rest! It means that the hens’ feed has no chemicals or additives in it; and that chemicals and synthetics have been avoided to the last resort – especially with regards to anti-biotics. It doesn’t however, guarantee a place out in the sun for the hens – they only need to meet free-range space requirements – and although standards prohibit overcrowding one can imagine it happens on the larger scale farms.

A whole other post is probably required – books have been written in fact – about all the other horrible things humans do just to get eggs for breakfast: but briefly they include – beak cutting; restriction from any sort of natural behaviour like foraging or nesting; and pre-emptive over-use of anti-biotics. These practices would apply to all farming types aside from organic eggs, and are the result of large scale factory farming. Even organic eggs cannot escape the elephant in the cage – what happens to the chicks that are unlucky enough to be born male and therefore of no financial value? In Australia alone, 12 million male chicks are killed every year. Not a typo – 12,000,000. Not cool. They die because you and I want to eat cakes and frittatas, fact.

My own personal view is that it is hard, even for certified organic farms, to be running a successful business whilst having the animal’s welfare first and foremost – if the operation they are running is large scale. I’ve done the feeding at my uncle’s chicken shed and it’s enough work controlling a dozen hens let alone 1000. One of my main reasons for staying vegetarian is animal welfare, and I’m not sure I can justify buying eggs from anyone other than small scale producers like neighbours and friends with a few hens scratching the lawn.

In the process of writing all this I’ve realised I can be better:

– We still occasionally buy the free-range eggs (organic of course) from the larger supermarket downstairs because we feel like a chocolate brownie or something, and our carton is empty. That needs to stop.

– A good tip I’ve read, not just about eggs but all food products, is ask to visit the farm where they’re produced – if the producer says no, they’ve probably got something to hide. I’m still yet to do this at all, but I should.

Finally, here’s my main problem with eating eggs or not, and it not only applies to eggs but is a big hurdle in making a full transition to veganism : there’s a social element to food. One of the major ways my paternal family celebrates special occasions is with cake, there’s always at least two cakes on offer (sometimes for only about 7 people), and often it’s 3 or more. Is it fair to my family in the midst of singing happy birthday to ask about chickens’ living conditions? Plenty of my friends are scared at the thought of having to cook vegetarian meals, I fear a vegan path leads me towards social exclusion, at least in a culinary sense. Which is not cool, because food is the most binding of social and cultural fabric.

Whilst I wrestle with that dilemma, I’m going to visit the producers of the eggs we use at home; and be more forthcoming with conversations about eggs…for those friends who I want to cook me dinner.

Small Habit, Big Change – Buy organic eggs, preferably from a farmer you know (your local farmer’s market is a good start)

Who To Trust?

MSG is bad for us right? Well, it all depends on who you believe. I’m using MSG as an example here, but this situation probably occurs with every product available – which research can you trust? I saw an article today about soy milk vs cow’s milk and there were so many varied and opinionated responses in the comments section that reflect how individual our diets can be.

Firstly, what most debaters can agree on about MSG, condensed into about three lines and as my best interpretation – a Japanese scientist in the early 1900s wondered why a particular type of seaweed soup tasted so good, and discovered MSG was the responsible party. He extracted the compound from the seaweed and ‘bottled’ it. It came to ‘western’ cultures after WWII, when American troops occupying a Japanese base wondered why the Japanese rations tasted so much better than their spam. They took samples home and MSG is now used in as a flavour enhancer in more items than we care to imagine.

If one is interested enough, or feels like looking, there is plenty of research to suggest that MSG causes more problems than just the occasional headache from eating Chinese food. Scientists opposed to it have linked it to many conditions/diseases like Autism, ADHD, Diabetes/Obesity and Cancer; as well as plenty of issues surrounding it’s effect on unborn/newborn/ailing.

This kind of research is of course not good publicity for the fakefood* companies that depend on MSG for profit, and they try hard to push the case for it’s continued use. If one purely listens to mainstream media, one is likely to come across articles such as this that seem to relieve MSG of all blame. First question that springs to my mind is – How much do such journalists get paid? Of course, this research is also conducted by scientists, so who or what to believe is still the question.

A large indicator for me that companies put profits before people is their active promotion of less transparent labeling for food, confirmed with a quick glance at the alternative names for MSG. If I see any of these names on an ingredients list –

Glutamate

Hydrolyzed anything

Yeast Extract

Gelatin

anything Protein

E621 or additive 621 or flavour 621 or anything else 620-625

– then the product goes back on the shelf. These are just the more common replacements, there are plenty more at this website. The issue for me with this list is that (yeast extract) vegemite pizza is such a good hangover cure, but we’ve managed to reduce our intake to about every second weekend. Chips/crisps are another problem, and a main culprit for MSG-addictiveness. I had an experience over a year ago where I ate most of a box of Pringles myself, and woke up the next morning with what felt like a hangover despite not drinking anything. After devouring a vegemite pizza, I swore off Pringles for life (successful so far), and only eat plain salted chips now. Know what – they’re good enough to satisfy the junk cravings.

So, clearly my feet are firmly planted on the ‘bad for us’ side of the fence, for three reasons. Firstly, I believe that anytime we process or extract anything from it’s natural state, we alter it in a way that changes how it behaves. So while MSG that exists in tomatoes or breast milk is fine for us, the additive is bad. Secondly, if the product is harmless (or any product for that matter), why do companies fight labelling laws? There should be nothing to hide. Lastly, I like to follow the money on these things; who has more to gain here – a huge company dependant on this product for maximizing profit, or an individual with a few book sales at best. I trust wherever the money isn’t.

Small Habit, Big Change – Buy plain salted chips instead of MSG-filled ones

*fakefood is my new name for things that we put in our mouth but are not really food.