Sustainability question more than just food for thought

(February 27, 2019)

We are what we eat.

Every day, a new headline reminds us of this fact in some way.

Recently, Canadians got a new version of Canada’s Food Guide, requiring grade-school teachers to redo their health curriculum, but likely having little effect on how we eat compared to before. General guidelines like these either repeat what people already know, or mystify those whose dietary choices are driven by other things than directives from Ottawa — things such as prices, availability, marketing and what the kids’ friends are eating at school this week.

What we eat — and therefore who we are — is also intertwined with social-justice issues. For those with little money (for food or for transportation), if they are living in an urban “food desert” where the convenience store is a one-stop shop, healthy food choices are a fantasy.

In northern communities, where pop, chips and hotdogs are readily available and preserved forever, fresh vegetables are exotic, expensive and unfamiliar. Governments prefer to medevac people south for medical treatments that are the consequence, at least in part, of poor diets, instead of supporting efforts to make good food locally.

Then there are the too-frequent stories about produce, in particular, contaminated with harmful bacteria. It might seem like carelessness is the culprit, but such contamination is a fact of life in the factory farm system, where food is grown in mass quantities, often in distant places that have lower hygiene standards or where a lack of clean water undermines what the system requires.

When there is a problem, it is harder to pinpoint the source, and it can affect entire industries across the whole North American continent (romaine lettuce, anyone?).

We could use computer tracking to absolutely identify the origin of every piece of fruit and who sprayed or picked it, where and when, but we don’t. Allowing individual consumers access to that kind of information makes large food manufacturing and distribution companies — especially their marketing departments — uneasy.

Marketing is intended to persuade us to buy what we should not eat, in greater quantities than we can use, at prices we can’t afford. And by starting with the kids, marketing has been doing a marvellously effective job of undermining that school health curriculum for at least a couple of generations.

These issues all compound larger and more troubling ones, spreading across the planet, only periodically breaking out into headlines that flag what lies ahead.

The global population continues to rise. That means we will need more food, often in places where there is already not enough to eat. Political instability, combined with water shortages because of climate change or pollution, makes it hard for the small farmer to harvest a good crop of what he (or, most often, she) has planted. If you can’t make a living on the land, then people everywhere move into cities — in the developing world of the global South, these mega-cities make Winnipeg look tiny and well-planned.

Around the world, in places a lot like Winnipeg, we waste enough food every year to feed a billion people. Given the huge amount of fresh water that goes into food production, and the equally massive greenhouse-gas emissions involved in moving it onto our dinner table, this has equally huge implications for managing climate change.

From the standpoint of sustainable ecology, we simply can’t afford to produce this food, in the quantities a growing population requires, if it will be wasted. Combining malnutrition with obesity (as they often are, in the West), those misdirected calories could also mean the difference between life and death for the hundreds of millions of people around the world who don’t have food to eat every day.

Yet behind that story, there is another, as well. We are what we eat, but what we eat first has to be grown and harvested or produced. The Earth’s biosphere is at risk right now, because of our continued assault on ecological systems that have maintained a balance for millions of years — until now.

Some belated response (likely too late) was made to ban the use of neonicotinoids that have helped wipe out populations of bees and other flying pollinators. But there is a bigger story, in recent studies of the catastrophic die-off of all kinds of insects, with industrial agriculture and its use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides identified as a primary culprit.

As a result, the soil on which we depend, in too many places, is literally dying. If we are what we eat, then the resulting loss of soil micronutrients will affect both our own health and that of our children, regardless of whether or not we follow Canada’s Food Guide.

We need action, from government, industry and ourselves, to change all these things. It’s not good enough to consider these concerns just food for thought.

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We need to know more about our food

(December 6, 2018)

The recent romaine lettuce scare makes me wonder if food safety these days is the result of good public health regulations or effective prayers.

The decision by Health Canada to issue a vague, countrywide E. coli O157 contamination “advisory” on romaine lettuce — eat at your own risk — left producers, distributors, restaurants and consumers adrift.

Nobody wants greenery bad enough to die for it. Unlike previous recalls of specific products from specific batches, from specific suppliers in specific areas, this advisory carefully avoided anything more specific than an ominous worldwide warning.

It is a cautionary tale, however, about what lies ahead for food safety and (more generally) for food security as well, in a climate-changing world where food supplies will be under increasing stress for a variety of reasons.

Any cursory inspection of a grocery store makes us realize we are woven together into a global food system. There are products (fresh, frozen and canned) from everywhere, many of which have become staples of our diet, both at home and in restaurants out to the end of the universe.

Much of that food is grown for export in regions where living standards are lower than our own, where the availability of clean, fresh water — or water of any kind — is a serious local problem.

When travelling outside of North America, visitors find vegetables are things best cooked — but fried lettuce is an acquired taste. If you simply must have a salad on your exotic vacation, Montezuma will be a regular companion, guaranteed to get his revenge on you for consuming food the locals can’t get or afford.

Back home, we complain about poor-quality green beans in February, or cluck over the latest shipment of starfruit in March. We don’t think at all about the produce from California, where constant drought means the wildfire season is now year-round.

Globally, all the different facets of agriculture (from producing to processing) account for anywhere from 65 to 80 per cent of all freshwater usage. When water is in short supply, people are competing with lettuce and cows for their very survival. Irrigation with contaminated water, or a shortage of good water for cleaning the crop afterward, is increasingly likely.

So it is therefore not surprising to find our fresh food contaminated by E. coli these days. What is surprising is that these outbreaks are not reported more frequently.

This brings me back to whether we should be substituting chocolate for caesar salad, as a less deadly alternative.

The Food and Drug Administration is now saying it thinks the lethal lettuce is from central California, so crops from elsewhere are not affected and therefore (cough, cough) “safe.”

They are promising to do what should have been done all along, for all of our food — provide some source labelling, so people know where that crate of romaine was grown.

As a consumer, I should have the right to know what I am eating and where it comes from. With that knowledge, I then have a choice whether I want to take the inevitable risk of eating what I have not grown myself.

Yet food labelling is a hotly contested topic. Producers and distributors don’t want consumers to know the point of origin, especially when it comes to fresh stuff. Often the displays in supermarkets won’t tell you. Nor is there always a label on the produce.

We have the right to know what we are buying and eating. Don’t get brushed off by objections that it is too complicated or too expensive to implement. For decades, the aviation industry has had a system to track every single part in every airplane back to the plant, the shift, the worker who made the screw and what they had for lunch that day.

With computers and bar codes, we could literally track every coffee bean back to whichever Juan Valdez workers picked it, where and when, in Colombia or anywhere else. We could learn everything about our food — there would be an app for that, if producers and especially the multinational food companies wanted us to know.

Instead, eating has become a risky business. We have to trust a lot of other people that what we eat is safe. E. coli outbreaks remind us that regulations and occasional inspections are not enough anymore.

In part, it is our own fault, wanting to eat the same foods year-round. A diet of fast-food monotony means you need lettuce on your Saturday burger whether it is July or December. Fast food, like junk food, is always in season. The menu never changes.

Eating anything fresh is a matter of faith. When someone serves me salad, my silent response is not applause for Health Canada.

Rather, it is: “Lettuce? Pray!”

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Environmentalism is for everyone: #RiseforClimate September 8

(September 6, 2018)

It’s back-to-school time again. Many parents of first graders have sent their kids off to school for the first time, with all the excitement that surrounds that milestone. Whether it is figuring out the complexities of school-supply lists, packing lunches or dealing with early morning wake-up, parents have a lot to handle.

In other words, I don’t think they have done the math. This year’s Grade 1 cohort will finish high school, all things being equal, in the year 2030. Should we want a sustainable future for life after graduation for these kids, that’s the year by which the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals need to be achieved.

Many readers will not know much, if anything, about these goals. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is not something most families discuss at the dinner table.

Yet a lot of people around the world were involved in the largest and most complicated consultation process ever attempted, leading by a kind of consensus to 17 Sustainable Development Goals and the 169 targets that go with them, which were approved by member states of the United Nations (including Canada) in 2015.

It is a long list, obviously, a list on which many of the targets — even some goals — seem irrelevant to the perspective most Canadians have on their own lives. We live in a wealthy country that is part of “the North” for many more reasons than its geography, so it is too easy to skip past such goals as goal No. 2 (“End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture”) without realizing how many Canadians worry about these things every day.

Drilling down to the targets that lead to these goals, we are not working very hard on target 2.4 (“By 2030, ensure sustainable food production systems and implement resilient agricultural practices that increase productivity and production, that help maintain ecosystems, that strengthen capacity for adaptation to climate change, extreme weather, drought, flooding and other disasters and that progressively improve land and soil quality”).

That would require leadership at provincial or federal levels of government in Canada, which has been missing so far.

Looking at target 2.1 (“By 2030, end hunger and ensure access by all people, in particular the poor and people in vulnerable situations, including infants, to safe, nutritious and sufficient food all year round”), it’s much worse. We are not doing anything to achieve this target for ourselves, let alone working on it for people in developing countries in the global south.

And 2030 is also the year that the climate change curves (the ones that used to predict catastrophe by 2050) now come together. Given the extreme weather and the fires, heat and drought of this past summer, if nothing changes, by 2030 we will have run out of forests to burn.

So, for the sake of those ankle-biters heading off to Grade 1 this week, I am an ­environmentalist. So should be anyone who really cares what kind of world these kids will face when they graduate.

Environmentalists catch a lot of flak they don’t deserve. We want everyone — even the internet trolls — to have clean air, clean water, enough good food to eat and the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of being alive on the Earth.

If you think the same, that makes you one of us. If you tell someone else they need to change how they live, or if other people have noticed how you have changed your own lifestyle first, that makes you an activist, too.

Environmental activists want the best for every person, regardless of who they are, where they live, the colour of their skin, their religion or how much money they have — not just today, but tomorrow, too, all the way out to the seventh generation.

Sept. 8 is #RiseforClimate Day around the world. Sponsored by 350.org — an organization that has no real leaders, just ordinary people who care — we are mobilizing a planet full of people who care but don’t know what to do next, creating a political force that will shape the mess around us into the world — and future — we want.

What you choose to do matters. When you change how you live, even in small ways, it makes a difference for you, your family and your community.

Join us. Do something on Sept. 8 and support #RiseforClimate.

Ultimately, we will change the world — and if the politicians can’t lead or won’t follow, they had better get out of the way.

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