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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Climate-change arena leaves no real winners

(November 20, 2018)

As the snow starts to fly, the “boys of summer” are done, the Jets are flying and the last frozen footballs are about to be thrown in the CFL.

Looking at a rapidly warming world (remember that 12-year time limit?) we should be debating what parts of our lifestyle — and our society — should be changed, surrendered or eliminated altogether if we want to survive.

However long your list might be, chances are “getting rid of professional sports” will not be found there, even though it should be.

Certain sectors seem to be exempt from reality these days. The top two would be professional sports and tourism.

I like watching a good game, even if seeing it in person is way out of my price range. But in a world of choices, where we have to start counting our carbon like average Canadians should be counting their calories, it is hard to justify the costs.

In the NHL, there are 31 teams, playing 82 regular-season games… before the playoffs add on even more. I wonder what the NHL’s carbon footprint might be? And yet, is any minimal effort made to mitigate that, like having teams play a double-header before flying off to their next game somewhere else? Shortening the regular season?

Nope. We won’t even talk about the carbon costs of playing hockey in semi-tropical climates — the wildfires in California routinely overlap with the hockey seasons of the Los Angeles Kings and the Anaheim Ducks.

We won’t even mention the Arizona Coyotes, the Vegas Golden Knights or the Florida Panthers. Hockey has little to do with winter sports anymore. It’s about the money, honey.

Add in the NBA, the NFL — and baseball in season — and you get my point. It’s not just team travel, either, but all the thousands of fans burning up carbon to attend the games.

In the United States, consider how much more greenhouse gas gets added on for college and university sports, even if we allowed kids in the regular school system a free pass on that carbon counter.

It’s also not about getting exercise. People are watching the game, not playing it. Other sports are the same. Imagine a golf course where everyone walked instead of using a power cart.

Speaking of golf courses, perhaps we should call the problem “the Mar-a-Lago Effect.” In other words, “I don’t need to change how I am living or what I am doing, because money and power will insulate me from whatever bad things might happen in a politically destabilized, climate-changing and warming world.”

It’s a free pass for business as usual, for the arrogant one per cent. As for the rest of us? If we have bread and circuses, as the Romans used to say, they figure we won’t notice what else is going on.

In Ontario, Premier Doug Ford has changed that slogan to beer and circuses in the Ontario legislature. In Manitoba, Premier Brian Pallister has focused on pot and playoffs, no doubt hoping we will be too stoned or distracted to notice the only green in his Made-in-Manitoba Climate and Green Plan is lake algae.

Similarly, in a world full of oxymorons, one of the worst has to be “green tourism.” The only thing green about tourism is the money other people make from those tourists, while the locals are left to clean up the mess.

Tourists are people who pay to live somewhere else in ways they could never afford to live at home. Visiting an area with a water shortage? Flush and shower away. Power supply unreliable? Not in the resort area — leave the lights on and crank the AC. Hungry people, living in the squalor of abject poverty? “Waiter, call the manager. There’s not enough selection on the dinner buffet.”

For tourists, it’s a chance (even for a week) to experience the Mar-a-Lago Effect, until the credit card is maxed or the visa expires and they return to grey reality back home.

Perhaps that’s the problem. Professional sports and tourism sell us a dream, whether it is about heroism, winning or luxury. We seeming willing to pay a lot for that dream, even if we know it will be over Monday morning.

In a climate-changing world, that dream is no longer just a harmless fantasy. It is a delusion we can no longer afford.

Whatever the frothing of the trolls in response to statements like this, common sense tells us that time marches on. A minute wasted never comes back to be better spent tomorrow.

While we cheer and jeer, constructing beer snakes instead of composters, it doesn’t matter which team wins the game. If nothing changes, we will all lose, together, and soon.

Our leaders (in all sectors) need to lead. Or quit, and let someone else try.

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Remembering an unnecessary war

The National War Memorial (Ottawa), May 2015
Photo: Peter Denton

(November 9, 2018)

I grew up surrounded by the memories of two world wars — not my own memories, of course, but those of the adults whose lives unfolded around me.

On this 100th anniversary of that first Armistice Day, such personal memories of the Great War are gone forever. Obituary pages bear grim witness to the rapidly dwindling number of veterans and others who remember what the Second World War was like, as well.

Soon, only those who have been involved in Canada’s longest and smallest wars will be left to remind the rest of us what service “for Queen and Country” can mean.

Geordie Sutherland certainly knew. Every Sunday, he greeted me at the door of my church in Selkirk, wearing his navy blue legion blazer and a red regimental necktie. Only serious illness or a reluctant holiday would make him leave his post.

As the years went by, he yielded to my curiosity and talked a little about the Great War. Born in Scotland, he had emigrated to Canada as a youngster, only to lie his way past the recruiters and enlist when he was 15 years old. Discovering his age just before the boat sailed, the army decided he was too young to die, and left him at home for another year.

Geordie eventually got his wish and shipped over to Europe. After having both mumps and chickenpox, he made it to France in time to fight in the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917, where he was wounded, likely by shrapnel. After the war, he returned to Ontario with his first wife, a war bride. Later in life, he moved to Selkirk with his second wife, becoming a fixture at the legion, in the church and around town.

From that time forward, however, he told no one — not even his family or closest friends — about his wartime experiences. They were too painful for words. Even many years afterward, only the tears in his eyes and a thickening of his Scottish brogue (if he could speak at all) revealed just how much pain came to mind on days such as Nov. 11.

When the guns fell silent on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the world sighed with relief. What we need to remember, 100 years later, however, is that the Great War should never have been fought at all.

The sacrifices of 1914-18, made by both those who died and those who lived, and the pain of their families at home, accomplished nothing good. It was obviously not “the war to end all wars,” because “the Great War” became known as the First World War after the second one began in 1939. In fact, the ink was not even dry on the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 before people were discussing, fearing — and planning — what they called “the Next War.”

As a historian, over and over again I have come to the conclusion that the Great War was unnecessary, that it was the product of the arrogance and stupidity of leaders whose warped view of the universe was not tempered by contact with reality, evidence or common sense.

Four years of worldwide industrial warfare destroyed four empires, shattered two more and (more ominously) opened to door to conflict between two new empires in the Pacific (America and Japan) and the development and use of atomic weapons.

When you add to that devastation the vindictive and pigheaded terms of the Treaty of Versailles, by 1919, the foundations were laid for the rise of communism and fascism and a next war that would be worse.

Without the Great War, in other words, life in the rest of the 20th century would have been very different.

So, when the church bells ring out across Canada at sundown on Nov. 11 this year, ringing 100 times to mark the centennial of that armistice, with every stroke of every bell, we should remember the sacrifices that were made by people we will never know, in a war that should never have been fought.

But if we really want to honour their sacrifices, we can’t just ring a bell.

They would want us to find a way to settle our differences other than by fighting. They would also want us to reject leaders who demonstrate the same bad judgment that in 1914 launched the planet into a century filled with conflict.

No one who starts a war expects to lose it — but next time around, there will be no winners. Everyone will certainly lose.

One year, in late fall, I got a message that Geordie had finally decided to tell me about his experiences when I came home from university at Christmas. To my deep regret, by then he had taken that secret pain to his grave, unshared.

This year, especially, I will remember him.

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