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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