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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Voters should look to local heroes

(October 23, 2018)

When election time rolls around, I really do my best to avoid repeating the lines from Simon and Garfunkel’s Mrs. Robinson in my head:

“Laugh about it, shout about it/When you’ve got to choose/Every way you look at it, you lose…”

Politics of all kinds these days, not just the American variety, leave us wondering where the heroes have gone, why the leaders we have today seem so far removed from the ones we remember.

When people reminisce with fondness about the arrogant disdain Pierre Trudeau had for mere mortals, or hail Jean Chrétien as the “green” prime minister, or remember Stephen Harper for his humility, there is something seriously wrong with our political compass — and with our moral compass — as well as with our memory.

Marvel Comics has touched a nerve in the last decade with all of its various superhero films. Our world does need heroes, of all sorts, but the ones we see in the news most frequently are the ones most lacking in leadership essentials.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Special Report on 1.5 degrees (Oct. 8), combined with Category 5 hurricane Michael hitting the Florida Panhandle as the worst ever recorded there, provided a fitting context for American economist William Nordhaus sharing the Nobel Prize in economics for his work on carbon tax and greenhouse-gas emission reduction.

Flip to Manitoba the same week, and Premier Brian Pallister flops by cancelling his Made in Manitoba Climate and Green Plan’s carbon tax — apparently to the surprise of his caucus, as well as the dismay of Manitobans of all political stripes. We now have no carbon tax, as well as no plan what to do with carbon tax revenues to reduce emissions if the federal government follows through on what it promised.

The rest of that Green Plan will now probably be kicked to the curb, because Manitoba can’t afford any of it without carbon tax revenue, but Pallister can still weakly claim that he tried.

At least when Alberta’s Rachel Notley makes a hash of things, she does it with some literary flair. She pompously announced, “In Alberta, we ride horses, not unicorns,” to a bunch of teachers who have already figured out that Albertans don’t ride nearly enough horses to save the planet, as that province is Canada’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, mostly from fossil-fuel combustion.

Ontario’s Doug Ford, on the other hand, is crying into his now-more-expensive beer. Climate change will wreck barley production and drive up the price of what Ontario voters seemingly wanted more than a healthy future for their children.

As another example of the fiscal responsibility we have come to expect from recent Conservative governments, Ford’s fit of pique in cancelling the cap-and-trade system and other green initiatives will cost Ontarians upwards of $3 billion and, for next generations, much more down the road.

Throughout all of this political nonsense, Mother Nature just keeps on warming, ignoring our seriously misplaced sense of self-importance and leaving us to sow the seeds of our own doom.

It doesn’t have to be this way — but that would mean finding leaders who really lead, on the issues that threaten the world as we know it.

Sometimes I wonder if we are looking too high up the ladder. Perhaps we should be looking not for global heroes, but for local ones.

Canadians are not alone in this predicament. Elsewhere, when national governments fail repeatedly to address the causes of global warming and climate change, regional governments are stepping up. U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has threatened to sue California and other states to stop their climate initiatives, essentially saying the federal government has the right to endanger their children, too.

When regional governments also fail, local governments — especially in cities — are still stepping up to make a difference. More and more people live in cities, and in many ways the global effort to change course will be won or lost in the places where most people live.

The mayor of Winnipeg (who is elected directly, unlike the premier) manages the lives of three-quarters of Manitoba’s population. City councillors are responsible for a very large budget, in a defined local area, where they have the authority to do some things differently, if they choose, regardless of what the province says.

If the mayor and council (and the Manitoba Capital Region municipalities) decide to work together for a sustainable future, it would give everyone a place to contribute, right here where it matters most — close to home — however inadequate the provincial effort might be.

On election day, get out and vote for some local heroes — for people who want to make a real difference where they live, who will work for serious change and not just continue to do business as usual.

Heroes? We need them.

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