B.C. wine snub leaves foul taste

(February 28, 2018)

To the dismay of comedians across the country, cooler heads have prevailed. Alberta Premier Rachel Notley has rescinded her boldly comic move to single-handedly rescue the wine industry in British Columbia by blocking sale of its beverages from her province. Covering herself with the fig leaf of letting the courts rule on B.C.’s right to block the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline, she has (for now) escaped further ridicule.

After years of drought, forest fires and uncertainty about who wanted to drink Okanagan anyway, Notley’s boycott of B.C. wines was an answer to a prayer. Only the unfortunate timing of the NDP National Convention, Feb. 16-18, spoiled things. No doubt, after NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh contemplated the mutually assured destruction of his party’s only two provincial governments, the two leaders were convinced to sit down for a cup of some neutral beverage and talk.

Going back a week, after B.C. Premier John Horgan inexplicably fulfilled an election promise to block the Trans Mountain pipeline, Notley took out her frustration on a handful of Albertans in petulant fashion, banning B.C. wines in Alberta and declaring, “Let them drink beer!”

Speaking as a native-born Albertan and an environmentalist (not the oxymoron Notley seems to think it is), the boycott made no sense. There is no wine bar on Chuckwagon Row at the Calgary Stampede, so most Albertans would not feel the loss.

I suspect the $70-million B.C. winery bill was being paid by ex-pats from other places, people with more money than judgment. The few local Albertan wine-drinkers only drank B.C. vintages because they found it hard to swallow wine (or anything else) from Ontario. They would be the only ones crying in their beer.

In fact, Alberta’s premier has given the B.C. wine industry tons of free advertising (“They seriously make wine in British Columbia?”) and, even more importantly, a huge reason for many Canadians and others to pick some up at their local liquor store.

What better way to twist the lion’s tail than to serve B.C. wine at every Liberal Party function across the country? Serve it guerrilla-style at banquets, get a photo of Prime Minister Trudeau quaffing a glass and then post it on social media next to the B.C. bottle? Tweet that picture to Rachel Notley?

The comic possibilities were endless. After her announcement, I immediately bought my first bottle of B.C. wine in years, a quaintly labelled “Reincarnation” by the Diabolica label, for my initial glass of Liberal red protest.

Since we are only on pause until the courts offer B.C. some vaguely apologetic constitutional refusal, we might as well share the experience with the hashtag #PinotBeforePipelines. Perhaps paparazzi could follow “Minister of Pipelines” Jim Carr around town, hoping to catch a picture of him toasting his own protest against Notley over dinner?

So, it’s game on. Serve a Liberal politician (hey, any federal politician!) wine from B.C. and post it. Pose with your friends and do the same. Rescue the B.C. wine industry from forest fires, drought and the politics of pipeline petulance.

After all, the prime minister himself dismissed B.C.’s objections in Marie Antoinette-ish fashion, saying the pipeline will be built, whatever they say or do, so this is only a momentary reprieve. We might as well get started.

The bitter irony in targeting the B.C. wine industry over the pipeline dispute — Alberta’s best efforts to terminate life on Earth by burning up the tar sands — is that climate change already threatens grape growers in the drier parts of the province.

#PinotBeforePipelines is actually iconic, a symbol of what precisely is at stake in a warming world threatened by governments that insist on subsidizing the fossil fuel industry, rather than finding ways to leave it in the ground.

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Learning to live without plastic

St. Joseph’s Cathedral (Ngong), with a local dump in the foreground. On the right, plastic bags that will take 1000 years to decompose…on the left, out of sight, an equally big pile of plastic bottles.

(January 2, 2018)

#BeatPollution was the hashtag for the third United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi in early December. The theme was “Toward a pollution-free planet,” which all the UN member states were supposed to address in resolutions, side events and presentations at the global headquarters for the United Nations environment program.

The devil, of course, is always in the details. While governments agreed on some ambitious proposals in Nairobi, what happens when everyone gets home is the real test.

Pollution most concerns us when it is obvious, local and personal — when you can’t breathe because of poor air quality, when the water is contaminated to the point you can’t drink it, when the ground makes you and your children sick just to walk on it — then, people get upset about pollution.

What is most frightening, however, is when the effects are just as serious, but the pollution itself is not so immediate or obvious.

Take lead, for example. One resolution moved to ban lead in all paints, globally. Too many countries in the world still allow it — and Canada only banned lead in paint in 1990. Leaded gasoline is still for sale, though almost all of it is lead-free these days. Out of curiosity, I took a free blood test to check my own lead levels… and despite living in what I thought was a relatively lead-free environment, my level was 5.9/10. In an adult, apparently it needs to be more than 10 to be cause for concern, but any level of lead in children can cause serious and lifelong cognitive disabilities.

Industrial pollutants can be like this — persistent in the environment, persistent in our bodies, causing (in combination) health problems later in life. The only way to stop this from happening is to stop the pollution at the source.

Plastic is perhaps the worst example. Most of the plastic ever made is still around us — it can take thousands of years to decompose. Yet most of it is for convenience, unnecessary, used to save us time and effort. If we factored in the cost of this long-term plastic contamination of the planet, those throw-away, single-use plastics from fast-food operations (apparently the single biggest source) would cost more than stainless steel.

There is so much plastic in the oceans already that there is no longer such a thing as plastic-free wild fish anymore — and by 2050, there will be (by weight) as much plastic in the ocean as there are fish. It’s not just the big chunks, either — micro-plastics, such as microfibres from polyester clothing, or micro-beads of plastic in everything from cosmetics to toothpaste to who knows what, are already in the water we drink and the food we eat. The byproducts of plastics are certainly circulating through our bloodstreams, in ever-increasing amounts.

Despite this, the piles of plastic waste grow. One resolution started to tackle the issue of marine plastics pollution and to identify the land-based sources and the barriers to cleaning up the oceans. It may be hard for Winnipeggers to get concerned about the subject, at least until the next time you eat fish, but there are roughly a billion people worldwide who depend on the sea for the food they need to survive.

It’s a huge job — how does one clean up an ocean? — but it’s clearly easier to stop the plastic from getting into the water in the first place. We just have to start, and to stop making excuses for continuing to foul our collective nest with plastics we don’t need.

For example — plastic straws. Ban them. Period. Plastic knuckles for coffee cream? Don’t eat at restaurants that continue to serve them, because they can’t be bothered finding another way. Carry your own cutlery for takeout food — and make sure the containers are made of paper or compostable materials.

And those plastic bags, the ones we can’t seem to do without? The ones we tried to encourage people not to use, and then gave up?

For the first time ever, I had to be very careful not to pack anything (like shoes) in a plastic bag in my luggage. Kenya has joined a growing list of countries in Africa to ban single-use plastic bags. Some, like Uganda, have had limited success.

Not Kenya — enforcement is strict and the penalties are severe. With fines of US$400 and/or four years in jail, the government means business.

In the Nairobi airport on my way home, I ran into Judy Wakhungu, Kenya’s cabinet secretary for environment, water and natural resources, and told her how wonderful it was that the Kenyan government was doing something about the problem of plastics pollution.

She said they were serious about cleaning up the problem, and the strict enforcement would continue. She was glad to hear me report that driving through the countryside, this time, past dozens of outdoor markets, plastic bags were nowhere to be seen.

Government regulations can work, if they are applied to everyone. In Nairobi, people walk into the upscale Two Rivers Mall carrying their own shopping bags — because they have no other choice except to put mushrooms in their pockets.

A ban on single-use plastics of all kinds — starting with bags — could be part of a Manitoba climate and green plan.

It only took Kenya six months.

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Desperation agriculture won’t feed the world

(December 14, 2017)

At a United Nations environment meeting in Nairobi in 2013 about “feeding the world,” I got into an argument with several officials when I objected to the theme.

We don’t need to try to feed the world, I said. We need sustainable agriculture, instead. WE are hiring the Cheapest towing Ottawa service we can find to partner with us on changing our farm landscapes.

It was not a popular opinion, despite the long-term disastrous consequences of the 1980s Green Revolution — rapid declines in productivity, soil fertility, arable land in production, and so on. The benefits of intensive agriculture had turned out to be short term, requiring chemical fertilizers, new crop varieties, pesticides and herbicides — all of which increased the costs of farming and required larger yields and higher returns to be sustainable.

When the bubble burst, some developing countries went from being net exporters to net importers of food, and became more food insecure almost overnight.

“Feeding the world” has become justification for continuing current industrial agricultural practices, despite the obviously bad ecological impacts of how we produce our food. In addition, we are essentially farming oil, given the greenhouse gases produced and the fossil fuels consumed in fertilizers, as well as in fuel for our tractors and trucks.

For a sustainable future, we need to choose sustainable agriculture over what I suggest should really be called “desperation agriculture.”

Desperation agriculture is more than industrial agriculture. It includes all those agricultural practices that place other values ahead of sustainability.

Subsistence agriculture can also be desperation agriculture — small-holder farmers trying to be sure they produce enough to feed their families, for now. It would include fishing, hunting — whatever is needed to produce enough food to survive. If this means burning rain forest to graze cattle, slash-and-burn becomes what we have to do. Tomorrow can take care of itself.

Many farmers using industrial farming practices have the same problem — costs are so high that cash crops are essential, every season, requiring fertilizer inputs to enable this constant production while making other more-sustainable practices (such as leaving land fallow) impractical.

Such practice also becomes desperation agriculture, with increasing debt loads that mean constantly being one harvest away from disaster, requiring jobs off the farm to cover the perpetual shortfall in family income. When the bank owns more than the farmer, long-term sustainable farming practices may be a luxury the farm-as-business can’t afford.

Salinity of the soil, soil depletion, vulnerability of mono-crops to pests and disease, water pollution from large-scale animal production — all these things are seen as inevitable, just the cost of doing business.

“Feeding the world” is therefore essentially an ideological stance, something that is used to perpetuate agricultural practices that are short-sighted, ecologically destructive, and that prefer short-term benefits for a few despite the long-term negative consequences for all.

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