The Other I

October 9, 2016

International Trade: The devil’s own?

Filed under: Environmental Issues,Food chains,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 8:41 pm

In my last post, I reviewed what I found to be the astonishing feat we humans have accomplished in providing nourishment for literally billions more people than populated our globe a mere 75 years ago.  This is an incredible feat for which we as species can be proud.

Most of us have no idea of the size of this gigantic accomplishment nor that it could not have been achieved without international trade.

The great risk of this ignorance is that many of us, especially in the developed world, are undergoing a mega-temptation to close off the very processes of this source of enrichment.

This might just sound ignorant, selfish, or racist on the part of people who are just too lazy to work.  But it would be a huge mistake to reduce the problem to bigotry or a preference to depend on hand-outs.. Vast swathes of joblessness resulting from international trade has created real problems for hard-working people who have been driven from a middle class life style to the edges of serious poverty.  This has happened before, but perhaps never so rapidly and without the accompanying awareness made possible by our modern communications system.

Worldwide international communication conceptHere’s an example.  China was accepted into the World Trading Organization in 1993, it looked like an unalloyed win-win situation for the world.  It indeed has been a win for Chinese workers who now supply 20% of world-wide manufacturing exports.  China has been transformed from a poor to a middle-income country, taking hundreds of millions out of poverty.   And in the developed world, the less well-off benefited hugely from cheaper imports of everything from computers to solar panels.

But the developed world did not foresee the millions of  factory job losses in countries benefiting from cheaper products being imported from China.  Today, economists estimate that up to 2.4 million jobs in America alone may have been lost as a  result of Chinese imports.

And these jobs were not replaced.  Workers could not simply move to another part of the country.  The kind of jobs for which these unemployed workers were trained no longer exist in sufficient numbers in the developed world.

It is easy to understand why people on the ground resent international trade.  It’s a resentment swelling up in Europe, Australia, North and Latin America, the Middle and Far East.  But the solution, unfortunately, is not to build walls, to slam the door shut, to go back to the mythical days when we were supposedly all able to take care of ourselves.

The problem is extraordinarily complex, and solutions are not simple.  But there are things we can do which will not destroy the huge benefits which so many have received as a result of international trade.

Culturally, the human species has always had to walk that narrow road between benefiting from our great diversity of gifts and being quite realistically threatened by them.  But we are all in this together, and with increased globalization, it is increasingly important that we learn to appreciate the huge value of our differences.

Politically, we also need to make changes.  The America government has been particularly – but not uniquely – slow to appreciate the scope of job-losses resulting from China’s rapid industrialization.  Some countries – Denmark, for instance – have done a better job of providing job retraining and meaningful unemployment benefits for those actively seeking for work.  Governments can also create jobs.  In the U.S. the needs for upgrading our transportation, electricity, and other superstructures is significant.  Few countries are without similar needs.

There are also world-wide problems of reduced competition and tax avoidance by international companies which is increasing joblessness among former factory workers.  Internet giants by and large pay above-average pay to all their workers.  But they crowd out small businesses or buy them up, reducing competition.  These are not easy problems to solve, but we must grapple with them if we don’t want to lose the benefits of international trade which enriches us all.


September 26, 2016

Feeding the hungry

Filed under: Food chains,Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 3:31 pm

Before reading the rest of this post, you might find it as interesting as I did to make a guess at percentage of the world population you would estimate are undernourished in the world today.

To put that estimate in context, here are a few more relevant facts:

  • in 1945 at the end of two world wars, the global population was 2 billion, 50% of whom the Food & Agriculture Association of the United Nation estimates were undernourished;  that’s about half a billion people
  • in the 60 years since then, the world population has swelled to 7.4 billion, an increase of the human population never seen in the history of our species

I was astonished to read that today, the World Health Organization estimates that about 11% of the human population is malnourished.  That’s a painful 8 million people.  But somehow, even with a burgeoning increase in the human population, the percentage of malnourished has dropped in 60 years from 50% to 11%.  Instead of more than 3 1/2 billion starving people today, the problem has shrunk dramatically.

How did it happen?

Do you want to make another guess?

That’s the subject of my next post.


April 3, 2015

Menu for Good Fry Day

Filed under: Food chains,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:27 pm

In Scotland, deep-fat fried Mars bars are almost as familiar as french fries and battered fish.

But today, every item on the menu for the day at the restaurant Fry Hard is fried.  They fry roast, yorkshire puddings, roast potatoes, pickles, parsnips, carrots, turnips, all sorts of greens.  They even apparently experimented deep-fat frying gravy, but that didn’t work.  The menu does include all the old favourites, however –  battered deep-fat fried Mars bars, Snickers and Creme Eggs.

Deep-fried Toblerone ... "inedible".Which, as the Guardian newspaper put it, might be “a case of batter the devil you know.”


August 12, 2014

What do you do with a problem like — Courgette?

Filed under: Food chains,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:38 pm

So we all know what I’m talking about, let me begin by saying that what are called courgettes here in England are called zucchini and summer squash in America.  Having sworn off farming in the U.S. at the early age of about six, I do not know if these vegetables are as dependent on the weather as they are here,  but over here they are fussy prima donnas.  Last summer was not a productive year.  So this year, Peter sewed twice as many.

Being a Yorkshireman, he’s been announcing for months that they were a failure once again this summer.

Maybe.  But at last count, 10 plants have produced at least 50 courgettes, and they are still madly producing.  At the moment, there is  no end in sight.  I think they are even beginning to multiply in our refrigerator drawer.

So what do you do with what feels like a steady supply of about 3 courgettes coming into your kitchen on a daily basis for maybe as long as 8 weeks?  They’re not easy to freeze because of their high water content, so the solution isn’t to throw them into a freezer bag for mid-winter use.  At the very least, they have to be cooked first.

So far we’ve had courgettes baked, curried, stuffed, battered and au-provincial.  We’ve had courgette fritters, courgettes grated with cream and pancetta,  courgette tart, courgette cake, courgette soup, courgette in salad,  in a stir-fry, and used them as pasta substitutes with spaghetti.  And oh, I forget to mention:  courgette flowers are supposed to be a superb delicacy.  We haven’t tried that yet.

And to think I used to think they were a boring old vegetable.





May 18, 2014

Claude, the cows are out again

Filed under: Food chains,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:15 pm

My father made his living and supported his large family as an attorney.  But influenced by Dorothy Day, he bought 70 acres of  virgin land in northern Ohio, where he set out to provide his children with a life close to the natural goodness of growing things. He transformed a swamp into a lake where we went swimming and ice skating, and fishing.  The fields were planted with wheat which fed the cows and chickens and pigs, quonsut huts left over after the war were converted into barns for the hay, the orchard gave us apples and pears, the garden gave us berries and vegetables.

But at heart, my father was not really a farmer.  He went to his law office  5 1/2 days a week, and on Saturday afternoons and after church on Sundays, when he put on a pair of grungy overalls and boots to go into the fields, it was as much recreation as farming.   One of my recurring memories of childhood was our herd of cows escaping from the fields in which they were feeding.  Occasionally they made in onto a neighbouring field, but most often they escaped onto the public road.  My mother would look out the kitchen window, and inevitably make the phone call to my dad at the office:  “Claude, the cows are out again.”

For my part, I’d decided by the age of six that I was not a farm girl and hatched a plan which I eventually achieved to live in New York.  After I was married, my husband and I agreed that the final decisions about the inside of our property would be mine, while the decisions about outside were his.  It’s worked out well.  The closest I got to gardening was to water our decorative house plants.

Several years ago, however, a friend introduced me to square-foot gardening, a process by which one grows plants in planters rather than fields or allotments, and which I thought sufficiently urban to try.  I’ve rather enjoyed being introduced to various plants which ultimately land on our dinner table.  Handling them seems to me rather like managing a kindergarten of energetic two-year olds all of whom have a personal opinion about what they want to do.  Since our opinions don’t always agree, we have learned to compromise.

I ran into a problem with the strawberries, though.  Last February, I meticulously prepared a planter raised several feet above the ground with a mixture of vermiculite, compost, and a peat-substitute, and  planted two dozen plugs,  I ran a watering system to feed each plant and constructed a frame and netting to protect the berries from our endemic flock of wood pigeons.  It was a lot of work, but I was chuffed, and the strawberry plants looked just as happy.

Two weeks ago, the bottom of the planter fell out, spilling its contents all over the ground.  It took me three days to rebuild and replant it, but in the end it looked as good as new.  The strawberries brushed themselves off and adapted to their shake-up as well.  It was worth the effort to have made the repairs.

Thursday, at the end of a long working day outside together when we were just about ready to sit down for a well-earned gin and tonic, my husband came into the kitchen and said “Come here.  I’m afraid you aren’t going to like this.  You aren’t going to like this at all.”  We went outside to see the strawberry planter had collapsed again.  I started to laugh.  My husband looked at me quizzically.

“Tell Claude the cows are out again,” was all I could say.

I’ve put the planter together again, this time with better screws and stronger support bars.  And I apologized to the neighbour’s cat.  I’m sure it wasn’t his fault after all.



July 12, 2013

A cultural discovery

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Food chains — theotheri @ 9:05 pm

Cuts of meat are not the same everywhere in the world.  A cow might be a cow, and when it is slaughtered, the cuts might be called “beef,” but after that, the variation in cuts is huge.  I have found that cuts in Spain, in France, and here in England have all often been quite mysterious, and I have come home with little idea of how to cook what I have purchased.

But I certainly was unprepared just recently for the biggest surprise of all.  Bavette and onglet are the names of two of the most delicious French steaks I have ever eaten.  Better even than rib eye or sirloin.  And very easy to cook – 3-4 minutes on each side a very very hot grille, followed by a (mandatory) 15 minute rest while you get the rest of the meal finished.

So what’s the surprise?

It is the discovery that bavette and onglet are what Americans call skirt and flank steak.

Skirt and flank steak were always fairly inexpensive cuts of meat in my day, because they require long slow cooking in order not to be tough.

But they aren’t tough if they are not cooked beyond medium rare.  They are simply superb served with sautéed mushrooms, and positively luxurious with a glass of red wine on the side.

Try it.  I’d love to hear what you think if you do.

July 22, 2012

Why it’s harder to make a living in some places on earth

Economists have studied various economic and governmental institutions which either facilitate or retard development in a country.  They have identified some critical variables, but they are apt to miss some of the geographical variables that are equally important.

A look at a map of the globe in which the average incomes are displayed show that in both America and Africa, the countries at the northern and the southern tips of the continents have higher per capital incomes than countries in the middle.  This pattern holds even when government institutions are not ideal.  Why?

Because by and large, tropical climates tend to suffer from three significant geographical limitations that temperate climates often do not have to face.  These factors are disease, agricultural productivity of the land, and transportation.

Take disease.  Tropical diseases like elephantiasis or malaria are far more difficult to control than disease occurring in a temperate climate.  Partly this is because disease-causing microbes are not killed off each year by winter temperatures.  In tropical countries they continue to multiply year-round.  The problem is exacerbated when these microbes are carried by mosquitoes or ticks, which themselves multiply much faster in tropical climates.  Finally, the human workforce is itself debilitated both by disease and by the significantly higher number of children women bear, nurse and care for as insurance against the high death rate of children.

Disease, therefore is one factor which contributes to the second limitation of tropical zones which is lower agricultural productivity.  There are others.  First, plants that grow in temperate zones tend to store more energy in parts that are edible than plants that grow in tropical zones.  And disease also attacks plants in tropical zones more aggressively than in temperate zones, for the same reasons disease attacks humans more aggressively.  Fewer microbes are killed off by cooler weather.

Secondly, glaciers repeated advances and retreats in temperate climates have left the land nutrient-rich.  Tropical areas haven’t been enriched in this way.  Finally, because temperatures are higher in the tropics, organic matter is broken down faster by microbes.  This might sound like an advantage, but it isn’t because the nutrients produced by rotting matter is leached away more quickly than in temperate climates.  So by and large, soils in tropical climates are not as rich as they are in temperate zones.

The third factor which tends to favor temperate zones at the ends of the continents rather than in the middle is the availability of transportation, especially by sea.  It costs seven times more to ship goods by land than by sea.  This is one of the significant reasons why landlocked countries like Bolivia in South America, and the fifteen landlocked countries in Africa are among the poorest.

Geography isn’t everything, just as our genetic make-up is not a complete explanation for what any individual human becomes.

But geography hasn’t created a level playing field.  It’s a lot harder to make a living in some places than in others.

May 9, 2012

My vast unknowing

Filed under: Food chains,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 8:22 pm

I grew up on a farm.  We chickens and pigs.  We had cows that gave us milk and cream, and from which my mother made cheese and butter.  We skated on our lake in the winter, swam in it in the summer, and ate fish from it every Friday.  We had an apple orchard, pear trees, strawberries, a celery patch in the swamp, and most of our vegetables grew outside the kitchen door.  We played hide-and-seek in the wheat fields in the summer, and my brothers helped harvest it every fall.   I lived there until I was 18 when I escaped from what I never thought was the idyll that sounds so enviable.

But I never thought I didn’t understand plants.  My husband and I have grown everything from avocados to zucchini, from asparagus, bananas and lemons, to beans, tomatoes and squash.  Or perhaps I should say my husband grew these things.  I occasionally weeded the garden, but mostly I was happy with more urban pursuits.

We are now, however, engaged in an experiment in intensive gardening to produce more of our own vegetables in our own small suburban plot.  I told my husband I was planning on buying a few plugs for peas.  He sews mostly from seed, but I thought I’d experiment with plugs instead.  “What kind of peas?” Peter asked?

What kind of peas?! I thought.  Well, round green ones.  You know, the kind that come in cans or they serve with fish and chips.

Boy, do I have a lot to learn! I’m beginning to think that learning about peas is making my book about all of time look like child’s play.

Peas are not just peas, my dear.  There are round peas and wrinkled varieties.  There are mangtout varieties, petit pois, and asparagus pea varieties, all of which themselves come in various sizes, colors, heights, and temperaments.  Some crop as early as February, some as late as November, and others all the months in between.

I had no idea.  In fact, I had no idea that I had no idea.  The bags in the frozen food section of the supermarket where I thought peas went when they grew up just say “garden peas.”

Do you think Birds Eye know about this?

March 10, 2012

About the birds and the bees

I was watching the bees buzzing around our lavender bush this morning and I felt as if I’d gotten some clue about a problem that’s been nagging at me ever since I realized that, for whatever reason, I am not going to save the world after all.

I keep looking around at all the suffering and all the problems in the world, especially innocent suffering – like starving or abused children, or people bombed out of their homes or lives destroyed by natural or man-made events.  And of course, our global media makes it all so much more immediate.  I hear about the train crash in Poland that kills 30 people the morning it happens.  We practically can watch the bombs being dropped in Syria, and the children and mothers starving in the Sudan.

And I feel torn by guilt that I’m not doing anything to stop any of this.  Even worse, I often deliberately ignore it because I find the anguish so draining that it debilitates me.

As I was watching the bees, I was thinking how important they are to human life.  If they don’t pollinate the plants that feed our animals and feed us, we will starve.  We are absolutely dependent on them.  I doubt very much that the bees are aware of their importance in sustaining our lives.  Their task is to live as bees.  It is not their task to do all the other things we also need in order to survive.

I’m not supposed to save the world.  I’m a single limited human being in an enterprise is as gigantic next to me as the whole earth is next to that single busy bee.  What I am supposed to do is live a full loving human life to the best of my ability.

So I will try not to pass up the opportunities that come my way to be kind, to share what gifts and talents I may have.  It’s hubris to think I can do more than my small human life permits.

I am much more like a bee than like a god.

And I’ll be much happier and much less neurotic if I remember that.

April 2, 2011

Resources Ltd.

Filed under: Environmental Issues,Food chains — theotheri @ 3:32 pm

I have just read an article in the New Scientist.  I don’t understand most of the argument which reflects more mathematical reasoning than I could get my head around.

But the main idea is that even wind and wave energy is not infinitely renewable.  If we set up too many wind and wave farms around the world to harness energy for our personal uses, we will severely change the climate.  The effects will be as dramatic as those feared as the result of our carbon emissions.

In less than half a century, predictions are that the human population will have increased from the 6 billion today to 9 billion.  If planet earth is going to support a human population of this size, we are going to have to be very very clever.


That might not be the hard part.  The hard part might be that we also have to cooperate with each other.

I sort of wish I were going to be around to see what happens.  But by 2050, the chances are that I won’t be using up any of the world’s energy at all.

September 28, 2010

Going nuts

Filed under: Food chains — theotheri @ 4:03 pm

I’ve been searching the net trying to find out where the phrase “going nuts”

came from.  So far have  not found any suggestions about the etymology.  There are a lot of examples though, none of which seem to fit any of the many benefits of nuts that I’ve recently read about:

  • walnuts help reduce cholesterol, and are recommended as a defense against memory loss and heart disease
  • almonds are valuable weight-loss aids, and, like walnuts, help reduce cholesterol and memory loss
  • hazel nuts are recommended for skin cell renewal which tastes better than anti-aging cream
  • pistachios seems to reduce the incidence of several kinds of cancers
  • peanuts help in avoiding diabetes and gallstones

Now if I can just find a similar list about the benefits of chocolate, I might live a happy and healthy life for a century or more.  That is, if the list of things I’m going to have to give up isn’t too long.  I’m ignoring the research that suggests that eating less seems to lead to longevity.

January 5, 2010

Why I eat animals

I just figured out why I’m not a vegetarian.  Or rather, why I don’t feel guilty about not being a vegetarian.

I was tempted to give up eating meat when I realized animals are not machines.  They have a life force, intelligence, fears, strategies, affection, social hierarchies, feelings, even – if our Kuvasz were anything to go by – a sense of humour.

I’ve continued to eat not only milk and cheese and eggs, but steaks, chops and roasts because beef is the principal source of vitamin B complex which is essential to our smooth mental operations, among other things.  Somehow I haven’t been able to be convinced that the world order requires us to consume a diet that needs to be supplemented with vitamin pills.

Yet, I have shared this niggling discomfort with killing sentient life for my own survival.  I’ve discovered now that this discomfort also bothered St. Augustine of Hippo in the third century AD.  It bothered him so profoundly that he decided that something somewhere had gone terribly wrong – that God could not have created a world in which all living things so relentlessly pursue, kill, and consume other living beings in order to stay alive themselves.

Augustine, therefore, thought up the doctrine of original sin.  There is something seriously wrong, he reasoned, and it couldn’t be God’s fault.  It must be ours.

Today, though, we have a view of the universe and its development that Augustine didn’t have.  And I don’t think God made a perfect world which we humans have subsequently messed up.

What we know now is that the universe began with a burst of infinitely small particles.  They combined to make atoms, then molecules, then stars and entire systems of galaxies.  And it doesn’t stop there.  Somehow this impetus to combine in more complex organizations – a communitarian impulse, if you will – led to simple life.  Single cells then combined with each other, creating plants and then animals, and even us.

What I see in the universe, then, is not the bigger bullying, killing, and eliminating the smaller and weaker.  The smallest continues to exist – from the quarks and leptons in the atom, to the bacteria in our own intestines. Death is not necessarily the annihilation my ego thinks it is.  It is a step into – what word can I use – greater unity perhaps.

I might not understand it.  I might be tempted to look at the universe and from my limited point of view judge it as seriously screwed up.  Even evil in some respects.  Certainly not the way it’s “supposed” to be.

But I think I’m wrong.  I think the universe is the way it is supposed to be.   There are all sorts of things I don’t understand, but I am not all-wise.  And I really have to admit that I’m not in a position to set the entire universe on an improved course.

I’ll accept it the way it is on faith.  And accept that wherever it’s going, I feel grateful beyond words to be included in it all.

October 10, 2009

Fishing limits

Filed under: Food chains,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:48 pm

Agnes - October 10, 2009

Guess it’s best to remember when I’m organizing the world that not everybody likes fish.

October 6, 2009

It’s not New York City

Filed under: Food chains,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 7:26 pm

This evening our village email service delivered the following to our respective inboxes:

Missing since this morning:  a black chicken.  If you have seen the chicken or a pile of black feathers, would you please contact me.  DX, High Street.

This chicken roams widely around the village and is familiar to many of us.  Last Saturday it was outside the post office several blocks from High Street.  I hope she finds her way home.  But she lives a dangerous life.

October 5, 2009

A kitchen to rival the office

Filed under: Food chains,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:48 pm

Richard Wrangham, a  Harvard anthropologist, thinks that cooking began close to two million years ago when humans began to walk standing up and to make stone  tools.  His argument is that primates use huge amounts of energy in two things:  digesting food and thinking. By greatly reducing the energy we need to digest our food, cooking releases that energy for thinking.  And it was about two million years ago that not only stone tools appeared, but our guts, mouths, teeth and jaws all shrank to their current size.  And our brains began to get bigger.

Wrangham also thinks that cooking is what started culture.  We began to gather for meals which helped form close communities.  Women became queen of the kitchen whose role was as important to the community’s intelligent survival as the deer their men folk brought home to cook.

It was Sister Anne Cecilia at Maryknoll who first made me look at the kitchen with serious respect.  Today I think maybe we women don’t want to get out of there too fast after all.

September 13, 2009

Bee colony collapse: more evidence

Filed under: Food chains — theotheri @ 4:25 pm

The survival of bees, one would think, does have some intrinsic value in itself, and that their wonton destruction at the heedless behest of us humans is morally reprehensible.    But to be a little more self-centered about it, we humans need bees to survive ourselves.

We need them almost as badly as we need oxygen.  Because we need food, and without the bees pollinating the millions of acres of crops which go to feed us, millions of us are going to starve rather quickly.

The hunt for the cause of bee colony collapse began some years ago in the United States where bee colonies are collapsing and bees are dying at a terrifying rate.  It is also happening here in Britain.  Hypotheses about the cause of the collapse have ranged from genetic crops to global warming, from viral infections to the mass plantings of single-crops.

So far, the viral infection hypothesis has by far had the most evidence supporting it, while genetic crops has almost none.  Now an organization called Buglife has carried out meticulous research suggesting that one of the main causes of bee colony collapse – perhaps the main cause at least here in Britain – is the widespread use of a pesticide called neonicotinoid.  Neonicotinoid does indeed kill pests and it doesn’t kill bees directly.  But bees which have been exposed to seed or soil treated with it are less able to cope.  They forage less and produce fewer offspring, and eventually the whole colony collapses.

My first response is to feel frustrated and angry.  But actually, the research is actually pretty hopeful.  Before now, we really didn’t know what to do.  I read an article the other day encouraging city-dwellers to put beehives onto their terraces and roofs, but that isn’t getting at the cause of the problem.

If the cause is the pesticides we’re using, then we can do something about it.

Let’s hope we do.

August 18, 2009

Liberating a dragon*

Filed under: Food chains,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 1:33 pm

All day yesterday a dragonfly flitted around the ceiling of our sunroom.  It stayed stationery for long periods, but when it moved, it seemed agitated, banging itself repeatedly against the panes.  I opened the skylights and doors but unlike the bees and flies that get trapped, the dragonfly didn’t seem to have any sense that an escape route was sometimes inches away.

This morning it was still clinging to the ceiling in between bouts spent flinging itself at the panes, and I began to worry for its welfare.  How long can dragonflies live without food?  come to think of it, what qualifies as dragonfly food?

Dragonflies come in a wide variety, and I thought this one was particularly beautiful.



Dragon Fly IIISo I got our tall ladder from the workshop, and climbed close to the ceiling with a dustpan and broom.  My goal was to shepherd the dragonfly toward the open window, but it was unimpressed.  Everytime I got near, it swooped around the dustpan onto a higher perch.  We played this game for long enough for me to admit defeat.

Finally I moved the ladder directly under the dragonfly and climbed up as quietly as I could.  I managed to cup it in my hand, though this was with some primitive irrational fear that one or the other of us was going to get seriously hurt, and I wasn’t sure it was the dragonfly.

But I laboriously climbed back down and got it to the door and let it go.  It flew away in a flurry.  Whether in a wild flight of exuberant freedom or merely to escape from a crazy lady waving dustpans, I cannot say for sure.

But I dusted myself down feeling quite virtuous for accomplishing my good deed for the day.

Then I looked up in Wikipedia to find out what dragonflies eat.  Flies, insects, bees, mosquitoes.  Maybe it would have been well-fed living inside the sunroom after all.

*Okay, so it wasn’t a dragon.  But it felt like it.

May 9, 2009

Asparagus patch

Filed under: Food chains,The English — theotheri @ 2:53 pm

Admitting to not growing vegetables is close to an unpatriotic statement here in England.  Perhaps it goes back to the war when every square foot was planted with something to eat.  I think even people who are too young to actually remember the war have a reverence for growing things.  People who live in apartments often grow a pot of salad greens on a window sill, and thousands of people have what they call allotments.  

Allotments are usually rows of patches of earth each with a small shed for keeping gardening tools, and which sometimes have been cultivated for as long as the eye can see.  We have a neighbour who is so committed to growing his own food that along with his personal vegetable patch on his own land, he also leases an allotment from the village authorities.

Personally I don’t like to garden very much.  I’d much rather clean, although what I mean by cleaning is usually closer to organizing things than actually cleaning them.

But I do find eating an enjoyable activity, and it seems only fair that I should make some contribution to the vegetables that grow in our garden and eventually make it onto our plates.  

Last month, Peter ordered 24 asparagus plants to be delivered by post.  I was enthusiastically supportive not only because I like asparagus but because the ad said that once the plants got started, they would produce for as long as 20 years.  It was an act of faith because there is a two-year wait after planting before one can pick the first crop.  But I thought you only plant them once every twenty years and at that rate, I was unlikely to be around to have to plant them a second time.

I was wrong.  Yesterday in the post another box of asparagus plants arrived with a note of apology from the producer saying that they were sending us new stock because one third of original stock we had received was inferior.

We had noticed this, but I was willing to ignore the evidence.  Planting asparagus requires digging a trend about a foot deep and a foot wide, planting the root, and then gradually building the soil up around it as the tip appears.  Once every twenty years seemed enough work.  Now we were being told to do it again after a mere four weeks.

Cambridgeshire is one of the asparagus-growing capitals of the world.  Road signs are even now appearing inviting you to “pick your own.”  The supermarket, however, is selling bunches at outrageous prices with little tags that say “grown in Peru.”

So this morning I dug out the trench and planted 8 more asparagus plants.  Check in again in 2011 to find out if we’re eating it yet.

April 6, 2009

The little joys of life

Filed under: Food chains,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 9:09 pm

When I got up this morning, I found a bumble bee prostrate on its back on the hall floor.   I’ve become particularly sensitive to the demise of bumble bees since I’ve discovered how important they are to providing us with enough food to stay alive and that they seem to be dying at an alarming rate.

So thinking there was a slim possibility it was still alive and not wanting to be its final deadly encounter, I gently manoeuvred it onto a dust pan, turned it back into a upright position, and put it outside.  It stirred feebly, but I had little hope that my words of encouragement were sufficient to the purpose.

I went back outside half an hour later, though, and the dust pan had been abandoned.  I looked around to see if it had expired anywhere in sight, but the bee was gone.  I felt like I had finally managed to be that Good Samaritan I’ve somehow never quite been before. 

Well, I might as well be a useful insignificant speck in this great universe.

March 11, 2009

Bees are a lot like us

Filed under: Food chains — theotheri @ 6:52 pm

Bee colony collapse is a world-wide phenomenon that has been baffling scientists.  Although there was an initial suspicion that the bees’ demise is being caused by global warming, genetically-engineered crops, or pesticides, these potential causes have been largely dismissed.

Bees do seem to be unusually susceptible to several kinds of virus, however.  Now – and this might be good news – it looks as if bees are not as resistant to disease as they have been.  And it seems to be due to quite a familiar problem:  nutritional deficiencies.

As our farming has slowly morphed into agri-business and vast tracks of land are planted with the same crop, bees are not getting enough variety.  Some beekeepers have even taken to providing their bees with supplements.

A lot like us.

February 1, 2009

Not old enough not to worry

Filed under: Food chains — theotheri @ 5:13 pm

Research shows that, along with the young, the elderly as a group are unusually concerned about the environment.  This is a surprise if one assumes that people are essentially selfish.   I am sure my personal dollop of self-interest is sufficient not to dissuade anyone convinced that this is basically what drives us all.  

Yet, I do find myself seriously concerned about the environment.  Even though most of the dire effects of pollution and global warming are not predicted to hit Earth full force until I am no longer resident here.

But I read an article today on the seriousness of the loss of the bee populations around the world that brought me up short.  Bees are under threat just about everywhere from China to America to Europe.   And something close to what sounds like a global disaster could be less than a decade away. 

One third of Britain’s bee population are disappearing every year.  In addition, one third of Britain’s food is dependent on pollination by these bees.  These figures are not unique to Britain, which means that in as little as ten years, we could be facing a devastating food shortage around the world.  

The food scarcity of last summer was exacerbated by the number of acres that are being given to crops for bio-fuel.   If push came to shove, then, we could use less gas and oil and grow food instead.  But without bees and other pollinating insects, this is not a solution.

It’s not a problem that I can dismiss with the consolation that, however long I live, I probably won’t be here to see it.  

I very well might see it.  I’ve often wondered if I were on a sinking boat if I would jump into the water to help save younger people on board who had not lived as full a life as I already have.  

I wonder if I would be willing to starve instead of jumping off the boat.

I think I’ll study this problem a little more.

September 22, 2008

Growing food mother nature’s way

Filed under: Food chains — theotheri @ 4:41 pm
Tags: ,

For a relatively small number of people, there is an alternative to industrially-produced food using commercial fertilizers, and to organic food mass-produced in monoculture fields for our supermarkets.  Omnivore’s Dilemma describes Polyface Farms in Virginia, making it probably the best know alternative in America.  The approach used there began in New Zealand and is based on copying nature’s template as closely as possible.  Animals are not treated like machines, but their natural habitat and feeding are respected as completely as possible. 

If you are lucky enough to live in Virginia or Maryland, you can actually buy produce from Polyface Farm, and if you are driving through, there are restaurants that serve food from Polyface.  They’re listed on the Polyface website

If natural food and the integrity of how it’s grown matters, do check it out.  Just reading about them has changed my attitude toward our own little garden.  And I do not begrudge the extra expense for getting food as close to pasture-fed produce as I can.

And I’m wondering about the pros and cons of buying strawberries from Kenya in the middle of winter.  Being able to access food from other climates is of nutritional benefit in the winter when you live in a climate like Great Britain’s.  On the other hand, it looks to me as if there are huge benefits to encouraging people to eat locally-grown foods.

September 21, 2008

Another morsel of thought about food

Until the 1950s, there wasn’t such a thing as commercial fertilizer.  Then a German scientist figured out how to “fix” nitrogen, one of the three essential components needed in the soil to make plants grow.  The traditional way of getting nitrogen into the soil was to rotate crops that alternatively took nitrogen out or put it back in the soil.  Corn which uses nitrogen had to be rotated with a crop like legumes that put it back in, for instance, making it impossible to grow corn in the same field more than twice every 4-5 years.

“Fixing” nitrogen combines nitrogen with hydrogen gasses under intense heat and pressure provided by fossil fuel.  The resulting synthetic fertilizer by-passes the need for crop rotation and makes monoculture possible.  As Pollan points out in Omnivore’s Dilemma, this trade-off ultimately demands a potentially dangerously high price in soil erosion and depletion.  But in the meantime – and this is critically important – it increased the world’s food supply sufficiently to feed a rapidly growing population.  Without chemical fertilizers, millions of people would never have been born, or would have died of starvation.  Without chemical fertilizers today, more than half the world’s present population would not have food.

I’m thinking about the problems of fixing nitrogen that will inevitably one day become too big to ignore at the same time as I have been reading an analysis predicting a world-wide shortage – not first of food – but of water.  Water to drink, to cook and wash with, to keep one’s animals alive, but above all, water for the plants that are grown to feed us.

At the same time, our financial markets are being shaken world-wide to their very core, and another terrorist bomb exploded, destroying a Marriott hotel in Pakistan.

And I am remembering that the fourteenth century in Europe was wracked by the plague which wiped out whole villages, and eventually killed one out of every three people in the entire population.  On top of this the weather was changing and led to almost a decade of famine in which another 15% of the population died.  The Catholic church was in the midst of a schism in which rival popes set up courts in Rome and Avignon, and France and England fought a war on and off that lasted a century.

When it was over, the old order of medieval Europe had been overthrown, and the foundations of the modern world were in place.

I wonder if the 21st century will result in a similar dramatic upheaval and change our societies as profoundly.

September 20, 2008


Filed under: Food chains — theotheri @ 9:15 pm

My newly-acquired education into politically-correct food includes an acquaintance with the evils of monocultures.  Monocultures are not groups of similarly disposed people but huge fields all planted with a single crop.  Supermarkets like these kinds of fields because they can negotiate with a farmer for a huge shipment of whatever the farmer is growing – broccoli, beans, peas, salad, potatoes, corn, etc, rather than having to go to ten different farmers for fiddly amounts of ten different vegetables.  Mostly farmers would rather grow a lot of different things, but since supermarkets are less apt to be interested in his/her varied products, the most financially successful farmers are usually monoculturists these days.

Okay, it’s efficient in the short run.  Up to a point, it might even be necessary to provide food for huge urban areas where everything but dandelions has to be trucked in from outside the city.  But in the long run it depletes the earth.  So farmers have to use more artificial fertilizer, some of which runs off into streams and rivers and is contributing mightily to our pollution problems.

Even eating organic does not get around the problem of monocultures, since supermarkets now pay farmers for fields of organic beans, carrots, salads, and spinach etc.  Organic monocultures do not deplete the soil as fast as non-organic farming that uses industrially-produced fertilizers, so it’s better than the worst as far as preserving the mother earth that grows our food. 

But even organic monoculture farming taketh away more than it giveth.  And there are other ways.

September 19, 2008

Food: The curse of corn

Filed under: Food chains — theotheri @ 2:37 pm

Being a child (well, young adult) of the hippies sixties, I marched for civil rights and against the Viet Nam war, and was an early convert to flower-power and organic food.  In recent decades, only my support for the first and the last have remained active.  And I have now discovered that my understanding of the food chain and how food is produced in America is wildly out of date.

Until I finished reading Michael Pollan’s book Omnivore’s Dilemma last week, I thought my food options were fundamentally between organic and non-organic, between genetically-modified and non-modified, and between meals prepared at home and packaged meals prepared by someone else and usually stuffed with preservatives.  I live in Britain where genetically-modified crops are still outlawed.  And fast and pre-cooked meals have never been on my shopping list.  In fact, I have never bought so much as a single prepared meal from a supermarket, and don’t return to restaurants where I suspect that is what we have been served.  So I’ve felt rather virtuous, well-informed, and responsible about my food choices.

I will admit that although I have favored organic foods, I have often wondered whether the extra price being charged for organic was always worth it.  First of all,  research suggested that the nutritional value of organic was no higher than for non-organic food (a view I no longer believe is adequately supported by research).  And then there were the concerns about what foods could actually claim a legal title to organic.  For a time, I read that human excrement used as fertilizer did not disqualify produce as organic.  (If this was ever true, it is not so today.)  And finally, I have struggled with those who claim that we cannot feed the world’s population today if all the food we grow is organic and it probably has to be genetically-modified as well.

I knew absolutely nothing about corn’s massive presence at every level of the food chain throughout America and increasingly, through our food exports, throughout the rest of the world.  Here is a very brief synopsis of the conclusions I’ve drawn from reading Omnivore’s Dilemma (which I strongly recommend reading, notwithstanding my undoubtedly excellent summary here). 

During Nixon’s presidency, the price of food began to escalate ominously.  This was bad for the government in charge of things, and officials began to look for ways to decrease food’s cost to the consumer.  That was when they changed the way subsidies for farmers was calculated.  In the new dispensation, farmers were (and still are) subsidized by the government for every bushel of corn they produce, whatever price the farmer might actually get for the corn at market prices.  As a result, farmers are paid to produce more and more corn, even when the price for corn is driven lower and lower because there is simply too much of it.

Because corn is cheap (if you don’t count the fact that the taxpayer is actually paying to keep it cheap), producers who buy the corn from the farmers are looking for more and more ways to use it.  It is now in everything.  A typical meal from McDonalds is about 57% corn.  Not that you would notice.  It’s in the catsup and in the oil that prepares the french fries.  But it’s been used to feed the chickens that make up chicken McNuggets, and fed to the cattle that make up the hamburger.

I always think of cattle as grass-eaters, and remember them grazing in the fields on the farm where I grew up.  I remember learning that they had rumens, special stomachs that made it possible for them to digest grass in a way we humans can’t.  Not anymore.  Hundreds of thousands of our cattle are now being fed factory-prepared feed made up primarily of corn. 

I used to think “corn-fed beef” meant it was particularly healthy.  But it is just the opposite.  All these corn-fed cattle are routinely given massive doeses of antibiotics, because cows fed on corn are much more subject to disease than pasture-fed cows.  This might make for unhappy cows, which may or may not bother some people.  It will probably worry a lot more people to learn that the antibiotics fed to cows are contributing to the development of resistant bacteria which, when they enter the human food change, are going to still be resistant to our antibiotics.

In the The News Gets Worse, department, we are now using corn feed on salmon farms (as in fish).

There is also reason to believe that this high concentration of corn is as unhealthy for humans and it is for cattle and fish.  But that, and an exploration of the alternatives, are for oncoming posts.

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