Lasting Local

Last night, I snuggled up in my bed with a cup of warm milk, bowl of popcorn, and The 100-Mile Diet. I was finally able to finish the second half of the book, and dive back into James and Alisa’s journey on the special diet.

Smith A, MacKinnon JB. 2007. The 100-Mile Diet. Toronto (ON): Vintage Canada. 266 p.

After reading Guns, Germs and Steel, The Triumph of Seeds, and Omnivore’s Dilemma, I noticed how remarkably easier it was for me to jump back into The 100-Mile Diet. Not that any of the other books were not interesting themselves, they just focused more on the informational side of things, whereas James and Alisa really take you along for a more human experience – an experience containing joy and surprise, but also frustration. I loved how the book contains informational aspects, but also how it contains James’ and Alisa’s frustration as they keep asking themselves why they are eating locally.

Back in January when I first started the book, I really found this 100-mile diet an impossible task – one that would be even more impractical for a busy (and very broke) student like me, and for low income families. Now, after finishing the book, I realize that it is not so impossible, especially here in Kamloops (where we have local wineries and breweries for the rougher days). The one big thing I realized from James and Alisa, is that the effort and time you put into making food is not time wasted. I think my generation is the generation that likes the notion of eating healthy but is way too lazy to truly attempt it, and that include me. When James or Alisa describe how good the food actually tastes after they attempt to make something completely new, like James’ spaghetti or Alisa’s chum soup, it really struck a chord with me. Feeding yourself shouldn’t be chore, it should be something you look forward to, something you can experiment with, and something you can use to surprise or bond with someone else. And furthermore, knowing what is on your plate, where it came from, if you helped pick it from an orchard, and how much time it took to make can really help you enjoy the food more.

I was shocked when Alisa wrote of a new UK study that stated, “the amount of time people now spend driving to the supermarket, looking for parking, and wandering the lengthy aisles in search of frozen pizzas or pre-mixed salads is nearly equal to that spent preparing food from scratch twenty years ago” (Smith and Mackinnon 159). Well there went my excuse for not having time for local food! Although, it does take more time to drive out to farmland, gather food, store food (by preserving it or canning it), and make it from scratch, I think that it’s worth it. People (especially me) are always way too caught up in their busy lives to stop for minute, enjoy a good moment and go try things they “think” they don’t have time for. I also think that this aspect may have been one of the advantages of living in a big family, as the western world used to and most of the world today still does. In a big family, perhaps responsibilities could have been allocated more evenly – instead of just two people going out to the farms, collecting, and cooking, everyone could pitch in and there would be less waste.

Another surprising fact that Alisa shares is that “over 40% of America’s crops [are] lost or thrown away” (Smith and Mackinnon 162). This speaks directly to the paradox that we still have people starving all over the world. How is this possible when we are throwing out almost half of the food we produce each year?

Other than these profound questions I kept asking myself throughout that book, I found the rest of the novel more calming and peaceful than the first half. In the latter part of the book, James and Alisa develop deep-rooted appreciation and likeness for the 100-mile food, and begin to realize that they prefer this food over what they used to eat. They face very different challenges of preserving and storing food through the winter, than their previous challenges of finding local food and getting used to a lack of variety.

However, I did find Alisa’s short rants about life with James to be a bit annoying. I understood that there were times in which things did not go as planned with the local food (like with the weevils in the flour), and that may have certainly strained their relationship,  but it seemed like she was sort of blaming the shortcomings of her own life on James. Apart from that, I thought both Alisa and James did a fabulous job writing of their experiences with food, and it was really exciting to read about them becoming local celebrities in their community and all over the world.

In the end, I’m glad I read this book. It really illuminated issues about why people should eat local, and it helped the reader feel that this could be a realistic and practical approach to eating because James and Alisa set such a great example. These two authors didn’t skip out on any of the hard parts or any of the good parts, so that in the end the reader could take away an almost unbiased opinion and create their own. Looking back at my first blog and comparing it to this one, I can see a drastic change in opinion – one that I am very happy about.

Grass: Agriculture’s Underdog

A couple of weeks ago when I had first read Michael Pollen’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, I was absolutely stunned and appalled at American agriculture and its practice of feeding ruminants corn.

Since I come from a mostly vegetarian family, I had never known of the horrific ways modern cows are grown and processed to feed an equally horrific modern American appetite. The average North American appetite – well, that’s something I know a little bit about. You see, I work at Costco Wholesale, the mecca of family-sized products and free food samples to hook you to them. I’ve rang in orders of meat – just meat – ranging from the modest $50 to well over $1000. I’ve also had families come through my till that spend $300 on 1-2 weeks worth of meat. I don’t know if that sounds like a lot of money or meat to you, but it is for my family. So when I read about the amount of resources that go into producing meat filled with antibiotics, urea, and corn, and the effects on global warming that result from it, it made me a bit upset. Personally, I don’t understand the vast quantities of meat that people eat, and furthermore, demand. I think that if North Americans stopped dissociating themselves from nature and made better informed decisions about their diet, then we could break the demand for this unnatural meat and eat smaller quantities of more sustainably produced meat. Perhaps I should start handing out copies of Omnivore’s Dilemma to the customers that come through my till at Costco…

About halfway through this book, Pollan embarks on a journey to a grass farm owned by the family of Joel Salatin. I’d like to say that Pollan ‘opened my eyes’ to the importance of grasses, but it was more like he wrenched them open, as I had always underestimated grasses and never really wanted to learn about them. Pollan’s writing changed that. As Joel tours Pollan around his farm, Pollan notes the simplicity of the farm, the importance of grass, and the stark differences to mainstream American farming.

I quite enjoyed Joel Salatin’s character, a Christian liberal who supports organic farming techniques. Joel refers to his pastures as “salad bars” in that they contain a diverse array of grasses, and also emphasizes the simplicity of the food chain and states that grasses are a keystone species that are disregarded by typical American farmers (Pollan 188). Joel’s analogy of grass blades to solar panels was very witty, and his explanation of the benefits of grass farming on the soil was intriguing. Joel remarked that if the cows grazed on the grass in particular way (as a mob which moved quickly), new soil could be built from the decaying roots of grass and the grass would be extremely productive in converting solar energy into biomass (Pollan 198). The grazers also help the grasses spread their seeds, contribute to more fertile soil with their manure, and even “create shady little pockets of exposed soil where water collects”, which make great little homes for germinating seeds (Pollan 193). In addition to all this, the grazing of tall grasses exposes the shorter grasses to sunlight, which adds to the health and diversity of the pastures (Pollan 197). The diversity of the grasses can further increase the health of the cows munching on them, as the cows will pick and choose which grasses they eat (choosing specific grasses for specific nutritional needs) (Pollan 195).

The only downside to this method of farming is that the recovery of the pasture (from the grazers taking their “first bites”), could depend on a variety of environmental conditions such as “temperature, rainfall, exposure to the sun, and the time of year” and “the amount of forage any given cow requires, depending on its size, age, and stage of life” (Pollan 190). One could argue that the active account of these factors that each farmer keeps, makes the farming more interesting and keeps the farmer on his/her toes, as opposed to what Pollan calls “the off-farm brain, and the one-size-fits-all universal intelligence represented by agrochemicals and machines” (Pollan 191).

I found that Pollan did an exceptional job highlighting the differences between grass farming and typical farming. For example, Pollan states that “the single most obvious difference was that these cows were harvesting their own feed instead of waiting for a dump truck to deliver a total mixed ration of corn that had been grown hundreds of miles away and then blended by an animal nutritionist” and that in grass farming, we are effectively bringing the cows to the food, instead of bringing food to cows (Pollan 194). In my mind, this approach makes so much more sense in that it decreases transportation energy, treats the cows as cows (feeding them what their ruminant stomachs require), and seems generally more natural. Pollan really hit it home home when he remarked that “if the sixteen million acres now being used to grow corn to feed cows in the United States became well-managed pasture, that would remove fourteen billion pounds of carbon from the atmosphere each year, the equivalent of taking four million cars off the road” (Pollan 198). Whoa.

When Pollan describes the Salatin family home, it helped reinforce this idea that this type of agriculture was a mesh of new world and old world. The fact that the Salatin family acquired most of their food from their farm and could trace all of its roots, put the ideals of The 100 Mile Diet into reality for me, in that it can be done and that it is not impossible in today’s urbanizing world. I can’t really imagine the Salatin family chopping up their cows to fulfill an endless appetite for meat the way North Americans buy meat in grocery stores like Costco. I absolutely loved how Pollen put it: “instead of mining the soil, such a meal builds more of it. Instead of diminishing the world, it has added to it” (Pollan 199).

 

 

A Curious Bud

This morning, I had the pleasure to revert back to Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire and expand upon my knowledge of marijuana in every way possible (such as in science, religion, spirituality, practicality and use, and history).

Pollan M. 2001. The botany of desire. Toronto (ON): Random House of Canada Limited. 271 p.

In this chapter of the book, Pollan explores one of humankind’s most interesting relationships with plants – their ability to alter our consciousness. He specifically devotes a quarter of the book to Cannabis sativa (or Cannabis Indica), arguably the most widely used psychedelic plant in the world, and asks, why is this simple weed the most largest cash crop in the Unites States? Or rather, what service does it provide that humans so greatly desire?

Pollan begins to explain our attraction to these curious plants by illuminating the fine line between poison and intoxication. He writes that many of these plants are toxic if taken in large dosages, and humans have vicariously learned through animals that small amounts may result in euphoria or hallucinations, which makes it a rather “complicated desire” (Pollan 118).

Pollan explains that the marijuana plant may have been used for thousands of years by the Chinese or Arabians, however its history is quite clouded since the travelers who brought it back to their lands may have edited the plants origins and history if the plants were thought of as taboo. He writes that throughout history marijuana has been used to make fibers, by shamans to gain spiritual transcendence,  by witches to alter a person’s brain chemistry, and by healers to alleviate pain, stress, or suffering (Pollan 119). Today, marijuana is mostly used for recreational purposes, however it is also used medicinally. Many people all over the world use marijuana to ease pain, to help with sleep, or to lighten their mood. Some cancer patients use the plant to help stimulate appetite, as well as alleviate pain.

Although there is growing research on the plant’s potential beneficial properties, it is especially hindered in some countries where the plant is stigmatized or illegal. Despite what I already knew about America’s ‘war on drugs’ and harsh criminal penalties for marijuana use, I was still very shocked that in 1988 there were nearly 700,000 marijuana arrests, and 88% of those were just for possession (Pollan 126). While it is impressive to think that a plant can wield such a great power on us, it saddened me to think of all the resources expended on this war against cannabis that could have gone to incarcerating murderers and rapists, or increasing available mental and physical medical aid in the US.

Still, Pollan’s short story of his experience growing the weed was hilarious. I loved how he also went to Amsterdam to fully immerse himself in cannabis culture, and how he described himself as being near some of the most ingenious gardeners as he stated, “it dawned on me that this was what the best gardeners of my generation had been doing all these years: they had been underground, perfecting cannabis” (Pollan 129). This reminded me of a classic Canadian TV show, Trailer Park Boys. One of the main characters, Ricky, is best known for growing amazing weed despite having only a grade eight education. In one episode he turns his entire trailer into a herbarium.

It was remarkable to learn that some growers could harvest around three pounds of dried buds in less than a month, and would make approximately $13,000 (Pollan 138). Just by looking at the sheer amount of money people have spent on weed, it is easy to accept the notion that “the desire to alter one’s experience of consciousness may be universal” (Pollan 139).

Pollan attempts to explain our deep attraction to marijuana despite it not conferring any sort of evolutionary advantage (or serving a nutritional need). He points out that it may just be an intuitive desire. I think that could be true, or it may just be that we haven’t figured out (or scientifically established) how it may be beneficial, which is big reason to continue research with this plant.

In fact, as soon as Pollan mentioned the cannabinoid receptors in the human body, I was immediately reminded of a paper I read last week. I was researching articles for a psychology class in which I had to write an annotated bibliography on the etiology of schizophrenia. Recently there have been papers stating that there may be a corrrelation between marijuana use and schizophrenia. This paper, however, explained that the upregulation of anandamide (an endocannabinoid) could decrease the occurrence of negative symptoms of schizophrenia (Aguilar et al. 2016).  Th researchers of the study administered dosages of either THC and an inhibitor of the anandamide catabolic enzyme in schizophrenic rats and found that both altered neuronal firing. The researchers emphasized the importance of studying the cannabinoid system in humans to better develop new medications for schizophrenia.

Aguilar D, Giuffrida A, Lodge D. 2016. THC and endocannabinoids differentially regulate neuronal activity in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus in the subchronic PCP model of schizophrenia. Journal Of Psychopharmacology [Internet]. [cited March 12, 2016]; 30(2): 169-181 13p. Available from: CINAHL Complete.

I think that this chapter has special relevance to my generation not only because Canadians may be on the verge of legalizing marijuana in the very near future, but because the strength and type of marijuana has changed considerably in a very short time. For example, when I was in high school (only around four or five years ago), teens were never really threatened by weed laced with drugs like fentanyl, whereas today, that is a major concern and cause of death for many young adults. After reading this chapter, I really do hope that Canada will legalize marijuana, as having it regulated and controlled may stop unnecessary deaths, and the money collected may go to mental health services greatly needed in our Canadian communities. Or like in some European countries that have legalized drugs, there may be an initial increase in drug usage, but then an eventual decline as the original excitement wears off.

I also think that in this chapter, Pollan skillfully noted that plants are not used bu humans just for sustenance, but can also change our perception of life and our surroundings. It was very interesting to read of the importance of forgetting that Pollan talked about, and how great philosophers have time and time again written of the importance of grounding yourself and being aware of the current moment – a task that becomes more and more difficult in this increasingly busy world.

 

(Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind)

Wired

“And this ma’am, is Luwak. He’s sleeping now because they are nocturnal.”

“Is it because he’s up all night from the coffee?” I joked, and my friends laughed sarcastically.

We were in Ubud, Bali at a special Kopi Luwak agrotourism center, following a young man show us the different Balinese coffee plants through the enormous gardens. He had stopped to show us one of the famous Luwak animals sleeping in a wooden crate, and explain how Indonesia got its ‘world’s best coffee’. He told us that the furry little guy (an Asian civet) would go around selecting and eating only the very best coffee cherries. His poop would then later be collected and processed for the coffee beans, and then the beans would be sold or ground into coffee mixes. Since the civets only select the best fruits to eat, the resulting beans are usually full of flavor, thus making it the ‘best coffee in the world’.

2015-07-29 11.37.24.jpg

At the end of the tour, the young man brought us an entire tray of different teas and coffees to try. My friend even bought a cup of the Luwak coffee to try (it is also considered very expensive – here it was around $5 for the cup). I remember it tasting a bit bitter and strong, and that we didn’t really know what to think of it since we were definitely not coffee connoisseurs! After the sampling, I bought a little brown paper bag of the delicious vanilla coffee, and my friend got bags of mangosteen and lemon tea.

It was pretty cool to actually tour around an Indonesian coffee garden, and it was also pretty neat to read Thor Hansen’s  story of the coffee plant. While on the tour, I distinctly remember realizing that I knew very little about coffee, even though I drink it almost everyday from Tim Horton’s during the school semester. I found that Hanson answered all of my questions through a unique, interesting, and modern perspective of coffee and our global addiction to it.

Hanson T. 2015. The Triumph of Seeds. New York (NY): Basic Books. 277 p.

Coffee, or as Hanson so amicably calls it, ‘the cheeriest of beans’, originated in African trees, and was first used in drinks by the Arabic people of North Africa (Hanson 146). I especially loved how Hanson hooked me into the chapter by first describing how Gabriel-Mathieu de Clieu obtained a coffee plant and so tenderly took care of it in order to plant it in Martinique (in the Caribbean Islands) (Hanson 143). Hanson attributes de Clieu with bringing the coffee plant to the America’s, as de Clieu’s plant spread from Martinique, to Mexico, and even to Brazil. Hanson further explains how coffee began to dominate beer, starting its rise to the top around the seventeenth century in Europe. Hanson states that “per capita beer consumption in northern Europe ranged from 156 to 700 liters annually”, and to put this into perspective he writes that Germany today only drinks about 107 liters annually (Hanson 151). Its hard for me to imagine anything productive being done in Europe, and I don’t even want to imagine what their livers must have had to endure! Thus, Hanson perfectly describes how coffee became increasingly popular, as it ‘woke up’ these societies to enlightened thought, increased diligence and offered up a new kind of buzz in a way that beer could not. Even devout religious people could not deny coffee in that it was not clouding mind or judgement like the alcoholic drinks that were frowned upon by the Islamic and Christian faiths.

I especially loved this chapter for the way that Hanson wrote of the co-evolution between coffee and intellectual conversation. Hanson writes of famous coffeehouses and their extraordinary customers in beautiful detail that was such a pleasure to read. I couldn’t imagine the great Napoleon Bonaparte not being able to pay for his coffee at a small French Cafe! And I was astonished that “Voltaire reportedly drank fifty cups of coffee everyday; he spent so much time in Paris’ Cafe de Procope that his writing desk remains there” (Hanson 153). I found it extremely interesting that these ordinary coffeehouse attracted the most brilliant scholars and artists, and that they were even called “penny universities” since it was thought that you could get a decent education by just visiting these shops.

Hanson eloquently described the biological properties of these aromatic seeds (Hanson 148). It was interesting to note that they are natural insecticides (I wonder what mutations the civet must have adapted to withstand eating so much of the endocarp of coffee cherries), and how  they attract honeybees with caffeinated nectar (not unlike how coffee attracted us). I also didn’t know that most of the chemicals in coffee have not been well studied, and that “coffee drinkers enjoy a reduced risk of type II diabetes, [and] liver cancer” (Hanson 152).

I think this chapter was my favorite read so far, since Hanson did an amazing job recounting the tale of the coffee plant and how it became the world’s second most traded commodity. I am a cashier at Costco, so I especially know how important coffee is to people in today’s booming and bustling world.

I once did a school trip to Europe with my friends and dad, and I remember having a charming young bus driver, Jeseppe. I remember Jeseppe maneuvering around the little Italian, Swiss and French towns, singing Italian love songs to us, and most of all, drinking coffee from the shiny chrome espresso machine inside our bus, right next to his seat. In fact the machine was the first thing you saw when you got on the bus, and it had so many knobs and dials that I didn’t even know what it was at first. Each time we’d go on, Jeseppe would offer some to us in a little cups. If that’s not a true depiction of a man’s love of coffee, I don’t know what is.

 

 

 

 

All American Apple

This week I went back to The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan, and read his first chapter,  which was entirely devoted to apples.

Pollan M. 2001. The botany of desire. Toronto (ON): Random House of Canada Limited. 271 p.

So far, I’ve become accustomed to Pollan’s flavorful writing style and his use of people and characters to spark the reader’s attention through their stories. In this first chapter, Pollan re-acquaints us to a familiar childhood character, Johnny Appleseed. He sets the stage to “north of Wheeling, West Virginia”, and paints the image of “a skinny man of about thirty, who may or may not have been wearing a burlap coffee sack for a shirt and a tin pot for a hat” (Pollan 5). How’s that for an introduction to apples in America? Well I became immediately more interested as Pollan took me for a ride through Johnny Chapman’s journey in America and also (though more discreetly) the evolution of the relationship between apples and humans.

Pollan begins by describing Johnny Chapman as a a man who traveled the states of  Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana with large stores of apple seeds in the late 1700’s. Chapman would scout up and coming areas of land where he reasoned that settlements would eventually establish, and plant a nursery of apples so that in the near future he could sell apple trees to eager settlers for cheap.  He would then find a local boy to maintain his growing orchard, pack up his meager belongings, and move on to repeat the process. Rather than focusing on Chapman’s story for a mere introductory hook, Pollan carries it out throughout the chapter and details the life of a simple storybook character more than anyone I believe ever could. Pollan again draws on his remarkable gift of flipping perspective to allow us to picture Chapman’s innate wildness and natural tendencies (not just a happy-go-lucky man eating an apple). The descriptions of Johnny Chapman’s barefeet, scraggly beard and alleged child bride, all helped comprise a completely new image of Jonny Appleseed. Pollan enables us to see man’s coevolution with apples, as he states that Chapman “understood he was working for the apples as much as they were working for him” (Pollan 5). What’s more is that I had never known that the apples Johnny Chapman had helped spread across North America were primarily used for alcohol. This was kind of a game-changer for me, because from the storybooks I used to read, Johnny Appleseed is usually depicted eating the apples. Bringing in the resources for readily accessible alcohol is a pretty big deal, especially in the United States, don’t you think?

amazingdesigns.com

 

Pollan then explains the origins of apples as first emerging from the mountainous region of Kazakhstan. The ancestor to the modern day apple is Malus sieversii, which Pollan describes as “the dominant species in the forest, growing to a height of sixty feet and throwing off each fall a cornucopia of odd, applelike fruits ranging in size from marbles to softballs, in color from yellow and green to red and purple” (Pollan 11). The apples from these trees were supposedly carried along by travelers of the silk route, all the way to China. The art of grafting the trees was then stumbled upon by the Chinese, and then imitated by the Greeks and Romans who later brought the apples to England. The first North American settlers had then attempted to grow their grafted apple trees in the foreign environment, to no avail.  Pollan then suggests that Chapman’s seeds, which harbored genetic diversity, were much better able to slowly promote new adaptations to the alien environment, and thus eventually created the most successful American apple varieties. Since Pollan speaks of the apples as immigrants adapting to a new land, I kind of thought about it in a funny way – it was like when my own parents immigrated to Canada. They came over but weren’t the most successful right away. They had to learn a new language, acclimatize to the weather (my mom had never seen snow before), and work very hard. And then they had me and my brother, and we absolutely thrive here. Us first-generation kids know the languages, customs, and weather, and feel like we could never be at home anywhere else in the world – just like a plant parents’ genes selecting for the best possible traits in a new habitat. I loved how Pollan put it, in that “in a remarkably short period of time the New World had its own apples, adapted to the soil and climate and day length of North America, apples that were as distinct from the old European stock as the Americans themselves” (Pollan 13).

Pollan slowly leads into why the apples have succeeded so greatly not only for alcohol, but as edible fruit – their sweetness. Although my genes are conditioned towards wanting more salty and spicy foods, I still share an immense sweet tooth with the rest of the world. Pollan explains the inexplicable  human preoccupation with sweetness, as before the introduction of the sugar cane, synthetic sweeteners, or honey in North America, apples “helped gratify” human desire of sweetness (Pollan 16). I found Pollan’s description of his son eating a cake for the first time very humorous and enlightening!

I loved how Pollan even further expanded our view of Johnny Chapman by entitling him the American Dionysus, and our view of the apple by reminding us that it is “the forbidden fruit”, but also a most “democratic fruit” as it contains the genetic variability to thrive in almost environment, and amongst almost any people (Pollan 48). I thought the chapter was skillfully written and articulated Pollan’s humour and poetic thoughtfulness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Corn Crazy

This week I read the first few chapters of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Pollan M. 2006. The omnivore’s dilemma. New York (NY): Penguin Group. 450 p.

Having read The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan a couple weeks ago, I was already familiar with his style of writing and expected the book to contain a more playful journey of wading through agricultural information. I feel as though Pollan did an excellent job explaining concepts pertaining to the themes of the book, however it was still difficult for me to read. The first six or so chapters of the book focus on corn, which (from the perspective of a twenty-one year old aspiring nurse) is very difficult to relate to in that much detail. I found that I was very slow to read it and that I became again and again lost in the history of politics and economics that Pollan writes of (which are very important topics, but difficult for a biology major to comprehend). Since I couldn’t quite wrap my head around some of the farming terminology and American history, I found that there was less for me to write about this week. Nonetheless, I did my best to summarize my understandings below.

I definitely did not appreciate or even comprehend the true importance of corn before I read this book (it was very shocking to find out that corn is grown on “125, 000 square miles of the American continent” (Pollan 65)). After I started to realize that the first third of the book was dedicated to the processes involving corn, it finally dawned on me how little I ever thought about this plant or how deeply it was engraved into my life (and consequently into my hair and nails as Carbon-13!).

I enjoyed how Pollan introduced the reader to George Naylor, the small town Iowa corn farmer. I found it more interesting to read the evolution of the American farm home through the Naylor family’s experience rather than just reading arbitrary information. It was very striking how many changes a typical farm home endured in the past century – from having a diverse variety of crops and livestock and employing many people to only growing one or two specific items and having no livestock at all. Pollan also notes the irony corn crops pushing out other crops, then livestock, and eventually even humans for their own ultimate success. I found that a recurring theme Pollan brings up, is the contribution to global warming and pollution that can be traced from growing, processing, and transporting a huge crop like corn. It was very shocking for me to read that “when you add together the natural gas in the fertilizer tot he fossil fuels it takes to make the pesticides, drive the tractors, and harvest, dry, and transport the corn, you find that every bushel of industrial corn requires the equivalent of between a quarter and a third of a gallon of oil to grow it” (Pollan 45). I remember first learning about the nitrogen cycle in Science 10, and after reading Pollan, I was again reminded of the devastating effects of nitrogen run-off.

Pollan also did a good job of explaining the economics of growing crops such as corn – how it is affecting the farmers and how it is being regulated through politics and government agendas. Again, hearing George Naylor’s perspective helped me to relate more to the issue.

Another theme Pollan touched on, was knowing the origins of food (especially from corn products). This is a topic I have discussed in a previous blog on The 100-Mile Diet, and I had commented that I did not even think about the origins of most of my food – Pollan reminded me of this again, except with all the products of a single plant. He couldn’t have put it better when he stated, “I should have known that tracing any single bushel of commodity corn is as impossible as tracing a bucket of water after it’s been poured into a river” (Pollan 63).

As a biology major, I found Pollan’s description of livestock treatment in modern America to be very interesting. Pollan definitely enfused the chapter with personality, as the reader comes to find that he had bought his own steer to better understand the process of corn as livestock feed. I did not know that cows were being fed corn against their evolutionary instints. Morevover, the diseases that cows can have from this process is astounding; they can’t live very long, they may get bloat, or acidosis, and liver damage. Not to mention the effects this has on humans, as Pollan writes that “a growing body of research suggests that many of the health problems with eating beef are really problems with corn-fed beef” (Pollan 75). The antibiotic resistance that is accumulating is a threat to the survival of the human population, yet we still gamble this survival for a tasty steak (which then leaves me to question, how different are we from the very animals we mercilessly slaughter?). I was particularly disturbed when Pollan described the undocumented amount of bacteria that resides in manure, and stated that “the speed at which these animals [cows] will be slaughtered and processed – four hundred an hour at the plant where 534 [Pollan’s steer] will go – means that sooner or later some of the manure caked on these hides gets into the meat we eat” (Pollan 82). I was also surprising to note that nearly a barrel of oil goes into feeding and maintaining one cow!!

It was also fascinating to read about Pollan’s visit to General Mills, and the origins of ‘supersizing’ at McDonald’s. I think it was important that Pollan noted that these more energy-dense foods (filled with fat and sugar) are becoming cheaper and that organic and healthier foods are more expensive. Combine that with the disappearing middle class in the United States, and it is easier to see why some families are left no choice but to eat unhealthy foods, which then leads to the diabetes epidemic and causes society to question where money should really be spent (perhaps to boost the middle class and make healthy foods more affordable which will eventually lower the costs of treating diabetes – obviously easier said than done).

Although this may have been a tough read for me, I am glad that I read it. It definitely opened up my eyes to the sheer amount of corn I eat, as well as its many implications in today’s world. Needless to say, I will for sure be cutting down the amount of meat I eat. My mom is a vegetarian and since she usually makes most of our meals, we don’t eat much meat. She always claimed it was because she helped raise two cows when she was a little girl, and was taught the importance of them (as they are regarded as God-like in India). From now on I’m just going to stick to the occasional butter chicken…

 

The Advent of Agriculture

This week I read chapters 4, 5, 6, and 8 of Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond.

Diamond J. 1999. Guns, germs, and steel. New York (NY): W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. 480 p.

I was first introduced to Diamond last week, reading only chapter 7 of the book. This week I was able to read more of the book, however my first impression has only slightly changed. I feel that Diamond’s writing is very technical, as it is densely packed with dry historical and scientific facts. Though this is not a bad thing at all, it was just hard to read as a fourth year biology major at 11 pm at night. I feel as though Diamond is more of a practical person, and that he tends to convey more precise information rather than wrap it up into a personal or emotional narrative. That being said, I did manage to trudge through the chapters and found that he does seem to piece together very big ideas using various fields of research.

From what I’ve gathered so far, Diamond’s main ideas of this book revolve around the advent of agriculture. He asks: how did humans first develop crops, why, and where did it happen?

Throughout chapter 4, Diamond explains how agriculture influenced people to lead more sedentary lifestyles and less hunter-gatherer lifestyles. I think that Figure 4.1 demonstrated Diamond’s big ideas in a simple and effective way (Diamond 87). With the plethora of facts that Diamond lists, the reader comes to understand why a person would opt for the sedentary lifestyle. Reasons such as more food and babies, and food storage leading to increasing population densities really make the reader start to nod their head along. I thought the resulting consequences of sedentary life that Diamond states are particularly interesting. I would have never associated the emergence of political groups, religion, soldiers, scribes, weapons, transportation by domestic animals, and infectious diseases to the sedentary life as Diamond did. I did find that at times, I could notice Diamond’s bias towards plants and agriculture – however, it may have been that he was piecing so many things together in such a simplistic way. For example when he stated that “germs thus acquired ultimately from domestic animals played decisive roles in the European conquests of Native Americans, Australians, South Africans, and Pacific Islanders”, I found this to be a bit bold (Diamond 92). I thought that the ‘germs’ were always around (or mutations happen by chance), but our use of domestic animals helped spread those pathogens more fiercely, or that the migration of people helped to spread around diseases. I don’t see how a certain hunter-gatherer tribe can’t acquire a mutated virus from a particular animal they have been dealing with for ages. It seemed as though Diamond was understating the importance of our co-evolution with bacteria and viruses (organisms that have been evolving far longer than humans, animals, or plants), however I have not yet read chapter 11 of the book where he goes into more detail on this topic.

In chapter 5, I was most interested in Figure 5.1, where Diamond explains that farming first developed in very surprising places, and that these are not the same places we see major crops grown today (Diamond 99). I had never before heard of the fertile crescent, and so I was shocked to know that this place, which I picture as a large war-torn wasteland, was once the most productive place on earth. This chapter and the next few chapters go into depth analyzing particular environments and human decisions that led to the eventual dominance of agricultural practices. I found Diamond to be quite insightful when he stated that “we should not suppose the decision to adopt farming was made in a vacuum” but should instead “consider food production and hunting-gathering as alternative strategies” (Diamond 109). I think this is a revolutionary new way to approach our historical questions about agriculture, as we tend to think of things evolving linearly.

I believe that Diamond’s ideas are quite interesting, though I found the descriptions of his supporting evidences rather boring. At times, I found him a bit repetitive in all the questions he kept posing (but that’s the hallmark of a good scientist, right?). I found it tough to keep interested because it was hard to relate with the people of 10,000 years ago, and how this affected my life today. Nevertheless, I think that knowledge is power, and although Diamond doesn’t deliver it in the most fun way, he still delivers.

When plants make you realize you’re a narcissistic human…

We all know that, as humans, we tend to separate ourselves from nature. We believe that we were given consciousness not as a gift, but as a right, and that this right allows us to control and manipulate the world around us – especially the world of plants. Through agriculture, we have demonstrated an impressive control over plants. Well, what if someone said, “Hey wait a sec, I think the plants are actually controlling us..” – what!???

This week I read the introduction of The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan, and chapter 7 of  Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond.

Pollan M. 2001. The botany of desire. Toronto (ON): Random House of Canada Limited. 271 p.

Diamond J. 1999. Guns, germs, and steel. New York (NY): W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. 480 p.

Both the chapters I read from the two books revealed similar content in that they both revolved around a plant’s perspective of the world. I may have been biased since I read The Botany of Desire first, but I found Pollan’s writing to be a bit more interesting and thought provoking than Diamond’s in Guns, Germs, and Steel.

I found that by writing in first person, Pollan came across light-hearted and humorous whilst simultaneously delivering the shock of the plant perspective to the reader. He begins with a rather innocent metaphor which likens humans to bumblebees as he claims, “What existential difference is there between the human being’s role in this (or any) garden and the bumblebee’s?” (Pollan xiii). He then goes on to explain the egocentric attitude of humans towards shaping the earth, that we tend to believe we are the ones controlling plant species so that they may better serve us. Pollan even reveals that this superiority is apparent in our language and grammar as he states that “we divide the world into subjects and objects, and here in the garden, as in nature generally, we humans are the subjects” (Pollan xiv). And there I was thinking, oh yeah we do think that! Pollan thus gently opens the reader’s mind, shifting our view to that of the plant’s. He reminds us that “evolution consists of trivial, unconscious events” (Pollan xv) and that “the fact that one of us has evolved to become intermittently aware of its desires makes no difference” (p. xv) – meaning that although humans are conscious beings, we are still ultimately co-evolving with plants.  Pollan then leads us to the big eye-opener – that by appealing to certain human desires, plants have ingeniously allowed humans to multiply their genes for them. This kind of reminded me of one of Newton’s laws of motion, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction – that’s kind of like co-evolution, and I had been completely ignoring the plant’s part. This concept was especially reinforced when Pollan stated that “it makes just as much sense to think of agriculture as something the grasses did to people as a way to conquer the trees” (Pollan xxi).

I also really loved how Pollan stated the goal of his book was for the reader to realign his/her point of view amongst nature instead of apart from it, as we tend to think of nature as “something that only happens outside” (Pollan xxiv). I can honestly say that I am definitely guilty of these thoughts, as I have just realized that I am near my mom’s jade plant, sitting on a mahogany chair, staring at a book of paper and munching on pistachios.

Pollan even ends the introduction exceptionally by stating that “seeing these plants instead as willing partners in an intimate and reciprocal relationship with us means looking at ourselves a little differently too: as the objects of other species’ designs and desires, as one of the newer bees in Darwin’s garden – ingenious, sometimes reckless, and remarkably unself-conscious” (Pollan xxv).

In chapter 7 of Guns, Germs, and Steel, I noticed that Diamond’s writing came across interesting, yet written in a more practical sense than the heartfelt writing of Pollan. Diamond brings up several compelling concepts, such as exploring the true meaning of ‘domestication’ and reversing natural selection through examples of larger berry sizes and oak trees. Of Diamond’s wittiest (and almost shocking) remarks, my favorite was that “human latrines, like those of aardvarks, may have been a testing ground of the first unconscious crop breeders” (Diamond 117). The provocative sentence left me thinking, that’s pretty gross but makes so much sense. I found this chapter to be quite informative, as it analyzed the true origin of agriculture through human history, and probed the fundamental questions that many of us have always overlooked.

I also noted how both authors wrote about Darwin’s On the Origin of Species near the end of the chapters. Diamond and Pollan both bring up the artificial selection that Darwin begins his book with, as Darwin wrote of plants before writing of animals because he reckoned that it would be more accepting to the masses. Pollan connected the world of Darwin to that of ours today when he stated that “the crisp conceptual line that divided artificial from natural selection has blurred” (Pollan xxii). I think that both authors will delve into this notion further throughout subsequent chapters, which leaves me excited to read more.

 

The Triumph of Seeds

Hanson T. 2015. The Triumph of Seeds. New York (NY): Basic Books. 277 p.

VB thor hanson seeds

Image: http://www.villagebooks.com/event/thor-hanson-4/11/15

The next book my Plants and People course looked at was The Triumph of Seeds by Thor Hanson. Although only a few chapters were assigned, I was able to discover a whole lot about seeds through the remarkable eyes of Thor himself.

Writing in first person, Thor unravels his primary thoughts about seeds in the introduction as he explains how vitally important they are to humans, and yet how we have overlooked their significance throughout history.  Thor uses a quote by George Bernard Shaw to perfectly capture the marvelous power of the seed:

“Think of the fierce energy concentrated in an acorn! You bury it in the ground, and it explodes into a giant oak! Bury a sheep, and nothing happens but decay.” (Hanson xix).

Thor goes on to explain that this ‘fierce energy’ encapsulated in a seed is not yet thoroughly understood (Hanson 2015). He explains the value of seeds through impressive scientific notions, such as that humans may not have evolved without seeds, or how seed plants now dominate our current flora. For those that do not have a background in botany, Thor lists the many attributes of seeds (such as nourishment, defense mechanisms, and endurance) plain and clear. The sheer importance of seeds thus begins to dawn on the reader.

Throughout the book, Thor attempts to answer the questions surrounding the success of seeds on earth and their influence on humanity, and does so in a charming and witty way through his own personal experiences and reflections (Hanson 2015). For example, he describes his first major seed encounter with that of the almendro (almond) tree while on a graduate study in Central America. Although he studied the seed for quite a while, he noted that he still did not understand seeds in a meaningful way, and therefore consults leading seed biologists, Carol and Jerry Baskin. These two experts are the first of many whom Thor confers with, which adds faces to the scientists shaping this story of seeds. For those of us new to the world of seeds, Carol cutely states that “a seed is a baby plant, in a box, with its lunch” (Hanson 9), and that “some of those babies have eaten all their lunch, some have eaten part of it, and some haven’t even taken a bite” (Hanson 10). The reader goes on to learn much about the beginning stages of seed germination, with the example of the avocado seed. The way Thor explains the cotyledons or the way roots grow during germination by imbibing water, and even his descriptions of his own germinating seeds in the Raccoon Shack, help the reader to follow this magical process in a more informal and effortless way.

Personally, I found the fourth chapter (‘What the Spike Moss Knows’), the most intriguing of the three chapters I read (Hanson 2015). Thor attempts to discern when exactly seed plants began to dominate, or “the moment of triumph for the seeds” (Hanson 56), by visiting an archaeological dig in New Mexico with Bill DiMichele, a Smithsonian paleontologist. When I glanced at Thor’s picture of someone holding up a big fossil, I was amazed at what the paleontologists could infer from the vague imprint. It was also kind of shocking that Thor was with this group of people who believed in an entirely different hypothesis as to how the seed plants exploded in dominance over the spore plants. These people were looking for evidence to support a major theory, one that might also relate to our understanding of animals, bacteria, and other environmental changes in that time period. This part of the book also illustrated how much we do not yet know of the evolution of plants by highlighting the problems associated with the fossil record, such as preservation bias. Or another realization of how little is known of seed fossils occurs when Thor asks Bill what plant is on a fossil and Bill replies, “you’re best off just calling them winged seeds” (Hanson 60). But with the new knowledge he gathers from the paleontologists, Thor begins to better formulate the prevalence of seed plants and some of their major evolutionary adaptations – like how being in a dry area upland makes sense for spore plants to evolve seeds. I think that this chapter was really important in piecing some of the seed puzzle together.

The next chapter focused on Mendel and the history of genetics (Hanson 2015). Since I am familiar with Mendel’s story, the chapter was not as informative as the others. However, Thor still writes in his story-like manner, entrancing the reader with a tale and not a history speech.

So far, I thought The Triumph of Seeds was an interesting read because it was filled with Thor’s creative writing, personal experiences, illustrations and pictures, and occasional humorous thoughts. I especially liked when Thor began the book by introducing us to his young son and his fascination with seeds – I too now ‘heed’ the seeds!

 

 

My first step into the world of local eating..

 

 The 100-Mile Diet (well the first half of it)

The first assignment I was given in this class was to write a bit about The 100-Mile Diet by Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon.

http://www.amazon.ca/The-100-Mile-Diet-Local-Eating/dp/0679314830

Smith A, MacKinnon JB. 2007. The 100-Mile Diet. Toronto (ON): Vintage Canada. 266 p.

I had never heard of the book before, but I had heard of the 100-mile diet as a TV show. After reading the book, I realized that the 100-mile diet was thought up by two Canadians living in Vancouver wanting to eat in a more sustainable way. The book is written in first person by the two Canadians themselves, Alisa and James. The couple are writers living in modern-day Vancouver who have some inspiration to help decrease climate change. James, for instance is an avid bicycler as “he rides even in the North Pacific monsoons of December that obscure vision, that freeze your bones” (Smith and MacKinnon 21), and also shops sparingly in defiance of materialism. Alisa is less extreme, but still shares the same earthly views as James. The two stumble across the idea of eating locally when they spend a particularly delightful dinner at their remote cabin in northern BC. The couple and their friends ran out of food for dinner, and thus caught, picked, and foraged for a meal. The experience of eating food and knowing the exact whereabouts of it, and the tastiness of the meal led the couple in attempting to recreate it in Vancouver. They then decide to try and eat food produced only within a 100 miles of where they live for one year. Thus, the first half of the book alternates chapter by chapter from James’ to Alisa’s perspectives and journeys through each day on the diet.

My thoughts..

My first thought of this whole book and the 100-mile diet concept was,  why? Why does it make a difference to eat locally? How does one or two people eating locally make a difference in the long run? How is this sort of diet going to work for someone like me – someone who has 8 university courses, 2 part-time jobs and volunteers twice a week? Or for someone who has low socioeconomic status, or is busy with a full time job and 3 small children? What I’m trying to get across is practicality in today’s North American world. I admire the courage and the bravery these two people had to try this diet, but while they are eating locally, the trucks and planes bringing in food from across the globe are still coming – the fossil fuel emissions are still happening. The prices of this imported food are out-competing the local organic food – although this couple can afford to buy it, what about the average starving student, or the single mom or single dad? And what about the time it takes to go and hunt for this food, and then to cook it? James and Alisa are writers who seem to work from home most of time, and are able to spend time preparing and cooking. I know that this would never work for me because I need easily accessible instant food (food that I can chow down on after 4 lectures, and a lab, then be good to go for work).

With these thoughts running through my head, I then kept reading and soon discovered a list of reasons to eat locally at the back of the book. Okay, so its not just the fossil fuel emissions, its getting into contact with your food again, and about developing relationships with my food, family and friends. So then I thought, maybe this could be possible for a lot more people, maybe we could all benefit from a government who supports global produce trade a bit less and local farmers a bit more. And I read on with a more open  mind.

For a book about plants and eating (not my usual Stephen King thriller), this is one is pretty good. For one, adding recipes to the beginning of each chapter is very ingenious, and adds more realism to the book (as in, yes these meals are real and James isn’t just a magician in the kitchen). I haven’t tried any recipes out so far, but poached salmon with wine cream sauce sounds exquisite.

Secondly, the description in this book is simply astounding. When I read about “the freshness of the fish, the earthy goodness of the spuds that had sopped up the juices of mushrooms and garlic” (Smith and MacKinnon 3), or about the sandwich James had made for Alisa as “layers of bright red greenhouse peppers and fried mushrooms peeked out beneath delectably oozing goat cheese” (Smith and MacKinnon 37), it seriously made me reconsider my Mr.Noodles with toast.

The last thing I really liked about the book, that I’ll say for now, is the way that both of these people write about scientific facts on food distribution and global warming, it doesn’t exactly make you feel outright guilty or shameful. I think that their slow realization to what the food industry has become is what most of us would rather go through, rather than watch one 1-hour documentary horrifying you about chicken nuggets for the rest of your life. I believe they are trying to inspire a deeper understanding, one that will continue on with the reader throughout his/her lifetime. Heck, its already gotten to me. The other day, I started explaining the book to my mom, who was shocked. My mom is originally from India, and loves plants; we have jade on our kitchen table, bamboo in all the washrooms, and a small garden with tomatoes, cucumbers, basil, thyme, and oregano in the backyard, as well as a plum tree and two apple trees. She told me she had never even given this topic a second thought before, and that she was glad that I had told her so she was more informed.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is that the book is very informative, and in a bit of sneaky way since it is decorated with recipes, and descriptions of savory foods and scenic lands. So far, I’m learning quite a bit, and I’m thinking about how my ‘practicality’ questions can be answered more and more.

Image references:

Feature Image –  saw/iStockPhoto

Book cover – http://www.amazon.ca/The-100-Mile-Diet-Local-Eating/dp/0679314830

Author picture – Random House Canada