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)