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Food & agriculture - March 27

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The 100-Foot Diet

Roger Doiron, Common Dreams
I started preparing a large pot of potato leek soup this morning. If all goes according to plan, the soup should be done simmering by late September.

No, there’s no problem with my stovetop or my cooking skills. The problem, if there is one, is with my admittedly extreme definition of local ingredients.

Unless you managed to lock yourself in your kitchen pantry for the past year, you will have heard that road-weary foods are out and fresh, local ones are in. Yet, different people have different ways of defining local. John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, has said that local foods are those sourced within a 200 mile radius of a store. Nutritionist and author Joan Dye Gussow has defined local more poetically as “within a day’s leisurely drive of our homes”.

In my case, local foods are those coming from my own backyard, literally. In order to have backyard-grown leeks by September, I’m planting seeds indoors now which will grow into pencil-necked seedlings that I’ll move outdoors in May when Maine’s winter officially ends and summer begins (for those who haven’t been to Maine before, spring comes the second week of May, except for those years when it skips us completely). Once the seedlings are in the ground, they’ll need a hundred days before they’re ready for the soup pot.

There are certainly easier paths to delicious, local foods than the one that passes through the backyard garden, but none more direct or more satisfying. It is a path, however, that fewer and fewer Americans are willing to tread. According to latest data from US Department of Agriculture, home food production hit an all time low last year and was down a full 20% from the previous year. Meanwhile, despite recent trends, foods in the US have never traveled farther than they do now, over 1500 miles on average from field to fork, using up to 17 more fossil fuels than foods sourced locally.
(25 March 2007)
Best headline I've seen this month. -BA


The Crikey Water Diet: Part I

Jane Nethercote, Crikey (Australia)
So you think that your shower bucket is saving the planet. Think again. Most of your water waste is around your waist.

Through eating and drinking, the average Briton consumes about 3,400L of water a day, according to Hidden Waters [PDF], a recent report from Waterwise. Australian irrigation scientist Professor Wayne Meyer reckons it's more like 3,000L per meal, or 10,000L of water a day in the Western world.

Everything you eat and drink contains "embedded water" - the so-called hidden water it takes to bring produce from the field to your table. But not all foods are created equal. It takes a lot of water to grow food, and then "much more water to feed and service the animals that we eat", says Waterwise's head of research Joanne Zygmunt.

Which means vegetarians have a right to feel smug: a leafy diet contains about half the embedded water content of a meat-lovers regime. Not that anything is ever that simple. There's methane output too of course, and here, some might venture that vegetarians are bigger contributors.

Natural rainfall (green water) plays a large part in embedded water content - only 15% of crops produced worldwide are irrigation-fed -- but 70% of global freshwater withdrawals are for irrigation (blue water). And in Australia in 2003-04, the most extensive use of irrigation in agriculture was for pasture for grazing (ABS), not for crops. Despite being the driest continent on earth, Australia is a net exporter of embedded water. Water that we don't have.

So how do you trim your water use? The Crikey Water Diet can help. Our motto: A moment on the lips, a life of bucket trips.

To kick off, here are some general rules, with expert commentary from Kelvin Montagu of the Cooperative Research Centre for Irrigation Futures.

  • Find food close to the source. "The closer your food is to the source of all food, photosynthesis, the less hidden water you will be using. All the food we eat is originally produced by plants as they grab carbon dioxide out of the air and produce sugars via photosynthesis, losing a lot of water in the process."

  • Green should be seen. "If you are dead keen on reducing the amount of hidden water in your food then eat leafy vegetables. By doing this you minimise the amount of food value lost as the original sugars are changed to more complex foods - but there is a limit!"
  • Fruits and grains reduce the pain. "The next best is to eat fruits and then grains which will have more hidden water than vegetables. This is because there is a cost to the plant in transporting, making new more complex compounds and storing them in the fruits and grains."
  • If it moves, lose it. "The real big jump in hidden water comes when another animal gets involved. A lot of the food values are lost in the conversion of the original plant into the products from animals such as cheese, eggs and finally meat." It's estimated that one kilogram of beef has 50,000-100,000L of embedded water, more than a backyard pool, as Des Houghton notes in the Courier-Mail.
  • Where did it come from? There are many variables in food production and embedded water can vary significantly depending on country (or even region), as well as the aridity or humidity of the atmosphere. A kilogram of tomatoes produced in the UK has an average embedded water content of eight litres, but a kilo from Indonesia contains about 340 litres.

(26 March 2007)


Natural Vending Machines and the Psychology of Snacking

Sarah Rich, World Changing
How many times a day do you think about food? I couldn't even guess my own answer, but it's a high number, to be sure.

These days, if you wanted to, you could find food every time you thought about it, whether you were at the car wash or the hardware store or the park. This landscape of ubiquitous munchies has a real social and psychological impact on eating behaviours.

It may make us feel secure, but it's also making us collectively less healthy, one Snickers at a time. One of the participants as this year's Doors of Perception conference, Margie Morris -- a senior researcher at Intel -- gave a provocative presentation about the social behaviours we construct in order to be sure we have food around us.

For example, we may bring a bag of cookies to a friend's house as a "gift," knowing that the next time we visit, those cookies will be there and we will be able to eat them. It amounts to a stashing ritual in which we separate ourselves from the tendency to overeat by placing treats strategically in other people's pantries, but then permit ourselves the indulgence when it's not from our own kitchen. Seems extreme, but ask yourself if you've ever done it, even unconsciously...

The point is not that indulgence is unconditionally bad, or that self-deprivation will solve our problems, but that the constant availability of food has so confused our relationship with eating that we are literally paying for it in hospital bills, cholesterol counts, and the emotional exhaustion of being physically unhealthy. ..
(23 Mar 2007)

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