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Do you know where your fish is from?

Beppi Crosariol, Globe & Mail
Take a close look at your next menu – chefs are increasingly taking an interest in replacing iffy species with sustainable alternatives
…Mr. Clark is part of a growing network of professional cooks prompted into action by a series of events over the past decade. With the East Coast cod fishery in collapse, chefs began noticing something was wrong with the ocean’s bigger fish, such as swordfish and tuna – the fillets and steaks they were preparing seemed to be shrinking almost before their eyes.

In 1998, a group of culinary stars in New York announced they were taking swordfish off their menus as part of a campaign dubbed Give Swordfish a Break. The ripples were felt as far as Washington, where six months later then-president Bill Clinton imposed a ban on the sale and importation of north Atlantic swordfish weighing less than 33 pounds.

In Mr. Clark’s case, the wake-up call came about eight years ago in the form of Chilean sea bass – officially but less palatably known as patagonian toothfish – then the darling of upscale restaurant kitchens because of its ability to endure the cardinal sin of haute cuisine, overcooking.

“At some point it didn’t even look like Chilean sea bass any more,” says Mr. Clark, who had also become worried about reports that up to 75 per cent of sea bass supplies were illegally poached.

Mr. Clark’s solution, initially motivated by the more selfish desire to expand his seafood offerings, was to bypass large wholesalers and go straight to local fishermen, who could offer more than just the ubiquitous “farmed salmon, halibut and shrimp,” he says.
(30 May 2007)

Has big business turned organics into ‘yuppy chow’?

Michael Valpy, Globe and Mail
Organic food is being taken over by big business, marketed as “yuppie chow” for the privileged, and increasingly packaged with as little concern for the environment as conventional food production, says a York University academic researcher.

In a paper to be presented on Friday at Canada’s largest gathering of social sciences scholars, Irena Knezevic says that most of the major organic brands on the North American market are now owned by large corporations such as ConAgra, Cargill, Kraft, Coca Cola and Pepsi.

She says their products – along with those sold by retail giants such as Loblaws and Wal-Mart – are turning organic agriculture into product brands that are becoming “a marketing tool more so than an assurance of quality, let alone an assurance of a fair and sustainable production process.”

Officials from Loblaws and Wal-Mart were unavailable for comment last night.

This trend, says Ms. Knezevic, is driven by consumer demand, with the food industry’s eager willingness to jump on the bandwagon and make organic consumption efficient and slightly less expensive by mass-producing – creating only a slightly “greener” version of the dominant industrial food system but separating organic agriculture from its central concepts.

She says consumers are demonstrating a phenomenal enthusiasm for organic products – the Canadian organic industry is growing by 15 to 20 per cent annually – and a readiness to pay premium prices for the products.

But what research shows, she says, is that organic products are becoming what she describes as a food fetish associated with individual health and body image – status food linked to high disposable income and the leisure time to shop – but ignoring “the heart of organic agriculture.”

“Organic agriculture is by definition intertwined with environmentalism, resistance to corporate globalization and the ‘back to the land’ movement,” she says.

…It is the environmental and social-justice issues that Ms. Knezevic says are being ignored by consumers and government regulators.

“Most of the organic food supply in Canada travels to consumers from California and includes convenience foods like individual-sized and single-serving granola bars. Transportation and packaging involved result in environmental consequences comparable to those of conventional food production.”
(30 May 2007)

British film-makers ask: what is the hidden cost of your £2 latte?

David Smith, The Observer
Two billion cups are sold daily in a £40bn global industry, but now a controversial documentary showing the plight of growers asks whether there is such a thing as ethical coffee.

It was at Sundance, Robert Redford’s film festival held in the Utah mountains, that Black Gold became more than just another angry film. Nick and Marc Francis, the British brothers who made the low-budget documentary about the global coffee trade, were asked by a sell-out audience how much it would cost to help farmers finish building a school they had filmed in Ethiopia. The answer was $10,000. An audience member raised his hand and pledged to donate the full amount. He wrote a cheque on the spot.

Black Gold is galvanising audiences wherever it plays. The Francis brothers receive hundreds of emails a day from people in the coffee industry who, appalled by images of women in factories handpicking coffee beans for wages of half a dollar a day, want to change the way they do business. Employees of the multinationals which dominate the £40bn-a-year coffee industry – the world’s second most valuable after crude oil – have told the brothers they had no idea they were perpetuating such a system.

Marc said: ‘At the end of the day, every cup of coffee we drink relies on exploitation.’ It is not a message the coffee giants wish to gain currency. Starbucks reportedly sent an email to its employees in Britain describing Black Gold as ‘inaccurate and incomplete’ before it was screened at the London Film Festival. At Sundance, the company distributed a statement saying that it thinks ‘coffee farmers should make a living wage and be paid fair prices’, and invited the Francis brothers to its headquarters in Seattle, having previously refused to grant them an interview.
(27 May 2007)

From a Chinese Oil Refinery To Your Twinkie

Steve Ettlinger, Los Angeles Times
Food Makers Don’t Often Know Where The Chemicals In Their Products Come From.
When I began researching the ingredients for Twinkies, I naively thought that their raw materials were extracted from nuts, beans, fruit, seeds or leaves, and that they came from the United States. I was looking to link places with foods – along the lines of California wine or Maine lobster, but for thiamine mononitrate. It turned out that I was way off.

Although eight of the ingredients in the beloved little snack cake come from domestic corn and three from soybeans, there are others – including thiamine mononitrate – that come from petroleum. Chinese petroleum. Chinese refineries and Chinese factories. And there are other unexpected ingredients that are much harder to trace. So much for the great “All-American” snack food.

When you bite into a Twinkie, you are chewing on an international nexus of suppliers. Most of our processed foods – salad dressing, ice cream, meal-replacement drinks – are processed with foreign additives: essential ones, like B vitamins for fortifying flour and the preservative sorbic acid, as well as Malaysian or Indonesian palm oil products, European wheat gluten, Peruvian colorants, Chadian gums and Swiss niacin, made from Swiss water, Swiss air (nitrogen) and North Atlantic or Middle Eastern oil. It’s a nice contrast to recall that Champagne comes only from Champagne, France.

Like many other industries, food additives have been off-shored.

…How can you have quality control when you don’t even know where the ingredient is coming from? During my Twinkie research, I was particularly surprised that many American food additive “manufacturers” buy chemicals, especially vitamins, from distributors and do not know, or don’t ask, where they come from. The distributors usually sing the same song, as they often buy from importers, and the importers buy from exporters who – no surprise – are often not able or willing to identify all of their sources.

Now that the tainted pet food scandal has made us more aware that many additives come from overseas, and China in particular – and that some unscrupulous or, at the very least, unprofessional Chinese manufacturers mix cheaper and poisonous adulterants into some food or pharmaceutical products – most of us would like to see some action. What can be done?

…Finally, as consumers, we can swallow hard and decide to pay just a little more for well-inspected processed food – or eat more local fruits, vegetables and whole grains and buy minimally processed and sustainably farmed foods.
Steve Ettlinger is the author of, most recently, “Twinkie, Deconstructed.”
(29 May 2007)
Also at Common Dreams