Food & agriculture - Aug 30
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Slow Food brings many issues to the table
Steven Winn, San Francisco Chronicle
The 50,000 people expected to convene in San Francisco this weekend for the Slow Food Nation festival will have their minds and mouths trained on all things edible. Skeptics might argue that the last thing the Bay Area needs is another dose of foodie fanaticism for the well-to-do.
But as both Slow Food disciples and outside observers see it, the growing international movement's underlying principles have implications that reach far beyond the dining rooms of the fad-chasing upper middle class.
In its rebuke of fast food, big agribusiness and global distribution and its embrace of local products, biological diversity, sustainability and the sensual delights of the table, food is a touchstone for everything from energy policy and net-roots politics to the ways Americans both seek and sabotage pleasure.
A Slow Food sensibility can offer new perspectives on diabetes and childhood obesity, both fueled in part by a convenience-food lifestyle. It makes us consider the enlarging possibilities of thinking and acting locally - not only about food, but housing and transportation as well. It invites people to reset their personal clocks and reconsider how they use - and allow themselves to be used by - technology.
(29 August 2008)
Too good to waste?
Rose George, The Guardian
Reports that sludge from sewage plants is routinely used to fertilise edible crops have caused outrage. Is this simply a prudent use of so-called 'biosolids' or a grave threat to our health? ---
... Wastewater treatment is much-tinkered-with - 1,000 works will have 999 different processes, a worker tells me - but the basics are unchangeable. Solids are removed from sewage first by filtering and letting them sink. This is primary treatment. Secondary treatment involves micro-organisms, bolstered by added oxygen, that break down any organic content still in the wastewater. The bacteria-cleaned effluent goes into a nearby stream. The children lean over obediently to look at its colour. It's clear! Not brown! And then it's time to make sewage soup.
It has been a long time since sewage consisted of pure human faecal material. Into sewage, anything goes. An enterprising American sewage-treatment manager once expressed this by producing water bottles supposedly made from sewage effluent. Their labels listed the ingredients: water, faecal matter, toilet paper, hair, lint, rancid grease, stomach acid and trace amounts of Pepto Bismol, chocolate, urine, body oils ...
... When sewage is cleaned and treated, the dirt that is removed is called sewage sludge. The UK produces 1.44m tonnes of it a year, and it has to go somewhere. The most common options consist of incineration, landfill, application to farmland and dumping at sea. The EU banned ocean dumping in 1998, as the nutrients in human waste - nitrogen and phosphorous, for a start - can, in great quantities, suffocate the life from water. The public doesn't much like incineration, and landfill space is running out. So 68% of our sludge is applied to fields, a fact that translated into newspaper headlines last month as "human sewage [is] used for our cereals," beside a photograph of a woman eating cornflakes. Reader reaction was predictable. One commenter swore never to shop at supermarkets again. Another pronounced the practice "disgusting".
But on the forum of Farmers Weekly, the farmers let rip. "It's great stuff," wrote one, "and probably better than the raw cow muck that goes on." The public's horror was yet another reason that "the general public, and the media, should not be allowed out on farms ... without serious education beforehand". In fact, sludge used as fertiliser isn't news.
... Nor is it unusual. Human waste has been used to fertilise fields for thousands of years. China's willingness to use untreated sewage on its fields is probably the reason its soil is still fertile after 4,000 years of cultivation, when other civilisations such as the Maya watched their crops wither and their soil erode. A recent report by the International Water Management Institute calculated that 200 million farmers worldwide were using raw sewage to irrigate their crops.
Properly treated, sewage could have a place in the nutrient cycle. Food feeds humans whose waste feeds food.
... But in the US, where 3m tonnes of sludge are applied to farmland, an increasingly vocal anti-sludge movement doesn't agree.
Rose George is the author of The Big Necessity: Adventures in the World of Human Waste, published by Portobello Books on Monday priced £12.99
(29 August 2008)
Long, nuanced article about a complex subject. Wondeful stuff for us fans of humanure. -BA
Was the organic food revolution just a fad? Fear for farmers as shoppers tighten belts
Juliette Jowit, The Guardian
From new mums worried about their children's health to foodies seeking the very finest products, consumers have embraced organic food with more enthusiasm than most environmental trends.
But now the British love affair with organics has stalled in the face of rising prices and tightening budgets as mortgage and fuel bills bite and fears rise over job losses.
The market research company TNS keeps track of the shopping habits of 25,000 households and has watched organic sales rise tenfold in the last 10 years to more than £1.3bn a year, though this still accounts for only a few percent of total food and drink sales. But the latest figures show the biggest and most consistent fall in organic food and drink sales for a decade - by nearly a fifth from their all-time peak in February.
(29 August 2008)
The Guardian has several related articles:
Shoppers lose their taste for organic food
'I steer away from organic foods now'
Organic food is no middle class fad
As food prices soar, Brazil and Argentina react in opposite ways
Andrew Downie, International Herald Tribune
... Rising food prices mean many farmers around the world are reaping record profits. And South America's agricultural powerhouses, Brazil and Argentina, are responding to the farming windfall in opposite ways.
da Silva's government recently announced record farm credits, a form of indirect subsidy, to encourage Brazil's farmers to produce more while the price of their exports are high on world markets, a move that should improve Brazil's economy. But Argentina, Brazil's economic and political archrival, decided to share the agricultural windfall at home.
Worried about the wave of inflation rippling around the world, the government of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina increased export taxes on some crops, a move meant to keep down domestic food prices by encouraging farmers flush from global profits to sell more at home.
(28 August 2008)
Switzerland: Contract farming co-ops show organic growth
Simon Bradley, Swiss Info
An increasing number of Swiss-French homes are having fresh organic fruit and vegetables grown by local contract farming cooperatives delivered to their doorsteps.
... "I think it's really important to learn to feed yourself with seasonal vegetables," said Jérôme Chablais, a geology PhD student from Geneva, who joined the co-op three years ago.
"I think people are more aware about food safety issues and are fed up eating any old rubbish. If you do a simple calculation of how much it costs to eat organic food from either Migros or Coop supermarkets, it's quite expensive and the quality is quite poor. If you do an annual calculation here, we are definite winners."
... "I wanted to eat products grown near where I live. It's totally absurd to transport products from one side of Switzerland or Europe to the other," said Chantal, a member of Jardins du Flon, a Lausanne-based cooperative that started in 2007.
Yet the projects have their downsides, such as the payment method – generally an annual fee in advance – the relatively rigid delivery times and unpleasant surprises of receiving fennel when what you really wanted for dinner were courgettes.
"It's a niche which helps raise awareness and encourages people to eat Swiss produce," said Nicolas Berthold, spokesperson for the Swiss Market Garden Union. "But you have to be very motivated, given the constraints in the contract."
But the unknown content of the packages forces you to discover more exotic products like Jerusalem artichokes or Nashi pears, explained Chantal.
"I am not a big fan of parsnips or turnips, but the concept forces you to vary your diet a little bit," she said.
... In French-speaking Switzerland, some 3,400 households regularly receive shopping baskets from one of the 20 cooperatives, of which seven are based in canton Geneva and five in canton Vaud.
But strangely the concept has not taken root in German-speaking regions.
(30 August 2008)