Community Ties

There I was, in a tucked away corner of Save-On Foods, looking for inspiration for my dish. Ironically, this company that constantly advertises about being “BC grown” only has a small shelf of local food somewhere out of sight in the back that the produce guy forgot about. But there it was, not the food that I was looking for, but the inspiration. Regionally grown and milled flour and oats. Who knew we grew wheat in B.C.? With this, the possibilities for my plate were endless.

So there I was in class the next day, faced with the choice of which course my meal would be. My ideal course, dinner, was unavailable but I was unphased. My find of flour meant I could bake a pie. Besides, the dessert section was pretty slim anyway.

Then as I walked out of the building, it hit me. It hit me harder than any punch or thrown ball ever could. What hit me was comparable to a tidal wave of panic followed by a flood of anxiety. Where would I get sugar? Sugar cane isn’t grown in B.C.! (Leff et al. 2004) My initial confidence was carried out like being caught in the undertow.

Lucky for me, sweetness is something that white settlers of North America have been looking for since we got here, so my problem was not unique. Johnny Appleseed distributed the apple throughout North America with great speed establishing orchards along the way at a rate slightly slower than Starbucks did with their coffee shops (Diamond 2010). In the 19th century, apples represented the sweetness that settlers were looking for. Although they used Johnny Appleseed’s apples to make cider, and I would be using them to make a crumble, our desire was still the same. The desire for sweetness (Pollan 2002).

Apples originated somewhere in Western China or Kazakhstan (Hancook 2004). So even though apples aren’t native, they have been an efficient import. One can take a seed and, if used correctly, turn it into an orchard. Talk about a low carbon footprint! So now apples are grown in the Thompson-Okanagan. In fact, apples are grown quite prominently here.

I have a more intimate relationship with apples than most. I spent one seemingly endless summer working at an orchard in Kelowna. Nothing else gives a face to my food quite like an apple. Sometimes, when eating B.C. grown apples, I think about how they might have come from that same orchard I worked on. I’ll fantasize about Carl, the mangy looking guy I worked with, talking about where he thought our boss Dan’s weed was grown as he might be picking my apple.

“He’s gotta grow man! The guy is way too chill. It takes one to know one and that guy is a POTHEAD!” I could see him saying as he put the apple he just picked into his sack.

These apples didn’t only give me sweetness, they also gave me hope. However, if I were to make a crumble I needed a little more sweetness to appease the sugar saturated palate that people have today. The story of how I got this added sweetness was a fluke. It came from an eccentric boss named Sara.

Sara wears many hats at the school here. I know her as the coordinator of an athletic tutoring program at the school, but she’s involved in much more. I had known Sara since the start of the year and she was quick to mention her chickens and how they were allowed to walk about the house. I found this quite odd, but interesting and obviously many questions followed. So when I was in my sweetness conundrum I felt like she would be a good person to talk to. Along the way she revealed something more I did not know about her.

“Well we kept bees this summer!” she said.

“In fact we’ve got one more jar of honey left, and you can have it.” Clearly, she wears many hats outside of school too, all the way from soccer mom to amateur beekeeper. Sara would not accept payment from me, only an interesting factoid from me about how bees relocate their nests when their colonies get too big. I found it fitting that the sweetness in my dish would come from such a sweet person.

Well, there I was making my crumble, thinking. I was thinking about how I got this recipe. It was my mother’s recipe. She would make it on most special dinners, usually with rhubarb from our garden. So as often does, this food will come with more than nourishment, it comes with nostalgia. It comes with the memories of past birthdays and holidays. It comes with stories both ancient and new. It even comes with faces too.

The oats and flour come with the story of civilization. One of the first domesticated crops in the Fertile Crescent these seeds have made and broken empires (Diamond 1999; Hancook 2004). The apples come with the story of travelling the new frontier with Johnny Appleseed (Pollan 2002; Diamond 2010). More recently, the apples carry my stories from that long summer at the orchard and all the faces associated with it. The oats and flour tell the story of my excitement and discovery. The honey acts as a glue, keeping all the little pieces together.

Now here I am. Eating my crumble at the end of a memorable meal with members of my community. Community. The word has a double meaning here. Ecologically, a community is all the species living in the same place at the same time. So I’m not only sharing this meal with the people of my community, but the plants and animals as well. What a beautiful thought. The plants and animals of this region are just as big a part of the community as we are, and tonight they are included and recognized as such. They say it takes a village to raise a child. I say, it takes a community to make a dish.

The plants in my dish are no more native to the Thompson-Okanagan than I am. But now, through one way or another, we’ve all made our way here and it is home. We all share this place together. If we support each other, then together, one dish at a time, we might shade out the invasive species that is the supermarket. At the very least, we can get our local food more than a shelf at the supermarket.

When a local athlete makes it big, we all get excited. The community buzzes with pride of their homegrown star. We love when members of our community thrive! We can grow this same excitement about the plants and animals of our community too. Our local plants and animals can do much more for the community than shoot a puck or dribble a ball. They feed and nourish us. I think it’s their time to thrive now.

References

Diamond D. 2010. Origins of Pioneer Apple Orchards in the American West: Random Seeding versus Artisan Horticulture. Agricultural History. 84(4): 423-450.

Diamond J. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The fates of human societies. 1999. New York (NY). Norton Paperback. p. 131-156.

Hancook JF. Plant Evolution and the Origin of Crop Species. 2004. Cambridge (MA) CABI Publishing. p. 183-227.

Leff B, Ramankutty N, Foley JA. 2004. Geographic distribution of major crops across the world. Global Biogeochemical Cycles. 18(1).

Pollan, M. The botany of desire: A plant’s-eye view of the world. 2002. Toronto (ON). Random House Trade Paperbacks. p. 4-58.

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Local living

Smith A, MacKinnon JB. 2007. The 100 mile diet: a year of local eating. Toronto (ON): Vintage Canada Edition. p. 149-252.

Going through the motions. A cardinal sin in my mind. The last half of the 100 mile diet, starts to do this. Instead of it being about Alisa and James’ relationship with the food and the community, it becomes about their relationship.

In particular I didn’t like the end of the October chapter. I really can’t figure out why Alisa would talk about her relationship so negatively in this book (p. 168). Why would you want to air your dirty laundry like that for everybody? I’m sure there is a reason that I am overlooking otherwise it would not have been published. Was it to symbolize the dreariness they felt at that time of year? I do not know, but I didn’t appreciate it.

After reading the first half of the book, many of the people in our class talked about how they disliked James and liked Alisa. I feel the opposite about the situation. I understand that Alisa’s sections made the book more of a complete story (which we love) and she put the book into the context of their lives. However, sometimes she went too far, and it took away from the message of their story and focused too much on her life. For example on page 201 when Alisa is visiting her grandmother. She talks about how they un-enthusiastically watch Seinfeld and her grandmother asks her to take her to Wal-Mart to buy a lamp. It’s not that I don’t love a good story. However, other than this diet, Alisa’s life is fairly plain and it’s not why I was excited to read this book.

The authors do manage to bring up some good points in the latter half of the book though. One of the quotes I do like from Alisa was, “Despite eating more than ever before, our culture may be the only one in human history to value food so little…Among the traditional cultures of the Pacific Northwest, a ‘poor’ person was someone who never troubled to catch his own salmon, but was instead content to eat food produced by others. By measures like these we are nearly all poor.” (p. 160-161) Relating back to the local meal we had with our class, people were buzzing with pride over their food. Every dish had ingredients we could trace back to the places and faces where we found them. Many of the dishes were relatively simple dishes and would not be considered fancy by any stretch of the word. However, the food had some of the fullest flavours I have tasted in quite some time.

My generation has grown up in a time of abundance. We have experienced no great war, famine or natural disaster that has effected shaken the foundation of our daily life. Due to this, we have taken food and water for granted. We have confidence that it will be there tomorrow, and we often have the luxury to choose what we will have. But we don’t see it as a luxury. Our human nature has made it an expectation.

I think back to my Grandma when confronted with this thought. She was a woman who lived through two World Wars and the Great Depression. A Christian woman, The Lord’s Prayer is no doubt something she had said numerous times. “Give us this day our daily bread” it says. There must have been times in her life that she was unimaginably grateful for bread. Bread. Something anyone can cheaply buy right now was a saving grace. That’s so powerful to me. That time just wasn’t all that far away.

Meet Joel Salatin, Ecologist and Farmer

Pollan M. 2007. Omnivore’s Dilemma: A natural history of four meals. New York (NY): Penguin Publishing.  p. 185- 273.

I was introduced to a new idea today. The grass farmer. At first mention I thought the grass farmer meant that they were growing grass to sell as sod. I was confused. I thought, “Where are you taking us here Pollan?” However, I was sorely mistaken. Grass farming is much more than growing grass. It’s using the grass to grow chickens, pigs, cows and any other animal you want. It’s also using these animals to grow the grass as well. A true symbiosis.

I like the name grass farming. It puts the emphasis on the primary producers as the star of the ranch. Without the grass the farm wouldn’t succeed, and therefore, the cattle ranch wouldn’t either (or any other animal you were trying to raise for that matter). “Grass farmers grow animals-for meat, eggs, milk, and wool-but regard them part of a food chain in which grass is the keystone species, the nexus between the solar energy that powers every food chain and the animals we eat” (p. 188). When I first started reading this chapter, I got a little excited about this flip-flop view of grass farming and tried to explain the concept to my girlfriend. As I read on, I found this quote to be the most eloquent and succinct way to explain it.

Joel Salatin goes even further. He says, “To be even more accurate, we should call ourselves sun farmers” (p. 188). I like this name as well. It brings images to mind about grasses acting being solar panels. Joel even goes on to refer the grass blades as photovoltaic panels (p. 189). However, after reading this chapter, I think the most accurate definition is ecosystem farmer or even ecosystem manager. This is because the complexity of Joel’s farm is much more than growing grass to feed the animals. At Joel’s farm each animal has a specific role or niche. The grasses job is obviously to grow. But for the grass to grow it also requires the animals and timing. The philosophy is based on the treatise Grass Productivity. The author, André Voisin, found that by applying grazing cattle at the right time the productivity of the pasture increased enormously (p. 188). This is because grass growth is sigmoidal. After grass is grazed, its growth is slow quite slow. However, after it recovers from the trauma of grazing it goes through the “blaze of growth” until about day 14. At day 14 the grass begins to turn woody and is less edible for the cow. So by allowing the cows to eat the grass on day 14, maximum efficiency is achieved, (p. 189) or as Joel calls it, “the optimal grazing rhythm” (p. 191). Joel keeps this rhythm by containing his cattle in portable electric fences, which he moves daily. The cow helps the grass too. The cow spreads and fertilizes the seeds with their manure and their hooves create pockets where water will collect, allowing ideal conditions for seed germination (p. 193).

This system also has another key player, chickens. Joel uses takes the chickens to areas that have been grazed by the cattle 3 days previously. The chickens will feed on the insects that are following the manure as well as the insect larvae and parasites in the manure (p. 211). This provides free food for the chickens, keeps insects at the farm down and disinfects the manure as well. These type of systems Joel calls holons. Using these animals, plants and microbes together at densities below the standard, but growing multiple crops simultaneously allows you to increase the lands overall efficiency. The example Pollan shows is the turkey and grape holon. Joel uses the turkeys in his grape orchard but fills them both to 70 percent the regular standard. The turkeys eat bugs, mow the grass and fertilize the trees (p. 216). By raising these two crops on the same land at 70 percent, in essence you’re getting 140 % efficiency (p. 217).

Joel also uses a huge forest (about 450 acres) which he allows to grow on the north facing slope. By doing this her reduces evaporation in the fields, has an ideal habitat for his pigs and of course grows wood which he uses for fires and compost. It also helps control predators and insects. The forest offers a wide range of biodiversity, so the birds eat the insects and the predators eat other animals in the woods making them less inclined to venture into the pasture to prey on the cattle (p. 224). “By any conventional accounting, the forests here represented a waste of land that could be put to productive use. But if Joel were to cut down the trees to graze more cattle, as any conventional accounting would recommend, the system would no longer be quite as whole or healthy as it is” (p. 224-225).

What really impressed me about Joel is the amount of ecological knowledge he had. He understands that his farm is a part of nature, and is therefore subject to nature’s rules. He knows that every action he takes has a reaction that sometimes can’t be predicted. Just like ecosystems, taking out one piece of the farm can drastically alter the productivity. Joel (with the help of his father) has literally created, and is successfully managing, an ecosystem. The amount of knowledge it takes to do that is truly amazing. By embracing biodiversity and complexity, Joel has created a sustainable, organic that (from what Pollan describes) as an extraordinary product that he can sell to his community. It truly is admirable. A quote that I loved was “the food chain at work in this pasture could not be any shorter or simpler. Especially when I compared it to the food chain passing through the feedlot, with its transcontinental tentacles reaching all the way back to cornfields in Iowa, from there to the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico and farter still, to the oil fields in the Persian Gulf that supplied much of the energy to grow the corn” (p. 195). By making a complex system he had made the food web on his farm shorter. By making industrial farming simpler, the effects became farther reaching and more complex. Joel Salatin has made complexity equal simple.

The big idea in this piece is that sustainable and organic farming is possible. However, doing so requires changing our current paradigms about agriculture. To do this we need to be managing systems and not simply growing crops. Unfortunately, the government will be unwilling to help this type of movement as works directly against industry (p. 221). In order to change this system we must take individual responsibility and become conscientious consumers. “An alternative food system is rising up on the margins… It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen” (p. 261).

Drugs and society: higher thinking on why we get high

Pollan, M. The botany of desire: A plant’s-eye view of the world. 2002. Toronto (ON). Random House Trade Paperbacks. p. 113-179.

Drugs are, and have been a part of culture for centuries (p. 139). Yet with this desire to alter consciousness has come with a social taboo (p. 140). This taboo has inhibited modern western society from having many conversations about what drugs are doing and why we actually do them. In the chapter Intoxication, Pollan attempts to explore these very questions, leading us down an interesting path.

One part I didn’t like about this chapter was the end. I got quite bored and had to ask myself many times, “How high was this guy when he was writing this?”. Pollan gets very abstract and seems to be documenting his own experience with the drug. Generally, Pollan likes to personalize his stories by using other people. Perhaps this was an attempt to personalize the experience to the reader and because altering consciousness is such a personal experience in itself, he had no other way to do this. Unfortunately, I did not connect with this.

Pollan spends a portion of the chapter talking about the war on drugs in America. As Pollan mentions, America jailed absurdly high numbers of people, many for only being involved in marijuana (p. 126). This war on drugs forced the marijuana farmers inside. This move changed the way marijuana was grown and allowed many of the variables to be controlled. “To succeed in North Amierca, cannabis had to do two things: it had to prove it could gratify a human desire so brilliantly that people would take extraordinary risks to cultivate it, and it had to find the right combination of genes to adapt to a most peculiar and thoroughly artificial new environment” (p. 130) I found this quote very powerful, and it was relatable to the introduction of this book where Pollan construes the lines between natural and artificial selection.

Clearly, artificial selection has taken place as cannabis plants are much more potent now than before the war on drugs. By moving these plants indoors and changing the growing conditions, it has produced numerous changes in the plant. The species Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica created hybrids with great vigor and allowed the plant to grow in higher latitudes and have higher THC content (p. 132). The artificial conditions created indoor also allowed growers to manipulate the reproduction and morphology of the plants. By using metal halide lights for 24 hours a day, and then abruptly switching to sodium lights for 12 hours a day, plants would cause blooms from very young plants (p. 135). “I don’t think I’ve ever seen plants that looked more enthusiastic, despite the fact that [the marijuana plants] were being forced to grow in an utterly unnatural [environment]… ‘Happy to oblige!’ the marijuana plants seemed to say (p. 137)”. While reading this, I saw similarities between the Control chapter of this book.

The other question that hasn’t been answered yet is why people would risk so much for a plant? The almighty dollar is one possibility. However, Pollan takes a different angle. He believes humans have an inherent drive to get high, the way by getting high seems secondary (p. 139). Pollan uses examples such as children choking one another, meditation and psychoactives as examples. Much of the rest of the chapter exploring why we have this inherent drive to alter our consciousness. The conclusion that he comes to is that we want to alter our consciousness to escape from the trials of daily life by immersing us in the present moment. Personally, I’m not convinced. I agree with his point that it is a fallacy to assume every behaviour has an evolutionary advantage (p. 141). As many biologists know, if a behaviour does not lead to a change in offspring produced, the behaviour will not be selected for or against. Humans (or animals) may use the drugs infrequently enough, that it does not produce a significant evolutionary loss. In today’s society, even frequent drug users still have kids. One must also take into consideration that we may still be in the process of evolving to psychoactives. The desire to get high may just be the product of us tricking our brain’s reward system (p. 141).

The end of the chapter takes quite a different turn. Pollan talks about how psychoactives work from a biochemical perspective. I really liked this section as it asked many questions I have myself. Why do drugs bring us into a world that we are often unable to access? Unfortunately, we don’t yet have these answers. We understand so little about consciousness from a scientific perspective that we really can’t answer why our consciousness is altered (p. 158).

One thought that I had while reading the end of this chapter is why we believe that a plant has the answers to life, god and the universe. For a long time humans used drugs in spiritual ceremonies, and everyone knows someone who had a “life changing” experience from drugs. I am not trying to belittle this experience as I’m sure it was. But why do we take these experiences as real? Drugs are most often the secondary metabolites of plants that have evolved some advantage to the plant (usually defense). The plant does not produce these compounds for our enjoyment as Mechoulam says (p. 156). So why do people believe that divine spirits lie within a molecule. As stated earlier we know very little about the biochemistry of consciousness. What stores a memory? What allows us to have abstract thought? Is it a molecule? A cell? The electricity produced by the brain? I have suspicions that like the discovery of the relatively simple structure of DNA (compared to proteins) holding our genetic information, what holds memory and thought will be something simple and overlooked. If a molecule or a cell can hold memory, it becomes more likely that plants may be able to store thoughts, memories etc. But wouldn’t that make them artificial? And if they were able to give us thoughts and memories, is this manipulation an advantage to the plant?

When we start to question why we have an innate desire to alter consciousness it becomes convoluted quite quickly. It is a fair assumption to assume that our level of consciousness while we’re sober is our optimal state to stay alive. So why is stepping out of that state so appealing? Is it an advantage to us? Is daily life in all cultures so hard that we must escape? Or do we do it to get the chemical reward without any of the work? My guess is the latter.

The evolutionary spice trade

Hanson T. 2015. The triumph of seeds: how grains, nuts, kernels pulses & pips conquered the plant kingdom and shaped human history. New York (NY): Basic Books. p. 128-142.

“Scholars often compare the historical craving for spices to the modern appetite for petroleum” (p. 131). The irony is that these scholars were more right than they know. In this context, the quote is referring to the intense desire humans have for spices and how it started wars, lead to exploration missions and made countries rich (p. 129). But as Hanson shows us, spices have been apart of a war for far longer than human history documents. This legendary war pits the Kingdoms Fungi and Plantae against each other. The two species fighting, a fungal seed pathogen and our beloved chili-pepper.

Let me explain.

As we know, seeds hold the potential offspring of plants. Being so, plants protect them with the same vigor as a grizzly protecting her cubs. However, since plants don’t have the luxury of moving, they resort to chemical warfare (p. 139). In chili-pepper terms, their proverbial mustard gas is capsaicin.

The presence of capsaicin has been well studied in Bolivia. Noelle Machnicki, a mycologist who had done much research on interactions between chili-peppers and this fungus walks us through what’s going on. “All modern species [of chilies], no matter how spicy, descended from a mild ancestor” (p. 136). So why did peppers like habanero get so hot? Noelle, tells us that a fungal pathogen infects the seeds, effectively killing their potential offspring. It was the capsaicin that made the peppers resistant (p. 137). So it makes sense for all the peppers to become spicy then, right?

Not exactly.

Capsaicin affects the chilies ability to retain water and make the seeds more vulnerable to ants (p. 137-138). Not to mention it is made from a nitrogen-based structure, an important nutrient for plants. The advantage of capsaicin is that it deters fungal growth on the chili-pepper’s seeds. As in any coevolutionary relationship, the fungi developed defenses. They created their own chemicals, making them resistant to the capsaicin (p. 137). In these circumstances, the peppers with enough capsaicin to resist fungal growth will be selected for thus causing directional selection towards increased capsaicin. These are not always the circumstances though. As most of us intuitively know, fungi grow better in moist habitats, and worse in dry habitats. This is why Bolivia becomes such a good place to study chili-peppers. The topography and climatic variation of Bolivia has both moist and dry habitats, allowing researchers to study the variation of peppers. In moist habitats (or areas better for fungal growth), the peppers must go on the defence, producing high amounts of capsaicin to deter the fungus (p. 138). In arid climates (or areas worse for fungal growth), peppers with high capsaicin are selected against because infection becomes less likely and due to the pepper’s reduced seed production and increased vulnerability to ants. So if you want to find spicy peppers in Bolivia, you’re best to go to wet regions.

However, capsaicin isn’t just evolving with fungi, they’re evolving with the organisms that eat them too. As Hanson mentions, future research is looking at how the birds that disperse chilies don’t seem to be impacted by the capsaicin and the seeds pass through unharmed. Even more surprising, the capsaicin slows down the digestion of the birds, increasing their holding time, allowing their seeds to be dispersed further! (p. 139)

Of course, even we take advantage of the chilies capsaicin. When capsaicin reaches the mammalian tongue, it tricks the body into thinking it has detected heat causing a burning sensation and a rush of endorphins (p 140). However, what’s more interesting is that Noelle tells us small quantities of capsaicin can act as a preservative (p. 140). “[So] people [may have] started eating capsaicin for the very same reason it evolved: to ward of the fester of fungus and rot” (p. 141). This makes me wonder if this is the reason people descended from the South seem to have a greater like for spice than us.

I liked this section of the Triumph of Seeds much more than the first passage we read. Hanson gave great background information on the chili and was able to illustrate his conversation with Noelle very well, even letting us in on some of their banter. An example of this is on p. 136, “I pressed the question, she lauged, and confessed to keeping a bottle of hot sauce in her desk drawer at work. ‘Josh does too!’ she added”. He also sets the scene for their interaction well too. He tells us about her busy life, and talks about how her demeanor shows it. “‘I’m sort of living a double life right now,” she admitted wearily, sipping from a large coffee” (p. 134). Then he talks about how she sparked right up when they started talking about chilies. I can connect to this very easily, and feel I have a larger understanding of who Noelle was and it felt like I was an observer of the conversation, rather than a reader.

The big idea behind this chapter of the book is to show us an example of why some plants invest so much energy into their secondary metabolites. In this case it is to ward off microbes but in other cases (such as poisons) it could be to ward off mammals, whose digestive systems may ruin their seeds. Another point Hanson was trying to illustrate was how evolutionary relationships are a complicated web, not a simple interaction between two species.

Losing control: The culture of modern day potato farming.

Pollan, M. The botany of desire: A plant’s-eye view of the world. 2002. Toronto (ON). Random House Trade Paperbacks. p. 183-238.

In Chapter 4 of Botany of Desire, Pollan talks about the potato and how it represents our desire for control over nature. Our control of the potato has extended as far back in human history as Ireland in the sixteenth century. Today we still desire this control as shown with our use of the NewLeaf potato, a GMO from Monsanto. Pollan walks us through the history of the potato from its genetically diverse history in the Andes to the now uniform cultivation in the farms of Idaho.

The potato was cultivated in the Andes Mountains by the Inca people. Their form of cultivation is much different then what any modern North American would envision and this was out of necessity. Due to the vastly different climates of the Andes, genetic diversity was favoured. As Pollan says, “No monoculture could succeed under such circumstances so the Incas developed a method of farming that is monoculture’s exact opposite… the Incas developed a different spud for every environment” (p. 193). These agricultural conditions produced an explosion of variability that made the potato the resilient crop that would later become the staple for Ireland in the sixteenth century. After reading about the Inca cultivation system, and knowing some other amazing feats the Inca people accomplished, I can not help but wonder if they were a civilization that understood more than we currently do.

When the potato was first introduced to Europe it was not a popular crop. There were many reasons for this, one of them being that it was not held as a prestigious food (p. 199). The Irish however, out of necessity, took the potato and fed a nation. The Irish were a starved country due to English rule and because cereals grew so poorly in the area (p. 199). But due to the resiliency that was established in the Andes, the potato grew and grew well in Ireland. Add to the fact that the potato was nearly a nutritionally complete food and Ireland was starved no more (p. 203).

Although Ireland could now feed itself, the potato now made them quite poor. This new miracle crop led to a population doubling in a very short time. This large population jump drove wages down and because the potato never became a commodity the Irish were never subject to rising potato prices allowing the population to still grow. “The potato fed the Irish, it also impoverished them… the bounty of the potato was its curse” (p. 203). When the food security rug was pulled out from under them in the form of the Irish Potato Famine, millions would die.

The Irish believed that they had control over nature. They established a monoculture based on the Lumper potato that yielded high crops and fed many. This control was only an illusion though, as the microbe Phytophtora infestans would show.

Pollan then takes us to modern day, where our desire to control the potato has only grown. Similar to Ireland, Idaho has developed its own monoculture with the Russet Burbank potato. The instability of the Russet seems eerily similar to Ireland as well. Farmers in Idaho are either putting huge amounts of fertilizer on their lawns creating a near sterile environment only meant for the Russet potato to grow or to grow the genetically modified NewLeaf potato (p. 221). Neither of these choices appear to be sustainable practices as they both lead down the inevitable path of these pests gaining resistance.

The reader is then shown, a different paradigm. Organic farming. When I was reading about organic farming I couldn’t help but think of the similarities it shared with the Incas. The organic farmer that we are introduced to is Mike Heath. Heath grows a wide diversity of potato types, allowing a bad year with one variety to be offset by a good year another variety has (p. 223). He also uses alternative pest control practices such as planting wheat to “confuse” the beetles and using a crop rotation so crop- specific pests don’t build up (p. 222).

It that history is now repeating itself. Our desire for a quality controlled product has driven us back into a monoculture, which has already been shown to be unsustainable. Our lone hope is the organic farming movement that is underway.

Corn: our friend, our foe, our shadow

Pollan M. 2007. Omnivores Dilemma: A natural history of four meals. New York (NY): Penguin Books. p. 15- 119.

As I begin to write this blog it is an early Friday night, and I have plans to go out for a friends birthday later. After reading this book I’m feeling particularly turned off of corn. That’s when the thought struck me, what am I going to drink. I could put an ignorant faith that the beer I’ll be drinking doesn’t contain any high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) but my instincts tell me it does. My quick googling skills tell me that most hard alcohols are out (except for rum apparently). So, I guess I’ll be one of two people, the guy drinking wine in the club, or the guy taking straight shots of rum. Please don’t judge. This dilemma reinforces what Pollan says, Corn is everywhere. From our drinks to our condiments and to the feed for our meat you’ll find corn. Without us even realizing, corn has become our staple food. It is nearly unavoidable. It follows us everywhere, just like our shadow.

The premise of Pollan’s book seeks to answer two questions. What am I eating? And where did it come from (p. 17)? Throughout his journey he generally finds two answers, corn and Middle America. As he says, “it is now we in the North who are the true people of corn” (p. 23).

So apparently we really like corn. Should you care? Maybe not. Corn is an easy way to keep food prices down and load that food up with energy (p. 106). If you can avoid overindulging and the negative health effects that it has, that’s a great thing. Unfortunately, there’s so much more to the story. By buying that cheap (albeit tasty) food, you’re also supporting a system that is oppressing farmers in Middle America, contributing to the obesity epidemic and leaving a large ecological footprint. Who knew that Big Mac was so political?

I’ll start with the oppression of American farmers. Back in the depression corn hit an all time low. A bushel of corn was effectively worthless (p. 48). In an attempt to avoid this financial catastrophe one part of the New Deal was when prices were low the government would offer farmers a loan and store their corn. If prices rose, the farmer could return the money and collect his corn, if the prices stayed low the farmer could keep the loan. This helped the farmer in two ways, that corn wouldn’t enter the market, further saturating it, and it provided a safety net in what would be a tough year for the farmer. This program was relatively cheap and very effective in keeping corn prices high (p. 49-50). In the early 1970’s this program drastically changed based on two events. The first was the sale of 30 million tons of American grain to Russia in 1972. The sale also coincided with a historically bad year leading to astronomical grain prices. This drew people back to the family farm as corn was now a viable crop to grow (p. 51). In 1973 these high prices and inflation lead to expensive grain. To compensate for this increase in price, farmers were pressured to increase their output. The New Deal system was also replaced and instead of being a loan program, just bought corn outright from the farmers. This led to farmers selling their corn at any price so when prices were low the market still became saturated, leading to a spiral of oversupply when there wasn’t always demand (p. 52). This is beneficial to the large corporations as they now always have a cheap supply of corn but catastrophic to the small farmer. Now, every bushel of corn costs more than it creates and the shortfall is subsidized by the government. So in short, the farmers of Middle America are forced to sell as much corn as they can to stay afloat, which in turn further saturates the market and drives prices down. In essence, the American government is subsidizing profits of the corporations. These farmers are on the brink of bankruptcy with ruined land, forced to produce as much corn as possible. They’re pigeon-holed. When I read this part of the book I became absolutely infuriated. My political ideology is incredibly anti-corporation and to know that I was helping a system like this made me feel awful.

This surplus of corn leads to our next problem. Obesity in America. With the huge surplus of cheap corn, companies like General Mills and Cargill found innovative things to do with it. Pollan visits the Center for Crops Utilization Research where they are working on new ways to use corn. He also shows us how much corn is already used in the foods we eat with out us even knowing. Maltodextrin, sorbitol, MSG, citric and lactic acid are some examples (p. 86). I did some investigating of my own in my fridge and cupboard and low and behold, every packaged product contained one or more of these ingredients. These foods also happen to be the cheapest. People with limited money (like most of us) will buy these products because they are the cheapest and offer a large neurobiological reward (p. 108). As companies reduced the price per ounce, consumers began eating and drinking more and more of the corn syrup they were selling (p. 105).

Lastly, the ecological footprint of corn. Since farmers are forced to grow so much corn to keep their land, fertilizer and pesticide use is rampant. As George Naylor says, “they say you only need a hundred pounds per acre. I don’t know. I’m putting on closer to 180. You don’t want to err on the side of too little” (p. 46). This fertilizer use has a direct environmental impact as it flows down the Mississippi into the Gulf of Mexico creating huge anoxic dead zones (p. 47). It also burns fossil fuel at an astounding rate. As Pollan estimates it takes around 50 gallons of oil to grow an acre of corn now (p. 45).

So the decision is now up to you. Yes, our current food system provides cheap calories and can support a lot of people, but it’s the same system that’s destroying our land, bodies and supporting the large corporations. In this day we have very little political power. Our most important votes we have left are the ones we make with our dollar every day. Now the next time you go to the supermarket you will know what you are really voting for.

 

How your bowl of cereal shaped the world

Diamond, J. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The fates of human societies. 1999. New York (NY). Norton Paperback. p. 85-1113, 131-156.

Cereal is one of the most common breakfast foods there is in North America, but I bet you never thought about it’s role in human history. No, this isn’t about how sugary cereals are making you fat. This is about how cereals, one of the first cultivated crops, changed the course of human history. I’ll even argue that cereal was the final step that pushed us out of the animal kingdom and into civilizations. Who knew that bowl of Cheerios was so important.

Our quest to find out how cereal changed the world starts in the Mediterranean some time around 8500 B.C. in what is dubbed the Fertile Crescent. Now, before this time humans around the world were relatively successful. These people were what we would call hunter-gatherers. The rest of the animal kingdom probably thought of them as weird looking-pyromaniac chimps with an odd obsession for sticks and stones but we’ll just call them hunter-gatherers for our purposes. Anyways, this time in the Fertile Crescent was a particularly special time. The Mediterranean climate leads to mild winters and hot, dry summers. This type of climate favours annuals. Typically, annuals spend less time on the production of woody tissues because they won’t be around to reap it’s benefits so it’s a waste of time for them. Instead, the annuals spend their energy on seed production. This made the area hugely productive which in turn lead the way to a large diversity of wild mammals including the success of us humans (p. 136). This large productivity made an easy transition from hunting and gathering into domestication. The annuals were so productive little changes had to be made to begin cultivation and the mammals were easily domesticated. This allowed for a sufficient food production package. This package contained three cereals, four pulses and four domestic animals (p. 142). With such a strong package, agriculture could be competitive with the hunter gatherer lifestyle. Agriculture was developed independently in many other places with a less successful package. Sometimes agriculture only became a supplemental food source when hunting was not successful.

So why were cereals and pulses so important? This is because they have such a high protein content. New Guinea highlanders suffer from protein deficiencies because their staple crops are only 1 % protein while the cereals and pulses are much more protein.

Once agriculture is developed, human populations can expand quite rapidly. Agriculture is favoured in these rising populations because it produces more food per acre than hunting/ gathering (p. 88). The farming lifestyle also allows more children to be born. A farmer who is settled can have as many kids as they can feed. Conversely, a nomadic hunter-gatherer can only have as much as she could carry, so having many toddlers would be impossible (p.89).

The food surplus also opened the door for an opportunity unavailable in hunter-gatherer societies, specialization. In these hunter-gatherer societies people were forced to spend a majority of their time collecting food (p. 90). With a food surplus, professional soldiers can be paid allowing for conquests as seen in Britain’s attacks on the Maori population of New Zealand (p. 90). Specialization is not reserved for soldiers though. Food storage can also allow for priests, artists and scribes, all important parts of our modern societies (p. 90). Without agriculture our technology would likely be far less advanced. Agriculture separated us from the animals. Now we weren’t just another species fighting for survival. We were thriving. And we had the time to think about it.

Who knew your morning bowl of cereal did so much.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is that bird a farmer? Is the potato a shepherd?: Revisiting the poorly named process of artificial selection.

Pollan, M. The botany of desire: A plant’s-eye view of the world. 2002. Toronto (ON). Random House Trade Paperbacks. p.xiii-xxv.

Diamond, J. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The fates of human societies. 1999. New York (NY). Norton Paperback. p. 114-130.

“To say that one of us are more ‘advanced’ really depends on how you define the term, on what ‘advances’ you value. Naturally we value abilities such as consciousness, toolmaking, and language, if only because these have been the destinations of our own evolutionary journey thus far. Plants have traveled all that distance and then some-they’ve just traveled in a different direction” (p. xix Botany of Desire). Powerful words from Micheal Pollan, the type of words that force one to reevaluate their own sense of self and the role of the human in this world, but we’ll come back to that.

“Botany of Desire” challenges the stigma we put to species that are domesticated. This stigma that we hold is that domestication means lesser. If we can conquer a species and enslave it, then it is not worth our reverence. A house cat could no longer survive in “nature”, but natural selection selects for traits that are best suited for their environment, at that time and the house cat’s environment is now a house. The house cat’s domesticated behavior is perfectly suited for it’s current environment and, from an evolutionary perspective, are very successful. Surely, if a cougar was in your home, you would not hesitate to kill it. The same cat whose power that we awe. The cougar in the house is an extreme, and unlikely scenario but a parallel situation happens all the time when cougars wander out of “nature” and into the city. This city wandering behaviour can sometimes lead to death of the cougar. What I am trying to illustrate is that the cougar is not well suited for the city environment and that this city environment is still nature. As Pollan says, “today, ‘fitness’ means the ability to get along in a world in which humankind has become the most powerful evolutionary force” p. xxiii. This is a major theme in “Botany of Desire”. That even though we live in comfortable houses and can domesticate species, we are still apart of nature. Once we come to terms that we are apart of nature, we come to the realization that we are still subject to the laws of nature.

The definition of artificial selection is quite simple. The intentional reproduction of individuals of a species to gain it’s desirable traits. However, when applied to the natural world this definition is challenged. In “Guns, Germs, and Steel”, Diamond talks about the relationship between strawberries and birds. The fruits on strawberry plants do not turn red, sweet, and tender until their seeds are mature. The red color of the strawberry then attracts the thrushes to eat the berries. The seeds are then dispersed through the birds defecation. “The greener and more sour the young strawberry, the fewer the birds that destroyed the seeds by eating berries before the seeds were ready; the sweeter and redder the final strawberry, the more numerous the birds that dispersed its ripe seeds” (p. 116 Guns, Germs, and Steel).  Any biologist would claim this to be natural selection at it’s finest. However, this is the same relationship that we have with many plants that we harvest. We desire potatoes for their size and taste. The bigger and tastier potatoes are selected by us and will multiply more effectively (p. xiv-xxv Botany of Desire) and yet we call this latter scenario artificial selection. We will also often call the person who selects the bigger, tastier potatoes a good farmer. So if this is the case, are thrushes really just strawberry farmers dispersing the seeds of the sweetest and reddest berries? Is the potato a shepherd, actively domesticating us to perform the plants work? Of course not. Diamond brings us back to earth with his statement, “Naturally, strawberry plants didn’t set out with the conscious intent of attracting birds when, and only when, their plants were dispersed. Neither did thrushes set out with the intent of domesticating strawberries. Instead, strawberry plants evolved through natural selection” (p. 116 Guns, Germs, and Steel). However, this thought is what forces us to reconsider our role in the world. We do have free will, but at the same time, we are apart of a coevolutionary relationship with plants.

Pollan is very good at showing the reader that we are involved in a coevolutionary relationship with the plants that we harvest. The plants give us food, beauty or altered consciousness. In turn, we do the work of planting, dispersing and clearing areas for these plants to grow. “The fact that one has evolved to become intermittently aware of its desires makes no difference whatsoever to the flower or the potato” (p. xv Botany of Desire).”That’s why it makes sense to think of agriculture as something the grasses did to people as a way to conquer the trees” (p. xxi Botany of Desire). The evolutionary goal of all species is to pass their genetic information on. Clearly, the domesticated plants have done an exceptional job of this. So maybe the plant is more advanced than we give it credit for. Just because in our own evolutionary monetary system we value conscious thought, doesn’t mean it’s really worth that much at all.

Triumph of Seeds

Hanson T. The triumph of seeds: how grains, nuts, kernels pulses & pips conquered the plant kingdom and shaped human history. New York (NY): Basic Books. p. xix-18; 55-80.

The chapters referenced in this book illustrate to us how powerful seeds are. In the introduction, the author tells us about the characteristics of seeds and relates it to how humans use them. We are then walked through the mystery of seed germination as Hanson takes us through his own process of getting avocados to germinate. We are then taken to a coal bed in New Mexico where we learn that seeds may have been thriving before we had previously thought. Finally, the author walks us through Mendel’s famous experiment as he conducts it in his own backyard.

I found it amusing when the author was trying to break open his seed in his office and could not. I was amazed at the lengths he was going to attempt to break this seed and was shocked that they wouldn’t break. This part of the book was quite funny but it also forced me to ask the same question Hanson did, which was why were seeds so hard and how does a plant break through it’s shell so easily?

I also enjoyed reading along as the author was digging in New Mexico. I learned a lot about the Carboniferous/ Permian times and how it is believed the seed plants may have been thriving in the dry uplands. This is not well shown in the fossil record due to the fact that terrestrial plants do not preserve well. This creates a preservation bias as the author informs us  on page 60. I also like the illustration on page 59 that shows what a forest in the Carboniferous times may have looked like, a habitat dominated by gigantic ferns and horsetails. I had never thought about a fern being able to grow so huge.

One thing I didn’t like about the book was the opening quote in the introduction. The quote reads, “Think of the fierce energy in an acorn! you bury it in the ground, and it explodes into a giant oak! Bury a sheep and nothing happens but decay”. I found this to be a false analogy because the author is comparing two different parts of the life cycle when he compares an acorn to a sheep. The acorn is an embryo, and the sheep is an adult. If I were to bury an oak tree (the adult) decay would occur to it, same as the sheep. When comparing the embryo of a sheep to a seed there is just as much “fierce energy” and the process that occurs to make the sheep is just as miraculous!

With the sections read, I think the author intends to make us appreciate the power and mysterious biochemistry that goes on in a seed. I think he also wants us to realize the versatility and the resiliency of seeds.