Foodways Texas: Rice and Water


Happy Monday everyone! I’m back from spending some time at the Foodways Texas ‘Farm to Market’ symposium on Friday and Saturday in College Station – a few days of great food, lots of learning and meeting loads of intelligent, interesting and fun people.

We heard talks about organic vs. local food, Texas wine (surprisingly delicious!), growing olives and grapefruits in Texas, the history of rice in the region and the issues rice farmers are currently facing because of drought conditions, and about the supply chain involved in feeding Houston (the paper that I’d worked on with my wonderful mentor at UT, Dr Robyn Metcalfe). We also went to explore a local farm, Ronin Cooking where we toured around at sunset with wine and saw possibly the cutest piglet ever to piglet. Seriously.

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One of the most interesting sessions for me was the one about rice growing in Texas and the difficulties that come with such a water-dependent crop in a drought-crippled state. I’m no stranger to hearing stories like this – for years, I’ve wondered about how and why a drought-prone continent like Australia would grow a crop rice. In fact, it’s something I even did a short paper on, back in the first year of my MSc.

In the case of Australia, what I found was extensive innovation and efforts towards ensuring maximum efficiency from minimum input. To make the most of the water used to flood the rice fields, other crops that can utilise subsoil moisture are planted, like barley or wheat. Additionally, water use per hectare has dropped 30% in the past decade, while rice production has increased by 60% (savewater.com.au). I’m still dubious about rice-growing being viable in Australia in the long-term, (as well as feeling that the water used could perhaps be better utilised elsewhere), but for now, improvements like these have made rice a profitable and competitive industry.

Here in Texas though, the situation seems even more dire. It’s also much more emotionally driven, with large urban populations depending on the same water supply as rice farmers, i.e. the Colorado River. The Highland Lakes (just a little way north of Austin) are currently at only 38% of their capacity, which has a huge impact on those farmers in the Lower Colorado Rive area, where most rice in Texas is farmed. Furthermore, as Neena Satija, one of the panelists for the talk pointed out, this is unlikely to ever increase to levels which will allow for water restrictions in Austin to be removed – which obviously means that the challenges for Texas rice growers aren’t going away any time soon. Complicating matters further, they are unable to supplement their income as Australian growers can, through the planting and harvesting of other crops. While nights in Australia’s Riverina region where rice is grown tend to get quite cool, they remain warm, even hot here in Texas. This means that rice grows more slowly, not allowing for that extra window to grow other things.

All of this begs the question: how on earth do we deal with this? You can’t tell someone whose family has farmed rice for generations to ‘just stop.’ And as far as I can tell, you’ll take the lush green lawns of Austinites from their cold, dead hands. I honestly saw sprinklers running outside Sam’s Club at 2pm on a 100 degree afternoon. The situation is emotive enough that at Foodways, there was even a disagreement on what should be a hard, cold fact: the price of water for farmers. Neena contended that this was $6.50 per acre foot, but this was immediately disputed by another panelist, Ted Wilson from the Agrilife Research Center in Beaumont, who provided the figure $920-$960 per acre foot. This is a difference of over $900! Where on earth does the truth lie in all this?

While all of these arguments are going on, the drought still hasn’t broken, Austinites are still living with water restrictions (albeit, not terribly strict ones IMHO) and rice farmers downstream still don’t know if they’ll be able to plant a crop this year, or for that matter, next year. I’m not sure what the solution to all this is, but drawing attention to it is important. Urban Texans need to know what the implications of their desires for green lawns and clean cars are.  Texas’ future as a rice growing state is facing a greater threat than ever before, and the livelihoods of hundreds of farmers’ are in the hands of rain clouds and water lawmakers.

Why we can’t ignore food in health


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Today in Slate, Heather Tirado Gilligan argues that food deserts are not really a problem. She also argues, using data from three studies, that introducing healthful food to low-income  communities makes no difference to health outcomes. I don’t entirely disagree. Parachuting a bunch of bananas into a low-income grocery store isn’t going to change the way people eat, or have a real impact on health outcomes. Making fresh, healthy food more physically accessible is just the first step. She overlooks the other steps involved in de-food-desertification; ensuring that the food is affordable, providing nutrition education and (as she touches on and thereafter ignores) teaching people with little time and little money how to cook quick, cheap and healthy meals. As Pearson et al argue, policies need to be developed to change cultural attitudes to food, rather than just food accessibility (1).

The way Gilligan writes about it seems as though she expects to just stick a few bulbs of fennel in a community that’s previously only had access to Doritos and Taco Bell and hope that it makes a difference. Of course it doesn’t! Fixing nutrition is a much more complex issue than I think Gilligan is acknowledging and it’s going to take a lot of time. For example, she notes that ‘Since 2004 there’s been a sharp spike in the number of programs like Soul Food that are aimed at reducing such health disparities by making fresh food more accessible to low-income people’ and that ‘Study after study has shown that the fresh-food push does nothing to improve the health of poor people, who continue to live markedly shorter and sicker lives than better-off Americans.’ It’s hard to argue against that – poorer people definitely do still have poorer health outcomes. But the data that she’s referring to is for only ten years in a nation of 314 million people, where the number of programs and locations where they have been available have been limited. It’s long enough to start getting some idea of outcomes, but I would argue, not long enough for concrete conclusions, especially when the aims of these programs are overwhelmingly long-term – it’s not possible to change a lifetime of eating habits overnight. Finally, I would also argue that if you look at what’s happened since 2010 when the Health Food Financing Initiative was introduced, it will give a much clearer idea of the impact of an increased number of programs. The same data problem persists though –  that at this stage, there are only three years of data to work with. It’s really too early to make the call that the Initiative is failing, especially when new and innovative programs are being developed every day.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that just as some food programs are not working so well, others are making a difference in the lives of those who have access to them. And while it’s hard to dispute Gilligan’s claim that the stress of poverty has a likely significant affect on health outcomes, it seems far too soon and very short sighted to disregard the importance of providing the means to improve the diets of low-income communities when aiming to reduce the burden of disease.

(1) Pearson T, Russell J, Campbell M J, Barker M E 2005, Do ‘food deserts’ influence fruit and vegetable consumption?—a cross-sectional study, Appetite 45(2): 195-197.

 

Food Friday: Local restaurants # 1 – Hopdoddy


This Friday, I decided not to share a recipe. Much as I love doing that, I just wasn’t super inspired by the meals I made this week (lentil pasta bake and fried rice). They made enormous quantities though, which meant I only needed to cook twice and then we had acres of leftovers – score!

What I’ve decided to do instead is to intersperse my own recipes with reviews of restaurants and cafes here in Austin that are doing great things while using local produce as much as possible. For the first week, I want to talk about Hopdoddy. Why Hopdoddy? Why not a smaller, single-venue restaurant? Well, I’ve chosen to start with Hopdoddy precisely because it’s big. Bigger organisations by their very nature, can affect more change than smaller ones. They serve more people, they can share their modus operandi with more people and thus can hopefully have a real impact on more people. That’s not at all to say that small operations aren’t doing great things and letting as many people as possible know about it. But when you see the queue winding around the South Congress Hopdoddy every evening and every weekend, it’s hard to dismiss the impact that they’re having on the local food scene.

So, what do they do that makes them in any way better than any other burger bar? Well, for starters I do think that their La Bandita black bean veggie burger is up there as one of my favourites. Their tuna burger is pretty phenomenal too, and I’ve been told by my more carnivorous friends that their meatier burgers are all that and a bag of chips (puns!). But more than that, very little of their produce is from outside Texas, excepting their potatoes (and in fairness, we’re not really in potato country around here), their cheddar (from Tillamook, an Oregon cooperative farm) and their bacon. Much of it comes from very local farmers and producers. So, for example, their beets are from Johnson’s Backyard Garden, a fantastic local and organic farm, which helps to keep money in Austin’s vibrant and thriving urban farming community. Similarly, their eggs are from a local egg farmer just half an hour’s drive away in Lockhart and their goat cheese is from just two hours away in Houston.

This is all admirable in and of itself, but Hopdoddy also broadcasts it. Loudly. There is a fairly comprehensive listing of where their food is sourced from on their website. The table dividers in their restaurants are rectangles of information about respecting the environment and eating local. There are signs up around the walls telling you where their ingredients are from.  As I say, at least some of those crazy folks queuing for hours must be getting the message. And that’s why I feel like Hopdoddy is worth getting excited about, even if there are some other restaurants in town that are doing things a little more locally and maybe even a little bit better.

Also, you should really try their veggie burger. It’s something special.

Image from Hopdoddy’s Facebook page.

A little note of positivity


It’s funny how things sometimes come together. Yesterday I saw both the following infographic and this article from NPR.

Source: APHA. Click through for more.

I think there’s a lovely symmetry between the two – an acknowledgement of the worrying state that we’re still in now, but with a hopeful twist: real change is starting to happen. There are so many organisations and individuals that are working to alter the food landscape by reconnecting farmers with consumers, increasing the availability of healthful food in disadvantaged communities and educating the public on food, health and the environment.

The best bit is that some of this work is already starting to show benefits. For example, in Australia, community and research interventions in remote indigenous communities have shown significant reductions in the incidence of hypercholesterolemia and other cardiovascular disease risk factors, and improvements in child health (1, 2).  In the Bronx, the Rx Fruit and Vegetable program is making healthy food affordable and having an impact on the lives of children – which is important to ensuring a healthy and sustainable food future. And of course, as the first article I linked to mentions, simple conversions to the layout and produce in corner stores are starting to make a world of difference in East Los Angeles Latino communities. These three examples represent just a fraction of the changes that are happening in the U.S and Australia alone.

It’s so easy to feel overwhelmed by statistics like ‘Obesity has tripled among kids and teens in the past 30 years’, or that 8.3 percent of the US population is diabetic (with 90-95 percent being type 2 diabetes). The existence of initiatives like these gives me hope though, because people can and are making a real difference.

1.  Rowley G, Su Q, Cincotta M, Skinner M, Pindan B, White G A, O’Dea K 2001, Improvements in circulation cholesterol, antioxidants, and homocysteine after dietary intervention in an Australian Aboriginal community, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 74:442-8.
2. Jones R, Smith F 2006, Are there health benefits from improving basic nutrition in a remote Aboriginal Community?, Australian Family Physician, 35 (6): 453-4.

 

 

West Virginia: an environmental health crisis


When I tell people that I hold a MSc in Environmental Health, about 80% of people will look blank for a moment before going ‘Errr…so what’s that?’ It’s a completely legitimate question. It’s not a well known area and its name can be a bit confusing (‘so, you study the health of the environment…right?’).

Last week in West Virginia is almost a perfect example of environmental (un)health and why I studied what I did. Environmental health is (Cliffs Notes version) the study of how our environment effects our health. When 7,500 gallons of 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol (MCHM) leak into the local water supply, every facet of health is going to be affected.

As you’ve no doubt read, this is what happened in West Virginia last Thursday. Since then, around 300,000 residents have been without a reliable water supply. Drinking water has been shipped in, but with tap water only fit for flushing toilets, and bottled water at a premium, the situation still leaves 300,000 people with: difficulty preparing and cooking food, limited hygiene (hand washing, showering etc. with tap water is out), no laundry facilities, no easy way of cleaning cooking utensils and so on. It’s also meant closed schools, shops, restaurants and government departments. It’s an environmental health crisis.

Five days later, officials are now saying that the water seems to be improving. That’s great news. But it doesn’t make up for the fact that this shouldn’t have happened in the first place – chemicals like MCHM shouldn’t be stored at facilities described as ‘ageing’ and ‘vintage’. It also doesn’t make up for the fact that while the leak was discovered on Thursday morning, it wasn’t announced to the public until Thursday evening. Both Freedom Industries (owner of the leaking storage tank) and the West Virginia American Water Co. should be fined out of existence for allowing a lapse of this magnitude to occur.

I’ve seen a lot of comments on articles about the incident blaming the residents for the situation. The general attitude seems to be ‘well, you wanted mining, now you can reap the consequences.’ The lack of empathy is breathtaking. Coal mining is these people’s livelihoods. Many of these people don’t have the education or the skills to do anything else. Of course they’re pro-mining. How else are they going to put food on the table? Demonising the victims isn’t going to solve the problems. What is needed is strong regulation, adequate consequences for polluters and the creation of new, cleaner energy jobs. Sadly, that’s going to take a lot more effort than finger pointing and/or sweeping the whole issue under the rug and pretending it never happened.

2014: Year of Family Farming


Last week, I recapped 2013, noting that in general, it wasn’t a great year for issues around food and the environment. I also mentioned a few hopeful things for the year ahead, but what I decided to leave for a post of its own was the United Nation’s declaration of 2014 as the International Year of Family Farming.

The stated aims of the IYFF are:

‘to raise the profile of family farming and smallholder farming by focusing world attention on its significant role in eradicating hunger and poverty, providing food security and nutrition, improving livelihoods, managing natural resources, protecting the environment, and achieving sustainable development, in particular in rural areas.’

This is so significant, especially in the context of increasingly globalised and monoculturised (let’s just pretend that’s a word for a moment) agriculture. Increasingly Big Ag is buying up land in developing countries, damaging local ecosystems, reducing food security and eliminating traditional food cultures. I wrote extensively about this last year in a couple of posts, and if you’re really interested, I’d recommend reading Raj Patel’s Stuffed and Starved. 

Shifting the focus of food from our industrialised system to the more traditional smallholder model is important for all parts of the world though, not just for developing nations. The reasons are different, but the significance is not. So, how is this relevant to us in the ‘global north’?

1) Nutrition

I know I bang on about this a lot. But I really do think that if we devoted a bit more space to family farms that grew a variety of crops, and perhaps even bred some animals, we’d have a whole lot less HFCS and other processed rubbish, and a whole lot more real, fresh food. Maybe that’s really naive of me, but it couldn’t hurt to try.

2) Connection to food and place

It’s so easy these days to lose sight of the fact that food isn’t just conjured up by the magic supermarket fairy. I once read an article about kids who thought that yoghurt grew on trees ( no, really). This alone seems like as good a reason as any to start engaging communities with the process of growing and producing food. I honestly believe that every single child should have the opportunity to spend some time in a vegetable garden, getting their fingers grubby and watching plants grow. Whether that be in their backyard, at their school, in a community garden doesn’t matter. But it’s something that I think is absolutely essential.

3) Land management 

I’ve linked to this report before and I’ll link to it again. Monoculture cropping is destroying valuable fertile farmland. It’s also destroying much of the Gulf of Mexico, literally suffocating the ecosystem. Greater variety in planting means less need for fertiliser, and less erosion. Even diversifying just a portion of each of the huge monoculture farms in the USA could make a difference.

And so, while the IYFF is most relevant to developing nations, where people often rely on family farming for their most basic nutritional needs, it also needs to be taken seriously in other wealthier countries. Unfortunately, I just don’t think it’s going to mesh too well with the Big Ag bottom line.

2013 in review


First of all, Happy New Year! I hope that 2014 is a great year for you – and for the environment!

2013 was in a lot of ways, a depressing year in food and the environment. The repeal of climate change legislation in Australia, the removal of SNAP from the Farm Bill in the US, continued development of the tar sands in Canada. And all the while, climate change has, if anything, accelerated and inequalities in our food systems continue to be pronounced.

At the risk of being repetitive (there are quite a few year-that-was recaps around at the moment), I thought I’d do a quick run through of my 3-most-important-things-of-2013.

1) The election of the Abbott Government in Australia

I don’t think that there’s too much more that I need to add on top of this post. Truly. I’ll explode if I think about this too frequently.

2) The EU ban on neonicotinoids

Back in January I wrote about a petition for the EU to ban the use of pesticides that had been shown to cause dramatic declines in bee populations. In May, the EU enacted a two year moratorium on the use of neonicotinoids. Rare good environmental (and food) news from 2013!

4) 97%: The Consensus Project

In 2013, the results of a project analysing climate change literature from the past 21 years were released. These results found that 97.1% of the papers endorsed the science of anthropogenic climate change. 98.4% of the scientists who authored the papers also endorsed the science. The findings of the study were another huge step in dismantling the credibility of climate change ‘denialists.’ See theconsensusproject.com for more.

Of course, there were other big happenings in 2013, but these are the ones that most struck me. I would like to think that the news will be a little brighter in 2014, and I’ll admit that I’m tentatively hopeful. While Australia looks like going to hell in a handbasket, President Obama actually rolled out a climate plan in June, and while there are still huge issues around Keystone XL and other fracking projects, this is at least a step in the right direction. China is making leaps and bounds in the development of thorium reactors, looking at how these might be a viable alternative energy source to reduce their dependency on coal and traditional uranium nuclear. If they can take this further, and if the rest of the world is on board, this could be a fantastic stop-gap measure to reduce GHG emissions while battery technologies for wind and solar power are improved. Big Food is fighting against GMO labelling laws, but the fight will continue into this year, hopefully with gains by those who support a truthful food future.

Here’s to you, 2014.

A week of infographics: Day 4


Click to link through

This is by far my favourite infographic this week. I just find it fascinating. Some of it is not that surprising, like the much wider ranger of healthy food in the highly educated, high income quadrant. Some of it is much stranger though – for example, why the emphasis on whole milk in lower-income, lower-education communities, compared to skim milk in higher income, college-educated communities? Given that there is little to no difference in price, is this a difference of education? Or is it maybe cultural, given the emphasis in the lower-income communities is on many foods often associated with Hispanic cuisine -rice, beans, corn meal etc? I honestly have no idea.

I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts on this one.

On the state of politics in Australia


It’s been a really, really long time since I’ve written anything here. There are a few reasons for this, but the main one is that I’ve become immensely jaded and disappointed with the state of environmental and food politics lately. I’ve needed to take a bit of a break to reboot (the blog is mainly just a hobby that I love, but like any hobby, sometimes you need a bit of time away). In Australia, the Liberal Party was elected in September. You can scroll down to see a few of our new Prime Ministers choicest comments. It’s one of the major reasons that I haven’t been writing, and also the main reason that I felt the need to come back and write again today. Since election in September, the Abbott Government has

  • Dismantled the Climate Commission (see here)
  • Withdrawn all funding from the Environmental Defenders Offices around Australia (see here)
  • Approved the creation of one of the world’s biggest coal shipping ports near the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area (see here)
  • Proposed the repeal of Australia’s climate legislation, including the carbon tax, clean energy funding and the existing emissions trading system (see here)
  • Been singled out for its poor climate change performance in Warsaw (see here)

All this, in less than six months. Political terms in Australia are usually around 3 years – the thought of the damage that could be done during that time is unsettling, to say the very, very least. And the worst of it? This is what people voted for. This is not some crazy surprise package. People made a conscious decision to vote against the Climate Commission, against the carbon tax, and against climate legislation more generally. I’m not sure that they expected the coal port in the Great Barrier Reef as well, but it’s hardly unexpected given the pre-election, anti-environment rhetoric. What does all this mean? It means that Australia has gone from being at the forefront of carbon legislation to being part of a shame circle in Warsaw. It means that, as one of the developed countries most likely to be affected by climate change, we are doing less than most developed countries to prevent it. It means that, in spite of some supposedly high-level conditions on shipping through the Great Barrier Reef, we are placing our trust in mining companies to ensure the future of one of our greatest national treasures – which frankly, either means that we’re naive, stupid or both.

I’m finding it difficult to control my anger about all this. Climate change denial is a denial of science. It’s like saying that the earth is the centre of the universe, or contending that our planet is flat. And, in a manner similar to that when these were the beliefs, proponents of the scientific view are being silenced. Even if we accept that there is still a debate to be had about the cause and impact of climate change, dissent is being stifled, through the shutdown of organisations like the Climate Commission and the Environmental Defenders Office. Even if we accept (and it makes my skin itch to even type this) that there is no such thing as climate change, the Government, those people we elected to provide the greatest good to the greatest number, has completely disregarded the environmental and public health benefits that could have been achieved through reducing our emissions and investing in green technologies. The legislations that were introduced by the previous government may not have been perfect. But they were never given a chance to work. Just two years of a carbon tax gives us no real idea of what the potential impacts could have been, whether they could have reduced our emissions, increased investment in solar and wind power. What a wasted opportunity.

I’m angry, and I’m disappointed. I am furious with those who put a few dollars off their electricity bills ahead of the future of Australia’s citizens, and I’m sad that it’s the twenty first century and people are still treating science like they did five hundred years ago. I’m upset that there’s nothing that I can do about it when I’m living overseas, and quite honestly, I’m ashamed to be Australian at the moment.

On Golden Rice


Image from goldenrice.org

Skimming through Grist yesterday, I found this piece by Nathanael Johnson particularly interesting. Golden rice is a controversial issue, wrapped up in another controversial issue. It brings to the fore all of the moral, ethical and environmental questions of the GM debate, coupled with other questions about global health and human rights. It’s a messy issue, which I definitely don’t think can be split into “good vs bad” – such a dichotomy is too simplistic for an idea that is anything but.

As Johnson notes, and like much of what I’ve read about Golden Rice suggests, this did not start out as some great-big-corporate-scary-Monsanto idea. Golden Rice was the brainchild of people genuinely trying to help improve the health and nutrition outcomes of those who desperately need it. This is a really key point – this is what makes Golden Rice different to all those situations where farmers have been sued into financial ruin because the wind blew the next farm’s Monsanto crops onto their own.

Will it help though? I’m not sure. Like Johnson, I honestly do think it’s worth a shot. In general, I’m very, very circumspect about GM for reasons that I’ve discussed previously – namely the risk of cross-contamination, damaging the genetics of non-GM crops, and, even more so, the risks involved in a company “owning” the genetics of our basic foods. In the case of Golden Rice though, I don’t feel that we, in the global North, have the right to stop research into any food product that may improve quality of life and health outcomes in the developing world. Yes, I would have enormous concerns if it were being developed on a purely profit-motive basis. But it’s not, which to my mind makes it a completely different ball game.

Who knows if it will work? Only time and more research will tell for sure. Will biotech companies try to claim it as their very own, grand, lifesaving gift to the world? I think it would be naive to think otherwise. Are there risks involved if it does work? Absolutely, yes! But I also think that there are risks involved in not looking at every possible solution to global malnutrition, and I also think it’s naive to ignore the fact that technology may be one of those solutions.