Austin!


View of Lake Travis, north-west of Austin. You can see how low the water level is at the moment – it’s usually to the trees

After a pretty extensive break, I am back! We arrived in our new home about a week ago but I’ve been spending most of the time since trying to beat jetlag into submission, look for places to live and figure out driving on the wrong side of the road. And, of course, adjust to the heat – it was the middle of winter at home, but 42 degrees celsius on the night that we arrived!

Figuring out how to live in a new country is always a challenge. In addition to all of the administrative and new-life-establishing hurdles, there’s also a journey of discovery into how people live here – what do they do? How do they think? What are their values? Obviously these are never completely universal, but there is always a sense of commonality that makes a city or a town tick.

Austin is a strange place. That’s certainly not to say that I don’t like it, because I do. But there is this weird combination of hipsters and yuppies, Prius’s and the BIGGEST trucks you’ve ever seen in your life. Outside the centre of Downtown, it’s a real struggle to find meat free food and I’ve become reliant on the Whole Foods salad bar, the bar next door and the local Chipotle. The north side of town is a carnivores dream or a vegetarian’s nightmare, depending on how you look at it. On the other hand, the South area, where we are hoping to live, seems to be full of amazing vegetarian food and the most hipster-y bars imaginable. I kind of love the contrast, but it’s weird to get used to.

The lack of meatless food options is just one of the environmental things that I’ve found quite different to home. Food portions are astoundingly large and the resources required to produce them, plus the associated waste must be phenomenal. People seem to give me odd looks if I say that I’m walking or using the bus to get around. Everyone up this end of town seems to drive everywhere. Texas is in the grip of a drought, but there are no dual flush toilets.

These are obviously just my first impressions and I could be way off the mark – please don’t take offence to anything I’ve said! I guess that so far, I’ve just been surprised by the scale of the difference to Sydney, where dual flush loos are at every home and store, everyone uses public transport where possible and meat-free options are so widely available. I’m looking forward to the next few weeks living here though, and I’ll be sure to clarify if any of my first impressions were wrong. Right now though, I’m mainly just enjoying the chance to experience something new.

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Extracts from ‘Hungry Planet: What the World Eats’


Yesterday, David sent me a link  to images from a book called Hungry Planet: What the World Eats by Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluision.  It was in turns heartbreaking and horrifying, but overall completely fascinating.  You can find a number of the images here.

There were a few things that I found particularly interesting.  One was that in many cases, the food represented in the wealthier nations was more calorie dense and less nutritionally dense compared to that in less wealthy nations.  While there was less food per person in say, Guatemala  the nutritional quality was far superior to that found in the US basket of foods.

Guatemala

USA

Another thing that stood out was the striking difference of the carbon footprint of a ‘Western’ diet compared to some more traditional/ less industrialised diets.  For example, Turkey vs. Australia.

Turkey

Australia

LOOK AT THE MEAT!  OH MY GOSH! LOOK AT ALL THE DAMN MEAT.  In fairness, I don’t know a lot of people who eat that amount of meat, but as a representative basket for many Australian families, I don’t think that it’s that far off.  When that’s considered in the context of how much environmental damage is caused by animal farming, and how much it contributes to climate change, it’s just gobsmacking what a huge impact we’re having.  The Environmental Working Group’s Meat Eaters Guide is one of my favourite resources on this.

Some of the images were of course, totally unsurprising.  The enormous gulf between the quantity available in some countries compared to others was expected, but the starkness of the images was still quite confronting.  As it should be.  The inequality between the availability of food and between the levels of environmental destruction that we wreak through what we eat are issues that should be widely known and considered.  Climate change isn’t just a matter of driving less and turning the lights out, and food shortages in many countries are still a reality, even when there aren’t starving children on the TV every night.  I’d really encourage you to check out the link, and indeed the book.  It’s mesmerising stuff.

The transition from animal to food


“Were the walls of our meat industry to become transparent, literally or even figuratively, we would not long continue to raise, kill, and eat animals the way we do.” Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma

I know, I know…more Michael Pollan. But he sums up so many of our food ills so beautifully!

Last year, I posted about instances of animal cruelty that had occurred at a Sydney abattoir responsible for the production of pork products.  Today, The Sydney Morning Herald reported on a another incidence of cruelty in an abattoir,  this time one responsible for the ‘processing’ of turkeys.  There is a video embedded in the link, but be warned that is is described as being quite graphic and disturbing (I haven’t watched myself – I really can’t bring myself to do so).

Looking beyond the immediate issue of this one abattoir whose employees have behaved in an absolutely reprehensible way, we come to two overarching questions  – how much do we really know about how animals become food, and how much do we actually care?

The increasing number of meat products in the supermarket that are labelled as ‘free range’ and/or ‘organic’ suggests that there is a sizable group of consumers who care about how animals are treated during their lives, in terms of their food, health and accommodation.  But, while we care about how they live, it seems like we’ve forgotten  about how they die.

I don’t want to detract from the fact that more people do seem to be giving more thought to the treatment of farm animals.  That’s a really, really positive sign. But it’s not enough if there is this degree of suffering taking place between paddock and table.  We need to ensure that these incidences don’t keep occurring and that the consumer can (if they choose) be informed of the full cycle of meat production.  In the case described in this report, the investigating vet has indicated that he will be recommending mandatory video monitoring at all abattoirs.  This hardly seems unreasonable – at least those who choose to eat meat can do so in some confidence that what they are consuming was treated with respect, even at the time of slaughter.

So, you want to start a revolution…


against the industrial food complex?

Good luck.

Click to make it bigger!

You’ve probably seen this infographic before (on this occasion, I’ve taken the image from Geekologie).  It’s a bit alarming really…

What I actually find more surreal though, is that:

  • Just four companies – Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), Bunge, Cargill and (Louis) Dreyfus, account for between 75% and 90% of the global grain trade
  • They’re generally fairly shadowy companies and it’s hard to get any information on them at all.  BungeCargill, and ADM don’t exactly have squeaky clean environmental records.  ADM also gained the dubious honour of making it onto Newsweek/ The Daily Beast’s Least Green Companies in America list.
  • ADM is closely allied with Monsanto, Cargill with Syngenta.  Monsanto also made it onto the Least Green Companies list.
  • 80% of corn planted in the US is from Monsanto seed stock.  And God help you if you ever try to fight Monsanto (also, if you haven’t seen FoodInc. yet, then tonight you’re going to go home via your local videostore, rent it out, sit on the couch and have the pants scared off you).
  • Nine companies control the global corn industry

Unless you’re growing and grinding your own flour, chances are you’re implicated in a system you want no part of, just by buying a bag of bread or a biscuit.

Recommended reading:

Kneen, B 1999, Restructuring food for corporate profit: The corporate genetics of Cargill and Monsanto,  Agriculture and Human Values, 16: 161–167

Lang T 1999, The complexities of globalization: The UK as a case study of tensions within the food system and the challenge to food policy, Agriculture and Human Values, 16:169–185

Patel R 207, Stuffed and Starved: From Farm to Fork, the Hidden Battle for the World Food System, Portobello Books, London.

Pollan M 2006, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: The search for a perfect meal in a fast-food world, Bloomsbury, London.

http://blog.friendseat.com/monsanto-seed-monopoly

5 totally not rocket science tips for reducing your footprint


Maybe it’s just the blogs and news articles I read, but it’s becoming harder and harder not to just get caught up in a cycle-of-DOOM mentality: in which the human race is exterminated through its own folly, after decades of warfare over food and water, dying en masse from heatwaves and hurricanes and unseasonable cold snaps.

Doom= feeling defeated.

There are little, totally simple things we can do though.  This is just the tiniest handful of ideas, many of which have been shared a thousand times before, but please feel free to share it around…

Grow things.  Plant trees to offset carbon emissions.  Place pot plants around your home to help purify the air.  Grow your own herbs and vegetables, using as little pesticide and commercial fertiliser as possible. Use native plants to help prevent erosion and restore the soil.

Grow.

Not just at home and not just the lights.  Turn off the computer when you leave the office.  If you’re the last one out, turn off the lights.  Office blocks should look like it’s Earth Hour every night.  At home, switch to energy efficient bulbs – they actually produce bright enough light these days and will save you money in the long run.  Turn off the TV if no one is watching.  Spend time away from the TV and the computer – read a book, spend time with friends, go for a run.

It’s really easy.  I’m not suggesting you go vegan or vegetarian or flexitarian or whatever.  Just eat a little less – make at least one (preferably two) meals a day meat free.  There are so many fantastic non-meat options for protein available that you shouldn’t feel deprived.  Remember, cheese is still on the menu!

Walk where you can. Ride where you can.  Walk to the train or the bus.  Just drive less.  Sometimes, it’s hard to avoid, sure.  But if you’re driving 3 blocks to the store, you’re doing it wrong.

Share your food – it’ll be all the tastier.  Cook more and avoid processed junk that is produced from crops that have caused deforestation in factories that are run on fossil fuels.  Enjoy good food – that alone challenges the industrial food system.

Beauty and the Environment


So, unlike milkshakes, this post will probably make all the boys leave the yard (boom TISH!)

Bad jokes aside, I’ve been intending to do a post about the environment and skin care for some time now.  I’m actually quite interested in how the way we treat our skin affects both our health and the environment.

When it comes down to it, I’m a bit of a hippie about what I put on my skin and I avoid petroleum based products as much as possible.  While the evidence that some of the chemicals in cosmetics  can cause cancers and have endocrine-disrupting and neurotoxic properties, isn’t really conclusive at this stage (although some are clearly more dangerous than others), I simply prefer to err on the side of caution.  We are exposed to so many nasty cocktails of chemicals every day anyway (think air fresheners, car exhaust fumes,  office cleaning products etc) that it can’t hurt to reduce exposure where possible.  That said, ‘natural’ doesn’t always equate to ‘safe’ either – certain undiluted essential oils, for example, are not recommended during pregnancy and can cause skin irritations for some people.

With that said though, while the decision to avoid certain chemicals found in cosmetics is largely influenced by health considerations, for me it’s also become heavily influenced by the environmental impacts of using some products.  When you think about it, whenever we wash our hair, our hands, our faces, the products we use eventually end up in the oceans, where they can be toxic to marine animals and the marine environment in general.  Some chemicals, such as triclosan, are particularly notable as they can combine with other chemicals to form dioxins, which bioaccumulate in marine animals.  Pthalates are listed as a Priority and Toxic Pollutant under the US Clean Water Act  (and they are in skin care products!  I imagine the quantities vary wildly, but it’s still a little concerning).  Siloxanes are persistent pollutants and can be toxic to the aquatic environment.  And ‘Environment Canada has categorized several synthetic musks [fragrances] as persistent, bioaccumulative and/or toxic’ (Suzuki 2010).

So, considering all of the above, what do I actually use?  As most of you who know me well in real life would be aware, I’m hardly a beauty guru.  But I do try to take care of myself and I do aim to look, y’know, presentable.  I’m also kind of obsessive about checking which companies conduct animal testing – and then avoiding them like the plague. If anyone is interested, I use the following products.  They’re not all perfect, but are based on price/ availability and so on, as well as their environmental and health cred.

  • Moisturiser: During the winter, Avalon Organics Lavender Moisturiser.  Smells lovely!
  • Cleanser: Recently started using extra virgin coconut oil.  Also smells fantastic and leaves a light moisturising residue.

Gratuitous picture of a coconut from MindBodyGreen.com

  • Exfoliant: Sukin Skincare Facial Exfoliant (I also use the identical body scrub sometimes).  Cheap as chips and very good for the price.
  • Lips: MooGoo Cow Lick lip balm.  Love this stuff!
  • Shampoos: My favourite is the Avalon Organics Strengthening Peppermint, but it’s been out of stock in a few places lately.  Sukin is also very good.
  • Soaps: For hand soap, Organic Care.  It’s a bit faux-organic and sold at the supermarket, but it’s not too pricey and it’s also free of triclosan (which is in SO MUCH SOAP), pthalates and synthetic fragrances, as well as being accredited cruelty free.
  • Sunscreen: I don’t win hippie-points for my sunscreen usage.  I’m fluorescently white and can get burnt inside 10 minutes on a warm, sunny day.  I also freckle exactly how you imagine the child of several generations of redheaded people would.  During the summer time, I use SunSense SPF 30+ facial moisturiser every day, and I have Cancer Council Sensitive Sunscreen SPF 30+ for anything more than incidental exposure.  If someone can recommend a good-quality, very protective sunscreen that is largely ‘natural’, it would be appreciated.

 For further reading/ my resource list for this post:

The Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database provides a wealth of information.  My only problem is that it’s US based and doesn’t include many of the products we have in Australia.  See:   http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/

The US EPA has a great page on Pharmaceutical and Personal Care Products and Pollutants: http://www.epa.gov/ppcp/.  They also have comprehensive info on formaldehyde (not just related to that found in cosmetics like nail polishes): http://www.epa.gov/iaq/formaldehyde.html

David Suzuki’s list of The Dirty Dozen (2010) is a good, comprehensive starting point for what to avoid: http://www.davidsuzuki.org/issues/downloads/Dirty-dozen-backgrounder.pdf

Environment Canada has a good page on Siloxanes: http://www.ec.gc.ca/default.asp?lang=En&n=714D9AAE-1&news=546F7166-9C61-4CA5-BB67-804EC3F2A0ED

Midway


Well, friends, as of last night uni is over for another semester.  And I have to admit that despite my passion for food/ environment issues, I will happily avoid any literature on food deserts for at least a month.  Guys, that stuff is crazy.  The more I read, the more confused I get.  There is so much uncertainty, so much controversy and so much contradiction that by the time I submitted my paper I’d just about turned myself inside out.  It’s definitely something I’d like to delve into further though – just give me a few weeks breathing space!

Today, I thought I’d share a video that I watched last night.  My friend Rodrigo linked to it on Facebook and I started watching it thinking that it was just an exceptionally well-filmed nature documentary.  It wasn’t.

It is definitely worth watching, and I think that it’s really important that lots of people do see it.  But please also be warned that it is pretty harrowing and I did sit at my desk in tears for a while (yes, I’m a sook about some things).

Please think about donating to his Kickstarter.  And also, let me know what you think.

(On a side note, I should be much more consistent with blogging for a while.  I won’t have uni again until early August and I have also just started a new job – hence the limited free time that I have won’t be absorbed by job applications – at least not for a while I hope!  I hope you’ll come back to join me again!)

Food, Ethics and the Environment – a Michael Pollan talk


From michaelpollan.com

This guy? One of my food idols.

The other day as I headed to uni, I listened to a presentation that Michael Pollan made on Food, Ethics and The Environment at Princeton University, back in 2006 (I found it on iTunes U if anyone is interested in the whole thing).  It was extremely interesting and there was one part of his talk in particular that resonated with me. I’ve transcribed it as best as I could below.

“The omnivore’s ethical dilemmas are not easily resolvable.  You need to choose often between competing values.  And the reason that I don’t tell people what they should eat is that depending where they start out, depending on what they value most, if their concern is energy, if their concern is the land, if their concern is their health, if their concern is the animals, they’re going to come out in a different place.  And you know, that’s fine….that’s absolutely fine.  They’re going to come out a lot better than most of us are today (…) that’s why what is most important (…) is the ethic to know.  To  know what you’re eating, to know these few simple things – what are you eating? Where did it come from?  How did it find its way to your table?  And what, in a true account it really cost.  The sacrifice of life and labour and ethical principles that went into preparing it.  Basically to eat with consciousness is really the key.

 And that’s what brings me to the corporate responsibility part.  Eating with consciousness is impossible wen the food chain that we’re at the end of is opaque and secretive.  When the slaughterhouses bar the doors to reporters, or the companies refuse to tell us who their suppliers are or exactly what’s in the food.  And I think that’s something we can all agree on as consumers and citizens, to demand a more transparent food chain.”

I don’t think there is any way I can say it better than that.

Food and referring to the past


There is a longer post coming soon, but I thought that today I would just share some fantastic old wartime posters about food and food waste.  The change in attitudes between times of want and times of plenty is really quite incredible, as is the disparity between what we eat and what we actually need (best example?  Right here).

From: http://wallblank.com/products/food-with-thought

USA – First World War

From: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/gallery/2010/mar/04/imperial-war-museum-rationing-food#/?picture=359229448&index=10

UK – Second World War

From: http://www.sirc.org/timeline/1942_large9.shtml

USA – Second World War (1943)

Food Friday: Navigating an ethical minefield


One of the challenges that faces those who choose to consume meat these days is knowing where it came from and how it is produced.  Even the best of intentions can be thwarted.  Of course, that’s not to say that vegetarians aren’t in the same position – how can we know anything these days about the cows that produce our dairy or about the chickens that lay our eggs?

A week ago, there was a low-key furore in the Sydney Morning Herald about a Sydney abattoir whose workers were found to be responsible for absolutely horrific acts of animal cruelty (there’s a video on the link, which I confess I haven’t watched – I’m the kind of person who laments the horses in war films when all the humans are dying…).  The abattoir had been inspected by the NSW Food Authority four times in 2011 and nothing of this kind was picked up until one of the abattoir workers took hidden-camera footage and sent it to the media.  While it’s a valid question, I’m not planning to write about  how the heck this could have happened.  What I want to discuss is how we, as consumers, can possibly make an informed decision when we are told all is right in our clean and tidy little “First World” nation – and it’s not.

Last year, there was a massive uproar about the live export of cattle to Indonesia and the endemic animal cruelty that went on in their meat processing plants.  The outcry went on for weeks, with cattle export  suspended, massive Federal Government investigations and reminders ad nauseum that we can produce meat Halal meat, just like the Indonesians, so why not do it here in our nice, shiny-happy animal facilities and ship it over as steaks instead of steers?  This time, animal cruelty was a news article for a day and I honestly doubt we’ll ever see the result of the NSW Food Authority’s investigation – or it will be a tiny piece, hidden away in the Environment pages.

The fact that so many people have faith that our abattoirs are run humanely makes this all the more concerning and is all the more reason for this to stay in the news.  We need to know how animals are killed just as much as we need to know how they lived.  So many people, with the best of intentions, buy organically farmed and free-range meat – but it’s no guarantee that the transition from happy pig to bacon rasher hasn’t taken place in an horrific environment like the Hawkesbury Valley Meat Processors.  Similarly, there is no guarantee that your free range chicken hasn’t been bought up alongside its caged counterparts.  Lilydale chicken, one of the most prominent “free-range” producers found in Australian supermarkets, also produces factory-farmed meat (Ethical Shopper Guide 2011).

I am not sure what the solution is, for those who try to make ethical meat choices.  Certainly, there’s a role for the NSW government to play in ensuring that there is transparency in meat production practices – but when they can miss this sort of horror four times in a year, I don’t hold out much hope.