What is agroecology?


As we consider a world of 7 billion and counting, the same two questions are coming up over and over again – how will we ever have enough water? And how on earth can we feed that many people?

The issue of food is a controversial one – everyone has an opinion. They’re widely divergent opinions too – from those who believe that Big Ag and genetic modification is the solution to billions of hungry mouths, to those who promote an aggressively local and small-scale farming system as the only way to stave off global hunger.

Unsurprisingly, I’m not in that group of folk who think that GM and monoculture cropping are going to save the world. In fact, a future like that seems very bleak and dystopian to me – the idea of a handful of companies essentially owning our food and thus our bodies is abhorrent to me. Local and small-scale is wonderful, but not always realistic on its own – every city would have its challenges in producing clean and healthy food, other regions lack the fertility of soil and availability of good weather conditions to be able to fully sustain their populations. It’s a good start though, especially when it incorporates the principles of agroecology.

Image from agroecology.org

But what is agroecology? The word hasn’t yet acquired that buzz-word status, like ‘local’ or ‘organic’ (and, thankfully, hasn’t been diluted into a fuzzy meaninglessness like those words). And while agroecology can be seen as a relatively recent reaction to the shortfalls of industrial agriculture, it is based on farming techniques that are often hundreds of years old. Essentially, agroecology is a movement towards more sustainable farming methods, based on ‘time proven farming methods, new ecological science, and local farmer knowledge’ (McAfee in Cohn et al 2006). UC Santa Cruz’s Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems describes it as the development of ‘sustainable food and agricultural systems that are environmentally sound, economically viable, socially responsible, nonexploitative, and that serve as a foundation for future generations.’

From the Union of Concerned Scientists. Click through to embiggen.

Agroecology is therefore the antithesis of Big Ag. That sounds pretty appealing, for sure. But does it work?

Yes. Plus, it kind of has to. The 2013 Trade and Environment Review from the UN Commission on Trade and Development concluded that major changes in agriculture are necessary, recommending a ‘rapid and significant shift from conventional, monoculture-based and high-external-input-dependent industrial production toward mosaics of sustainable, regenerative production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers.’ Our current systems are not resilient (monoculture cropping is by its nature more vulnerable than polycultures), nor are they sustainable – the extensive requirements for chemical fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides contributes to degradation of soil, of water supplies and climate change. Business as usual will end up business-as-it-used-to-be.

Agroecology has the potential to stop this damage to our agricultural systems and ensure a lesser environmental impact in three ways:

1)  A variety of crops are usually planted on each farm, rather than monocultures.  This also reduces the need for chemical pesticides and herbicides.

2) Crop biodiversity is preserved.  As discussed earlier, in situ conservation is vital to the preservation of the wide variety of maize landraces

3) Less land is required to produce a similar amount of food, thus posing less of a threat to the local environment

We need to make a change and agroecology has a small but positive track record – at the very least, running more trials, replicating these on a large scale and thus collecting more evidence of its efficacy is worth a shot, as it may well provide us with a solution to an eventual crisis.

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Food Friday: Grow your own


It’s the most glorious day here in Austin. Our garden has been gradually progressing over the last of winter as I’ve hauled out acres of weeds and started mulching with grass clippings, but I feel confident that it’s now warm enough to start actually planting and I’m really, really excited.

We tried to grow some vegetables last summer when we first arrived. I took such good care of the tomatoes, peppers and basil for a handful of atrocious, 100-plus degree days before the plants suddenly started disappearing. One day there was a thriving tomato plant, the next day there was a thriving half of a tomato plant and the day after, there was no evidence that there had ever been a tomato plant at all. It took a while, but I eventually discovered the culprit. Squirrels. I was heartbroken. I love squirrels! I didn’t want to think ill of them! But the evidence pointed fairly and squarely at squirrels, and as a dumb Australian, I wasn’t quite sure what to do.

This is what we’ve done:

You can barely see the netting - it's really fine, which means it's not the eyesore we'd anticipated.

You can barely see the netting – it’s really fine, which means it’s not the eyesore we’d anticipated.

We’re still not 100% sure how well it will work, but it feels relatively squirrel-proof. Basically, we went down to Home Depot last weekend and bought a bunch of tall stakes and deer-proof netting. We’ve wrapped three sides in the netting, with the fourth attached to an additional stake, which we can lift out as needed, kind of like a gate. We’ve also covered over the top of the garden, because if you’re going to do a job, you may as well do it properly. Now we just need to create some tent-peg-style things to hold down the netting at the bottom – and once that’s done, we can get everything into the ground.

So, what’s everything? Well, this season we’ve got two different types of heirloom tomatoes, one hot and one mild red pepper, the tiniest wee snow pea (a gift from Ronin Cooking at Foodways), lots of sweet basil and an Italian parsley (already planted, since it’s less appealing to squirrels). We’ve still got crazy thickets of oregano and mint left from last season too – somehow they survived the intense heat of August and September, and then the severe frosts of December and January (I’m pretty sure they could handle the apocalypse at this stage). We should hopefully have everything in the garden and thriving by the end of the weekend.

Please excuse our insanely lush grass - we only mowed two weeks ago! It's crazy!

Please excuse our insanely lush grass – we only mowed two weeks ago! It’s crazy!

I really can’t wait until harvest time. Leaving behind our garden in Sydney was one of the tough parts of moving overseas. Making basil pesto is one of my favourite things, and there’s a certain special pleasure that comes from growing, harvesting, prepping and cooking things from your own garden. Not only does it usually taste a thousand-fold better, I love that sense of connection to the earth, and that sense of achievement when you’ve done something yourself, right from the start.

What are you planning to grow this spring? Those of you in the southern hemisphere, what did you grow over summer?

Food Friday: Cinnamon Fruit Bread with Seeds


It has been the most stunningly gorgeous day in Central Texas. Inspired by the sunshine, I  reverted to my domestic goddess type – opening all the windows, stewing apples and being chased around the kitchen by an inquisitive bee (or five) that found its way inside. I also decided to make bread.

I’ve made bread before, following an excellent recipe in my favourite Stephanie Alexander cookbook, which, due to weighing in at about 5kg, is safely stowed in a storage unit in Sydney. I managed to find a similar recipe online though, and adapted it today to create a delicious, hearty fruit loaf full of cinnamon, apricots, sultanas and sunflower seeds.

Adapted from this basic bread recipe. IMPORTANT NOTE: Far be it from me to argue with Stephanie Alexander. The woman is a kitchen queen and deservedly so. That said, I found that the amount of flour and water she’d recommended did not work for me and I had to add in around another 150g or so of flour to achieve the recommended consistency. This might have been a problem at my end, but I’d recommend having more flour than you need on hand, just in case. If your mix isn’t thickening as it should, shake in additional flour gradually, mixing very thoroughly until you get the desired “sticky ball” consistency (if you can avoid this though, do – it will weigh down the bread a little).

{Ingredients} 

500g white whole wheat flour

7g sachet of dry yeast

1 tsp salt

500 mL warm water

1 tbsp honey

1 tbsp cinnamon

1/2 cup sultanas

1/2 cup chopped dried apricots

1/4 cup sunflower seeds

The basics

The basics

{Preparation}

Tip all the flour into a large mixing bowl and add the salt and yeast. Stir once or twice with the wooden spoon. In a measuring cup, mix together the honey and warm water. 

Using the wooden spoon, push the flour away from the centre of the large bowl to make a well in the middle. Pour in the warm water and honey mixture. Mix in the flour gradually. Once combined, add the sultanas, apricots, sunflower seeds and cinnamon. Stir the mixture vigorously until you end up with a sticky ball of dough. If your ‘sticky ball’ seems determined to stay more of a ‘runny mess’, add a little more flour, bit by bit and stirring constantly.

Sprinkle your work surface liberally with flour. Sprinkle a little extra flour on your hands and the dough mix too. Tip the dough onto the floured surface and pat all the pieces into a pile. Squash it all into one lump. Knead constantly for about 3 minutes.

Lightly grease a bowl. Place dough ball into bowl and cover with a clean tea towel. Leave in a warm place for at least 30 minutes. The dough should roughly double in size.

After 30 minutes, re-flour your re-cleaned work surface. Take the dough ball and knock out all of the air (trust me, this is the most satisfying part of all). Knead the dough again, this time for 1-2 minutes. Return to the greased bowl, cover with the tea towel and leave for another 20-30 minutes.

While the dough is sitting, preheat the oven to 200°C or about 390-400°F and lightly grease a baking tray. When the 20 minutes has passed, transfer the dough to the baking tray and bake for around 4 minutes, or until bread sounds hollow.

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The bread should be fragrant and slightly chewy. It’s even better toasted with a little butter.

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.

Food Friday: Sweet Potato Tacos with Chipotles in Adobo


If there’s one thing I can tell you about Austinites and food, it’s that they really like their tacos. Breakfast, lunch or dinner is irrelevant – there’s a taco for every time of day and every occasion. Luckily, I love tacos. They’re filling, super cheap and easy to make and very versatile – you can put just about anything on a fresh tortilla and have it taste delicious. So, that’s exactly what I’ve been doing – experimenting in the kitchen with a variety of taco fillings. It’s been a lot of fun.

This is one of our favourites so far. Sweet potatoes are right in season at the moment, so they’re cheap and plentiful and tasty. Their sweetness combines well with the savoury starchiness of the beans and the smokey bite of the chipotle. Which reminds me, there’s a definite kick to the chipotles in adobo, so if you don’t like your food with a bit of heat, I’d recommend halving the quantity in this (or even quartering if you’re just not that into spicy food).

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Sweet Potato Tacos with Chipotles in Adobo

{Ingredients}

1 medium-large sweet potato, chopped into small chunks

1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped

1 200g can chipotles in adobo sauce

1 400g can corn kernels

1 400g can beans (black beans, kidney beans etc)

1 800g can diced tomatoes

fresh tortillas

1 medium avocado

feta cheese to taste

salt and pepper to taste

{Preparation}

Lightly coat sweet potatoes with oil. Roast at 400F (about 200 Celsius) for about 30 minutes or until soft (sorry I can’t be more specific here – my oven has a busted door at the moment that lets all the nice warm air out, so it’s hard to judge. The downside of renting? Having to wait for other people to fix things!).

While the sweet potato is roasting, sauté onion in a fry pan with a little olive oil until soft and transparent. Add chipotles in adobo and stir through, breaking up the chillies into smaller pieces with the spoon. Add the can of tomatoes and leave to simmer on low heat. Drain the corn and the beans and then add them to the frypan as well. Leave to simmer until the sweet potato is done, stirring occasionally. The longer it simmers, the less ‘wet’ the tacos will be.

Once the sweet potato is soft and slightly roasted around the edges, add to the frypan. Stir through, adding a little salt and pepper to taste.

Serve the mix on fresh tortillas, sprinkled with feta cheese and sliced avocados. Enjoy!

{Serves 6}

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*NB: Please, please excuse my awful food photography. I’m working on it, I promise, but these skills take time! In the meantime, please be assured that these meals taste much better than they look!

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.

 

 

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.

A week of infographics: Day 5


Click to link through and embiggen

I love this infographic too (sensing a theme here?). There’s definitely something to the concerns that the world will struggle to sustain its current population of just over 7 billion people, but it’s nice to know that all 7 billion can be fed, at least theoretically.

I hope that you’ve enjoyed this week’s infographics. I’ll aim to be back to a more regular posting schedule next week.

 

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 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.