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Food Blog no. 9 – Thinking about how fossil fuels subsidize food production

Could you imagine having to grow your own food?

Industrial agriculture has, in the recent past, brought us wine and milk lakes and butter mountains. This industrial approach to agriculture is the main reason why the per capita food production continued to increase during the 1990s and early 2000s. Though there is concern that this upwards trend may now be declining.

The downside of industrial agriculture seems to be most often expressed in arguments for organic foods. What is very rarely mentioned, however, is that our ability to engage in industrial agriculture is primarily due to fossil fuels.The energy value of the apple that we buy in the store is about 60 kcals. The total energetic cost of producing that apple, is far higher. Energy was burned in the form of gasoline that drove the tractor, and in the production of the fertilizers. While financial subsidies to Europe, via taxpayers' money, are often a hot topic of debate, in general as a society dependent on fossil fuels, we are generally not considering the energetic subsidy from fossil fuels of food production.

The energetic cost to a Medieval peasant, working the land, of producing a kcal was explained to some of us in an excellent lecture in 2008, by Professor Verena Winiwarter. There was a very high human energy input, but the relative production efficiency was actually much better than it is today! If you saw any of the excellent TV series, the Victorian Farm, you may have been aghast to learn, as I did, that 100 years ago, a ploughman might walk, on average, 14 miles a day behind his horse and plough. And, that plough was a modernized steel version that was a direct product of the industrial revolution. No wonder he would sit down to a Ploughman's lunch.

Even WITH fossil fuels to run our tractors, bailers and harvesters, food production is HARD work. As a doctoral student in Oxford, I had to put in my time on the University Farm, with sheep dipping and bailing. Could you imagine what would happen without  fossil fuel energy replacing human (peasant-style) labour? Recently in Colorado USA, John Harold, a local onion farmer  decided to bring in less migrant labour for the harvest, and to offer the jobs to local unemployed people. But, they either did not apply, or if they did, could not hack the physical work involved... as reported in a recent New York Times article - "Hiring Locally for Farm Work Is No Cure-All" (Oct 5th 2011).

Dawn Bazely   

“Why Woody?” – for an honorary degree

A very nice reporter from the Toronto Star asked me this question on the phone yesterday, as I was standing in a field in Milton, Ontario, next to 16-Milgiant 2e Creek. I was collecting seeds from Giant Hogweed, an invasive and somewhat toxic plant (see right).

Tomorrow, York University will confer an honorary degree on Woody Harrelson. Back in January, when I wrote my nomination letter, I had no idea that the announcement of this would coincide with the recent release of a popular commercial movie, starring him! I also had no idea as to how receptive the university committee responsible for Honorary Degrees would be to our nomination! After all, universities are very conservative institutions, as I found out from the raised eyebrows, back in the mid 1990s, when I had the temerity to suggest to some colleagues that we ought to consider nominating Oprah Winfrey for an honorary degree. At the time, she was dictating what America and my local Mum's Book Club was reading, through her book selections.

There have been a lot opinions offered about York conferring this degree on Woody Harrelson, in response to the CBC story. In the wake of my interview with the Star reporter, I think there's a few things worth mentioning from my answer to her question "Why Woody?"

1. The whole idea can be traced back to 2006 and the conversation that IRIS started about making York's course kits carbon neutral. Along the way, not only did we discover a huge interest amongst our students in the issue of climate change, but we also learned a lot about how unsustainable the publishing and printing industry is, in terms of how it produces books:  inks, paper, and the energy footprint of shipping books; akin to shipping bricks, a friend in publishing has told me.

2. Then, in August 2008, I was invited by the committee organizing our Fall Green Week, to suggest environmental and sustainability-related documentaries for screening. Since I am always forcing my family to watch educational docs, I had lots of ideas, as did others, and we had a lively discussion. I thought that An Inconvenient Truth was too ubiquitous to have much appeal at the time, and that Who Killed the Electric Car, was just a wee bit too boring. But Go Further was different from anything that I had ever seen, and might just be the ticket for an undergraduate audience. It was not at all preachy and took a very different approach to engaging youth than  found in the standard lecture.

3. When we screened the film, through a colleague at York, who turned out to have a brother in publishing, we also learned about the companion book to the documentary, which is incredibly sustainably produced. From him, we learned that the appearance of these kinds of books tends to have limited appeal to the purchasing public. This is why the books in stores don't tend to look like the Go Further book: they don't really sell that well. In other words - environmentally friendly, unshiny, dull-looking books don't cut it on the shelf - YET.

So there you have it, the boring story of why I got involved in this nomination. We did a bunch of research into and learning about a couple of key items of academic life - documentaries and books and learned about Woody Harrelson, too. And, as a good academic should be, I was also rather skeptical about the nomination venture. As I  wrote in my  letter:

"Mr. Harrelson has turned out to be an embodiment of our new York slogan and our old motto, that the way must be tried. Who would have thought that the goofy bartender from “Cheers” would turn out to be such an important environmental leader and activist?"

If universities are to be leaders, then we must be receptive to different modes of teaching and learning, and be prepared to recognize and honor them.

Dawn Bazely

The Healthy Butcher

The Healthy Butcher are two Toronto based organic and local meat shops, one on Eglinton West and the other on Queen St. West. While, specializing in local certified organic meat they are expanding to produce as well. In light of recent issues with processed meat and the always present concern over the ecological impacts of meat consumption and industrial agriculture, the Healthy Butcher offers an alternative to becoming a vegetarian. They are fundamentally committed to healthy, organic, and most importantly local meat. They buy directly from farmers and have extensive information on what certified organic means to them. For this company, organic meat means;

  • Livestock must be fed 100% organic food;
  • No use of chemical pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and fertilizers in the growing of the animals’ feed;
  • No use of genetically modified organisms;
  • No use of growth hormones;
  • No use of drugs (such as antibiotics);
  • No use of animal by-products for feed;
  • Treating animals humanely (i.e. they have outside access at all times);
  • Inspections by an independent certification body occur on a regular basis;
  • All certified products records are kept for 5 years;
  • Strict Canadian and International standards are met.

In all they are making a commitment to healthy meat consumption, environmental and social sustainabililty by supporting local farmers. Organic meat is more humane as the animals are treated better and raised naturally without chemical hormones. The Healthy Butcher also makes the best effort to ensure that their prices are comparable to non-organic meats. Even if the prices are a little more, is it not worth it for a little piece of mind.

Sustainable Shopping: Getting in the Green Loop

On my epic quest for green change, and the search for eco-friendly AND fashion-friendly attire, I stumbled upon (in other words, I used google) the store called the Green Loop. and I was impressed. Unlike a lot of blah eco-stores that only sell t-shirts and plain boring stuff, this store has everything from organic skinny jeans to blazers and even eco-friendly shoes.
And of course guys’ gear too, along with accessories, bags, etc. basically, a massive variety of a lot of typical things you’d see at the mall, except it didn’t take 23849543 trees and 87549999 types of pollutants to make them.

They all seem to be ‘designer’ eco-brands as well, which is definitely reflected in the price. Most of the shoes are in the $200-250 range. Dresses are around 100-150, and tops go from 40-100. High end prices no doubt. But when you think about a lot of the stores in a mall like Yorkdale, they pretty much charge the same price. People are willing to pay those prices there because they believe in the quality of those brands. I don’t actually own anything from the Green Loop but from what I can tell I’m going to say that these are probably better quality than a lot of the stuff I’ve seen in mall stores, even if you only consider the fact that if its eco-friendly, a lot of thought was put into the making (not just the design) of the item.

I was impressed with the variety. If you can afford it, it’s not a bad place to buy some chic ethical clothing and help cause me (and your kids) less asthma attacks!

(one of my favourite dresses from their store)

Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce

This wallet-size guide from the EWG will help you decide which produce to buy organic, and which are lowest in pesticides, so you can eat healthy without emptying your wallet. I recommend the health-conscious shopper to print and keep a copy with you in your wallet or purse:

P.S. It is always better to buy locally in order to reduce gas emissions from transport vehicles

Composting at Home

As more and more municipalities introduce green bin programs to reduce the amount of organic waste entering landfills there is also an increase in consumer options for household composting units. Besides the conventional outdoor composters there has been an increase in indoor composters available for apartment dwellers that do not have access to municipal compost programs. These products range in size, level of work involved, costs, and how they compost the organic matter. All things organic is a website with a wide range of compost products and information on how to start your own home composting. The site also contains troubleshooting information on how to avoid getting odours and fruit flies. Household composting reduces your own household waste while providing you with organic soil for your plants or gardens thereby avoiding having to purchase potting soil elsewhere. If you still are not convinced watch this YouTube video on the Nature Mill an indoor small odourless household composting unit that uses heat not worms to break down the organic material. If you decide to take the leap to household composting you will not regret it. Another way we can all reduce our impact on the natural environment.

Politically correct coffee grounds & sustainability Part 2

While on a coffee break from doing field work in London, Ontario, I was amazed to discover Starbucks' innovative programme in which they make their used coffee grounds available for people to put on their gardens. This is local resident and teacher, Trish Robertson, who told me that she really does use the grounds in her condo planters on a regular basis! While we don't see this in Toronto, presumably because municipal composting is available (I will be checking into this), in places like London, this programme must be diverting huge amounts of beans from landfill. I'd love to know the numbers on this and where all those other coffee grounds from other coffee shops are ending up. (Hello students - this would be a great research project...).

What's more, Starbucks even has a World Water Day link on their website. And, their business cards are printed on 100% post-consumer recycled material. Okay, okay, now I am beginning to feel bludgeoned by their sustainability initiatives. I take my hat off to them for their innovative leadership in both upstream and downstream coffee operations (I learned that term from my studies on oil and gas pipelines). I AM going to ask them more about the tons of coffee grounds that they need to dispose of at the end of each day. Many thanks to Michael and Lena at the Starbucks for their patience and enthusiasm in answering my questions.
Dawn Bazely

Politically correct coffee & sustainability Part 1

First off, I admit that I drink coffee, and if you do too, then Black Gold - "a film about coffee and trade" is essential viewing. Below is the trailer for this very hot doc.

In my home, we have been buying what I call politically correct coffee beans (fair trade etc.) for a very long time (over 20 years), and in the last 12 years, our beans have come from Alternative Grounds in Toronto. But, when it comes to coffee on-the-go, like loads of people, I tend to buy it from one of the large chains - Tim's, Starbucks, Timothy's, Second Cup etc. Given Canadian's strong devotion to drinking coffee, I thought I'd check in on how the BIG FOUR purveyors of coffee to Ontarians are doing in terms of leading us all towards more ethical coffee drinking. (Sure, there are other coffee chains, but in Toronto, and much of Ontario, these predominate).

Right off the bat, I applaud Timothy's for their collaboration around sustainable coffee with York's very own Las Nubes Centre for Tropical Conservation and Research. Starbucks is also right up there on ethical beans, especially in Ethiopia, as can been seen from the trailer at the end of this post. Tim Horton's has a webpage about its sustainable coffee partnerships in Guatemala, Columbia and Brazil but there's no specific mention made of the fair-trade or shade-grown concepts (though reforestation is mentioned). Hmm - this page raises more questions than it answers for me. Second Cup has a pledge "to work in harmony with both the environment and people". Since I spend loads of money at the Second Cup on York's campus, I can see that I will soon be quizzing the owner about this "pledge".

Obviously, it's now pretty much de rigeur for the big Ontario coffee chains to make at least some sustainability and fair-trade type of coffee statements about the start of a coffee bean's life (but, there still appears to be room for lots of improvement in this area at some of them).

But, can the sustainability at the end of a coffee bean's life-cycle also be improved? The answer is, quite simply, yes. To find out what, see Part 2 of this series.

Now, the next thing is for all of these companies to use biodegradable cups. Lots of independent coffee and tea shops are on the Greenshift, Toronto list, but it's not clear if it's because they are all using these compostable cups.

Dawn Bazely