BT Notes – It’s all about food

It’s all about food.

Summer was busy because of all the work put in to the garden by our children in spring. And though it is not a commercially viable business in Ireland, growing fruit and vegetables on a small scale as we do is enriching.  It beings me closer to Earth and nature.  I’m in the garden nearly everyday so I notice changes in colour, growth patterns, bugs and so on.  Though nature is resilient it certainly has to deal with some tough challenges from weather volatility, to invasive species and human manipulation.An organic grower tries to work within nature, using naturally produced fertiliser, weed and pest control and encouraging nature to produce food.  At an industrial scale it is viable.  And if you are a beef or chicken producer you can make good money in the organic sector.  But small scale horticulture might produce enough food, but it isn’t going to buy you that holiday in the Med. Just now in the garden, the tomatoes, my favorite, are in full production.  This is Monday’s harvest.  We’ll get a couple of good pumpkin before the frost sets in. The grape vine that Robin and Carole gave us is producing well and we still have some beets and potatoes to come out.   We’ve got a freezer full of french beans and pots of jam. If you would like to see the mess that is our garden there are some snaps here from a couple of walkabouts in early August and late August.

While I gave up my organic certification this year, because the Department of Agriculture forced certifiers to raise costs again which I can not afford, I still aim to be organic – we still make our own compost and put in a lot of hard work and we don’t use roundup etc.  But I was very upset to get a call from the Department of Agriculture saying that we can not claim to “grow organically but are not certified”.  I could not believe that after 10 years of paying hundreds of euro annually for a 15 minute inspection and 15 minutes of paperwork and never hearing from them, they could now afford to drive down our lane to bully me.  But what made it worse was to see “organic” fertiliser on the shelves of the garden centre (which makes a lot of money) manufactured by companies that make a lot of money, but which is not organically certified.  The EU will happily subsidise unsustainable agriculture, and allow market disinformation by agro-chemical giants, while penalising local producers, even people who want to have a few hens in their back yard for fresh eggs.

It isn’t only in the garden that my attention has been draw to the challenges of producing food and the core role it plays in our lives from the basics of sustenance and survival to the culture of a place to leisure to the industrial landscape.  I watched a couple of docu-dramas – King Corn and Supersize Me. King Corn tells the story of a couple of lads who grow an acre of corn in the Iowa to see and document the impact of perhaps the biggest influence on western civilisations diet and lifestyle.  It is similar in some respects to Food Inc and enjoyable to watch. Some interesting facts stood out: The first thing they did was to apply and recieve a subsidy – maize production is subsidised.  Then they sprayed anhydrous amonia on the field which increase the yield per acre by 4x over what land produced 3 generations ago.  The seed is engineered to be very different from its original genetics – for one thing it is able to grow at a density which far excedes natural maize density.  The harvested corn is barely edible – it tastes like sawdust.  It is then processed to be turned in to animal feed (though cattle will die after 180 days on a diet of corn only because their guts will rot) and food ingredients like high fructise corn syrup (sulphuric acid is one of the ingredients!). The meat that is butchered from corn fed cattle has 4x the saturated fat of grass fed beef – and we like fattier meat because it tastes good.  Fortunately Ireland and even Europe does not produce maize or beef so intensively so we do not have the high corn diet that Americans enjoy, unless you eat a lot of McDs etc.

Supersize Me is the story of a young man who eats McDs for 30 days. Some of the stats were surprising  – his weight goes from 186 lbs to 210 lbs, the doctors monitoring his health tell him to stop because his liver is showing signs of toxicity similar to alcohol poisoning and it takes him 9 months to drop to his former body weight.  It’s not an entirely one sided story but it shows in an hour and a half how we can destroy ourselves with a lazy diet.  It drew my attention to the two luxuries of the modern diet: fat and sugar.  Both are carbohydrates but unlike bread, potatoes, pasta which is metabolised moderately, fat is a slow carb which goes straight to our middles and sugar is fast and can be easily converted for storage.  In terms of calories fat is very dense and so a little goes a long way, and a lot seems to go on for ever.  After the movie I read a couple of food labels and found that the RDA for fat is about 80g or a slab of butter about 2cm (or an inch) thick – about the amount I like to put on four slices of toast mmmmmmmmmm!  A bag of tortilla chips is about a quarter fat – its hard to believe.  As I get older its harder to sty fit and supple and my love of sugar and butter doesn’t help, but understanding what I’m doing to myself helps me say “no”.

My dad lent me a book given to him as a birthday present – An Edible History of Humanity by Tom Standage.  If you’re interested in food, culture, history or sustainability it’s very interesting.  The story starts with cultural impact on humanity of the transition from hunter/gatherer to farmer, highlights the role of food as power, food as a weapon and the last part of the book reflects some of the commentary from King Corn and raises the issues of GMO and biofuels.  It was sad to read how European adventurers changed the culture of the international food trade from one of cooperation that had persisted in the east, to one of belligerence – it seems that dichotomy is playing out again today in geopolitics as the western competitiveness and eastern cooperation meld.  It takes a bigger picture perspective of the Malthusian scare – that we will not be able to feed the human population.  That topic has also been in the news alot recently.  Many would say we’ll be OK, we’ve done it before.  But I am cynical about our prospects – I know what it takes to grow food – a lot of energy.  And I’m cautious about genetic engineering as a solution – I just believe nature has a better track record than humanity.  Although it would be interesting to see inventive entrepreneurs marketing a potato crossed with poppy which combines their properties!  (Please consider cautioning the EU about embracing GMO – its about money not health or safety – see GM petition here.)

I think the central role of food in society and culture has been forgotten by most of us.  We don’t appreciate the variety and enjoyment possible, let alone that food sustains us.  The chocolate bar that was once a luxury is now produced with corn syrup, colouring and flavourings and is so cheap that we’ll grab one of them instead of a banana or apple or peach.  The further away from nature that we get, the less we will appreciate the realities of the real world and I think that makes our souls emptier.  If you would like to join us for an evening of movies, like King Corn, please let me know and well do it soon.  The tent we put up for Dad’s birthday is still up andmake a great place for a get together.  We’ll even barbecue some real beef from the best butcher in Ireland – Michael McAssey in Ballon.  Thanks to Michael and Tony for all the great food that we barbecued this summer – people were asking not for meat, but McAsseys meat!

Other notes on food:

Check out these photos of what a hail storm can do to a vegetable grower in Montana   http://www.phfarms.com/August 2009.htm

John Kehely, a Cork farmer, has set up an online market place for home producers .  See www.rustictiger.com which is laid out in the form of classified ads, in locations and categories and it’s free to place an ad.

Klaus Laitenberger, worked as the Head Gardener at the Organic Centre in Leitrim and in Lissadell House and has just published a book on vegetable growing in Ireland: Vegetables for the Irish Garden.  You can see more about it here.

Brazilian Agriculture, a report by The Economist, tells the story of transformation of the industry over 30 years so that today it is productive, competitive and sustainable.

Yoga classes are back on!  Starting today is a group class at 8pm in Teach Bride, Tullow.  There is also one at Carlow IT at 6pm.  Pam is giving a few private classes too.  The schedule is here.  Contact her at yoga AT astraea DOT net.  She did a yoga session in the tent last weekend which went Ok so we will try that again.  And we are setting up a yoga retreat in the Mediterranean for next summer It’ll be a week long and available from May till August.  Please let me know as soon as possible if you are interested – it’ll be great.

We are looking at sending Tym out to volunteer at a PestalozziWorld village in Asia or Africa this year, her transition year.  If you would like to volunteer please let me know.  It is a great experience, especially for school leavers or people changing career, and is low cost once you’re there because you stay in the village with the scholars.

Summer has passed, the equinox was a week ago, we are well in to autumn.  Its time to get out the saw and start logging!  Enjoy the changing colours and the harvest season.

Tom