Flowers are traditional, yes, but this Mother’s Day I am thinking about bananas. Specifically, the plan to grow iron fortified bananas in India.This plan, predictably, is being met with resistance in some quarters. But, first, some background: India is the world’s largest producer of bananas and almost all of it is consumed domestically. India also has a very high incidence of anemia. The India Human Development Report 2011 noted that approximately 55-35% of women in the age group 15-49 were anemic and this number had increased by 3% from 1998-99. Anemia in pregnant women increases the possibility of pre-term or low birth rate babies. It also implies less than optimal development in utero which means that the physical and mental development of a new generation is impaired and the cycle of poor health outcomes continues. We also need to consider a new variable in all of this: climate change. It is predicted that climate change will have critical impact on maternal and new born health from adverse environmental consequences. It would make sense, therefore, to give special attention to improving maternal health before the worst of the crisis is here.
Given this scenario it makes sense that the Indian government has approved a project for the transfer of technology from Australia to grow iron and nutrient fortified bananas. Bananas, grown locally and easily available, would be an ideal way to meet the nutrient needs of women suffering from anemia. And where a busy mom pressed for time may not have time to prepare an iron-rich dish separately, she can always grab a banana on the go.
It has, however, been met, with resistance from groups that claim that the “indigenous biodiversity” which is supposedly sufficient for India’s nutritional needs will be “destroyed” and suspect a plot by dark forces to take over the banana domain in the country which is the biggest producer of the fruit. Well, if the indigenous bounty of nature would have been sufficient, we would not be facing these alarming health statistics. Clearly, women’s diets still remain nutrient deficient and this needs to be addressed. The indigenous variety does not have the same iron content as the fortified one, of course, and none of these critics seem to have suggested any options for either increasing access to indigenous bananas or meeting the nutrient needs in any other way.
To understand the threat to biodiversity, I started researching banana cultivation and found that this is done by planting stem cuttings, so the possibility of threat to the native species is hard to discern. The other fear that this will result in “monocultures” is not a significant one because the most widely eaten banana on the planet is already the Cavendish, the kind familiar to us from grocery stores. In addition , some local varieties are grown in several countries but one variety of banana seems to be dominant already. The technique to fortify bananas already exists and we can speculate that the time taken to bring the fruit to the market would not be that long, so that some improvement in health outcomes might be expected despite the expected adverse impact of climate change in the coming years.
Along with the adoption of fortified bananas,efforts should also be made to revive indigenous iron rich crops which have been overshadowed in recent years.This is not an either/or situation, we can and should take advantage of all the solutions available to us. Certainly we need to protect biodiversity but we cannot overlook the health of mothers and children which will determine how strong our next generation will be. An interesting example in this regard is that of Uganda: faced with banana wilt which was destroying crops and could have resulted in the abandoning of banana cultivation, scientists have developed a variety with a sweet pepper gene which stays can combat banana wilt. Better a GM banana than none at all in a country which prides itself on its banana tradition.
Just like biotechnology, the celebration of Mother’s Day in India in recent years is sometimes criticized as a western import, alien to indigenous traditions. So it is fitting that my wish for all the moms on this Mother’s Day is that India does grow fortified bananas and we have healthier moms and babies in the future.
Posted in Climate Change, Farm Technology, Food Choices, Food Policy, Food Security, Hunger, India, Nutrition
Tagged climate change, Farming Technology, food decisions, food policy, food security, Hunger, India, nutrition
An interesting piece on the price we pay for our fears, in The European Magazine. This question is central today in much of the issues being debated in the food world. There is distrust of biotechnology because there is no way to prove that they are “completely” safe. If its not food, then its public health which is vulnerable to fear and distrust.The irrational (and, as proven recently,) baseless fear of vaccination is being blamed for a measles epidemic in Wales and also a persistent Pertussis outbreak in the US. Why have we become so fearful?
If our ancestors had not been adventurous and ready to take a risk, we would be living in a very different world. One where we would never have been to the Moon because no one could show conclusively that it was safe to travel there or even tried a fruit like the rambutan which, looks somewhat scary but is actually delicious.
When new seeds and fertilizers were introduced to the Indian farmer in 1963, they too may have been fearful but they adopted this technology thereby bringing in the Green revolution that ultimately saved so many from hunger, malnutrition and untimely death. Instead of obsessing about what is on my plate and in my food, can we agree to try something that might provide solutions for those who have nothing on their plates? At this point in the discussion usually some one jumps up to say that production alone cannot solve the problems of the food system. I could not agree more but I would point out that by spending all our time and energy talking about GM food/organic cultivation/local or not, we have little left to spend on enormously important matters like consumption patterns, food waste, or malnutrition, among others. That is also part of the price we pay for being fearful , we are left with less than optimal solutions because we did not use our time and resources wisely.
And we can start with baby steps, perhaps move on produce item from the organic to regular column on our grocery list and try that or trace a news report to the actual study they are talking about and decide for oneself what to believe. And if you should choose conventional watermelon instead of organic this week, you could also try out this watermelon stroller, bringing you portable and chilled watermelons just in time for picnic season!
Posted in Food Choices, food fun, Food Safety, Food Security, Green, Hunger, Living, Nutrition
Tagged food decisions, food fun, food policy, food safety, food security, Green, Hunger, Living
Today I am posting as part of Food Bloggers Against Hunger, an effort to find solutions to the problem of hunger and food insecurity in America. The country has been going through rough economic times and the number of households which are depending on the SNAP program has increased. While the program provides some relief, it is a small supplement which can usually not be used to buy things like fresh produce. A trip to the grocery store with the daily assistance amount of $3 or $4 would be an eye opening experience for those of us who are unfamiliar with this situation.
The impact of food insecurity is particularly crucial for children. A child who comes to school on an empty stomach cannot learn, no matter what lavish amounts we spend on classrooms, technology etc. Some of the options currently on the menu for school breakfasts and lunches, available to kids in need, are not the healthiest but they still offer some options to families. It is crucial that spending cuts do not hurt the most vulnerable:food insecure kids. If you would like to make your voice be heard in this regard, please follow the link here to let your opinion be known to Congress.
As part of today’s program, we have been asked to include a recipe which would be useful for anyone depending on the SNAP program. Keeping in mind the limited options available, I would like to suggest a recipe for beans which are remarkably versatile. Dry beans bought in bulk are great value for money. However, they require longer cooking times unless you own a pressure cooker. Canned beans are quick and easy, and one or the other kind is usually on sale at the grocery store each week. We can forget our preconceived notions of which kinds work together,mixing and matching whatever is available will still make a delicious meal. The recipe calls for onions which can be bought in bulk and last a long time so they can bring an element of freshness to any recipe. Tomatoes are also a flavor booster and can be bought in the canned form. What you get is a dish that is tasty, rich in fiber and antioxidants, and will keep you filled up for a while.
Bean A Long Day Supper
Beans (any kind) 2 cans
Onion 1 medium
Garlic 1 clove (optional)
Tomato 1 medium(or canned)
Taco seasoning/cumin/paprika(as available at the grocery store)
Oil and Salt as desired
Heat oil. Chop the onion finely and add to the oil on medium heat. When the onion has softened, add the chopped garlic, if using and cook for a minute. Now add the tomatoes and let this cook till the tomatoes have softened, canned ones will mix faster with onions. For flavor, add 1 or 2 teaspoons of any of the seasonings, depending on your mood of the day! Mix everything well, and cook on medium heat for 10 minutes, then add 2 cups of water and cook for another 20 minutes on low heat to let the flavors all meld together well. Serve with rice or tortillas.
This post is part of the effort to focus the spotlight on a serious issue, please feel free to share this information.In case you wish to learn more, click here for the trailer of the movie on hunger in America, “A Place At The Table”.
Posted in Living
A recent road trip brought up for me the fraught issue of the cost of food. Traveling with kids (who for some reason seem to be ravenous on the road although they have to be coaxed to finish up at home!) means that at least some of the meals have to come from fast food outlets as the process isquicker, cheaper and gives rise to less controversy and negotiation. Still, when you get home and do the bills, the amount spent on food is a big part of the trip expenses.
So I was intrigued to read Mark Bittman’s take on the possibility of healthy and edible fast food and was mostly in agreement but for two points. The first is cost: if we define a fast food meal (as the article does) at about $10 for a wrap/taco/sandwich and shake, that works out to an average of $40 per family for just one meal of the day (and ravenous kids eat frequently!). I fully support paying fair wages to farm workers and a fair price for food grown with good farm practices but do look for good prices which won’t bust the budget. How do we reconcile these two variables?
The second issue is that of our expectations from fast food . What proportion of our meals do we actually eat at such places? If it is an occasional meal, on a journey or for a treat (“I cleaned my room, can we get donuts?”), or the house is getting a makeover and we can’t cook tonight, my expectations would be moderate. Yes, it should not be greasy and disgusting and tasteless but fresh-from-the-fields-the-way-Mom-made-it is not really essential.
Let us not delude ourselves: it is possible to maintain the highest quality levels only in our own kitchens when we source and handle the ingredients ourselves. So if the food meets basic health standards, the workers have been fairly treated and it comes out fast, the pricing should position it where it is an option available to all. Demanding the highest quality ingredients and standard of cooking will push prices too high and make it unaffordable and inconvenient. After all, when we opt for fast food, it is the “fast” rather than the “food” which is the key factor in our decision-making process.
A fascinating study out today compares the dinner time habits of American and Italian families and finds that a lot depends on what ”dinner at home” actually means. Is everybody at the table or are one or more of the kids lounging on the couch watching TV and eating dinner there? Is everyone eating the same meal? This leads to an interesting discovery about grocery shopping. American homes, equipped with bigger (and sometimes multiple ) refrigerators are loaded with packaged food which often come in single serve packages. So a family can sit around the table, each with their own choice of microwaved meal; while Italians who, with smaller refrigerators will shop more frequently , prepare one meal to be shared by the family.
It has been argued that the American dinner experience is a consequence of the pace of life. Packaged dinners are more convenient to prepare because they take less time. The study finds, however, that they reduce preparation time by only 10-12 minutes. Although I am no fan of packaged dinners (I was conferred the title of “meanest Mom ever” for refusing to buy something called “Kids Cuisine” from the freezer section, apparently all the rage in the kindergarten demographic), I have to add that this does not seem to take into account the cleaning time involved with preparing meals from scratch which would involve even more time in the kitchen. But the real surprise here was that only 22% of dinners are actually prepared from fresh or raw ingredients without any processed or packaged ingredients. I can understand using frozen or canned vegetables, or a base for sauces but seriously, how hard is it to use all of this to prepare a pasta dish while the chicken gets done in the oven?
How can we do this better? Perhaps we could follow the rule that eating is an activity for a certain time and place, that means an end to never ending single serve snacks that ruin dinner, and it also means eating at the table with everyone or not at all. Everybody helps to prepare dinner, if the adult cuts the vegetables the older kids get to clean them, early graders can lay and clear the table, and everyone tries to appreciate and value the effort put in by the cook. It’s not that hard at all, we should give it a try.
Looking back on grocery budgets for a few years , you might notice that almost all the items cost more today. Sure, prices rise with time and the weird weather impacting harvests everywhere also has a role to play, but there is another underlying factor which is at work here. While commodities like corn or soy have historically been traded on exchanges, today the market is being changed by the entry of financial institutions and people that have no connection with the actual growing or selling of food. This type of trader deals in derivatives which are not positions on actual crops grown but some financial version of them. This means that the price of wheat, for example will not be influenced by the actual yield but speculation based on artificially created numbers. This creates much more volatility in the price of food grains than would normally be the case. The food system is already going to face the pressure of climate change, now we need to add to that an artificial and unnecessary pressure created by trading in commodity derivatives. It is precisely this type of speculation that fueled the disastrous housing bubble. That it should be permitted to function in the domain of food when nations and people are all struggling with food security is troubling. The chances of such speculation being stopped entirely are slim but some effort for regulation and oversight is crucial. For more reading:
And just as I was getting ready to post , news on futures trading in turmeric! It seems that in a time of continuing global economic crisis, speculators have decided to put their bets on food and that is an ominous development.
“But land is land, and it’s safer than the stocks and bonds of Wall Street swindlers.” —- Eugene O’Neill, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night
Today, though, land is not safe anymore as the increasing population, volatility of food prices and leveling off of yield is leading to a global rush to grab farmland before it runs out. Investors, agribusinesses and governments are buying up land mostly in less developed areas where the population can be easily displaced as land records are not easily available. Some of these may be communal lands , held in trust over centuries so when they are taken over, the community is displaced and scattered and deprived of a livelihood.
Recent reports show that approximately 203 million acres of land has been acquired and the top land grabbers include the UK, the USA, China and Saudi Arabia. In Cambodia, about 55% of the arable land is now under the control of agribusiness and foreign investors. The investors who make these deals often make promises about providing employment to local workers or introducing new technology but these are seldom fulfilled. And what about the actual crop that is grown? Chances are it would not be the traditional crop but one that is destined solely for export. In one case, Saudi Arabia decided to grow sorghum in Sudan, not for the Sudanese market where it is a food item, but for consumption by camels in their own country. As the decisions regarding crop choices changes, this might take food choices out of the market and exacerbate the problem of hunger in already vulnerable populations.
Last year’s drought in the US brought home the importance of water, a fact that will only become more evident as we deal with the impact of climate change. Land grabs also put this resource out of the public domain and into the hands of private investors. This presents a daunting challenge for poor rural populations depending on farming for a living. In future, they might have to pay extra for drinking and irrigation water.
How did we get here? Perhaps the first step was the morphing of agriculture into big business, the disconnect between profit and the provision of food on the table, and the second was the sad collusion of corrupt governments and predatory investors.This trend toward land grabs poses a grave challenge to food and livelihood security in the countries and communities where it occurs and also impacts what people elsewhere can put on their plates and how much they have to pay for it.
Posted in Climate Change, Farm Technology, Food Choices, Food Justice, Food Policy, Food Security, Green, Hunger, Living
Tagged climate change, Farming Technology, food decisions, food policy, food security, Green, Hunger, Living
Is anyone surprised by the news that Coca Cola’s Simply Orange product is somewhat different from slicing an orange and squeezing it? It seems that Coca Cola uses an algorithm (apparently also used by Delta to balance its books!) to prepare the juice, blending different batches to ensure uniformity of taste. The whole process is described as efficient and of course, for the consumer, very convenient.
Why is this story deemed unusual? Was anyone really expecting that what comes out of the carton is not subject to any processing at all? That is only possible if we prepare the juice ourselves by simply slicing and squeezing. This is the lack of clarity on the consumption side that I find mystifying. If we want convenience from a carton and we want it to be at a low price, then we will get processed juice. It is not exactly the same that we would get at home where the fresh burst of citrus flavor hits you as lift the glass to drink, but that would take some planning to ensure we have oranges to hand and a few more seconds to prepare than it takes to open a carton. We make our choice: time or convenience, both together are not possible and demanding that is unrealistic.
This much I can say, once you start with freshly squeezes juice, you will not want to pick up that carton! For this who have never tried it, this is how easy it is:
In keeping with my resolution to cook and eat in season, I have been trying to limit my tomato purchases. Still, I find myself gazing longingly at the piles of tomatoes at the grocery store. The price sticker shows the same price as it did over the summer. This puzzles me: should they not cost more as they are not in season? What determines the price of tomatoes anyway? It would include the cost of resources: seeds, water, fertilizers, labor, to start with. If any of these sees a rise in prices, tomatoes will cost more as well. So far land and water have not been an issue in the Unites States but with rising population and climate change these resources are the source of tension in many parts of the world. Farmland grabbing is now a major phenomenon on several continents.
Cheap labor has also helped to keep food prices low but as countries like Mexico improve the standards of living, the flow of migrant labor will slow down. Will there be enough people to meet the demand for farm labor in America? Farm work is hard and the wages are very low. One way to resolve this would be to ensure a fair wage for farm workers, this might induce some current unemployed workers to move into this sector. This would make the food system better by ensuring that it is just and that we are not in the position of watching fruit rot on trees as there is no labor to harvest them while children go to bed hungry.
This week something rare happened in the world. Something that is rare not just in the world of food, but in our lives in general. Mark Lynas, best known for his environmental work, announced that his anti-GMO position has been a mistake. He said that once he had actually read the research and investigated for himself he concluded that food policy should include genetic modification of crops. This is really rare: reflection on a position and the recognition in public that the position was a mistake and changed.
Most of the coverage on GMOs is negative and is often presented in a way that stirs fear in the minds of consumers, the most recent example being the Seralini rat study. Most of us also do not have the time to read up on the scientific research ourselves, but it does not follow that a technology that is difficult to access is dangerous. There is overwhelming evidence to support the case that GMOs are safe to use. I present a link here and will be happy to provide more in case you wish to research further.
The debate on this issue will continue but, (as has been noted here, and also here, and here) at least it can be conducted in a framework of facts, logic and reason rather than fear.
Posted in Farm Technology, Food Choices, Food Policy, Food Security, Green, Hunger, Living
Tagged Farming Technology, food decisions, food policy, food security, Green, Hunger, Living