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October 21, 2006

I found organic tomatoes!

The last few days I've been feeling sick on and off. It may be a stomach flu.* As such I have had little energy (or time, even, due to other circumstances) for writing here, but after a talk with a friend and a stop at the local market, I'm feeling rather energized.

It was quiet by the time I got to the market around 6:30 (and even quieter when I left!). It was just getting dark and they had the lights on outside. It was my first time being there or even seeing the place at night. It felt good, it smelled good, and the air was crisp and cool.

I was disappointed that the main item I was there for wasn't there; organic golden nugget potatoes that smelled like dirt and made incredible mashed potatoes. I regret not buying more at the time. I got local grown yukon gold, though, so even while they didn't smell like anything at all, I knew I was supporting a good venture. I did manage to get organic buttercup squash (to add to my organic kuri), and... ORGANIC TOMATOES!!! And they're only 70c more than the ones we usually buy, but the difference is striking. We usually get a pint of "cocktail" tomatoes (one out of over 6,000 varieties of tomatoes that exist). They tend to be better than the larger ones, but don't always taste great. Those are $2.29. Seems like a rip-off right? They last a long time, and are great for just throwing into your lunch box, so whatever. These organic ones are $2.99 (I didn't notice the price at the time), and I got one that weighed more. I was eager to have one when I got it home. Here's how it went.

"Gee, they sure look different from the regular ones." They have more of an orange tint to them and they all look different. Some of them are split, but that's ok, I'll just eat those first. I smelled the one I picked up... ohhh yeah. Smells like a tomato alright. There is truly nothing like the smell of the stem or stalk of a tomato/tomato plant. It gets on your fingers, and when you're handling them a lot it stains your fingers yellow. The tomato smelled divine. Seeing as I've already used devine, I'm going to have to pull out the thesaurus to find a descriptor for how it tasted... HEAVENLY.

Fairly akin to the "YEAH!!!" that my boyfriend just shouted upon the Canucks' goal against Nashville. Anyway.

OH MY GOSH. I could not BELIEVE how good it tasted! I've had plenty of home-grown tomatoes before, but my god, it was delicious. I could just eat them all right now!

My next step is to test them on boyfriend and to test them against the regular "matoes." And photograph them.

I'm still thrilled about finding them and don't feel too bad about paying $3 when the usual ones are hardly less. Someone else picked up bigger tomatoes that were pale and didn't look very good, and who knows how they taste... it seems tomatoes bred for the mass market can either be bright red or pale red or orange-red, but are all tasteless.

I've also managed to finally get a hold of Thomas Pawlick's The End of Food. I've read the first 12 pages and wish I could just share the whole thing with you right here, but I can't, so I'll just say that if you can find a copy, get it! It will truly open your eyes to what's happening to mass-produced food, and to how good REAL food tastes. It's written in a very personal fashion, and the best part, I think, is that Pawlick doesn't just talk about the problems... he talks about solutions.

Today's shopping list:
- green peppers (grown without sprays in BC) - $0.69/lb
- red peppers - weekend sale at a stunning $0.59/lb
- nantes carrots - $0.49/lb (they had their own local ones but I didn't want 2 lbs!)
- yellow peppers - $0.99/lb (usually $1.29)
- yukon gold potatoes, local grown - $0.49/lb (haha, I got almost 2lbs of potatoes for less than $1!)
- organic, local buttercup squash, $0.59/lb
- organic, local cherry tomatoes, $2.99/pint (not sure of the weight, sorry)
- 2x Ragu original pasta sauce, $3.98

Chances are the tomatoes in the sauce are from California.
Check this out:

Per 1/2 cup (125mL):

Sodium: 720mg - 30% of the daily value!
Carbohydrate: 11g
Protein: 1g
Fat: 0.5g
Vitamin A - a mere 8% of the DV!
Vitamin C - even worse, only 4%
Calcium - 2%
Iron - 6%

V8 juice is much the same.

Any why are vitamins and minerals so low in something that logically should contain tons of it? Because corporate breeders don't consider nutrition, or even flavour, priorities when choosing and growing tomatoes. It's not even on their list.

More on this later.

*The "stomach flu" was diagnosed as gastritis: stress causes increased stomach acid, then causing irritation to the stomach. Not fun!

October 19, 2006

"Think About What You Eat"

Article from the Montreal Gazette featured in The Vancouver Sun, July 1, 2006. Republished with permission.

Hidden problems with our food supply mean meals aren't as nourishing as they seem. Three books weigh the ethical and nutritional implications of industrial food production

We are processed corn, walking, says Michael Pollan. In The Omnivore's Dilemma, he deconstructs four mealtime scenarios — fast food, "industrial organic," local organic and foraged meals — and manages to enlighten, and often disturb, with his discoveries about each one.

The reference to corn originates in its role as one of the commodity crops that has turned North American agriculture into a blitzkrieg of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, industrial machinery and soil-eroding monocultures.

Only a small percentage of corn is consumed directly. Most is eaten in the form of chicken, pork, beef, eggs, milk and more.

Take those ubiquitous Chicken McNuggets. Not only are the chickens corn-fed, there's corn in the additives, the starches and the oils.

Snack foods, soft drinks — they're made from corn.

"We eat something like 56 pounds of high-fructose corn-syrup sweetener every year," Pollan told interviewer Blair Golson of "When you're drinking that soda, you're really drinking quite a bit of corn."

The story of corn is one of many Pollan tells in this book, a personal journey based on massive scholarship. It's a natural follow-up to his acclaimed 2001 book, The Botany of Desire, in which he proposed that plants are far from being passive participants in co-evolution.

We have so many choices because we're able to eat just about anything, writes Pollan, who also teaches journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. Yet we have become strangers to the things we eat.

No wonder so many North Americans, overfed yet undernourished, have such dysfunctional relationships with food.

"What I try to do in this book," he writes, "is approach the dinner question as a naturalist might, using the long lenses of ecology and anthropology, as well as the shorter, more intimate lens of personal experience."

A curious observer in the feedlot, on the grasslands and, finally, on a hunt for wild boar, he offers trenchant commentary and at-times exquisite prose. There are dozens of sentences and paragraphs that are worth a second read.

Corn seems a benign force, just a crop that covers hundreds of thousands of acres of farm fields — until you think back to the result of Ireland's monoculture in the 19th century (the potato blight that caused a million deaths by starvation) and until Pollan begins to investigate the use of corn feed for cattle through the short life of a young steer he bought and followed in an award-winning New York Times Magazine story.

After six months in the fields with its mother, the steer was sent to the feedlot to be fattened in record time, on corn.

Trouble is, cattle are ruminants, meant to eat grass. Corn effectively ruins their health, so they're filled with antibiotics that harm both eaten and eater.

We are pawns, Pollan argues, of agribusiness, of those huge conglomerates happy to offer sweet treats and otherwise empty calories.

He then investigates large-scale organic farming, which, he discovers, has been modelled on industrial agribusiness. This is "supermarket pastoral."

He raises questions about the meaning of "free-range" when animals are housed in huge sheds, and about the logic of using vast amounts of fossil-fuel energy to transport organic lettuce and eggs. He asks: Isn't "industrial organic" a contradiction in terms?

The most benevolent of the meals he consumes is based on grass. "Sustainably raised meat is ecologically a very positive thing for the environment, for the grasslands," he writes.

"Without animals on farms, you'd need artificial fertilizer because you wouldn't have manure to compost. So I think truly sustainable agriculture depends on animals in relation to plants."


Other half of the article coming soon.

October 18, 2006

"The Food We Eat"

The David Suzuki Foundation has released a report titled "The Food We Eat: An International Comparison of Pesticide Regulations." It reveals that Canadian standards for pesticide amounts on our food is hundreds to over a thousand times the amount allowed in Europe. This article posted on Sympatico/MSN (October 5, 2006) offers a frustrating rebuttal from Alain Charette of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

He said for the past two decades there has been a 99 per cent compliance rate for pesticide use and quick action taken on the one per cent that has an excessive amount of pesticide.

"Sample comparisons done by the Suzuki Foundation have compared our testing results with the (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)," Charette said.

"The proper comparison should have been done with the (Food and Drug Administration). The foundation is comparing apples to oranges."

What, exactly, constitutes "excessive"?

Let me share with you something I just read about the Food and Drug Administration, about approvals. From The Hundred-Year Lie: How Food and Medicine Are Destroying Your Health, by Randall Fitzgerald:

Many people want to believe that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration protects them from anything dangerous in our drug or food supplies. The fact is that when the FDA approves a new drug for public use it has not studied that drug's safety. The agency relies upon safety information from the drug manufacturers to make its apporval decisions. Nor does the FDA test the safety of ingredients in cosmetics and personal-care products.

It just does not make sense to me that any amount of pesticide use could be deemed safe. It's chemicals. They're not supposed to be in our bodies. Even banned substances such as DDT are turning up in kids years after the substances were banned. What do these chemicals, even in small amounts, do together when they build up inside our bodies?

The Suzuki report describes Europe as being light-years ahead of us in terms of protecting consumer health. They don't allow GMOs over there. I wonder what their cancer rates are like?

Download the report in PDF from the David Suzuki Foundation website.

October 17, 2006

Hello, Neighbour! + Grad project overview

I delivered the first set of my neighbourhood questionnaire yesterday evening, while waiting for the rest of them to print off. (Might have taken longer than photocopying, but it was easier to read and not messy.) I don't know how many responses I'll get, but if you happen to be here because you received my survey on your doorstep, welcome!

This post will give you a bit more insight into my grad project and the issues surrounding the decline of food quality in North America, also called The End of Food, so named by Canadian author Thomas Pawlick. I stress that it is not a doomsday book so much as an encouragement to make changes in your lifestyle to counteract the changes in industry.

What are the changes in industry? Well, the U.S. Government has known about it for decades, but supposedly at the behest of food processing companies, the findings were concealed from the public. The fact of the matter is that while companies growing, manufacturing, and processing foods are serving their best interests by earning money, they are at the same time reducing the quality of food they sell to us, the consumers. By quality, I mean the nutritional content and the taste, not to mention other senses: smell, touch, sound, and sight.

Essentially, as my secondary research indicates, all foods have lost nutritional value over the last 50 to 100 years, due to farming practises that, for example, deplete soil nutrients. In addition, in 1998, 55% of foods sampled in a test contained pesticides. I'd hate to think of what that number is now, as the chemicals used on foods continues to increase. Why should you care? You should care because the drop in food quality has a significant impact on our risk of getting cancer. Combine that with all the toxins in our environment and our bodies, and the body is left rather defenseless against cancer prevention. Again, why should you care? Because statistics say that 1 in 3 Canadians will develop cancer, and if it isn't you, it could be your mother, your father, sibling, or best friend. My family recently lost one of our best friends to cancer, and while the rest of us are reasonably healthy, still we are not immune to its effects.

1 in 3. In 1900 (in the US), cancer affected 3% of the population, not 33%. While funding is pouring into finding cures, where is the funding for prevention? Prevention can start with you: choose foods that have been grown organically and locally. Tomatoes that are grown to be shipped by truck long distances are bred to be beefy and hard. You'll notice the difference when you look at and taste a non-organic tomato versus an organic one. When buying local, it's possible to find produce that has been grown without sprays, and it is entirely likely that you'll find organic produce that is the same price as non-organic!.

What my project aims to do is raise and increase awareness about the degradation of our food quality. I would also like to encourage people to discuss these issues with others. Hopefully through these two measures, we can lobby lower levels of government, where people have a voice. The burden on health care will otherwise keep growing, and that is one thing the government needs to realise.

The burdens on our health are more far-reaching than whether produce is organic or not. Further issues include flavourings, colourings, and preservatives which have been shown to impact student performance AND hyperactivity, the consequences of which are far-reaching. Other issues are processed foods, other additives, packaging, and storing methods. I'm sure between this blog and the one that will be featured in my project will cover most of these topics over the coming months.

For more information on organic foods, please view my project from last semester, a website titled o: organic produce. I have learned much since then, but it will give you an overview of just why it is so important for your health, and that of the environment, to choose organic produce whenever possible.

I am a 21-year-old student with a limited budget, and I have all the reasons in the world to reduce my grocery bill, but I'm finding that cheaper isn't always better when it comes to sacrificing quality... and sometimes more expensive doesn't mean better, either! I can buy locally-grown produce and organic produce at the same price as other products at my local market. (The only exception is bananas which are 57c/lb at Safeway, or 56c at Superstore, but those ones went brown before they went ripe! However, organic bananas at my market are only 59c.)

I'd like to make a point of saying this project is less about encouraging people to change their habits and routines (a very difficult thing, I know!), and more about fighting for the right to unconditionally good food, no matter who you are, where you live, or the choices you make. Everyone should simply be sold only quality food without chemicals. At that point, it's your choice whether you choose local, or choose farm markets because their prices are lower. (Marion Nestle's Food Politics shows on page 18 a diagram of the cost distribution of the US food dollar: "80% of food expenditures go to categories other than the "farm value" of the food itself. (Source: USDA FoodReview 2000;23(3):27-30)". 20% is the farm value, and the rest is the marketing bill, including labour (39c), packaging (8c), transportation (4c), energy (3.5c), advertising (4c), etc. Now that's food for thought!)

If you are interested in contributing articles, personal experiences, or other writings to my project blog (or this one!), please leave a comment below or send me an email via the menu link above. I would love to hear from you!