I never ate beets as a kid—my mom, who was the cook in our house, can’t stand ‘em—but I came to love them as an adult. Those marvelous red (and golden, and striped, and more) root veggies are delicious.
But, there’s a variety of beets that go through extensive processing before we eat them. The sugar beet, as I recently learned from an episode of “How It’s Made,” is a major commodity crop that goes through a complex series of mechanical and biochemical steps to become white sugar and other sweeteners. (It’s from season 9, episode 10 of How It’s Made; if you don’t have access to full episodes on Netflix or elsewhere, you can watch a 2-minute excerpt on beet sugar at the program’s website, on YouTube, or below.) Beet sugar is, in fact, the source of more sugar production in the U.S. than sugarcane.
The USDA blog recently touted the fact that researchers are using sugar beet pulp, a byproduct of producing sugar from the root vegetable, to produce biodegradable containers:
America’s sugar industry piles up 1 million tons annually of the leftover beet pulp, so there’s no shortage of that ingredient for the new product. The PLA [polylactic acid, the biodegradable polymer that's combined with beet pulp] can be made from sugars in corn, sugarcane, switchgrass and other renewable feedstocks. The [USDA Agricultural Research Service] scientists say you can use up to 50 percent sugar beet pulp in the thermoplastic mixture and still get a finished product with properties similar to those of polystyrene and polypropylene, the compounds now used to make food containers.
That’s not all: The scientists can combine the sugar beet pulp with water or glycerol to create a different type of thermoplastic that could find a new life as yogurt cups, cottage cheese tubs, and bags. In that formulation, the recipe could be up to 98 percent sugar beet pulp.
For more on sugar beets, head to this page from Michigan State University, which notes, “Not all sugar beets are processed into sugar…. Beet pulp is used as cattle feed and dog food. Molasses, a byproduct of processing, is used to make citric acid, vinegar, yeast and antibiotics.”
This past weekend Chicago-area locavores had a chance to partake of the city’s first Urban Livestock Expo. Urban chicken consultant Jennifer Murtoff describes the event at her blog as “a smashing success, with a huge crowd of over 200 people…. The standing-room-only crowd gathered for information on keeping bees, goats, chickens, and rabbits in the city.” I didn’t make the trip down from Madison (I don’t think my fellow condo owners would get on board with livestock on the property), but local media outlets have run some related stories recently.
WBEZ’s Lewis Wallace takes a trip to the West Side to visit the home of one small-scale urban farmer. As the print version of her story describes,
From the street, Carolyn Ioder’s house on the western side of the Austin neighborhood looks pretty normal. It’s a large off-white stucco with an American flag hanging out front and a big trampoline crammed into a fenced-in backyard.
It’s the sounds from the garage that give it away. Inside her two-car garage, Ioder keeps one car, six goats and a small coop full of chickens. The animals live here year-round, and Ioder takes the goats to pasture daily in a vacant lot down the street. She has the owner’s permission, and she gets water for the goats from the Chicago fire station at the end of the alley.
“Goats are such flock animals, they like to be with each other but they’re also extremely bossy,” said Ioder, wrangling the goats onto leashes for their daily walk to pasture.
Then, if you’re more of a fan of local TV morning news than public radio, check out a visit by a reporter to one Chicago resident’s backyard chicken coop. In keeping with the classic morning news format, the story is spread across three separate segments, which you can find here, here, and here. Chicken expert Murtoff, along with the owner of a small flock of Black Australorps, are featured.
Awhile back, I posted about the (thus-far unsuccessful) efforts of two Girl Scouts to get palm oil removed from Scouts’ cookies, since worldwide demand for palm oil is leading to deforestation and resulting habit loss for endangered animals like orangutans.
Palm oil continues to become a major commodity crop, with complex implications for localities where it is raised. Yesterday the PBS NewsHour ran an informative piece examining the issue from special correspondent Steve Sapienza, as part of a collaboration with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. As Sapienza describes,
In Malaysia’s Sabah province, migrant workers hustle to keep up with the rising global demand for palm oil. Made from the fruit of oil palm tree, it is now found in more than half of all the products sold in U.S. supermarkets, from cookies to cosmetics.
This labor-intensive work has changed little since the 1960s, when the government first pushed the expansion of palm oil production. Today, palm oil is Malaysia’s top crop, netting $25 billion dollars a year, and driving the spread of palm oil plantations into the wilderness….
One big reason the oil is so cheap to produce is the steady supply of migrant labor. The palm oil sector relies on some 500,000 foreign workers to feed global demand for the product and fuel Malaysia’s economic prosperity….
More of the world’s working children are employed in agriculture than in any other sector, according to the International Labor Organization. In Sabah, surveys show that more than half of the children without schooling end up working as child laborers.
For more details, including one bright spot — a collaboration between a plantation and an NGO to provide schooling for farm workers’ children — head here for the streaming video, along with an MP3 audio version and full transcript of the story.
Another report yesterday from the Sapienza’s fellow Pulitzer Center grantee describes how pesticide use in Malaysia’s palm oil production is resulting in the deaths of pygmy elephants. As Jason Motlagh reports for The Christian Science Monitor‘s Global News Blog,
A rare breed of elephant appears to be the latest casualty of the palm oil boom that is sweeping Malaysian Borneo, reigniting an already heated debate over the pros and cons of the world’s cheapest cooking oil.
Malaysian wildlife officials say 14 dead pygmy elephants were found last month in the wilds of Sabah Province, apparently poisoned by chemicals used by farmers to keep pests from eating the palm fruit grown on plantations that blanket vast swaths of the countryside.
As if that weren’t troubling enough, Morlagh notes that
A joint study published in October by Stanford and Yale universities revealed that land-clearing operations for plantations in Borneo have emitted more than 140 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions in 2010 alone, equal to annual emissions from about 28 million vehicles. Over the past two decades, about 6,200 sq. mi. of primary and logged forested land have been destroyed in Borneo.
Next time you’re in the grocery store, check an ingredient list or two; you might be surprised where you find palm oil.
Denise Sakaki recently had a nice post over at Honest Cooking. In it, she interviews a former vegetarian turned conscientious omnivore. As Sakaki describes in her introduction,
Like many people who have taken the time to carefully consider their dietary choices, Jane has been a vegetarian for several years, but recently, she made the decision to become an omnivore. It seems like an unusual decision, but her reasoning is heartfelt and educated, and potentially a sign that others are making similar choices, based on the movement towards improved farming practices. This person’s story is not an argument for or against certain dietary principles, it’s an intelligent viewpoint into being aware of how livestock are cared for, and how that affects our health of body and mind, as well as an inspiration for us all to consider feasting responsibly.
It’s a nice piece that captures one individual’s process of thinking through her beliefs about food that comes from animals. As Jane puts it herself,
My life up until now as a pescetarian, vegetarian and vegan helped me gain extensive knowledge about nutrition and cooking without the use of animal products. Having not had meat in the equation for so long allows me to stay away from the all too common mentality that a meal isn’t complete without meat. Meat is a privilege and a treat. I hope that as our society progresses, more and more people learn about where their food comes from and the importance of eating consciously.
Head here for the full piece.
Author and advocate Anna Lappé had a great post at Grist last week. In it, she featured Michele Simon‘s recent report, And Now a Word from Our Sponsors: Are America’s Nutrition Professionals in the Pocket of Big Food?
As Lappé describes,
In her report, Simon documents how the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), a 74,000-member trade group, has longstanding partnerships with dozens of food companies, including Coke, Hershey’s, and more. Since 2001, the academy has tripled the number of food-industry sponsors listed in its annual report. Perhaps most shocking to me was the engagement of food corporations to run continuing education units for academy members. All AND members are required to take educational courses every year, and many of the approved food-industry providers include companies like Coca-Cola, Kraft Foods, Nestlé, and PepsiCo. It also turns out that many of the corporate-sponsored courses are offered for free.
In part of her report, Simon describes some of her experiences at AND’s annual conference last year. Her encounters at booths of the Corn Refiners Association—in attendance to promote high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) to dieticians and nutritionists—and others are emblematic of the problem:
Reasonable people can disagree about the science of HFCS versus other sweeteners, but the problem is, the rep at this booth was not sharing impartial research. Rather, he was a paid consultant only telling one side of the story. This scene was repeated over and over at booth after booth. The companies with booths at FNCE [the Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo] weren’t just there to promote their food products and spin them as good for you; many of them were also there to spin the scientific research in their favor. For example, the American Beverage Association, a lobbying group representing companies such as Coca-Cola, had a booth promoting its PR campaign called “Clear on Calories.” The trade group also had numerous “fact sheets” on how sugary soft drinks don’t contribute to obesity. There is plenty of research countering this view, but where were those fact sheets?
Head here for Lappé’s piece, which includes a number of great links (including one to the PDF of Simon’s compelling report) along with a bit of optimism (“It’s encouraging to know that many members of AND are concerned about the impact of this corporate sponsorship on their profession …”).
Last summer I posted about how the rising popularity of quinoa, the South American protein-rich grain, was making it hard for farmers in Peru and Bolivia to afford the traditional foodstuff. More recently, I posted about how quinoa farms are coming to the United States. These issues and more got some attention in the last couple weeks in The Guardian.
It kicked off with a piece from Joanna Blythman with the provocative headline, “Can vegans stomach the unpalatable truth about quinoa?” She writes,
The appetite of countries such as ours for this grain has pushed up prices to such an extent that poorer people in Peru and Bolivia, for whom it was once a nourishing staple food, can no longer afford to eat it. Imported junk food is cheaper. In Lima, quinoa now costs more than chicken. Outside the cities, and fuelled by overseas demand, the pressure is on to turn land that once produced a portfolio of diverse crops into quinoa monoculture. In fact, the quinoa trade is yet another troubling example of a damaging north-south exchange, with well-intentioned health and ethics-led consumers here unwittingly driving poverty there….
[I]n the case of quinoa, there’s a ghastly irony when the Andean peasant’s staple grain becomes too expensive at home because it has acquired hero product status among affluent foreigners preoccupied with personal health, animal welfare and reducing their carbon “foodprint”. Viewed through a lens of food security, our current enthusiasm for quinoa looks increasingly misplaced.
Given the tone of the piece, it’s no surprise that vegans and conscientious omnivores responded forcefully. Mimi Bekhechi, Associate Director of PETA UK, had her say last week. Her post opens this way:
It is ironic that in the wake of the Tesco horse burger scandal, writer Joanna Blythman would attempt to scare us off healthy crops such as quinoa and portray meat eaters as eco heroes. Our burgers and bangers hold their share of dark secrets – and they don’t just lie in the origin of the animals whose flesh is ground up and extruded into patties and links, although those secrets are plenty dark enough. They also lie in the tremendous waste and environmental havoc wreaked by the meat industry.
Bolivian villagers aren’t the only ones faced with the prospect of going hungry. It is estimated that more than 850 million people worldwide do not have enough to eat. But the solution to this crisis does not lie in abstaining from quinoa (whose meteoric rise in popularity cannot be attributed solely to vegans, many of whom have never touched the stuff) and other healthy vegan foods. According to Worldwatch, it is animal agriculture that is the real villain because meat consumption is an inefficient use of grain – the grain is used more efficiently when consumed directly by humans. Growth in meat output requires feeding grain to animals, creating competition for grain between affluent meat eaters and the world’s poor.
A few days later, Tom Philpott of Mother Jones weighed in. I’m a big Philpott fan, and he doesn’t disappoint here. If you only read one of the three pieces, I suggest his, which tackles the quinoa question with care and recognizes the complexity in all our modern eating choices. As he puts it,
So can people like me, who prefer to avoid foods that are environmentally and socially destructive, eat it with a clear conscience? Not entirely. In a short period of time, quinoa has gone from a local staple to a global commodity. “When you transform a food into a commodity, there’s inevitable breakdown in social relations and high environmental cost,” as Tanya Kerssen, an analyst for Oakland-based Food First told Time last year.
But that doesn’t mean we should stop eating quinoa; it just means we shouldn’t eat quinoa without thinking it through.
Head here for his full piece.
Amy Mayer’s recent piece for Harvest Public Media examines a current proposal to change the USDA’s poultry inspection system. She writes,
Retired federal inspector Phyllis McKelvey spent 44 years looking for blemishes and other defects on chicken carcasses. She started as an inspector’s helper, worked her way up, and in 1998, became part of a U.S. Department of Agriculture trial.
“I was one of the first group of inspectors ever put on HIMP,” she said in an interview from her home in north Alabama.
Fourteen years later, the HIMP* [see footnote below] inspection system is at the center of controversial new regulations proposed by the USDA for chicken and turkey processors. It’s all part of an attempt to modernize an inspection system that dates back to 1950s-era poultry law….
For links and a map of federally inspected poultry plants, as well as audio and print versions of Mayer’s full piece, head here.
The USDA program garnered attention and generated controversy last spring. Although it isn’t on the front pages today, the story continues. Three recent guest editorials at the website of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution help give a sense of some of the competing views. As moderator Rick Badie describes,
The USDA wants to reduce the number of chicken plant inspectors and increase line speeds that process and inspect carcasses to 175 birds per minute from 140. Critics, including two of today’s guest columnists, have cried foul with concerns about poultry worker safety and consumers of chicken products. A Georgia poultry executive defends the modernization of processing lines in an industry that contributes $18.4 billion a year to the state economy.
Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director of Food & Water Watch, writes in her contribution that
The USDA readily admits that the poultry industry will stand to earn an additional $260 million per year by removing the cap on line speeds, and tries to explain away the risk of contamination by promoting the use of a chemical cocktail at the end of the slaughter process. Companies are allowed to use chlorine, tri-sodium phosphate (used to clean cement) and hypobromous acid (used to clean swimming pools) to treat poultry for salmonella and to sterilize feces that might still be on carcasses.
The proposed rule puts company employees in the role of protecting consumer safety, but does not require them to receive any training or prove proficiency in performing duties normally performed by government inspectors who are required to take training before they are assigned to the slaughter line.
Lack of training is not the only impact this rule will have on workers. Increasing line speeds will have a negative impact on worker safety….
All three editorials are worth a read, so check them out here.
*Harvest Public Media translates this serving of classic bureaucratic alphabet soup: “HIMP stands for HACCP-based Inspection Models Program. HACCP stands for Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points, a method of identifying potential problem areas and maintaining written plans for managing the risks they present.”
The Atlantic recently ran Scott Douglas’s interview with Bee Wilson, author of Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat. The book examines many of the technologies throughout human history that have assisted in the preparation and consumption of foodstuffs and, in doing so, changed cultures and lives. Consider, for example, some of the dangers that cooking with fire has posed:
The big cauldron was heated over an indoor fire that, you write, was the center of the typical home. What happened after the hearth was replaced by a more removed kitchen?
One change is fewer accidental deaths from young children toddling into fires by mistake or women’s billowing skirts catching ablaze as they cooked. Women were particularly at risk from open hearths, on account of the terrible combination of billowing skirts, trailing sleeves, open flames, and bubbling cauldrons. With the emergence of enclosed brick chimneys and cast iron fire grates in the 17th century, many more women became professional cooks: At last they could cook with only a minimal risk of setting fire to themselves.
For more, check out reviews of the book. For example, Dawn Drzal asks in The New York Times,
“Which comes first, the stir-fry or the wok?” It may sound like a bad joke, but the answer holds the key to one of the world’s great cuisines. Bee Wilson’s supple, sometimes playful style in “Consider the Fork,” a history of the tools and techniques humans have invented to feed themselves, cleverly disguises her erudition in fields from archaeology and anthropology to food science. Only when you find yourself rattling off statistics at the dinner table will you realize how much information you’ve effortlessly absorbed….
So, which does come first, the stir-fry or the wok? Wilson’s answer is, “Neither.” To solve the riddle, we have to take a step back and contemplate cooking fuel: firewood was scarce, and with a wok you could cook more quickly after chopping food into bite-size morsels with a tou, or Chinese cleaver. Chopsticks were also part of this “symbiosis.”
[Wilson's] argument is clear and persuasive. Changes in food technology change what can be prepared as a meal, thus changing what is habitually eaten, and often spurring wider social changes. The first clay cooking pots, Wilson says, allowed the invention of soups, which meant that more humans could survive into adulthood even if they had lost all their teeth. Other developments analysed here, with a consistent scholarly grace, include the blunt table knife, the gas hob, and the refrigerator.
Buy the book at fine booksellers everywhere, or do as I just did and check out the print or electronic book from your local library. In the meantime, take a look at the lovely promotional video for the book that features Wilson giving a brief overview of her work.
Earlier this week, Helene Stapinski wrote a piece for The New York Times on how some restaurants are responding to the growing trend of diners taking photos of their meals. As she begins,
When it comes to people taking photographs of their meals, the chef David Bouley has seen it all. There are the foreign tourists who, despite their big cameras, tend to be very discreet. There are those who use a flash and annoy everyone around them. There are those who come equipped with gorillapods — those small, flexible tripods to use on their tables.
There are even those who stand on their chairs to shoot their plates from above.
“We get on top of those folks right away or else it’s like a circus,” Mr. Bouley said.
Bouley has a clever, generous solution (check out Stapinski’s article for details), but others aren’t so accommodating. For example,
Moe Issa, the owner of Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare, said he banned photography several months after opening when it became too much of a distraction to the other diners at his 18-seat restaurant.
“Some people are arrogant about it,” he said. “They don’t understand why. But we explain that it’s one big table and we want the people around you to enjoy their meal. They pay a lot of money for this meal. It became even a distraction for the chef.”
Mr. Bouley said table photography “totally disrupts the ambience.”
“It’s a disaster in terms of momentum, settling into the meal, the great conversation that develops,” he said. “It’s hard to build a memorable evening when flashes are flying every six minutes.”
First world problems? Yes, but a photo prohibition seems like a choice a restauranteur should be able to make if she or he chooses, even it seems snooty.
I admit to a certain minor discomfort that I have when I find myself snapping photos for a blog post. I’m not one who relishes being an object of scrutiny, and however discreetly one manages to snap a pic (I’ve never stood on a chair!), the act does tend to draw a bit of attention. That said, I don’t generally find it that problematic when other diners feel compelled to document their dishes, though I’ve never seen anyone go quite as crazy as the Flickr junkies shown in the photo.
To hark back to yesterday’s post, I wonder whether the ban on photography, at least at high-end restaurants, is partly an attempt to speak a message about cultural capital, i.e., “If the occasion of your dining here is such a special event that you must memorialize it in photos, you are probably too low-brow to be dining in our fine establishment anyway.”
What say you, dear reader? Do you find your restaurant meals befouled by distracting food photogs at surrounding tables (or perhaps your own)? Or could you not care less? And is this just another of those occasional irritating examples of the NYT offering an article on a rather inane topic that might garner eyeballs on the web but makes little substantive contribution to social discourse? Please add your 2¢ in the comments.
Although my day job keeps me busy in academia, I’m mostly removed from sociology, which was my primary area of study back in the day. So, I was pleased to get a dose of the old “sōsh” yesterday when I came across Molly Watson’s piece on Pierre Bourdieu’s “food space”. I didn’t read much Bourdieu as an undergrad or grad student, but I know he made big waves among many late 20th century examiners of culture.
Bourdieu chose to make it his life’s work to debunk the powerful classes’ pretensions that they were more deserving of authority or wealth than those below. He aimed his critiques first at his own class of elites — professors and intellectuals — then at the media, the political class and the propertied class.
“Distinction,” published in 1979, was an undisputed masterwork. In it, Bourdieu set out to show the social logic of taste: how admiration for art, appreciation of music, even taste in food, came about for different groups, and how “superior” taste was not the result of an enchanted superiority in scattered individuals….
Taste is not stable and peaceful, but a means of strategy and competition. Those superior in wealth use it to pretend they are superior in spirit. Groups closer in social class who yet draw their status from different sources use taste and its attainments to disdain one another and get a leg up.
While the focus of Greif’s essay is the cultural phenomenon of the hipster, Watson’s piece updates Bourdieu’s two-dimensional graphing of French food preferences decades ago for 21st century US. There are things to quibble with in her specific rendering (see the comments that have been posted for some valid critiques, alongside the usual internet hot air), but there’s plenty of food for thought.
As she begins,
In college, a Xeroxed copy of this graph hung on our refrigerator, so taken were my housemates and I with Pierre Bourdieu’s assessment of food in Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1979). Food-specific coverage takes up just 23 pages of the 604-page tome, but it was the early 1990s and sex and gender and studies of the body were all the rage, so passages like “[t]astes in food also depend on the idea each class has of the body and of the effects of food on the body, that is, on its strength, health, and beauty… It follows that the body is the most indisputable materialization of class taste” blew us away, just as the notion that our love of Ethiopian food and yogurt said as much about our class, education, and social status as it did about our taste buds unnerved us.
Check out her full post at Gastronomica, including a graphic with various food preferences mapped on axes of economic and cultural capital. Then consider where you might position some of your own favorites on the map and ponder how your, my, and everyone else’s food choices have been shaped by our social position.