Category Archives: Food System

Here’s What Many Fruits and Vegetables Looked Thousands of Years Ago

My Modern Met – Jessica Stewart on August 21, 2019

Photo: Stock Photos from leonori/Shutterstock

There’s a lot of talk these days about GMOs and trying to eat more natural foods, but the concept of manipulating crops has been around since ancient times. Of course, the type of genetic modification practiced to transform wild organisms into domesticated crops is quite different than the genetic engineering of today. But still, you’d be surprised by how different many of the common fruits and vegetables we take for granted today are the product of selective genetics.

Early farmers weren’t modifying their crops to resist pesticides, but rather selectively growing them to highlight their most desirable attributes. That often meant bigger and juicier produce, some of which is impossible to find in the wild. So while today a ripe, plump peach is the norm, the reality is that they were once salty and small, with very little flesh. Tomatoes and cucumbers are two other common produce items that have seen exponential growth in size and variety over time.

Common fruits and veggies have undergone a makeover over the centuries. Check out some interesting examples of just how different undomesticated produce can look.

PEACH

Peach Cut in Half with Pit

Photo: Stock Photos from Kovaleva_Ka/Shutterstock

The modern peach has origins in China dating back to the neolithic period, with evidence pointing to their domestication around 6000 BCE. Australian chemistry teacher James Kennedy created an eye-opening infographic highlighting some of the differences between the original, natural peach and the one we find today. Not only were peaches much smaller, but their skin was waxy and the pit took up most of the space within the fruit. Over time, the best peaches were selected to create the soft, fleshy skin and succulent flesh we now associate with the refreshing fruit.

Evolution of the Peach

Photo: James Kennedy

CORN

History of Corn

Photo: Stock Photos from Zeljko Radojko/Shutterstock

Yet another crop that’s undergone an amazing transformation is corn. First domesticated by the indigenous people of Mexico about 10,000 years ago, wild corn bears little resemblance to what we now see in the produce aisle. Corn’s origins have been linked to a grassy flowering plant called teosinte. Only one cob sprouted per teosinte plant, growing around one inch long. Unlike the hundreds of kernels found today on a cob, a teosinte has only 5 to 10 individually encased kernels on its cob. The taste was also much more starchy, like a potato. Over time, farmers worked the plant to become much longer, easier to peel, and with more plentiful and sweeter kernels. This infographic helps explain corn’s evolution into today’s popular food item.

Development of Corn

Photo: Nicolle Rager Fuller, National Science Foundation

BANANA

Ripe Banana

Photo: Stock Photos from bitt24/Shutterstock

Packed with nutrients and covered with a peel-able flesh, the conveniently shaped banana may seem like the perfect fruit. But the reality is that the banana as we now know it is the product of hard work. Cultivation began sometime between 5000 BCE and 8000 BCE thanks to farmers in Southeast Asia and Papua New Guinea. One wild ancestor, the Musa acuminata, has slender fruit, which are berries, and contain between 15 to 62 seeds. Another Musa balbisiana has a more substantial looking fruit that is filled with hard, inedible seeds. It’s thought that these two plants were bred to produce a hearty fruit that, over time, contained just the edible pulp, eliminating the seeds.

Interior of unripened wild banana. (Photo: Warut Roonguthai [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons)

EGGPLANT

Eggplant Varieties

Photo: Stock Photos from PosiNote/Shutterstock

A wide variety of different cultivators are used to produce eggplant to local tastes. The purple eggplant, with its long and ovoid shape, is most common to Europe and North America. Across Asia and India, a huge variety of sizes and colors—including white, yellow, and green—are readily available. As part of the nightshade family, it’s believed to have its origins in the Solanum incanum. Also known as bitter apple or thorn apple, this plant still grows in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East.

Solanum incanum

Solanum incanum. (Photo: Nepenthes [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons)

WATERMELON

Watermelon

Photo: Stock Photos from 5 Second Studio/Shutterstock

Most are familiar with the 20th-century advent of the seedless watermelon, but this is just the latest development in a long line of changes to the fruit. 17th-century still life paintings demonstrate just how different ripe watermelons looked, with a segmented interior that contained much less flesh. It even appears much paler in comparison to what we see today. The classic watermelon red that’s synonymous with the fruit is due to the presence of lycopene. Natural watermelons were selectively bred to increase the amount of lycopene in the fruit’s placenta—the part we eat. Check out this infographic to see even more differences between the watermelons of yesterday and today.

“Pineapple, watermelons and other fruits” by Albert Eckhout, 17th century. (Brazilian fruits) (Photo: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

CARROT

Where Do Carrots Come From?

Photo: Stock Photos from Olga Bondarenko/Shutterstock

If you’ve ever seen Queen Anne’s Lace growing wild on the side of the road, you may not have realized that this flowering plant is the forerunner of the domesticated carrot. Daucus carota is the scientific name of this plant, and while its root is edible when young, it soon becomes too woody to be consumed. Its leaves may also cause a skin inflammation known as phytophotodermatitis.

The modern carrot is a subspecies of Daucus carota that most likely originated in Persia. Over time it was selectively bred to reduce woodiness and bitterness. Interestingly, they were first used more for their leaves than the root. By the 11th century, they were already being described as red or yellow and their popularity had spread around the globe.

Wild Carrots

Daucus carota. (Photo: The Northwest Forager)

CABBAGE

Brassica oleracea - Wild Cabbage or Wild Mustard

Brassica oleracea. (Photo: Kulac [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons)Did you know that a whole host of green veggies found on your dinner plate can’t actually be found in the wild? Broccoli, brussels sprouts, kale, and cauliflower are just some of the delicious vegetables that can be traced back to one plant—Brassica oleracea. Known as wild cabbage or wild mustard, this cultivator is native to coastal southern and western Europe. It was used as a cultivator because of its nutrient-rich leaves and hardy constitution. By focusing on different parts of the plant, many common vegetables were produced over time.

Selective Breeding of the Wild Mustard Plant

Photo: Liwnoc [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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10 SUSTAINABLE FOOD TRENDS AND INSIGHTS: FROM ETHICAL LABELLING OVERLOAD TO ZERO FOOD WASTE

Natural Products – July 27, 2019 – Jim Manson

LAST MONTH, INTERNATIONAL STAKEHOLDERS FROM THE SUSTAINABILITY SECTOR GATHERED IN AMSTERDAM FOR THE ELEVENTH EUROPEAN SUSTAINABLE FOODS SUMMIT. ORGANISER, ECOVIA INTELLIGENCE, HAS JUST COMPILED THIS SUMMARY OF KEY TRENDS AND INSIGHTS FROM THE 2019 EVENT. 

Rising market share of sustainable foods. Adoption rates of ethical labelling schemes continue to rise, with over a quarter of all coffee and cocoa now produced according to third party sustainability schemes. Amarjit Sahota, founder of Ecovia Intelligence, showed that organic is the dominant ethical label, with sales surpassing USD 100 billion in 2018. A concern is the proliferating number of ethical labelling schemes could dampen consumer demand. 

Economic risks of climate change. Tobias Bandel from Soil & More explained how climate change is affecting soil fertility and crop yields. He called for farmers to reduce economic risks by building farm-system resilience via crop rotation and diversity, green manure and crops, and biomass recycling. 

Re-directing food waste. Food waste is a major sustainability issue, with an estimated one third of all food produced going to waste. Al Overton from Planet Organic showed how the retail chain has attained zero waste (edible food) status. It donates surplus food to the Olio Food Waste Heroes programme. In 2018, Planet Organic donated 11 tonnes of food from its London-based seven stores, helping to provide 55,000 meals to people in need. 

Adding social value in supply chains. Sustainability schemes like Fairtrade and UTZ Certified have improved farmer conditions, but have done little to improve poverty levels, according to Julia Gause from FairAfric. The company is ‘de-colonising’ supply chains for chocolate by producing in Ghana. The company says making organic chocolate in the West African country generates five times higher income for producers than sourcing cocoa alone. 

Getting a flavour for plant-based foods. The global market for plant-based foods is projected to reach USD 5.2 billion in 2020. Givaudan research shows that 52% of consumers stay in the plant-based category because of taste. The flavourings firm calls for companies to take a targeted approach when developing products for the diverse consumer groups that now consume plant-based food.

Power of plant proteins. Heather Mills, public figure and founder of V-Bites, believes the food industry is at the cusp of a plant-based revolution. In her closing keynote, she said such foods provided many solutions to sustainability problems facing the food industry. Her company is ramping up production in order to meet surging demand. 

New technologies changing the face of retail. Toby Pickard from IGD outlined the implications of digital trends on the grocery industry. Giving examples, he showed how retailers are having to adapt their physical stores and provide new delivery mechanisms. The future maybe with staff-less stores (Amazon Go), drone deliveries (JD.com), and direct-to-fridge deliveries (Walmart). 

Ethical egg labelling scheme takes off. It is estimated that up to 6 billion male chicks are culled each year because they are the wrong gender. Martijn Haarman from Seleggt gave details of its new identification technique that prevents the hatching of male eggs. Eggs that remain after using the technique are labelled ‘Respeggt’ and are currently available in Rewe and Penny retailers in Germany. In June, the German Federal Administrative Court supported the new technique to prevent the death of male chicks. 

Array of green packaging materials. There is growing investment into sustainable packaging materials, with some new plastic alternatives presented at the summit. Agrana is creating thermoplastic starch from plant sugars; the material is used to make compostable packaging for fruits & vegetables. 

Markus Kainer, CEO of the Austrian firm VPZ, showed how it is taking cellulose from wood to make PackNatur, which is used in net packaging. Futamura is also making cellulose-based biopolymers to make compostable packaging. Its NatureFlex material is now used in a range of food and beverage products. 

Going plastic-free. There was a call to go plastic-free by Frankie Gillard from A Plastic Planet. According to her organisation, over 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic waste has been produced since the 1950s and only 9% has been recycled. It is encouraging more retailers to follow EkoPlaza and Thornton Budgens and develop plastic-free aisles. Its new Plastic Free Trust mark is given to products and packaging that meet its criteria. 

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Darrin Qualman’s book, Civilization Critical – Energy, Food, Nature and the future

MARCH 27, 2019 BY DARRIN QUALMAN

The title is Civilization Critical: Energy, Food, Nature, and the Future.  The book charts the past, present, and possible futures of our global petro-industrial consumerist civilization.  It looks at how we produce our food and how we fuel and provision the incredibly powerful systems of industry.  The book includes chapters on energy, the Industrial Revolution, transport, farming, efficiency, and progress.

Most important, Civilization Critical provides a wholly new analysis of our problems and their potential solutions—new ideas about material and energy flows and the structure of global civilization.  The book argues that a nineteenth- and twentieth-century transition to linear systems and away from the circular patterns of nature (and of allprevious civilizations) is the foundational error—the underlying problem, the root cause of climate change, resource depletion, oceans full of plastics, and a host of mega-problems now intensifying and merging, with potentially civilization-cracking results.

So?  Are we doomed?  No.  Doom is a choice.  One we’re currently making, but there are other options.  The book concludes that we face a momentous decision.  On the one hand, we possess a profusion of technologies and options that can deliver us from our predicament: solar panels, wind turbines, electric transport, low-emission agriculture, aggressive recycling, increased economic equality and security, and improved systems of governance.  On the other hand, we remain committed to increasing consumption and economic growth such that current plans—two to three percent economic growth per year—will cause the global economy to grow eight times larger in the coming century.  We possess powerful means of destruction, but also of deliverance.  Civilization Critical lays bare our choice, and the very negative or very positive outcomes within our grasp.

How to get a copy of Civilization Critical

The book is available directly from the publisher, Fernwood Press.  The cost is $25 plus $5 shipping.  https://fernwoodpublishing.ca/book/civilization-critical

The book is in stock in Saskatoon at Turning the Tide books, 615 Main Street (just off Broadway).  https://turning.ca/  Turning the Tide will also ship books throughout Canada and the United States.

You can order Civilization Critical at your favourite bookstore.  Please support local, independent bookstores.

And, of course, it’s available from Amazon.

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Housing Rights – UN Healthy Food Rights – CCFSH

April 25, 2019 – Ken Billings

Being without home is being without security, equality, freedom

UN Special Rapporteur on the right to housing.

TOXINS IN OUR FOOD – CREATES A TSUNAMI OF DISEASES

Canadian Council on Food Safety and Health – on the right to healthy food.

HOUSING LINK:

LEILANI FARHA

UN SPECIAL RAPPORTEUR HOUSING

FOOD LINK:

The Five Pillars of Food Safety

Ecological Civilization: Could China Become a Model for Saving the Earth?

Counterpunch – Mar 27, 2019 – by EVAGGELOS VALLIANATOS

Peasant and industrialized agriculture facing each other — in China. Painting gifted to me by Ye Jingzhong, China Agricultural University, Beijing, China. Photo: E.G. Vallianatos.

Industrialized agriculture is threatening humanity with catastrophe. It feeds global warming and dissolves societies. In addition, its pesticides contaminate and poison drinking water and food.

Undoing rural America

I reached this conclusion from working for the US Environmental Protection Agency for twenty-five years. I summarized my experience in my 2014 book, Poison Spring: The Secret History of Pollution and the EPA. This essay reflects my knowledge from that experience.

The industrialization of agriculture did massive damage to rural America, turning most of that beautiful land into medieval plantations. Instead of millions of small family farmers, we now have a few thousand large corporate farmers in charge of rural America and the growing of most food. Democracy and human and environmental health suffered a severe blow. Money and power triumphed.

Catching up

Like many countries, China is trying to catch up with the agricultural superpower illusion of America. Yes, America produces huge amounts of food, but at unsustainable and catastrophic costs and consequences.

There are non-toxic alternatives to coaxing more from an acre of land.

In the United States, the alternative to chemical farming has the name of “organic” agriculture. In the European Union, the alternative is “biological” agriculture. These alternatives are sophisticated modifications of traditional agriculture. They produce and sell food without using pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, genetic engineering, sludge, and radiation. But like industrialized farming, the organic-biological alternatives ignore the size of farms, the plight of farm workers, the kind and size of farm machinery, the use of petroleum and petroleum products like plastics.

Petroleum fuels industrialized societies. Their agriculture, transportation, energy and defense industries are largely depended on petroleum. However, petroleum is a major global warming fuel.

Agribusiness and peasants in China

China has a growing sector of industrialized agriculture. China has also more than 200 million peasants practicing traditional farming.

Caught between these two gigantic forces, The Chinese government is campaigning on behalf of environmental protection primarily as an antidote to the ecocidal and destabilizing effects of environmental pollution.

I have had the opportunity of visiting China twice. The Institute for Postmodern Development of China made that possible. Since 2005, this non-profit organization based in Claremont, California, has been the ecological link between China and America.

What is ecological civilization?

Indeed, the first time I heard the term “ecological civilization” was in Claremont where I have been living since 2008. I immediately smiled and connected ecological civilization to fantasy.

The idea, of course, is not entirely utopian. First of all, it is beautiful. It brings to mind heaven on Earth: flourishing villages and towns, peasants working the land without outsiders oppressing them or oppressing each other or polluting the natural world; flowers, monarch butterflies, honeybees, singing birds, sheep and lambs, fig trees, flowering lemon and almond trees, creeks and rivers running through the land, olive groves, grapevines and god Dionysos and his maenad followers indulging in a frenzy of dance and music.

However, Zhihe Wang and Meijun Fan, who direct the Institute for Postmodern Development of China, probably have other dreams for ecological civilization. They grew up in the China of Mao Zedong. They experienced hunger and witnessed the destruction of traditional Chinese culture. They are both trained in academic philosophy. They know China and the West.

They may see ecological civilization as an emerging new global philosophy. Either humans will learn how to live in harmony with the natural world or they will become extinct. Perhaps ecological civilization is a convenient expression for the end of war and a beginning of something better for themselves and China. It may be no more than a slogan or deep belief in a better world.

I joined the discussion about ecological civilization during some of the conferences they sponsored in Claremont. That gave me a chance to talk to Chinese scholars.

Such theoretical perspectives enriched my limited observations in rural China. Chinese peasants told me they love the land they rent from the state. And Chinese agronomists who study peasant farming told me they would love to see a better future for peasant farming.

Americanizing Chinese farming

Nevertheless, China is striving to “modernize” its peasant agriculture. Chinese scientists have been training in America for decades. The Chinese government is funding these scientists to expand the scope of industrialized farming in China. Both the government and the American-trained scientists overlook the fact that peasants are raising most of China’s food.

Industrialized farmers in China are converting peasant land to large factory farms. Such a policy is bound to spark clashes between peasants and large industrialized farmers supported by the government. This looming tragedy is a telling example of how difficult it is to maintain ancient ecological traditions in an age of worldwide ecocide and rapacious ambitions and governance.

The peasant factor

In contrast to the hegemonic American agribusiness and the equally hegemonic if misguided developing Chinese agribusiness, Chinese peasant farming opens an exciting vista of ecological and political insights for a strategy of an agriculture that is largely benign to the natural world, just to those working the land, and healthy to all eating the food peasants grow.

Industrialized agribusiness, be that of the American or Chinese variety, is against ecological civilization. Organic / biological farming and peasant agriculture open the doors to ecological civilization – just a little. They give us but a glimpse of what the future could become.

The first system – agribusiness — is a grab for power; the second is a spark from millennial traditions of wisdom and practice in the raising of food without wounding the land.

There’s also the best of modern science coming under the name of agroecology: the latest findings in agricultural ecology, that could and would complement and enrich peasant practices.

China would do its culture a favor if it turns all its efforts in repairing and strengthening its peasant farming, abandoning its agribusiness as an error. Such a policy shift would tell the world China is serious about ecological civilization – and fighting global warming. At that moment, China might become a model for saving the Earth.

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Agribusiness Is the Problem, Not the Solution

Consortium News – By Jomo Kwame Sundaram
in Kuala Lumpur – Feb 28, 2019

Livestock carcass in 2010  in Marsabit, in Northern Kenya, amid long drought. (Neil Palmer with CIAT via Flickr)

For two centuries, all too many discussions about hunger and resource scarcity has been haunted by the ghost of Parson Thomas Malthus.

Malthus warned that rising populations would exhaust resources, especially those needed for food production. Exponential population growth would outstrip food output.

Humanity now faces a major challenge as global warming is expected to frustrate the production of enough food as the world population rises to 9.7 billion by 2050. Timothy Wise’s new book “Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food,” argues that most solutions currently put forward by government, philanthropic and private sector luminaries are misleading.

Malthus’ Ghost Returns

The early 2008 food price crisis has often been wrongly associated with the 2008-2009 global financial crisis. The number of hungry in the world was said to have risen to over a billion, feeding a resurgence of neo-Malthusianism.

Agribusiness advocates fed such fears, insisting that food production must double by 2050, and high-yielding industrial agriculture, under the auspices of agribusiness, is the only solution. In fact, the world is mainly fed by hundreds of millions of small-scale, often called family farmers who produce over two-thirds of developing countries’ food.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, neither food scarcity nor poor physical access are the main causes of food insecurity and hunger. Instead, Reuters has observed a “global grain glut,” with surplus cereal stocks piling up.

Meanwhile, poor production, processing and storage facilities cause food losses of an average of about a third of developing countries’ output. A similar share is believed lost in rich countries due to wasteful food storage, marketing and consumption behavior.

Nevertheless, despite grain abundance, the 2018 “State of Food Security and Nutrition” report — by the Rome-based United Nations food agencies led by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) — reported rising chronic and severe hunger or undernourishment involving more than 800 million.

Political, philanthropic and corporate leaders have promised to help struggling African and other countries grow more food, by offering to improve farming practices. New seed and other technologies would modernize those left behind.

But producing more food, by itself, does not enable the hungry to eat. Thus, agribusiness and its philanthropic promoters are often the problem, not the solution, in feeding the world.

“Eating Tomorrow” addresses related questions such as: Why doesn’t rising global food production feed the hungry? How can we “feed the world” amid rising populations and unsustainable pressure on land, water and other natural resources that farmers need to grow food?

Family Farmers Lack Power

Drawing on five years of extensive fieldwork in Southern Africa, Mexico, India and the U.S. Midwest, Wise concludes that the problem is essentially one of power. He shows how powerful business interests influence government food and agricultural policies to favor large farms.

This is typically at the expense of “family” farmers, who grow most of the world’s food, but also puts consumers and others at risk, e.g., due to agrochemical use. His many examples not only detail and explain the many problems small-scale farmers, but also their typically constructive responses despite lack of support, if not worse, from most governments:

  • In Mexico, trade liberalization following the 1993 North American Free Trade Area (NAFTA) agreement swamped the country with cheap, subsidized U.S. maize and pork, accelerating migration from the countryside. Apparently, this was actively encouraged by transnational pork producers employing “undocumented” and non-unionized Mexican workers willing to accept low wages and poor working conditions.
  • In Malawi, large government subsidies encouraged farmers to buy commercial fertilizers and seeds from U.S. agribusinesses such as now Bayer-owned Monsanto, but to little effect, as their productivity and food security stagnated or even deteriorated. Meanwhile, Monsanto took over the government seed company, favoring its own patented seeds at the expense of productive local varieties. A former senior Monsanto official co-authored the national seed policy that threatens to criminalize farmers who save, exchange and sell seeds instead.
  • In Zambia, greater use of seeds and fertilizers from agribusiness tripled maize production without reducing the country’s very high rates of poverty and malnutrition. Meanwhile, as the government provides 250,000-acre “farm blocks” to foreign investors, family farmers struggle for title to farm land.
  • In Mozambique too, the government gives away vast tracts of farm land to foreign investors. Meanwhile, women-led cooperatives successfully run their own native maize seed banks.
  • Iowa promotes vast monocultures of maize and soybean to feed hogs and produce bioethanol rather than “feed the world.”
  • A large Mexican farmer cooperative launched an “agro-ecological revolution,” while the old government kept trying to legalize Monsanto’s controversial genetically modified maize. Farmers have thus far halted the Monsanto plan, arguing that GM corn threatens the rich diversity of native Mexican varieties.

Much of the research for the book was done in 2014-15, when Barack Obama was U.S. president, although the narrative begins with developments and policies following the 2008 food price crisis, during the last year of former President George W. Bush. The book tells a story of U.S. big business’ influence on policies enabling more aggressive transnational expansion.

Yet, Wise remains optimistic, emphasizing that the world can feed the hungry, many of whom are family farmers. Despite the challenges they face, many family farmers are finding innovative and effective ways to grow more and better food. He advocates support for farmers’ efforts to improve their soil, output and wellbeing.

Eating Better

Hungry farmers are nourishing their life-giving soils using more ecologically sound practices to plant a diversity of native crops, instead of using costly chemicals for export-oriented monocultures. According to Wise, they are growing more and better food, and are capable of feeding the hungry.

Unfortunately, most national governments and international institutions still favor large-scale, high-input, industrial agriculture. This neglects more sustainable solutions offered by family farmers, and the need to improve the wellbeing of poor farmers.

Undoubtedly, many new agricultural techniques offer the prospect of improving the welfare of farmers, not only by increasing productivity and output, but also by limiting costs, using scarce resources more effectively, and reducing the drudgery of farm work.

But the world must recognize that farming may no longer be viable for many who face land, water and other resource constraints, unless they get better access to such resources. Meanwhile, malnutrition of various types affects well over 2 billion people in the world, and industrial agriculture contributes about 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.

Going forward, it will be important to ensure affordable, healthy and nutritious food supplies for all, mindful not only of food and water safety, but also of various pollution threats. A related challenge will be to enhance dietary diversity affordably to overcome micronutrient deficiencies and diet-related non-communicable diseases for all.

Jomo Kwame Sundarama former economics professor, was United Nations assistant secretary-general for economic development, and received the Wassily Leontief Prize for Advancing the Frontiers of Economic Thought.

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