A love affair with leafy greens (i)

In which I wax loquacious on attempts to eat local, be a vegetarian, and discovery of things leafy and green.

It started in September 2010. Having flown across the ocean in an aeroplane to live a privileged student life at a posh old institution of higher learning in Britain and spend lots of time thinking about big problems like degrading ecosystems and unsustainable consumption and collapsing economies – and other things related to too much flying across oceans in aeroplanes and posh old institutions, I thought I’d try to compensate by otherwise being as low impact as possible. One way to do this was to make smart decisions about food, so I became a compulsive label-reader, and quickly realised that ‘low impact’ is really difficult to do: food is mass produced, grows in places it probably isn’t meant to grow (from, say, a climatic, soil chemistry, or pre-existing ecosystems perspective), it is sprayed, spliced, has strange things added to it, is over-packaged, and is flown/shipped/trucked in from thousands of miles away. Food lifecycles are so huge and complex that trying to achieve a perfectly environmentally and socially conscious diet is a decidedly Sisyphean endeavour. It seems you can never win.

So I decided I’d try to do two things in the spirit of a ‘low impact diet’:

(1) Eat as little meat as possible. 

This worked out to me becoming a capital ‘V’ vegetarian, with the notable exception of the occasional fish supper at the local chippy, because I was living in absurd proximity to the Best Fish & Chips in the World*. Outrageous hypocrisy aside, why eat as little meat as possible? It’s all about energy: you can get more energy from eating things lower down the food chain. The logic goes: why eat a cow, which has to be watered and fed grain and sustained for a number of years before I can eat it, when I could just skip all the effort/energy consumed in feeding and watering the cow and eat the grain myself? At the moment, I’m not really capable of providing a more elaborate answer than that, but I hope we can draw this out in future posts. Amy knows worlds more about biology & ecosystems than I and is thus substantially more qualified to talk about this type of thing. Also, she recommended a book to me: Diet for a Small Planet, which I acquired at a lovely bookstore in town (which sadly no longer exists), and expect will be very enlightening.

The other thing I tried to do was:

(2) Eat things that grow in the ground nearby at the time of year when they ought to grow there. 

This is kind of how I justified (*ahem* tried to resolve my own cognitive dissonance regarding) the fish & chips. The fish, you see, were coming in on little boats from the sea, which was literally right there. We’ve already seen that there is doubt about the idea that eating local is be-all-end-all of environmentally conscious diets <link to Amy’s post> and we’ve seen that, at least in Canada, food waste <link> has a much greater environmental impact than food miles. That said, eating local can have social benefits. For example, keeping your neighbours in business is probably good for your community. I also tried to eat seasonally, tried to eat things that could be grown in the climate in which I was living without too much extra energy input. That said, sometimes I just really wanted a glass of orange juice, and god knows oranges do not grow in Scotland. Not yet, at least.

So I went hunting in Tesco (not exactly a saintly food store, but it was in walking distance of my flat). That is when I found kale. Hey look! It grows in England, it’s £1 for a half kilogram bag, and it’s GREEN. That’s important, right? Eat your colours! and all that. Green = vitamin C and iron. Iron is a thing I am concerned about if I’m no longer enjoying the weekly Alberta beef of my upbringing. (I’m not going to lie: it’s good stuff, and my father is a barbequing professional.) But, yes, iron.

I tried kale and I tried cabbage and I after I went a bit overboard one time with brussel sprouts (which aren’t really a green, but look! 1 kg of Scottish brussel sprouts for 50p!!) I tried swiss chard. You can do LOTS of different things with greens. I’m slowly building my repertoire and I intend to share some of my “findings” and am excited to hear about other folks’ adventures in cooking/raw un-cooking with greens.

Greens 

Taste and versatility aside, cooking with greens can be a lovely aesthetic experience. Swiss chard, for example, is a really beautiful thing! It is lovely and leafy and green, and some varieties have the most beautiful rainbow-coloured stems: crimson red and vibrant yellow.

rainbow chard!

rainbow chard!

* The Best Fish & Chips in the World are in the East Neuk of Fife:

+ The Wee Chippy in Anstruther**

+ The Anstruther Fish Bar

+ The Tail End in St Andrews

** ‘EN-ster’ to locals

See my next post for my favourite greens recipe.

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A cuppa & some thoughts about food waste

Macleans magazine had an article earlier this month about tea bag food waste in Britain. Having recently developed a tea habit on that fair island, and being generally concerned with food and waste and composting, I’ve got a vested interest in this.

Britain’s 62 million residents drink 165 million cups of tea per day. (Fun fact! That’s 2 ⅔ cups per person.) This is a lot of tea, and it produces a lot of waste: tea bags add 370 000 tonnes of waste to landfills per year. Wrap, a government-funded organisation that works to reduce waste, encourage recycling, and to create a market for recycled products, estimates that tea bags are now the single largest food waste contributor in the UK. Now, tea-drinkers are being encouraged to compost their used tea bags instead of throwing them out.

Amy wondered if there is some kind of Canadian equivalent. While my admittedly cursory search did not turn up any one food item equivalent, a 2011 article in the Toronto Star about food waste caught my attention, and is an interesting complement to Amy’s post regarding the locavore/locally-sourced food movement. According to a study entitled Food Waste in Canada by the Value Chain Management CentreCanadians manage to waste $27 billion worth of food per year. This food goes to landfill and, yes, some goes to compost … but it’s still going to waste. In fact, the green bin compost-collection programs in some cities may be acting as a psychological ameliorative: people feel ok wasting food because they are composting it.

What is interesting is that food miles (how many miles food travels — and therefore how much fuel burned and greenhouse gases produced — to get to consumers) are seen as a kind of environmental big bad. In particular, food miles are what locavores/people who eat only/mostly local food aim to do away with. However, food miles are responsible for only 3 percent of food waste, compared to the 51% contributed by consumers who throw out food at home. (I’m unsurprised to find that Desrochers & Shimizu, authors of the new book Amy has mentioned previously, ‘The Locavore’s Dilemma: In Praise of a 10,000-Mile Diet‘ are referenced in the report.)

I’m interested the idea that eating local isn’t the be-all-end-all, perfect solution for food sustainability that some folks might like it to be. This doesn’t mean I’m about to give up on shopping at the lovely Kamloops farmers’ market, or start buying mangoes or avocados as anything other than occasional treats, but it is definitely food for thought. More evidence that there is not necessarily a simple, one-size-fits-all solution for sustainable lifestyles and diets, and all the more reason to keep on experimenting with and learning about food, and strive for zero food waste.

Is Local Really Better?

I am currently in the midst of reading Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly by James E. McWilliams.

My copy of Just Food with my thoughts on sticky tabs.

It is incredibly intriguing read. McWilliams is painstakingly fair in his systematic criticism of the local and the organic food movements. What the title does not give away is that he is no proponent of the results of Green Revolution or the industrialization of food production either. Although I am super anxious to post about what I have been reading, I am not yet ready.

I did think I would be remiss, however, if I did not mention that there is a new book (published just last week) making a similar assertion. That is, in terms of the ability to save the environment, locavore/farm-to-fork movements are well-meaning but gravely misguided. The Locavore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-Mile Diet is by University of Toronto associate geography professor, Pierre Desrochers, and policy analyst, Hiroko Shimizu.

An interview with Prof. Desrochers can be found here.

Much more on this topic to follow!

If you have an opinion (on locavores/local food movement, globalization/industrialization of food, agriculture and the environment, the books specifically), please share!