Monday, January 31, 2011

Paper or Xlerator, the quintessential public bathroom question.


Guest blog by: Brian Payne,  a freelance writer and editor living in New York City. For his day job, Brian works as an Internet marketing specialist for Site-Seeker, Inc. 

http://news.thomasnet.com

Can high-speed, high-efficiency electric hand dryers like the XLERATORreally be better for the environment than paper towels? That’s what we aim to find out.
Paper towels are one of those head-smacking, intuitive inventions that seem like they should have been around forever. Like anti-bacterial soap or the combustion engine. But, like the above, there are some hidden downsides to their constant use.
The main benefit of paper towels is also their largest flaw: By being a cheap, disposable way to wipe up spills and dry your hands, you end up generating mountains of waste in the name of convenience. And since convenience is a pretty big market, manufacturers are more than happy to clear forests to keep pushing out paper towels.
There are a lot of different statistics out there. According to theEnvironmental Paper Network’s “The State of the Paper Industry,” the paper industry is the fourth-largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, and paper makes up a quarter of landfill waste.
An obvious answer to our reliance on paper towels is to use cloth towels. Sure, cloth towels also take energy and exert a toll on the environment, but they’re reusable. But problems with paper towels don’t extend only into the home.
If you’ve ever used a very old restroom (or remember restrooms from “back in the day”) you may recall seeing a very large cloth towel roll built into a machine on the wall. Those contraptions were as unhygienic as they were unpleasant to use. And much paper towel waste occurs, naturally, in buildings and facilities with public restrooms.
So what’s the answer?
The truth is, there isn’t a definitive answer to waste and environmental damage. But there is one truth: some types of electric hand dryers really are better than paper towels.
According to a “Life Cycle Assessment” performed by Quantis, when taking into account the manufacture, transportation, use, and end-of-life, high-effiency electric hand dryers are significantly better for the environment than their alternatives. The Quantis study found high-efficiency electric hand dryers to contribute to climate change significantly less. Paper towels’s high energy requirements associated with manufacture, transportation, and end-of-life were significant factors in effecting climate change.
Even though it may seem counterintuitive, a huge, honking electric hand dyer is better for the environment than using those coarse, brown recycled paper towels. And according to a cost calculator on the Excel Dryer website, they cost less, too.
Instead of grabbing a wad of towels to quickly dry your hands, high-efficiency, high-speed electric hand dryers completely dry your hands in ten to fifteen seconds.
A little excess goes a long way toward wrecking the environment: Giant cars hogging the highways, gobs of injection-molded plastic containing our tiny electronic devices, and mountains of empty bottles piling up in landfills. But the XLERATOR, and other high-efficiency electric hand dryers, really is one case of the “Bigger is better” mentality actually helping the environment.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Who’s the boss?

Yes I regularly watched the show, only because I thought Alyssa Milano was hot.

  Exhibit A:



I was a teenager then. My English was getting better and I was learning to become American. My relationship with my parents deteriorated since they have remained very much Chinese. To them, there is no question who should be the boss. But to me and my adolescence, who’s the boss was manifested through my emotional outbursts, my choice to move out of the house (which was against the cultural norm in Chinese families at the time), my refusal to enter medical school, and my eventual enlistment in the Army without notice to my parents.

I have since learned that the spirit of rebellion is a natural human instinct – one that gave us the marvels of social and scientific progress. Confucius may have been right that strict social structure and compulsive education was essential to creating a successful kingdom, but a system of absolute social obedience against our human nature to rebel gave China its war-torn history and a deep and instinctive distrust for the government.

Recently I’ve noticed the spirit of rebellion in America is emerging into the mainstream culture.Thankfully we do not have the tradition of squashing the dissenters. As Americans, we can enjoy civil disobedience for the sake of social progress.

Exhibit B:

For many decades we gave and trusted our daily necessities to the federal government and corporations for management. Our commerce became nationalized, our statehood less prominent. We watched our private lives gradually regulated by the establishment of FCC, FDA, FHA, FAA, F-[insert your fundamental rights here], and we said nothing. But in the recent years, especially when election times came around, I hear sentiments of anti-regulation and anti-big government. I see a revival of state empowerment, an expansion of our awareness of the Tenth Amendment:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

There is nothing wrong with a healthy dose of rebellion in a society. The American people are entitled, by our Constitution, to question authority and govern ourselves in our private lives. We are not alone: the French students had their day in the spotlight recently showing their willingness to voice their opinions. Tunisia and Egypt owns the brag-right currently.But there is a mighty hidden movement, a sort of social rebellion if you will, that is much more profound and momentous, happening here in the US and elsewhere in the world: we are rebelling against the FOOD INDUSTRY – the new world emperor clothed in corn and soy, jeweled by CAFOs and knighted by the WTO.

When Jose Bove, a French antiglobalization activist (and Roquefort farmer), wanted to make his stand against globalization, he drove his tractor through the plate glass not of a bank or insurance company, but a McDonald’s.

. . . the most powerful protests against globalization to date have all revolved around food. . . the movement against genetically modified crops, the campaign against patented seeds in India. . . [and] the Italian-born international movement that seeks to defend traditional food cultures against the global tide of homogenization.
The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan

I submit to you, Exhibit C: 2011 Will Be Year of the Local According to Nation's Chefs

The Soviet Union collapsed because its centralized food system could not satisfy their people’s need. If history is to repeat itself, and most frequently it does, we see a warning to the food industry:

if our current centralized food industry and federal and state government agencies, wholly depended on just a few crop species, CAFOs, and fossil fuels, do not change their operations and policies to build a more sustainable, health, and local food model to improve quality and address our health problems, 

we, the people, will have to exercise the power vest in us by the Constitution and collapse this industrial food dependency ourselves. 

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

there is hope after all

I'm usually long-winded in my blogs and my rants would go on forever. This one is an exception. I direct your attention to a blog written by Kattie Robbins:

2011 Will Be Year of the Local According to Nation's Chefs

 

 

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The way we are.

If the philosophically loaded title did not discourage you, I hope you are strapped-in for a rant:

I’ve been learning about Intellectual Property law recently. It is an interesting topic by its own right and invariably touches on the food industry.

The US Intellectual Property laws are mostly statute driven. Private parties set the trending terms within an industry and the judicial system is called to draw the line only when necessary. The legislatures thus set the tones and forces in the market place accordingly by the swings of many powerful lobbyists. What is protected one day may not be tomorrow.

Leaving the details aside, US IP laws are generally divided into four types: patent, copyright, trade secrets, and trademarks. My interest today is with trademarks.

The presence of trademarks is an essential part of the industrial process, unalienable from manufacturing and distribution. Trademarks are what we identify with our inherent values. It drives what we buy and who we are. In China, before its membership in the WTO, people commonly used certain marks to identify medical and food products. Because these are the fundamentals of Chinese society, the producers of these products are held to an exceptionally high standard. The popularization of these “traditional trademarks” always manifested by some climatic drama or some clever societal associations. For example, one of the Chinese people’s staple involves a steamed bun with various meats and vegetables inside. It’s sort of the Chinese’s hotdog, easy to carry and tasty. There is a meat-in-a-bun store famous to the Chinese named “Gou-Bo-Li,” literally translated to “a dog won’t even go near it.” There are a host of tales as to the origin of this iconic brand. I can’t remember exactly how it was explained to me when I was young, but here is one I found online:
History: About one hundred years ago, there was a guy who was named Gao Guiyou. Usually, people called his pet name GouZai. He was very stubborn. If he was angry, even a lovely doggy couldn't make him smile. Thus, his neighbours laughted at him Goubuli.

Later on, Gui Guiyou went to learn cooking and became a famous cook. He could make delicious and unique steamed stuffed buns. Even Ci Xi, the ruler of the late Qing Dynasty, loved his steamed stuffed buns. Then he opened a small snack house to cook his steamed stuffed buns. Many people went to his snack house to taste the steamed stuffed buns and his business was flourishing. However, he came across a problem, that is, he couldn't greet and serve each customer.

Finally, a good idea came up in his mind. He put several baskets of chopsticks and bowls on the tables. When a customer came into the house, he just needed to put his money in the bowl and gave the bowl to Gao Guiyou. Then, Gao put steamed stuffed buns in the bowl. After eating, the customer just left his snack house without asking him to pay for the steamed stuffed buns. His neighbours made fun of him and said that Gouzai only knew to sell his steamed stuffed buns and didn't take notice to his customers – that he was the dog that won’t even bother to come and say hellp. Thus, poeple named Gouzai's snack house as Goubuli – dogs won’t even bother.

Quoted from “BBQQ” from travelchinaguide.com

According to Nicholas Economides, a NYU professor at the Stern School of Business, the object of trademark law is to stimulate investment in producing information about goods. The economic role of the trademark is to help consumer identify the unobservable features of the trademarked product.

This makes sense. The Chinese people, over the few thousands of years, developed a social norm to regulate these trademarks in terms of its authenticity, quality, and common trust. Over the years, Chinese people have come to accept the Goubuli mark as a mark of quality and taste because if you want Goubuli buns, you would have to visit Tianjin, the city where the only store is located.

But we may want to take a serious look at the values we, as AMERICANS, assign to our food and its identifiable marks. Why have we so proudly associate with cheap processed and synthetic food made from deconstructed corn and soy? Paradoxically, why have we been popularizing our low quality, high environmental and health costs brands?

To me, there is something eerie about McDonald’s “99 billion-served” idea. I rather cherish a man who devoted his passion to creating idealized product – one that you once could only taste when you visited Tianjin.



I recently learned that the bun shop, once only available in Tianjin, had expanded its operations not only in China, but also into the US. It's brand is protected by a US registered trademark: "Go Believe." I doubt, though, the creative translation into “Go Believe” will give me the same confidence as the old brand. Aside from asking the tough questions, one is pressing: what has happened to our values and our relationship with food?

Friday, January 21, 2011

“Attention Wal-Mart shoppers!”

June 4, 2084. It’s an ordinarily hot summer day in Beijing – 52 degree Celsius.

 art by Kristen, Mediatinker

The streets are crowded with the usual: electric cars, peddle-powered motorbikes, and pedestrians desperately fighting the chaos. The tourist groups from Mali had gathered at the bridges of Tiananmen Square earlier to take some photos. They are now scattered throughout the Square buying novelty kites and candy-covered fruits from the locals, awaiting for their bus to fight its way through the city traffic to pick them up for the day. At lunch, they had been served with a packaged meal, “Inspected by the Chinese Food Security and Safety Bureau,” with the approval for distribution from Wal-Mart, the official processing and distribution company in China. Their lunch had consisted of soy-flavored organic chicken breast, individually packaged bearing the Wal-Mart brand, and Wal-Mart certified hydroponically grown rice and vegetables, tucked away in a “Solar-Mate” box design to heat the meal from the natural micro-radiations received from the sun.

Suddenly, one of the visitors fell over in the midst of the crowd. Immediately, a circle of space gave its way around him. He had been throwing up near the trashcan a few steps away, it appears he had made a few steps away and fell unconscious.

The CCTV news reported that night and state this is just yet another tragedy associated with the recent outbreaks of a verity of epidemics throughout the CAFOs that supplies Wal-Mart’s healthier and greener brand. All of this is because of concentrated operation and elimination of biodiversity. . .




                                                      “Attention Wal-Mart shoppers!”



In five years, you can expect to eat healthier according to the Wal-Mart standards.






Our brain picks up the scent of good news by a range of identifiers. Things like “eating healthier” and “Ms. Obama” usually signal, at least to me, something good and positive in the media that is inundated with junk or downers these days. When I saw the New York Time’s article, “Wal-Mart Shifts Strategy To Promote Health Food,” I was excited. I had read some facebook comments about the article, and that is how I ended up here, writing about it as sort of a social urge to give back to the conversation.

The facts are simple enough. Wal-Mart had been contemplating the idea of this “healthier” market demand when the First Lady called. I would guess they hadn’t acted earlier because they were crunching numbers to see if they can justify the venture in terms of economics. Regardless of their motives, Wal-Mart had arrived at a sensible plan to make changes in its operation. The changes include reducing sodium content of their products by 25%, eliminating industrial trans fats and added sugar. There were some indication of other plans but none were specific according to the New York Times.

Some readers had criticized Wal-Mart’s lack of aggression in this campaign. It’s a long time coming project but it should be on a much wider scale, I agreed. But I thought it is at least a right step in the right direction. My experiences tell me that Wal-Mart may be right about its slow-and-steady strategy, necessary to make solid and meaningful changes rather than being a quick fix knee-jerk reaction.

“The changes will be introduced slowly, over a period of five years, to give the company time to overcome technical hurdles and to give consumers time to adjust to foods’ new taste, Mr. Dach said. “It doesn’t do you any good to have healthy food if people don’t eat it.”

Quoted from the New York Time Article, and I find this reasonable enough. We need a few years to be weaned off our addiction to processed food. Even if we are still eating CAFO-beef some years down the road, I would be happy to know that we are at least eating more vegetables. I am also pretty stoked that Wal-Mart is addressing a food-justice issue:

[T]he problem of “food deserts” — a dearth of grocery stores selling fresh produce in rural and underserved urban areas like Anacostia. . .
A range of studies has shown that low-income people, especially those who receive food stamps, face special dietary challenges because eating healthy costs more and healthier food is harder to get in their neighborhoods. James D. Weill, president of Food Research and Action Center, an organization that has discussed the problem with Wal-Mart, said the company  recognized “how much hunger and food insecurity there is in the country.”

Wal-Mart proposed to address this problem by building more stores in low-income areas and increase charitable contributions for nutrition programs. I find this intention honorable. Please allow me to digress: Recently, an Aldi store opened in my neighborhood. I have never been to an Aldi before, Lauren was ecstatic about showing me what it is. I soon realized that it’s public image associates with low-income, since it stocks mostly cheap discounted and off-brand items. But I find the store extremely well managed and purposeful. The store shopping carts requires a Quarter for deposit, through an ingenious mechanism, to accommodate your shopping experience. At the end of your shopping, you simply return the cart to its rightful place and get your Quarter back. The place also does not have employees to help bag, but instead has a bench area for shoppers to put their groceries in their own “green” bags – the store does not offer plastic or paper! I’ve also found broccoli that is packaged right here in Indianapolis, but I can’t tell if it is grown here.

This got me thinking, if Wal-Mart can perform on this efficient level, and get into the low-income areas, it could potentially help equalize a lot of things in our society. Since food is a basic building block of our lives, its equal access will offer us some other tangible ways of achieving equality. Wal-Mart can also help popularize the kind of sustainable and efficient business practices Aldi has employed. 

All hopes aside, I recognize that Wal-Mart has to do this the right way. Its honorable intentions means nothing if it does not follow a sustainable philosophy, and start buying its produce and livestock from local vendors. It must also bare a large responsibility in facilitating legislation that will allow local farmers the same degree of support and regulation as their CAFO counterparts, and hold CAFOs to the higher health standards and biodiversity. As a small business owner, I understand the value and necessity of the marketplace. I believe that a corporation as influential as Wal-Mart can do a whole lot of our social progress. But it is a fine line to walk on the path of philanthropy and profit, and it’s also a fine line between 1984 and 2084. I submit to you Exhibit A, (imagine if you will):

“In addition to proposing to lower prices on healthy foods, Wal-Mart is planning to develop criteria, and ultimately a seal, that will go on truly healthier foods, as measured by their sodium, fat and sugar content.”

 Wal-Mart Shifts Strategy To Promote Health Food

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

You mean to tell me fish have eyes?

I remember there was a VHS video of my little brother, at age 3, hunched over our old dinner table in our apartment in Cincinnati, intensively focused on chewing off every piece of meat off a soy-roasted pig’s feet. This was the late 90s, we had been in the States for a few years but not long enough to forget the old Chinese custom of enjoying different textures in what we eat. If you know anything about a pig’s feet, you would know that the Chinese regard its place on the dinner table as some sort of a rare delicacy. It has a soft and jelly-ish texture that would melt in your mouth if it had been cook the right way – usually in a high pressure cooker. The most enjoyable part is working your way through each small bone in a pig’s feet with your lips and tong, to get to the tendons and the thick layer of cooked pigskin in its palm. Eating a pig’s feet is a skill acquired over the years; my father would be able to clean off all the edible parts on a pig’s feet before you can even ask what it is that he was eating.

Those were the good ol’e days before my brother had developed his complex fear for food. Today, he won’t eat anything that is not processed. He only eats white meats, without bones – meats that taste almost like nothing.


It is Chinese custom to have fish on New Year’s Eve. But because of my brother’s fear for food, for a few years now my father would buy and cook a whole fish, place it in a plastic container and cover it to leave it on the side table. Only when my brother has left the dinner table would my father uncover his prize and meticulously work his way around all of the small bones and enjoy his fish. I feel certain shame for my brother, and pity for my father - a man who had once lived off grass roots and boiled old leather belts during the late 50s when China was hit by a disastrous famine, a man who enjoys food for what it is – FOOD.

I had asked my brother once about his fear of fish. He simply told me that he can’t eat anything with eyes staring at him at the dinner table. I replied, “but everything has eyes, even the chicken nuggets you love once had eyes and legs and feet (granted that chicken had probably been fed to achieve its slaughter weight full of hormones and antibiotics, and was probably so overweight that it could not stand on its feet). You mean to tell me you are only discovering that fish have eyes?”

My brother had once loved fish. When he was little and when my mother and father would buy a whole fish, clean it at home. Just for fun, they would let my brother pick the best parts to eat – usually the fish’s cheek. Funny when he was young, food was an enjoyment, but as he got older, food became a fear for him. What was once fun is now a torment and something that is tearing my family apart.

Then I started to think why has an intelligent, straight A student like my brother, developed a unreasonable fear for fish just because of its eyes? He would certainly not eat chicken’s feet, or pig’s ear or anything that is not a packaged square meat item. Then I realized that it was because our industrial food system has so far removed us from our food that we no longer can relate to our food in any sensible way. It is all about economics now, not even the good kind of economics that make sense, but the kind of economics that fattens the few in their pockets at the expense of all of us in terms of health issues and other social costs. We are dangerously testing the limits of our medical ability to treat the newest disease we are farming in our CAFOs.

It had seemed that all of the food scares, the Mad Cow disease, the Bird flu, the Swine flu, and whatever else are flu-ing around, has caused my sensible brother to no longer believe in food. He doesn’t want to acknowledge its source, far removed from its true intent, and has developed a taste for highly processed food. What an irony. His idea is that if it is government regulated, and comes in a clean white packaging, then it must be good. If it does not, and is not a part of the animal that would normally end up in a fast food restaurant, then it must be bad. I grew up watching my grandmother slaughter chickens for dinner, cooking every part of it, with no government regulations on how it should be done. I have eaten everything from a chicken’s brain, to a fish’s cheek, to pig’s feet, amongst other weird animal parts. I have come to appreciate our distinctive connection with food, and my brother has developed a distant with food from the “safeguards” of our government and the interest of our giant food industry. But is the regulated and processed food really a good thing?

Consider the following passage from The Omnivore’s Dilemma, (talking to a local farmer who insist on slaughtering his own chicken and the only disinfectant method for his is the open air and the Sun – the best method in my opinion:

The problem with current food-safety regulations . . . is that they are one-size-fits-all rules designed to regulate giant slaughterhouses that are mindlessly applied to small farmers in such a way that “before I can sell my neighbor a T-bone steak I’ve got to wrap it up in a million dollars’ worth of quintuple-permitted processing plant.”

For example, federal rules stipulate that every processing facility have a bathroom for the exclusive use of the USDA inspector. Such regulations favor the biggest industrial meatpackers, who can spread the costs of compliance over the millions of animals they process every year. . .

Why would a USDA inspector need an exclusive bathroom? It is so that they can have a private place to throw up after watching the horrific industrial operations that manages our food? Why isn’t that sort of things creating a fear for food? Why is it that we are not afraid of Burger King and Tyson?

The farmer goes on to say:

USDA regulations spell out precisely what sort of facility and system is permissible, but they don’t set thresholds for food-borne pathogens. (That would require the USDA to recall meat from packers who failed to meet the standards, something the USDA, incredibly, lacks the authority to do.

This Polyface farmer have consistently swab-tested his chickens for all kinds of diseases, and the result is always better than its CAFO counter parts. My brother had feared for food safety, and relied on government regulation that is not aimed to make food healthier, only cheaper and more profitable. 

All of this has made me realize how much our food industry has failed, how much we are at fault for becoming detached from the things we eat. At least for me, I would stomach eating a pig’s feet and a whole fish any day; but eating a triple-cheese with bacon, I would be so afraid.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Marihuana and pig tails.

Got your attention? Good. As a disclaimer, what I am about to tell you is very serious and painful. What is it that they say in the movies? “Parental discretion advised,” that is it. You have been warned.

MSNBC aired a show last night on the US marijuana situation. Playing off the economy, a good-natured Appalachian farmer had been interviewed. Since the DEA busted his illegal “medicinal marijuana” farm, he had been reduced to being a farmer raising goats and rabbits barely supporting his family. The farmer had put on a good show, but I suspect that he was coached. He told the camera, as I can recall, “I can’t grow pot, growing tobacco makes no money, now all I can do is raise some these goats n’ rabbits to support my family.”

My first thought was a rabbit I had as a pet when I was little. I don’t think he ever had a name, but I am pretty sure his mysterious disappearance had something to do with a plate of “chicken” we had for dinner that night. we rarely have meat for dinner, only on holidays during those early years of the 80s in China. A full plate of chicken on the day my rabbit supposedly "ran away" just screamed foul. I’ve forgiven my mother since because I’ve learned how her generation suffered through so much hunger. In her view, she simply provided what was natural to a grown rabbit’s life – a ceremonial participation in the human food-chain, a delicious meal rare and expensive to us.

Strangely, hearing the ex-pot farmer talk about his rabbits gave me the craving for it. Then I remembered I live in Indianapolis and I’d have to track down a farmer who would sell and butcher one for me - a task almost as hard as buying persimmon fresh. I wonder how much trouble it would be to travel to Kentucky and find the celebrity farmer on that MSNBC show.

But why it is that the farmer, who is obviously raising a food commodity that would fetch a good price, at least from me, would risk growing an illegal crop? Is there no economic incentive for him to raise health meat products?

Then it got me thinking about his competitor, the CAFOs – the feedlot operators. In one section of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan had talked about the poor feedlot pigs who got their tails chopped off. It’s not a scary children’s tale, it’s more of a scary animal lover’s warning. Cover your pet’s ears.

Apparently the piglets in these CAFOs are weaned only 10 days after birth, compared with 13 weeks in nature, because they gain weight faster under drug fortified feed than on sow’s milk. But this premature weaning leaves the pigs with a craving to suck and chew, so they would bit the tails of the animal in front of them. Normally the pig would fight the other one off, but because these CAFO pigs are so demoralized (pigs are very intelligent) that they choose not to care. This leads to infections and can cause widespread health problems to these pigs. When these pigs are discovered, they are usually clubbed to death on the spot. What the industry and USDA had thought of as a solution is shocking and utterly inhumane: the USDA approved the practice to chop off the tails, without any anesthesia for obvious cost reasons, off the piglets NOT so that it won’t be the target anymore; they leave just enough so that each time a pig would bit, it would be so painful that the demoralized pig would care enough to struggle.

I hate to bring politics into the discussion, but I see part of how we came to this failed food market and our lack of options as a product of agency regulations and legislature enacted laws tends favoring corporations. These CAFOs then pollute directly and deplete and destroy our lands with copious amount of chemical fertilizers. What ever happen to trusting the people with decisions on their most basic and essential need - choice in how we eat? I can understand having some social services that are critical, but when the government is operating against logic and morality, we need to question if it is time to make a change.

If we had simply took the millions of dollars from busting these Marijuana farmers and help them by creating sustainable innovative "Polyface" type farm for the local consumers. Not only would we put more people to work, we are also developing a sustainable, diverse, health food cycle. That seems to make more sense than litigating who has a legal right of growing a certain plant, allowing that plant to become the single most depended product in our food system thus making us more vulnerable if that single crop should fail for some reason. 

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Grass farming

I’ve never heard of grass farming. From the sound of it, I would assume that it has something to do with people raising different types of grass for the spectacles of the American Dream in having a lush and uniformed green lawn, one that might looks like this:


But I was wrong.

Grass farming is the complex process of allowing animal grazing cycles to control and maximize grass’s natural ability to convert solar energy into consumable protein in the form of livestock. This process also allows a natural enrichment of the soil to occur and helps develop a healthy biodiversity that offers our livestock natural antibiotics and other nutrients. Their corn-fed counterparts, as you may have already suspected, depend on the mass amount of synthetic drugs to accomplish this very task. If you want to know more, I suggest you read Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

All the complexity aside, what I found fascinating is that grass, through its photosynthetic activities, also can help remove the excess carbon we pump into the air. While there are serious, as well as ludicrous, debates about the effects of global warming and the contributing effects of GHG, I can’t help but take note of an interesting observation Pollan has made in his book:

"[I]f the sixteen million acres now being used to grow corn to feed cows in the United States became well-managed pasture, that would remove fourteen billion pounds of carbon from the atmosphere each year, the equivalent of taking four million cars off the road. We seldom focus on farming's role in global warming, but as much as a third of all greenhouse gases that human activity has added to the atmosphere can be attributed to the saw and the plow."

This reminded me that for a brief period last year I employed the services of a local lawn care company to come in and aerate my lawn, put down artificial nutrients – some sort of combined nitrogen formula, and spread weed control chemicals to kill of the native grasses in my yard. All of this to mimic the nature as it is intended. After hearing in horror, however, that we ought to keep our dog and (if we have any) small children off the grass for at least 48 hours after the application of chemicals, Lauren and I weighted our options and decided to cancel our services and keep our lawn chemical/hazard free.

While it is impractical for me to practice grass farming on my small urban lot, it may be possible to open my lawn for access to those who are raising a goat or two in the city to come in and graze periodically? And if there are enough people doing this sort of urban grass farming, would it change the world just enough to make it worth our while?

Monday, January 10, 2011

Buying “Organic”

Today is Lauren’s birthday. My gift to her is a regrettable confession to my newly developed enjoyment in grocery shopping. (Happy birthday babe!)

She has conditioned me well in the art of buying food. I come to see it as sort of exercise (walking up and down the colorful and carefully marketed categorical aisles at Kroger while constantly reciting my mantra - “yes dear”) and a spectacle sport (watching Lauren count her shop smart coupons and our final savings rack up at the register). I think her current record on a single grocery trip, from coupons and other online and offline savings, is over a hundred dollars – almost half of our final bill.

Of course shopping for food has always been an essential part of my life. I just never thought to define it in some meaningful way until recently. In my twenties, it had always consisted of buying Ramen noodles and frozen items for the microwave from some chain grocery store. I do recall, at some distant past in my life in China, shopping for food had consisted of walking down the street with my mother, scoping out the different farmers that had came to town on their old bicycles with baskets of produce and meat strapped to either side of their bikes. My mother would squeeze the tomatoes to see if they are ripe or too ripe, snap the peas to see if they are fresh, and poke at the fish to see if they would move. She would then tell one farmer that another farmer down the road is selling the peas at a lower price, but she would buy at the higher price if he would throw in the slab of pork belly for cheap. I guess shopping has always been micro-life defining moments for me, whether it was a daily interval in China haggling with the small farmers that peddled their produce to the city on a bike, or a bi-monthly ritual here in the states haggling via coupons and online promotions with corporations peddling their produce all over the world on fossil fuel.

Recently, Lauren and I have been thinking more and more about the environment and sustainability. When it came to groceries, we got passed the age-old question about paper or plastic by stockpiling our very own reusable bags. That was the easy part, but the prospect of eating healthier and buying food that consumes, directly and indirectly, less chemical (petro) and synthetic energy is a harder problem to solve. When it comes to buying organic meats and petrochemical free vegetables, as I come to discover, it is much less about believing in the “Organic” label and more about what make sense financially and what really is the different between “Organic” and “organic.”

In the book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the author tracked one of the “Organic” chickens he had bought to the actual “free range farm” where the chicken had been raised. To describe the “free range” method, the author said:

“[t]he space that has been provided for that [free range] purpose . . . not unlike [what] the typical American front lawn resembles – [a] kind of ritual space, intended not so much for use of the local residents [but] as a symbolic offering to the larger community.”

It was shocking to me that these “Organic” chickens are the ones that, because fed on entirely “Organic” corn (as opposed to petro-fertilized corn and other animal by-products) and do not get the antibiotic treatments, thus need to reach their market weight in staggering record time – less mature time means less chance of developing health problems and less dependency on antibiotic medication. So like so many of us, these chickens spent majority of their short lives indoor, eating corn, and only occasional vacation to the outside to “free-range” for the pure novelty of the situation. These “Organic” chickens are then packaged and sold by the same industrial process, consuming fossil fuel indirectly, and entering our homes at a higher price.

This presents an interesting problem for my newfound interest in shopping for food. It seems that buying government labeled “Organic” products may not be at all sustainable or healthy. But the alternative is to buy even less healthy and non-sustainable industrial food. My only solution is to invent a time machine and go back to when people actually were farmers, growing a variety of produce locally and raising a range of livestock allowing these interconnected ecological parts to nourish each other organically, and delivering the products locally. I need to shift use back to a time when we had a distinct connection with our food. But then it would be the end of Lauren’s coupons that has become the beacon of the industrial food age. She would have to learn how to bargain with the farmers to continue my conditioning of seeing grocery shopping as an exercise and a spectacle sport. All of that, of course, is only depended on my time machine. So for now, we are stuck with two less appealing alternatives of the industrial food age, Organic and non-Organic food, and the remote sense of satisfaction we get out of these coupons as a mark of small victory against the billion dollar profit that is squeezed out of the industrial food process. Oh, we still have our little backyard, and unlike the ritualistic and typical American backyards, we do grow beans, eggplants, peppers, and other things. Maybe we can think about raising a few chickens . . . ?

Happy birthday Lauren.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

It’s not where you are but what you make of it that counts.

5:20am wake up; thin vibrations of my electric toothbrush jotted my brain ready for the gym. My half awakened body struggled for a while in spin class, but for the first time in quite a while I was excited to get done working out and get back into my book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. Perhaps the tedious legal readings I endured in school so far have killed the sense of enjoyment I once had for books. Reading about the food industry, however, seems to be just what I needed to want to read for pleasure again.

The book is about our food culture – a culture that is depended on industrial processes strictly focused on the economy of food. The industrialization of our relationship with food has created a passionless uniformed food identity that spells Orwellian doom. If it is true that we are what we eat, then even if we can convince ourselves of our freedom politically, can we truly believe in freedom existentially?

Food should be a culture of diverse communities giving rise to a core identity of being human. Food is something we all have in common. We come to love food and enjoy them with quite extravagance at times. Yet we each take a different approach and taste to food. That diversity creates a rich presence of culture in our daily lives of being human. Take the Chinese for example. Their “family style” meal at weddings could reach staggering hundreds of varieties and courses featuring anything from white tree fungus, to actual bird’s nest, to steam-pot turtles. Chinese cooking style can be recognized by its regional flavors, evolved from hundreds of years of coexistence with the local vegetation and livestock (turtles being one from my father's hometown). Northern China favors steamed buns and dumplings made primarily from wheat that originates form its local farms. Southern China is a flood plain and suitable for rice to flourish. Its regional flavor mostly involves fish and rice. The Southwest part of China is mountainous but some spots are fertile and produce various spices and tea. The people from that region will use different ways to cook with tea leaves. Northwestern Chinese have adopted an even larger variety of spices due to its historical trade route to the Middle Ease, and it shares its taste for wheat in buns, bread, and noodle with the northerners, but this region also developed a distinct taste for goat and lamb that dominates its local market as opposed to pork that dominates the northern parts of China. 

American food culture, or more precisely – food industry culture, is exactly the opposite of my Chinese tradition. In America, there is a superficial variety predominantly depended on one single commodity – Zea mays, the Number 2 corn. While we directly consume some of this corn in the form of corn meal, a huge percentage of this corn is “processed” into a variety of food products include high fructose corn syrup. Part of this processed product is then fed to livestock to fatten them quickly by adding intramuscular fat (bad for your body not to mention the amount of antibiotics and hormones injected to help “mitigate” the fact that cows are not meant to eat corn and cannot survive long on a corn-fed diet). With the wave of “organic” fads, we can tell that people do want something better. At least part of the population believes in a distinctive connection with their food that they are willing to go to the extra step to buy “organic” products. But they failed to recognize the industrialization of “organic” food in disguise. The 1984 nightmare continues.

After reading a passage from the book to Lauren, she suggested that we should just move. At first the idea was tempting. But as I thought more about the options, I realized that nowhere is better than here and that is the point. The Chinese were confined to regions and developed a rich food culture inherently sustainable to its locality with a range of diversity to prevent food shortages. We, on the other hand, face the uphill challenge of reshaping our attitude towards food and our food culture to make our dependency on food a healthier one - a local one. We can either run away and keep running from things we do not like and continue to participate in the food industry's 1984 Project and continue to eat the Big Mac; or we can love and and help make a change in our local communities. I like Indiana. I’ve come to appreciate its people and its pride in the farming culture. Only if we could help the people here really see farming as it should be and develop a connection with our food once again.