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What is Cultural Appropriation?

[ 330 ] January 27, 2016 |

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I found the comments to yesterday’s post on cultural appropriation bizarre. That’s because many commenters do not seem to have a functional definition of cultural appropriation. There were multiple versions of comments like, “I eat Mexican food so are you accusing me of culturally appropriating Mexican food?” Um, no.

This all reminded of the housing and schooling posts where I state that moving to the suburbs for the schools is a racist act in that people took this as a direct attack upon their own privilege. With the housing posts, that is an intentional provocation on my part. This sort of thing was by no means intended in yesterday’s post. But white liberals can be very, very defensive about their own privilege because they see themselves as trying to do the right thing.

So what actually is cultural appropriation, at least when it comes to food. Thanks to UncleEbenzeer for tracking this down and placing it in the thread.

Only a dominant culture can “appropriate” another culture, and only a systematically oppressed culture can “be appropriated.” Because what’s bad about it only stems from that specific power relationship. You can’t understand cultural appropriation without understanding the role that power dynamic plays in producing the effects that people are finding problematic. You also, of course, can’t understand cultural appropriation if you don’t actually listen to what people are saying is problematic about it.

Kuo linked to an authority at Hipster Appropriations on the cultural appropriation of foods, which I can tell Coyne did not read (white man can’t be bothered, his ignorant rage too important for research). Yet it lays it all out very clearly:

So let’s begin with what I don’t think constitutes cultural appropriation of food, to get some of the angsty stuff out of the way. I don’t believe it is cultural appropriation to:

eat food from another culture
to learn how to cook food from another culture
to modify recipes from another culture for your own enjoyment
to eat at restaurants, authentic or otherwise, that serve food from another culture
to enjoy learning about another culture thru the traditional and/or modern foods of that culture

Instead, cultural appropriation does any or all of these things (at a minimum):

Despoliation (intentional or not)
Fetishization (stereotyping, othering, etc.)
Theft (claiming a thing as your own, erasing the inventors)

Despoliation can be direct, as in actually entering a country and walking off with its statues and historical heritage. Or it can be indirect. For example, due to the enormous wealth differential created by the power imbalance between a dominant and a dominated culture, a component of a culture can start to become inaccessible even to its originators. As the Hipster Appropriations article says, cultural appropriation includes “making it difficult for those of the culture from which it stems to gain access to” a part of their own culture. Quinoa, for example. Which I already dealt with above. But they illustrate what this would be like by reversing the POV and having the same thing happen to apples in America. Incidentally, reversing POV like that (what I have called “forced perspective” reasoning) is a crucial skill for critical thinking, essential to understanding all discourse about social justice whatever (I discussed this before in the context of feminism). Coyne, Dawkins, Boghossian: They really need to learn this skill. Badly. (Although I think Boghossian might be a lost cause.)

Fetishization can manifest in all manner of unempathetic or historically ignorant insensitivity. Kuo’s points provide many examples. In recent news is the practice of white folk dressing up like Native Americans or wearing blackface, both of which are extremely insensitive, displaying an ignorance of the horrific history these practices mock, an ignorance that is itself a manifestation of white privilege: Native Americans and African Americans don’t have the privilege of forgetting the genocidal brutalization we subjected their ancestors to, and the long history of racism embodied in such mimicry of what “they” “look” like. This does not mean we can’t ever dress as historical persons in those groups. It simply must be done sensitively and seriously, and not ignorantly or frivolously. To understand the distinctions and why it matters, see my comment analyzing the difference between appropriating a culture, and honoring a culture by representing one of its heroes to the public.

Theft means in the intellectual property sense, not in the physical object sense. Cultural appropriation as stealing means borrowing some idea from an oppressed culture, and then pretending or thinking the dominant culture created it, or simply erasing the role of the originators. In other words, not giving credit where credit is due. Stealing the credit. Or simply eliminating the credit. The history of Rock & Roll, for example, famously exhibits components of this. I’m sorry white people, but Elvis was not really the King. Racism resulted in white people being credited with inventing everything, and the black artists who actually did, gradually came to be sidelined and eventually forgotten. That’s sad. And we should not be proud of it. Nor should we want to repeat the behavior.

This does not mean all accusations of cultural appropriation are equal, or even correct. Some I’m sure are silly or frivolous or even indefensible. But there being stupid claims of a thing does not mean there are not sound claims of that thing. As I’m constantly pointing out in my study of the historicity of Jesus: that all kinds of stupid, unsourced nonsense gets said about Mithras and Horus, does not mean there aren’t genuine predecessors of the dying-and-rising savior god mytheme that Jesus was modeled on (such as Osiris, Zalmoxis, Romulus, and Inanna). Learn how to distinguish the wheat from the chaff. But doing that requires understanding what we are talking about and why it is a problem.

Now, one can argue whether or not Whole Foods engages in cultural appropriation or not. I would argue that it frequently does and by “introducing” collard greens to its wealthy white clientele without some discussion of their history and place within American culture that it was doing so here, albeit it in a minor and relatively innocuous way. Others may disagree. But let’s at least come to this argument with a functional definition of cultural appropriation. The definition above suffices quite well.

And no, just because you are white and like Thai food does not mean you are appropriating culture.

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Food, Authenticity, Cultural Appropriation

[ 308 ] January 26, 2016 |

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I know we need another discussion of the relationship between food and authenticity like we need another post about Hillary or Bernie, Which One Will Save America and Which One is Horrible? But I could not help being typically annoyed by Conor Friedersdorf’s post on collard greens and Twitter. Basically, Whole Foods tweeted out a recipe on collard greens that included cooking them in peanuts. A number of African-Americans called Whole Foods out on this, saying that the grocery store was cooking collards in an inauthnetic manner and was engaging in cultural appropriation. Friedersdorf found it necessary to devote an entire column to defending the corporation and tsk-tsking reporters for not doing research on this very important matter.

Pretty dumb all around. Yet perhaps worth a bit of commentary.

First, given that Whole Foods barely serves people of color at all and certainly avoids poor communities like the plague, the company deserves to take some shots. Usually, the only non-white people in Whole Foods is those happy looking Salvadoran coffee farmers in pictures hanging from the ceiling. This is a corporation dedicating to providing good food to rich people who can actually afford it, all while making sure employees don’t have a union. Whole Foods is happy to package traditional foods to white people (and often ripping them off for that food) without even mentioning where these food traditions come from. That is indeed cultural appropriation and given that whites have been appropriating black culture since slavery without giving credit, it’s hardly outrageous that some African-Americans would lob this accusation. It’s justified. If Whole Foods actually cared about serving communities of color, maybe it would have a defense. As is, the company sees the traditions of communities of color around the world as little more than a place to generate ideas that can be sold to rich whites.

That said, people can cook collard greens any dang way they want. While a well-brewed pot of collard greens is pretty fantastic (and allow to highly recommend the collards at Gladys Kitchen in Americus, Georgia, as well as the amazing fried chicken and desserts, where I ate last week), let’s face it, greens boiled to nothing is not usually the greatest way to prepare them. If they are good with peanuts, even if black people don’t eat them that way, I guess that’s OK.

As for shaming journalists and their research, I’d probably be more sympathetic to this if it wasn’t coming from someone with an ego the size of Friedersdorf. That a white male libertarian finds it necessary to defend a corporation hardly impressed me either. But really, a journalist who pretty much made his name on the internet complaining about internet journalism is eye-rolling.

In any case, traditional foods can always be changed and improved upon. There’s not a single “authentic” way to cook anything. There are better and worse ways to cook them. There are traditional ways that are not per se good or bad. This doesn’t mean we can’t reject and mock bad ideas, say, tomato ketchup or, god forbid, the tacos I saw but very much did not eat in a western Pennsylvania bar last week that consisted of ground beef, sauerkraut, and 1000 Island dressing. But obviously there’s nothing wrong with figuring out what would be really awesome in tacos that one would never see in Mexico (Korean tacos!). Or figuring out what would taste way better than canned mushrooms and canned olives on pizza.* It’s the same with cooking greens. However, it would also be nice if Whole Foods didn’t act like this beneficent wonderful corporation providing the secret to good food for people when African-Americans (and some whites of course!) in fact have known about these greens for hundreds of years. There’s plenty of reason for grousing all around. Probably not enough for an Atlantic column though. For a LGM post, well, it’s not like we have standards.

*I confess to deviating from the official LGM line that pineapple is a bad pizza topping. I like it.

Ag-Gag

[ 20 ] January 20, 2016 |

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One of the most pernicious right-wing goals, and I know the competition for this title is really stiff, are the so-called ag-gag bills agribusiness are pushing in the states. These bills would make it illegal to record evidence of what happens inside food factories, such as slaughterhouses. Those filming or recording audio or having this material and not turning it over to the police could be punished with fines or even prison time.

I can’t say how pernicious this is. It is a response to animal rights activists getting jobs in slaughterhouses and then secretly recording what is going on in order to publicize how horrible the animals are treated. They have recorded animals being beaten, sexually abused, thrown around, and otherwise tortured. Slaughterhouses and factory farms also treat workers poorly. They are underpaid, understaffed, and overworked. It’s hardly surprising then that they would take this out on the poor animals. If these bills become law, what is the rationale then for being allowed to record any conditions going on inside of any factory. In other words, this is central to my thesis in Out of Sight. If companies can keep all knowledge of working conditions out of the public’s eye by making such knowledge a crime, they can oppress workers all the more. That is their open goal. There’s no good reason for these laws to stay just within agribusiness. It’s quite scary.

Mostly, these laws have been defeated. But not everywhere and the fight continues. One of these laws passed in Idaho. But a federal judge struck it down last year. Now activists are hoping to build on this decision to go after a similar law passed in what has recently become the sewer of American politics, North Carolina:

There’s been a particularly strong amount of venom for the North Carolina law, which required an override of a gubernatorial veto to get on the books. The fears come from the law’s breadth. It outlaws any employee from recording in a “non-public” area of any workplace, not just a farm. If the employee disseminates any collected footage, that’d be considered a violation of loyalty, and the employee could be sued for civil damages.

Many animal rights activists seek employment at the farms and ranches they investigate to gain access.

North Carolina’s law went into effect Jan. 1, 2016, and the coalition didn’t wait long to challenge it. Humane Society of the U.S. lobbyist Matthew Dominguez predicted the move.

Defeating this is a very, very important issue. The courts so far have been favorable. Were this to make it to the Supreme Court, given the current makeup, I don’t really feel all that confident in the result.

Speaking of Out of Sight, remember that Shakezula is moderating a discussion of the first two chapters of the book with me on January 26 at 2 p.m. Read the book and ask me some questions!!!

Tacos and the Meaningless of “Authenticity”

[ 137 ] January 17, 2016 |

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Authenticity is basically a meaningless concept that says everything about the desires of the user and nothing about the history or meanings of an actual thing which the term is used to describe. Nowhere is this more true than in discussing food. One of the arenas where this term gets most bandied around is with Mexican food. But there are many problems with this. Primarily, the biggest issue is that those who are searching for “authenticity” are ignoring both the food ways of northern Mexico and the interaction between Americans and Mexicans and Germans along the U.S.-Mexico frontier through the 19th and early 20th centuries that helped create what we now consider Americanized Mexican food. Looking at the hard shell taco, this piece notes that the ground beef used in what we might call Taco Bell-style tacos is common throughout northern Mexico and that there’s a long tradition of various forms of fried tortillas.

The story of most American adaptation of new dishes in the 19th and 20th centuries relies on two processes: preservation and mass production.

In the late 19th century, the Mexican-influenced dish of choice in the U.S. was chili con carne, not the taco. In Mexico, dried chile peppers are and have always been a major part of the cuisine, but are sold whole, to be toasted and rehydrated or otherwise prepared as the cook desires. The chief innovation that made the American taco possible was chili powder, a store-bought item not found in Mexico.

Chili powder was first sold in 1894 by its inventor, Texan-by-way-of-Germany Willie Gebhardt, for use in chili. “What people don’t seem to appreciate is that getting ingredients back then was not as easy as it is today,” says Arellano. “Today you go to your local Latino supermarket and you can get whatever. Back then, you had to improvise.” Gebhardt was unable to find the chile peppers he wanted year-round, and so bought a huge stockpile of the peppers, which were probably ancho, and ran them through a meat grinder a few times to pulverize them. He later began selling the powder already made—a huge convenience for anyone wanting to make the then-trendy chili. (German immigrants in Texas also tended to wrap their own sausages in tortillas, an early Mexican fusion cuisine, as Arellano told SF Weekly.)

The other ingredients—cumin powder, tomatoes, iceberg lettuce, ground beef—have connections to parts of northern Mexico, but to suss them out would be to ignore the real reason they were used: that’s what was readily available in America at the time. Cheddar cheese is hardly ever found in Mexico, but in the U.S., it’s the second-most-popular variety, after mozzarella. And it was already being used often in Texas, especially in concert with ground beef, in the hamburger. So, sure, cheddar cheese. That’s what’s here, why not?

Now, this doesn’t mean that you have to think hard shell tacos with ground beef and cheddar cheese are actually good. I would say they are not particularly good, at least compared with basically every other form of Mexican food. But are they real food? Sure. Are they Mexican? Sort of. Are they American? Definitely. Are they “authentic?” Who cares, even if you can define the meaning. If you use chile powder in your Mexican food you cook at home, do you think you aren’t being authentic? And if so, why?

Looks Like the TPP Will Do to Vietnamese Chicken Producers What NAFTA Did to Mexican Corn Farmers

[ 59 ] December 31, 2015 |

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Vietnamese chicken farmers already see the writing on the wall from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. After NAFTA was passed, American food products, especially corn, flooded the Mexican market. That made it impossible for Mexican corn farmers to compete. Conveniently for American corporations, that led to millions of Mexicans leaving their land and requiring work that working in maquiladoras for low wages would provide. And if it didn’t, there was plenty of low-wage work in the United States if those former farmers could sneak across the border without being caught or killed.

Well, Vietnamese farmers are unlikely to migrate to the U.S., but they will be likely to lose their land and go to the cities to compete for the unsafe factory jobs making products for the American market that drives the TPP. That’s because American chicken companies are about to flood Vietnam with their poultry. In fact, it’s already happening. From the first link.

Vietnam’s poultry sector is expected to be one of the hardest hit by the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) when the free trade deal falls into place.

Experts say Vietnamese chicken, long crippled by low technology and high production costs, will not be able to compete with chicken imports from the world’s top producers. However, others say that taste may be more important than price.

In Hanoi, chicken pho is not authentic unless it is made with local free-range chicken, or ga ta in Vietnamese. Almost double the price of factory chicken, ga ta’s competitive advantage is product differentiation.

“Vietnamese free-range chicken has a plumpness and shine to it,” said celebrity chef Nguyen Phuong Hai. “The meat isn’t too tough nor too soft, and the skin is crunchy, not fatty. But industrial chicken is different, the meat is too soft, the thigh is dry and falls apart.”

Won’t matter, as we know. That cheap, tasteless, awful American chicken will win out. And while the facile analysis is that this is great for everyone except those chicken farmers and the taste buds of consumers because now chicken will be cheaper, let’s also note that it will also make Vietnam more dependent upon international commodity processes and make the poor less able to eat if those prices rise. This is what we saw in Mexico in 2007 when international corn prices skyrocketed, making the staff of life in that nation very hard for the poor to eat. This was a major domestic issue in Mexico and brought the downsides of NAFTA home for a lot of people. There’s no reason that this can’t happen in Vietnam and likely will at some point. And if the poor of Vietnam are competing with Americans for chicken supplies and prices rise, well, we all know who won’t be eating meat for awhile.

Ultimately, what international trade should do is give people reasonable options to work in decent paid jobs in factories or stay and farm. It should promote nations working together while also allowing domestic industries to survive for cultural and political reasons. But of course it doesn’t work that way. What these trade agreements do is allow American corporations to devastate local industries, throw people off their land and out of work, force them into factories to work for cheap, and then send the vast majority of profits to their shareholders’ pockets. That’s what NAFTA did and that’s what the TPP is going to do.

Book Review: Robert Ji-Song Ku, Martin F. Manalansan, and Anita Mannur, eds., Eating Asian America: A Food Studies Reader

[ 77 ] December 29, 2015 |

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The twenty essays that make up Eating Asian America demonstrate both the multiple approaches to food studies in an era where that field has exploded and how food is a wonderful window into the complexities of race and immigration over the history of the United States. Asian immigrants have transformed American foodways, have had their own foodways transformed by American imperialism and social norms when they immigrate, and often find themselves torn between their own cultural traditions and the social norms of the new world in which they find themselves. I recently ran across this Ruth Tam essay in the Washington Post about how she was embarrassed by the Chinese food she grew up with in the United States because her friends made fun of how her house smelled, but now white people are embracing this same food. In some ways, she says this is good, but she also feels it cheapens the experiences of her and other Asian immigrants:

But while some eateries get it right, the United States’s take on “ethnic” food often leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Recently, I discovered I can order bone broth, like my grandmother used to make, in New York City — the same way I would order a cold-pressed juice.

“2015 is the year of bone broth!” the “Today” show declared in January. “These days, the hottest food trend is a steaming cup of soup.” The morning show touted bone broth as a newly discovered wonder food of “Paleo dieters and wellness enthusiasts,” making no mention of its grounding in Chinese culture.

In the United States, immigrant food is often treated like discount tourism — a cheap means for foodies to feel worldly without leaving the comfort of their neighborhood — or high-minded fusion — a stylish way for American chefs to use other cultures’ cuisines to reap profit. The dishes of America’s recent immigrants have become check marks on a cultural scavenger hunt for society’s elite. One conspicuous example is an upcoming eatery in Washington’s Petworth neighborhood that packages discount tourism and high-minded fusion into one menu. The as-yet-unnamed restaurant seeks to re-create Southeast Asia’s “expat experience” — not for Asian residents in D.C. but for D.C. residents who crave the feeling of visiting Asia with other foreigners.

“When you travel in Southeast Asia, you have two experiences: the cultural experiences with the temples, food, and people, and then a phenomenal traveler’s culture, too,” chef Alex McCoy told Washingtonian. “That’s the inspiration for this place. We want to introduce people to Thai cuisine, but frame it in the eye of a traveler.”

This is a good entry point into Eating Asian America. To quote the introduction, “this volume is the first book-length collection of scholarly essays to consider how Asian-American immigrant histories are inscribed in the production and dissemination of ideas about Asian-American foodways” (5). The essays use a wide variety of scholarly approaches to understand the intersection of food with class, race, gender, ethnicity, and/or sexuality to build a broader comprehension of the centrality of these issues to American history and the present. Ranging from how Cambodians took over the donut industry in Los Angeles and how Hawaiian chefs started to incorporate local ingredients and dishes in the islands’ highest-end restaurants to the development of Filipino food in the United States before World War II and how Hawaiian artists are incorporating food into their works, Eating Asian American takes a usefully broad approach to these questions.

A few words about some of the strongest essays. Heather Lee’s essay telling of the life of a Chinese immigrant restaurant worker in New York’s Chinatown from the 1920s through the 1940s opens up a fascinating world of family connections spanning continents, the extremely hard work laboring in these kitchens, and how American unions trying to organize the restaurants had no place for Chinese workers. Heidi Kathleen Kim explores how the Japanese concentration camps of World War II tore apart Japanese-American family eating arrangements through the poorly organized mess hall kitchens, but also shows how white Americans sometimes protested against these conditions at the time and how Japanese-Americans have embraced the mess hall kitchen declension narrative in their memories of the camps. Robert Ji-Song Ku discusses the history of Kikkoman soy sauce, asking why, since it had been part of the American food scene since 1868, does the company choose to forget this and instead celebrate 1957 as its entry into the U.S. market, when it opened its San Francisco office? The answer is twofold, that it’s a marketing attempt to attack other soy sauce brands as tainted and inauthentic and that by doing so, it is assuming that the Asian immigrants eating Kikkoman before 1957 were not real Americans either. Martin Manalansan enters into the complicated politics of authenticity, comparing a Christmas meal he attended at a Filipino-American family’s house in Queens that devolved into a debate about what was really authentic Filipino food (should it include hot dogs, which were introduced by U.S. troops and which have become common in many Asian food traditions where the U.S. has stationed its military) and the Anthony Bourdain No Reservations Philippines episode which focused on a Filipino-American who is brought to his family in the Philippines and leads to great ambivalence. There are several other excellent essays as well.

As one finds in edited volumes, the quality of essays vary widely, as does the interest of the reader in them. A few of the essays are so obvious as to wonder about their inclusion. Did you know that food trucks in Austin that combine Asian and Mexican ingredients succeed because they are mobile and use the internet to create a buzz around their food? That’s the insight of one essay. I’m not commenting too much on the last part of the book, which revolves primarily about representations of food in novels by Asian-Americans, largely because I just don’t have anything to offer, although those with backgrounds in literary criticism may well find them quite useful.

This book does not shy away from the types of theoretical approaches that might interfere with the enjoyment of the general reader. The first footnote is after all a listing of Michel Foucault’s major works. But barring that, a lot of readers will find this book quite useful and at least some of the essays really fascinating. One of the great things about food is that because it is one of the common experiences all humans share, it can ground jargon in a reality that educated readers can relate to, even if they lack training in the given academic field. And in the end, most readers will get something positive out of Eating Asian America, if not from every essay.

Meat Tax

[ 34 ] December 13, 2015 |

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I don’t know that a meat tax could work in reducing consumption to fight climate change, but at least it’s good to see environmentalists understanding that any such move would need to include subsidies to the poor so it didn’t fall overly heavy on them. I always say that greens need a more sophisticated class analysis and this is an example of trying to think through problems with a useful eye to economic justice as well.

The 1970s: America’s Finest Culinary Decade

[ 213 ] December 12, 2015 |

There’s a new Twitter feed dedicated to the food of the 1970s. You should follow it. Some examples:

I was born in 1974 so I missed most of this hell. But I think those of my parents’ generation, which includes a lot of you readers, have never publicly explained what you people were thinking. Why add canned pineapple and/or hot dogs to everything? What’s with molding fish into various shapes? And I love mayo, but really, making it the central ingredient to half the dishes made is a problem.

What happened to this nation in the 70s? Can we blame Nixon for this? Too many drugs floating around? Cooking while on acid flashbacks? Help me out here.

…Speaking of food of this era, I was just reading the classic Gay Talese profile of Frank Sinatra. I knew I liked Sinatra for more than just his singing:

For example, when one of his men brought him a frankfurter with catsup on it, which Sinatra apparently abhors, he angrily threw the bottle at the man, splattering catsup all over him.

Do You Love Thanksgiving Traditions But Hate Turkey? Now You Can Split the Difference!

[ 44 ] December 1, 2015 |

Now that we have all recovered from our annual overdose of exceptionally dry meat, we can start planning for next Thanksgiving. Like in all matters, the past offers outstanding ideas. When it comes to food, can you do worse than 15th century royal courts? Certainly the answer is no for the pro-gout partisans among us. And if you like your meats combined and sewn together, it always wins. Take the cockentrice.

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Turkeys were American so we have to make some adjustments since they weren’t in Europe in the 15th century. Here’s the recipe with a capon.

Cockentrice – take a capon, scald it, drain it clean, then cut it in half at the waist; take a pig, scald it, drain it as the capon, and also cut it in half at the at the waist; take needle and thread and sew the front part of the capon to the back part of the pig; and the front part of the pig to the back part of the capon, and then stuff it as you would stuff a pig; put it on a spit, and roast it: and when it is done, gild it on the outside with egg yolks, ginger, saffron, and parsley juice; and then serve it forth for a royal meat.

No reason we can’t do this with a turkey. As the linked article notes, you can also sew the turkey head to the back of the pig if this pleases your fancy. It’s just the early-modern version of the turducken and we all know how excited we became as a nation when John Madden discovered that. Maybe we can bring him back for one last go around on the air with the cockentrice.

In any case, surely this will be a crowd-pleaser to your family. You can thank me later.

The Problem with Burgers is Ketchup, Not Sogginess

[ 125 ] November 22, 2015 |

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It’s like this article was begging for me to comment. Ketchup leather is a stupid invention. Sogginess in burgers from ketchup is not a problem. I eat my share of burgers and when they do get too soggy, it’s rarely because of any kind of condiment barring a ridiculous amount of something being put on it. But the combination of our national technological fetishism combined with the need for capitalism to constantly find new products to create a completely unnecessary product to replace a nonexistent problem. The media thus goes crazy for this exciting new technology. All of a sudden, the new technology is a solution for a problem we never knew we had. Now our lives are so much more complete than they were before we knew said problem existed! And our technology fetish is satisfied once again, at least until we need another hit.

In other words, the problem with burgers is not solved by ketchup leather. It is solved by not polluting them with ketchup. If you do want such pollution, I guess there’s nothing wrong with it in leather form. But it solves no problem and we should reject the entire way of thinking that creates nonexistent problems to sell new products.

The New Fake Meat

[ 144 ] November 20, 2015 |

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I wonder about this new idea of laboratory-grown meat that could replace cows. I confess I’m almost as skeptical about this as I am about Soylent, although I guess at the least some sort of substitution for the horrors of eating would make Dylan Matthews happy. Would Americans eat this? They say no at this point. But then Americans eat all sort of artificial, laboratory-created food. I mean, what the hell is in a Hot Pocket? What is the blue in the blue Gatorade? Frozen veggie burgers? Aerosol cheese? I could go on for weeks with these questions. But meat is a different beast than processed meat products. An actual burger made of lab-meat may well be a bridge too far. There are however certainly good reasons to support the research, which is the impact of cows on the environment is really harsh:

While companies like Modern Meadow and Muufri are still in the proof-of-concept stage, it’s hard to overstate the potential impact of displacing the cow. The livestock sector uses 30 percent of the planet’s entire land surface and consumes one-third of the world’s fresh water. The industry also claims 20 percent of global energy consumption, and generates more greenhouse gas emissions than planes, trains, and automobiles combined. The massive consumption of water and crops for meat production has a dramatic effect on the environment, exacerbating erosion, habitat and biodiversity loss, and water scarcity.

With the human population set to hit nine billion by 2050, it’s no wonder that livestock is the fastest-growing agricultural sector on the planet. Removing the cow from the global food system, then, seems like an obvious solution to the looming challenges of feeding the post-industrial world. A comprehensive University of Oxford assessment suggests that popular adoption of cultured meat production in Europe could yield approximately 35 to 60 percent lower energy use and 80 to 95 percent lower greenhouse gas emissions compared to conventionally produced meat. For a world wracked by growing systemic crises like hunger and water scarcity, ditching the world’s approximately 1.3 billion cows for less resource-intensive sources seems like an opportunity too good to pass up.

That’s a big deal. The article goes on to focus on some local organic farmer who puts her buyers in touch with the land and the food cycle through holding burger nights on the pasture, which is fine and all but I think goes farther to demonstrate the disconnect between the modern food movement and the need to feed 7 billion people. But the questions of fake meat and the need to replace cows on the planet are interesting and important ones.

Halloween Candy, Brought to You by Child Labor

[ 17 ] October 31, 2015 |

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On this Halloween, it’s worth asking whether the candy you are eating or handing out was produced in part by child labor.

It’s particularly troubling as a parent to know that there are now more than 2 million children harvesting cocoa in West Africa alone, according to a recent report by Tulane University — and most of those kids are doing hazardous work. And sugar isn’t any sweeter. According to the US Department of Labor, either child labour or forced labour is used to produce sugar and farm sugar cane in 17 of the world’s countries. A lot of the Halloween candy Canadian kids are consuming may contain child labour, we just don’t know for sure.

As a World Vision employee, I’ve seen the pictures and read the accounts of child labourers working on cocoa and sugar plantations in some of the world’s poorest countries. I’m familiar with the toxic pesticides to which many of these kids are exposed each day, without any safety equipment. I’m acutely aware of the machetes they swing for eight or ten hours a day to harvest cocoa pods, often on an empty stomach.

Talk about a razor blade in an apple. Imagine a machete on a bare hand or foot.

Additional information on child labor in cacao is available here and here. On child labor in the global sugar trade, see here and here.

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