books

Book: Terra Madre

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After reading the English translation of Terra Madre by Carlo Petrini, I wonder how our City would change if our farmers and our policy makers made it a priority to participate at the next Terra Madre World Meeting.

The Value and Price of Food is a short yet interesting chapter – well worth reading over once or twice.

According to the FAO, enough food is produced in the world for 12 billion people, but the population ( at the time of the report ) is just under 7 billion. – Report of Jean Ziegler, special reporter on the right to food, January 10 2008, A/HRC/7/5M

Food Politics

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If you and I disagree over the wisdom of eating junk food, that is not food politics.  If you and your allies organize and take political action to impose (or block) new government regulations on junk food — for example, keeping certain junk foods out of school cafeterias  — that is food politics.

No matter what your political leaning, there are likely some statements in this book that you will agree with, and there are likely some statements in this book that will ruffle your feathers.

Paarlberg applies a matter-of-fact mindset to answer questions like “Is chronic undernutrition a problem in the United States” and “Are genetically engineered foods safe?”. Most answers are given in four pages or less.

Parts of the book reminded me of Freakonomics (eg. America’s health crisis is linked far more to overnutrition than undernutrition) and other parts of the book rubbed me the wrong way although I did continue reading.

At the start it was a bit to heavy on US Food politics but some portions were interesting:

If [the] important Food Stamp program had been given a more accurate name — “an income supplement and insurance program for the poor” — it would enjoy far less political support in Congress.  It gains strong bipartisan support because of its brand as a program against hunger.   It also enjoys broad political support because it is routinely bundled into the same legislative package that delivers subsidies to farmers, the so-called farm bill, ensuring that representatives from agricultural districts will vote for food stamps in return for urban votes to preserve farm subsidies. (p.42)

It would be interesting to figure out the Canadian versions of some of the facts.  Like how, on one recent year, the largest 7% of American Farms received 45% of American agricultural subsidies.   In Europe, the wealthiest 20% of farmers receive more than 80% of the subsidies.

I don’t know about you, but you REALLY have to wonder why such huge portions of the subsidies are given to the wealthiest farms.

This has got me interested in digging up the Canadian numbers …  (oh dear internet, you make this almost too easy.  No wonder so many governments censor you!).

The orange represent Program Payments (an endearing term for subsidies?) on this chart from Agriculture Canada.   Like the US and Europe, it seems to me that the most profitable farms are receiving the lions share of the subsidies.I want hard working farm families to be profitable.  I want them to make a good living. But do I feel that our government should be paying the wealthiest farmers the most money?!?  No matter what the justification I feel it’s a bit odd.  You almost have to wonder if the subsidies are just temporarily extending the life of expensive farm operations, or if they are simply making wealthy farm families more wealthy.

The welfare of food producers and food consumers usually depends more on what governments do inside the border than on what they do with their trade policy at the border.  Arguments between open trade advocates and trade protectionists too often miss this point (p.109)

Two other take-aways from this book:

Most poor farmers in Africa do not make any purchases of seeds at all, and they make minimum purchases of fertilizers and pesticides… Private international companies are not significantly interested in African farmers because they lack the purchasing power to be good customers. (p 123)

Note that too much food is now six times deadlier than unsafe food.  Yet any illness from foods found already contaminated at purchase will cause public outrage because (in contrast to smoking or overeating) this kind of exposure to risk is involuntary.  Also, because purchasing food at a supermarket is a commmon experience, anxieties can spread quickly to vast numbers of citizens when any danger…is confirmed or even rumored. (p.157)

What’s Mine is Yours

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The authors of this book feel we are slowly coming out of a “consumer trance” as a growing number of people (and businesses, and governments) begin to realize that infinite growth based on finite resources is not a viable combination.

Many of us are also begining to realize that working more (or longer) so you can buy a boat is less appealing than working less (or shorter hours) and sharing a boat with your neighbours.

The great error of our nature is not to know where to stop; not to be satisfied with any reasonable requirement … but to lose all we have gained by an insatiable pursuit of more.
– Edward Burke, Irish statesman 1757

The book introduced me to the IfWeRanTheWorld platform which is sort of interesting for organizing ideas, though I like the ability to rank ideas by popularity…  Get Satisfaction seems to do this well.

There’s a great example on pages 81 & 82 on how messaging can affect behaviour.  Arizona State students researchers measured how often hotel guests would re-use towels based on the messaging on the cards which were left in each washroom.   They tested common pleas like “Do it for the environment”, “Help save resources for future generations”, “Partner with us to help save the environment”, etc… With a 16% participation rate, “Help the hotel save energy” was the least effective.   The most effective message had close to a 75% participation rate:  “Join fellow guests in helping save the environment”.  Looks like peer-influenced messaging is sometimes the best way to go!

The final message from the book that I hope will stick with me is this:
We think nothing of paying a good amount of money for a hotel room where we sleep in a bed that hundreds (if not thousands) of others have slept, using towels that hundreds (if not thousands) of others have used.  However, sharing a vacuum cleaner with a single neighbour is not even close to being common practice.

The Value of Nothing

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Just read The Value of Nothing by Raj Patel, and wanted to record some quotes before I forget them.

In the words of Herman Daily, one of the pioneers of ecological economics, “Current economic growth has uncoupled itself from the world and has become a blind guide”.  In short, the economy takes a great deal for granted, for free, and is constitutionally unable to pay for it. (page 20)

The book talks about British economist John Maynard Keynes and some of his comments/findings:

Professional investment may be likened to those newspaper competitions in which the competitors have to pick out the six prettiest faces from a hundred photographs, the prize being awarded to the competitor whose choice most nearly corresponds to the average preferences of the competitors as a whole; so that each competitor has to pick, not those faces which he himself finds prettiest, but those which he thinks likeliest to catch the fancy of the other competitors, all of whom are looking at the problem from the same point of view.  It is not a case of choosing those which, to the best of one’s judgement, are really the prettiest, nor even those which average opinion genuinely thinks the prettiest. (page 71)

Also interesting:

Defense spending is increasing among a range of more and less democratically elected governments around the world (though none at the scale of the United States, which spends almost half the planet’s total)… When the biggest crisis facing the planet require education, training, health care and investment in sustainable energy and agriculture, governments are piling record sums into guns, not butter. (page 79)

Finally,

In .. Fight Club, the first and second rules are that you don’t talk about Fight Club. The cardinal rule of genuine democracy is that you have to talk about it.  It needs meetings at which people can shape the terms on which value is set.  Participating in these meetings isn’t something you learn in school. (page 187)

Super Freakonomics | Ottawa Public Library | BiblioCommons

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super freakonomics book cover

A few chapters of this book were more interesting to me than others. “Why suicide bombers should buy life insurance” was a great chapter discussing health care and insurance. There is a good discussion of the difficulties of measuring a doctor’s skill (around page 106).

For example: If a doctor knows their performance (and/or pay) is measured on a patient’s outcome (an indirect outcome on which they have influence though little control), they may choose to turn down high-risk patients or those not likely to comply with doctor’s orders.

There’s a nice reminder of economist vocab too: positive and negative externality.

  • Negative externality ==> When your neighbour uses “The Club” to protect their car then yours may look like a better target to a thief.
  • Positive externality ==> When your neighbour installs a hidden “LoJack” tracker to protect their car. Their car may still be stolen, but there’s a far higher chance the thief will be caught and car recovered.



Link:Super Freakonomics | Ottawa Public Library.

Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture.

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My interpretation of this book boils down to: If you & your neighbours are accustom to buying inexpensive pants which someone, somewhere was paid $2.00 CAD per hour to produce, then expect to be paid $2.00 CAD per hour to produce pants.

There is a great chapter in this book on Cheap Eats & it’s well worth the read. Some quotes:

There was no shortage of rice in India and no shortage of food in the world during the “food crises” of 2008. Yet millions of Indians – as well as Africans and Asians – suddenly found themselves stranded on the edge of starvation.

What had changed was not rice but the rice trade. Historically, the Indian government had kept a firm grip on rice stores and maintained a policy of food self-sufficiency that discouraged exports. In the 1990s that policy was softened, and Indian rice was made available on the world market. Indiand farmers and traders auction their wares to the highest bidder, with the result that rice which had once sold domestically or was stockpiled by the government was sold abroad. Over time this practice increased price instability… (page 169)

[Psychologist Adam Drewnowski notes that] Americans respond almost viscerally to the concept of food “value.” Price, Drewnowski said, drives taste, because left to their own devices, Americans tend to choose what is cheap and therefore develop a taste for cheap foods. (page 182)


Mmmm… Teriyaki Shake & Bake(TM).

Book: The Vegetarian Myth

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vegetarian-myth-coverAn interesting book from a unique point of view that can certainly help spark some lively conversations amongst friends. Lierre writes about how she moved away from being a vegetarian and has included a few more living things to her diet adding to the billions of creatures she & her vegan friends were accustom to eating.

To support her points, the book is packed full of research and references (The 272 pages contain 603 endnotes).

Three quotes I’ll note:

I’m not asking How many people can be fed? but a very different question: How can people be fed? Not, What feeds the most people? but What feeds people sustainably? We need a full accounting … because nothing else is sustainable. To quote George Draffan, “I’ll repeat the obvious: sustainable systems are the only ones that are sustainable.” p.126

Derick Jensen [writes]: If your experience … is that your food comes from the grocery store (and your water from the tap), from the economic system, from the social system we call civilization, it is to this you will pledge back your life…. If your experience … is that food and water come from your landbase … you will make and keep promises to your landbase in exchange for this food…. You will be responsible to the community that supplies you with food and water. You will defend this community to your very death. p.56

Soy started out as a legume that was rotated with other annual crops throughout Asia. Because it can fix nitrogen, soy was used as a green manure. [not as a food] … Phytoestrogens are produced by more than three hundred plants, but soy is the only one that humans eat. Chapter 4

In fact, after reading Chapter 4, I’m almost convinced that breaking my blender to process my own tofu may not have been worth the effort.

Finally, a question which came up while discussing said book over a corporate Christmas luncheon: What about the millions of healthy vegetarians and vegans who live in places like India and Vancouver?
It did make me realize that the book tended to focus on what I’d consider a “western” veggie diet … lots of soy milk, salad and tofurkey. Vegetarianism has been common in Indian for generations and it might be interesting to contrast & compare some of the health statistics between western & eastern hemispheres.

Eat this Not that – David Zinczenko

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Photograph of Eat This Not That

Photograph of Eat This Not That

If you’re the type of person who stands in the grocery store with three different bags of chips in hand comparing all of the nutritional information, then this book’s for you.

A very visual book, it’s worth borrowing from a library to pick up the various tips of what to look for when identifying ‘good’ and ‘bad’ ingredients of various processed foods; however, I don’t think it would be worth keeping around as a reference guide.

Also some parts backfire. When reading that the Calories / Sugar of a Sunkist Orange Pop equals that of 17 Chewy Chips Ahoy Cookies I didn’t come to the conclusion that said orange pop was bad. Instead I thought “AWESOME, I can eat 16 Chewy Chips Ahow cookies (even though Mr. Christie now makes them so small they’re barely bite-sized) and it would be less sugar than drinking a gross pop“…

Food Matters: A guide to conscious eating – Mark Bittman.

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Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating
This book focuses on how best to navigate current supermarket (& farmer market) choices so that what goes in your mouth is healthy for you and healthier for your environment.

The most interesting take-away so far:

To produce one calorie of corn takes 2.2 calories of fossil fuel. It requires 40 calories to produce one calorie of beef protein.

To give you an idea of how much more energy goes into junk food than comes out, consider that a 12-ounce can of diet soda – containing just one calorie – requires 2,200 calories to produce, about 70 percent of which is in production of the aluminum can.

Yikes! Even removing the packaging from the equation to “level the playing field” still equates to 660 calories to produce one calorie of soda.

NOTE: I didn’t get all the way through this book before it was due back to the lender, so I’ll have to sign up to get my hands on it again!

Edible Action – Sally Miller

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Book Cover : Edible Action

Good Book

Wow. This book is a solid compendium of research quite relevant to anyone interested in developing Canadian food policy and to those interested in attempting to relocalize a global economy.

A few things made clear to me in this book:

  • The whole “vote with your fork”/”vote with your dollar” concept is certainly not the most democratic way of determining what we eat.    Many have few dollars to vote with and should we really be letting those with the most dollars cast the most votes?

  • In the 1990’s a municipality in Brazil (Belo Horizonte) delared food a human right [ref: Wikipedia] and Brazil later followed suit.

  • Read Miller’s chapters on Fair Trade certification & Starbucks. Then read The Rebel Sell. Then realize that if the fair trade certification really wants to make the world a better place, it better shy away from certifying large plantations  and stick to supporting small, local farmers.

Finally, I found this paragraph about paying farmers a fair share rather eloquent:

…the corporate messages claim that [they won’t do something] due to consumer demand (which is said to be insufficent — we don’t “want” it). We just aren’t “willing to pay” for a better deal for farmers. If the company instead posed the real question — are we willing to trade Starbucks’ obscene profits for a better deal for the farmers? — most of us would probably say “yes”

Talk about hitting the nail on the head. That’s exactly what bothers me about bank “service” fees too: “Sorry sir, we could wave the $1.50 transaction fee for this withdrawal but have decided not to since it we would prefer to add it to our $12 billion dollar profit so we can make $12,000,000,001.50 this fiscal year.”

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