Last time I tried hard to find stories that were not about Covid-19. What has emerged clearly, though, is that the disease has suddenly opened people’s eyes to the fragility of the entire food system. With luck, that will result in some fresh thinking too. Maybe all that cheap labour that puts food on shelves and tables at your convenience is too cheap. Maybe long, brittle, just-in-time supply chains are OK for car factories, not so much for factory farms. The fuss about slaughterhouses and meat-packing plants in the US brings that home with a vengeance.
If you want to understand part of the problem, take a look at two posts by Jayson Lusk, an agricultural economist. Changes in Meat Supply and Demand shows how at the start, consumers (and in this case economist speak is justified) stocking their freezers with pork and beef made good, to some extent, the lack of demand from restaurants. Later on, though, total demand for pork drops both to eat at home and to eat away.
What that actually means, Lusk spelled out the day before in The Scale of the Problem. The US, Lusk says, processes about half a million hogs a day in normal times. Demand is off by about 40%, “which means an extra … 200,000 pigs that are left on the farm. Every. Single. Day. Do that for 5 days, and that’s 1 million ‘excess’ pigs left on the farm.”
What’s going to happen to them? I haven’t the faintest clue, and nor has anybody else.
Is this happening anywhere else? I had a look, and couldn’t find anything.
Thankfully, there is no need to worry that the US will soon be manifesting the swollen belly of protein deficiency. Parke Wilde, of Tufts University, had this to say:
“The U.S. food supply ordinarily provides more than enough protein to meet dietary requirements, and the federal government needs to consider the safety of workers when taking steps to keep plants open. We should think twice before sacrificing the lives of workers to maintain current levels of beef and pork intake.”
Will anyone be thinking twice about the value of a processing system that depends so much on such concentration at such a crucial point in the overall flow from artificially inseminated sow to cheap bacon burger?
Atlas Obscura has a long piece on the The Triumphant Return of France’s ‘Forgotten Vegetables’. It’s the usual story of privations left behind as those that experienced them fade away. The people who survived World War II and its aftermath on swedes, Jerusalem artichokes and kohlrabi never wanted to eat them again. Starting around 20 years ago, apparently, restaurateurs in the new “‘bistronomy’ movement” took up these forgotten vegetables and introduced them to a crowd for whom they conjured no bad memories. Time, then, to reflect on that resurgence.
There’s a lot of theorising in the article, about the search for the exotic close to home, about the different tempo of food fads in France, and about much else besides. For me, though, lots of questions remain.
What is an “original beet“ (in contrast to “red beetroots“)?
Why have I never heard of miso butter? (Don’t bother answering that one.)
A new project at the University of Pisa has just been awarded a million euros for a three-year project “to promote the natural variability of the fig, an ancient fruit for modern sustainable Mediterranean agriculture”.
This is massively welcome, at least by me. I never met a fig I didn’t like. Just as long as no bright spark decides that the future of the fig depends on breeding a variety that can withstand the rigours of long distance travel.
Spare a thought for poor benighted plant breeders. Faster, breeder! More! More! That’s the exhortation at every turn, two grains where one grew before, increased productivity is the only increase that matters. Lately, though, taste has entered the picture. The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (known by its Spanish acronym CIMMYT) invited the people who eat maize in Kenya and Uganda to report on the flavour of a selection of new maize varieties, boiled, roasted and turned into ugali porridge.
People certainly have strong opinions, and they know what they like. Indeed, that may explain why they continue to buy older varieties and ignore new, more productive varieties that breeders release every year.
Having assessed farmers’ preferences, CIMMYT will presumably now try to incorporate them in its maize breeding program.
If the only reason you are growing grain is to feed yeast, ultimately to harvest alcohol, then you might be forgiven for thinking taste has nothing to do with it. You would be mostly right, as Vic Cameron explains in an article on breeding barley.
In these trials, yield is king: yield for the farmer in terms of tonnage per acre and yield for the distillery in terms of litres per tonne of malt. Quality of the new make spirit is of course tested but, in terms of the testing program, not given the same importance as yield.
And yet, apparently, some distillers are exploring “bere barley from Orkney and the Western Isles and other varieties with fanciful names from the past. It remains to be seen though if these varieties can influence flavour as many people suggest”.
My ill-educated but enthusiastic taste buds are available for participatory variety selection.
Probably because next week’s podcast episode explains how changes in glass-making technology affected the status of different wines among people of taste and discernment, I was sensitised to seize on this story: Scottish Archaeologists Discover Ruins of Massive Lost Wine-Bottle Glass Factory. Those are the glasswork’s kilns looming over William Reed’s painting “Leith Races” (© City of Edinburgh Council).
A million bottles a week! Stronger bottles that could contain the pressure of fermentation and deliver fizz. Cylindrical bottles that could be laid down to age your port and your pedigree. And all right there by the Water of Leith.
Consider it preparatory homework.
By the time you read this, the park should be open, and I should be happy. But don’t be in too much of a hurry to linger in crowds.