Quite a bit of sciencey stuff this time around, and opportunities to point you to previous episodes of the podcast. Let’s get to it.
Mexican paramilitaries have once again attacked coffee growers in Chiapas. On August 20, according to Roar Magazine, they “looted and burned two Zapatista coffee warehouses in Cuxuljá, Chiapas”. This is a very direct attack on the small farmers of Chiapas, whose coffee is almost their only source of cash.
I don’t know nearly enough about the current state of politics in Mexico and the struggles of rural people there, but I do know that this recent attack is the latest in a long reign of terror, starting, perhaps, with the 1997 massacre at Maya Vinic. I discussed that, and much else, in the episode Pushing good coffee in August 2017. Ethical coffee roasters work with local communities to get them a better price for their labour, which is precisely why the paramilitaries destroy the fruits of that labour. It’s an easy way to kill people without having to kill them.
This Thursday, 1 October, is International Coffee Day. The International Coffee Organization has announced that it will be supporting “selected young entrepreneurs”. I’ll be supporting Zapatista coffee growers.
Cockerel and hens of Vorwerkhuhn chickens, a traditional German dual-purpose breed
Slow growing chickens have been in the news a bit lately, as it is clear that they encounter a lot fewer welfare problems. Some shoppers are also aware that to maintain a specialised egg-laying breed means that half of the chicks — the “unproductive” males — are gassed shortly after hatching. As if that isn’t enough to worry a concerned consumer, the soybeans that form the basis of most chicken feed are imported from afar and often drive environmental damage. All of which prompted researchers at the University of Göttingen in Germany to take another look at older breeds and other feeds.
In dual-purpose breeds, females lay eggs and males can be raised for meat; although neither is as efficient as dedicated layers or meat birds, if the meat were acceptable, further selection might make them a worthwhile alternative. The researchers raised male chicks of two dual-purpose breeds and a layer on two different diets, one based on soybeans and the other using two varieties of broad bean (Vicia faba), which grows well in Europe, as the source of protein. When the birds reached about 2.1kg they were killed and analysed.
The different diets had an effect on various physical and chemical properties of the meat, but what really matters is the taste. Based on results from a highly trained panel of eaters, “[a]cross the three breeds, feed appeared to play a limited role in influencing organoleptic quality”. I mean, there were differences, but whether an untrained consumer would notice them, I doubt it. Physical measurements of the meat properties showed that, if anything, birds fed on broad beans produced slightly better meat than birds fed on soybeans.
So yes, European chicken producers could switch their feed to broad beans instead of soybeans, if customers were willing to pay. As the authors conclude:
[I]t is important to mention that consumers see the concept of dual-purpose breeds as a more animal-friendly practice for which they would be willing to pay a higher price if meat quality is improved while their expectations on animal welfare are met. Additionally, studies have shown that consumers are willing to pay more for regional products. Consequently, consumers should be willing to pay more for this production system of dual-purpose local breeds fed with regional feedstuff, especially when doing so would improve meat quality parameters.
We shall see.
A wall of old apple crate labels
Wenatchee in Washington State claims to be the Apple Capital of the World, where, as usual in these cases, I think by World they mean United States. The Wenatchee Valley Museum and Cultural Center is temporarily closed for the usual reason. No matter, because The Daily Kos presents a photo diary of a visit to the apple display in the museum. That’s where I found out about the apple rag slapper, rigged up to wipe off any residue of the arsenic of lead (probably lead hydrogen arsenate) spray used mostly to control codling moth.
Who says progress is an illusion?
The word “grass” on a beef label can mean so many different things. Given that I’ve done a few episodes on grass-fed beef, without, admittedly, going into exactly what that phrase means, someone thought I’d like to accept their explanation as a guest post on my website. I don’t do that sort of thing, but I took a look and, if I were buying beef in the US, I reckon it would help me make a better-informed choice. So, here’s What is Grass-Fed or Pasture-Raised Beef - Everything You Need to Know, in case you need to know, you know, everything.
If you’re into botanical names and chillis, you may know that there is a chilli species called Capsicum chinense. But as you may have heard three weeks ago, the chilli pepper is not native to China. It wouldn’t have been fair to ask a historian of China about a Latin name, so I dug into it myself. And here’s my summary of the Chinese chilli mystery.
Incidentally, I asked on Twitter if anyone were aware of any other geographically inappropriate scientific binomials, and received a deafening silence in reply. Do you know of any? Share, please.
Did you know that “upwards of 9% of the total milk production of Africa” is camel’s milk? Me neither. This factoid popped up in a press release from the Technical University of Denmark about a new starter culture that can make camel milk safe.
The problem with camel milk, we are told, is that poor hygiene allows “bad” bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella to multiply in the warm milk. The new starter culture contains a selected strain of Lactobacillus that “acidifies the milk and kills off even very large amounts of various disease-causing microorganisms in the milk”.
The press release tells me that “food poisoning kills 137,000 people on the continent annually” although it doesn’t tell me how many of those cases might be down to camel’s milk. The research paper is behind a paywall so, dedicated though I am to pursuing truth, I cannot check there. My gut feeling is to wonder how great the need for this starter culture really is. If you’re going to set up a supply chain that sells the freeze-dried starter to farmers and herders and trains them how to use it, couldn’t you equally well teach them how to improve hygiene to make their milk safer? If they actually need to.
Take care, and stay safe.
p.s. Chicken photo by Juliane Fellner, University of Göttingen. Apple labels from Wenatchee Valley Museum & Cultural Center.