If it seems to good to be true, it probably is.
Puglia, the heel on the boot of Italy is, as you’ll know if you’ve spent any time with me, facing a devastating threat to its economy and, indeed, its very landscape. That threat is a bacterium, Xylella fastidiosa, that infects olive trees and results, almost inevitably, in their death. Since gaining a foothold in 2013, aided and abetted by ignorance, some of it wilfull, and greed, the disease has spread through the lower part of Puglia and is knocking on the door of the rich olive plains of Bari.
Gastro Obscura recently carried a long article on Xylella that summarizes the history and, more optimistically, reports on some of the valiant efforts to find resistant varieties and graft them onto venerable giant trees. That may help to preserve a semblance of the landscape, although I don’t suppose it will do much to save the oil economy which, I suspect, is going to depend more on replanting the olive gardens with resistant varieties. Those are likely to be grown in a much more industrial manner, and to be harvested accordingly, which seems to be what some Xylella deniers fear.
I remain very pessimistic, but I enjoy optimism too, even to the point of not quibbling about some botanical science.
Many denialists of Puglia are sincerely convinced that what they “know” about the disease is true and that they are being lied to by scientists and other experts. This is in keeping with the relatively recent elevation of traditional or indigenous knowledge, but it remains possible that not all traditional knowledge stands close investigation.
I mention this not to denigrate but to praise a lovely article by ‘Cúagilákv (Jess Housty) in Hakai magazine. Thriving Together: Salmon, Berries, and People describes the intricate tangle that unites her people, their food and their environment, and how each enriches the others in a state of lightly expoited nature. Quite apart from sharing her personal history with salmon and salmonberries, ‘Cúagilákv also weaves in a recent ecological study of salmon spawning and salmonberry production.
The scientists found that higher spawning density of chum salmon was associated with more salmonberry fruits per shrub in the following year. The Haíɫzaqv (Heiltsuk) people believe that the number of salmonberry fruits per shrub predict the bounty of the salmon harvest that year. Does that mean that traditional knowledge is wrong and scientific knowledge right?
I don’t know.
I do know, having grown salmonberries long ago and far away, that while they were delicious, they would surely have tasted even better had I been able to relate to them in anything like the same way as ‘Cúagilákv.
The blight that devastated European potatoes in 1845 was first noticed in Belgium. You might think, then, the country would be a little bit leery of putting all its agricultural eggs in one basket. But no. An article in The Guardian describes both how Belgium came to be “the world’s largest exporter of pre-fried potato products” and how it wants to grow even bigger, with a new factory that “would increase Belgian production of processed potato products by a third”.
It isn’t as if Belgian potato growers have no experience of the fragility of overspecialisation. Last year, when the international market for processed potato products collapsed because of you-know-what, the farmers couldn’t get rid of their crop. The head of the potato growers union called on fellow Belgians to double their consumption of the beloved frites, frieten, whatever. In the end, the government stepped in and bought the potatoes to give them to food banks.
The articles details how Belgian companies scaled up their tuber production, and it is frankly hard to comprehend.
The country produces 16 times the amount of potatoes necessary to meet its domestic needs, using vast amounts of pesticide and nitrogen-rich fertiliser in the process. Belgium ranks fourth in Europe among the largest users of pesticides per hectare behind Malta, Cyprus and the Netherlands.
And yet, some Belgians want to expand still further.
Is it just a coincidence, then, that Belgium leads the world of lard eaters too? Twelve kilograms a year each, in 2018, trailed by Germany’s 7.5 kg and Canada’s pathetic 4.7 kg per person per year.
I’ve always liked a spot of lard. Butter too. So I’ve been content to watch pendulums swing, wheels turn, and demons canonised. Food Dive reports on lard’s big comeback (in the US) with the requisite warnings from one nutritionist that people there are already eating too much of everything, and if they want to eat fat, they should eat mono-unsaturated, omega-rich plant oils. Another nutritionist (balance!) says “I think it can definitely fit within a diet”.
I’m cherry-picking this advice:
However, lard does have a nutritional advantage over butter. The popular ingredient not only has salt but is composed of nearly 70% saturated fat, compared to 45% for lard. Butter also has less omega-6 and omega-3 than lard.
Last week’s podcast contained a brief mention of a “very unfortunate cumin incident,” which I didn’t pursue because it would very clearly have been a diversion too far. I then spent some leisure digging into contaminated cumin and got to the bottom of the story: unscrupulous people (who? where?) had added large amounts of peanut shells to their ground cumin, unaware, or uncaring, that people with a severe allergy could die.
I couldn’t discover whether anyone had been held to account, but it’s all old news in any case.
Except that, as another piece in The Guardian revealed, economically-motivated adulteration is alive and well in the saffron trade. It’s the same old story. Sub-standard product plus non-product equals profit. Unlike dirty cumin, however, in my opinion it is reasonably easy to tell the slender threads of genuine saffron from “flower debris” (a description that applies to saffron itself, of course).
Caveat emptor and all that.
Take care and stay safe.
p.s. If you’re ever at a loss for stuff to read about the food industry, Food Dive’s home page is the place to go. My favourite recent headline: From keto doughnuts to kelp, Mondelez aims to accelerate growth in well-being snacking.