Why shouldn’t people in Alaska have strawberries year-round, if that’s what they want? And why shouldn’t students in Delhi latch onto an abominable street-food if that’s what they want?
Will a Native-led initiative spur an agricultural revolution in rural Alaska? is a really interesting article about fresh efforts to sow the seeds of local nutritional sustainability in rural Alaska. The central idea is community greenhouses heated by biomass, i.e., wood-burning stoves. The goal is to grow fresh produce year-round, though there’s no mention of where light comes from during the winter, while also creating local jobs and mitigating wildfire risk, presumably by deliberately burning wood that might otherwise go up in flames.
Something of the sort is very clearly needed.
The residents of Rampart, a small Athabascan village on the Yukon River, have to order groceries from Fairbanks, delivered by plane at 49 cents per pound plus tax, or else travel there to shop — a $202 round-trip flight, a five-hour trip by boat and truck, or a four-and-a-half-hour drive overland. Sometimes orders are delayed due to weather, or because the delivery plane is full.
Not ideal at all, and maybe those greenhouses can help.
Ignoring the temptation to answer the question in the headline directly, there’s something about this article that makes me slightly uneasy. I have absolutely no problem with people eating whatever foods they want from their own or other cultures, but in the case of indigenous Arctic people, there seems to me to be a strong case that any diet-related disease stems from adopting a “modern” diet, not that they had much choice. One of the remarkable things about the traditional Inuit diet is that taken as a whole it does seem to have been pretty healthy, even though it involved large amounts of fat and very little in the way of plants. It’s often used as one validation of human omnivory. So, while I am totally in favour of heated greenhouses and the delights they can provide, and really hope that this effort takes off, I also hope that the people in Alaska maintain some of the foodways that gave them food and nutrition security in the past and that don’t get a mention in the article.
Aaron Smith, DeLoach Professor of Agricultural Economics at University California Davis, asked Should I Feel Guilty for Eating Beef?
I calculate that I should feel about $0.42 of guilt per 8oz steak, or about the same as driving 21 miles.
My guess is that without actually coming out and saying so, his answer is “no”.
Smith is fond of this kind of calculation, using the numbers he can find to answer simple-seeming questions about trade-offs in food consumption. The much shorter atmospheric half-life of methane, the main greenhouse gas emitted by cattle, surfaces one nice nuance:
The warming effects of a single steak are really large in the first 20 years and much less in the following 80 years. So, if we want to prioritize slowing climate change now, then reducing meat consumption now is more important. However, if we care only about the temperature 100 years from now, then meat is a lower priority.
I didn’t think it was either or.
Smith also offers a couple of caveats, acknowledging that the calculation is probably on the simple side. On the surface, an externality of $1.84 per kilogram doesn’t seem all that high. Smith averaged across the entire carcass, and I’m not nearly familiar enough with beef cuts to do better than that; perhaps you can. He also averaged across all beef cattle, no allowance for different finishing systems.
I’m left wondering, if the cost of beef went up across the board by $1.84 per kg, how would demand respond? Somewhere, there must be an agricultural economist with a model that can tell us. I’m guessing any drop in demand would not be enough.
Perhaps you are already aware of Vittles, the newsletter that “publishes food and culture writing from across the world, platforming writers, illustrators and chefs, particularly those not given space within traditional food media”. It’s been going from strength to strength, winning awards here, there and everywhere. The latest season is devoted to hyper-regionalism, and while I could just share every issue, you would do far better to subscribe. Nevertheless, the past two weeks have brought forth two issues that I found particularly relevant.
One is Sean Wyer’s piece Italy isn’t Eataly, which looks at the gigantic emporium both as an expression of the desire for a national Italian cuisine and as the very antithesis of that desire with its emphasis on the local and the artisanal. He amplifies John Dickie’s point that the focus of Italian regionalism in food is not rural but urban, the cities where the bounty of the countryside came to be turned into delicious food.
I do visit the Eataly in Rome, roughly once every six months, at least in the before times, and I do so only to buy a specific, highly regional form of pasta that I’ve never found anywhere else. I realise, too, that I’ve never written about it. I will, over the summer.
The other Vittles piece that I found absolutely fascinating and thrilling is by Sharanya Deepak. She writes about The Absurdity of the Tandoori Momo, and if you have no clue what a tandoori momo is, as I did, let this be your opportunity to find out. Anything that causes a politician to spit furiously about “‘the killer dumpling’ and claiming they’re ‘more dangerous than psychotropic drugs’” has to be worth reading about and, one day, maybe, eating. Again, like so much of what appears in Vittles, an article that seems on the surface to be about food is about much, much more.
Staying in India, something luscious, sweet and laden with meaning to finish. Architectural Digest India teams up with the Instagram account @artsofhindostan to offer a choice selection of mangoes as seen in Indian miniature paintings. Truly delightful.
And I cannot let that pass without a link to one of the most astonishing collections of mango biodiversity in the world: the single tree in Malihabad that is home to more than 300 distinct varieties of mango. I like to think of my friend Bhuwon looking down on that tree and all the other agricultural biodiversity he drew attention to and helped to conserve. He deserves better than a 404 from a mouldy website, so here it is.
Take care and stay safe.