This newsletter is half hypothetical and half rooted in reality. Which is which? I couldn’t possibly say.
If there is a label on a pound of ground beef that says Product of U.S.A., we want to make sure consumers understand what that means.
US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack talks to the House Agriculture Committee in January. You might think it would be obvious what Product of the U.S.A. means. I was wrong too. The Counter points out it means only that “the goods in question have been at some point processed in America – even if that means simply repackaging the meat stateside”.
Vilsack was telling the committee about a survey that his department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service plans to carry out to find out what people understand by that and other labels and what they say they would be willing to pay for such labels on their meat. The Counter explains the background to this particular bit of content-free information, including the especially juicy tidbit that the World Trade Organization decided that previous requirements to label country of origin “were discriminatory against meat imports”.
Well, yes. I suppose that’s where “willingness to pay” comes in. What price patriotism when shoppers face actual home-grown meat that is more expensive than foreign muck?
p.s. Things are not much better in Europe, where labels are also less than informative on where animals, as opposed to bits of meat, are from.
An interesting piece from Mary Harrington at Unherd uses the fact that she managed to ruin a batch of home-made bread to explain that “what’s distinctively modern about modern life can also be understood as the consequence of waging war on time in the name of productivity”.
It goes like this. The bread Mary ruined contains only four ingredients: flour, water, salt and yeast. The package of replacement bread she (presumably) rushed out to buy contained 27 ingredients, and those ingredients enable the industrial baker to drastically reduce the time needed to bake bread. Harrington’s failure sprang from her desire to speed up the whole business, which she did by putting the dough in too hot a spot and then forgetting about, which kind of makes me wonder why it was so important to hurry it along, but never mind.
From there, we jump to time saving in agriculture (fertilisers as a replacement for crop rotation), less nutritious wheat (to respond to the fertilisers quickly?), Ritalin and pharmaceuticals being misused by students and pressurised workers, etc. etc.
It all reminds her of Momo, a story for children in which humanoids steal time from citizens, locking it up in a vault, with disastrous consequences.
I agree with Harrington that all the examples she brings forward do seem on the whole to be harmful. However, I don’t understand why, given her “gestalt familiarity with the nature of dough,” her ability to “combine flour and other ingredients without weighing,” and her understanding that is “partly sensory, partly intuitive, partly a non-scientific feeling for the alchemy of time,” why, given all that, was she even thinking of rushing things along. Surely not just to give herself a peg on which to hang all the ills of harried, modern life and conjure memories of a favourite book. Her conclusion:
Our time, though, isn’t locked in a vault. It’s simply lost: traded for indigestible food, degrading farmland, miserable people and hyper-mediated personal productivity.
If you listened to the episode with Lawrence Alderson, founder of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, you may remember that he objected strenuously to planting trees in areas of upland grasslands in the UK. “We should be conserving upland grazing because that’s good for biodiversity, good for stopping land degradation, all other sorts of things,” he said. “In global warming, we have this concept that we’ve got to plant trees everywhere, which I fundamentally don’t object to planting trees, but I think we have to recognize the limitations.”
A recent blog post from the International Livestock Research Institute extends similar arguments to the rangelands of Africa. The rush to reforest: When nature-based solutions end up doing more harm than good explores the passion for tree-planting schemes and looks at the latest research on how such schemes neglect the benefits of existing rangelands, not only that grasslands already sequester large amounts of carbon, but also that they support communities of pastoral people whose knowledge is fundamental to managing the land. “The looming danger international tree-planting schemes pose to the world’s rangelands highlights a fundamental lesson as we move forward in the fight against climate change: nature-based solutions are not inherently beneficial, and they can have significant consequences for people, wildlife and the environment when they are not carefully thought out.”
I’m honestly not sure what to make of this recent paper: Global cropland could be almost halved: Assessment of land saving potentials under different strategies and implications for agricultural markets. The gist of it seems to be that if we were able to grow crops more productively (closing the yield gap, as it is known) we would need less land, reduce crop prices, and cure the common cold.
Not quite, obviously, but this kind of model-based approach to transforming global agriculture seems to me to be long on possibilities and short on practicalities. Of course, the modellers could point out that they are merely showing the way and that others will have to make the decision to take us down the road. Points, too, for figuring out how all this might affect prices and global trade flows. However, I remain befuddled and bemused, as I was when I first encountered this sort of study in 2009 and then again in 2017.
In May 2019 Jessamyn West won a year’s supply of cheese from Cabot Cheese in Vermont. As she explained:
For starters, a “year’s supply” is not really an exact measurement. For me, before this, that would have been maybe 75 string cheeses and a pound or two of cheddar. And some shakey Parmesan for my green beans. For Cabot, this is 100 pounds of cheese. Twenty-five pounds of cheese, delivered quarterly. OK then.
She then goes on to document what she did with it. The Dairy Diary is funny, heart-warming and strangely more-ish.