A quick confession; I have finally uploaded transcripts for the four episodes on wheat and human history. Sorry it took so long. Supporters of Eat This Podcast, who make transcripts possible, deserve better than that. If you have been considering joining them, and I hope you have, I pray my slackitude won’t put you off.
I confess I was mildly shocked, listening to a recent episode of BBC R4’s The Food Programme, to hear a manufacturer of protein bars nonchalantly explain that the powdered pea protein used in the UK was made in China from peas grown in Canada. Of course it travelled efficiently, by sea, but still. Shocked too that this didn’t raise a host of questions.
Are protein bars one of the 57,000 UK foods analysed for their environmental impact in a monumental new study? No idea, because the freely available data is anonymised for reasons. And that is one reason I am a little underwhelmed by the work, complex and thorough though it seems to be. Telling us that “like-for-like substitutes can have highly variable environmental and nutritional impacts” without letting us know which, specifically, are better and which worse seems to me to be a bit of a tease.
The published paper is not for the faint of heart, although the authors do include a handy diagram of how they arrived at their estimates for the composition of foods and then how they calculated the environmental impact in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, water stress, land use, and potential for eutrophication (essentially, the damage caused by fertiliser runoff), along with a NutriScore. With respect to my pea protein powder, they did not include country of origin, because this was not available for most products; they do concede that “this is needed to fully understand the impacts of different foods,” and that where an ingredient is grown is likely to affect its environmental impact, even without the impact of transport.
Can one glean anything very useful from the study? That depends on what conclusions you want to draw. The authors say the study “provides a step to enable informed decision making by end users such as consumers and policy makers”. But should the fact that sugar sweetened beverages have a very low impact incline you to consume more of them, for the sake of the planet? All the estimates are per 100g, to make them comparable, but would the picture change if the results were expressed per 100g of a specific compoenent, like protein? And, finally, can we ever expect a similar analysis for ingredients, rather than manufactured food items, taking into account home preparation?
While we’re on the subject, Marion Nestle summarised a report by the USDA on added sugars in school meals. The numbers are impressively scary. Let me cherry pick three.
That 10%, by the way, is supposed to be an upper limit. Which leads to a final conundrum.
Why on Earth is is fat-free?
Further to the many names of watermelon and National Watermelon Week (in the US), I am happy to have a kind of answer for how the wild watermelon, which is extremely bitter and drinkable only under the worst conditions, turned into the sweet delight of summer.
Ancient seeds of watermelon and its relatives cannot be distinguished by their appearance. Beneath the surface, however, studies of their DNA can identify them. And it turns out that the oldest known watermelon seeds, from Libya and dated to 6000 years ago, were of a close relative known as egusi melon, which is sometimes placed in the same species as watermelon. These seeds predate the domestication of watermelon, but just as egusi seeds are cooked with and snacked on in West Africa today, so the ancient Libyan seeds had human tooth marks. The key point, the researchers say, is that – unlike the pulp – “the seeds never contain the extremely bitter cucurbitacin chemical”. The nutritious seeds, then, provide a reason for collecting and, perhaps, cultivating watermelon and so being on hand to taste a mutant that was not bitter.
Further, also, to last week’s resurrection of the significance of the star Spica in the constellation Virgo, I was tickled to read about a statue of Our Lady of the Waters and the Wye being paddled down the river Wye to protest pollution from mega-poultry farms that is choking the river.
Taking a statue of Mary out for a spin on the water during Ferragosto is quite a tradition here in Italy. Trevignano, one of the nearby lake towns, used to do a great show in the evening of the Assumption, with a small flotilla of muscle-powered boats (no engines allowed on the lake) accompanying the Virgin on her outing and glorious fireworks over the water.
Presumably, Father Richard Williams, the parish priest of St Mary’s church Hay-on-Wye, who worked with the sculptor Philip Chatfield to launch the project, knew about this tradition, but there is absolutely no mention of it in the article. Instead, Williams and Chatfield say they “came up with the idea of a sculpture of Mary, who is a symbol of purity, cleanliness and fruitfulness, floating down the river.”
It will need divine intervention to get the chicken farms to clean up their act.
An emergency can be an opportunity to fix things, to build back better, as it were. So when Hurricane Maria shredded Puerto Rico in September 2017, it offered a chance to improve various aspects of the island’s economy. Among agricultural sectors, coffee was particularly hard hit, with some areas reporting more than four of every five bushes damaged or destroyed. A new study by Justina Walker, a Ph.D. student in Rural Studies at the University of Guelph in Canada, looks at how coffee in Puerto Rico changed after the hurricane.
Walker points out that the response was extremely slow and bureaucratic, and somewhat corrupt. As a result, many farmers received no financial help, or received it late. International players, including coffee buyers and foundations, didn’t help by getting in each other’s way and squabbling over which varieties should be replanted. By 2020, relatively few seedlings had been planted, with bureaucratic barriers to blame. There was also a power struggle between multinational companies, who want a foothold in the industry with modern varieties, and the Puerto Rico Department of Agriculture, who want to maintain control and use only local varieties. The monopoly coffee roaster is a subsidiary of Coca Cola, which is also a source of contention.
The number of coffee farms has dropped from 5000 to 2000, some of which are now beginning to restart production. But, as Walker points out, recovery has been anything but smooth. And of course, another hurricane cannot be ruled out.
Photo of Our Lady etc. lifted from English Cathedrals; they didn’t credit the screenshot they used, so I can’t either.