On a gray and dismal May Morning, with more rain forecast for the next couple of days, it gives me some pleasure to think about solar panels and food, in addition to other sunny subjects.
Driving around Italy, I often see very large solar panel installations, frequently covering several fields on what used to be a working farm. Clearly, the dependable income from power companies eager to buy green electricity is much more tempting than the vagaries of agriculture. Who can blame the farmers, even though the loss of agriculture can devastate small communities and threaten food security? However, it doesn’t have to be either or, according to a long article from the BBC.
The idea of agrivoltaics — putting solar panels above growing crops, as opposed to replacing the crops entirely — is not new. What is new is the way it is stimulating citrus production in southern Italy. The article focusses on the Lancellotta family, who grow lemons and citrons in Calabria. The solar panels provide shade that the fruits need and also protect them from damage that can be caused by adverse wether. That is especially important for citrons, which are prized by the Jewish community for the festival of Sukkot and which are inspected by trained rabbis to ensure that they are as near flawless as possible.
The solar panels have helped meet the demand for citrons, and the extra income they provide gives farmers a bit more bargaining power so that they are not forced to accept whatever price they are offered. It isn’t all plain sailing, as the article explains, with higher upfront costs for agrivoltaics and the requirements of agriculture and solar panels interfering slightly with one another. Still, agrivoltaics is a better solution than either crops or energy on their own, and helps to keep local economies going.
p.s. It isn’t only crops that can benefit from a covering of solar panels. A recent paper in Nature Sustainability (behind a paywall, so read the article at Anthropocene instead) says that solar power plants can be biocrust nurseries.
“Biocrusts are communities of cyanobacteria, algae, lichens, and mosses that form a thin layer at the surface of dryland soils, fertilizing the soil and protecting it from eroding or blowing away as dust.”
They can be grown in greenhouses and transplanted out to protect and improve degraded lands, but that is intensive and small-scale. Solar panels “double the biomass and triple the area covered by biocrusts, which grow back rapidly after harvesting. It doesn’t hurt that many solar farms are in drylands, near to the degraded soils that need the biocrusts to recover.
I have not yet been to FICO, Eataly’s theme park outside Bologna. Something tells me I may never go. That something includes an article whose headline — FICO Has Been Around for Five Years. Can it Go On? — tells you all you need to know: that FICO may well not be around in five years time. Will anyone miss it? The author concludes:
“At various times during my visit to FICO I felt amused, amazed, confused and disheartened. In the end, the impression I was left with was that of a shopping mall in a theme park. And, all told, that might be the point.”
“Cookbooks, containing recipes and cooking techniques, dietary instructions, gendered advice and culinary tales are, in fact, custodians of culture,” writes Saumya Gupta, an historian in India. Her article Hindi Cookbooks in Colonial India explores what early cookbooks have to say about early Indian nationalism and the role of women in society. I found it a fascinating read, full of nuanced interpretations that it would be silly of me to attempt to summarise. Do take a look.
If you haven’t already heard it, can I also recommend Food in post-independence India? Benjamin Siegel told me about the contradictory and confusing history of food policy in India.
In common with many other countries, food inflation has taken root in Greece in the past few months. To fight that, the Greek government has introduced an online site called The Household’s Basket (Το καλάθι του νοικοκυριού), which other countries are apparently eyeing. On the site, supermarkets with profits of more than €90 million a year advertise any goods that they’re offering “whose rate of price increase is lower than the average rate in the category the items belong to”. They have to keep each item there for at least a week and cannot raise the price while it remains on the list, although they can drop it.
Here’s where it gets tricky. Shoppers can use the site to put items they want into a virtual basket and compare the different supermarkets’ offerings. The site will even help them find the nearest branch of the supermarket. But they cannot actually buy online. They have to go to the shop in person (which is where the location finder probably comes in handy). Or they could, you know, ignore the online aspect entirely and just look for the accompanying stickers that indicate an item is in The Household’s Basket. They won’t be able to compare prices across supermarkets, but how valuable is that, really?
All this I gleaned from the first part of an essay in Food Anthropology,which goes into considerably more depth about the reasons for the policy, political responses to it, and more specialised kinds of basket. Part 2 will look at reactions to the basket.
Quite apart from emitting prodigious quantities of methane, cattle contribute indirectly to climate change by prompting ranchers to convert rainforest into pasture. In the Amazon, cattle farming is held to be responsible for 70% of deforestation, much of it illegal. Schemes exist to encourage large companies, such as meat-packers, to commit to sustainability, but do they do any good? Apparently they do, according to a new paper explained on the website Anthropocene.
There’s a lot of data wrangling, but the solid conclusion is that “regions with more coverage by a company that had forest commitments, also had slower rates of deforestation there,” about 15% less deforestation than might have been expected. Slightly shakier, to me, is the claim that if the market share of the committed companies had been higher, more than 50% off the deforestation could have been avoided. According to the researchers, that’s because as committed companies become more active in a region, there is a smaller market for cattle grown on land that had been forested. So traders dealing in “illegal” cattle need to travel further to sell their cattle, which adds to their costs. The end result is that sustainability commitments reduce the incentive to turn rainforest into pasture.
Of course, there are many other factors at play too, but Anthropocene quotes lead author Samuel Levy’s optimistic conclusion: “More companies with rigorous zero-deforestation commitments will help reduce the climate impacts of Brazilian cattle and conserve the Amazon rainforest.”
Saturday will see plenty of people around the globe glued to the spectacle of the coronation. I’m not really bothered where you stand on heredity monarchy, but in case you’re looking for a food angle, beyond soggy quiche, Patricia Bixler Riber has you covered. Her latest food history roundup includes links to previous coronation banquets and some upcoming talks.