Saturday, July 31, 2010

CSAs: Part of Healthy Diet

What happens when you mix heirloom plants, fertile urban gardens, high heat on sunny days (interspersed with short-lived but heavy rain showers), and lots of hard work from dedicated farmers?

A gorgeous crop of fruit and vegetables grown no farther than a dozen or so km from where I live. All mine!

That's because I bought a share with the Young Urban Farmers (YUF) CSA (community shared agriculture) to be able to enjoy more tasty food than I can consume within a week for the rest of the growing season. Featured in this week's share were, in alphabetical order:
  • a blue jay bell pepper
  • cilantro
  • dill
  • an eggplant
  • flat-leaf parsley
  • ground cherries (in lantern-shaped husks)
  • hot peppers
  • kale
  • mixed salad greens
  • papaya pear squash
  • peas (too shy to pose for the picture)
  • peter pan squash
  • a plum
  • purple kohlrabi
  • radishes
  • swiss chard
  • thai basil
  • zucchini
Can you spot them all?

When I decided to join a CSA this year, I had some difficulty deciding which one to put my money behind. Luckily, I came across YUF and immediately fell in love with them: they grow their produce in city residents' backyards, not a suburban farm! Better yet, due to a lack of storage facilities, the crops are harvested no earlier than the night before I pick them up. And if that still doesn't convince you these folks are great, consider this: they specialize in heirloom and organic varieties that aren't available at the local grocery store or even farmers markets! That's more exclusive than the iPhone 4.

This summer, my weekly local food shares have challenged me to cook and prepare vegetables I previously could not even identify. What I've discovered is that for intimidating vegetables, simple methods work best: cut swiss chard into bite-sized pieces, then wilt in a pan with sautéed garlic, olive oil, salt, and pepper. I add a spritz of lemon juice when I'm feeling particularly adventurous. It's that easy! No wonder there are so many celebrity chefs on TV...

Community shared agriculture is an excellent idea because it benefits everyone involved: the "customers" receive very fresh, very local, organic food and pay about the same as they would in a grocery store, except they know the "who", "where", and "how" of the life cycle of the produce. Also, shareholders are supporting the local economy, help to maintain land used for agriculture rather than urban sprawl, and get to learn about how food is grown and when it is in season (this is especially vital for children living in the city).

Meanwhile, the farmers gain from this system by making a living without having to share profits with distributors. By receiving in the spring the budget they need to carry them through the whole season, producers can focus on the farm and the quality of the crops they are growing. Furthermore, the direct relationship they have with shareholders fosters a sense of responsibility and pride in their work. Even the land itself benefits! CSAs use sustainable farming practices, and in the case of YUF, areas that were previously unused (resident's grass-covered backyards) are transformed into productive land.

While I look up a recipe to make use of that purple kohlrabi from this week's share, check out the links below that will help you source a CSA in your area and find out more about how you can support ecologically sound and socially equitable agriculture.
Happy eating.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Local, fresh, delicious... need I say more?

I think we need a new word to describe produce so local that it doesn't even travel one city block from harvest to kitchen. The equivalent of local-squared, only way more catchy!

Yup, that's a garden bed chock full of basil, a number of varieties of it, actually - that's purple basil up in front, looking and smelling so good that I had to restrain myself from tasting a few leaves. Which is saying a lot, considering I was completely stuffed after enjoying a lovely afternoon tea some twelve floors beneath this garden, in the Library Bar on the lobby level of the Royal York Hotel. Look a bit more closely at the picture and you'll soon notice that my friends and I were standing on the hotel's lower rooftop, right downtown, only a stone's throw away from other skyscrapers and condos. After the tea service, we were treated to a tour (guided by an apprentice chef, no less) of the hotel's herb garden and were pleasantly surprised to find more than just herbs:

Bees are easily one of my favourite insects (but I have to admit it's not hard to top that list when I have a fear-bordering-on-phobia of spiders and centipedes) due to their multi-tasking role in pollinating our crops and allowing us to repeatedly steal their honey. Also, they're cute and have never stung me. Bonus! So, upon seeing this collection of beehives, I was certainly delighted, then impressed when our guide explained that these bees not only help fertilize the plants in the herb garden, they are also known to fly as far as the Toronto Islands (3km away) to collect nectar from the wildflowers that grow there. Now that's a strong work ethic...

But wait, there's more:

It's hard to describe what heirloom varieties of tomatoes taste like compared to the random, no-name tomatoes you typically find in a grocery store. Basically... more tomato-y. These are the ones I often can't even be bothered to cut into a salad, because I'd rather just eat them whole, no dressing or salt required. The ones pictured here are pear tomatoes, which is fairly obvious from their shape. They had some other heirloom varieties that I didn't immortalize with my camera because they weren't ripe yet, but I'm guessing with more sun and heat in the forecast, it won't be long before they are served to some very lucky hotel guests. Jealous!

There were lots of other goodies on the roof, including way more herbs than I could identify, squash, edible flowers, and grapes:

Just before leaving, I was pleasantly surprised to find so much mint that just walking past it freshened my breath:

They're even cultivating a chocolate mint variety that, just as the name claims, tastes like chocolate! If you stop to think about that, it makes no sense. Mint that tastes like cocoa would be unlikely but somehow more naturally-occurring than mint that tastes like a human creation. But I'm not complaining!

The existence of this garden, and the knowledge that others like it are popping up all over the place, makes me very hopeful for the future. Although it may be unfeasible to grow enough produce on rooftops to feed an entire city, this is a start, and even if we can't all eat the meals created with this urban harvest, everybody benefits from green spaces on top of buildings: green roofs absorb heat and filter the air, reducing both smog and the urban heat island effect.

So let's hear it for downtown rooftop gardening! I raise a toast with my cup of tea.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Passing the savings on to the consumer... or not...

Are you as confused as I am about this whole eco-fee drama? Have you, like me, heard snippets of your colleagues' conversations, read the occasional newspaper headline over your fellow transit riders' shoulders, and found yourself a bit muddled? Well sit back and relax while I do some research and figure this out.

Okay, here's the low-down: on July 1, new eco-fees came into effect in my (current) home province of Ontario, essentially taxing household products that contain toxic ingredients in order to offset the cost of safely discarding said products and their packaging. This happened very quietly because media coverage was much more partial to the implementation of the new Harmonized Sales Tax in Ontario and British Columbia, which took effect on the same day. Then on Monday, we heard that Canadian Tire will no longer be charging the fees because they've had a tough time determining how much to charge (due to inconsistencies between products) and feel the program isn't being well-handled.

One day after the news broke, the Environment Minister scrapped the fee, announcing the program would be reviewed over the next 90 days, and in the meantime, taxes will cover the bill. A lot of fingers are being pointed at Stewardship Ontario, who came up with the plan. The issue is that it's not necessarily a good idea to let a group of big corporation reps find a solution to a problem they're creating by putting toxic products out there in the first place. It's not like they're keen on absorbing the disposal costs, right?

Let's consider some options. On the one hand, when consumers pay a fee, one could argue that they are being encouraged to think about the environmental impact of common household products and make responsible decisions around such purchases. Besides, only those who buy these items are penalized, while others who choose safer alternatives don't lose out. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem like anyone was taking charge of the "educating the public" part of the equation, hence the confusion and uproar when people took a closer look at their receipts.

On the other hand, if manufacturers were held accountable for the safe disposal of the toxic products they create, they might feel more inclined to do the research necessary for developing healthier alternatives. And what goes around comes around: consumers looking to avoid toxins would be happy to buy these new, safer products, so the companies would profit from their efforts. The challenge is convincing the government to step in and force producers to carry the cost instead of passing them on to consumers, because an organization like Stewardship Ontario has no authority to do so.

I guess we'll have to see what happens in October. In the meantime, vote with your wallet! Stop in at your local natural food store - these days, in addition to organic produce, you'll also find environmentally safe products on their shelves. From shampoo to toilet cleaner to laundry detergent, we owe it to ourselves to choose healthier alternatives while we wait for the government to figure out what to do!

The Story of Cosmetics

Annie Leonard is back at it again with her Story of Cosmetics. Check it out!

Friday, July 16, 2010


While browsing the Environmental Health News website today, I came across an article about a mosquito-spraying program in Winnipeg. Apparently the city is using a chemical called malathion to destroy the local mosquito population. Residents who are concerned about the toxicity of the insecticide are allowed to opt out of the program, which under current city policy creates a 100m buffer zone around a given home. But not for long: a city councillor has urged the municipal government to recommend that the provincial government shrink the size of these no-spray zones. The issue is that when enough residents opt out of the program in one area, entire city blocks go unfogged, mosquitoes abound, and we all lose five-millionths of a litre of blood.

Before mentioning a few issues I have with this program, let's remind ourselves what the perpetrators look like:

I found this image on the website of a family naturist park, accompanying some information about their mosquito and black fly population control methods. Now, we all know that the internet contains a lot of misleading information, so I've chosen my source carefully. I can't help but believe that this group of people, who frequently let their entire bodies come into contact with nature and generally tend to respect the environment, needs an effective but also non-poisonous method of pest control. They're using a biological agent called Bti, which is sprayed onto mosquito breeding sites in spring (and can also be used in spot-treatments of standing water later in the year). After years of widespread use in Canada and the US, this bacterium is pretty much conclusively only toxic to mosquito and black fly larvae, so it's perfectly harmless to us and our beloved pets, and to boot, it biodegrades within a few days. Sounds awesome!

So what do we know about this Malathion character in the other corner of the ring? For one thing, as the article mentions, the US Department of Agriculture suspects it is carcinogenic, but unfortunately doesn't have enough evidence to prove this is the case. I don't know about you, but when research tells me that smoking is linked to lung cancer, but it can't be proven directly, that's enough to make me avoid cigarettes. And that fact sheet I hyperlinked to above, the one published by Health Canada and found on Winnipeg's official city website? It talks of malathion not posing a health concern, but then goes on to list nine ways to reduce exposure to the chemical! Scary!

To make matters worse, this insecticide is what's known as an "adulticide" because it kills off the bugs once they've matured to adulthood (as opposed to Bti, which is toxic only to larvae). An undesirable consequence of using adulticides is that they tend to be sprayed over large areas, affecting more than just mosquitoes along the way. Malathion is highly toxic to bees and fish, and while humans don't necessarily care about the other populations of insects that are wiped out by this chemical, other animals, like birds, suffer when their source of food disappears. (Also, losing bees spells trouble for us, seeing as they are pollinators that we depend on to grow food. More on that in another post.)

Lastly, I am always concerned about the use of insecticides because of their tendency to encourage the development of resistance in the very pests we use them against. Eventually, we are going to run out of chemicals that mosquitoes are still susceptible to but that don't also kill everything else, including us in the meantime. It sounds like Bti is good alternative. A better one would be to make use of mosquitoes' natural predators, like dragonflies.

So, while we wait for the research to be conducted and new legislation to pass, we can work on other things, like fighting against the use of malathion and its cousin insecticides and planting gardens that dragonflies would thrive in. Easier yet is avoiding the outdoors at dusk! Don't forget those citronella candles...

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Summer Happiness in a Basket

After what felt like an endless week of high heat, high humidity, and daily smog warnings, today’s clear blue sky and pleasant breezes made for just about perfect conditions for a trip out of town – carpooling in a fuel-efficient vehicle, of course – to pick raspberries.

While there are many things that make me happy, opportunities to escape the city and breathe fresh air are pretty high up on my list. There’s something really appealing about resting my eyes, gazing at green hills that roll on into the horizon instead of right angles of steel and pavement. Sometimes I forget how much chronic strain I feel in my shoulder and neck muscles (which I believe is a result of the rushed, hustle and bustle pace of city life, despite my best efforts at resisting this lifestyle) until I get a chance to take a few deep breaths of clean air and find the tension slowly recede. The countryside is my spa!

Today’s little expedition reinforced my already strong belief in the value of harvesting fruit and veggies for immediate consumption, baking, cooking, and preserving. Sure, you may end up spending more money than if you had visited your local grocer: farmers have to charge you not only for what you pick but also for what you eat in the field, and you have to factor in the cost of fuel (and unforeseen expenses such as splurging on freshly baked pie). But think of what you’re getting in return! The freshest possible produce, a reduction in stress, a generally fun time, and bonus: a sense of pride and satisfaction for having supported your local economy. What a deal!

Obviously, while I’m a big proponent of heading out to pick your own tasty berries, it’s not a good idea to do this on a regular basis. Mother Nature probably prefers it when one truck carries the fruit to supply a number of centrally located stores, rather than having the downtown-dwelling masses drive a one-hour round trip in their cars every weekend. Concerned that the big-box grocery chain doesn’t offer a fresh selection? Then visit your local farmers’ market. It’s a fun activity in itself, especially if you grab your bike, find a scenic route to get you there, and invite your friends to join you.

So, the next time you find yourself heading out of town to bring home summer happiness in a basket, take a look around and smile when you see families teaching their children where food comes from, how much work goes into growing it, and how much fun it can be to harvest it. We need to pass these values on to the next generation, and encourage everyone to grow what they can in their own backyards (more on that in another post).

To find a pick-your-own farm near you, check out Happy picking!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Eat More (Healthy, Sustainable) Fish!

It's refreshing to witness the public's growing interest in eating less meat due to health, ecological, and global hunger issues. I hope it's old news to you that turning cows into beef on Factory Farms involves (1) mixing hormones and antibiotics directly into the feed (which are passed on to the consumer along with loads of fat and cholesterol); (2) using massive amounts of water for indoor systems and land for pasture; and (3) driving deforestation in the Amazon to grow corn and soy beans to feed the cows instead of feeding people directly. Stay tuned for one to ten thousand more posts on this issue later...

Fortunately, people seem to be turning to fish (and the occasional vegetarian meal) to fill the gap left behind by a less bovine-heavy diet. Generally speaking, fish is a good source of protein but lower in fat than meat. And don't let the term "fatty fish" fool you: omega-3 fatty acids help prevent heart disease and stroke. Eating fish as opposed to beef means you're ingesting a healthier type and amount of cholesterol. The distressing downside to eating significant amounts of certain types of fish is the mercury that comes along for the ride - and we can blame ourselves for that.

The bigger issue with the Western world eating more fish is that we're driving lots of varieties to extinction. Take bluefin tuna, for example. Not its kid brother, albacore (the type we eat from cans), but rather the 200 kg giants that sell for over $100,000 in Tokyo fish markets. It's so valuable that it has become critically endangered from overfishing - but not internationally protected because Japan is addicted to bluefin sashimi (understandably; it's so darn tasty!). The fishing industry continues to plunder the seas with no regard for sustaining the existing stocks, expecting to move on to Fish Types E and F once they have successfully driven Fish Types A, B, C, and D to extinction. To make matters worse, there is growing concern that the BP oil spill is decimating what remains of the stocks. That's two strikes against humanity.

Unfortunately, fish farms aren't the answer. They share a lot of the same criticisms I outlined above. Untreated fecal waste pollutes the surrounding aquatic ecosystem; diseases and parasites spread like epidemics within the overcrowded cages (often resulting in the complete slaughter of the stock) and can spread to wild fish populations; antibiotics in the feed promote the evolution of resistant strains of bacteria; and lastly, brace yourself for the irony here, other wild fish stocks are being depleted in order to feed farmed fish. This is especially true for large, (obviously) carnivorous types of farmed fish, most notably salmon.

Now that I've painted this glorious picture of current fishing practices, you might be wondering what your options are. Luckily there are still many ways to enjoy fish in your diet without having to worry about excessive mercury, antibiotics, or guilt over driving wild stocks to extinction. Check out the following links:
So next time you find yourself visiting your local fishmonger, ask for smoked rainbow trout instead of smoked salmon, and for your next sushi dinner, why not try sea urchin? Bon appetit!

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Biodegradable materials are sitting in landfills, and that sucks.

Only two posts in and already there's a recurring theme in my blog: when people don't buy reusable water bottles and travel mugs, they often justify their consumption by proclaiming that plastic bottles are recyclable and (some) paper cups are biodegradable. "I'm doing my part", they say while complimenting the local corporate coffee house for bringing in those new recycling stations (don't get me wrong, I'm glad they've taken that step). We need to work harder at educating each other about what works and what doesn't when it comes to waste diversion initiatives, and make sure certain issues are being properly addressed.

Let's think about those fancy new biodegradable paper and plastic cups that can be found popping up at the office, often for catered meetings. My first concern is that the shiny green "biodegradable" label may only suggest that some fraction of the material can break down (which also makes me wonder if they used vegetable-based ink?), or worse yet, that the item could take centuries to decompose. I'd rather not even consider the possibility that some products marketed as biodegradable could break down only to release harmful toxins. As far as I know, there is no official definition for the term, no standards for making a biodegradable claim, and no regulatory body to separate the good from the bad and the ugly.

Another issue with these feel-good cups is what happens to them after the water and coffee has been consumed and the meeting is over. Off the top of your head, how many compost bins have you spotted scattered around your office building? I'm willing to bet the number is smaller than one for most of you. I'm also willing to bet that a lot of people out there think this is a non-issue, ignorant of the fact that the fate of a biodegradable cup is not so glorious when mixed with plain old garbage. Trash is compacted so tightly that biodegradation, if it occurs at all, takes place very slowly because of the anaerobic conditions of the landfill it ends up on. Add to that a relative lack of light and water in the middle of the heap, and a definite lack of the microorganisms that actually perform the biodegrading magic, and what we're left with is lettuce from the 1960's that has not decomposed. Ew.

The alternative? Bring biodegradable items home for municipal curbside green bin pick-up, which, unfortunately, is not without its share of problems. This program was designed with two important facts in mind: (1) people are prone to laziness, and (2) people can be easily motivated by money. I happen to believe in the universal application of these tenets - because I'm often one of those people! There are lots of communities where residents now have to pay if they set out too many garbage bags for collection (threat of losing money), which encourages waste diversion actions like separating compostables from inert trash. So, in the absence of a burning desire to get dirty in the backyard with a garden compost bin and so many possible uses for healthy soil (threat of physical activity - let's face it, we all like getting sweaty at the gym and only at the gym), people happily fill their little curbside green bins. Out of sight, out of mind, as is so often the case. Let's pretend there haven't been issues with organics sent to landfills because they were held in non-biodegradable plastic bags and simply because workers have been mixing them with regular trash.

But once again I'm letting my cynicism get the better of me. Every new program, green or otherwise, is implemented with lots of kinks that need to be ironed out, and eventually they will be. In the meantime, talk to your employer about setting up a composting program at work, or approach your condo board about getting in on the municipal organics collection program. If you're really keen, show up at the management office of your local mall and demand that they commit to setting up green bins alongside the recycling bins in the food court.

As for me, in September I look forward to moving out of my overpriced high-rise apartment and into a walk-up with a friendlier landlord in a quieter neighbourhood. There are many reasons for making this change, including the prospect of setting up a composter on the property and encouraging my new neighbours to help me turn vegetable scraps - and the occasional biodegradable cup - into rich soil. Next summer, get ready for backyard tomatoes!

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Learn the 3Rs again, for the first time.

You know what sucks? There are people out there who feel good about themselves for recycling only a fraction of the items they bring into their homes, and stop there. Recycling was never meant to be used as an easy way to be environmentally-friendly. Technically speaking, it's the second worst thing to do with garbage besides dumping it on a landfill (with the exception of burning it, I guess). But I guess it's appealing to take the relatively easy step of separating paper, glass, (some) plastics, and (some) metals from the rest of the trash. For many people, once it's in a blue bin, it's out of mind, and it's "job well done".

But the well-done job has unsavoury side-effects. How much water is used to turn paper back into pulp? Or to clean a glass bottle well enough to be refilled? How much energy is used to melt down plastics and metals? How clean is the energy powering the plant? There are different reports out there, some claiming recycling is more energy-efficient than manufacturing products from raw materials, but there are so many factors that need to be taken into account (type of material, process used, fuel efficiency of vehicles used in weekly curbside pickups, etc.) that it's almost impossible to decide which option is better. The bottom line is that both are wasteful compared to reducing consumption and reusing items within the home.

I'm sure this is all old hat to everyone. What really prompted me to write about the downsides of recycling is the unsettling news that the city I live in sells a significant amount of its recycling to China, where the local cheap labour force sorts and recycles it into things like shoes, which are then shipped back across the ocean and sold to us (because last year's styles are so... last year). What a convenient little system that supports poverty halfway across the world - perhaps I need to start a second blog that comments on the intersection of environmental issues and social injustice? Back to my point: I realize building a brand new recycling plant here is no small matter and probably quite expensive, but I tend to be the kind of person who hopes that creating jobs and supporting the local economy is more important. There I go being idealistic again...

My hope is that we can educate each other on recycling and realize that it's not the solution. I hate hearing people say, "at least I can recycle it" when they buy a bottle of water, as though that makes everything better. Of course, at the end of the day, I'd rather see an empty soft drink can in a blue bin than a trash can! But that's mainly because we know conclusively that recycling aluminum is much less energy-intensive that refining it from scratch. Not so for many other products. I'm just hoping we continually remind ourselves that recycling is the last and least beneficial of the 3Rs. It's a good starting point, but that's all it is.

So, to recap: first, reduce consumption. Buy less, and when you do buy, choose products with less packaging and carry them home in reusable bags (preferably not the ones made in China). Second, reuse items, whether for the same function (travel mug) or a new one (repurposing clothing as rags for cleaning). You can also regift and even upcycle useless scraps of material into higher quality products. Then, once you run out of clever and creative ideas, by all means, recycle instead of trashing your stuff!