Monday, February 28, 2011

Happy 100th Post!

Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU for following me, leaving comments (I survive on them, so please add more), and lurking quietly! Without you, I would just be a crazy person talking to myself in written form. As it stands, I'm a crazy person talking to a very cool audience!

2011 Canadian Weblog Awards

On the morning of February 18th, I checked my e-mail and found a message from Laura (at The Mindful Merchant) surprising me with news that she had nominated me for the Canadian Weblog Awards, 2011, in the Ecology and Social Justice category! Laura's fabulous blog won this award for 2010 - so you should really head on over to it and see what all the fuss is about. Shortly after receiving this great news, I kind of... forgot about it and went back to doing my thing, still in shock and disbelief. Until half an hour ago, when I received confirmation of this nomination from the awards organizers themselves. I really hope I'm not hallucinating!

The timing is perfect. When I realized I was coming close to my 100th post, I started racking my brain, desperate to find a unique way to celebrate this milestone. I've been avoiding putting metaphorical pen to metaphorical paper (fingertips to keyboard?) to just get started with something, anything, for fear it would turn out all wrong. I'm not really sure why this occasion is bringing up feelings of performance anxiety, but it is!

So forget about a list of the most popular posts, a run-down of topics I've covered in the first 100 posts, or a brief overview of the ideas I have for the next 100 posts. Being nominated is quite possibly the best way to commemorate this achievement. Thank you for your support, Laura, and thanks to everyone else for making this meaningful.


For more information about the Canadian Weblog Awards, click here. Briefly, it's a juried competition featuring 36 categories. The shortlist will be announced on December 1st, 2011, and the winners will be "crowned" with buttons for their site on January 1st, 2012!

Saturday, February 26, 2011

If It's Yellow, Let It Mellow

Many years ago, I participated in the national youth volunteer-service program called Katimavik ("meeting place" in Inuktitut). As one of a dozen youth living together in the same house, I came to see environmental efforts as not only an ideal, but a necessity for getting through the day. Even after switching to evenings for my showers, I still had to be quick about it if I wanted anyone else to have hot water after me. Likewise, we kept our utility bills low by turning the thermostat down in the winter - in northern BC, no less - and saved money on gas by taking public transit to our volunteer placements. These are behaviours I continue to practice.

As you can probably guess from the title of this post, we also committed to the selective flushing mantra, "if it's yellow, let it mellow; if it's brown, flush it down". The only time this caused a problem was when we embarked on a weekend road trip, and the last person to use the bathroom before we left didn't have the presence of mind to make an exception to the rule. Please note: after two days, pee in the toilet smells bad!

I'm curious to know whether any of you save water in this way in your homes, and if you don't, what the barriers are. However I'm also writing this post because I recently came across a great public service announcement video published by a Brazilian environmental organization. Check it out:

Pee During Shower (english subtitles) from on Vimeo.

It was Jen at the Clean Bin Project blog who posted the video at the beginning of the month, and I'm happy to report that she received a lot of positive comments. More than half of the readers admitted to having done this a few times, if not regularly, while those opposed to the idea cited cleanliness and squeamishness issues as impediments, as well as the idea that "there's something unacceptable about it". So here are my arguments: as far as I understand it, if you're healthy, your urine is sterile. In other words, we can't catch anything from each other by coming into contact with each others' pee unless our immune systems are compromised, in which case we're probably more likely to catch a cold or the flu. To minimize any lingering smell, peeing at the beginning of your shower closest to the drain should do the trick. Remember, the end result of this activity is that once a day, you're not flushing the toilet: instead, you're peeing in the shower while already using the water to clean yourself - it's a direct grey water system. As for whether this act is inherently right or wrong, that depends on your upbringing and the beliefs you choose to value. In my opinion, it's much more of a travesty that we put drinking water into our toilets only to soil it with human waste and regularly use up to 13 litres of water to rinse away a couple hundred ml of mostly sterile urine. To me, that's what's unacceptable about the present situation.

Your turn: do you let it mellow when it's yellow? Do you pee in the shower? If you don't do either, what are your reasons?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Foodie Fun in February

The shortest month of the year may be quickly drawing to a close, but it's not too late to meet your monthly foodie event quota! On Monday, February 28th, you will have to make a tough decision between attending Food Forward's popular Foodie Drinks social and networking event and The Stop Community Food Centre's Yes In My Back Yard (YIMBY) garden-sharing program orientation session. This is one of those times when I wish I could clone myself.

Foodie Drinks

Are you a politically-minded foodie? Would you like to hear about groups doing good work in support of the good food movement? Do you like Local Food Plus certified local, sustainable food? If you answered yes to any of the above questions, then come to mingle, socialize, and network at February's Foodie Drinks event, where those who care about expanding access to healthy food and supporting farmers and animal welfare come together to make positive change in the community. At this month's event, we'll be learning about non-profit activist collective Justicia for Migrant Workers and their efforts at promoting the rights of migrant farm workers. We'll also get to know Hall's Kitchen, producers of handcrafted vegetarian soups, stews, and sauces free of chemicals, preservatives, additives, and GMOs. Yum!

Foodie Drinks will be taking place between 7:00 and 10:00 pm in the Melody Bar at the Gladstone Hotel (1214 Queen St W). You can RSVP here. This event is open to everyone and free to attend, however a $10 donation is encouraged to cover the costs of organizing events like these and pushing good food policy forward at City Hall.


Looking for a garden matchmaker? Maybe you like growing your own food but don't have access to a sunny patch of soil. Maybe you have a big backyard but lack the time and/or know-how to put it to productive use. Maybe you're lucky and have had your own veggie plot for years but would like to meet other gardeners to share knowledge and support those who are new to gardening. Either way, if you live in the neighbourhoods around the Stop's two locations, then the YIMBY program is for you! The Stop is hosting this orientation session to introduce apartment dwellers and back yard owners to each other and to provide details on their tool lending library, gardening workshop schedule, and community seed exchange events.

The YIMBY orientation session will be taking place between 6:30 and 8:30 pm. For more details, including how to RSVP, check out the full event listing here.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Roll Up the Rim to Waste

I have a confession to make. This isn't easy. As recently as a few years ago, I willingly and eagerly fed my addictive personality by participating in a contest that required me to waste single-use paper coffee cups despite owning an insulated travel mug. Based on the title of this post, my Canadian readers know what I'm talking about and can probably relate. At the risk of alienating those of you who have no idea what I'm talking about, but in staying true to my values, I will not post a link to the contest website in this post. All you really need to know is that this yearly contest is run by a popular coffee chain, that the prizes range from a preloaded coffee cards to mountain bikes to cars, and that the nationwide compulsive consumption of coffee in single-use paper coffee cups began today and will continue for a few months. If you're wondering, I've never won more than a donut.

There are many types of people in this world. Some aren't terribly susceptible to the temptation of contests like these, while others dramatically increase their coffee consumption in a desperate attempt to win. Those who usually buy hot beverages from a variety of stores find themselves heading back, over and over again, to the same coffee chain - if they're going to be buying coffee, it might as well be from the store where they have a chance of winning a prize, right? Worst of all, people like me intentionally leave their travel mugs at home because the contest is won or lost right there on the single-use paper cup. My most shameful memory from the years I participated is of the day on which I brought my insulated mug to the store, had it filled with coffee, then asked for an empty, unused paper cup because I deserved a chance to win "in return for my purchase", which is how I think I put it to the employee at the time.

Let's take a step back and think about what we're really buying into. I believe we frequently ignore some pretty serious issues around coffee: society tells us to say no to drugs, yet most of us are physically addicted to caffeine, and our culture endorses, even encourages this behaviour. We support the local food movement, but insist on consuming large amounts of a beverage that is made from a bean that grows nowhere near here - and it's no special occasion delicacy, no, we want it multiple times a day! Sustainable production methods are important when it comes to the fruits and veggies we eat, but our favourite Arabica is most often grown in full-sun and fertilizer- and pesticide-intensive conditions, causing deforestation, the destruction of habitat in some of the world's most biodiverse regions, and soil and water degradation. While the friendly barista enjoys a decent wage and the tips we leave in the jar, plantation workers are exploited and farmers are unfairly paid for the harvest. Talk about bang for your buck! So many economic, environmental, and social injustices for such a low price.

But it's not enough that we want to pay a mere dollar fifty for 12 ounces of java. We also want a container for the beverage that will outlive its usefulness after being in our possession for about 20 minutes. Most importantly, at this time of year we want as many of those containers as we can possibly get our hands on. All for the thrill embodied in the few seconds it takes to unroll the rim of a single-use paper cup, revealing "please try again".

I was once there. I no longer am. If I want excitement, I'll find it in performing a taiko (Japanese drumming) piece with my fellow students in front of a large audience. If I'm drowsy and need to perk up, I'll go for a brisk walk around the block. If I want a mountain bike, I'll save up until I can afford to buy one, then bring my business to a local bike shop. This year, it's not enough for me to avoid the cups by boycotting the contest; I'm going to avoid the coffee chain entirely, at least for the duration of the promotion - possibly longer. So I'd like to ask those of you who usually participate in this waste-producing event: will you join me in rejecting it?

Photo credits: cup on sidewalk, cup and ashtray, cups in grass.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Makings Things Worse While Making Things Better

I consider myself very lucky to have never lost someone close to me to cancer. Nevertheless, I am all too familiar with the pain, suffering, anxiety, anger, sadness, and grief associated with fighting and losing the battle with this disease, having worked as a research coordinator for the Department of Psychosocial Oncology at Princess Margaret Hospital for almost three years. Every week, I would meet new patients who had been recently diagnosed with acute leukemia, a relatively rare but very nasty blood cancer that strikes children, octogenarians, and everyone in between. I saw many endure treatment, go into remission, and reclaim a sense of normalcy in their lives; but others didn't fare so well, and after getting to know them over many months, it was hard to accept their deaths.

With that in mind, it should go without saying that I am as eager as the next person to see the day when a cure for cancer has been found. It's heartening to notice that so many individuals, organizations, and companies are able to make donations to hospitals and foundations - and it seems more money is raised every year - though I continue to lament the fact that it's even necessary for the public to step up in this way. The government could do a much better job at funding cancer research, especially considering it's in their interest to reduce the astronomical health care costs associated with treating the ever increasing number of people diagnosed with cancer. Also, I don't trust pharmaceutical companies and won't hold my breath until they find a cure; it's so much better for their bottom line to have patients undergo long series of drug treatments than to be rid of the disease for good, so I can't believe that they have a great interest in finding a cure. Cynical? Me? Never...

But that's neither here nor there for the purpose of this blog post, which is to draw your attention to the sad irony of the Cure Foundation's National Denim Day. I just saw a poster in the subway about this event, a full three months ahead of its May date, encouraging companies to let their employees wear jeans to work in exchange for a donation towards breast cancer research. Awareness is raised, money is collected, hope is built. Excellent! However, denim is spun from cotton, and as I pointed out just last month, growing cotton involves heavy pesticide use. In fact, although cotton only covers 2.4% of the world's cultivated land, it consumes 16% of the world's insecticides. Not only is this practice associated with soil, water, and air pollution, it is making people sick: many people living in cotton-growing regions of the world, from farm workers who handle the toxins directly to children going to school near the cotton fields, suffer from acute and chronic pesticide poisoning. But the true irony of Denim Day is revealed by the fact that several pesticides used on cotton in the US are suspected to be carcinogenic by the EPA. I guess since we don't get cancer from wearing jeans (or any of our other cotton clothing), and most of us don't know anyone working in cotton fields, it's easy to forget. I challenge you to remember.

What do you think? Which alternatives could be used in place of jeans? How can we get people to support cancer prevention as well as cure research?

Photo credits: Princess Margaret Hospital; jeans.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

It's Not Brain Surgery, It's Mushrooms

Yesterday I dined at a local pizzeria and had a thoroughly enjoyable experience despite witnessing two people at a neighbouring table make a scene.

They were nursing drinks when I showed up, but had apparently not eaten anything yet. By the time I had finished my pizza, all they had accomplished was consume a few more beverages between them while chatting in a foreign language - I didn't know what they were talking about, but it sounded like a pleasant enough conversation highlighted by an occasional chuckle and plenty of smiles. When they finally got around to ordering, I was already thinking about whether or not I should have an espresso, and before too long their pizzas and my coffee arrived, and all was well in the world... for about a half-second. The man started complaining, and I heard something about mushrooms. A second server showed up to see what was the matter, and the words "not enough" and "double mushrooms" drifted over. The woman chimed in, echoing her companion's concern about too few mushrooms, and all of a sudden there were four people talking over each other with raised voices. One of the servers offered to send the pizzas back and have new ones made up with extra mushrooms, but the damage had been done. The man refused to take either of the pizzas and was not interested in letting the restaurant redeem itself by getting the order right on the second try. He stood up to make his point more intensely and paid for the drinks, then the couple left, complaining loudly to each other all the way to the door.

I couldn't have asked for better entertainment.

At this point, I could don my play-by-play commentator hat and do a slow-motion replay of the situation, analyze the motivations of the key players, and point out where different behaviours could have produced a better outcome, but this blog is about environmental health issues. And the bottom line is that two fresh, hot, probably extremely tasty pizzas were tossed in the garbage last night - meanwhile people not only in developing countries but also within a few km of the restaurant continue to go hungry.

I can't comment on the reasons the unwanted pizzas ended up thrown out (and who knows, maybe the kitchen staff were eating them out of view), but I know that sending back food for reasons other than a physical intolerance to certain ingredients, or the desire to have the meal reheated because it arrived at the table too cold, is unacceptable. If you don't want something on your plate, make sure you make that very clear when ordering. Sure, mistakes can still happen, but we ought to be taking every step to prevent perfectly edible food from being wasted. In the case of the couple from last night, I believe there was no justification for letting that meal end up in the trash - too few mushrooms does not make a pizza inedible. And like the manager said after his irritated patrons had left, "it's not brain surgery, it's just mushrooms".

Every time food goes to waste, I feel sorry for the farmers who grew it, the workers who processed it, and the water, energy, and other resources that were involved from field to tummy that could have been put to better use if the food ends up in the garbage. So I try really hard to cook with the ingredients in my fridge before they spoil, consume leftovers quickly, buy food I like and have planned a meal around, and order exactly what I want in restaurants, in the hopes that I can keep food waste to a minimum.

What about you? What are the main reasons you trash food? What gets in the way of being able to consume everything you buy at the store?

Photo credits: pizza oven; poster.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Seedy Sunday

It's still a week away, but I grew tired of hearing about Valentine's Day about a month ago. Thankfully, that was around the time when lots of buzz around Seedy Sunday was beginning to build up, and now there are only five days to go until the big event in Toronto!

Seedy Sundays (and Saturdays) promote biodiversity and encourage the sharing of traditional knowledge about growing plants. At these events, Seed Exchange Tables are set up to help you exchange food and flower seeds with other gardeners, making it easy to grow organic, heirloom, and native varieties of plants. Once you've stocked up on seeds, stick around for workshops and presentations, then mingle with the other green thumbs in attendance!

The Toronto Community Garden Network is hosting three Seedy events this year: one in downtown Toronto (Hart House at U of T on Sunday, February 13th, 12:30 - 6:00 pm), one in Scarborough (Heron Park Recreation Centre on Saturday, March 12th, 12:00 - 4:00 pm), and one in North York (Lawrence Heights Community Centre on Sunday, March 27th, 1:00 - 5:00 pm). Entrance is by donation. Click here for more details.

This year's theme is access: access to seeds, to gardening, and to food. Gardening can be such an empowering activity because it allows you to provide food for yourself and your family, it gives you control over how your food is grown, it teaches children about where food comes from, it reduces your stress, it improves your health through physical activity, and it meets your social needs when you use space in a community garden. That's why it's important to increase everyone's access to gardening, especially those struggling to make ends meet and those with physical and mental disabilities.

Do you garden? In your backyard or at a community garden? How did you get into it? If you don't garden, what are some of the barriers preventing you from getting involved?

Photo credit.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Future of the Food Sector

January was a busy month for food system-related events, and it looks like February will be no different. Food Forward has organized a panel discussion featuring four young leaders within the food and agricultural sectors:
The forum will cover topics such as urban agriculture, local sustainable food procurement, food literacy, and municipal policy, and the discussion will highlight some of the programs and policies currently in development that will be shaping the food system in the future.

If you work in or are interested in food and agriculture, health and environment, or planning and policy, don't miss this event coming up on Tuesday, February 22nd, between 9:30 and 11:30 am, located in room 204 at Deer Park Library (40 St. Clair Ave E). To register, contribute $35 on Food Forward's Get Involved page or become a monthly supporter. Fair trade and local refreshments will be provided. View the event page for more details.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Time for a Pig Rally

You heard me: a pig rally. Remember the genetically modified Enviropig™ and its mouse/E.coli genes that help it excrete less phosphorous so that big agribusiness can continue raising pigs in factory farm conditions instead of adopting more ethical and environmentally sound practices? Well, its time is coming, and we need to take action now if we want to stop this GM pork from making it to supermarket shelves.

From The Big Carrot:

The University of Guelph will profit financially from commercializing the hugely controversial GE pig trademarked “Enviropig”. What happens when a public university fights to bring a product to market? The university has requested approval from Health Canada but:
  • There is no transparency in GE regulation and there has never been a democratic public debate.
  • There is no GE food labeling to give consumers a choice.
  • The GE pig could destroy the domestic and global markets for hog farmers, while providing few or no benefits to farmers.
On Wed Feb 9, MPs from the House of Commons Agriculture Committee will visit the University of Guelph to see how they can help “foster an innovative and fertile” biotech industry. At the same time, the House is voting on Bill C-474 which would require an analysis of export market harm before a new GE seed is permitted.
The Big Carrot is inviting everyone to join the pig rally to stop Enviropig™ from gaining Health Canada approval and will be providing free bus transportation between Toronto and Guelph to make it easier for GTA residents to show their support. Please view this flyer for more details. Also, take a look at CBAN's page on Enviropig™ for more background information and other ways to get involved.

I don't know about you, but I like knowing that the food I eat is safe and healthy for me. We don't know that with certainty about Enviropig™.

Photo credit.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

It's All Relative

A couple of weeks ago, a report was released that showed improvements in air quality in the province of Ontario between 2000 and 2009. Specifically, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, and sulphur dioxide levels in the atmosphere have been decreasing over those years. This is good news for the climate and everybody's health!

I'm sure this favourable outcome has a lot to do with the phasing out of dirty coal-fired power plants, scheduled to be completed by 2014. With frequent reports about China's and India's growing consumption of coal, I'm eager to celebrate every step taken in the right direction to clean our air. Ironically, about half of Ontario's smog blows over from the US (I'm looking at you, heavy industry in Ohio Valley), and that makes me wonder why we (the whole world) aren't trying harder to solve this problem together. After all, the atmosphere doesn't care for political borders. Sure, I'm proud that the province I live in is saying goodbye to coal, but I can't pretend the Alberta tar sands aren't my concern just because I live 3,000 km away - greenhouse gases are greenhouse gases, no matter where the fossil fuels are burned; the global climate is changing even if some countries aren't contributing to the problem at all.

The bottom line? I'm cautiously optimistic. More renewable energy sources are being used where I live, and cleaner technology is being developed for traditional electricity generation. The public is growing increasingly aware of and concerned about the environmental impacts of dirty energy, and many people are taking steps to lower their electricity use. But is it enough, or too little, too late? What do you think?

Photo credit.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

It's Winter As Usual

If underwhelmed isn't a real world, it ought to be. Because that's how I felt this morning after looking outside to find about half as much snow as was forecast, then having Twitter inform me that many people were staying home from work and most schools were closed for the day. Although I'm not nearly old enough to start a sentence with "when I was young", I will anyway: when I was young, 20 - 30 cm of snow was considered a moderate amount of snow, not "Snowmageddon". From my undergraduate days in Montreal I still have fond memories of writing December final exams during real storms - and getting there on time after leaving extra early, because that's what you do when you live in a city that experiences cold, snowy winters! Only the 1998 Ice Storm brought Montreal to a halt, making a typical snow storm look much less threatening. Face it, Toronto: just because you no longer call the army for help doesn't mean you've learned how to suck it up when it comes to snow.

So in honour of a weather event that is being taken way too seriously - and because if we're going to call this a snow day, then I'm taking the day off from writing a real blog post - I bring you an old spoof video of a CBC National Special Report: Snow in Toronto.