Tuesday, January 29, 2008

but it makes my pee smell funny

My wife and I visited friends in Kentucky last spring. It is a beautiful part of the country with rolling hills, stacked stone walls and a mix of open fields and forested landscapes. We spent an afternoon wandering around the property and eventually ended up in an old garden plot. It was just the right time of year for asparagus and a huge bed of it revealed dozens of spears ready to be picked. “Yum, asparagus,” said my wife in a mockingly sarcastic voice. My wife hates asparagus. Or at least that’s what she’s been telling me for the whole of our relationship. I on the other hand really do love asparagus and have been known to eat it straight, biting off the ends of the raw spears and enjoying the unique flavor of this springtime treat. Getting my wife to share in my love for asparagus has been impossible up until this point and I was resigned to eat it by myself for the rest of my life.

The friend who was showing us the land around his home said he also enjoyed asparagus and that we should pick some for dinner. My wife objected lamely, suggesting it is inedible because, “It makes your pee smell funny.” But in no time we had picked more than enough for the rest of us and we started to march back towards the house.

It turns out that our friend and his wife are pretty good cooks and suggested a particular glaze to put over the asparagus after grilling. The rest of dinner was discussed and preparations started. While we mixed and sautéed and baked and grilled we also discussed how nice it must be to have so much fresh asparagus so close by. While I do like asparagus, I think eating it out of a can is on the list of banned international torture techniques as described by the Geneva Convention. If it isn’t, it should be. I think out of season asparagus that gets shipped from half way around the world is a bit better, but not a whole lot.

All vegetables are better when they’re eaten soon after they’re picked but asparagus is on a shorter list of vegetables to avoid if they don’t come from nearby. So I was surprised that it had never occurred to me that part of my wife’s objection to asparagus might be because of the fact that she’s never really had good, fresh asparagus. Well that changed on our trip. After a little teasing by me and our hosts she agreed to try the grilled asparagus… and she loved it! Now it didn’t hurt that the asparagus had on it a honey and bourbon glaze freshly whipped up by one of our hosts. In one sense I don’t think that matters because she was after all eating the asparagus she had avoided for her entire adult life. That is she was trying something new and liking it even though there was technically sweets and liquor involved.

But in a much more practical way she was getting all the goodness that goes along with fresh asparagus. It contains high levels of Folic Acid, Vitamin A and potassium among other nutrients. It a good source of dietary fiber, it is promotes the growth of gut-friendly bacteria and it’s low in calories. As a good source of Vitamins C and E it is good for my wife’s skin, it is thought to have a cleansing affect on the body and as early as the 1600s, people like herbalist Nicholas Culpepper have been suggesting that it’s good for your sex life. In addition to having a positive effect on the body’s level of histamines (which in term affect the ability to organism) eating such a seductively shaped vegetable is bound to spice up your sex life!

And after such a wonderful experience with grilled and glazed asparagus she was willing to try it without the sweet topping. She still liked it. I pushed my luck and got her to try it raw. Now she didn’t like it this ways as much as she did grilled. And she liked it even more with the glaze, but even raw she had to admit that this fresh, super-local asparagus tasted good. Which is really important because there are a lot of really compelling reasons for us to start the project of growing more food closer to home, namely a global peak in oil production, a peak in natural gas production here in North America and the effects of climate change that could seriously disrupt centralized agriculture in all sorts of ways.

But these reasons are scary and it’s hard to say with any measure of certainty just how badly they’ll affect industrial agriculture and exactly when that will begin. I mean it’s hard not to notice that the cost of food from this system is already on the rise. That is the way most people will notice what’s going on, they’ll pay more for food. But at a certain point the price increases could keep enough people from getting enough to eat. The number that can’t afford to eat in this country currently stands at 12% or about out of every eight people. I bet that number would have to double or maybe even triple before a national movement might get going full swing. It’s important to remember that a disproportionate number of those going hungry are children who lack the wherewithal to do much about it and therefore the problem could get big before anyone pays it the attention it deserves. And if we wait too long to begin the project of downsizing agriculture the job will be much harder to do. Part of the process will be made much easier if we still have access to relatively inexpensive fuel to power projects like earthworks aimed at water retention. The depleted soils of much of the US will also take time to revive. For this reason alone we need to start sooner rather than later.

So what’s all this got to do with asparagus you ask? Well my wife likes it now. After an adult life spent without local asparagus she wants it. She wants me to grow more of it (I just have a few wild asparagus plants I rescued a few years ago) and she wants to see who else is growing it nearby. She believes me when I say that we should relocalize agriculture because we’re going to have to do it for all sorts of nasty reasons BUT she didn’t get excited until she tasted yummy asparagus. If we want to foster the redevelopment of small scale, sustainable agriculture it seems to me that the best way to convince more people quickly is to feed them yummy asparagus; topped with honey and bourbon. We can and should continue to explain why this is so important in terms of dangers of not doing it but we must point out, in ever louder voices, that this is about changing the way we grow food and eat it so we can have really tasty food.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

george was that comment cleared?

I just had to take a moment and share. In a recent interview with ABC News, George W. Bush was asked about getting tougher with Saudi Arabia about the high price of oil. Our President said the following,

If they don't have a lot of additional oil to put on the market, it is hard to ask somebody to do something they may not be able to do.

Perhaps my added emphasis will help you understand the magnitude of this statement. The sitting president of the United States of America, who recently admitted, "America is addicted to oil," made a comment, after meeting with King Abdullha, that Saudi Arabia might not be able to raise oil production. Of course there are people, knowledge people who have been saying this for at least a few years, but here is our president saying it in an interview with a major news network. This must have thrown his handlers into an uproar. No doubt this points to an exciting year, because in terms of oil production as Saudi Arabia goes, so goes the world.

You can watch the interview for yourself.

If you don't believe the president or if perhaps you still think peak oil is a few decades or even just a few years away, I suggest this informative PDF from Matt Simmons, energy investment banker, which concisely presents the realization that global conventional oil production peaked in May of 2005.

Best Wishes,


More on the Bush interview from Gail the Actuary at TOD and thanks to Sharon.

Monday, January 14, 2008

why don't farmers take long vacations?

Regular readers of this blog have no doubt noticed that my content stream recently slowed to a trickle. First of all I failed at my annual attempt to make the holidays less hectic. Then I spent most of the first half of Janurary '08 traveling. I had a fantastic time in chilly rural NY which was kind enough to snow on this Southerner- something I don't get to experience very often. Then on to KY for more visiting. I am happily at home and settling in for what will be quite an exciting first half of the year. My focus will be twofold. My wife is expecting our second child in the middle of March and my co-author Sharon Astyk and I must finish the book by June 1. I will certainly share information about the former event with readers but it is the latter, the writing of the book, which will show up on this site from time to time. While I won't be sharing everything in advance of publication please comment on anything you think good, bad or even of no consequence as such comments will be helpful. I do believe food can be- might even have to be- the way we really get to work on the unfolding crises of energy descent and climate change. Getting this right is very important.

Best Wishes,


Friday, January 04, 2008

hungry for change?

Happy 2008. I have only one prediction, and it’s really more of a thought. I’ll play it safe and phrase it as a question. Will food create a crossroads for the crises of energy and environment at which we will change directions and transform the way we live?

From Financial Post

A new crisis is emerging, a global food catastrophe that will reach further and be more crippling than anything the world has ever seen. The credit crunch and the reverberations of soaring oil prices around the world will pale in comparison to what is about to transpire, Donald Coxe, global portfolio strategist at BMO Financial Group said at the Empire Club’s 14th annual investment outlook in Toronto on Thursday.

“It’s not a matter of if, but when,” he warned investors. “It’s going to hit this year hard.”
Mr. Coxe said the sharp rise in raw food prices in the past year will intensify in the next few years amid increased demand for meat and dairy products from the growing middle classes of countries such as China and India as well as heavy demand from the biofuels industry.
“The greatest challenge to the world is not US$100 oil; it’s getting enough food so that the new middle class can eat the way our middle class does, and that means we’ve got to expand food output dramatically,” he said.

The impact of tighter food supply is already evident in raw food prices, which have risen 22% in the past year.

Mr. Coxe said in an interview that this surge would begin to show in the prices of consumer foods in the next six months. Consumers already paid 6.5% more for food in the past year.
Wheat prices alone have risen 92% in the past year, and yesterday closed at US$9.45 a bushel on the Chicago Board of Trade.

At the centre of the imminent food catastrophe is corn - the main staple of the ethanol industry. The price of corn has risen about 44% over the past 15 months, closing at US$4.66 a bushel on the CBOT yesterday - its best finish since June 1996.

This not only impacts the price of food products made using grains, but also the price of meat, with feed prices for livestock also increasing.

“You’re going to have real problems in countries that are food short, because we’re already getting embargoes on food exports from countries, who were trying desperately to sell their stuff before, but now they’re embargoing exports,” he said, citing Russia and India as examples.
“Those who have food are going to have a big edge.”

With 54% of the world’s corn supply grown in America’s mid-west, the U.S. is one of those countries with an edge.

But Mr. Coxe warned U.S. corn exports were in danger of seizing up in about three years if the country continues to subsidize ethanol production. Biofuels are expected to eat up about a third of America’s grain harvest in 2007.

The amount of U.S. grain currently stored for following seasons was the lowest on record, relative to consumption, he said.

“You should be there for it fully-hedged by having access to those stocks that benefit from rising food prices.”