Never Out of Season

20170608_115951-1The Irish Potato Famine is such a well known disaster with such an obvious way to avoid similar problems in the future, that you would think mono-cropping with a single species of crop was a thing of the far past. It was a tragic disaster, caused by the combination of oppressed people being forced to subsist on tiny tracts of land, growing the one variety of one crop they knew they could survive on almost entirely, but without variety in species or the built up knowledge that comes from many generations farming a crop. Social issues aside, the way to avoid similar problems in the future would be to plant a wide variety of species and keep careful records. An easy fix.

Never Out of Season: How Having the Food We Want When We Want It Threatens Our Food Supply and Our Future by Robb Dunn explores the world of mono-crops, exposes how in the case of many crops we are closer to a famine-level tragedy than you think, and the importance of research in preventing future disasters. Dunn focuses on a few specific crops, such as bananas, cacao trees, cassava, and potatoes, and how we came to grow just a few varieties of each in many places around the world (often not where the plant is native). With each crop he also explained the diseases they are susceptible to and how those diseases are spread. With the amount of current world travel, the threat of diseases travelling and wiping out huge amounts of a crop is constant and high (that’s why you get asked if you were in agricultural areas when you travel internationally).

Dunn’s true passion is the consistent research that must take place all over the world to ensure we are constantly breeding plants that are resistant to ever evolving pests and diseases. Saving seeds takes a lot of time and space, as you have to constantly grow crops and resave the seeds to ensure they are viable (the longer you keep a seed, the less likely it is to germinate). It also takes a massive amount of effort to find different varieties of a crop so you have a genetic bank of different traits. With genetic modification we can do some trait modification quickly, but for the most part this is a slow game. Plus, it is just about impossible to predict how diseases and pests will evolve and therefore how a plant will have to defend itself in the future. Preserving as many varieties as we know of makes for the largest safety net.

Dunn’s main call to action is to advocate for constant and large-scale research, as well as participate in the study of plants, pests, and diseases by keeping track of what you grow and see, and participating in diagnostic communities like and citizen science projects. He does mention buying sustainably grown, heirloom crops at the end briefly, but I think that call to action can be much stronger.

As cooks we can easily gravitate to the familiar. We like recipes that we can rely on and replicate with consistent results. With the wide availability of ingredients, people thousands of miles apart, in different climates, can cook the exact same recipe. In all likelihood if you are buying something from a supermarket, you are getting the same varieties of zucchini or asparagus that they are also selling around the world. Farmers are not encouraged or emboldened to try new things, because the usual is what sells and farming is a volatile enough profession as it is. But we can be more supportive of their experiments. We can buy produce that we are unfamiliar with and cook it, both because it may be delicious, and we will be preserving and passing along the knowledge of that plant. Maybe the next time powdery mildew or blight or an undiscovered (or yet to exist) disease strikes, that heirloom or hybrid will have a previously unrealized resistance.

Farmers markets are about to get into full swing, so it is the perfect time to visit, get to know your farmers, ask questions, and buy some funky produce. The ones I know are friendly, passionate, and proud of what they grow. They want to answer questions and grow things you are interested in eating. Which is the whole point of this endeavor! Find interesting and delicious things, and eat them. We can just do it in a way that promotes biodiversity at the same time.


The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

TRATEOTU“Would you like to see the menu?” he said. “Or would you like to meet the Dish of the Day?”

“Huh?” said Ford.

“Huh?” said Arthur.

“Huh?” said Trillian.

“That’s cool,” said Zaphod. “We’ll meet the meat.”

One of the most difficult conversations I’ve repeatedly found myself in is discussing where food comes from, and most often meat. Many people have told me they do not want to know anything about where their meat comes from before it gets to their plate. Or even have to take it off the bone. Preferably there should be nothing that indicates that it was once a breathing creature before it became a meal. This enrages me so completely that I have trouble expressing my views at all, for fear of it turning into a full out berating rant (which I try not to do so people will still want to talk to me). I wasn’t even sure how I would write about it, but then Douglas Adams beat me to the punch by about 35 years in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (the second book in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy trilogy in five parts, satirical space travel novels). The characters have just reached the title restaurant, are getting silly drunk (as you do right before the end of the universe), and are trying to decide what to eat:

A large dairy animal approached Zaphod Beelebrox’s table, a large fat meaty quadraped of the bovine type with large watery eyes, small horns and what might have been an ingratiating smile on its lips.

“Good evening,” it lowed and sat back heavily on its haunches, “I am the main Dish of the Day. May I interest you in parts of my body?” It harrumphed and gurgled a bit, wriggled its hind quarters into a more comfortable position and gazed peacefully at them.

Its gaze was met by looks of startled bewilderment from Arthur and Trillian, a resigned shrug from Ford Prefect and naked hunger from Zaphod Beeblebrox.

“Something off the shoulder perhaps?” suggested the animal. “Braised in a white wine sauce?”

“Er, your shoulder?” said Arthur in a horrified whisper.

“But naturally my shoulder, sir,” mooed the animal contentedly, “nobody else’s is mine to offer.”

Zaphod leapt to his feet and started prodding and feeling the animal’s shoulder appreciatively.

“Or the rump is very good,” murmured the animal. “I’ve been exercising it and eating plenty of grain, so there’s a lot of good meat there.” It gave a mellow grunt, gurgled again and started to chew the cud. It swallowed the cud again.

“Or a casserole of me perhaps?” it added.

“You mean this animal actually wants us to eat it?” whispered Trillian to Ford.

“Me?” said Ford, with a glazed look in his eyes. “I don’t mean anything.”

“That’s absolutely horrible,” exclaimed Arthur, “the most revolting thing I’ve ever heard.”

“What’s the problem, Earthman?” said Zaphod, now transferring his attention to the animal’s enormous rump.

“I just don’t want to eat and animal that’s standing there inviting me to,” said Arthur “It’s heartless.”

“Better than eating an animal that doesn’t want to be eaten,” said Zaphod.

“That’s not the point,” Arthur protested. Then he thought about it for a moment. “All right,” he said, “maybe it is the point. I don’t care, I’m not going to think about it now. I’ll just … er …”

The Universe raged about him in its death throes.

“I think I’ll just have a green salad,” he muttered.

“May I urge you to consider my liver?” asked the animal, “it must be very rich and tender by now, I’ve been force feeding myself for months.”

“A green salad,” said Arthur emphatically.

“A green salad?” said the animal, rolling his eyes disapprovingly at Arthur.

“Are you going to tell me,” said Arthur, “that I shouldn’t have the green salad?”

“Well,” said the animal, “I know many vegetables that are clear on that point. Which is why it was eventually decided to cut through the whole tangled problem and breed an animal that actually wanted to be eaten and was capable of saying so clearly and distinctly. And here I am.”

It managed a very slight bow.

“Glass of water please,” said Arthur.

“Look,” said Zaphod, “we want to eat, we don’t want to make a meal of the issues. Four rare steaks please, and hurry. We haven’t eaten in five hundred and seventy-six thousand million years.”

The animal staggered to its feet. It gave a mellow gurgle.

“A very wise choice, sir, if I may say so. Very good,” it said. “I’ll just nip off and shoot myself.”

He turned and gave a friendly wink to Arthur.

“Don’t worry, sir,” he said, “I’ll be very humane.”

It waddled unhurriedly off to the kitchen.

I fully understand not liking the idea of killing a creature and eating its meat. If it bothers you so much, then DON’T DO IT. Pulling the “ignorance is bliss” card is an awful cop out. It’s like turning a blind eye to poverty because it doesn’t exist in your neighborhood. Thinking more about where your meat comes from makes you likely to care more about where it comes from, and in all likelihood that will make you want to consume less of it and a higher quality when you do.

Exposing gruesome aspects of the meat industry has been a hot topic of journalism since Upton Sinclair, but there are still awful and pervasive manufacturing practices being reported. In Fast Food Nation Eric Schlosser interviewed slaughterhouse workers who were grossly mistreated.  Many cows are still fed grain instead of grass since it fattens them up more quickly (a reality I’ve seen firsthand). Livestock are the largest single contributing factor to greenhouse  gas emissions[1] and “producing 1 kg of animal protein requires about 100 times more water than producing 1 kg of grain protein”.[2]

Cows are the largest animal we raise for meat and therefore take up the most resources, and are the ones most written about. But we should consider the environmental implications of all the animals we consume, including pigs, poultry, and all manner of sea creatures. Ethically raised, slaughtered, and fished meat is more expensive because there has to be more care in every part of the process and it is harder to do on a large scale. Buying meat that has been responsibly farmed is the best way to support and encourage sustainable meat production. Like Zaphod, we should lovingly appreciate and get to know the animals that give their lives for our meals. Even if we can’t breed animals to willingly sacrifice themselves for our meals, we can certainly ensure their time on our little planet is as enjoyable as possible. Meeting the animal you are going to eat is not “heartless” as Arthur suggests, but the opposite. It is impossible to meet an animal and not care about how it is living. Distancing ourselves from the process and claiming ignorant bliss just perpetuates the persistence of unsustainable production practices and overconsumption.

Unlike Zaphod says, making a meal of the issues is exactly what we should be doing. Like Zaphod orders, the meat we do consume should be prepared simply and enjoyed, rare.



Book cover photo from here.