Gratitude makes the journey better and so does kindness

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All’s not well with the world. Here’s one reason (or a few)

A few days ago I put the finishing touches on an article that brought my mood down more than many others on environmental topics I’ve written so far. The topic: ‘forever chemicals’ or PFAS (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances). 

Have you heard of them? 

They pop in the news occasionally, but alas, they do so in a space that also features ‘green’ initiatives such as new lines of disposable/non-disposable not–plastic-but-feels-like-plastic compostable bowls, cups, plates and cutlery. Many (most?) of these compostable products contain, in fact, small amounts of ‘forever chemicals’ which end up transferring to food. So do grease-resistant take-out containers and much of the fast food and take-out packaging. But I am getting ahead of myself here. I will share the article when it’s published, but in the meantime, here’s why I struggled to find my mood balance after digging deep enough into the topic. 

Firstly, because it’s hard to put a positive spin on this topic. 

Secondly, because these chemicals are everywhere, including in our bodies and the bodies of most creatures around us. They’ve been around for a few decades (since 1938 to be precise) and they accumulate in the environment (again, our bodies included), and as the name implies, they are there to stay. Yes, they do have deleterious effects on our health. But yes, they make life easier. Some are, to be fair, essential because at the moment they are the best we have for the job. As it has happened with many other chemicals throughout the modern era, we find out decades later about the damage that’s been done. When we do, there are two things that happen: the stories reach the public and make us uncomfortable, but then new stories roll in and we forget about it; or we join the ranks of those who refuse to see ‘the glass half empty’. Except it’s not empty. And the people who talk about this are not alarmists. They want to see a better future. Knowledge and action based on it can help us get there.

I know that we want the positive and the happy news, but that’s not helping our world get better. Too much positive spin on things makes us forget the ‘negative’ news when they pop up and they create false hope.

You’ve likely heard it said that the Earth will continue to exist no matter what happens to us humans. That’s great for the planet and for the bacteria, fungi and the bugs that will survive, but what about the other living creatures, humans included? 

(This reminds me of a car sticker I saw a few days ago : ‘Adults on board; we want to live too.’)

It sounds ridiculous when it’s laid out like that but seriously, let’s pause for a moment and ask the most obvious question: what the heck are we doing to our living world and to ourselves, and for what? In the case of ‘forever chemicals’, let’s agree that for certain vital applications (medical, firefighting) we have no better options at the moment. But what about the many others?? Could we let go of conveniences and reduce the scale of our consumption of all things, and particularly plastics and plastic-like but marketed as compostable? I believe we’re coming to the realization that having our cake and eating it too is simply not doable. Not if we want to see nature thrive around us, and not if we want to live without the silent threat of hidden chemicals that affect our health. 

We have taught children to be afraid of playing in the dirt but we allow them to play on sprayed lawns and stain-resistant (hence chemically treated) carpets. We have talked ourselves into trading health for every day conveniences, and finding pacifying solutions that allow us to continue to live the way we do. Plastic recycling is a joke at the moment, and also an environmental concern given the microplastics derived from the mountains of plastic garbage and ‘recyclables’ our society produces. Ditto for other forms of ‘recycling’ that encourage consumption, such as electronics. The more we do it, the more products we will be offered. The more products, the higher the risk of more and more chemicals populating our world – indoors and outdoors. 

Here’s the gist of it as I see it: when the natural world is in balance, we thrive. Nowadays, we seem to forget that.

We grow food at an unprecedented scale using chemicals of all kinds, from fertilizers (some also contain ‘forever chemicals’) to pesticides and insecticides, and then fungicides to preserve them on their way to the consumers. Almost half the food we see in stores ends up as waste. Too many people consume animal products from animals that are raised in conditions so bad we cannot stomach to watch. We destroy large areas of wild spaces to do so. And then we create waste of all kinds, which, save for what we compost, goes nowhere, and we question whether the new study about the rapid decline of nearly half the world’s wildlife species is yet another scaremongering piece of news plotted by some restless environmentalists.  

We cannot afford to look away and pretend all is well. We cannot afford to pay attention only to positive news and we certainty cannot afford any more green-washing and worse yet, ‘regrettable substitutions’, which is the term used for when an alternative compound replaces one that’s deleterious to health, but turns out to be just as bad or worse (see the case of BPA and BPS, and yes, it is also happening with the ‘forever chemicals’.) 

Bottom line: we take nature and life (our own lives included) for granted. That’s what I think. And please feel free to disagree. 

Yes, I know there are people doing good things out there. Small farms provide fresh whole foods that you find at the farmer’s market on any given Saturday or Sunday in the summer. Various professionals and activists do their best to raise awareness, challenge the status quo and inspire changes that can see us reach safer ground ahead. Research that tries to remediate the consequences of many years of doing things without thinking of consequences. We need all that done at a large scale. We need to return to a simpler way of life if we want to live.

But that’s not what makes big splashes in today’s world. Consumerism does. New things to try, new shininess to have and to hold and to get tired of shortly after, ready to try more. More. And more. 

Innovation is great and it drives progress but we ought to consider the scale of consumerism before another product hits the market. Perpetual economic growth is not possible on a planet with finite resources. Deep down, we know that, but somehow we don’t say it out loud and often enough.

But we must. And we’re at it, I think the Hippocratic oath should apply to how companies and firms, big and small, run their business: first, do no harm. 

Let’s start with that. 

Love changes the world – yes, really, and by a lot!

My (now) occasional columns are originally published on the Armchair Mayor News, this one included.

I saw the tiniest hummingbird the other day, while on the morning hike. No bigger than a (small) dandelion flower, it was hovering around a Saskatoon bush. I got home and promptly put up the red hummingbird feeder in the backyard.

Weekly column: Food studies versus common sense and reality

Originally published as a column on CFJC Today Kamloops and Armchair Mayor News on Monday, October 7, 2019.

You can safely file it under ‘Another day, another food study.’ Followed by… now what?

Case in point: the recent meat-centered study coming from Dalhousie and McMaster Universities, which concluded that the health benefits associated with reducing or eliminating red and processed meats are minimal, and the risks we thought existed are also quite small, hence the recommendation to eat meat without restrictions, if that’s how you feel like it.

So what’s wrong with that, some will say. The study eased the guilt and worry about red and processed meats. It’s good to not have guilt or fear as a side dish, right? Granted, the researchers admitted they had not taken into consideration any animals welfare and environmental issues, and they considered people’s attachment to their meat-based diet as one of the factors to base their recommendations on.

No Apple Is Imperfect

Originally published as a column on CFJC Today Kamloops Monday, December 3, 2017.

The word imperfect on the bag of apples caught my eye. I grew up picking apples off the few apple trees in my family’s garden, but I could not describe to you what a perfect apple looks like. Or an imperfect one for that matter. To be fair, the concept of ‘imperfect’ apples being now on the shelves, at a smaller price too, and thus helping reduce the food waste our society is so guilty of, is not a bad thing at all, but this is a two-edged sword if there ever was one.

The perfect/imperfect classification – how did we get here? To have our fruit and produce measured, and whatever does not fit the standard discarded for other uses (hopefully) or written off as garbage – how can we possibly explain that way of classifying our food without finding the whole matter ridiculous.

Truly, the word perfect is a silly one. No one human being is perfect, no life form of any kind is perfect, not even a circle that seems perfect is in fact perfect. Really, there is no perfect circle in our entire universe and the reason is delightful from a scientific perspective: you’d have to dive to the deepest possible level, at the levels of atoms, and hopefully align them, in a quest to produce a ‘perfect’ circle. Not hard to see why it can’t be.

Truly, life is not perfect. Aiming for excellence in our professional lives, taking care to do our jobs well and with consideration to all aspects of the matters concerned, no matter how big or small the job, that has nothing to do with perfection.

Why would we then expect or let’s say tolerate the very concept when it comes to our food. More so when the concept is applied to what nature delivers.

Given such high standards, one would expect that the food offering in grocery stores would be of excellent quality. Alas, that is not the case. Instead, we are seeing bacteria tainted veggies and meat products which prompts recalls but also sees people hospitalized and even clinging to life as some of the bacteria can have deadly effects. We are confronted with the reality of inhumane conditions farm animals are raised for meat, and we have yet to see that change.

Every now and then undercover footage of industrially-raised meat reaches the media and/or social media, pointing to more than imperfect living conditions which ultimately means less than imperfect meat quality reaching our table.

We are seeing questionable origin and quality seafood, produced abroad or here in our own province. Every now and then, environmental activists bring uncontestable visual evidence such as deformed fish found among the farmed Atlantic salmon on the coast (I wrote a column on the topic), which the industry argues are not the ones that end up on our plates.

They might or might not, but this kind of information signals nonetheless the fact that the hundred-plus fish farms found in the coastal waters of BC need a make-over due to the mounting evidence pointing to the impact they have on wild fish stocks (also see the recent scandal of the piscine reovirus infested fish blood released from processing plants into the coastal waters) at a time when climate change is also affecting their returns.

Perfection is hardly the word that comes to mind when putting together such narrative. Which perhaps points to the fact that we should drop it altogether, allowing our food supply to honour both the growing process and the people behind it, as well as the consumer. In allowing for the ‘imperfect’ food to reach public consciousness we open the door towards being grateful rather than critical of how nature offers itself to us through the seasonal bounty, and by understanding it as such we do better in all areas of food production.

Imagine raising our children with the awareness of the intricacy of natural processes through which we get our food and a conscience that opposes violations of any kind, such as the use of potentially toxic chemicals and unethical practices. Expecting perfection puts unhealthy pressure on growers and delivers unhealthy results to us, the consumer. Cutting corners and applying questionable methods that cannot be tested by independent observers, neither is the recipe for sustainable health and future. Which we need.

What About The Kids?

Originally published as a column on CFJC Today Kamloops and Armchair Mayor News on Monday, September 11, 2017. 

A few years ago, when my sons were still in public school (now homeschooled), we would get a lunch program to peruse and choose from if we wanted to. We chose nothing, not because we’re fussy, but because the options were deplorable.

One of the options was called taco salad. ‘It’s a salad made of tortilla chips, Mom,’ my oldest announced a couple of weeks later, rather bemused, when he got to see the very dish. No matter how you turn it, that is not food.

Feeding children can be a wild adventure at times, given occasional pickiness and all, but that’s no excuse feeding them junk food or low-quality ingredients as part of the school lunches. Not when we live in the middle of a farm-rich country and there is an abundance of fresh, wholesome foods that could be worked into school lunches.

I am willing to say that more parents would sign up for the program if there were healthy options, and would welcome the break from figuring out next day’s lunch. There is a high chance that many kids would learn about healthy food and be better for it. Which could be amplified if students would have a garden to tend to right on school grounds. You see, gardening invites to more than planting and picking, with the occasional weeding in between.

Gardening means learning about soil and all its wondrous components, from chemical compounds to bugs of all sizes that keep it healthy; it opens the door to learning about how liquids travel through soil and how they get absorbed through the roots. It involves delving into the biochemistry of the cell and if you add a microscope to the mix, you can get hours of intense studying, which will be followed by more curiosity. From there, you get to how fruit and veggies grow, and from there on, it moves into the realm of eating good-for-you foods.

Which isn’t anything that I saw in the school district’s lunch program I happened to come across. Chicken bites, chicken burger, chicken nuggets, all served cold, followed by some fruit slices and either juice or chocolate milk or plain milk. Fruit juice is empty calories that do not benefit children or anyone else for that reason. Eating the whole fruit is where it’s at.

Again, this is happening right here where we see ripe fruit that falls on the ground all summer and fall too, from cherries to apricots to plums, apples, and pears. On top of it, we have a farmer’s market so plentiful this time a year, that it would only make sense to use some of that to provide good food for children. Just imagine connecting local farmers to the department that organizes school lunches in the district.

That being said, there will be a chorus telling me that many kids prefer junk food and they would scoff at healthy (deemed boring by some) food options. Be it so, it should be part of a school mandate to educate about healthy food options. In an age where child obesity and chronic health issues starting in childhood are on the rise, that would be a moral duty, to say the least. That’s one of the reasons why I never refer to junk or processed foods as ‘treats’, but call them by their name.

Living a long, healthy life involves no magic.  Eat wholesome meals, mostly veggies, and never until full, get outside, get moving, and connect with people. In a nutshell. To keep with the scope of this piece, I will ask this: how many kids nowadays are doing all or some of the above?

There are too many processed food options (with attractive advertisements), there are devices that make them sit in one place for hours on end, there is the culture of fear where parents do not want/dare to let their kids play outside on their own, and there is, at society level, for the most part, a growing and deeply worrying trend of living life in an isolated, often self-centered way.

Many of our children are anxious, depressed, obese, or plagued by other eating disorders; some are bullied, others are bullying, at war with the world around them. They all start out eager to learn about the world around (healthy foods included,) and then somewhere down the road they become self-conscious, bored, tired, fearful, addicted to screens and drugs. Reclaiming them becomes the hardest task.

The thing is, it doesn’t have to be this way. Fixing a generation (or more) is no easy thing. As always, one step at a time is where we can start. No drugs can ever fix what healthy food, free play, and time spent together can.

Hippocrates once said, ‘Let food be thy medicine.’ Let’s start with that. Make every bite, treats included, count. As for the rest of the issues, perhaps we should go back to forming the village needed to raise a child. A connected community is where better things happen. When it comes to our children, no effort is too big to make that happen.

A Story Of Waste And Inexcusable Indignities

Food The article was initially published as a column in the Armchair Mayor News on December 12, 2014. 

Our garden was lush and plentiful this year. We had lettuce since early spring, we had green onion, radishes, kale, chard, and herbs. Later in the summer we had carrots and potatoes and corn. We shared lots with friends and still had enough to freeze.

All that we had was grown on less than half of our backyard, so it was only normal that I kept fantasizing about growing food on the rest of it. If less than half could feed us so well, how about a whole back yard?

The work was hard, no question. Incredibly pleasurable though and rewarding. On any given summer morning I was greeted by an army of grasshoppers guarding the corn, pumpkins, tomatoes and potatoes. Hopping as their nature prescribed, they were a sign that my organic garden was well liked by other critters like butterflies and ladybugs.

The boys helped out as well and they loved eating straight from the garden. They learned a lot too; gratefulness most of all, and the wonder of a seed becoming a full grown plant ready to provide for us.

They learned the value of food and understood why throwing it out uneaten, as waste, is unacceptable. It happens more than we would expect, or admit.

I remember seeing piles of fruit and vegetables discarded on Granville Island in garbage bins, a stark contrast with the perfect produce offered inside where everything looked nothing short of perfect.

I felt slightly uncomfortable thinking that we, the consumers, shape that perfect offer with our buying habits; which, in turn, have been shaped and conditioned by crafty marketing teams over the years.

The fallacy of that way of thinking and acting is that produce is not perfect. In our garden we got to see dwarf veggies, contorted carrots and a misshaped pear here and there. Nature is not perfect. But they were all perfectly edible, no matter the shape.

I remember when I was little and among others, I would go get the fresh eggs every day. I liked seeing them round in the straw nests and I would always inspect them carefully. Some were misshapen and I would ask my dad why. He would shrug, not bothered in the least. It’s how they come out, he would say. It made sense. Nature is not perfect.

Fast forward a few good years; I was at Simon Fraser University having lunch with other grad students and while no meal stood out, this particular one did. One of my friends was ready to eat a peach and seeing a bruise on one side, she said a loud ‘yuck’ and sent the unfortunate fruit straight into the garbage bin.

Many years later, the memory of the plunging peach is still with me. It stopped me from throwing food out every time, and it made me shake my head every time I see hungry people. I tried often to do my part and provide food for the less fortunate, yet thoughts related to food and waste are relentless. How could there be?

There is enough food lying around for no one to go hungry no matter what their budget is like, even if there is no budget at all.

There is too much food going straight into the garbage because of perfection standards that we should no longer entertain; it is insulting towards those who do not have any food, and it is insulting towards nature itself. We cannot give to food banks with one hand and throw away food with the other.

If you have doubts about food waste, just talk to the produce clerks. If the store is small enough you might see the old stuff bagged up for sale at a fraction of the price, a good solution to prevent waste. In big stores though, everything unsightly or old goes into the garbage.

A recent report pointed out that Canadians throw out up to 50 per cent of the food they buy. A few years ago I would rolled my eyes at the numbers, but not anymore. I went to one too many dinner parties or events where the leftovers were discarded and sent straight to the landfill.

With Christmas just around the corner, the thought of food and food waste comes back with a vengeance. How much food will be wasted, how many people will go hungry or eat low quality food that comes from a can rather than fresh, albeit slightly bruised produce that is better nutritionally than anything canned that might or might not come with added chemicals.

There is no simple answer to the food dilemma. Until we all decide that bad food is not the bruised or misshapen fruit, or even the ones that reach the best before date (think perfectly edible stuff like frozen food, dry food or yogurt that go a day or two over the date), we will have inexcusable indignities in food distribution, and we will have mountains of food piled up in landfills instead of people’s plates.

As for the truly bad food, some of it genetically modified, or the one that we insist on growing with loads of toxic pesticides so that we can have it all: lots of it to choose from, available all year round, cheap enough to throw out and tasteless enough to not feel bad about it anyway… well, the old ‘you are what you eat’ should be warning enough.

If less than half of a cultivated back yard can provide enough fresh produce to feed a family of four over the summer and well into the fall, sure people can grow enough food, healthy food that is, to have everyone fed and no bits thrown out unless they go into the compost.

With food becoming more expensive as we go (have you noticed?) it’s impossible not to ask why. Why, when there is enough to feed us all, and if there isn’t enough, then there shouldn’t be any in the garbage.

The Big Circle Of Life. A Story

20130711_170243(1)The cry pierced the soft quietness of early night. It sounded like a child crying and I knew it wasn’t a child but a baby goat. I covered my ears. I was sitting under an old walnut tree, with my sister, my nephew and the man’s wife. She smiled when I covered my ears, a calming smile almost…It has to be, it’s all part of it, her smile seemed to say.

 

I felt ashamed and I put my hands down. I am not a vegetarian, I told myself. If I choose to eat meat, then I should know that this is part of it. I tried not to imagine the baby goat. It’s called a kid, I know, but I have trouble calling it that.

The man loves his goats, my sister said before we went there. The goats spend their days on green pastures among healing wild herbs and carpets of wildflowers. He talks to each of them and keeps them clean. He cares.

We make our way to the side of the barn where the young goat hangs upside down, skinned and hoofless. I don’t look away. This is part of it. I might not eat part of this one, but I eat meat occasionally.

The man cuts the young goat open, no choppy moves. He moves the knife fast and sure of himself. He asks for some clean bags to put some of the parts in. I run down to the house and get some. I hold the bags, one by one, and they get filled with various parts. Still warm.

I realize I am holding my breath and let go. This is part of the oldest ritual there is. I breathe the warm night air in. There’s more than the usual sweet night air smell but I will not hold my breath.

My nephew asks jokingly about the crime scene. The man calmly replies “This is not a crime, it is a sacrifice.” Everyone is silent. Thinking. Knowing.

Ten minutes later we are ready to leave.

We pass by the goats’ pen. They are all white except for a brown speckled one trying to pick fights. It got ignored and for a reason. Goat or not, a day spent in the sun makes you pleasurably lazy and unwilling to respond to fights.

On the way home, I think about it all. We’ve strayed from understanding the actions that bring food on the table. To grow vegetables is an act of grace, some say. There’s nothing inconvenient to witness.

To put meat on the table, you have to sacrifice the animal. Buying a tray of drumsticks or a round steak will not bring understanding. Gratefulness for every morsel comes from looking at the animal, thanking it for the sacrifice and not letting anything go to waste. It is not blood thirst that makes one opt or meat.

Tomorrow. Step to further life...It is part of life. Death is part of life. Sacrifice without a purpose is cruelty. It does not honor us, nor does it make us appreciate life. Not caring to know where our food comes from and how also shades us from the very act of gratefulness, which makes us humble and responsible for our choices.

 

If you choose to eat it, have the courage to look at it and understand its connection to you and respect it. No need to cover eyes or ears, you need to see in order to be respectful of every morsel.

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