Is your beef burger craving “slaughtering the Amazon”?

(This was first published on Asia Times)

Despite their discipline, all ecologists, biologists or resource economists can agree on one thing: we are in the Anthropocene. The advent of climate change fueled by the industrial revolution presents itself in several ways – and depending on where in the world we are, sometimes more than others. In the past fifty years alone, the Amazon Rainforest in Brazil has lost nearly a fifth of its forest cover. Bangladesh alone has seen close to a 100 natural disasters in the past decade alone as a result of rising greenhouse gas emissions. As the generation with notable impact on the environment, and myriad options to choose our food, we are presented with an important predicament. Do some of our food choices harm the environment more than others? And what can we do about it?

Global meat consumption patterns

Consuming less meat has not yet killed anybody. After all, the consumption of meat is vastly subject to cultural influences. The global average of beef consumption is just 5.5kg, compared to a whopping 24 kg per capita in the US & a meagre 3.8kg in China. Ceteris paribus, this consumption is only going to increase, with an increase in disposable incomes, and popular food trends. Journalist, Michael Pollan, argues that a continuing disconnect with agriculture and farm life fuels this nonchalant continuance of the status quo.

FAO estimates that meat consumption in the industrialized world has risen from 61.5kg in the 1960’s to a whopping 95.7kg per capita in 2015, suggesting the increase in meat consumption as linked to wealth. And yet, India here presents an interesting alternative where beef consumption averages at about 0.5kg per capita, albeit due to a strong hold of religious conservatism.

Beef Production and the Amazon

Between 2005 and 2012, Brazil reduced forest clearance by 80 percent, mostly due to cattle-ranches and soy-bean farming on the cleared lands after. A damning report by Greenpeace (with a bloodstained cover page) called Slaughtering of the Amazon gave rise to an outcry against the meatpacking industry’s conduct. Four largest meatpackers then signed the Zero Deforestation Cattle Agreement preventing them from sourcing from non-compliant cattle ranchers. This matters greatly because the reduction in forest cover in the Amazon biome, a global public good through its role as a carbon sink and its role in determining climate, affects citizens across the Southern and Western hemispheres.

A trade agreement between the US & Brazil sought to expand trade between the two, and is expected to boost Brazil’s meat exports by $900 million to the US. But there is greater need for vetting ethically vs. non-ethically sourced cattle. Latin America’s third largest beef producer, JBS has been eagerly awaiting and preparing for the moment when the trade agreement kicks in. But while a larger meatpacker like JBS is subject to regular audits to ensure its ethical and fair sourcing, this agreement opens up the market to meatpackers who are not signatories to the cattle agreement, or not subject to regular audits. As an almost regular story of well-meaning top-down agreements, the reality of the bottom of the supply-chain remains murky.

Consumers’ role in determining the supply chain

There is an increasing awareness amongst European and American consumers on how meat is produced due to regular reports from civil society organizations and the changing consumption trends. Post Greenpeace’s report on the impact of soy-farming on deforestation in the Amazon, McDonald’s agreed to a soy moratorium, which put pressure on the middle-men and the traders (such as Cargill) to change the way they bought soy. In 2009, Timberland signed an agreement to not source leather from cattle-ranchers contributing to deforestation after the CEO received nearly 60,000 signatures from concerned consumers. If there ever was evidence required on how to put an end to unsustainable food supply chains, this is it. And if we did apply this to other industries, we are looking at a more just and equal world for everyone.

Consumers have more power than ever. In voting with our money, and putting our values first, we can actually determine the corporations’ attitudes on supply-chains and ethical sourcing. A concerted effort through our choices, and awareness can enable consumers to choose between ethically sourced beef, or dare I say, no beef at all.

The case for local, mom & pop grocers over Walmart

(This was first published on Asia Times)

The first time I traveled to the United States was in the year 2004.

A usually curious and eager thirteen-year old, I was a little surprised when my grand-aunt who lived in Rochester, New York, suggested we take a late night visit to the supermarket as she wanted to buy some vegetables.

That visit was a revelation for various reasons. Firstly, she expected fresh vegetables in the middle of the night. My mother in New Delhi awoke at 5.30am two to three times a week to score the freshest vegetables and fruits at our local grocer’s. Secondly, she assumed a supermarket visit would be comparable to a visit to a historical sight. To describe the local grocer where my mother shopped (and my grandmother before her), as a hut would be a stretch. Even though this might sound like a cliché, I promise you it cannot be repeated enough: for someone who has never seen one before, the American supermarket is nothing short of a marvel. And for a thirteen-year old, to look at rows and rows of perfectly ripe and shiny fruit in which one can see their reflection, can be a metaphor for what possibilities the future can hold.

The industrialization of our food, and the increasing disconnect with where it comes from, has led us to normalize the concept of these Franken-supermarkets. Thomas Reardon, a professor at Michigan State University, succinctly argues that the influx of foreign direct investment, and the technological advancements in retail procurement technology and inventory management are phenomena that must be embraced by the emerging markets of Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Global retail multinationals such as the Carrefours and the Walmarts, with their access to liquid funds, international credit and their use of the aforementioned systems, are driving the produce retail markets, and hence, should be the cornerstone of development policies in lower income countries.

Walmart’s first foray into the Indian market, which is saturated with local players, was a disaster. While its official entry required a joint partnership with Bharti Enterprises, a giant business house with its feet in everything from telecom to education, it was also met with widespread protests from concerned citizens. The entry of a deep-pocketed retail giant would wreak havoc on the largely informal and local agriculture supply systems which had developed their own systems over time. Despite an admission of guilt to a $25 million lobbying charge, their 20 odd stores (a small number for a potential market of a billion people) which were set up in tier-2 cities under the pseudonym of “Easy Day”, continued to function but failed to gain the patronage of the consumers. Conversely, Walmart in the US is one of the largest suppliers of organic produce now, hoping to catch on to growing trends in consumption.

The supply-chain of this industry in India is largely informal. A nexus of smallholder farmers and middlemen, which make up an estimated 50 million small traders are involved in the farm-to-store agriculture business across India. This informal network ensures the produce reaches mom and pop grocers (or kirana stores). The kind of farmers Walmart is looking for are large-scale commercial farmers, which make up a small section of India’s agrarian economy.

If agriculture and food were solely dependent on economic efficiencies, the story might be different. It is political: under a Congress-led government, Walmart’s market experiment shriveled. In BJP’s Modi government, big business has an ardent supporter. His policies, which have focused greatly on bringing in FDI, retail giants like Walmart can likely see a renewed boost.  Agriculture is also culture: Punjab, one of the highest agricultural productivity states in India, celebrates the harvest festival of Lohri with much gusto, signifying the end of the winter solstice and the beginning of the rabi cropping season.

Conscious (albeit price-insensitive) consumers in the liberal oases of the Eastern coast of the United States now prefer to shop organic produce at local stores, choosing to vote with their dollar for smaller stores that share their values (such as Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods), or farmer’s markets for urban spaces that can afford them. But cities of the developing world have always relied greatly on their trusted and local networks of local mom and pop stores to supply their daily food requirements. For long-time customers, these stores even provide short-term credit. It seems counter-intuitive then, to push for multinational retailers to put small suppliers out of business in developing countries, if the arc of the food supply system is ultimately bent towards the smaller, values, and relationships focused retail process.

The day my grandfather passed away in New Delhi, I was immediately dispatched by my mother to Mr. Garg’s kirana store, to buy supplies we would need for the memorial services, and to feed the stream of visiting relatives and friends. Upon receiving a distraught third-generation customer, Mr. Garg immediately collected all the things he knew our house to usually order. Once he heard the news, he refused to take any money from me. He didn’t have any shiny fruit I could see my reflection in, but he was connected to my family in the way food is always meant to be. The nature of how humans engage with food stands at odds with the values of industrial, and mass retail systems; food is personal, cultural, and the basis of our human connection.

Inspiration: Heirloom Tomatoes

Wow, I kind of went crazy at Trader Joe’s and picked up an assortment of fresh vegetables. They have this special box full of heirloom tomatoes that are in all different shapes and colours, and absolutely beautiful in their imperfections.

Clean eating, has its own benefits. Minimal heating, minimal spices, and just leaving the vegetables in their most raw, pure form, retaining their taste and crunch, is delightful.

Here’s an easy fix for eating clean:

  • Boiled couscous
  • Roasted green peppers, jalapenos and zucchini
  • Chopped spinach and basil
  • Sliced heirloom tomatoes
  • Dressing: hummus, lime juice, cumin, salt, pepper
  • Topped with Paprika

Delightful!

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Aloe Vera gel: straight from the garden

By now, I’m sure you’re aware of the immense benefits of Aloe Vera gel on your skin, hair, body etc. Some include:

  1. It treats acne.
  2. It fights aging.
  3. It lessens the visibility of stretch marks.
  4. It’s nutrient rich for good health.
  5. It soothes in periodontal disease.
  6. It aids in digestion.
 So our house (as I recently discovered) is a prime spot for Aloe Vera. Since its a cactus, it grows very well in New Delhi’s heat and long summers.
I took the chance to pluck some stalks and remove the gel using a knife. Once I extracted the gel, I mixed in some Tulsi, mint and honey to make the consumption more palatable. (Note: that this concoction may not last very long since its fresh. Try to finish in a few days of extraction.)
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Gelato in Zanzibar

I spent the better half of last week in the magnificent and diverse Spice Island of Zanzibar. Another post for how this is a trip worth taking for every history, migration, globalization studies buff, or reader, writer and photographer, but for now, I would like to gloat about the gelato place I discovered upon walking with friends in the historic Stonetown part of Zanzibar.

Located between the Park Hyatt and the Hilton hotels, TAMU is an Italian restaurant and gelato shop run by an Italian couple who moved to the island. Walk in, and you smell fresh bread baking, gelato and after a few hours of wandering and exploring Stonetown, all you really need is a scoop to replenish your energy reserves.

IMG_4280 With a hipster decor without even trying, this place is a refuge of a cool, classy establishment place with character. You are greeted at the entrance with a table and chair set made out of bicycle handles. Upon entrance, standing tables have been created with large Amul Milk tins.

 

 

 

 

But the real winner of course, are the mix of classic and local gelato flavours: coffee, milk, lime, tangerine, tamarind, masala, baobab, hibiscus etc.

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Cooking with Zaitoon, the African Olive

Today I had a marvelous day. I spent hours at a farm in Tengeru, Arusha, which is fast proving to be my favorite farming area in Arusha. The farmer I was interviewing for work, was generous — he gave us fresh tomatoes, green peppers, and green beans plucked straight from the ground (talk about farm-to-table!)

Tanzania is full of local vendors (mostly women) who carry baskets of fresh fruits and vegetables around. They walk into our office and drop their goods on the reception table. Sometimes we sample the ones we haven’t heard of, sometimes people buy what vegetables they need for dinner. But most often, the scent of fresh oranges or something more exotic wafts in the back, and the entire staff is waiting to buy something. This is how I happened upon Zaitoon, a giant local variety of olives, which are orange in color, and have a sweet taste. Their texture is slightly oily and sticky, but boy do they taste delicious.

 

A more in depth investigation of the olive led to me discovering that it was too sticky and oily to eat as is (an evening snack?). I decided to put it to use with the other fresh produce I had scored today, and proceeded to construct a curry with onions, garlic, ginger, tomatoes, green peppers, green beans and chillies (the amazing local variety, pili pili ho ho). 

Initially I envisioned the olive to melt along with the tomatoes — but this didn’t happen. The olive pieces were chunky in the curry. With the sweetness of the olive, the crunchy beans, and the spicy kick of the chilies, the curry turned out a nice combination. An addition to the curry, was Tanzanian Pilau Masala, an Indian-inspired spice mix used commonly in Tanzanian homes.

 

 

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Served with:

  1. Local Tanzanian white rice: it is thick, sticky, and immensely fragrant.
  2. Banana Chips: crushed, and added on top of the rice and curry.

 

 

 

Organic farmhouse/lodge in Karatu, TZ

For a quick stop over between the beautiful Lake Manyara National Park, and the magnficent Ngorongoro Crater National Park, I stayed at a charming property called the Ngorongoro Farm House (detailed reviews of their property can be viewed on their TripAdvisor profile).

A farm house/lodge property, it is a wonderful mix of sprawling organic farms (with everything from their own fresh coffee, to herbs, and of course, lettuce, spinach and other greens). The food was a wonderful mix of local and continental, all the food served was sourced fresh from their farms. I even managed to spot a Marabou Stork at breakfast!

A Tanzanian local from Dar Es Salaam once joked to me that in Tanzania, people didn’t need to pay a premium for “farm-to-table” — everything is “farm-to-table” whether you like it or not! I’d agree with him. The local vegetable markets here sell vegetables covered the fresh farm soil sometimes (talk about a farmer’s market of the true kind — not the overpriced Brooklyn/Cambridge hipster variety).

While this farm house attempts the “organic farmhouse” concept for the discerning foreign tourists (or for someone like me who accidentally happened upon a good deal), the effort is commendable indeed — especially in remote Karatu, a stone’s throw from a national park.

Ethiopian food in Tanzania

Last weekend, I treated myself to an Ethiopian meal in the heart of Arusha, Tanzania. Spices & Herbs, located close to the famous Impala Hotel roundabout, is a bed & breakfast meets restaurant. With a wide variety of food options in both vegetarian and meat, their food is fresh and served steaming!

I ordered the Yemesir Wat (lentils with spices), along with Injera (the puffy, porous bread), served with spinach.

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Food for Life: Food drive in Arusha

Two weekends ago, I spent a Sunday afternoon with the ISKCON lead preacher in Arusha, Draupadi, on their “Food for Life” food drive in Njiro. ISCKON has been distributing free food to communities in need through its program, Food for Life, for a long time now.

With a large container full of rice, and bucket full of beans (Swahili term: Wali Marage), we departed to distribute the food to people in informal settlements right in posh Njiro’s pocket. {Photos below}

Mama Elinora: Woman Crush Wednesday

 #WhereDoesYourFoodComeFrom:  I am currently working on an agriculture project in the agricultural hub of East Africa: Arusha, Tanzania. This is a significant journey for me as I have always been only a consumer of food. This is my first in depth foray into how it is produced, and where our food comes from.

Mama Elinora (pictured below) runs an orphanage and leads a group of widowed women farmers in Tengeru, on the outskirts of Arusha, Tanzania. A graduate of a polytechnic in the area, Elinora has formally studied organic agriculture. She fiercely believes that agriculture can be a way to financial independence for women too.

She teaches women of her village care group (a group of 12 women who rely on each other from things like healthcare advice, to agricultural trainings) several simple agricultural technologies that are both cheap and sustainable (as they use materials common even in a kitchen.) She is encouraging these women to be self-reliant, and ensure their kids learn these practices as habits. A few cool things I learnt from her (pictures below):

  • Space Smart Recycled Gardens: She also uses the keyhole garden (made with bricks) and the recycled tire garden, in addition to her own bio-gas fuel project. (These were innovations I was first introduced to at ECHO International).
  • Sack Garden: This is a vertical garden that can be made out of the average household sack. It is filled with soil, manure, vegetable waste, and halfway in the middle it is filled with rocks to allow easy water flow. Poke holes in the sides, and stuff the seeds. Good for greens like spinach, rocket, and herbs. Very useful advice for those of us who live in urban holes and claim we lack space!
  • Inverted Mineral Water Bottle Gardens: Using the standard water dispenser bottles, she had created a slow water drip system.
  • 100% organic, including pesticides: This is the most fascinating part. She uses ZERO chemicals. For getting rid of pests, she uses sprays of crushed chili peppers (pili pili ho ho), and crushed tobacco leaves, and the humble moringa plant (pervasive in South Asia), the scent of which is known to drive away pests.

She grows several medicinal plants and herbs, some which even increase the CD4 count in HIV patients, others which she laughingly tells me help “man problems.” She knew the nutritional value and medicinal purpose of every leaf, twig and seed in her farm.

Elinora also grows zucchinis, tomatos, papayas, bananas, amaranth (mchichi) and four different kinds of onions. The zucchini blossoms in her farm were stunning!

Here, she is pictured in her kingdom of all-organic produce and simple agricultural technologies:

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Mama Elinora