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I gaze at the 400-plus-pound silverback in what I hope is a submissive fashion. I was warned not to stare. But Humba, the king of a family of mountain gorillas, is a spectacular animal.
He’s as big as a piano, but somehow able to leap up and grab the top of a slender tree and bend it to the ground like a slingshot. Human-like, but not human. And those piercing eyes. To be within a dozen feet of one of these amazing creatures is a bucket-list experience I didn’t even know existed.
Emmanuel de Merode hopes others will make the long trek to Rumangabo, Democratic Republic of Congo, where Virunga National Park is home for 220 of the endangered beasts. But as the park’s chief warden, he knows only the hardiest travelers are likely to accept an invitation to a UNESCO World Heritage site located in the country, one of the world’s deadliest war zones.
To make the park safe for wildlife and visitors, De Merode and his army of rangers have had to take on gun-toting guerrillas, poachers and illegal charcoal traders. Since 1996, more than 130 rangers have been killed, most of them by poachers or armed rebels.
Can tourism lead to a better way of life in war-torn nation?
The latest and most serious threat is what critics call the “oil curse.” The Congolese government is considering revising its laws to allow oil drilling in Virunga and other protected sites. The World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, Great Britain, Belgium, Germany and the European Union Parliament have opposed such a move. They fear oil exploration will introduce serious threats to the park’s fragile ecosystem and worsen the regional conflicts.
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De Merode believes he can offer the people of the Congo a better life than poachers or oil companies. He has launched an ambitious partnership with philanthropist Howard Buffett, eldest son of billionaire Warren Buffett, to turn Virunga into a multimillion-dollar job-creating platform using a combination of luxury tourism, fisheries, agribusiness and energy. But for De Merode and Buffett to win this high-stakes battle, they need others to enlist, starting with the world’s travelers. Call it adventure tourism with a purpose: Visit the Virunga, save a gorilla’s life and maybe a country.
Virunga is “the greatest park on earth and it is something that absolutely has to be protected, no matter what,” says De Merode, a boyish 43-year-old who grew up in Kenya and is a member of the Belgian royal family.
In spite of the damage from fighting and poachers, Virunga remains one of the world’s most biologically rich landscapes: It is home to 706 species of birds as well as 218 mammal species and 109 reptile species. It is the only place on the planet where you can see all three of the great ape species: the mountain gorilla, the lowland gorilla and the chimpanzee. The park is home to a quarter of the world’s population of endangered mountain gorillas.
Virunga was closed in April 2012 after the M23, one of two dozen groups battling for territory in the eastern Congo, seized control of the park headquarters. But in November 2013, the rebels agreed to negotiate a peace agreement, and in the past month the Congolese government has launched a major U.N.-backed offensive against the remaining insurgents. I visited Virunga in January as the park’s staff prepared to welcome tourists back.
Safety is De Merode’s top priority. Our gorilla trek began with a hike through villages and terraced fields of vegetables, accompanied by several park rangers armed with AK-47s and two-way radios. Innocent Mburanumwe, a senior ranger, met us at a station several hours up Mount Mikeno. The 38-year-old Congolese native knows each of the park’s seven “habituated” gorilla families by sight.
Before we set off through the jungle on a narrow path hacked through the undergrowth, Mburanumwe gave us strict instructions on how to behave. If a gorilla charges, don’t run, he said firmly. “Watch me and follow my lead. If the gorilla shows any signs of agitation, such as chest beating, look down submissively. Do not, under any circumstances, try to touch an animal.”
Mburanumwe took the lead, using grunts and other guttural sounds to let the gorillas know we were coming. As we drew close, we were asked to put on white medical masks to protect the animals from human diseases.
Amazingly, he was able to get us within a dozen feet of Humba and his harem, close enough to see the flies on the giant silverback’s black shiny fur and watch two young gorillas thump each other’s chests before skittering off into the jungle. A $400 permit bought an hour with the gorillas, significantly less than a similar experience would cost in Uganda and Rwanda.
De Merode is offering visitors a high-end experience at a bargain price. Congolese are being hired and trained at the Mikeno Lodge, where visitors stay in luxurious thatched-roof huts with stone fireplaces. Rangers are building a high-end tent camp on Mount Mikeno so gorilla trekkers can sleep under the stars.
For adventurers willing to endure a rugged five-hour hike, the park is weatherizing eight wooden cabins perched on a ledge high on Mount Nyiragongo, one of two active volcanos within the park’s boundaries. Their reward will be a night overlooking the world’s largest inland lava lake, lulled to sleep by the roar of the bubbling lava and an occasional whiff of sulfur.
“Every habitat you can imagine except desert and coastline is contained in Virunga,” says De Merode, describing a “best-of-Virunga” tour — yet to be developed — that will encompass all the park’s unique offerings, including a glass-bottomed boat excursion to watch hippos swim in crystal-clear spring-fed pools. “It is exceptional, and it is the window through which a whole economic sector will develop.”
Evelyn Iritani’s trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation in Washington, D.C.
Top photo: Humba, the king of a gorilla family living at Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Credit: Evelyn Iritani
Trader Joe’s has rocketed from 15th to third place on Greenpeace’s 2013 sustainable seafood scorecard based largely on the retailer’s decision to sharply reduce its sale of red-listed items and establish tougher standards for the seafood it purchases, whether wild or farmed.
Just a few years ago, Greenpeace was in a pitched battle with the Monrovia, Calif.,-based specialty retailer, which it had labeled “Traitor Joe’s” because of its sale of red-listed seafood such as Chilean sea bass and orange roughy. The environmental group dropped its campaign in 2010 after Trader Joe’s promised it would have a fully sustainable seafood department by 2013. Seafood ends up on the red list for a variety of reasons, including poor stock health, by-catch issues or habitat destruction.
With its move into Greenpeace’s “green zone,” where it joins industry leaders Whole Foods and Safeway, Trader Joe’s has achieved the “biggest jump in the history of the report,” said Casson Trenor, Greenpeace senior markets campaigner.
“No doubt the performance of this seminal dark horse has left more than a few of its competitors blinking in amazement and choking on its dust,” stated Greenpeace’s seventh annual Carting Away the Oceans Report, released May 29, 2013.
Trader Joe’s is also taking a leading role in important industrywide initiatives such as the campaign to protect the Zhemchug and Pribilof Canyons of the Bering Sea, which are among the most diverse marine ecosystems in the world, according to Trenor. He said Trader Joe’s, Safeway, Wegmans and Supervalu have thrown their support behind development of a science-based plan for protecting the deep sea canyons, which are also home for a large Alaskan pollock fishing fleet.
Asked how the retailer felt about its positive report card, Trader Joe’s spokeswoman Alison Mochizuki said she could not comment on the seafood sustainability issue beyond a March 14, 2011, statement posted on the company website.
Report card: Trader Joe’s still has work to do
Though the overall news was positive, Trader Joe’s has not yet made good on its pledge to eliminate all unsustainable seafood items from its inventory by this year, according to Greenpeace.
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“The reality is they didn’t make good on their promise, but they sure did a lot of things well,” Trenor said, acknowledging mixed feelings about Trader Joe’s high marks given its continued red-list sales and lack of transparency. “In the end, we had to appraise it for the reality.”
Did “Traitor Joe’s” make a difference? “There’s no doubt that the Greenpeace-led campaign against Trader Joe’s to get them to change in 2009 and 2010 made them very uncomfortable,” Trenor said. “But at the end of the day, it was an outpouring of support from Trader Joe’s customers themselves that catalyzed this change within the company.”
Another piece of positive news tucked in the May 29 report: Wal-Mart has announced it will offer consumers canned skipjack tuna that has been caught without the use of fish-aggregating devices. The fish-aggregating device-free canned skipjack tuna will be sold under the Ocean Natural brand in more than 3,000 Wal-Mart stores across the U.S.
“Until this happened, American consumers operating on a budget had to make a choice between their wallet and protecting the planet,” Trenor said. “It’s a huge change.”
Top photo: A fishing vessel in the Bering Sea. Credit: Greenpeace
I’m a Trader Joe’s groupie. So I was thrilled when my Hawaiian-shirt-clad friends announced that they would be purchasing all their seafood from sustainable sources by the end of 2012. The Monrovia, Calif.,-based retailer had been a target of a Greenpeace “Traitor Joe’s” campaign for its ocean-unfriendly policies, including the sale of a variety of endangered fish. With that pledge, Trader Joe’s joined the good guys.
But four months past the deadline, my glee has changed to frustration over Trader Joe’s unwillingness to say whether it has indeed gone sustainable. The retailer’s only statement on the subject, a customer update posted on its website March 27, does not address the deadline at all. Instead it lays out a number of steps it has taken in “support of our seafood goal of shifting to sustainable sources.”
Trader Joe’s says it will do the following: Stop selling swordfish caught in Southeast Asia, only sell canned yellowfin and albacore tuna caught using approved sustainable methods, set up new standards for suppliers of farmed shrimp and keep genetically engineered salmon off its shelves. The store has also stopped selling endangered Chilean sea bass, orange roughy and red snapper. Those are all steps in the right direction. (May 30 update: Trader Joe’s, Greenpeace bury hatchet, sort of)
Trader Joe’s mum on meeting deadline
But can I go to Trader Joe’s today and pick up fish fillets for dinner without worrying about whether I am contributing to the degradation of the ocean?
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Why the mystery? Everyone understands a missed deadline, particularly when it involves something as complex as seafood sustainability, global supply chains and the economics of food. But refusing to discuss the matter makes it look like Trader Joe’s is hiding something.
Casson Trenor, a senior seafood campaigner at Greenpeace, acknowledges Trader Joe’s is making “tremendous progress” toward saving the oceans. But he says the company’s reluctance to provide more information about its seafood sourcing policies has made it nearly impossible to determine whether the retailer is actually living up to its promises.
For example, he says the store is still selling items such as farmed salmon and dredged scallops that Greenpeace and other groups do not consider sustainable. Are they simply clearing out old inventory? Or are they flouting their own goals and hoping others won’t notice?
There are a lot of things to love about Trader Joe’s if you’re a foodie on a budget, a time-strapped cook (who knew broccoli slaw could taste so good?) or an aficionado of cheap wine. But unfortunately, transparency isn’t one of them. Trenor explains that a key part of Trader Joe’s success is its ability to create tasty, easy-to-use foods — such as spicy fish fillets — that aren’t available anywhere else. To prevent those products from being copied, the retailer has resisted pressure to reveal its sourcing or its suppliers.
“Trader Joe’s is all about magic and illusion,” Trenor says. “It delivers an experience that it doesn’t have to compete for because no one else can produce that product. Why would it give itself away?”
Verifying the sustainability of a seafood product requires two key pieces of information: where it was caught or farmed and how it was caught or farmed, explains Victoria Galitzine of FishWise, a Santa Cruz, Calif., organization working with the seafood industry to develop sustainable business practices. As a first step, she recommends checking out the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, which has an app and pocket-sized cards with lists of ocean-friendly seafood and fish to avoid.
Trader Joe’s says it is in the process of enhancing its package labeling to include information on species’ Latin names; origin; and catch or production method. But until that happens, I will need to ask my friendly sales clerk whether that frozen yellowfin tuna from Fiji was caught using a long-line or purse seine equipped with a “fish aggregating device, or FAD.” If the answer is yes to the FAD, it’s on the red list and off my grill.
“Asking questions demonstrates to the retailers that its customers care about the environmental performance of its seafood and eventually those messages will trickle up the chain of command to the decision-makers who can affect significant change,” Galitzine says.
I can also support retailers who are clearly ocean-friendly. In mid-May, Greenpeace will publish its annual Seafood Sustainability Scorecard ranking grocery stores by their sustainable seafood practices. Last year, the top scores went to Safeway and Whole Foods while Trader Joe’s ranked 15 out of 20.
Trenor wouldn’t say whether Trader Joe’s will be getting a better grade this year. However, if Greenpeace finds a large gap between Trader Joe’s promises and its delivery, he is not ruling out a revival of its “Traitor Joe’s” campaign.
“Trader Joe’s did make a promise to Greenpeace and other groups and that’s why we suspended our campaign,” he says. “The time is up. The question now is did they actually do what they said they were going to do?”
Top photo: A Greenpeace protest at a Trader Joe’s store. Credit: Greenpeace
In this tweet-driven, entertainment-focused world, it’s hard to break through the clutter. But the giant bus advertisement featuring two plates of bacon, eggs and pancakes caught my eye. “Do just a couple extra pancakes and two slices of bacon really make a 400-calorie difference?”
It does. And now I know the consequences.
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Portion control is the latest weapon in America’s battle against obesity.
“We understand it’s a bit of a shift,” says Paul Simon, a physician and director of the county’s Division of Chronic Disease and Injury Prevention. “Here we are promoting some foods that aren’t viewed as particularly healthy. But what we’re saying is, “If you’re going to eat this, at least eat less.”
While the dramatic rise in obesity levels in America has slowed in recent years, the overall picture is sobering. More than one-third of all adults in this country are obese, and by 2030 an estimated 42% will be overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Obesity is approaching tobacco use as the leading preventable cause of death in the United States and is an important risk factor for diabetes, heart disease, stroke, arthritis and many forms of cancer.
There is some good news. Intensive health education, mandatory fitness testing and the passage of a law restricting the sale of sugary beverages on school campuses seems to have paid off in California, according to Simon. Between 1999 and 2005, the obesity rates among fifth-, seventh- and ninth-grade students in Los Angeles County climbed 1% every year — an increase of 15,000 more obese children annually. But in 2005, those obesity levels plateaued and appear to be on the decline. A similar improvement was seen among preschool children enrolled in a federal program that provides nutritional counseling and subsidized food for low-income families.
But the same is not true for these children’s parents. Among adults in Los Angeles County, the obesity level nearly doubled to 23.6% between 1997 and 2011. Health officials are pursuing a variety of tactics in their battle against the obesity epidemic, from the expansion of bike paths and workplace wellness programs to encouraging supermarkets to promote healthier purchases. Next up: a program that will reward restaurateurs who offer healthy dining options, such as smaller portions, offering to box up half-portions and ample access to water.
Not everyone likes these ideas, particularly when they cut into profits. Beverage companies and business groups have filed a lawsuit to stop New York City’s ban on the sale of supersized sodas and other sugary drinks. Some of those same companies have complained about L.A. County’s campaign against sugary beverages. One of those ads showed a bottle of soda being poured into a glass filled with sugar packs and the question, “YOU WOULDN’T EAT 22 PACKS OF SUGAR, WHY ARE YOU DRINKING THEM?”
Need to count calories? Here are simple ways to keep numbers in check
Interested in learning more about combating calorie creep? Check out the “Choose Health LA,” website, which offers a slew of interesting factoids and the following advice:
Think small: Everything in the kitchen — from portions to dinnerware — has grown since the 1950s. The surface area of the average dinner plate has increased by more than one-third over that period. Try substituting a salad plate for your dinner plate, making it easier to keep your portions small. And reduce the temptation to over-consume by serving up single portions, leaving the serving bowls on the counter.
Avoid mindless eating: Sit down in front of your television with a small bowl of snacks and leave the bag in the cupboard. Just 10 extra calories a day — a stick of Doublemint gum or three small Jelly Belly jelly beans — will add a pound to your waistline in a year, according to Brian Wansink, food psychologist and author of “Mindless Eating, Why We Eat More Than We Think.”
Ditch the “clean plate” club: The average restaurant meal today is more than four times larger than in the 1950s. When dining out, don’t hesitate to leave food on your plate, share entrees or ask for a doggie bag for the leftovers.
Downsize your fast food: Hamburgers are four times larger today than they were in the 1950s. By choosing the smaller version of a burger, soft drink and fries over the supersized version, you can save 570 calories, which is more than one-quarter of your daily caloric needs.
Sip smartly: Substitute water, low-sugar or unsweetened beverages or nonfat or low-fat milk for sugary beverages. To find out just how much you could save by cutting back on your soda fix or frozen coffee drink, check out Choose Health LA’s sugar calculator.
Top photo: Paul Simon is a physician and director of Los Angeles County’s Division of Chronic Disease and Injury Prevention. Credit: Los Angeles County Department of Public Health
If they ever map my DNA I am convinced they will find a gene for omiyage. It will have been passed onto me through my parents, and I’m sure it has found its way into my children’s genetic material as well.
Omiyage is the tradition of gift-giving that permeates Japanese culture. Holiday celebrations. Business meetings. Travel abroad. The Japanese are a nation of gift-givers, and their stores are filled with exquisitely wrapped mementos of all shapes and sizes. You can give someone a bottle of expensive liquor, four individually wrapped apples or a beautiful box of mochi or manju, the chewy rice cakes filled with sweet bean paste.
Though I was born in the United States, I was introduced to omiyage through my mother, who grew up in Japan. One of my favorite travel pastimes is scouring an exotic market in search of that unusual “something” that will make someone smile. And I will admit to, upon occasion, cruising the airport kiosks for those last few people on my shopping list.
Omiyage inspires desire to find the perfect gift
The pressure of selecting just the right omiyage can be overwhelming. I remember in the early 1980s trying to help my mother find a special present for her sister in Japan, whom she was going to visit for the first time in many years.
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With the spread of globalization, the search for something “Made in the USA” became even more difficult. For years, I packed bags of Starbucks coffee as gifts for friends overseas. That ended when I stumbled across the familiar Starbucks logo on a tiny café in the ancient Forbidden City in Beijing. (That location has since been closed, but China remains one of the Seattle coffee company’s fastest-growing markets.)
I have been saved by the explosion of regional food products in America, which has allowed me to merge three of my favorite pursuits: shopping, eating and gift-giving. I’ve discovered there is no better way to introduce America to the world — or vice versa — than to share homegrown delicacies.
My omiyage of choice can now be found at places such as Beyond the Olive in Old Town Pasadena, Calif. The small shop’s owners, Chip and Crystal Reibel, have created a wonderful home for some of California’s best extra virgin olive oils and vinegars. (I was thrilled to discover that the 60-milliliter sample bottles of their rich fig balsamic vinegar and buttery EVOO Ascolano olive oil could be hand-carried onto an airplane.)
Before visiting my parents, I often stop at the Fugetsu-Do Sweet Shop in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo, where the Kito family began producing its soft, chewy mochi (rice cakes) and manju (sweet bean-filled rice cakes) in 1903. Though the family was sent to an internment camp in Wyoming during World War II, they returned and rebuilt their pastry shop into one of the community’s most beloved businesses.
Thanks to the Internet, I can now send my favorite taste treats anywhere in the world. That includes almost anything from the Pike Place Market in Seattle, where I always pick up packages of Chukar’s chocolate-covered Cabernet Cherries or boxes of the fragrant MarketSpice tea. (I’ve also successfully packed a frozen salmon on ice into my carry-on bag.)
I was curious what Japanese tourists are taking home from America these days. So I asked Sachiko Yoshimura, chief executive director of the Los Angeles office of the Japan External Trade Organization. Her answer? Apparently young Japanese are filling their suitcases with the branded reusable shopping bags from Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods.
I thought omiyage was a Japanese trait, but I learned otherwise when my friend, Lira, visited from South Ossetia, a tiny country in the southern Caucasus wedged between Russia and Georgia. Her bulging suitcase was filled with gifts, including sacks of spices and freshly shelled walnuts, a regional specialty.
Lira unrolled one carefully wrapped package to reveal a dozen strings of small balls in bright shades of red, orange and yellow. They turned out to be Churchkhela, a traditional sweet made of walnuts dipped in different fruit juice mixtures and hung to dry. I savored them for weeks.
In Lira’s world, cooking is done by taste, and ingredients come in handfuls and pinches. So when my husband asked how to use the spices she brought him, Lira’s answer was a shrug and a smile. “Sprinkle them on nuts or vegetables,” she told the translator. “Roger will know how much is enough.”
Thanks to a little online sleuthing, I discovered that the spices of the Caucasus are as complicated as their politics. One of Lira’s gifts, called Khmeli-Suneli, is a mixture of coriander, dill, basil, bay leaf, marjoram, fenugreek, parsley, safflower or saffron, black pepper, celery, thyme, hyssop, mint and hot pepper.
So now when we roast our vegetables, we throw a little reminder of Lira on top. The best omiyage I could imagine.
Top photo: Churchkhela, a specialty of the Caucasus. Credit: Evelyn Iritani
What if you could buy a Granny Smith apple that tasted just like the real deal but wouldn’t discolor if left on your plate? Would you care if the apple’s genes were manipulated to reduce production of the enzyme responsible for browning?
Neal Carter, president of Okanagan Specialty Fruits, an investor-owned biotech company, bets you won’t. Which is why he has spent more than a decade developing the Arctic Apple, which, if approved by U.S. regulators in the coming months, will be one of the first genetically engineered fruits on store shelves in America.
“No matter what anybody says, people buy with their eyes,” says Carter, who grows cherries and apples at his orchard in Summerland, British Columbia, Canada. “Arctic Apples are going to be a lot more perfect looking than conventional apples.”
Carter hopes to have Arctic Granny and Arctic Gold apples — versions of the Granny Smith and Golden Delicious varietals — on the market by 2014. He has also applied for permission to produce and sell the Arctic Apple in Canada.
Can a GMO apple gain acceptance?
Carter, a bioresource engineer by training, believes in the win-win-win proposition of bio-engineered crops. In his world, growers, packers and retailers will throw away fewer apples because of bruising. Sliced apples could be sold in bags, making them more convenient for school lunches and snacks. Restaurateurs would no longer need to use preservatives to keep their fruit salads fresh.
But Carter is getting strong pushback, and it’s not just coming from the consumer groups who have traditionally led the charge against genetically modified organisms, known as GMOS. The leading opponents to the Arctic Apple are the U.S. Apple Assn. and the Northwest Horticultural Council, the nation’s top apple industry trade groups.
Christian Schlect, president of the Horticultural Council, fears the introduction of the Arctic Apple will harm the apple’s image as positive, healthy and even patriotic. (Think of “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” and “As American as apple pie.”) In addition, the organic farming programs that represent a small but increasingly important market won’t accept GMO products.
“This is a difficult issue and we’re still sorting our way through it,” says Schlect, whose members produce about 60% of the nation’s apple crop. He is quick to add that his organization does not think bio-engineered crops are unsafe, simply that they carry a negative image for many consumers. “There may be places where the technology will produce some great advance that will benefit consumers and growers, but in this particular case we didn’t find it that way.”
Americans have been eating products containing genetically modified organisms for decades; the majority of the U.S. soybean and corn crops are grown from varieties bio-engineered to resist disease and increase yields. The Rainbow papaya, which was genetically engineered to resist a virus that nearly destroyed the Hawaiian papaya industry in the 1990s, is sold in the U.S. and was approved for sale in Japan in 2011.
However, the Non GMO Project and many other consumer groups do not believe the long-term health effects of genetically modified crops have been adequately studied. They are pushing for moratoriums on new GMO products and the labeling of GMO foods. In California, a GMO-labeling ballot measure was defeated in November after food and biotech companies poured millions of dollars into negative advertising. But GMO-labeling advocates are pushing forward in other states and on the national level.
Given the high passions surrounding GMOs, U.S. apple growers say the introduction of a GMO fruit would force them to implement costly measures to protect against cross-contamination of their crops and ensure GMO varieties remain separated throughout the supply chain. They also fear it will make it harder to sell their fruit in foreign markets that have tough GMO labeling laws or restrictions on the import and sale of GMO products. Those include the European Union, Japan, China and Turkey.
American farmers understand the sensitivities of the global marketplace. In 2006, the discovery that the southern U.S. long-grain rice market had been contaminated with GMO rice triggered the collapse of U.S. exports to the EU, Japan and other key markets. Bayer AG of Germany, producer of the GMO Liberty Link rice, eventually paid out $750 million in legal claims to U.S. farmers. Anxious to protect sales to GMO-sensitive Asian markets, a group of California rice farmers successfully lobbied for a state moratorium on open-air planting of GMO rice in field trials.
Officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have been reviewing the Arctic Apple since 2010, and Carter hopes to get the green light soon. If that happens, he says, it will be the American consumer who will determine the fate of his creation.”Every Arctic Apple entering the fresh market will have a label on it,” he says. “We want people to know what they’re buying.”
Top photo: Neal Carter, president of Okanagan Specialty Fruits, picks an apple from one of the company’s trees. Credit: Okanagan Specialty Fruits