Articles in Environment

Julie Cissé at Terra Madre. Credit: Carla Capalbo

When Carlo Petrini, president of Slow Food International, the global grassroots nonprofit association, launched the “1,000 Food Gardens in Africa” project in 2012, he could never have imagined that within two years the project would have doubled its results and increased its goals tenfold.

“We’ve already launched 2,000 gardens, and are now aiming for 10,000 to be established by 2016 in all 52 countries of the continent,” says Slow Food International vice president Edie Mukiibi, from Uganda, who has coordinated the project. (Californian chef and activist Alice Waters is the association’s other vice president).

Mukiibi was speaking at Terra Madre, Slow Food’s biennial five-day event which, with Salone del Gusto, is underway in Turin, Italy. Both are open to the public. Terra Madre is a global network of food-producing communities from more than 150 countries worldwide, and this year it brought hundreds of representatives from 2,500 of those communities to Piedmont to meet, share knowledge and exchange ideas.

Mukiibi explains how the African gardens project has been able to increase so fast: “We’ve set up a network using local radio stations and mobile phones to spread the word about the importance of this project in remote parts of the country.” The objectives of the gardens are practical, symbolic and political.

“We have a heavy responsibility to lift Africa from where it now is,” he continues. “Africa is an old continent in terms of its creation but now it has the energy and fresh ideas of its youthful population. This gives us lots of opportunities. Our generation has access to communications and education so we must act and react against industrial farming’s brainwashing. Biodiversity and sustainability must be priorities in the fight against the monocultures of the cynical, market-driven corporations that are trying to dominate the world of agriculture.”

Gardens benefit families and communities

The food gardens follow different models. The largest, of several acres, are community gardens, worked on by many members of a local tribe or village. Family food gardens are also being established wherever possible to increase self-sufficiency. School gardens are another important part of the project. As Alice Waters, who has long led the fight to put school lunch on the curriculum in the U.S. and to create food gardens in schools, says: “Food gardens breathe life into education.”

At the African Food Gardens conference at Terra Madre, many Africans shared stories about their experiences. Moudane Hassan, from Somalia, explained that his people were originally nomadic camel herders who had never traditionally planted vegetables.

“We now have 54 gardens in Somalia, of which 19 are in schools and 24 in communities,” he said. “They are helping us get improve nutrition and free ourselves from dependence on international food aid.”

Julie Cissé, an activist from Senegal and founder of GIPS/WAR (a group of initiatives for social progress in an area called War), has another inspiring story to tell. She runs a network of 300 women who work the land.

“We’ve battled for women to become owners of the land they work, and we’ve had to ask permission for this from our elders and local administrators. We’ve even lobbied government.

“Our most effective argument is to explain that we want to re-create the kinds of vegetable gardens our grandmothers had, and that strikes a chord even with the most macho of men,” she says.

“We believe in sustainability, in farming the land without chemicals and pesticides or genetically modified crops. Now the men see just how productive we are, and how much we are bringing in as food and resources, and they are enthusiastic.”

The Senegal gardens are either family gardens of around 150 square yards, or much bigger, 15-acre community gardens on which up to 120 women may work. Slow Food helps by providing access to technical support and, in some cases, sponsorship from companies and individuals abroad.

Illustration of the "one woman, one chicken coop" concept.  Credit: Carla Capalbo

Illustration of the “one woman, one chicken coop” concept. Credit: Carla Capalbo

The group also came up with an innovative solution for city women and for those who have lost plots to land-grabbing but who want to produce food. Called “One woman, one chicken crate,” it involves wooden crates that are 1.7 square yards. The women can keep chickens in the crate and use the top to grow a vegetable.

“A crate or two can always be fitted into a courtyard or alley and provide the women with a source of healthy vitamins while supplementing the family income,” Cissé says.

Mukiibi agrees: “Our grandfathers fought for independence. We too must stand up and fight malnutrition and the neo-colonialism of land-grabbing and imposed monocultures. Let’s support the biodiversity of our food to save African gastronomy. Start by spreading the word.”

He might have added that this doesn’t apply only to Africa: Planting food gardens in our own schools, communities and backyards can turn the tide on junk-food wastelands and the health problems they are creating everywhere.

Top photo: Julie Cissé at Terra Madre. Credit: Carla Capalbo

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Bedouin community leader Haled Eloubra, left, discusses permaculture with a student at a course in Israel. Credit: Louis Fox

What is the connection between conventional food systems, erosion and global warming? Climate change accelerates as industrial agriculture, with its heavy plowing and application of pesticides, sends carbon into the atmosphere. This creates soil loss and depletes the amount of carbon the soil is able to store. The Monsanto-sponsored Green Revolution in Africa and Asia was bolstered by the idea that we needed to find a way to break out of nature’s boundaries to provide enough food for a growing population. Yet decades of synthetic fertilizer use and industrial-style monocropping have created diseased soils, broken ecosystems and social instability.

Raj Patel, who has written extensively about the need to shift our relationship to food, says the problem with the food system is not that we don’t produce enough calories to eradicate hunger. Instead, it’s that the system puts a priority on profit and institutional consolidation. The upshot: More than 1 billion people are malnourished and 2 billion are overweight.

Perhaps the answer lies in the dirt.

The earth beneath our feet contains billions of microorganisms — huge quantities of carbon in the form of bio-matter. Organic farming, permaculture and other regenerative food-growing strategies enrich soils and restore their ability to store carbon.

I have spent the past eight years documenting regenerative design around the world, deeply motivated as a new mother to find solutions to our global ecological crisis. I’ve used my anthropology background to put together a book, “Sustainable [R]evolution: Permaculture in Ecovillages, Urban Farms and Communities Worldwide.” A catalog of 60 sites and an anthology of articles, it represents the work of a small army of about 100 contributors, including Paul Hawken, Vandana Shiva, Starhawk and David Holmgren. It includes projects in climates as diverse as the Dead Sea Valley in Jordan and the Amazon rainforest, inner cities as well as remote corners of Mongolia.

It also highlights permaculture training, which has been held in approximately 100 countries around the world. One innovative program in Israel, called the Bustan Project, brings Arabs, Jews and Bedouins together for courses. The courses combine teaching practical techniques of natural building, water catchment and traditional agriculture with peace building.

“It is connected to peace, in that we work the land together instead of fighting about it,” says Petra Feldman, a resident of Hava ve Adam, the permaculture center that hosted the training that I and my co-author Louis Fox attended in 2008. Israeli youth work at the center for a year as an alternative to military service. Petra’s husband, Chaim Feldman, began a collaboration with Palestinian farmers involving traditional agriculture. They have shared irrigation techniques, drought-resistant heirloom seeds and other permaculture practices that enable farmers with restricted land access to grow more intensively in smaller spaces.

“The closest thing in the world to the principles of permaculture I’m learning in this course are the principles of traditional Bedouin culture,” said Haled Eloubra, a Bedouin community leader and green architect attending the course.

Permaculture integrates traditional knowledge with appropriate technology, linking ancient and modern approaches. As an international movement, it reconnects native people with ancestral knowledge, as well as giving industrialized societies a framework to meet their needs more sustainably. Some call this approach permaculture. For many traditional people, as Nahuat-Mayan activist Guillermo Vasquez told me, “It’s a practice, a way of life.”

In Oakland Calif., “soil farmers” like Max Cadji hope to transform dirt tainted by decades of pollution. Credit: Louis Fox

In Oakland Calif., “soil farmers” like Max Cadji hope to transform dirt tainted by decades of pollution. Credit: Louis Fox

Vasquez founded Indigenous Permaculture, an organization that partnered with residents of Pine Ridge, an Oglala Lakota reservation in South Dakota. There they developed a Wounjupi garden, a local food-security project using ecological principles. He sees permaculture movement as a form of cultural resistance and a healing process.

“This is the way to create a real Green Revolution and make change,” he told me.

Pine Ridge, long associated with native resistance, holds a unique place in the history of indigenous struggle. The reservation is among the most impoverished in the United States, with an adolescent suicide rate four times the national average, unemployment around 80% and many residents without access to energy or clean water. Although there is a good deal of agricultural production on the reservation, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, only a small percentage of tribal members directly benefit from it.

Local leader Wilmer Mesteth has been leading the development of the Wounjupi and systems for water catchment, grey water recycling, seed saving and composting. The organizers see local food security as a path to confront poverty and health issues such as diabetes, and have developed a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. A greenhouse has been built, medicinal plants are being cultivated and workshops are held for residents about perennial agriculture techniques. The harvest provides enough produce to give to families and elders in the community, and even share at an elders gathering in Montana.

Another advantage of biodiverse systems is they are more resilient. While grasshoppers destroyed many other crops on the reservation one season, the Wounjupi garden saw little damage, probably as a result of the permaculture technique of planting flowers that attract beneficial insects that prey on pests. “We’re seeing a major change in the soil due to the addition of organic matter,” Vasquez said. “It’s much darker and richer, and the vegetables are starting to grow really well.”

This kind of soil building also has larger positive implications. In her book, “The Soil Will Save Us,” Kristin Ohlson suggests that the ancient partnership between plants and soil microorganisms that created our planet offers hope for pulling carbon from the atmosphere and sinking it back into the ground. She documents a huge increase in the numbers of “soil farmers” within organic agriculture, and beyond.

In my part of the world in Northern California, soil farmers in the heart of Oakland are transforming soil tainted by decades of intense industrial pollution, building local community and creating social change at the same time. Oakland’s food security movement has brought fresh organic produce to what was a desert of liquor and convenience stores, and locals are raising bees that pollinate urban crops as well as provide local sources of honey.

The diversity of insect and bird pollinators is crucial to agriculture, and farmers require healthy ecosystems to grow food. Our choices about how our food is grown connect directly to issues of biodiversity, climate change and the survival of natural ecosystems across the globe. Organic and permaculture farms are significantly better at preserving agro-ecosystem biodiversity than conventional farming. With such systems, the number of plant, bird and insect species can often be 50% greater, so developing biodiverse systems should be a high priority. When we choose to eat locally-grown and organic foods, we are giving energy to a diverse and vibrant international cultural movement that is revolutionizing the food system.

And they taste better too.

Main photo: Bedouin community leader Haled Eloubra, left, discussing permaculture with a student at a course in Israel. Credit: Louis Fox

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Corn on the cob at a street festival in New York City. Credit: Sarah Khan

Mexico is at the center of corn biodiversity, which strengthens the ecosystems that sustain the land and its inhabitants. Just as indigenous people, like the native Californians, possessed a deep knowledge of oak management and acorns, in Mesoamerica the same is true for corn. Zea mays, the Latin binomial for corn, is the literal foundation of many Mesoamerican cultures. Maize is at the core of many creation stories from pre-contact time to the present. Individuals are not only made of corn, but people make corn. Corn is one of the few staple crops that require human intervention to reproduce. Yet corn’s biodiversity is under siege.

“Dignity. Good white corn is part of a dignified life,” declared a Mexican store owner about the importance of corn in her culture, according to Elizabeth Fitting. Fitting is the author of “The Struggle for Maize: Campesinos, Workers, and Transgenic Corn in the Mexican Countryside.” She conveys the nuanced layers of the transgenic corn debate. And she shines a light on the disadvantages of neo-liberal trade policies in Mexico. Since the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, she reveals — through story and data — how small land holding farmers’ ability to maintain biocultural diversity of Mexican corn varieties (criollos) is threatened.

Blue corn posole. Credit: Sarah Khan

Blue corn posole. Credit: Sarah Khan

Since the start of NAFTA, Mexico imports U.S. yellow corn to meet the appetite of its growing livestock industry. When local farmers do not grow enough of their preferred white corn — due to a lack of rainfall or access to well water or the effects of climate change — they purchase yellow corn, normally meant for animal feed. Making matters more difficult? Studies in Mexico have identified genetically modified corn strains mixed into the local (criollo) landraces. If transgenic corn spreads to multiple local landraces, the potential to wipe out the biodiverse base, and the corn industry, is real, according to Sin Maiz, No Hay Paiz. (“Without Corn, There Is No Country” is a campaign, founded in 2007, that supports food sovereignty, in particular non-GMO foods, and the sustainable revitalization of rural Mexico.)

Mexican corn farmers fighting to keep traditional methods

The debate about transgenic corn has only escalated since the 2011 publication of Fitting’s book. Activists in the Mexican states of Oaxaca and Chiapas declared 2013 the year of anti-GMO corn. To that end, a judge recently disallowed any trials of transgenic corn in Mexico.

ZESTER LINKS


This is the latest in a series on the importance of biodiversity.

More on corn:

Nixtamalized white corn, an alkaline soaking process to improve the nutritional quality of corn, is a sophisticated practice developed centuries ago and not transferred to Asian, African and European countries when corn colonized those lands.

For additional reading resources on corn cultures in the Americas, check out:

» "Masa Offers the Kernel of a Culture" by Julie Moskin

» "Retreat to Subsistence" from The Nation

» "Risking Corn, Risking Culture" by Hope Cummings

» Sin Maiz No Hay Pais


More from Zester Daily:

» Holiday tamales: A mail-order review

» Summer-perfect corn

» Mexico’s best mercado

» With a wealth of nutrients, acorns vital for Indians

Activists, farmers, academics, scientists and multiple non-governmental organizations know this is only a momentary victory. They argue the transgenic corn debate is a symbol of many unfair practices. Farmers, for example, want fair-trade reform so local white corn varieties are not more expensive to grow than imported yellow corn. They want to continue growing their preferred criollo corn varieties for the sake of taste and culture. Local farmers argue they are experts at growing and testing numerous corn varieties in multiple microclimates; they are fully aware that distant specialists belittle their traditional ecological knowledge. Finally, farmers and their families do not want to migrate, or work in maquiladoras, factories in Mexico run by foreign companies and exporting products to the country of that company. They want to remain on the land, in their homes, and make a livable wage.

Despite the extra expense, many, especially elder, farmers still grow their own corn in the milpa system for food security. (Milpa is defined as a field intercropped with three principal species: maize, beans and squash, often with other minor species, and in which edible leafy weeds, locally called quelites, are tolerated and harvested.) In a recent phone interview, Fitting reminded me of her conversation with the Mexican storeowner in the cradle of corn diversity, the Tehuacán Valley in the state of Puebla, north and west of Oaxaca and Chiapas, respectively. “We grow [white] corn because we want to have good, soft white tortillas. They do not turn out the same in the city. In Mexico City (where yellow corn or non-nixtamilized yellow corn is used), a truck carrying masa (dough) comes around as if it were mud. It’s even uncovered! They say we live like animals here in the countryside, but in the city, they eat like animals!” Her words resounded with taste, dignity and self-reliance.

So the tortillas you eat, whether in Mexico or North America, might not be made of white corn flour anymore. Moreover, the nixtamilization process has been essentially eliminated in mass-produced masa flour. Not only do you get a different-tasting corn, but you also eat tortillas with less bioavailable nutrients.

Two Chicana professors, Luz Calvo and Catriona R. Esquibel, founded the Facebook page Decolonize Your Diet. During a Skype conversation with both professors, I learned their Facebook page grew out Calvo’s desire to help a student eat a more healthy diet and learn basic cooking skills. The page quickly exploded, and a blog followed. Calvo, an associate professor of ethnic studies at California State University East Bay in Hayward, Calif., says her students are predominantly first-generation Americans. On campus one day, students were selling Krispy Kremes to raise money.

Corn on the cob at a street festival in New York City. Credit: Sarah Khan

Corn on the cob at a street festival in New York City. Credit: Sarah Khan

Shocked, Calvo countered, “I’d love to support you, but how could you sell and eat such unhealthy food?” Her students rebutted, “But this is healthy, professor, there are no transfats!” From these exchanges, Calvo decided to teach a new course called Decolonize Your Diet. She described the class as “simply beautiful.” For example, she told of two Chicana sisters, originally from the state of Guanajuato in Mexico. “They made delicious sour tamales for a class requirement,” Calvo recalled. “Shaped like jelly rolls, the tamales overflowed with chilies and cheese.” Suddenly Calvo’s idea that only a few types of tamales could exist expanded.

Her partner of 16 years, Esquibel, an associate professor of race and resistance studies at San Francisco State University, reminded me that in the Mexican codices, specifically the Florentine Codex, there are multiple descriptions of tamales with chia seeds, pumpkins or peanuts, shaped like seashells, or rounded. “There is no one way to make tamales in the codices,” she emphasized. “In fact there is a feeling of experimentation and joy in food expressed throughout. We both seek to remind, teach, revitalize and celebrate our ancestral foods.”

A gift that grows

Those same sisters gifted Calvo red-dent corn to grow in her Oakland garden. (You can hear Luz on a recent Latino USA podcast talk in her garden and kitchen.) Calvo is growing them out, drying most and saving some for the next planting season. Soon she will prepare nixtamalized red-corn masa for tortillas. If you can’t wait, read their article on how to nixtamalize your white or yellow corn and make tortillas. And like Calvo, a cancer survivor, perhaps connecting to your food from inside the earth to inside your body will nudge you just a bit closer to health and healing.

Top photo: Corn on the cob at a street festival in New York City. Credit: Sarah Khan

This article was partially underwritten by the The Christensen Fund, a nonprofit organization, dedicated to biocultural and agricultural diversity of marginalized people and landscapes globally.

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County Mayo, Ireland. Credit: Deborah Madison

When my husband was invited to practice his art of painting in rural — the word was emphasized many times in the acceptance letter — Ireland, we jumped on it and decided to go right away rather than wait until summer. Our stay was from Halloween to Christmas, covering the major holidays, which were pretty much nonexistent for us that year.

Winter is perhaps not the most perfect time to be on the rough and wild Atlantic coast of the Emerald Island — which, as you quickly come to understand, has to do with the copious amount of rain that falls. It was cold. And damp. Our cottage was stone, and there were gaps in the ceiling that allowed a view of the sky. My husband’s studio was heated, but for me, getting warm and staying that way was the challenge of each day. The recipe called for lots of hot water and alcohol.

Finding warmth in Ireland

Here’s how it worked. First, we were told not to use hot water unless it came from the night storage, a concept we found hard to follow but eventually understood: Electricity is cheaper at night than during the day, so water heated at night is more economical than water heated during the day. So I started the day by submerging myself in water that was as hot as I could stand and staying there until I really couldn’t stand it anymore. Then I dressed in an infinite number of layers that padded me like the Michelin Man, but they kept me warm until noon, when I repeated the process.

About 3 p.m., when the light caved, I joined Patrick, my husband, in the pub across the street from his studio, where I had a hot whiskey with lemon and clove — divine because it warmed my hands as well as my insides. Then maybe I had a second one just to seal in the hint of warmth that I was sure was coming on. These drinks were pretty mild as alcohol goes. Even two weren’t nearly as strong as the real Irish coffee I had in a pub in a nearby town, where the combination of caffeine, sugar, booze and cream was simultaneously such an upper and downer that your day was done by the last sip. By comparison, the hot whiskey was like tea.

When we returned to our cottage, it was dark outside and cold inside. The first task was to light a peat fire in a fireplace that would never become hot it so dwarfed our expensive bundles of peat logs. There was a heater on one wall, which, if you leaned against it, could make a small portion of your bottom warm, but that was the sum total of its effectiveness.

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Contributor Deborah Madison's wine-warming system while in Ireland. Credit: Deborah Madison

Because cooking dinner helped produce some warmth, we headed to the kitchen. When Patrick would get a bottle out, it wasn’t that nicely chilled red wine temperature we’ve come to appreciate, nor was it frozen. But it was so frigid you might want to wear mittens to handle it. The wine glasses, too, were like bowls of ice. So we lit the burners on the stove, placed the bottle and glasses among them, and waited until the bottle felt right. By then the glasses would be, too, and dinner would be nearly prepared. We ate it huddled against the big metal fireplace that at least suggested coziness.

Finally, I’m ashamed to say, the best part of each day came, and that was getting into bed and lying on the enormous heating pad that worked like a reverse electric blanket: warming the bed rather than lying on top of you. Finally, here was warmth, and it stayed — regardless of the wind and the rain, which sounded like it was shot from nail guns. While in bed I read a lot about the famine years and tried to comprehend how people could be this cold and starving and yet continue on, while I was being such a wimp about it all.

Christmas in Dublin

By Christmas we were in Dublin, which felt very far from County Mayo in every way. The hotel room was warm; people were festive and jolly; the food was varied and good; there were amazing cheeses to be found; and a farmers market was filled with treats. The pubs were bustling, and there were warm cobblers with cream or mushrooms on toast for breakfast. I’ve never loved Christmas that much, but in Dublin it felt like a real celebration, with music on the streets and a big feeling of happiness in those around us. Of course, that’s when the Celtic Tiger was a big glossy cat, but it was last year, too, when we were there and the economics were quite reversed.

By far, the best holiday scene was one I had the good fortune to happen upon, and it had nothing to do with food. I was walking down a street when I noticed at least a 100 Santas standing together in front of a rather grand building. They were talking and smoking in their Santa outfits. That alone was quite something to see, and I would have been utterly content if it went no further. But then all at once the door of the building opened, and the president of Ireland, Mary McAleese, stepped out, and all the Santas burst into boisterous song: “We wish you a merry Christmas, we wish you a merry Christmas, we wish you a merry Christmas and a happy new year!” And they cheered the president in her red dress, and I think they might have tossed hats into the air.

Top photo: County Mayo, Ireland. Credit: Deborah Madison

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An aquaponics set showing how fish and vegetables can grow together, as part of the Food Loop in Beijing. Credit: Manuela Zoninsein

Beijing has been a hotbed of culinary activity since at least as far back as imperial days when localities would dispatch their best chefs to cook up regional delicacies for the emperor there. Creativity and diversity in food shouldn’t come as a surprise given that Beijing is city of more than 20 million people.

These days, food-related activities are increasingly focused on building awareness around sustainability, DIY culture and farm-to-fork conscientiousness. Nothing reflects this greater than the early October Beijing Design Week.

This year, organizers added Food Loop, a sustainable food festival within Design Week, to what had previously focused exclusively on visual arts, architecture, interior design and issues related to urban planning.

Based out of 751 D-Park, which is a section of the well-known 798 arts district but with elevated walkways and stairwells winding up into old factory structures, Food Loop’s sustainable food exhibits included a demonstration of urban farming and workshops about beekeeping, desktop aquaponics and pickling.

Panel discussions and a self-harvesting vegetable market were complemented by a vegan pop-up restaurant run by Chef Laura Fanelli. Fanelli is the founder and former head chef at the Veggie Table, a vegan restaurant on the popular Wudaoying hutong within the historic neighborhood of Beijing’s second ring road.

At the Food Loop, overlooking a postmodern conjunction of old factory buildings, contemporary art galleries and sculptural installations, Fanelli served dishes including a meat-free version of the classic Beijing noodle dish zhajiangmian. Traditionally, wheat noodles are topped with a (usually pork-based) bean sauce and garnished with bean sprouts, cilantro, green onions as well as julienned carrots and cucumbers, resulting in a smoky, satisfying dish somewhat like spaghetti Bolognese. In Fanelli’s version, tofu bits and soybeans were added to the mix, and soy protein takes the place of pork in the sauce.

Floating aquaponics in China

Sick of food safety scandals and mystery meats — most recently, rat meat being passed off as lamb — Beijing is not only experiencing something of a vegetarian and vegan renaissance, it is also seeing a boom in home-based food-growing projects. A local aquaponics association has begun offering regular DIY classes on setting up desktop aquaponics systems, which was offered by Food Loop during design week.

Food Loop

A view of the organic vegetable and herb market at Beijing’s Food Loop event, atop the sky bridge in the industrial complex of D-Park. Credit: Manuela Zoninsein

I’ve purchased one aquaponics kit and once the weather turns too cold to grow food on my rented plot of land outside of the city, this is one way I hope to continue to feed myself, at the very least supplying my own herbs in a way that I’m confident is chemical free.

On the higher end of the spectrum was the dining, video and design installation called “Meating Amy.” A partnership between Chef Brian Reimer of Maison Boulud and design firm Jellymon, it took participants through the story of a pig raised in Yunnan, before it was slaughtered for consumption. Then a meal using parts of a pig from that same farm was served, and parts of the pig were also converted into small material items that helped to create a food cart. The goal, in part, was to reinforce the connection between what we eat and where it comes from.

Sustainable food trends reach Beijing

Beijing and its culinary scene continue to evolve. There is booming creativity in cooking here and the local community is focused on exploring alternatives and advances beyond the current food status quo. The same trends that we see in New York City, Paris or Singapore are also emerging here, with unique expressions that are particular to Beijing’s challenges and needs.

Top photo: An aquaponics set showing how fish and vegetables can grow together, as part of the Food Loop in Beijing. Credit: Manuela Zoninsein

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Raw tuna. Credit: Holly Botner

“So where’s your sushi from?” I asked politely, still sweating the effects of Fukushima on fish from the Pacific Ocean.

“From Japan,” said the waiter.

Well, duh, what should I have expected? We were in a Japanese restaurant.

For more than a year now, scientists studying the effects of the March 2011 deadly earthquake and tsunami that triggered the disastrous breakdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant have suspected that the plant may still be leaking. Levels of radioactivity in the waters and fish around the plant have not been declining, as would be expected. Recently, amid reports of surging radiation levels, Japan finally owned up: The plant has probably been leaking for the past two years, acknowledged Japan’s chief nuclear regulator.

So should we, sitting comfortably across the Pacific, be worried about consuming Pacific fish?

Nicholas Fisher, a State University of New York at Stony Brook professor, has been studying radioactivity and metals in marine life for more than three decades. He’s part of the research team examining Fukushima’s effects on the seas.

Last year he reported small amounts of Fukushima’s cesium in Pacific bluefin tuna caught off California’s coast in summer 2011. Those tuna had spent their early days during that momentous spring off Japan’s Pacific shores, then migrated across the ocean, as some species do.

Last month he published another study saying the amounts of cesium are nothing to worry about. “The biological effects of any contaminant are generally dependent on the dose received,” he wrote. And the dosages of cesium in those 2011 tuna and attendant risks are extremely low, he said — too low to detect any damage and declining in fish caught in 2012. In fact, he’s more concerned about mercury in tuna than radioactivity.

Fisher compares the dosage of cesium you’d get from eating a 200-gram portion of that tuna to the naturally occurring radioactive potassium in one banana: The banana would give you a dose 20 times higher. When’s the last time you had a CT scan? That dosage is at least 1,000 times more — depending on the scan, up to 10,000 times more — than the amount an average American seafood consumer would get eating that contaminated tuna for an entire year, he said.

But what about the fish being exported from Japan?

Seafood from Japan monitored

To its credit, Japan lowered its levels of acceptable cesium in the wake of the disaster from 500 to 100 becquerels per kilogram. The U.S. limit is 1,200 becquerels per kilogram, and the Canadian limit is 1,000 becquerels per kilogram. Japan has been testing fish and posting results on the Internet. Some clear patterns are emerging:

— Some freshwater fish (landlocked salmon, for example) have higher levels of cesium, which is not surprising. Cesium mimics sodium and potassium. both of which are abundant and naturally occurring in the sea, meaning they would displace cesium uptake.

— And some of the ocean’s bottom feeders are showing levels above limits, which again is not surprising. Contaminants are getting trapped in sediments near the Fukushima nuclear plant, experts say, providing a continuous source of food for marine life that feed along the bottom near the shoreline.

The fish that feed in this area include many familiar species: cod, haddock, grouper, bass, halibut, flounder, sole, snapper, shellfish, monkfish, turbot, sturgeon, shark, eel and greenling, which was once a delicacy in Japanese cuisine. Last February, a greenling caught near the plant registered the highest level of contamination yet, which is 7,400 times the amount of radioactive cesium that Japan deems acceptable.

Meanwhile, Japan is working to keep contaminated fish off the market. Immediately after the incident, its fishermen voluntarily agreed to a ban on most commercial fishing off Fukushima prefecture. (The ban did not include fishing for skipjack tuna and some mackerel, all caught far enough offshore that it didn’t seem to worry the decision makers. They’ve been inspecting samples of those species, they say.)

Japan uses a testing program

Today, a few of those restrictions have been lifted. You can now buy Fukushima octopus and snow crab, for example. And the country relies on a testing program that’s managed by the prefectures and depends on the fisherman’s voluntary compliance.  The prefectures regularly test samples for cesium, which builds up in muscle (and irregularly test for strontium, which accumulates in bone), at least weekly,  often daily, explained a spokesman for Japan’s embassy in Canada. If a fish contains cesium above limits, the fisherman is responsible for keeping that species off the market. That responsibility means they must not sell any fish of that species in that day’s catch.

If a species from a particular area continues to show contamination, the central government can step in and ban fishing for that species in that area of the prefecture, as it has done in several instances. Then, if testing over multiple places within that area shows results consistently below limits, the feds can lift the ban.

Take Japan’s Pacific cod. Today, it’s banned in Fukushima and neighboring Ibaraki prefecture but can still be snagged elsewhere and sold. At one point, it was prohibited in three other prefectures because its contamination levels were above limits, but the ban’s no longer in force. Do fish know prefectural boundaries?

Global efforts to track contamination

In North America, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and its Canadian counterparts no longer single out imports from Japan for inspection like they did after the incident but they do still monitor radiation in all foods, spokespeople said. The FDA has also issued an order authorizing agents to seize certain foods from certain prefectures that Japan’s central government has already banned from exporting due to high contamination levels. Recently, the American Medical Assn. passed a resolution urging the FDA to monitor seafood carefully, and a group of physician organizations instrumental in that resolution, led by the University of British Columbia’s Dr. Erica Frank, are calling on U.S. and Canadian authorities to be vigilant.

So could Pacific cod that had been feeding in those contaminated sediments make it to your faraway platter? Possibly, assuming it swam a few miles from Fukushima and through a few loopholes. If you indulged on a little sushi, would there be enough cesium to do harm?

Fisher’s now starting to study the levels of radioactivity in those coastal bottom feeders along with the possibility of radiation in other migratory species.

Being a worrywart, I ordered the mushrooms. But should I have asked where they came from? Sure enough, fungi feast on cesium, too.

Top photo: Raw tuna. Credit: Holly Botner

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An apricot tree. Credit: Jyldyz Doolbekova

Why worry about varieties of fruits and nuts decreasing? Multiple tastes, different colors, several growing periods, resistance to pests, drought and environmental disasters —  all these factors rest on maintaining, and now reviving, regions and agricultural practices that grow many varieties of fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains and grasses.

These are just some reasons why biological diversity is important, but there are more. First, on an individual level, food tastes better when it is grown locally and transported shorter distances. Second, do you really want just one type of apple that peaks at one time of year? Or do you want different-tasting apples that have many sizes, textures, culinary uses and ripening times so you can enjoy them over a longer season and in an array of dishes? Do you want to enjoy your peaches longer in the season? Then the one-peach-fits-all variety is not going to cut it.

Central Asia, a biodiversity hotspot

Central Asia, which is rich in fruit and nut diversity, includes countries with a multitude of cultures, languages and foodways. The famed silk and spice routes coursed through the mountainous landscapes.

Apricot trees. Credit: Jyldyz Doolbekova

Apricot trees. Credit: Jyldyz Doolbekova

Along the routes arrived a constant exchange of seeds, spices and ecological knowledge, too. In fact, the Central Asian mountains are what Conservation International designates “a biodiversity hotspot” — a region that contains an exceptional number of native plant diversity and serious levels of habitat loss. The hotspot’s more than 330 square miles include two major mountain ranges, the Pamir and the Tian Shan, southern Kazakhstan, most of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, eastern Uzbekistan, western China, northeastern Afghanistan and a small part of Turkmenistan.

Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan

Focusing on one area — Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan —  gives a few examples of individuals and organizations working toward more fruit and nut diversity in the face of challenging economic times and climate change for all farmers.

Mirzoshoh Akobirov, a scientist, is tapping into Tajik local biodiversity and ancient agricultural practices to address climate change and improve the economic welfare of his fellow farmers. Over the years Akobirov noted that only 70% of domesticated fruit and nut trees survived whereas their wild relatives had much higher survival rates. He is actively reviving wild fruit and nut populations on abandoned slopes because of their strong local resiliency to climate change, specifically drought and pests.

Before the fruit, there is the beautiful blossom. So why not celebrate the high diversity of apricots (of which there are about 20 varieties) at the Blossoming Apricot Festival in April each year in the Batken District, Kyrgyzstan? Akylbek Kasymov, founder of the Foundation Bio Muras, is doing just that. With the communities of Samarkandek, Kasymov is reviving the cultural significance and the transfer of agricultural practices to a younger generation of farmers. The festival showcases not only the biological diversity of apricots but also the music, dance and poetry that upholds the local culture.

Muhabbat Mahmaladiyva, a highly respected and beloved biodiversity and women’s rights activist, is founder of Zan va Zamin (Women and Land) in Tajikistan. The Women and Land organization is also the 2012 recipient of the Equator Prize for showing leadership in promoting alternative, innovative ways to build resilient communities and protect both people and the planet. Women and Land created more than 30 seed banks, provided funds so farmers could access seed varieties and offered opportunities for local food entrepreneurs to effectively counter the negative outcomes of Soviet-era mono-cropping and dependence on cotton farming. The group’s 12 field schools produce 1,000 tons of vegetables annually. Community orchards supply saplings and maintain more than 10,000 fruit trees that include local varieties of apples, pears, apricots and peaches. Their work creates more resilient ecosystems, fewer food shortages, more food sovereignty, improved local incomes and active involvement of women at every step of the process.

Collectively, these individuals are positively influencing their fragile environments to rekindle lost agricultural practices and food diversity that are sustainable, one seed and one individual, at a time.

Top photo: An apricot tree. Credit: Jyldyz Doolbekova

This article was partially underwritten by the The Christensen Fund, a nonprofit organization, dedicated to biocultural and agricultural diversity of marginalized people and landscapes globally.

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Ibérico pigs. Credit: Courtesy of Aeceriber

“Just let it melt on your tongue,” Jose Martinez-Valero instructed. “It will dissolve into pure flavor.” I placed the tiniest sliver of jamón Ibérico de bellota in my mouth and waited. The finely marbled fat melted like silk, but the finish was remarkably pure, strangely akin to a classic palate cleanser.

As I positioned myself to snare another sample in the elbow-room frenzy of the Culinary Institute of America’s Worlds of Flavor conference at Napa, California, Martinez-Valero hit me with an even bigger surprise. “This fat is just like the very best olive oil, it’s monounsaturated. It comes from a breed of Spanish pig we call the four-legged olive tree,” he said.

And suddenly I understood why the mouthfeel was so familiar. With years of olive oil tasting under my belt, it was easy to recognize the difference between greasy, mouth-coating fat and this high-quality clean finish.

Jamón Ibérico de bellota is familiar to food cognoscenti as the cured form of this extraordinary animal. At prices north of $1,000 for a single ham, it is not widely available in restaurants or markets. But those who can afford it will go to great lengths to find a reputable source, because it is considered one of the finest foods in the world. At the heart of its difference is that purebred Ibérico pork represents a very old-world approach to one of the tenets of today’s cuisine: a sustainable, simple focus on pure flavor.

But like high-quality extra virgin olive oil, purebred Ibérico pork is under siege from unscrupulous distributors who pass off crossbred meats as purebred, elitist pricing and a disappearing ecosystem (needed to support the swine’s unusual eating habits). The species has been on endangered or at-risk lists for years, a dwindling breed supported by a handful of dedicated producers on a lifelong mission to avoid extinction — of the pig, its pastureland and their very livelihoods.

Martinez-Valero represents Ibérico Fresco, one of few Spanish distributors of 100% purebred, acorn-fed fresh Ibérico meat in the United States. Over the din of pork belly- and backfat-crazed chefs at the CIA‘s annual event, he spoke passionately about the plight of this pig and its unique grazing land, the dehesa (forest) of the Iberian peninsula in Spain.

“It is the very definition of sustainable agriculture. The man takes care of the forest, the forest takes care of the pig, and the pig takes care of the man,” explained Martinez-Valero.

Raising Ibérico pigs is an expensive labor of love

Ibérico pigs are not particularly pretty, galloping along with long legs supporting a chunky body. They are best identified by their distinctive black hooves, hence the Spanish name, pata negra. There are many different breeds of Ibérico pigs, ranging from the productive, big Torbiscal to the delicate Entrepelado, but they all have certain traits in common that strain any producer’s pocketbook. Those include litters half the size of crossbreds, production cycles that are three times as long, and particularly expensive eating habits.

In contrast to the ordeals of pigs jammed into cramped pens and pumped full of antibiotics seen in television news reports on the pork industry, the lives of purebred Ibérico pigs seem like a scene straight out of a fairy tale.

Watch a video about Ibérico pigs and the farmers who raise them, below:

By Spanish law, truly purebred (genetically 100%) Ibérico pigs are required to attain at least 40% of their weight grazing exclusively on holm oak acorns during the montanera, or period of fattening between October and January. Each pig is provided 2 hectares (about 5 acres) of personal space to reach its best weight. The high oleic acid content of the acorns and the genetic makeup of the Ibérico help convert the pig’s fat into its distinctive monounsaturated marbling.

“It’s a marvel, a machine for making healthy meat. It’s perfection,” said Lucia Maesso Corral, president of Aeceriber, the Iberian Pig Breeders Association. She represents purebred producers who are fighting an uphill battle against lesser quality, far less expensive crossbred options that are allowed to take the name “Ibérico.” But their passion for truth-in-labeling and authentic, quality production is palpable.

Fresh Ibérico pork with Manchego and saffron. Credit: Courtesy of Spain's Monastrell restaurant

Fresh Ibérico pork with Manchego and saffron. Credit: Courtesy of Monastrell restaurant in Alicante, Spain

Without question, the better-known cured ham version is amazing. But one taste of the fresh meat they now call “the other red meat” and you will understand the depth of these producers’ dedication. For a dinner party of two, I sautéed a secreto of carne de cerdo ibérico de bellota (acorn-fed Iberico pork shoulder skirt) for no more than two minutes per side, classically medium rare with a deep pink in the center, and sliced it like flank steak. Without exaggeration, it may well be the best meat I’ve ever eaten: succulent, sweet, almost nutty. Good enough that we didn’t have the discipline to stop, finishing off the entire cut with no regrets.

Monastrell’s Ibérico Pork with Manchego Cheese and Saffron

I went straight to the best source I know in Spain for a professional’s opinion of the meat. Chef María José San Román of Monastrell in Alicante, Spain, heralds the pig on her Michelin-starred menu with a simple appetizer that showcases the meat by surrounding it with gentle flavors: a foam of Manchego cheese crowned with spring-fresh watercress.

“Many people only know Ibérico ham in its cured form, but fresh cuts of the pig are extraordinary examples of the best pork Spain has to offer,” San Román said. “Like the Manchego cheese it is paired with, Ibérico pork is quintessential Spanish cuisine.”

Serves 6 to 8 as an appetizer

Ingredients

8 teaspoons (40 ml) extra virgin olive oil (preferably Picual variety), plus more for frying

1 pound (500 g) piece acorn-fed purebred Ibérico shoulder loin (presa) (see note below)

1.7 ounces (50 g) salt

100 mg saffron powder (see note below)

1½ ounces (40 g) each of capers, small gherkins, and finely chopped spring onions

2 teaspoons (10 ml) sherry vinegar

¼ pound (100 g) watercress

7 ounces (200 g) Manchego cheese

6 ounces (175 g)  fresh cream

5 ounces (150 g) fresh milk

1 pound (500 g) potatoes, cut into matchsticks with a mandoline

Olive oil for frying

Foam maker, such as the iSi Gourmet Whip Plus

Directions

1. Marinate the pork for 3 hours in 2 cups (500 ml) of water with salt and saffron powder. Pork should be room temperature before cooking. Do not trim excess fat. Pat meat dry to remove excess moisture.

2. Place a frying pan with a little extra virgin olive oil over high heat. Place meat fat side down and sear for three minutes. Turn over and sear for two minutes on the other side until meat is just pink. Let rest for 5 minutes, slice angled strips against the grain and set aside.

3. Prepare vinaigrette by mixing capers, gherkins, spring onions, sherry vinegar and 8 teaspoons of extra virgin olive oil. Add to watercress and toss to coat.

4. Heat cheese, cream and milk until the cheese is melted, but do not boil. Put through a sieve and into the siphon and keep hot.

5. Deep fry the matchstick potatoes in olive oil and drain on tissue paper.

6. Put the potatoes in the center of the plate, layer slices of pork around it and place the dressed watercress salad on top.

7. Surround with the hot cheese foam.

Note

Fresh, acorn-fed 100% Ibérico pork and saffron powder can be found at tienda.com.

Top photo: Ibérico pigs. Credit: Courtesy of Aeceriber

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