Friday, March 03, 2006

I've been feeling a bit self conscious about this blog, in terms of breaking emergent blogger social conventions (if, in fact, there are some). I'm not using this as a site to tell you about my personal tastes nor to indulge in personal commentary (although, it is a commentary on what i value the most) but to raise issues that i don't understand in order to help me think them through. I also want to air some of my more controversial thoughts, in the hopes that someone out there in the blogger universe responds and makes me think differently about things. Issues surrounding food and water all too easily slide into personal politics (so we change our diets, act locally to think globally) and as a result, maybe become politically ineffective and solipcistically self centered. Or, we frame them in terms of ethics, a move that in my opinion immediately shuts down thought. When we're ethical, we become self righteous - we all too easily know in advance who is right and who is wrong; who are the good guys (usually the little people, the grassroots, the activists) and who are the bad guys (the corporations, the right, rich people, etc). In effect, we erase the object of our concern (food / water) with more (trivial in my opinion) debates about who is david and who is goliath, who is damned and who is saved. Food and water wars all to easily become transposed into a Star Wars script (ahhh, there's industrial agriculture, the equivalent of darth vader.....but local food systems will save the day for the little people)

I'm not saying food/water aren't ethical issues: that lives, human and nonhuman aren't at stake, or that we risk seriously messing up complex ecological processes by our consumption habits. I think, as a culture, we value the wrong things and we need to reconfigure that. This is why we need a feminine philosophical - political alternative. For those who are about to write me off as 'essentialist' (another term to shut down thinking), I view the feminine as the other to the masculine - meaning, and here i speak as a poststructuralist, those things devalued by our western cultural formation. The feminine is not a thng to be discovered; rather, it is an emergent system. By strategically valuing the devalued (cognitive psychologists might call this second order change), we introduce a virus into the system: we cause heat, excitement - the system must respond - and in doing so, it must slow down (like we do when we get a cold). that's where, potentially, thought can emerge. I've digressed into a difficult theoretical terrain, but, by positioning my relation to food politics as feminine, i do not mean that we return to the local/immediate/body/ethical/loving in response to the global/distant/rational/pragmatic/uncaring. I'm not talking about hiding in the bosom of mother earth from the cold stare of father science. Nor am I advocating the replacement of rational argument with narrative performance; the mind with the body. Nope. I mean we sully the whole program - throw it into disarray, be impure with our thoughts - less disciplinary virgins and more interdiscipininary promiscious whores (so to speak...). Less expert, more idiot (Isabelle Stengers). Less narrative structure, more stochastic aleatory process. Less hierarchical systems, more emergent functionality. You get the picture. BTW, stochastic, from the Greek "stochos" or "goal"- characterized by conjecture; conjectural; random. A stochastic process is one whose behavior is non-deterministic in that the next state of the environment is not fully determined by the previous state of the environment.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Congress Poised to Pass Bill Taking Away Right to Know What's in Your Food
Tell your Congressman or Congresswoman to vote "No" on House of Representatives Bill H.R. 4167, the "National Uniformity for Food Act"

The House of Representatives will vote this week on a controversial "national food uniformity" labeling law that will take away local government and states' power to require food safety food labels such as those required in California and other states on foods or beverages that are likely to cause cancer, birth defects, allergic reactions, or mercury poisoning. This bill would also prevent citizens in local municipalities and states from passing laws requiring that genetically engineered foods and ingredients such as Monsanto's recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) be labeled.

The House will vote March 2, 2006 on a bill that would gut state food safety and labeling laws. H.R. 4167, the "National Uniformity for Food Act," lowers the bar on food safety by overturning state food safety laws that are not "identical" to federal law. Hundreds of state laws and regulations are at risk, including those governing the safety of milk, fish, and shellfish. The bill is being pushed by large supermarket chains and food manufacturers, spearheaded by the powerful Grocery Manufacturers of America.

Big food corporations and the biotech industry understand that consumers are more and more concerned about food safety, genetic engineering, and chemical-intensive agriculture, and are reading labels more closely. They understand that pesticide and mercury residues and hazardous technologies such as genetic engineering and food irradiation will be rejected if there are truthful labels required on food products. Industry-sponsored H.R. 4167 is gaining momentum and must be stopped! Act now! Preserve local and regional democracy and protect yourself and your family from unsafe food by sending an email or calling your Representative and urging them to vote "No" on H.R. 4167.

Please Take Action Now--Send a Message to Your Congress Member in the House of Representatives to Vote "No" on H.R. 4167

And please call your Congress Member at 202-224-3121

Regards & Solidarity,

Ronnie Cummins,
Organic Consumers Association

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Regardless of where one stands on GMOs (genetically modified organisms) - whether the science seems to go 'too far' or is perfectly benign (and all the permutations and combinations between those rather polarized positions), there is one recent occurence that I think warrants social outrage. That is the recent WTO overturning of the EU's moratorium on GMOs. The global politics are somewhat convoluted - but here's a quick snapshot: in 2003, the US, Canada, Argentina and Egypt filed an official complaint against the EU because of the moratorium they placed on importing untested GMO food stuffs. The key word here is untested. The EU simply wanted the burden of responsibility to be placed on companies that were marketing this new food technology: the issue was not a wholesale ban on GMOs but a desire for some kind of peer reviewed science as to the potential environmental and health effects of recombinant DNA technology. It wasn't ludditism or 'scare mongering'; rather, it was the implementation of the precautionary principle, supported by the Cartagena Protocol which enables countries to determine their own standards of health and safety regulations with respect to agricultural trade. Of course, the US has not ratified this protocol preferring to remain a rogue state (as it has with the kyoto protocol and the UN). I don't want to enter in to the tangled debates about those moves (which are sometimes actually justified challenges to the top heavy bureaucracy of international organizations). What is significant is less a fight over GMOs, than a war over international law and 'sound science': the WTO trumps the Cartagena protocol under the auspices that the EU did not have 'sound science' (substantial evidence) on their side to warrant trade restrictions. It is profoundly disturbing to me that science is used as a political trump card (what on earth is 'sound science' anyways) rather than a progressive, democratic knowledge institution that it ought to be. i'm beginning to think that underlying food politics are questions of science: whose science counts and whose is discounted, in whose interests and at what expense?

Monday, February 13, 2006

Beyond 'isms and 'ists

In my last post, I opened the question of what a new food system might look like, and by association, a new social system (what would be its values, its relations, its modes of production, its recipes and cookbooks) I framed this as socialist-anarchist-feminist. But, having followed a thread about foodsheds on another listserve, perhaps that's not the best way to frame it (ie. in terms of identity politics). Perhaps better yet, think in terms of geography and locality rather than (at times disembodied) politics, foodsheds rather than social systems. Food is produced, distributed and consumed via a global food system which is destructive of both natural and social communities (and, in certain cases, is fraught with cruelty, destructive to animal communities as well).

The concept of foodshed is analogous to watershed- food comes from a certain source, and is distributed via tributaries to different locales. Often we're unaware of our local food and watersheds - an ignorance that can foster a concurrent devaluation of those very life supporting systems. As with water, we drink bottled water, or (increasingly less so) from the tap, but remain woefully unaware of the rivers, tributaries, processing plants that deliver water as well as all the beings that depend the watershed. Water and food are interesting starting points for thinking about interrelationality because they connect so many bodies, human and otherwise. With respect to food, as Kloppenburg et al (1996) write. "Recognition of one's residence within a foodshed can confer a sense of connection and responsibility to a particular locality. The foodshed can provide a place for us to ground ourselves in the biological and social realities of living on the land and from the land in a place that we can call home, a place to which we are or can become native."

Agriculture and Human Values 13:3 (Summer): 33-42, 1996
Jack Kloppenburg, Jr., John Hendrickson and G. W. Stevenson
Class and pleasure

Not to be too vulgar with my marxism, but I was thinking about ms. pea's response to the 'dilemma' of cruelty versus taste, those that "pit extraordinary cruelty against "but it tastes so good." And, I agree that there are many different ways we should frame this, so that our own individual pleasures don't trump our treatment of animals: "The dilemma is not whether to eat the stuff, but that petty pleasures win out against our better selves so often". I'm wondering, with the case of foie gras in particular, if the dynamics need to be read via the lens of class - it's not just 'our' pleasures, but those who can afford to indulge. Foie gras becomes a sign of social distinction - the lowly liver is transformed into a status symbol, only via a great amount of dubious treatment of geese. I've been thinking about this a lot in the past few days, because I ate fois gras the other night at Magnolia Grill in Durham - it was, encore, delicious but left me thinking it was too much (too expensive, too fatty, too indulgent, too ladened with problems) Having written these posts, and eaten the esteemed liver twice, i think i'm losing my taste for it - but also the set of values that goes along with it (the 'power over subordinates' model of class elitism) I think Jacques Derrida would call that old regime a carno-phallogocentric one - its tied to an old regime of power that is rooted in hierarchical dualisms (the human pleasure versus animal cruelty 'dilemma') Now, if foie gras is on the menu of class hierarchy (and lets throw a pinch of patriarchy in there, for flavor), what would a more socialist feminist inclined menu look like? Any thoughts? Recipes? Does this need a cook book - a socialist- anarchist-feminist cookbook with recipes for pleasure, good food and kind, secure relations?

Saturday, February 11, 2006

The ethics of pleasure; or, is it wrong to force feed geese for our own gastronomic enjoyment?

In the world of ethical consumption, I cannot think of a more tangled ethical question than that of foie gras (if, of course, one elects to eat meat - otherwise, there's no dilemma). I had my first taste of fois gras a few weeks ago, when a friend treated me to a chef's tasting menu at Il Palleo restaurant in the Triangle. Fois gras is the best thing I have ever tasted - a melancholy burst of sheer bliss that left me quivering and speechless (okay, not quite, but it was pretty darn tasty). In telling some other friends about the dinner, they asked if I knew how it was made. I didn't. Having been raised in a rural community on the Canadian prairies, the closest i came to food delicacies was canned salmon jello salad with celery and little marshmallows (don't knock it till you've tried it)

Fois gras means fatty liver. There are three (as far as I know) fois gras farms in the US - Sonoma in California and Hudson Valley and La Belle Poultry in New York state. Here's what the Humane Society has to say about it: foie gras is produced by force-feeding birds. The ducks and geese are compelled to consume high-energy food—mostly corn—more than they would eat voluntarily. This damages their liver and often kills them ( In 1992, the HSUS investigated a New York State foie gras producer, and pressed cruelty charges against the farm. The birds had chronic heart disorders, ruptured liver cell membranes, cirrhosis, traumatic esophagitis and lesions in their gizzards and intestines. Dead birds were found with food filling their throats and spilling out of their nostrils. Video footage taken in 2002 from the same New York foie gras producer depicts some of the worst animal suffering in all of modern factory farming (nice). In 2004, the esteemed governer of california passed a bill banning the production and sale of foie gras: it will be fully in effect in 8 years. It does force an immigrant farmer out of business, though.

Foie gras is increasingly becoming an uncool thing to eat or produce. In 2003, Israel, the world’s forth-largest producer, banned the production method . More than a dozen other countries— Denmark, Germany, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the Czech Republic among them—have also banned foie gras production, either explicitly or because its production contravenes their cruelty laws. In favor of it, Alice Waters (chef and owner of Chez Panisse in Berkeley), told Reuters, "There are a lot more important things to focus on. Ducks already feed themselves in a gorging way before they migrate." Hmm... Would it balance the equation if i gorged myself on engorged goose livers? I suppose the experience of being force fed fois gras would be less appealing in reality than in fantasy (and much more expensive) Lesson from all this? If you like foie gras, eat it now.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Oh dear - it's been far to long since i've posted - i'm still getting into the regular blog writing habit. thanks to ms. pea and bugheart for responses to my posts - and raising hopefully some more conversation - the question of genetic modification is a complex one - as you note, bugheart: what isn't genetically modified these days, including our pets! Only when we want to eat animals is engineering them for our purposes is a problem- is the manipulation of nature a problem or a potential? are these even the right questions? i'm not sold on GMOs - but moreso because of intellectual property rights. i have to admit an affinity to Donna Haraway's cyborgian ethics - the blurring of human, the animal and technological is the condition of our times. disclosure time: my most potentially profound intellectual moment was when i worked in a microbiology lab and i realized lab techniques were all just glorified cooking, and cooking could benefit from this glory. at that moment, the laboratory joined the kitchen in conjugal bliss and spawned this illegitimate, obsessive interest in techno organic fusions.

enough said: here 's something new to whet your appetite (or turn your stomach)

Day to Day, February 9, 2006 · Would you trust a computer hacker to cook your dinner? What if the menu included dishes baked with lasers or served up in laboratory test tubes?
A high-tech brand of haute cuisine called "molecular gastronomy" is gaining more than a few fans from the pocket-protector set, who have taken to experimenting at home in their kitchens and coming up with some extraordinary recipes and unexpected flavor combinations.
One of the rising stars of the "food hacker" movement is 28-y! ear-old Marc Powell, once voted top computer hacker by San Francisco's Bay Guardian newspaper. These days, he spends more time tinkering with the "code" hidden inside food, using the principles of organic chemistry to design futuristic recipes.
He recently shared some of his new recipes at Dorkbot, a monthly gathering for tech enthusiasts in the Bay Area. The usual topics are software or robots, but on one recent gathering the highlight of the night was geek gourmet.
The guiding principle is to create dishes based on the molecular compatibilities of foods. For instance, unripe mango and pine share a molecular structure, so they might be tasty if combined. That's the theory, anyway. Molecular gastronomists combine white chocolate and oysters for the same reason.
Geek gourmet began with experiments by professional chefs at high-end restaurants like el Bulli in Spain and the Fat Duck in England, where steam baths, centrifuges and microscopes ! share counter space with more traditional cooking tools.
Computer hackers have put their own spin on things with high-speed blenders and vacuum sealers. And don't forget the exotic chemicals -- like a product dubbed "meat glue" that binds, for example, chicken and beef into one slab of protein called "chick-a-beef."

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The importance of good breeding:

US and Japan just opened borders to beef. US closed to Japan in 2001, and Japan retaliated by closing its borders to the US. Strangely, the border closures lead to a strong market of a US brand of Kobe beef. The difference between the two, as I understand it, is the Japanese Kobe beef is raised in a particular way (beef fed, sake rubbed) whereas the US is a cross between genetics and a certain kind of feeding. The good taste is due to the fat, which is marbled throughout the meat. Genetics plays a role in creating good meat - the crossing of breeds (in this case, Kobe cattle with Angus) leads to a certain kind of marbling - achieved through selective breeding. It's amazing how many cattle from Europe / America are the outcome of selective breeding and natural selection. The hereford, for example, was one of the first cattle 'molded' for capitalism as it's a highly efficient converter of grass to meat (less input, more profit)