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Mainely Tipping Points

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Mainely Tipping Points 33: GO WILD!

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Mainely Tipping Points 33

GO WILD!

 

Sandor Ellix Katz’s WILD FERMENTATION: THE FLAVOR, NUTRITION, AND CRAFT OF LIVE-CULTURE FOODS arrived last week.  I found myself dropping all other activities and reading it straight through. 

By noon the next day I had a ball of cloth-wrapped cheese hanging from a kitchen knob, dripping away the last of its whey. 

In two days’ time I had a quart mason jar filled with fermenting kale leaves, or Gundru, a Tibetan ferment.  (You can’t imagine how many kale leaves it takes to fill a quart jar once you’ve wilted them in the sun and pounded them so that they release their juices—the leaves of about eight kale plants.)  And now I’m eyeing the crocks over my stove, bought for decorative purposes mostly, and wondering what from the fall harvest I can ferment next. 

Katz, who is a charming writer, would say “lots of things.”  And, indeed, Katz discusses how to ferment vegetables, fruits, beans, dairy, grains and breads, beverages, wines, beers, and vinegars.  “Fermentation,” writes Katz, gives us many of our most basic staples, such as bread and cheese, and our most pleasurable treats, including chocolate, coffee, wine, and beer” (2).

Microscopic bacteria and fungi, or microflora, are, writes Katz, agents of transformation; they feast upon decaying matter and shift dynamic life forces from one creation to the next (2).  That’s why “fermented foods and drinks are quite literally alive with flavor and nutrition.  Their flavors tend to be strong and pronounced,” like “stinky aged cheeses, tangy sauerkraut, rich earthy miso [made traditionally, which can take several years], smooth sublime wines.  Human have always appreciated the distinctive flavors resulting from the transformative power of microscopic bacteria and fungi” (5).     

But, why should we home cooks ferment anything?  First, fermented foods we make for ourselves are guaranteed to be very rich in enzymes. 

You might recall me writing in earlier Tipping Points essays about Edward Howell’s theory on enzymes.  Howell, who died in 2000 at the age of 102, spent his life studying the role of enzymes in health and disease.  He posited that if one does not eat enzyme-rich foods, the body has both to use existing stored enzymes and to work harder to digest foods, all of which takes a toll.  Ron Schmid, in THE UNTOLD STORY OF MILK, notes Howell’s assessment that humans have lower levels of starch-digesting enzymes in their blood than other creatures and higher levels in their urine, which means their resident enzymes are being used up faster.  And, as Schmid notes, based on various studies, it’s clear that diets deficient in enzymes result in shortened life spans (101-105).  Certainly this assessment is a piece of the growing body of information pointing toward the health problems associated with starchy carbohydrate-heavy diets. 

Second, fermentation removes toxins from foods.  All grains, nuts, seeds, and tubers contain inhibitors (phytic acids) which block human absorption of nutrients.  These inhibitors are inactivated by traditional food preparation methods that involve soaking in acids, like whey or lemon juice, which begins a fermentation process, or by sprouting (101-105).  Few, if any, commercial foods have been properly prepared so as to inactivate nutrient inhibitors while, at the same time, preserving nutrients.  Thus, unless you are properly preparing these foods, your body isn’t getting all of the nutrients in these foods and is, to add insult to injury, struggling to digest them. 

Fermentation can remove toxins as powerful as cyanide from cassava, an enormous tuber used in tropical regions of the Americas and, now, in Africa and Asia.  Other toxins fermentation can eliminate or reduce include nitrites, prussic acid, oxalic acid, nitrosamines, and glucosides (7). 

Third, fermentation preserves food because it produces “alcohol, lactic acid, and acetic acid, all `bio-preservatives’ that retain nutrients and prevent spoilage.”  Hence, highly perishable foods, like vegetables, fruits, milk, fish, and meat, can be stored after harvest for consumption in leaner seasons.  Or, as Captain James Cook discovered during his eighteenth century explorations, preserved fermented sauerkraut prevented scurvy during long ocean voyages (5).      

“Microscopic bacteria and fungi,” writes Katz, “…are in every breath we take and every bite we eat.”  These microflora are “in a symbiotic relationship” with humans.  They “digest food into nutrients our bodies can absorb, protect us from potentially dangerous organisms, and teach our immune systems how to function” (2).  Most importantly, writes Katz, “we need to promote diversity among microbial cultures” in our bodies because “biodiversity is increasingly recognized as critical to the survival of larger-scale ecosystems” (11).        

Not all fermented foods are alive when you eat them.  Bread, for instance, must be cooked.  But, the most nutritious fermented foods, such as yogurt, are consumed alive (7).  Or, such as sauerkraut, which I make by the half-gallon and keep in our refrigerator as a ready “asset” to compliment a meal.  I used red cabbage for my current batch, and it is the loveliest deep ruby color.   

 Live yogurt and sauerkraut couldn’t be easier to make, and I have time-tested recipes for both in the recipe section of this blog.  I have not yet tried Katz’s recipe, but it has some really exciting suggested additions.  Plus, Katz’s sauerkraut lives in a crock in a cool place and does not require refrigeration.   

 Fourth and finally, fermenting is a political act, an act that stands in stark opposition to what Sally Fallon Morell of the Weston A. Price Foundation, who wrote the introduction to WILD FERMENTATION, describes as “the centralization and industrialization of our food supply.”  Real culture, writes Fallon, “begins at the farm, not in the opera house, and binds a people to a land and its artisans.”  Many commentators, notes Fallon, have said that America lacks culture.  But, “how can we be cultured when we eat only food that has been canned, pasteurized, and embalmed?” (xii).  Food artisans ferment food, and they are increasingly being regulated out of existence by the government in the name of “food safety”—which is nothing more than industry’s power in a so-called “free market” to eliminate all its competitors.    

Katz writes the following:  “Thinking about mass food production makes me sad and angry.  Chemical mono-crop agriculture.  Genetic engineering of the most basic food crops.  Ugly, inhumane factory animal breeding.  Ultra-processed foods full of preservative chemicals, industrial byproducts, and packaging.  Food production is just one realm among many in which ever more concentrated corporate units extract profits from the Earth and the mass of humanity” (163). 

 Katz encourages us to “draw inspiration from the action of bacteria and yeast, and make your life a transformative process.”  Wild fermentation, he writes “is the opposite of homogenization and uniformity, a small antidote you can undertake in your home, using the extremely localized populations of microbial cultures present there to produce your own unique fermented foods” (21).  

Take back your power, Katz urges, to “use your fermented goodies to nourish your family and friends and allies.  The life-affirming power of these basic foods contrasts sharply with the lifeless, industrially processed foods that fill supermarket shelves” (166).  Remember that “wild fermentation is a way of incorporating the wild into your body,” so that you become “one with the natural world” once more (12).       

Don’t wait, like I did, to get a copy of Katz’s WILD FERMENTATION.

GO WILD now!  

Tipping Points 4: The Emperor Has No Clothes

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(You may want to read my essays in order.)

Tipping Points 4

April 7, 2010

The Emperor Has No Clothes

 Will Allen was the keynote speaker at the MOFGA (Maine Organic Farmers and Growers Association) Common Ground Fair in September 2009.  I would have gone to hear him rain or shine.  His 2008 book THE WAR ON BUGS is a history of agricultural and home-use chemicals in the United States.  Allen tells this ugly story to spotlight the Emperor’s nakedness:  our society does not have a mechanism to protect people from the excesses of the market.  Corporations, acting rationally in their own best interests, are making irrational decisions that adversely affect everyone.   

The historical process Allen describes is present in the development of most American industries, but if we look at just the agricultural and home-use chemical industry, we can see clearly how irrationality has replaced rationality, how we are all, including those making decisions within this industry, being massively poisoned.  Allen exposes how the modern web of players—corporate industry, scientists in academia, media, politicians, and the government organizations whose charters are to protect citizens—cooperate to relentlessly and, so far, successfully push the products of this industry. 

Allen tells how the loss of nourishing soil fertility begins in Europe alongside the birth of the capitalistic paradigm.  The landgrab enclosure movement of 1400-1500 halts the use of the common lands; forces large numbers of peasants to relocate to cities, which makes their labor available for industry; and allows, for a few individuals at the top of the society, the acquisition of both land and cheap labor.  The stage–designed by those with the cultural power to change the laws and to control the policing mechanisms–is set now for agricultural profit taking and the accumulation of capital.  Productivity, however, declines (3-4). 

This process of careless large-scale monocrop farming is duplicated in America, except for a small group of mostly small, northern, self-sufficient yeoman farmers (3-15).  Rich men exhausted land fertility and moved to new land–which was, often, given to land companies for free or for a few cents an acre by the government in charge (21-22).  For instance, in 1749 a land grant from King George II helped organize The Ohio Company.  By 1792, after the Revolution, this land company controlled 6,700,000 acres of land along the Ohio River, making George Washington, one of this land company’s leaders, one of the richest men in America (6).        

By the early 1800s, soil fertility on large-scale farms was devastated (13).  But, the first chemical quick fix was discovered.  Peruvian bird guano, mined by slaves and prisoners, was imported in the late 1820s–until supplies were exhausted in the late 1850s (25-26).  Next, fertilizer merchants created, manufactured, and sold, with relentless, repetitive advertising campaigns, attempted copies of the natural guano (30-31). 

So, writes Allen, the stage is now set for the seemingly benign and cheap chemical fix for ruined land, for pest control on monocrops, and for the promise of the reduction of labor costs.  But, the actual price was and is the continued degradation of the land and of the food since, while these farmers produced cheaper food, this food was of poorer quality and contained poisons (139). 

Also, the developing commercial fertilizer industry allowed the continued acquisition of land by large-scale commercial farms since the process whereby small farmers who could not compete lost their land accelerated (46).  Additionally, large-scale farmers had political power.  They could and did control access to the developing transportation systems bringing food to markets that were becoming increasingly centralized in cities (66-67). 

The next set of fertilizers, continues Allen, are the waste products of industry:  sodium nitrate from salt mining; arsenic and lead pesticides from iron and copper smelting, fabric dyeing, and paint manufacturing; cyanide gas from ammonium-cyanide production; natural gas and hydrogen used to make nitrogen for fertilizers, from gasoline or coke manufacturing; and fluorine from uranium mining.  So, as time passed, our food, more and more, was grown with industrial wastes (xxv-xxvi). 

But, what Allen is able to show by looking so closely at the history of this industry is the pattern that evolves for American industry formation.  What evolves alongside the markets for these waste products—and which still exists–is a top-down imposition of junk science.  Industry endows academic “research” departments and laboratories to support the use of industrial waste products.  Academia ignores actual data from the field that does not support the new message.  Industry organizes relentless advertising campaigns and heavily invests in the media, like farm journals, which promote the claims of the junk science that sells the waste product.  Industry controls politically the government mechanisms that should be protecting citizens.  And, anyone who protests or offers actual scientific proof that the junk science is flawed is ridiculed and/or run out of the arena (35-39, 68-73, 77-79, 82-91).          

This industry knows exactly how dangerous these chemicals are to human health because most of these chemicals (fluorines, carbonates, organophosphates, bromines, pyrethrum powder, and rotenone) were extensively tested during the war years.  The U.S. Army, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the USDA, and the “dominant chemical companies on the American side” tested thousands of old and new chemicals for their toxic potential during the war years” (131).  And, the Nazis and the cartel of companies known as I. G. Farben “experimented with all the known chemicals on concentration-camp victims throughout World War II” (129).  Yet the legal process to ban chemicals in America is limited to fights to ban a single chemical, rather than classes of chemicals, and this industry wages all out war to prevent any chemical, no matter how dangerous, from being banned 235).    

The ugly truth is that these chemicals either do not get regulated or, when regulated, are not policed adequately.  Arsenic, a heavy metal that is acutely toxic, is still in agricultural use today and will have a continued presence in agricultural soils for up to 100 years (124).  Arsenic causes cancer, lung and stomach damage, and serious debilitation to people or animals exposed to application drift (233). 

Methyl bromide has been scheduled for banning for ten years, but politically powerful large-scale strawberry, grape, and fruit farmers in California and Florida successfully obtained special-exemption uses in 2007 and 2008.  This chemical has already caused serious environmental degradation from aquifer to ozone.  In humans it causes “mutations, tumors, and monstrous birth defects” and is “incredibly lethal in very small doses so that pest resistance does not develop” (233-234, 244).   

Many banned chemicals, like DDT, suspended in 1972, creep back into patented chemical formulas (Kelthane) as part of the secret “inerts” ingredients.  This company was not fined by the government (175). 

Bigger and bigger farms—which grow through the logic of unregulated capitalism–means more and more chemicals are dumped into the environment and onto our food.  Surely we can recognize, thanks to Allen’s work, that the Emperor is naked, that there is a terrible flaw in our society.  Surely we can understand the history Allen charts between these abusive, needless practices and the growth of our own illnesses and deaths.  Surely the tipping point of change must be nearing where we all support our regional networks of small farmers who produce such glorious, healthy, life-sustaining food.