All grains contain peptides that mimic morphine or endogenous opioid substances. This is where I deal with my latest loaf craving. Get your bread-based exorphin fix here.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Bread Resolutions

First Bread of the New Year, and 
This was a 20% Quinoa, 80% Whole Wheat loaf, with Quinoa Seed on the crust, using 40% Sourdough starter, and including 5% Wheat Germ and 5% extra bran.  It was made in the Tartine style, with 2% salt, and a hydration of 75%.  It proofed in the refrigerator overnight.

Results: this was pretty bland.  Not my best bread.

Bread Resolutions
This is the time for new-year's resolutions.  What do I want to achieve, this year, with my bread?  Well, the recent look at what I feel to be some of the best industrially produced bread in my country (read about 'Ubiquitous Bread' in the last post) made me realize that they all advertise the fact that they use "organic" grain.

Recently I read an old article from BakingManagement, May 2009 that mentions "Spelt Right," a bakery in Yarmouth Maine that specializes in Spelt bagels and other spelt dough products.  They strive to keep their ingredients as organic as possible, but the cost of labelling, sourcing and certification of natural organic products can be prohibitive.  Most bakeries seem to want to call their product "organic:"  why?  Is it merely because they can then charge a premium price for it?  Or do customers increasingly demand it?

It's time for me to examine this selling point.  Is it something I would want to support?  But before I get into my own beliefs, feelings, and ideas, let's back up a bit and give it all some context.  What have I been learning about organic and conventional farming methods recently?

Tuf Ideas
I enjoyed George Martin's "Song of Ice and Fire" so much, it has sent me on a quest to discover what else he has written.  I've recently finished his much older "Tuf Voyaging."  These are collected short stories about the redoubtable Haviland Tuf, a quirky trader who salvages a gigantic spaceship from a long forgotten era.  The spaceship carries the genetic material of thousands of worlds, and the means to put together DNA quickly and efficiently.  Thereafter, Tuf styles himself a genetic engineer, traveling about the galaxy with his cats, and hiring himself out to one world and the next, ostensibly to fix their ecological problems using outrageous genetic solutions and his droll pronouncements.

He returns several times in the series to the planet S'uthlam, which has ongoing problems with its population explosion, and its inability to feed itself. Tuf's solutions are drastic.  On one visit, he gives them "omni-grain, whose caloric yield per square meter is dramatically higher than that of nanowheat, neograss and the other grains" they used to plant.  But after five years, he returns to find that although they did extensively plant omni-grain, they continued to plant some nanowheat, neograss and other fruits and vegetables "for the sake of variety and culinary pleasure," and they are once again in trouble.  "This must cease," he tells them.  "Caloric efficiency alone must henceforth be your byword."

S'uthlam (which is of course Malthus backwards) is therefore Martin's sandbox where he develops ideas on how to handle a world whose population is allowed to continue unchecked despite limited resources.  Not unlike our own world, in other words -- whether or not you are a Malthusian.

Tuf's early solutions are similar to those the IMF has been demanding of poor nations on earth: e.g. insisting that all the farmers of certain third-world nations exclusively grow coffee or tea or tobacco or cotton or bananas, which will give them a way to pay off debt -- at the same time, undercutting any chance they might have of becoming self-sufficient in food.  Tuf's early fixes -- like engineering a grain that will end famine -- may seem benign, but they only make things worse, because they don't address the fundamental problem, of which Tuf is fully aware.  The S'uthlamese have philosophical and religious opposition to any sort of birth control.  Feeding them only allows the population to burgeon once again.  

Haviland Tuf made himself rich doing this again and again, but he also grew bored.  With the power he had at his disposal, he began to see himself as a God.  He decided to take even more drastic action, unilaterally.  Ultimately, he gave the S'uthlamese a new plant -- manna -- which not only fed them and averted war, it lowered male libido and drastically reduced female fecundity.  But he added this latter "feature" to manna without telling them.  He likewise neglected to tell all but the top leader that it would also deplete the soil.

It is not beyond the power of humans to do something similar now, to the planet earth, its inhabitants, and the crops we grow for food.  And perhaps there are even those among us who have Tuf's Godlike detachment from humanity to take precisely these sorts of actions.  But is such a drastic step required?

Back to Earth
It is curious to me that at almost the same time that I was reading Martin's book about Tuf, I was also stumbling across other data that referred to our own world's problems feeding itself.  Don't forget: 2012 was the year that the world population exceeded 7 billion humans.

If you believe the Peak Oil pundits, the Green Revolution is not sustainable even at present levels of agricultural production.  We will run out of oil, and before we do, it will be too expensive for anything more than the most important uses: we will no longer be able to run our tractors, and combines, and transports that carry the grain.  Even if we ration oil and gas and give it only to the farmers and not the military, those farmers won't be able to drop as much fertilizer on their fields because the manufacture of cheap fertilizer too is dependent upon oil for manufacture.  In short, the "Green Revolution" is anything but green: it is dependent upon a non-renewable resource that is causing greenhouse gas emissions to drive up the planet's temperature.  This will bring widespread drought, and make it even more difficult to grow food.

Whether you believe the peak oilers or not (and it is difficult not to agree with some of their conclusions, but one might always argue against their timelines), it would seem that the green revolution is taking more from the earth than it is giving back.  It is not sustainable, and everyone knows it.

Sustainable agriculture talks about things like organic farming, rebuilding the soil, using living micro-organisms to replenish the nutrients available to plants.  But is it enough, using these methods, to grow the food our planet's humans need -- or will need, as our population rises exponentially, and famine once again threatens the lives of billions?

The War between "Conventional" Farming and "Organic" Farming
There is a war going on, between those who farm using so-called "conventional" methods, and those who have embraced so-called "organic" methods.  

In our own neck-of-the-woods, my own brother-in-law who farms conventionally -- using chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and treated seeds (the tools of the "Green Revolution") -- has fields side-by-side with farms that are experimenting with organic methods.  He is amused by their poor crop yields, and frustrated with the amount of weeds that grow in their fields -- weeds that often as not carry their seed into his field, as well as harbouring crop diseases that affect his own yield, and even his bottom line as he uses more chemicals to eradicate weeds that are gaining a foothold.  I imagine that the organic farms which abut his land are similarly frustrated with his conventional practices, and the airborne chemicals which affect their own crop's saleability.  

Conventional farmers, with their high yields and trimmed workforce, have been keeping prices of their produce low for years.  Now organic farmers are stepping in with bio-intensive methods requiring more work than ever.  And they are commanding a higher price in the marketplace, for produce that doesn't look as good to the consumer -- it is often smaller, blighted, and misshapen.  Fighting back against the unfair advantage that the organic growers seem to have (and organic farming has been taking a small, but increasing bite out of the market), conventional farmers and distribution networks have piloted studies that tell us that these fruits, vegetables and grains are nutritionally similar, and there is no point in us paying the extra money.  Organic farmers are saying that the chemicals dumped on conventional foodstuffs amount to a toxic brew, the result of which is likely poisoning us and our planet.

And so it goes.  The war is on.  Propaganda is bandied about by both sides.

While the war I describe is already beginning in this small way, field to field across the globe, I'd like to briefly examine how the fundamental difference in farming philosophy affects practice from the perspective of sustainability and food security.

With regards to wheat: we all know that in the '40s, Mexico and India were approaching famine conditions, not growing enough wheat to feed their own population, not enough GDP to purchase wheat from net exporters like Canada, Russia, US and Australia.  Norman Borlaug came to the rescue, developing strains of wheat that grew shorter and yielded more grain.  Prior to his dwarf stemmed wheat, you could fertilize wheat fields with lots of nitrogen, but all you'd get would be tall fields of wheat that would topple over and lay there unharvested.  The new varieties of wheat ushered in the so-called Green Revolution.  Mexico and India and their teaming millions were saved.

Today, our wheat is mostly derived from these strains that will tolerate the chemicals we throw at the ground to make the crops grow and yield more.  It has reached the point where we can say with certainty that we cannot feed the existing world population using the old organic methods: we need conventional farming, with all its chemical fertilizers and herbicides and fungicides.  World demand for wheat is such that conventional farming methods are necessary to fulfill the supply need.  Even the organic farmers recognize this (e.g. I've been reading Capouchova's chapter, "Organic Cereal Seed Quality and Production" (part of Petr Konvalina's "Organic Farming and Food Production" (2012), who says that the "organically grown bread wheat yield rate achieves 62% of the conventionally grown bread wheat."**)

Yields of organic grain are so low, they could never fill current world demand, let alone give us enough for the future.  (I've been reading Wilkinson et. al "CerealsDB 2.0: an integrated resource for plant breeders and scientists", who makes the point succinctly:) we project a world population of 9 billion+ people by 2050.  To feed this population we are going to need to increase yields drastically, the same way yields increased during the Green Revolution.  Agro-engineers are using this stat as an excuse to push for the adoption of Transgenic Wheat.  Unless we are able to insert the right genes into the plants, they say, we will never be able to get the yields that we will need.  So far, world culture has resisted transgenic wheat (a resistance that Tuf Haviland never faced; Martin probably felt it irrelevant).  Faced with famine as the alternative, however, governments most certainly will cave.  In the face of the impending doom, the affluence of the western world that plays with organic farming methods will evoke a Tuf-style solution: eventually someone is just going to say "this must cease."

Let's be realistic though: is it reasonable to expect that yields can continue to increase to keep pace with human population growth curves?  Is this exponential growth going to be sustainable?

Biointensive/Organic farmers like John Jeavons ("How to Grow More Vegetables") quote studies that say conventional agricultural practices "destroy approximately 6 pounds of soil for each pound of food produced."  Topsoil is lost 18x faster than it forms, and there remains only 42-84 years worth of topsoil at current rates of overuse.  (Jeavons quotes Pimental, who was the first one to raise the alarm about topsoil erosion, e.g. in his book "Food Energy and Society").

Current conventional practices do not replace the humus, the organic matter, that is taken out of the ground with each crop -- things like wheat straw, which has been reduced in our current varieties, is never entirely given back to the soil in the form of compost.  Current organic practices that merely take nutrients from one place and deposit it on the farms designated as organic are just as harmful to the earth as conventional practices.  We need organic practices that rebuild the soil -- all of the soil.  And we seem to be running out of time.

Jeavons makes one point well: " if we consume food that has been grown using methods that inadvertently deplete the soil in the growing process, then we are responsible for depleting the soil." 

This, then, is the ethics of the bread you eat.

Now, one of the reasons I am a vegetarian (and there are several other reasons), is because I feel that it is the height of arrogance to assume that, since I can afford meat, I have the right to consume meat, when clearly much of the world is starving, cannot afford to eat meat, and the raising of "meatbeasts" (as Tuf would call them) for food is clearly wasteful of resources and detrimental to the planet.  Eating organic grain, on the other hand, also has some of these problems: it is expensive, but just because I  can afford it does not mean I have the right to consume it when clearly much of the world is starving and must eat conventionally grown wheat.  However, here is the difference: when organic grain is grown, resources are conserved, and the planet is healed.

And that is why I have come to this New Year's Resolution: I aim, this year, to source my grain organically as much as I can.  Not because I feel it is nutritionally superior, or ultimately better for me (even though that seems to be a no-brainer, despite the studies to the contrary) -- but because it is better for the planet.  Furthermore, I want to begin to grow my own grain, in my own backyard, if this is possible.  I can't leave anything this important to our planet to the corporations who want to control it forever.  I will have to begin to look into this more, at once.  Currently I have one raised bed that I planted some rye seed in, in the fall.  But I really don't know what I'm doing.  I will have to learn more about it.

I am aware that grains are a lot of work to clean and mill, however.  I'm going to have to look at ways to do this, too -- ways that work for a small householder such as myself.  I doubt whether I can grow enough grain to be self sufficient in it, but I am hoping that my attempts might even improve my own sandy backyard garden soil.  

We shall see.  LIke most New Years resolutions, I suspect I just might have some trouble following through with this one.  Wish me luck.

Beyond the bread: Cardinal at the Feeder

There is a world just beyond your own back door.  Love it, nurture it, protect it.

Notes to Myself
  • ** One of the other interesting points of this article: it is very difficult for organic farmers to obtain quality organically certified seed. The certification process is very difficult. Seed stock has disease problems, especially if it is grown and kept using organic methods.  We are currently in a rather strange position where the so-called "conventional" farming methods are in fact subsidizing the so-called "organic" farming methods.
  • I wonder if fermenting quinoa would improve its taste somewhat.

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