October 25, 2011
When humans made the switch from being hunter-gatherers to farmers, it was a revolutionary transition. Archaeologists have linked the change to population growth and a wider variety in diet. Traditionally, archaeologists saw this as a relatively instantaneous changeover, with societies adopting livestock and cereal cultivation as well as the use of ceramic containers to process and store foodstuffs. But using pots as an indicator of when this shift took place is problematic, especially given evidence that even foraging societies used vessels. Now a new study of pots paints a different picture of this pivotal point in human history and suggests that the shift to farming was not as rapid as previously thought.
Researchers from the University of York and the University of Bradford focused their attentions on potsherds from inland and coastal settlements around the Baltic. Farming has been practiced there since about 4,000 B.C. Human remains from before this point in time show a diet heavy in marine life, while later remains indicate a diet heavy in land-based foods. So if anything, it’s also a region that could support the rapid change view. In an analysis of lipids (fats and other molecules) on 133 potsherds, the researchers found that even after the practice of domesticating plants and animals was well in place, people still continued to forage for food in nearby waterways. So even though the know-how was there, the cultural shift to relying on farmed foodstuffs was much more gradual.
October 20, 2011
Salmon farming has received its share of criticism for being detrimental to the environment. Many salmon are raised in net pens, which allow fish waste, chemicals and farming byproducts to spread into the wild. There’s also the threat of pathogens that could thrive in crowded pens and escape to harm natural fish populations. One disease, infectious salmon anemia, was once thought to be a problem exclusive to farmed Atlantic salmon. A new study by a group of researchers from Simon Fraser University in British Columbia has found that this influenza-like virus is infecting naturally ocurring salmon populations.
Infectious salmon anemia was first observed 1984 and occurs most often in overcrowded, filthy salmon pens. As the name suggests, the virus causes anemia, the condition in which a body doesn’t have enough healthy red blood cells to deliver oxygen to its tissues. Infected fish may exhibit symptoms—such as pale gills and loss of appetite—or they may outwardly seem perfectly fine. While the disease doesn’t pose any risks to humans, it can wipe out upwards of 70 percent of a farmed salmon population.
This is the first time the disease has been found in wild fish off the coast of North America. After observing a decline in the salmon population off the British Columbia coast, researchers collected 48 specimens for study and discovering two juvenile fish infected with the disease. While there is currently no evidence to definitively link fish farming to the presence of salmon anemia in wild populations, there could be devastating ramifications, not just for the fishing industry, but for the wildlife that depends on salmon for food. “It’s a disease emergency,” James Winton, director of the U.S. Geological Survey’s fish health section, told the Associated Press. “We’re concerned. Should it be introduced, it might be able to adapt to Pacific salmon.”
October 7, 2011
This year’s Nobel Prize winners were honored for, among other things, discovering that the universe is expanding at an accelerating pace; their work on women’s rights and peace-building in Liberia; and advances in the understanding of immunity. But in years past, a number of winners have been recognized for food-related achievements—making food safer, more available or just increasing our knowledge of it. Here are five notable cases:
1904: Ivan Petrovich Pavlov, Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
Better known for his research with canines to explain conditioned responses—training dogs to salivate when they heard a sound they had come to associate with food—Pavlov won the Nobel for his earlier work on the digestive systems of mammals. Before he devised a way of observing the digestive organs of animals, there was only a limited understanding of how the stomach digests food.
1929: Christiaan Eijkman, Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
Eijkman and his co-awardee, Sir Frederick Hopkins, were honored for discovering of the importance of vitamins in health and disease prevention. In the 1890s, Eijkman, of the Netherlands, studied the disease beriberi in the then–Dutch colony of Java, where he made the connection between a diet lacking rice bran (the bran had been removed to make the rice last longer) and high rates of beriberi. This was an important milestone in the eventual formation of the concept of vitamins, though the word itself wasn’t coined until 1911.
1945: Lord John Boyd Orr, Nobel Peace Prize
Orr, of Scotland, devoted much of his life to improving world nutrition and to the equitable distribution of food. After helping shape Britain’s wartime food policy, Orr became director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and tried, unsuccessfully, to establish a World Food Board in 1947. Two years later, by which time he had retired to a lucrative business career, his efforts were recognized by the Nobel committee.
1970: Norman Borlaug, Nobel Peace Prize
Possibly no one on this list had as great an effect on so many people as Borlaug, the American considered the father of the “Green Revolution” for his development of methods that vastly improved yields and disease-resistance in crops. Although some of his methods were later criticized for having a negative environmental impact, they greatly increased food security in poor countries such as India and Pakistan. The debate over how to balance environmental concerns with the food needs of a growing world population continues today.
The prize in economic sciences is the only category to be added since the establishment of the Nobel prizes. It was first awarded in 1969. Sen, an Indian living in the United Kingdom, won in part for his study of the underlying economic causes of famine. In his 1981 Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, Sen debunked the common notion that food shortage is the sole cause of famine, and his later work explored how to prevent or mitigate famine.
September 28, 2011
Conscientious eaters want to know all about where their food came from, how it was grown and who grew it. Part of the appeal of farmers’ markets is getting face time with those who spend their days with their hands in the dirt. Suddenly, consumers want to have a “relationship” with their small-scale farmers, ranchers and cheese makers — people who once toiled in obscurity. (This is still usually the case in the larger agricultural industry, where the vast majority of our food comes from.)
One unintended consequence is that, now, personality counts. A grower with a winning smile or the gift of the gab may get the sale even when the wares at the next table are just as fresh and succulent-looking. There’s a pair of young, attractive male farmers in my area whose tent always seems to be crowded with female customers.
Now, technology that wasn’t around a decade ago—blogs, smartphones, Facebook and Twitter—is taking the farmer-consumer relationship to another level. It’s how CSA members can find out what’s likely to be in their share soon, get recipes for what to do with bok choy or celeriac, and read cute little stories about how the farm animals are doing. The farmer gets to communicate with current and potential customers, and office-bound readers get to live vicariously through their computer or phone screens.
Ree Drummond, who has parlayed her rural life as the wife of a cattle rancher into a wildly successful site called The Pioneer Woman, gives a glimpse of the possibilities for savvy online self-marketing. She doesn’t quite qualify as a rancher herself—although she often rides along and helps out with the chores, she seems to usually have a camera in hand—but her gorgeous photographs and folksy anecdotes about life on the range are about as good an advertisement as any for making a living off the land.
Most farmer blogs are far simpler (and, some might argue, more authentic). The Dairyman’s Blog, written by a young Alabama dairy farmer, offers “MooTube” videos of life on the farm. Self-described farm wife Jill Heemstra focuses on the funny side of farming at Fence Post Diaries, with blog titles like “You Might Be a Farmer’s Wife If…” (example: “…you use the phrase ‘semen tank’ in casual conversation”).
Blogs and tweets are also providing a new platform for farmers of all stripes to express their views on agriculture and politics. Missouri hog farmer Chris Chinn advocates on her blog for fewer government regulations and conventional farm practices that she feels have gotten a bad rap, while small-scale farmer Gavin Venn tweets as @morethanorganic with his thoughts on animal welfare and genetically modified foods.
Social media has become a stand-in for the kind of conversations farmers have always had in person, about the weather, what’s growing, advice and opinions. The Twitter hashtag #agchat encompasses discussions of parenting on the farm, venting about too much or too little rain, links to agriculture news and just about everything else of interest to the ag-minded.
But tweeting from the tractor has its perils. As Stewart Skinner, a Canadian pig farmer with the Twitter handle @ModernFarmer tweeted recently about his gadget, “The blackberry can’t stand up to the rigors of the barn. RIM needs to come up with a smartphone for farmers.”
August 19, 2011
In a society that could conceive of deep-fried sticks of butter and donut burgers, it’s sometimes hard to remember that food’s main purpose is to keep us alive. In other societies, such as among the Yanesha people of the Peruvian Andes, food’s centrality to life is celebrated in myths that describe the origins of their most important food plants.
Ethnobiologist Fernando Santos-Granero, of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, recently published a fascinating study of the Yanesha myths, titled “The Virtuous Manioc and the Horny Barbasco: Sublime and Grotesque Modes of Transformation in the Origin of Yanesha Plant Life.”
He explains in The Journal of Ethnobiology that the Yanesha, like other Amazonian peoples, conceive of a primordial time when all plants and animals took human form. Around the time that the present-day sun rose to the heavens, the Yanesha believe, the beings went through one of two kinds of transformation, classified as either “sublime” or “grotesque,” into their current states. The sublime transformations were associated with the upper half of the body and expressions of love and self-sacrifice, while the grotesque were “related to the baser activities of the lower body,” Santos-Granero writes. “Because of their immoral way of life—expressed in extreme forms of genital, oral, and anal incontinence—these primordial humans were separated from humanity and transformed into the plants they are nowadays.”
Santos-Granero concluded, by process of elimination (no pun intended), that the determining factor in which type of transformation a plant went through was the antiquity of its domestication. The oldest domesticated plants, and therefore those most central to the Yanesha diet—including manioc, maize, beans and peanuts—were ascribed to sublime transformations, while more recently domesticated plants—chili peppers and yams, for instance—fell into the grotesque category.
The maize narrative is an example of the sublime transformation (and has some interesting parallels to a more familiar religious story): During a time of famine, the creator god felt pity for humans, so he impregnated a virgin girl. The girl’s father demanded to know who the father was, but the girl refused to tell him—this is an example of the creator god testing the humans to see if they are worthy of his sympathy. The father accepted this child of unknown parentage, proving his worthiness, and the fair-haired grandson grew up to be Maize-Person. Maize-Person sowed pieces of himself in the grandfather’s garden and taught the people how to harvest and prepare the ensuing crop. When there was nothing more of his maize, he ascended to the sky and became a bright star.
Origin myths in the grotesque category, by contrast, center around selfish or immoral beings. For instance, chili peppers are said to be created from the farts of Hua’t~ena’, a gigantic forest ogre with an enormous, toothed penis who raped women and then ate them. And if being a “horny, cannibalistic rapist” wasn’t bad enough, his semen was poisonous to fish. He was somewhat redeemed, however, because when his selfish destruction of fish was discovered, he was ashamed—he cut off his penis and planted it, thus creating the barbasco (a plant used by the Yanesha to temporarily stun and catch fish) and, through his farts, the chili pepper.
Wild stories, indeed, but are they really any more outlandish than deep-fried sticks of butter?