Sunday, January 30, 2011

Notes 2/3/11: The Choices we Make
This week - four unrelated topics all connected to making choices

1. I begin this week with a statement of support for the courageous Egyptian demonstrators! As this blog is set to go, nothing much is certain in Cairo. This week reminds me of the fall of the Berlin Wall or the Velvet Revolution in Prague... However this action has been more violent - and I am not at all sure how it will play out. The people are saying "We have had enough of dictator rule". One news source said "This is the second great movement of the Arabic people - the first was becoming free of Western Imperialism, and now throwing off dictators and choosing Democracy." I send them my hopes and best wishes...

Image from WikiMedia Commons

Mubarak has been a cruel dictator, but he has his cronies that would benefit by staying in power, and he can pay for thugs to go out into the street to intimidate peaceful demonstrators and journalists. Revolutionary outcomes are never certain . But for the people in the street - to be free of constant oppression... to be free to vote in an honest election for the first time in a lifetime - that is monumental! If we believe in democracy we have to trust the will of the people.


2. We vote with our purchases when we buy food to our local super market… As you walk into the produce section consider the apples that are available –Horticulturalists recognize hundreds of apple varieties – but your store probably only sells 4 or 5 types… When you choose a less common variety you are voting for the farmer to continue growing that variety. Many "big" farmers grow only those varieties that are durable and travel well – flavor is secondary… The same can be said of tomato varieties, carrot, potato, lettuce, mushroom, onions varieties,etc, etc.… The large corporate "factory" farms are the worst offenders in "durability over flavor" - and buying less common varieties often supports smaller independent farmers.

Farmers market - Modesto Ca.

One solution is to shop in farmers markets that offer a greater diversity. Go to other sections of your store and you will find the same thing...Chemical free meat was once unavailable – now due to demand it is available and sells well (at a premium price)... As ocean fish becomes less available due to overfishing, factory raised fish is available in communities if people choose to buy it... Farmers know that most varieties of chickens with white feathers produces white eggs, but eggs from other varieties of chickens may actually have subtlely different flavor and other desirable qualities. When you buy brown eggs you are supporting biodiversity! You are voting for the continuance of a different variety of chickens. Consider the grains used in breads or cereals - are they the most healthy and flavorful? "Vote" for diversity by choosing variety.

Potato varieties

Every part of the food store offers similar choices – For the ease of the growers, the number of plant and animal varieties sold in our stores continues to decline year by year - My goal is to promote biodiversity of our food sources, to increase the variety, quality, and flavor or our foods. How sad to allow excellent genetic varieties of food crops to go unused. These varieties are a heritage developed over long generations of human history. My pet peeve is that I can no longer buy dark green solid color watermelons - nobody grows them - the smaller striped ones have way less flavor... And the worst of all are the seedless varieties with still less flavor. Why? - they are more durable and last better in transport!! AArgh!

3. In Southern Mexico, native corn has been grown in tiny hillside cornfields called “milpas”. The practices have changed little since the time of the Mayan empires.– In these fields they grow corn – beans – and squash grown together.

Milpa in Oaxaca - Corn - Beans - Squash

The beans add nitrogen for the corn and squash, the squash leaves provide shade for the corn roots, and the beans climb up the corn stalks. The three are called the "three sisters" – “Las Tres Hermanas”. Each generation of local farmers has maintained and helped to select for the qualities the corn seeds most suited to their conditions of sun, rain, and land type. It is a sustainable system.

Children picking corn - Oaxaca

When I visit a weekly market square where farmers sell their produce, in the corn section, there are over 12 different varieties of corn – varying by kernel size, color, starch content, cob size… In came the Monsanto Agribusiness Co. They said "we will sell you our new improved corn and your yield will improve" – only problem – the seed from one year is not viable to grow next years crop – New seed must be purchased from the company each year.

Merchant selling a variety of corn, beans, other seeds, spices in Mexican market

This corn is also more demanding of soil nutrients and the soil becomes depleted unless fertilizer is purchased (also from Monsanto)… This is not possible for subsistance farmers. To make matters still worse, genetic material from the Monsanto corn migrates into the native varieties still being grown – and they lose some of their original qualities. As a result of Monsanto corn many farmers were forced to sell their farms and migrate to lives of great poverty in the inner cities of Mexico, or to come north to seek work in the United States.

Oaxaca "tortilleria" (tortilla bakery ) - Soaked corn is finely ground into "masa"

Within the last five years, farmers in Tanzania have wisely burned the “free seed” from Monsanto when it was offered… local varieties, much like Mexico are being maintained.

4. Have you met someone who says they are a firm supporter of the American Economy and still they do a major part of their shopping at Wal-Mart, K-mart, and other stores with a large proportion of Chinese merchandise? We talk a lot about how we want the economy to recover and then go right ahead and buy products that work against that goal. Every time we buy something we are making a choice to support American workers or Chinese workers…

Familiar label found on many products for sale in America

People I know justify it by saying that the Chinese products are cheaper –(but I also hear people complain about the poor quality of many Chinese goods.) What would happen if all of us Americans only bought American products? We might have to pay a bit more, perhaps 10% more (For example: $8 Chinese, $8.80 US). Of course, one problem is that we are so flooded with Chinese imports that it might take a little looking to find a similar US product.

Things get a little distorted when we don't support our own economy

"Mirror" building in downtown Oakland reflecting its neighbor buildings

By buying that product you would be supporting a start-up company in Virginia or perhaps an older struggling company in Atlanta… you would be voting with that purchase to reduce the US trade deficit. No big government action just a lot of local people making a choice. I think this might be an issue that a liberal democrat like me might have in common with my more conservative friends... this is a grassroots effort we can agree to get behind!