The Bad Vegan: Experiments in Plant-Based Eating

What if all the nutritional advice we’ve been told has been motivated more by politics than public health? What if the foods that we associate with living in a developed country and being a robust and strong people, are not only killing us but killing our planet? What if eating less meat could do as much for the environment than getting rid of your car?

Lately I’ve been a little preoccupied with questions of nutrition. In particular, I’ve been thinking about my levels of meat and dairy consumption.

Blogging for Oxfam about the impact of the meat industry on the environment, and reading lots of stuff from Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman about Western diets and the industrialised food chain have resulted in some interesting behavioural and culinary experiments in our household. These experiments constitute what my husband and I call ‘bad veganism.’

Continue reading

3 Things The Sims Taught Me About Money

A few weeks ago my husband and I made a dubious purchasing decision on iTunes. We rented and watched The Queen of Versailles, a strange US documentary about one of the wealthiest families in America and their experience of the 2008 GFC.

The kind of wealth this family has is genuinely unimaginable. Watching Jackie and David Siegal have to cut back after David’s timeshare empire hits a rough patch is especially strange. For this family, ‘cutting back’ means selling a $65m house still being built. But there are some familiar moments, too – David yelling at his family to turn some lights off is one. In many ways, this family lives in an entirely different world, but challenges like the chaos of raising 8 kids (!!!) and dealing with Christmas on a budget makes their plight very, very real.

But of course, these people’s attitude to money was by far the most fascinating thing for me. And oddly familiar. It took me a while to figure out why, because by no means have I ever been anywhere near that kind of wealthy, but then I got it.

It’s because of this:

I am no hardcore gamer, but I find this game super fun, and at times is eerily lifelike. Here’s what playing The Sims has taught me about money. Continue reading

What’s at stake with your steak?

A blog I wrote for Oxfam Australia’s 3 Things Project, on the impact that our growing demand for meat has on the environment and small farmers. Stay tuned for an update on how I’m experimenting with intermittent veganism.

About a year ago, I got very sick. What was strange though, was that I didn’t seem to have any kind of illness or disease. I had terrible headaches, got periodically so dizzy I had to lie down on the floor, and felt constantly nauseous. Sometimes I got motion sick just from walking.

But no one could figure out what was wrong with me, until I had my iron levels tested. Normal iron levels for women are 50 to 170 μg/dL. Don’t ask me what μg/dL are; I have no idea. But whatever they are, I didn’t have enough of them. My blood measured 3 μg/dL. That is pathologically low, and explained much of why I had been so ill.

Why do I bring this up? Well, after that shocking blood test, I was told to eat steak 5 nights a week. 5 nights a week. Even for a meat-lover like me, that’s a lot of steak.

This is all to say that, when I raise the notion of eating less meat, I don’t do it lightly. I’ve felt the effects of low iron, and know that for many people, regular red meat is a necessity. Or at least we’re told it is. Continue reading

Land Grabs : The Impact of Rubber Plantations in Laos

This is an appropriation of an essay I wrote for my Masters in Development Studies course. Fully cited and referenced version available upon request, republishing by permission only.

We were asked to write an essay on the  impact of ‘land grabs’ on poor communities, limiting our analysis to one or two chosen regions. ‘Land grabs’ is a rather sensationalist term that refers to large-scale land deals, usually between governments and private investors (often foreign). Calling these deals ‘land grabs’, while rather emotional, is unfortunately accurate, as they tend to alienate local communities from vital land and resources. For more general information on land grabs, see my Oxfam post (also reblogged here).

I chose to focus my analysis on large-scale rubber plantations in southern Laos, pretty classic examples of ‘land grabs.’ Laos is rich in natural resources, and ‘development’ has become synonymous with private investments in these resources. The result is the transformation of agricultural land into cash crop plantations, mining projects and hydroelectric dams.

Vietnamese rubber companies’ investments in Laos constitute some of the biggest land deals in the Asia-Pacific region. Across Champasak and Attapeu provinces in southern Laos, over 30,000 hectares of land have been granted to Vietnamese rubber companies.[1] While these large-scale land deals promise Laotian communities employment, income and infrastructure, the reality on the ground is often meagre job prospects, lost access to vital resources, and less recognition of land rights. Continue reading

On the power of stories

I was a great reader as a child. But before this starts sounding really brag-y, let me clarify that while I read a lot, I had terrible tastes in reading material. In primary school I devoured The Babysitter’s Club books (including the horrendous spin-offs, the Baby Sitter’s Little Sister series. Ugh.) and the Goosebumps series. In early high school I graduated to the kind of mass-produced fantasy that would dominate my bookshelves for years to come, and that I still love to indulge in.

A side note: Reading copious amounts of fantasy taught me a lot about storytelling tropes, cliches, how to create really poorly-executed narrative arcs, and how to overuse similes. Most of the terrible writing techniques I’ve picked up are probably from reading too much fantasy. Or too much fan fiction. Hard to tell. Either way, reading fantasy is a great way to learn to write well, too. Once you start being able to tell which writers are the great ones, and stick to reading them (hint: often the best fantasy writers are not the best-selling fantasy writers).

Some of these stories I’ve forgotten, but a lot of them have stuck with me. One that I find myself thinking of at some really odd moments is a random young adult fiction book: Fat Chance, by Margaret Clark.

As far as I can remember (and I’ve avoided reading the Wikipedia entry while writing this), Fat Chance is about a teenage girl who is a bit obsessed with her weight. She yo-yo diets, references anorexia and bulimia a lot, but doesn’t appear to have an eating disorder. I still remember this one line that went something like “I’ll never have anorexia or bulimia because I love food and I hate throwing up.” That might give you some idea of the emotional maturity and nuance that the book affords these issues (or not).

Continue reading

Feeding Yourself in the Zombie Apocalypse: An Oxfam Guide

First published under Oxfam Australia’s 3 Things Project.

zombie gnome

When the dead rise and start terrorizing the globe, being bitten isn’t the only thing you’ll have to worry about.

Contrary to popular belief, in a zombie apocalypse you’re as likely to die from injury, disease or malnutrition as you are from a zombie bite. Provided you can get out of the cities and escape the ravenous hordes, you will need some basic survival skills to ensure you don’t fall victim to these less dramatic deaths.

As the zombie infection spreads, the first thing to fall apart will be food supplies. Who’s worrying about delivering lettuce when there are walking corpses to fend off? And even though in the early days survivors can pillage abandoned shops for canned soup and baked beans, eventually you’re going to need a sustainable food supply – especially if you want to give this whole ‘staying alive’ thing a go long-term.

But the good news is, it only takes a little information to make sure that when the inevitable happens, you are well prepared.

Over the next few months, Oxfam will be bringing you best practice in zombie apocalypse preparedness – specifically, how to ensure that when those living dead come knocking, they aren’t the only ones with a steady supply of food.

1. Eat local and seasonal

The first step to ensure you’re prepared for long-term zombie survival is to find a direct source of food.

If you’ve already got a vegie patch, great. Provided your property is adequately defendable against zombies (some good how-to guides here and here), you’re all set.

For the rest of us, finding a direct source of food is really about knowing where your food comes from. If you’re a typical urban dweller, you likely pretty clueless about this (‘Woolworths’ is not an adequate answer). One of the great benefits of living in a wealthy, developed nation is the convenience of being able to buy whatever you need, whenever you need it.

But when 30% of the population has succumbed to a deadly virus that turns them into ambulant corpses, things are going to get a little less convenient.

So, where do you start? Well, it’s a good idea to change your shopping habits pre-apocalypse. Farmers markets and community gardens are great places to source food directly from growers. Find a food producer that you can buy from regularly, and get to know them. Firstly, it won’t do you any harm pre-apocalypse – their food is fresh and your money skips the middleman.

But most of all, building these connections now will mean that when it’s time to flee the cities, you’ll know where to go. Offer your labour as payment for fresh produce, or even start your own collective farming community. Either way, establishing a base near fertile land is a smart move. What’s more, rural areas often aren’t as badly hit by zombie plagues than urban areas – less people-meat to attract the infected.*

This direct connection to a food source is a considerable step towards self-sufficiency in a post-apocalyptic scenario.

In our next blog we’ll talk about the global food industry and why it’s imperative we support small-scale food producers if we want to survive the inevitable zombie plague.

Want to know more?

  • Check out this documentary.
  • Why eat local? A video from Local Harvest.
  • A map to help you find co-ops, markets and delivery spots near you.

* Research consists entirely of zombie movies and Cormac McCarthy books.

Buying Local and Organic: The Price Question

A blog I wrote for Oxfam Australia’s 3 Things Project, in which I profile Alfalfa House, a local community food co-op, and question whether buying organic food will always be prohibitively expensive.

I’ve attempted to buy local and organic food before. But after a few trips down the supermarket’s organic aisle, I’m usually overwhelmed and a little bit poorer.

But is this always the case? Surely it’s possibly to find organic, local produce that will nourish me without starving my wallet?

To find out, I went on the hunt for places in Sydney to buy cheap local, organic food. I soon discovered Alfalfa House in Enmore, a community food co-operative that offers minimally packaged, organic and largely local food.

alfalfa-inside

I sat down with Adam Taylor from Alfalfa House and chatted about their purpose, membership base, and the hotly debated question: is there a way to buy local, organic food that isn’t so expensive?

One of Alfalfa House’s core ideas is that, rather than freedom of choice, they offer freedom from choice. If you’re like me and hate having to choose one muesli brand from 30 options, you’ll click with this. Rather than give you everything you could possibly imagine and ask you to choose, these guys sell items that are hand-picked from food producers that the team know and trust. Not a single purchasing decision is made in this shop without considering the ethics, sustainability and even nutrition of the items.

alfalfa-grains

Alfalfa House also source most of their products directly from the producers: they are on the phone with farmers three times a week and regularly visit their partners in the Sydney region. I’ve been invited to go along to one in Dural in a few weeks (stay tuned for some pictures). This connection with the food’s source is a big part of their appeal, and reflects the developed world’s growing concern with sustainability in the food industry.

“People who are members here and shop here appreciate that we can look farmers in the eye,” Adam says. “We can say, ‘we’re willing to pay a higher rate because we want your business to live and grow. We’re investing in your livelihood.'”

This leads us to the sticky question of organic prices. Having had a look around the shop, it’s clear that at Alfalfa House you would pay more for fruit and vegetables than you would at a supermarket like Coles or Woolworths. I see $3.85 a kg for carrots, but to be fair they are the most spectacularly orange carrots I’ve ever seen (photo below, bottom right).

alfalfa-fresh

However, that’s not factoring in member or volunteer discounts – and this is where Alfalfa House gets very interesting. Members get 10% off every time they shop, and for volunteering in the shop as little as 2 hours per week, that increases to 25% off.

This seems to be Alfalfa’s response to claims that buying local and organic produce is prohibitively expensive. Could innovative pricing structures like these be the answer to making it easier to shop organic?

And yet, while recognizing the need to price stock reasonably, Alfalfa House fundamentally does not exist to compete on price.

“We can’t compete with the big chains,” Adam says. “And we don’t want to. I don’t want to sell milk for $1 a litre. It’s unethical, it’s not right; it doesn’t fit anything we want to do.”

Indeed, Adam urges that the whole conversation around buying local, organic food and supporting small-scale food producers needs to change. For Alfalfa House, the price tags on their products are not about getting the cheapest price for the consumer, but about the fair price.

Perhaps if this were the case for more food sellers in Australia, the ‘fair price’ would no longer be more expensive than all the other options. In the meantime, solutions like Alfalfa House’s membership and volunteer discounts might make it easier for people like me – and perhaps you – to shop local, organic and ethical.

Want to know more?

  • Alfalfa House website.
  • Why eat local? A video from Local Harvest.
  • Get fresh produce delivered from farmers here and here.
  • A map to help you find co-ops, markets and delivery spots near you.

Land Grabs: What’s the Big Deal?

First published on the Oxfam Australia and 3 Things Project websites.

sold-opera

Here’s a paradox for you: 870 million or 1 in 8 people are going hungry on our planet. But in the past decade, Oxfam research suggests global land deals have covered enough land to feed one billion people.

So if there is – theoretically – enough land to feed the world’s hungry, where are we going wrong?

It’s a complex question, with a complex answer. But there is one cause that has the global community very worried: the global rush to acquire land and the impact this has on poor countries.

In developing countries, an area of land equivalent to 10 MCGs is sold off every minute to foreign investors. But this land is often not bought or sold for the sake of feeding local communities – on the contrary, many foreign investors are appropriating valuable land to harvest crops for their own nation’s food supplies or for the production of biofuels.

So where is this land coming from?

The notion that there is an abundance of unused land just waiting to be developed is a myth. Much of the agricultural land sold in these deals is already being utilised by local communities. This can be devastating: in areas where monetary income is low, access to this land is vital for food security. In Kenya’s Tana Delta region, women supplement their diet and income by growing small plots of fruits and vegetables, and selling the surplus. Loss of this supplementary income could force these women to either import food or rely on food aid: the first option is unaffordable, the second is unsustainable.

But doesn’t more large-scale farming mean more food for the poor?

Unfortunately this is not always the case. In some cases, this land is left idle as speculators wait for its value to increase.  In others, investors intend to export everything they produce on the land. Local communities that did have access to land for subsistence farming or small-scale production are not only denied the land itself, but also denied its produce.

The other product investors are after is biofuel. The evidence we have available suggests that many of the global land deals in the last decade have been focused on growing crops that can be converted to fuel: crops like soy, sugarcane and palm oil. In these deals, it’s generally poor people who are increasingly marginalised for the sake of foreign profit.

So what can be done?

The World Bank is an important player in land acquisitions. It funds land deals, advises government on land policies, and sets global standards for investments. Oxfam is campaigning for the World Bank to recognise the impact of land grabs and working to protect the livelihoods of these communities.  After months of campaigning by Oxfam, the Bank has recently acknowledged it has a part to play in tackling land grabs. The Bank’s Spring meetings are on this week, starting on 20 April. Oxfam and its supporters worldwide will be watching the Bank carefully to make sure it is taking action to address land grabbing.

The power of agricultural investments can’t be overstated. Managed poorly, they can destroy livelihoods. But if the Bank can implement strong safeguards to protect local communities and ensure they participate in decisions about their land, improve transparency and accountability about land acquisitions, and encourage others to follow suit, we might see a shift.

We might see more powerful agricultural investments working towards alleviating poverty, rather than propagating it.

Join Oxfam’s campaign by sharing and tweeting our most recent action: a film clip on land grabs inspired by Coldplay and created by our supporters.

For more information on land grabs, read ‘Our Land, Our Lives: Time Out on the Global Land Rush.’

Jeffrey Wasserstrom, “China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know”

Jeffrey Wasserstrom is everywhere – at least in the world of China studies. Admirably prolific, technologically-aware and seemingly always right on top of the latest China-related trends and developments, he is the co-founder of the highly successful China Beat blog, has published four books on China, and his articles have appeared in a number of academic and current affair journals.

So when I read earlier this year that Wasserstrom’s latest book, China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, was soon to appear in stores (or, more relevant for this particularly ardent lover of thebookdepository.co.uk, online shopping sites), I got a little bit excited.

It arrived on my doorstep days before a trip to HK to visit my family, and was an engaging and easy read for the first couple of hours of the flight. It’s short – perhaps the width of my forefinger – with minimal footnotes and written in a simple, concise tone. Despite this, however, it covers an impressive range of issues, although does so in more of a ‘China for Beginners’ style than I had expected.

But this book surprised me. I couldn’t comfortably categorise it as an academic work, but perhaps, after all, that is the point. It would rest easily in the non-fiction aisle at Dymocks, and I would readily recommend it to a friend unknowledgeable but curious about China. Wasserstrom engages with all the most important developments, events and movements in China’s last two centuries, and does so in a way that actively seeks to dispel common (predominantly Western or specifically American) myths about China – its background and intentions.

Indeed, one of the greatest achievements of this book is that – perhaps for the first time – it offers a concise, easy read that could (hopefully) bring popular opinions and imaginings about China in alignment with those of governments and academic circles. It is written in a question-and-answer format, and anyone with a degree of specialized knowledge in China will find themselves reminded of times when they were similarly asked “Why were the 2008 Olympics such a big deal for China?,” or “Is China bent on world domination?” Wasserstrom’s answers not only provide overviews of these issues, but bring into play differences of opinion and interpretation. The result is a nuanced picture of China, an achievement starkly contrasted against the more common books intended as introductions to a society and culture that is presented as imposing, knowable and monolithic.

Consequently, as often as I found myself nodding at such familiar questions as “Is China likely to become a democracy?”, I was also reminded of how much I wished more people would ask these same questions. Most people I have spoken with don’t ask, as Wasserstrom’s book does, what the ‘One-Child Family’ policy is, because Western media has told them the answer. Similarly, few people fed information by Western media ask why the CCP has suppressed the Falun Gong movement – they only know that they have, and that it is undemocratic (and thus evil) to do so. The public will not ask why China’s diversity is overlooked, as such a question is precluded by the very fact that it is overlooked.

I must confess that I initially wrote-off Wasserstrom’s chosen question-and-answer format as a cop out and an oversimplification. While it allows a clear delineation of important events and changes, I expected that it would wash away many of the historic subtleties and complexities of the last century. However, in so structuring this book, Wasserstrom has hit upon a subtle way to incorporate common knowledge with often overlooked aspects of Chinese politics and history. It cannot be an accident that “How do U.S and Chinese views on Tibet differ?” follows “What is the biggest source of Chinese misunderstanding of the United States?”

So, my final judgement? Anyone who knows nothing about China should read this, and everyone who thinks they already know a fair bit about China should read this. You’ll be surprised.