Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Slow Money Down. Shape a New Economy. Start with Food

can a grassroots movement seed a new economy? FriendsOfSlowMoney.com

Excuse me while I do something I've never done before and get 100% behind an idea that could change the world. OK, OK, maybe I'm exaggerating..or maybe I'm not. Who knows? Adam Smith's idea of a 'free market' changed the world. So you never know, Slow Money might just be the beginning of a paradigm shift in the way financial capital is raised and invested. It might just level the playing field between small-scale food entrepreneurs (i.e. farmers, processors, innovators) and the mega-corporations such as Cargill and Monsanto enough to give organic local peas a chance ..and other foods that are produced with a triple-bottom line return in mind (pardon the pun).

In the current paradigm, decisions made in the (not)free market are based wholly on the financial returns that can be achieved (usually by shareholders). The problem with this single bottom line system is that, in its pursuit of maximum profits, it externalizes the long-term costs of being efficient, of producing at mass scale, of transporting products around the globe, of producing 'value-added' products that are simply not healthy for consumers, etc. These externalized costs are being borne by the natural environment and society and include, but are certainly not limited to: soil erosion and salination, water pollution, loss of biodiversity, loss of virgin forests to agricultural land, massive green house gas emissions from production and long-haul transport of foods as well as increased livestock to feed meat-eaters demands (cows produce a lot of methane), loss of habitat for many mammals, fish and birds as land is turned over to agricultural use, poor treatment of migrant labourers to harvest and process food at cheapest rates possible, production and consumption of food products that are highly processed and high in fat and/or sugars, epidemic of diabetes, obesity and other lifestyle related diseases related to diet, disconnection of eaters from the land and farmers that feed them, decreased community interactions, food safety concerns (a McDonald's hamburger could have come from 1,000 cows), mistreatment of animals that are being raised for consumption, etc.

It's a long list. And it disturbs me that our current economic paradigm has encouraged the development of a globalized, industrialized food system that is healthy for absolutely NONE of the planet's inhabitants, for the soils of the earth or for the atmosphere that regulates Earth's temperature.

So, what's this thing called Slow Money and how might it change the world? Well, for starters, here are its mission and principles:

Slow Money's Mission

• To steer significant new sources of capital to small food enterprises, appropriate-scale organic farming and local food systems; and,

• To catalyze the emergence of the nurture capital industry— entrepreneurial finance supporting soil fertility, carrying capacity, sense of place, cultural and ecological diversity, and nonviolence.



In order to enhance food safety and food security; promote cultural and ecological health and diversity; and, accelerate the transition from an economy based on extraction and consumption to an economy based on preservation and restoration, we do hereby affirm the following Principles:

I. We must bring money back down to earth.

II. There is such a thing as money that is too fast, companies that are too big, finance that is too complex. Therefore, we must slow our money down -- not all of it, of course, but enough to matter.

III. The 20th Century economy was an economy of Buy Low/Sell High and Wealth Now/Philanthropy Later—what one venture capitalist called “the largest legal accumulation of wealth in history.” The 21st Century economy will usher in the era of nurture capital, built around principles of carrying capacity, care of the commons, sense of place and non-violence.

IV. We must learn to invest as if food, farms and fertility mattered. We must steer major new sources of capital to small food enterprises.

V. Let us celebrate the new generation of entrepreneurs, consumers and investors who are showing the way from Making A Killing to Making a Living.

VI. Paul Newman said, "I just happen to think that in life we need to be a little like the farmer who puts back into the soil what he takes out." Recognizing the wisdom of these words, let us begin rebuilding our economy from the ground up, asking:
  • What would the world be like if we invested 50% of our assets within 50 miles of where we live?
  • What if there were a new generation of companies that gave away 50% of their profits?
  • What if there were 50% more organic matter in our soil 50 years from now?

OK, so this was enough to intrigue me when I first learned about Slow Money back in January of this year. And then I read the book by founder Woody Tasch, which offers more insight and inspiration regarding Slow Money. So by this time (mid-June), I'm hooked. I'm excited b/c one of my case studies for my grad research in Hardwick, Vermont and Vermont is a pilot state for Slow Money investment. So I'm going to learn more this whole concept in the coming months, but in the mean time I've found myself presented with the opportunity to show support for Slow Money with a VERY small investment of funds.

Here's the deal, which is the brainchild of Friends of Slow Money:

Starting Tuesday, October 6th 2009, thousands will join in seeding a new economy by contributing $5 or more to the Slow Money Alliance.

Make your pledge today using the form to the right, then return to this site and make your contribution of $5 or more on 10/6. You may also donate directly on the Slow Money Alliance site starting October 6th. The event will run for one week - 12:00am EST on October 6th through 11:59pm EST on October 12th.

Want to learn more? Want to CHANGE THE WORLD FOR $5?

Then do it here:

can a grassroots movement seed a new economy? FriendsOfSlowMoney.com

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

I'd Rather Marry a Farmer.....

When, I wonder, did North Americans start valuing the services of a doctor far more than those of a farmer? Not only do we pay doctors way more to provide health care services, but the vast majority of us consider their occupation far more prestigious and commendable than that of the humble farmer.

I'm not going to lie, I've held my own biases in this respect as well, especially when trying to explain to people that I had to escape PEI because, as a single female, my options for a mate would have bee severely limited there - namely to fishermen and farmers. And, of course, I was certain that I didn't want to end up with some dude who woke up before the crack of dawn every morning, rode a tractor all day, wore John Deere hats and had a pot belly... The truth is that I conjured up this image based on a VERY limited exposure to the farming life on PEI. I really had no clue what farming involved and, armed with ignorance and an imagination, I found myself creating a rather negative portrait of a farmer. And then, thankfully, I chose a path that has exposed my ignorance and allowed me to gain insight into just how undervalued our farmers are, especially the ones that are doing their best to be environmental stewards of the land, while growing healthy food for us, the 98% of the population that has chosen not to farm for a living.

The irony now, as I delve into this world of local food and agriculture, is that I would rather partner with a farmer than a doctor. Or at the very least, I'd like to see us return to a place where we hold doctors and farmers in equal respect. And here's why I think we should:

Health and well-being are essential to the quality of life - on an individual level, as well as a collective level. This is why we place doctors on a pedestal - they take care of us when we are sick, they have the expertise and skill to diagnose and treat diseases, chronic conditions, etc., as well as perform surgeries. Basically, doctors are there for us when we need them to take care of anything that has gone wrong.

What we don't seem to place nearly as much value on in North America is preventative health care. Admittedly, there are under-funded campaigns to encourage people to quit smoking, wear sunscreen, drink responsibly, avoid drug use and eat 5 fruits & veggies a day. But really, the amount of money and attention given to these causes is miniscule in comparison to the amount of money spent on 'sick-care', on treating illnesses that, by and large, are the result of poor lifestyle choices.

This, of course, is where farmers come in. By the very nature of their job, farmers have the potential to provide the basis for the most important disease prevention products available to humans - healthy, nourishing foods. I have little if any doubt that the vast majority of our sicknesses could be mitigated or eliminated if we only re-learned how to eat healthily again. If we could find a way to wean ourselves off overly processed, sodium-rich, sugary, fatty, nutritionally-devoid food-like substances and the massive amount of meat we consume in the West. But we have not yet learned how to do this and until we do, the potential of the majority of our farmers to provide health care via nutritious food will be stymied by the demands of massive, corporate food processors that demand high yields of commodity crops from farmers - corn and soy mostly - so they can turn these into 'value-added' food-like products that do nothing to encourage health and often damage health.

When you think about it farmers could be (and some are) the ultimate health care providers. When it is asked of them by the demands of us, their eaters, the farmer will care for not only our health, but for that of the soil, the water and the animals that are in his or her care. And in cases where smaller family-run farms are the norm, rather than the exception, you will also find farmers that are concerned about the health and well-being of their workers, because these are skilled laborers and the farm's continued operation.

My first forays into the world of farming have been both inspiring and deflating. On the one hand, because I am studying local food systems, the people I am meeting are an especially thoughtful group that practice farming in a way that respects the long-term health of the ecosystem upon which agriculture ultimately depends. Instead of relying on N-P-K solutions and ever-increasing applications of poisons (i.e. pesticides), they try to adapt their farming practices to the ever-changing conditions brought on by nature. In doing so, they practice preventative health care every day by:

  • mitigating the loss of soil nutrition (industrial farming practices, on the other hand, are quickly and often irreversibly destroying massive areas of arable land)
  • eliminating the potential of pesticide run-off poisoning nearby bodies of water that are home to many acquatic creatures and/or serve as drinking sources for humans and animals)
  • providing livestock with a much less-stressful and healthier life that is devoid of the need for anti-biotics, growth horomones, unnatural living conditions or inhumane treatment
  • encouraging the continuation of genetic diversity in plants and animals, by growing heirloom varities and raising rarer breeds, thereby ensuring the continued resilience of the human food system
  • providing eaters (i.e. humans) with food that hasn't been drenched in pesticides, has been grown for taste and nutrition, can be enjoyed without any processing (unlike most industrial crops, which are essentially commodity crops grown specifically for further processing - such as our starch buddy, corn and our protein buddy, soy)
  • decreasing the amount of waste that is produced and must be handled at each stage of production and consumption
And while all of this is encouraging, I find it very discouraging that farming is no longer a viable or desirable vocation. There is a farm income crisis. Most farmers are struggling to make ends meet, if they haven't already gone bankrupt. And very few young people want to be farmers. Furthermore, farmers are constantly facing pressures to improve efficiency, increase production and conform to the demands of the pervasive industrial farming system, which accounts ONLY for economic health.

If we want to see more farmers engaged in food production that stimulates sustainable farming then we, as eaters, have to start focussing on preventative health care. We have to recognize that, as wonderful as doctors are, the world would be a much better off if we didn't need as many as we have. We need to acknowledge that our day-to-day choices about how we eat, how we move, how we work, how we play and how we interact with others and with nature, are ultimately defining the health of ourselves, our children, our communities, and the natural world at large. Until we start valuing healthy food that, in all aspects of its production, has taken into account the health of the ecosystem we are a part of, we will continue to shape a future that is focused on sick care and reliant on doctors to repair the damage we've done by way of making poor lifestyle choices.

And while some of us will choose to decrease our chances of becoming sick by making healthy lifestyle choices, the fact remains that the health of our communities and nature will remain at high-risk until we start placing health care prevention above sick care provision. Only then will we create conditions that allow farmers to farm in such a way as to provide for the health of people and the planet and decrease the need to rely on doctors to treat preventable diseases and chronic conditions.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

What Is This Thing Called Convenience?

'Convenience'. It seems that this word has become an ideal unto itself. Something that we should all strive for in our daily lives. To sum up what I believe to be the dominant mantra of my generation:

'Convenience is always good.'

Building on this, I'd venture as far as to say that, by and large, my generation and those that follow have adopted an implicit, unspoken mantra that goes something like this:

'Anything that requires time, energy or critical thought is generally not good'

I know I'm being hard on us 'young' people, and I know that the above are blanket statements for which many, many exceptions can be found on a daily basis (I count myself lucky to have so many friends that have bucked this trend).

But it does seem to me that our generation is wired to seek out convenience and to dismiss things that take too much effort or time. I see it even more prevalently amongst today's teenagers and those in their early twenties - they expect to things to be easy and instant. It's like there's this sense of entitlement to having everything from cell phones to a university degree to a high-flying job and a perfect family. They expect money to buy the cell phone and university degree and the job and family to be dropped in their laps. If things don't work, there's always a newer model to be found.

I am one part saddened and one part frustrated by this emerging mindset that places ALL the emphasis on attaining some 'thing' or some status, without any recognition that human joy and contentment is experienced not in the final acquisition of something, but in the efforts that we take to reach a goal, to challenge ourselves, and, ultimately, to better our lives and the lives of others. Truly, it is that final effort - to better the lives of others - that brings the greatest joy. I'm afraid we are losing sight of this. I suspect there are many reasons, but I suggest that the main reason we are falling into this 'forgetting' is because we've never experienced 'lack'. We were born in times of plenty and relative peace. There's a massive curtain between our reality and that of other young people across the globe - teenagers that carry machine guns, prostitute themselves for food, or have been orphans since they were infants. We can choose to draw back the curtain and unsettle our reality, but most of us would rather not. It might be uncomfortable. It might demand us to think critically about what it is we value and whether, perhaps, our expectations are a bit askew. So instead, we remain cocooned in this reality that tells us we can have everything we want, and we don't really have to put much effort in to get it. We can just buy our way to a convenient, mass-produced lifestyle that allows us to have everything we want, whenever we want it.

But I digress, this was intended to be a post about the illusion of 'convenience' and the way its penetrated our psyche in such a way as to become both coveted and expected. Every facet of our lives should be, MUST be, convenient. Because we need more time. But what do we need more time for? For playing video games? for watching reality television? for more hours to shop for even more convenient 'things'?

This affair we are having with the idea of convenience is a troubling one. At the very least, it draws us further and further away from the sources of joy and contentment and, in some cases, it can be outright damaging to our mental, spiritual and physical health. When did walking to school become passe? Why does every parent today feel compelled to drive their kid to school? Those children are never going to know the joy of seeing a slew of earthworms on the pavement after a rainfall. They're not going to have the chance to sneak into the corner shop and spend their allowance on candy. They won't know what it is to have their sboots filled with melting snow from climbing through snowbanks en route to class. Instead, they'll think that life is about getting from Point A to Point B in the most convenient way, never knowing the joys of taking the slower, less convenient option.

And where am I going with all of this? To the kitchen of course! Perhaps nowhere has this idea of 'convenience' become more addictive than in how we relate to the food that we put in our mouths everyday. One need only see a toddler point to a big M and say 'MacDonald's' to know that food has been stripped down to two desirable traits: cheap and convenient. That is what most of today's younger people want. And maybe some older people too. Last century there was a mass exodus from the family farm, this century and in the latter parts of the last century, it is the kitchen that has come under siege. The oven and stovetop have become TOO SLOW. As a friend of mine recently pointed out - 'why would I want to cook a steak in the oven when I can nuke a whole meal, including steak, in two minutes? Now that's convenient'. Yes, yes, it's true I have unconverted friends. I'm trying my hardest to convert them, but the prevailing powers of a society hooked on speed and the big 'easy' are making my job hard!

I don't know how to do it though. In the end I am at a loss as to how I can convince someone whose whole reality has been an IV drip of ease and convenience to look beneath the surface. Or maybe it's about feeling beneath the surface - about honestly gauging one's joy barometer to determine if convenience is really the quickest way to happiness...or if it ever really leads to happiness. We move from one distraction to another at such a speed (thanks to all our conveniences) that I wonder if we've lost our ability to tell the difference between real joy and the suggestion that this 'thing' should make us happy. Are we to the point that we are generating an artificial sense of happiness and can't tell the difference between this and the real thing???

I, for one, find joy in the hours I spend in the kitchen, making meals and baked goods from scratch. My enjoyment comes not only from the final product - food that has a delightful taste and texture, but also from the act of preparing the food. It's meditative and mending, this act of chopping and sauteeing, kneading and rolling. It may not be convenient, per se, but that's OK with me. I'm in nor hurry to 'get' somewhere, because I'm enjoying where I am. And that is the difference between a home-cooked meal and a microwave meal. The microwave meal is not more convenient - it just gives you more time to do other things that are equally 'convenient' and equally unenjoyable. The home cooked meal gives you less time to do other things, but more time to enjoy the act of making a meal and savour the smells and tastes of your labour.

I have more to post about this idea of convenience - particularly with respect to its long-term side effects on our body and mind. But this will have to wait. I am tired and must go to sleep, as I will be farming early tomorrow morning.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Soy Good, Soy Bad?

This week I finally got to meet my two new roommates for the coming year. They are, in short, fantastic! They've both JUST come back from teaching in Korea and one of them became a vegetarian while she was overseas. She was so excited about coming back to Canada, where there are an endless sea of soy-based products - veggie burgers, veggie dogs, soy milk, tofu, etc. I think in Korea, at least my understanding, is that they have soy milk, tofu, tamiri, and other soy foods, but nothing that's processed/manipulated to appeal the Westerner that wants the familiarity of cow's milk or meat, but wants the apparent health benefits of soy. Oh, and they want the food to be in a convenient for (e.g. soy burgers, which take 2- 4 minutes to cook!).

Anyways, as is my tendency and, perhaps, one I need to rein in, I piped up about the possibility that SOY might not be soy good for us after all. Yes, that's right, soy might not be good. I know that this goes against what most of us have been told. I, for one, jumped on the soy bandwagon back in 2006 when my former nutritionist suggested I have a soy milk smoothie (or almond milk, to her credit) and eat Kashi Go Lean for breakfast (cereal high in protein AND soy). I also ate a lot of soy burgers and tofu. Yeah, I was a soy-eating machine until about 3 months ago when my new nutritionist red flagged the Western soy-based food products that most of us choose to eat as the 'healthy' option, aren't necessarily so healthy.

She then went on to explain the many reason why soy is not such a great choice - at least not in the quantities and forms that us Westerners are eating it - in processed foods and without fermentation (in Asia, soy is often fermented). I'll be honest, I kind of tuned out. It's not that I didn't want to listen or that I didn't believe her, it's just that I have become so inundated by conflicting advice about what to eat and what not to eat that I can't really stuff any more facts into my head. That being said, after our meeting I spent a bit of time reflecting on what I knew about soy - which didn't take long, because I don't really know much about it. I did, however, know one thing and that one thing alone convinced me that my new nutritionist was probably right about soy being bad.

The one thing I know about soy is that it is the second favorite commodity crop of the big food processors. Soy, along with corn, make up a vast majority of the typical North American's diet. We don't realise it, but every time we open a box of cereal, jar of peanut butter, bottle of pop, package of hamburger meat, or basically any food that's been processed to any extent, we are consuming corn or soy, or maybe both. No, no, I know there aren't sobean sdancing around in your peanut butter or corn poking out of the hamburger meat, but I bet there's soybean oil in your PB and I bet the cow that became hamburger was fed a diet high in corn. Soooo, yes, Soy and Corn - a large proportion of our protein and carbs comes from these two crops - it's just been disguised by the food industry to create the illusion of endless choice at the supermarket. Really, what we're eating is soy and corn that have been modified by scientists. Yum.

Anyways, this is the one thing I knew about soy from all of my readings about the food industry and this, in itself, was enough to give me a loooong pause for thought about the whole 'soy' debate. In the end, here's what my head produced as a conclusion:

'If the huge food processors, which you know are just trying to make $ and get rid of AMerica's surplus crops, are doing everything they can to get sneak soy into food products, it stands to reason that they are also behind the push to make soy-based products appealing to the masses as well. In fact, it would be much easier for them to just make us believe that soy is good for us - then they can spend less money figuring out ways to slip small amounts into familiar foods and just develop a whole new line of processed soy foods that are purportedly healthy for us'

This isn't rocket science, it's food science and marketing. And I'm skeptical of food scientists - it's their job to 'make' food that's supposedly better than mother nature's. I'm also skeptical of marketers, but who isn't?

So, where does that leave me and soy? Well, OK, I still eat soy. In fact, I had a tofu stir-fry tonight. But I have completely cut out soy milk, soy burgers and all boxed cereals. I've never been a big consumer of processed foods, but I am moving further and further away from even the innocuous food products that we don't necessarily considered 'processed', like Kraft Peanut Butter. I figure, the less processed foods I eat, the less I have to wonder how much corn or soy I've eat in a day!

I am a big believer in moderation - I don't think one can veer TOO far off the mark of being healthy and happy, so long as they live in moderation. The trouble with this, when it comes to food anyways, is that it's hard to practice moderation of soy or corn when it's slipped into almost everything we eat. So, I've decided to reduce my intake by reducing the number of processed foods I buy, which wasn't a large percentage to begin with. In some cases, however, I've just replaced one procesed food with another. For example, my soy milk is gone, but now I drink almond milk. Who knows, maybe the nut growers are also conspiring to feed us an abundance of nuts that aren't good for us!

Anyways, after writing this blog post I decided to see what the Internet had to offer with regards to the soy debate. Here are a few articles/sites for those of you that want more than the Shannon's Skepticism of the Food Industry to convince you that soy is not good - at least not how us Westerners eat it.

Soy Ploy

Soya Bean Crisis

A Different Conclusion - It Can Be Good