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Tuesday, July 8, 2014
"Some Food Crises"
At the very moment I write about these joyful memories about food, the New York Times Op-Ed page (July 22, 2013) has just published, coincidentally, an article about “Our Coming Food Crisis,” in which the writer, Gary Paul Nabhan, describes the inevitable result of the increasingly high temperatures throughout the western United States. If Death Valley reaches, once again, the record high heat of 1913 of 134 degrees—it has already reached 130 degrees this year—it will surely not just express a record of temperature, but a dangerous trend throughout the region:
People living outside the region seldom recognize its immense
contribution to American agriculture: roughly 40 percent of the
net farm income for the county normally comes from the 17
Western states; cattle and sheep production make up a significant
part of that, as do salad greens, dry beans, onions, melons, hops,
barley, wheat and citrus fruits. The current heat wave will
undeniably diminish both the quality and quantity of these foods.
I can already attest to the loss of quality of tomatoes (now most often wooden and thick) and sweet corn throughout the West. But Nabhan’s article is talking about something far direr, affecting the survival of livestock, water sources, and even our burned-out woodland’s ability to revive after the numerous fires the West has suffered. The Department of Agriculture’s reserve of crop seeds, heirloom vegetables and heritage grains, already disappearing, will, he argues, become harder and harder to preserve. With the divisive and inattentive Congress that currently rules Washington, D.C., surely these issues may become even more severe. If we do not act soon, it is apparent that large reserves of American agriculture will be diminished and, perhaps even disappear.
More importantly, we know that this is not just happening in the US. In Europe hotter summers and colder winters are producing severe agricultural effects, including seasonal floods, and the loss of vast areas of agricultural land. Much of the world is losing its orange crop to citrus greening. While I write about the memorable meals I’ve had in the past, and my Swedish-American friend Nikki Lindquist daily reports on Facebook the wonderful fruits, berries, meats, and cheeses in her daily life in Sweden, we all may fear that these great foods I have described may not be available for future generations.
Most American restaurants no longer serve “Redfish,” once such a popular dish in New Orleans. Baltimore crab marketers have had several years in which their major product has been in danger, the famed Chesapeake Bay having been polluted and over-fished. Numerous other fishes, including Atlantic Cod have begun dwindling in numbers. Although I still demand it, each summer, sweet corn in Los Angeles tastes more like the long over-boiled, almost inedible, field corn we used, once in a while, to consume on farms in Iowa. Carrots are far too sweet, beets too bitter. Canned tuna, one of my favorites should be consumed, we are advised, only once a week to protect us from mercury. Heavy rains in the US South have meant that, in some places, melon production has been halved, and Georgia peaches, which look plump and well-shaped, have had their important sugar content diluted. The war between healthy food and our taste buds is a daily battle—and not just for our waistlines!
More importantly, I might wonder, would my children, had I had children, be able to eat as pleasurably as I have. Or….worst of all, might they be able to properly eat? My nephews and nieces all still appear to be the beautiful young folks they are. Yet, one wonders, if hamburgers, pizza, and other food from chain-restaurants that dominate their communities will allow their bodies to survive for the rest of the century. I haven’t always eaten well, but I’ve experienced a wide range of adventuresome cuisine that once made my tongue twitter with delight without an electronic device.
Los Angeles, July 26, 2013 / July 30, 2013
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (July 2013).
Nabhan’s expressed worry for about the destruction through drought, fire and floods of the “shortfall in the availability of native grass, forage legume, tree and shrub seeds” was transformed into a near nightmare scenario in Jon Mooallem’s significant essay, “The Swarm” in The New York Times Magazine of December 8, 2013, in which he describes a new breed of ants—variously described as Rasberry crazy ants (named after a local exterminator, Tom Rasberry, who first perceived them as a different species) or as Tawny crazy ants—who have invaded Texas and numerous other states by the billions, attracted it appears, most strangely, to electrical circuits, from computers, televisions, radios, and other such machines. In homes they invade, by the hundreds, they destroy everything from airplane circuitry, medical centers’ high-tech electrical machines, to even NASA’s computer systems. The ants have so overwhelmed some areas that it has become apparent that the new species, now recognized to be Nylanderia fulva, a species native to Brazil who, it is now predicted will, according to Rasberry, “decimate ground-dwelling bird species, just as fire ants devastated Texas quail, and they’ll usurp nearly every other insect species until it’s all Rasberry crazy ants, everywhere.” Entomologists, so reports Mooallem, “speculate that crazy ants may eventually run into predators along the Gulf Coast…but before that happens “the damage done could be enormous,” as the ants destroy vegetation and almost all other ground-settling species.
This essay, in which Mooallem describes the millions of ants seething underneath his feet and crawling up and down the bodies the very people he was interviewing in Texas, reminded me of one of the most terrifying stories of my youth, “Leingen Versus the Ants,” by Carl Stephenson, about the plantation owner who battles the legendary destructive army ants of the Brazilian jungle. Although the Rasberry crazy ants do not bite, they swarm into the very intricacies of our now most sacred electrical devices to cut off all human communication and to remind ourselves of our singular insignificance. These are truly armies of insects against which we can have no apparent control. As the Hungarian philosopher Aurel Kolnai said, to quote the essay, “what upsets us is ‘their pullulating squirming, their cohesion into a homogenous teeming mass,’ their “interminable, directionless sprouting and breeding.’” Finally, I would argue, we perceive ourselves as totally insignificant in their billions of masses. We are nothing next to their swarming reality which reminds us of our own utter singularity. The individuals we represent are no match for such terrifying masses.
What is perhaps even more frightening about this essay is its revelation that all the academic and governmental forces have less comprehension about what to do with this scourge than the semi-retired, uneducated exterminator.
Los Angeles, December 19, 2103.
the disappearance of pecan pie
Just before Thanksgiving 2013, my friend and former high school peer, Nikki Lindqvist, who married a Swede and has been living in Sweden for several years, wrote a note on Facebook, urging her friends in the US to eat more pecans, a nut native to the Americas. I adore pecan pie, and I would have loved to be served up that pie at Thanksgiving dinner, but I had to respond that this year we would all be eating fewer pecans than usual, in part because of the extremely high price of the nut due to this year’s scarcity.
As Kim Severson, writing in the New York Times on November 27th noted, “It is a meager holiday in the pecan groves of the South.” Heavy rains in Georgia, diseases in South Carolina, and a summer drought in Texas and Oklahoma, followed by heavy autumn rains make the ground too wet to use the heavy machinery it takes to shake the nuts from the trees. When the nuts fell, they were quickly consumed by feral pigs and squirrels. In the Southeastern US, pecan production was down by nearly 30%, with a reduction by half in the Western states. On top of that, the Chinese have suddenly developed a heavy appetite of the rich nut, where the “bi gen gua” is selling in Beijing for $7.45 a pound. In the U.S. accordingly pecans have risen in price to over $3.00 a pound, making them unaffordable to many pecan-pie bakers in the country.
Los Angeles, December 19, 2013
goodbye to almonds
If pecans are becoming too rare and expensive for most US citizens to eat, an even greater crisis will soon face the nation’s almond crop. The US honeybee populations have been dying off as whole colonies of bees have been suffering what is called CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder). Some scientists argue that one of the causes of this may be the US Environmental Protection Agency’s approval last year of the use of sulfoxaflor, an agricultural pesticide belonging to the neonicotinoid family. The European Union has banned neonicotinoids after scientific studies there linked their use to CCD.
Bee pollination, obviously, is important to the survival of many crops. California almonds, which account for 80% of the world’s production of that nut, need 60% of the bee population to pollinate a single crop, while at the same time some beekeepers have lost 60%-80% of their beehives. When you add to that California’s severe drought in 2014, the worst on record in the state’s history, it appears almost inevitable that almonds, along with numerous other foods grown in California—one of the most important sources of fruits and vegetables—may soon be missing from our diets.
Lawsuits have been filed against the EPA, but it may already be too late.
Los Angeles, March 5, 2014
After writing this short piece, I—whom seldom eat desserts—got a great hungering for chocolate, almond-filled Hershey bars, and rushed out to buy one, as if they might have suddenly disappeared from the shelves. As if to fortify my almond craving, I also purchased a Hershey company’s Peter Paul Almond Joy, which I hadn’t eaten for years, the two candy bars providing me with a sugar and calorie rush that my body certainly did not appreciate, but which my taste buds received with great delight.
By coincidence, this morning’s Los Angeles Times carried an article about the Kern County groundwater bank, partially controlled by Stewart Resnick and his wife Lynda, and whose water has helped to build his almond empire. Some locals and officials are proclaiming that the state environmental evaluation, which has allowed the water’s use, was mistaken and inappropriate. The water bank has affected water levels throughout that county and even drawn upon some irrigation districts from elsewhere including the San Joaqin River Delta. The state will soon make a new environmental study of the Kern County water bank, which may further effect almond production in California, including the Resnick’s ranch.
After founding Teleflora and other companies, the Resnicks purchased a pistachio grove which also contained some pomegranate and citrus trees. And they now also sell their brand of Wonderful Almonds, as well as POM Wonderful, Fiji Water, citrus products and wines under the name Roll Global.
Lynda Resnick also served on the Los Angeles County Museum of Art board, and Howard—long a curator there—and I had been invited to dinner at their Sunset Boulevard mansion two or three times. To give some perspective to the size of their home, one Christmas their foyer was filled with 10 large pine trees! The Resnicks served dinner in a grand style, the meals overseen by an English butler. While there was certainly elegance at their events, Lynda herself was often rather humorous and even likeably down-to-earth in her conversations. I recall one time, commenting on the work of a younger local artist Lynda had recently discovered, she quipped, “We may just have to sacrifice him at the shrine of The Franklin Mint!” referring to the often kitschy collectibles produced by the Mint, which at that time they owned.
But, of course, when she felt you no longer served your purpose for her, she could and would entirely cut you off—which was apparently our relationship with her and Stewart over the past several years.
Los Angeles, March 6, 2014