La Tierra y Bicicleta: The Earth and Bicycle

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Time management: How an MIT postdoc writes 3 books, a PhD defense, and 6+ peer-reviewed papers — and finishes by 5:30pm

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This is a fascinating read.

Written by latierraybicicleta

November 21, 2009 at 2:08 am

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News from Paraguay: Soy farmers spray indigenous communities with pesticide

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Armed with only bows and arrows to protect their land from soy crop farmers, they were quickly sprayed with aerial pesticide from planes in an effort to evict an indigenous community in Paraguay. This makes me sick!  Read the full article here.  Paraguay is the world’s #4 soybean exporter.  The problem with Paraguay is that the large landowners (and companies) are mostly foreign — and hence have no interest in the well-being of the people who actually live there.  Their soybean production causes significant damage environmentally, socially, and economically. The genetically modified soy crops are heavily sprayed with fertilizers and pesticides which wreak havoc on the land and water. Large scale soy operations have also displaced small farmers, increasing the economic suffering in a country of only 6 million.

Why is soy so important? The soy industry has stepped up production because the demand for cattle-feed and biofuels has increased.  I don’t have an educated opinion (yet) about biofuels — but from the little I have gathered thus far — there isn’t much of an environmental benefit compared to petrolatum. It’s truly depressing that in this world we can stuff our faces with cheap hamburgers from cows that were fattened up on cheap (subsidized) soy and corn grown half way around the globe at the expense of human rights.

More information

[1] GMO Soy Growers commit Massacre in Paraguay

[2] Campesinos harán movilización para castigar a responsables de asesinato

[3] Soy cultivation spells doom for Paraguayan campesinos

More than 24 million liters of toxic agrochemicals are employed in Paraguay every year, causing deformations, health problems — even death — and environmental damage. But Paraguayan lawmakers ignored this fact when they approved a farming chemical regulation law on May 22, which will still allow these toxic chemicals to be used. (Full Article).

Pop Quiz: Where does Paraguay get its genetically modified soy beans? Answer: Monsanto.

Written by latierraybicicleta

November 21, 2009 at 1:27 am

Food, Inc

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Tonight I watched the movie Food, Inc which exposes the American industrial food system and its effects on health, the environment, human rights, and the economy. I found the book to be more informative but the movie is definitely worth watching — and take that from someone who doesn’t like watching movies. I was able to download the entire DVD off a popular torrent site. With a little search engine magic, it shouldn’t be too difficult for you to find.

The most interesting portion of the movie is the story of Monsanto, a multinational agricultural biotechnology corporation. It currently sells 90% of the worlds genetically modified seeds [1]. Monsanto is also the company behind bST/BGH (Bovine Growth Hormone) which is controversial to its effects on human and animal health. They are also the people behind the herbicide Roundup which is responsible for a host of environmental and health ills. Anyway, Monsanto “owns” seeds and patents their own form of these seeds. When a company such as Monsanto owns life they are able to set any market price they deem fit — and ultimately, become the only choice in the marketplace.  Farmers are being sued for saving seeds because it violates patent laws. What if the wind carries Monsanto patented crops to a nearby farm that isn’t using Monsanto stock? They can be — and have been — sued. This puts many farmers out of business because there is no way in the world to compete with a company so loaded with cash [2]. There is something gravely wrong for a company to hold so much power! I’m going to research more about Monsanto and avoid their products, the best offense against such a corrupt empire is to vote with your wallet.

Sources:

[1] http://www.greenpeace.org/international/news/monsanto_movie080307

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monsanto#As_plaintiff

Written by latierraybicicleta

November 19, 2009 at 11:34 pm

Food

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Here are some reviews/further information on the Omnivore’s Dilemma: Eco-Worriers, We Are What We Eat, Unhappy Meals, and The Omnivore’s Delusion.

My further thoughts on the book: The Omnivore’s Dilemma is a worthwhile read and is well researched. The biggest problem I have with the book is Pollan’s solution to the industrial food production system, that is, one based upon locally grown organic foods. Unfortunately, this is only possible for the affluent because not everyone can afford Whole Foods (aka Whole Paycheck).  Pollan would argue that cheap food is cheaper because it doesn’t account for environmental, economic, and social externalities. This is true.  But with the raising cost of even so called cheap (non-organic) food, families across the world still struggle to put food on the table and sometimes they have to settle for the $2.99/gallon conventional milk vs. the $5.39/gallon organic milk. When organic foods are priced competitively Pollan’s alternative to the industrial food system will be possible. Why is organic food so expensive, anyway? Organic food typically costs 10-40% more than the same conventional product. These organic farmers also do not receive federal subsidies like conventional farmers (like the corn & soy bean farmers in particular). One of the first steps in creating an even playing field for organics is to end these corn/soy federal subsidies. I have to wonder at times if organic foods somehow operate outside of the supply and demand model. This link here is one of many that suggests that the supply is limited to the insatiable demand. Shouldn’t a higher level of demand create a larger supply? Where are the $11 billion/year organic profits going to? Apparently not expanding operations to lower cost.

Written by latierraybicicleta

November 19, 2009 at 1:42 pm

The Omnivore’s Dilemma, book review

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Here is the book review I wrote up for a geography class. It’s not the best writeup but I’ve been stressed and I’m very tired.

——

The Omnivore’s Dilemma

13 November 2009

Pollan explores the question, “what should we have for dinner” by tracing food through three different food production systems: industrial, organic, and hunter-gatherer. The “dilemma” is that American’s are faced with a dizzying variety of foods; most of which do not consider the health of the consumer or the welfare of the animals which become the food. This creates anxiety for the modern eater. Pollan suggests that as American’s we are not guided by a specific food culture and “…might explain why American’s have been such easy targets for food fads and diets of every description (Pollan 299)”. The omnivore’s anxiety, his argument continues, is compounded not only because of America’s lack of a stable cuisine, but also because the industrial food system has control over how food is made and how it is sold. Pollan’s critique on the industrial food system is logically sound but his solutions are not.

The central problem for Pollan is the industrial food system. As it turns out, the average supermarket contains over 45,000 different products, the majority of which have been cleverly derived from the same plant: corn. Processed corn is found in everything: bread, condiments, soup, soda, chips, snacks, toothpaste, breakfast cereals, meat, and thousands of other products. High-fructose corn syrup is found in virtually every liquid beverage in a supermarket. Other corn derivatives found in our food include modified starch, maltodextrin, crystalline fructose, ascorbic acid, “natural flavor”, “natural colors”, MSG, and polyols. “Even in Produce on a day when there’s ostensibly no corn for sale you’ll nevertheless find plenty of corn: in the vegetable wax that gives the cucumbers their sheen, in the pesticide responsible for the produce’s perfection…(19)”.

How did this happen? Corn is given a helping hand by government subsidies. The farmer is encouraged to grow as much corn as he can do even if it doesn’t benefit himself to do so. The result is that the market is flooded with more corn which invariably ends up in thousands of products. The industrial food system tricks the consumer into buying the glut of cheap corn by adding “value”: flavoring the corn with even more corn. So the four-cents worth of commodity corn is transformed into four-dollar processed cereal we eat for breakfast (93). American’s are what the Mayan’s used to be, the “corn people”. The humble cob has domesticated humanity with its overwhelming possibility to become any new food a chemist can dream up. The problem with a corn-based diet is the negative impacts to health and the ill-effects are well documented (62-63, 100-102, 107-108, 117, 201). The brutality of the industrial food system in regards to livestock is also part of Pollan’s argument against the system. On any given day millions of animals are subjected to the cruel industrial system outlined throughout the book.

“Organic” is what Pollan describes as the Supermarket Pastoral, a ‘literary genre’ where animals are supposedly raised like the farm animals we read in books as children (137). The word organic creates a wonderful narrative and the shopper is “engaging in an authentic experience and imaginatively enacting a return to a utopian past with the positive aspects of modernity intact (137). This of course is against discomforting facts: organic is now Big and even Walmart is getting into the $11 billion a year industry.

Whole Foods has adopted a regional distribution network which actually makes supporting small farms impractical. Most of the organic produce comes from two large organic growers in California: Earthbound Farm and Grimmway Farms. What does this mean for the consumer? The result is that organic conjures up an image that is distorted from reality. Organic from large chains (Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Walmart) is rarely local. Organic also does not suggest that the animals are treated any better than conventional ones. There are thousands of Holsteins where they never encounter a single blade of grass and are fed “organic high fructose corn syrup” (139). The goal of organic farming has been to somehow replace the evils of conventional farming. The difficulty for Pollen is deciding if whether organic farming is already like conventional farming: “…what sense can that box of salad on sale in a Whole Foods three thousand miles and five days away from this place truly be said to be organic? (165)”.

While reading this book I was fascinated by the overwhelming amount of information. The Omnivore’s Dilemma truly requires two or more reads to fully digest. That said, what stood out immediately for me was the spatial relationships between the foods we eat:

“I had never tasted organic South American asparagus in January, and felt my foray into the organic empire demanded that I do. What better way to test the outer limits of the word “organic” than by dining on a springtime delicacy that had been grown according to organic rules on a farm six thousand miles (and two seasons) away, picked, packed, and chilled on Monday, flown by jet to Los Angles Tuesday, trucked north to a Whole Foods regional distribution center, then put on sale in Berkeley by Tuesday, to be steamed, by me, Sunday night? (175)”. I see a two major problems with this scenario. The first is that although products may be derived from organic rules, how is it organic/environmentally friendly to fly those products in airplanes over vast distances? Part of the organic philosophy is that foods are grown without petroleum (fertilizers, pesticides, etc) yet those same products are being flown across the globe to satisfy upper-class American’s who can shop at Whole Foods. The second major problem with this scenario is that in South America, hunger is widespread. Many South American’s do not meet their nutritional (mineral and vitamin) requirements and no doubt there is something strange about growing foods for rich American’s when South American soil should be used to feed their own people. The simple fact is that organic farming is much like conventional: to ship, process, truck, and fly products over vast distances for optimal profits, even at the risk of the environment and well-being of their employees. Some of the largest farms in the United States are organic (Earthbound Farms) who are dependent upon workers to do backbreaking work.

Pollan suggests that there must be a complete overhaul of the global economy which is based upon fossil fuels. We can no longer afford (economically and health) to completely depend on oil. Our oil based economies is absorbed by the foods we eat which make us sick and fat. The problem is that people do not change readily unless thrust into a dire situation rapidly. We have become addicted to cheap Middle Eastern oil and to the High-Fructose Corn Syrup in our Coca-Cola.

Pollan’s solution is idealistic: extricate ourselves from fossil fuels, eat less processed food which invariably contains HFCS, and eat more locally produced organic food. The first issue is that distancing ourselves from fossil fuels is beyond what we’re capable of doing technologically (though this is slowly changing) or socially. The second issue is that not everyone can afford Whole Foods (colloquially known as Whole Paycheck) nor does everyone have the time to cook meals from scratch. The final chapter more or less explains what Pollan considers the ideal meal. Two major problems that Tyler Cowen points out: “Pollan neglects another cost of his perfect meal: our authors time is gone forever. There are plenty of cheap ways to produce food if we do not measure or time and trouble as relevant costs. The problems with Pollan’s self-financed meal reflect the major shortcoming of the book: He focuses on what is before his eyes but neglects the macro perspective of the economist. He wants to make the costs of various foods transparent, but this is an unattainable ideal, given the interconnectedness of markets (http://www.slate.com/id/2152675, accessed 11-15-09)”.

I also believe that only industrial sized farming can truly meet the demands of a growing population. Consumers do benefit from cheap food. Most people can not routinely pay $5.79 for organic eggs, $6.99 for organic berries, etc. Until the day where organic food is priced competitively, it will remain a luxury for the affluent.

The book is however a success in identifying the problems with the industrial food production system. And even with the idealistic solutions of locally grown organic foods, there is a lot to learn from the book. It is a book I recommend professors use in class and for people in general to read. I’m looking forward to rereading the book again in the future.

Works Cited

Michael Pollan. 2006. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. New York: Penguin.

Written by latierraybicicleta

November 19, 2009 at 1:47 am

Have a quick recovery!

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My professor, Dr. M**** will be out for the rest of the term.  I wish him success in his recovery and can’t wait to take more courses with him in the winter term of 2010.

My friend is fucked up on heroin. She is refusing help. Attempted to kill herself from an OD sometime last week. It earned her a lengthy stay in the psychiatric ward. I hope she recovers.

I worked 1 1/2 hours today. Nice. This job is truly a PT job, I’m at 9 hours this week and by Sunday I’ll be around 15 hours. 15 x $10/hr = $150 x ~.17 (tax) = $25.50 = $124.50 (take home). $62 into the bank (for my bicycle) and $62 to live on for the week.

Tonight I have a book review (Omnivore’s Dilemma) to writeup before tomorrow.  I will post my review of the book here for those who are interested in reading it.

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November 18, 2009 at 5:57 pm

What to do?

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I‘m stuck. I really want the Cinelli Vigorelli that I described on post #1. The issue I’m having is that I have always wanted to do long distance touring by bicycle. In the summer of 2010 I’d like to cycle Portland to San Francisco via the Pacific Coast Highway. This would be impossible to do on the Cinelli because it is the wrong bike for the task :-( For such a ride, I’d need a touring bicycle designed to carry a heavy load (tent, food, supplies).

I’m thinking about saving for the following instead of the Cinelli Vigorelli:

1) Surly Long Haul Trucker $1095

2) Kona Sutra $1199

What should I do? Right now I’m leaning towards picking up a touring bike —,  so the Cinelli would be on hold until a further date. There are two benefits to picking up a touring bike:  I would have the correct bicycle for a trip I have wanted to do for a number of years and the bike is about $1000 cheaper than the Cinelli. This extra cash would mean I wouldn’t be suffering nearly as bad in terms of food (my goal was to eat frozen pizza and top ramen for 4 months to get the Cinelli).

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November 16, 2009 at 9:49 pm