Sunday, August 12, 2007

A sustainable harvest for Central America

While the developed world is increasingly embracing sustainable agriculture and ethical eating, a nagging worry is that the developing world – where agriculture is growing at a much faster pace – will continue to imitate the unsustainable Western industrial model: factory farms, vast monocrops addicted to petrochemical inputs, and so on. (It's a lot like the climate change predicament where countries like China and India threaten to become the new global centres of dirty coal power production – especially if certain Western superpowers continue to build new coal plants themselves.)

Last month, I received an email from Jessica Schessler, a young American student who is interning this summer for Sustainable Harvest International, a small nonprofit organization that is trying to buck this agricultural trend. I asked Jessica (that's her below, drinking - I think it's a safe bet - a cup of fair-trade java) what motivated her to get involved with SHI. She replied:

“As a college student, I was looking for summer work and really wanted something different than retail, sales, etc.. I've always wanted to do something that made me feel like I made some sort of difference....Now, I've learned so much about what they do, about the environment, and about how we impact the world that I've started to change my everyday habits for the better. I certainly wouldn't expect all of that would've happened working fast food or customer service!”

Jessica asked me if she could write about SHI in the Ethical Eating blog. After visiting the SHI website and being very impressed with the kind of work they do (and their 4-star rating from Charity Navigator), I agreed. Here's what Jessica wrote:

Becoming green and saving the environment has become quite the hot topic. Plenty of people and organizations try to remedy these issues at home and abroad as well, but where some fall short is making sure that the programs they place are not just good for the Earth, but for the people in the area as well. Sustainable Harvest International is heading straight for one source. This small non-profit organization “has worked with nearly 1,000 families and 900 students in Honduras, Panama, Belize and Nicaragua implementing alternatives to slash-and-burn farming, the leading cause of rainforest destruction in the region.” Malnutrition is a huge problem in this area of the world, and many vegetables are considered a luxury item. SHI teaches new farming techniques to the local families, such as alley cropping, organic vegetable gardening, and seed saving and storage.

Since 1997, SHI has successfully:

  • Planted more than 2,000,000 trees.

  • Converted 6,000 acres to sustainable uses, thereby saving 30,000 acres from slash-and-burn destruction.

  • Improved nutrition through the establishment of more than 200 organic vegetable gardens.

  • Increased farm income up to 800%.

  • Built 165 wood-conserving stoves (saving 1,650 trees per year)

Cruz Alcidez has worked with SHI for 5 months, “I began working with SHI because I wanted to learn new planting techniques and also to learn about sustainability. I am especially thankful to SHI because I now have timber-yielding trees that will remain forever on my farm. The benefits for my family are many, because SHI supplied me with many seeds including beans, cabbage, beets, and soy beans. As you know, this last one (soy) can be used to prepare a lot of different foods, including cuajada, a type of soy cheese, which is very nutritious for my family.”

What better way to stop slash and burn than with education in alternative farming techniques? SHI’s programs not only help out the farmers and their families, but the environment as well.

Now, did you know that it’s possible to eat yogurt, help these farmers, save forests, and get free organic chocolate and tea all at the same time? Stonyfield Farm is featuring SHI along with two other non-profits on their yogurt lids this summer. Vote for your favorite non-profit and help direct funds their way, while getting cool prizes!

Visit for more information on SHI and Stonyfield’s “Bid With Your Lid” program.

Jessica Schessler


I do have to point out the irony that yogurt made from milk from nonorganic dairies is being used to promote and (hopefully) help finance the ethical agricultural efforts of SHI. Stonyfield Farm's yogurt is rBST-free, which means the cows in the dairies they source their milk from are not fed a growth hormone that would make them more productive at the expense of their health and well-being (and possibly the health of people who eat it). But those dairies aren't organic, which means the cows are probably treated as milk machines - essentially slave labour.

On the positive side, Stonyfield also offers organic yogurt. The cows in certified organic dairies are treated better and may even be treated very well in some, but most of their newborn calves are ripped away from them within days of birth to be sold to the veal industry - nothing pretty or respectful of life there. Much more hearteningly, Stonyfield's O'SOY yogurt, which is made from organic soybeans and other organic ingredients, is also sporting a "bid with your lid" this summer. That one gets my bid.

Syd Baumel

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Another Buddha bites the beans

As heartening as the Dalai Lama's adoption of a vegetarian (well, flexitarian) diet is, eating meat continues to be commonplace among Buddhists who, like devout omnivores of all religions, continue to find clever ways to reconcile the higher teachings of their faiths with their addiction to the salty fruits of violence to animals.

Well, it just got a little harder for Buddhists to keep that balancing act going.

Last month, Orgyen Trinle Dorje - a Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader who is to the Kagyu lineage what the Dalai Lama is to the Gelugpa lineage - read the riot act to his followers. No meat allowed.

The 22-year-old 17th co-Karmapa of the Kagyu lineage (the other one, alas, is not vegetarian) has been vegetarian for several years. Now he wants his followers to get with the program. Among other things, the Karmapa decreed:
  • No meat is to be prepared in the kitchen of any Kagyu Monastery or Centre.
  • No one is to be involved in the business of buying and selling meat – for all of his students this practice must stop.
  • There is to be no killing of animals on Kagyu premises.
  • Karmapa is aware of monks in robes going to buy meat and does not want to see this ever again.

My friend Eileen Weintraub, a Seattle vegan, animal activist and author of the "Life as a Vegetarian Tibetan Buddhist Practitioner," is overjoyed.

"I began the Buddhist path with the 16th Karmapa - who was a bird lover, and I tended his birds," Eileen writes in a message to the listserv of the Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians.

Noting that this now gives two of the four Tibetan Buddhist lineages a vegetarian leader, Eileen continues:

"This news comes 30 years later than I wanted, but turns a kitchen in a major monastery where I lived in the late 70's vegetarian, finally. I hope all of you working directly with animals get this feeling of joy each time you save a life, and now I feel some peace as well. Keep the faith, and amen."

Norm Phelps, another veteran vegan Buddhist and author of The Great Compassion: Buddhism and Animal Rights seconds the emotion.

"It’s a joy to see this great bodhisattva showing by his own example what it really means to have compassion for all sentient beings. This is the best news I’ve heard in a long time."

Other religious leaders take note. What kind of example are you setting with the food you put on your plate and on the plates of your congregants?

Saturday, January 6, 2007

False Economist

Early last month, The Economist tackled the subject of ethical eating with a feature story and (worse) an editorial (for subscribers only) that revealed an astonishing level of ignorance for a publication of such quality. The editorially neoliberal and neoconservative major daily where I live - the Winnipeg Free Press - published the editorial, suckering me into yet another futile letter to the editor. (The freep rarely publishes my letters any more, and this was no exception.)

Well, freep - I'm doin' the blog thing now, so I'll publish it here:

False Food Dichotomies

Re: Food Fallacies, Dec. 10.

The Economist creates a false dichotomy between voting with your shopping cart and voting or acting politically to reform food policy. The two are complementary. In the European Union, for example, years of consumer rejection of eggs from caged hens and pork from crated sows led in the late 90s to bans on both practices (still, unfortunately, the norm in Manitoba).

The Economist
also gets some key facts wrong, ignoring, for example, the net scientific evidence that organic farming gives comparable yields to nonorganic farming, but with the bonus of far superior sustainability (see, for example:

Finally, The Economist uses the moral dilemmas posed by certain ethical eating choices - local or fair trade (imported), for example - to undermine the ethical eating endeavour itself when the reasonable solution is for conscientious consumers to shop with ever greater knowledge and discernment. This, after all, is how conscientious people confront moral challenges of all kinds.

Syd Baumel

Thankfully, Tom Philpott of Grist Magazine has taken The Economist to task in a space considerably larger than my unpublished letter. "Like an uncle emboldened by wine at the holiday table," Pilpott writes, "The Economist sought the role of truth-teller to the complacent and self-satisfied. 'People who want to make the world a better place cannot do so by shifting their shopping habits,' the magazine lectured.

"The coverage sparked a mini-sensation in sustainable-food circles, peppering blogs and listservs for weeks," Philpott continues. "My inbox groaned with emails alerting me to the phenomenon. In person, some people brought it up in a tone almost of condolence. Shame about how local food doesn't really work, they said, and didn't need to say the rest: given that you've devoted your life to it."

Even the New York Times took note of the tempest in a fair trade teapot whipped up by The Economist's audacious story.

I piped up myself in a "Gristmill" discussion, venting about one of The Economist's fallacies in particular:
As others are pointing out here and elsewhere online, an inexcusable proportion of the The Economist's key criticisms don't stand up to scrutiny. One that I haven't seen debunked is that demand for Certified Fair Trade foods - in this case, coffee - somehow increases demand for their non-fair trade counterparts, thereby increasing production and lowering prices even more. Perhaps I'm missing something, but this is like arguing that demand for Priuses increases demand for Hummers or that demand for organic apples increases demand for all apples. There is coffee (and tea and chocolate and bananas etc.) and there is Certified Fair Trade coffee. When shoppers buy more Fair Trade products, demand for THOSE PRODUCTS increases, sending a signal that it's safe for more producers to switch to growing these commodities in this more socially and environmentally responsible way. Another signal is sent to producers of the non-Fair Trade commodities: demand is falling, produce less.
Three issues on and The Economist hasn't published a single letter to the editor on their fair food faux pas. This is quite remarkable, because in the UK, where the magazine is published, erudite ethical eaters and organizations abound. The Economist must have attracted a flood of letters pointing out the errors of their ways. All as futile as my letter to the freep. Ah well. This is what blogs are for.

Syd Baumel

Friday, January 5, 2007

The world's most famous flexitarian

It just occurred to me that the Dalai Lama is probably the world's most famous "flexitarian."

Throughout his long public life, people (or at least vegetarians) have tended to either assume that the presumptive buddha of compassion is vegetarian or to feel disappointed, confused or betrayed when they learn he isn't.

The DL did at least try to become vegetarian as a young man in the 1960s. But as I've written elsewhere, he "developed jaundice (hepatitis), and was ordered by his doctors to eat meat again. This is not known to be a complication of vegetarianism and may have been coincidental or the result of an unbalanced vegetarian diet: reportedly, the Dalai Lama had subsisted mostly on nuts and milk."

In the last few years, the Dalai Lama has sent signals that he's trying once again to go veg. In 2004, without using the "f word," he effectively came out as a flexitarian in a Reader's Digest interview. Here's how the Q & A went:
RD: Your assistant says you are half vegetarian. How can one be “half vegetarian?”

Dalai Lama: [Laughs.] In the early 1960s, I became a vegetarian, and for almost two years I remained a strict vegetarian. But then I developed hepatitis, and I returned to my previous diet; for a while it would be vegetarian one day, nonvegetarian the next.

My kitchen is now totally vegetarian. But that doesn’t mean I am completely vegetarian, for when I visit places, occasionally I take nonvegetarian…that seems to help reduce the size of my stomach.
The Dalai Lama's adoption of a semi-vegetarian or "flexitarian" diet has coincided with a growing vegetarian/vegan movement among Tibetans in exile and an equally gladdening tendency for the Dalai Lama to advocate vegetarianism to his followers, Tibetan and Western. But as with all of the Dalai Lama's moral teachings, there's a humble, patient and forgiving element of "flexibility" to it. If you can't/won't "go veg," go veg -- as often as you can.

Syd Baumel