I’m Lovin’ the Irony

Promotional flyer for the fundraiser. How hypocritical can you get? Already, Avon supports a worldwide breast cancer awareness walk. What's next? Philip Morris donating proceeds to support lung cancer awareness?

Promotional flyer for the fundraiser. How hypocritical can you get? Already, Avon supports a worldwide breast cancer walk. What’s next? Philip Morris donating proceeds to support lung cancer awareness?

May 24. In El Salvador, this is the day McDonald’s donates a certain percentage of their Big Mac sales to a local charity that helps give surgeries to children with heart problems. The organization is called Sana Mi Corazón, which translates to Cure My Heart (or My Healthy Heart, but I’m pretty sure it’s the first one). The organization of course is wonderful; according to their website, there are over a thousand children born in El Salvador each year with a serious congenital heart defect; children that would die or live a very debilitated life without a surgery. Sana Mi Corazón only chips away at the iceberg – they pay for an average of 100 of these surgeries each year. “Converting Big Macs into smiles,” is the slogan of their McDia Feliz campaign. This year, 2013, marks the third such event in El Salvador.  In the previous two campaigns, McDonald’s sold over 23,000 Big Macs and donated about $72,000 to Sana Mi Corazón. Saving children with heart problems – who wouldn’t want to smile at that?

Meanwhile, a bit further north, a nine-year old named Hannah attends a McDonald’s shareholder meeting and questions the CEO as to why they arre trying to trick kids into eating food that everyone knows is unhealthy for them. The CEO responded by saying McDonald’s doesn’t sell junk food (how he said that with a straight face is beyond me), and that McDonald’s has fruits and vegetables on the menu, including apples as an option to go with Happy Meals, and cheaper salads. True. In 2004, McDonald’s added apples that customer’s could choose in place of fries with the Happy Meals; only 11% of the customers did so. Nevertheless, in 2011 they took that choice away; McDonald’s reduced the size of the french fries in half and added the apples. So now, unless you ask for otherwise, a Happy Meal will automatically come with a half-serving of fries and the apples. And your choice of milk or juice for a beverage. There are certainly salads on the menu; they range from 90-450 Calories (the average is 290 Cal.). And that does not include the dressing, which would be 50-190 Calories more.

In Britain, at the end of 2006, 25 of the McDonald’s franchises had to close their doors, something the then CEO of McDonald’s/Great Britain blamed on the false image they had been trying to project that they are healthy. Finally some honesty! Most people do not go to McDonald’s looking for health food, many go because it’s an occasional treat, many go because of the Dollar Menu, and many go just because they love the lab-created flavors. Salad sales are a small fraction of their burgers-and-fries sales (we can leave aside the argument that many salads rival those burgers in Caloric content). And to try to say that the foods with the highest sales, the foods that are marketed using cartoon characters and movie figures are NOT junk food…that is a lot to swallow. Junk food: food that is low in nutritional value, often highly processed or ready-prepared, and eaten instead of or in addition to well-balanced meals (freedictionary.com). Even a nine-year old can figure out that the majority of McDonald’s foods fit that definition to a T.

Later in the shareholder meeting, another child approached the microphone and listed all the ways McDonald’s helps children. If he were from El Salvador, he undoubtedly would have mentioned the McDia Feliz campaign. Although it may have appeared that this boy was defending McDonald’s, I think he actually helped support Hannah’s point: they are tricking kids into eating their unhealthy food. To put it in a more sophisticated way – they are building brand loyalty. Make addictive food, make people feel good about eating it, throw in some images of salads, and you have a customer for life. Unless you refuse to swallow one bit of their tripe. I am sure we can think of a better way to cure children’s heart defects in a way that doesn’t involved promoting adult heart disease.

Nutritional Facts for McDonald’s foods: http://nutrition.mcdonalds.com/getnutrition/nutritionfacts.pdf

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Nanoparticles in Your Food Supply?

Nanoparticles are microscopic  substances that act the same as their larger counterparts, and have been used on some level since the 9th Century (according to archaeological records) by pottery artisans. They are essentially the same as the larger units, however, the physical and optical properties of the nanoparticles can change. For example, nanoparticles can have different melting points, or exhibit different colors than the larger particles. The nanoparticles have a very high surface to volume ratio, which allows the particles to adhere to surfaces that the larger particles could not. However, this also makes the particles much more reactive. They are also able to pass through the cell membranes of organisms, but very little research has been done on exactly how they interact with biological systems. Nanoparticles are commonly used in sunscreens to make them clearer instead of chalky, on razors to keep them sharp, in hospitals to coat medical equipment and surfaces with antibacterial properties, on clothing to repel dirt, on golf balls to improve their flight path and distance, and more and more in our food system. Nanoceramics can work to reduce the friction on surfaces such as frying pans and pots, and nanosilver is used in food packaging due to its antibacterial properties. Nowadays, though, nanotechnology can also be found in the very foods and nutritional supplements themselves.

Even bananas may one day be coated with nanoparticles to keep them from ripening to fast.

Even bananas may one day be coated with nanoparticles to keep them from ripening to fast.

It is difficult to create a list of foods that contain nanoparticles because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require labeling them, nor do they keep track of which foods they can be found in. The FDA has placed nanoparticles within the category, “Generally Recognized As Safe” because they believe they are just tiny forms of the larger substances, which are already regulated. So, nanoparticles are now found in many foods, such as those that contain caramelized sugars like corn flakes and bread. Titanium dioxide in its nano form is added to food products to make them whiter, such as vanilla frosting, gum, pudding, Pop-Tarts, coffee creamer, and powdered donuts. Clearly, we are meant to be ingesting this nanoparticle (whether we ought to be is another debate), since it is found inside the food itself. But there are other nanoparticles that are unintentionally entering our foods, primarily through packaging. Nanoclay is used to line plastic soda bottles, nanoaluminum is used on aluminum foil to make it reflect heat and prevent foods from sticking to it, and nanosilver is used as previously mentioned.  And there is evidence that these nanoparticles do not stay put; they shed ions, which can then be consumed by us. What happens after that is still up for debate, and severely lacking in research.

The American Society of Safety Engineers believes that ingested nanoparticles can be absorbed in our small intestines and enter our blood stream, moving throughout our bodies. They believe that nanoparticles can accumulate in various organs, and can potentially disrupt or impair biological or metabolic processes, and weaken the immune system. A study conducted by Cornell University found surprising results when exposing chickens to polystyrene nanoparticles (which are approved for human consumption). When the chickens were exposed to the polystyrene nanoparticles for a short period of time in high amounts, it blocked the birds’ abilities to absorb iron. However, when the chicken was exposed to small doses of the nanoparticles for a long period of time, it increased the bird’s rate of iron absorption. The tricky part is that it’s difficult to say if this would transfer to humans, and it also sheds no light on other nanoparticles, as they all act completely differently. Each one needs to be tested individually, and then – optimistically – tested synergistically to determine if our bodies will react differently if we absorb a variety of these nanoparticles, which is far more realistic. However, the onus is on the general public to discover where the nanoparticles are, as it is voluntary for companies to label or identify their products that contain them, and the FDA and EPA are not required (nor given funding) to monitor them. (Although in my opinion, the companies should prove a product or substance’s safety, not require the government to prove its innocence or guilt.)

Universities in other countries have conducted studies of nanoparticle ingestion. In Holland, researchers studied rats  exposed to surfaces and products with nanosilica coating over ten weeks. They observed that the nanosilica was absorbed into the rats’ bodies and the levels became toxic in the rats’ livers. It is not only adverse health effects that are being researched. In the U.S., researchers at UMass Amherst are working on nano-vitamins, nano-antioxidants, and nano-Omega 3 Fatty Acids. They believe our bodies will more readily absorb these all-natural nanoparticles, more so than the current vitamins and minerals that fortify many foods we eat today. However, there is a risk of making such concentrated doses, as it would great increase the chance for toxicity to occur. However, these are all still in the development phase, and still a long ways from our foods. For now. But there are nanoparticles in our food system, and they are likely migrating into our biological systems. Whether or not they are harmful is still unknown. It is likely that this issue could explode, much like the GMO issue if precautionary actions are not taken and open dialogue not engaged. Only time will tell, but in the mean time, you can keep informed, ask questions, and buy local food!

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What does your cup of coffee really cost?

An inside look behind your morning cup of joe in El Salvador.

A bag of coffee beans costs anywhere between 5 and 20 dollars, depending on the quality and the  brand. A regular cup of coffee bought at a coffee shop, around 2 dollars (we’re talking no-frills, just the coffee in a mug, hot and ready to drink). So let’s look for a moment at who was involved in getting you your morning pick-me-up. We start in a coffee finca, a plantation of coffee trees typically located on steep hillsides around the country, often in the cooler higher altitudes. These fincas are typically quite large and owned by someone who likely lives in the city and only occasionally visits the farm. So first we have a manager who oversees the finca, managing other employees on a day to day basis, who ensures the work gets done. There is quite a lot of work to be done before and after the harvest season: fertilizing the trees, adjusting the soil pH by adding calcium, digging holes to plant new trees, fighting against the newest plague (rust), and getting rid of the weeds.

But when it’s harvest time, all hands come out to work, down to the children who leave school to help their families earn some money. Coffee is picked by hand, partly because of the varying ripening times of the berries, but primarily because no machinery could easily maneuver on the steep slopes. It is difficult enough for humans to do it, never mind small children carrying baskets full of coffee berries. The pickers are paid $1.25 per basket of beans picked; a full basket should have 25 pounds of coffee. A typical worker can pick four to five baskets each day. So they pick 125 pounds of coffee and earn $6.25 for that day’s work. An average 8-ounce cup of regular coffee contains about a half ounce of coffee, which is equivalent to 112 coffee beans, or 56 coffee berries (as each berry contains two coffee beans). So if my math is correct, if a picker harvests five baskets of coffee berries each day, they are essentially harvesting 4,050 cups of coffee. That is about $8100 worth of the finished cup of coffee, assuming each cup is sold for an average of $2.00. So where does the other $8093.75 go? Part of it, of course, towards the wage for the finca manager that we already mentioned, whose average salary is $280 per month.

During the harvest season from October to April, with peak months being December and January, nearly 350,000 laborers come from all corners of the country to make extra money picking coffee. They walk long distances, and take buses, just for the opportunity to earn six dollars a day. Apart from the finca manager, the man who weighs the coffee is on salary as well, for those seven months of harvesting anyway. He earns an average of $140 per month and makes sure each picker has at least 25 pounds in his or her basket. Weighing the coffee is a tense event; often two scales are used and suspicions run high on both sides. Pickers could put rocks into the sacks of coffee to increase its weight and volume, while the scales could be calibrated inaccurately, giving a reading of 23 pounds when it should be 25 pounds, for example. The man who weighs coffee only does that; he has an assistant that records the weight and the number of the picker. The coffee pickers are paid every fifteen days.

Next we have the man who drives the coffee from the finca to the beneficio, the place where the coffee is cleaned and often roasted as well (depending on the beneficio). This man uses his own truck, typically a large one, and is paid by the amount of coffee he brings to the beneficio, by weight as well. He typically receives 8 cents per quintal he brings in, and he can bring as much as 150-170 quintals of coffee twice each day during the peak season (December and January). One quintal is equal to 100 pounds, so he is bringing up to 32,000 pounds of coffee, or over one million cups of coffee. And for that he earns $26 each day, which is an impressive amount compared to the pickers, but remember that he needs to deduct all the expenses for fuel and the truck repairs, etc. Additionally, this salary is not guaranteed for much more than one month of the year, and even at that, it’s only guaranteed if the pickers are picking and the weighers are weighing. The pickers bring their baskets to be weighed and they are consolidated into 150-pounds sacks. These sacks then have to be carried and loaded onto the truck, which is an additional job. This man picks up, carries, and stacks about 60 of these 150-pound sacs each day, and then rides with the truck to unload the coffee at the beneficio, for a daily wage of $7 during the harvest season.

When the coffee arrives at the beneficio, it must be sorted for quality. This job is done by one trained person who can sort the coffee beans expertly. He is paid $144 per month during the harvest season and sorts through an average of 200 quintales of coffee each day, or about $0.00008 per $2 cup of coffee. The coffee is then fermented to loosen the skin and help dissolve some of the flesh around the beans, and then they are washed before being sent to dry. This is a crucial step that needs an abundance of clean water and is overseen by one person that monitors the cleaning of between 100 and 500 quintales of coffee per day, depending on if it is peak season or low season. The coffee must come out of the process free from any other debris, husk, or flesh that would ruin the coffee flavor. This person is paid $220 per month, or about $0.005 of that $2 cup of coffee. The coffee is then removed from the cleaning process and spread out to dry by a man who scoops the wet coffee into a machine pulled by a small vehicle that spreads the coffee beans out into neat rows. He must manually scoop the coffee, and wet coffee weights 20% more than dry coffee, but scoop by scoop, he works to dry it out for $160 per month. During the peak season, he empties and spreads out about 10 pilas (holding sinks, where the coffee is cleaned) each day. One pila can hold 180 sacs of coffee, or 27,000 pounds of coffee (in the berry form). So daily, during the peak season, his share of that $2 coffee is $0.0000017. The coffee must be turned regularly, and this is done entirely manually by someone who pushes a rudimentary wooden broom-like instrument that turns the coffee while it dries. He walks back and forth under the sun all day for about $156 per month during the harvest season, each coffee grain needs 8 to 9 days in the sun before being fully dry. There are machines that can air-dry the beans in shorter time, but there’s something about the sun that makes the coffee taste even better. The machines ruin something that can be discerned by most coffee connoisseurs.

At night, the coffee cannot be left out in the straight rows because it could absorb the evening’s moisture. So the coffee must be pulled into piles and covered by cloth and plastic to protect it. And in the morning, the process is reversed. This job, for whatever reason, has fallen primarily to women, who earn $76 each month for the few hours they work in the morning and the evening. This green coffee (as in unroasted coffee, also called cafe de oro) is loaded into burlap sacs for transport to the coffee roasting facility. Burlap sacs are the best material to transport this coffee, and they are valuable commodities. A woman’s entire job is centered around repairing these sacs. She can repair about 40 sacs per day and is paid $156 per month for her work during the harvest season. A manager oversees all of the coffee’s movement from the time it enters the beneficio to the time it leaves. This person is responsible to make sure the amount leaving as green coffee is roughly equivalent to the amount that entered as coffee berries. He oversees the jobs of the previously mentioned employees of the beneficio and earns $220 per month. To keep the place running, the buildings together, and the lights on, the beneficio contracts a general maintenance worker and electrician. He is paid the full $250 per month, since he is not an official employee of the coffee finca.

The green coffee then goes to be cleaned of any remaining debris or husks, sorted, and weighed. This is primarily done by machines overseen by one or three young men. On any given day, 500 sacs of coffee go through the machines they run; at $150 per month, they see approximately $0.000019 of that $2 cup of coffee. It is monotonous work, watching the machines, watching the coffee, surrounded by booming noise all day. The coffee then goes through a more high-tech quality control system and into storage tanks to wait for exportation – either to local vendors or international buyers. Before being put into storage, samples are taken for roasting and testing, another quality-assurance step. This person is paid $275 per month and samples thousands of grains of coffee personally while sending 240 sacs of coffee through the high-tech machine each day. The coffee samples this person prepares goes to an official taste-tester and rater of coffees. There are only 36 such certified people in El Salvador, and their average salary varies widely. Generally, at a large coffee finca, one of these specialists will tests 50 to 60 distinct samples each day, and is paid per sample tested, or around $25 per day. High quality coffee can be exported for as much as $20 per pound, though $300 per quintal is the average price. But if the coffee stays in the country, it is also typically roasted at the beneficio as well. One person can roast 4,500 pounds of coffee per day and earn up to $400 per month during the peak season due to overtime hours.

The roasted coffee must then be packaged, and this is another job most commonly carried out by women. The average salary for packing roasted coffee is $184 per month, and about a dozen women could be employed in  this job at a single beneficio. The coffee then gets shipped out to coffee shops all around El Salvador, where baristas pour coffee for customers. At the nicest coffee shops, a barista can earn as much as $250 per month as a base salary, but if customers are generous, his or her salary can increase but as much as $100 per month. The rest of the coffee is exported; Japan, Central Europe, and Canada are the top countries that receive El Salvador’s coffee. While coffee is one of El Salvador’s largest exports and definitely largest industries, the majority of the money go into the pockets of those not directly involved with the growing, harvesting, cleaning, drying, testing, roasting, or packaging the coffee itself. It stays in the landowners, or perhaps the exporters. El Salvador has not yet joined the coffee cooperative movement, at least not in the true sense. The true farmers are seeing so little of the profits, and the system is keeping the wealthy elite comfortable in the elevated positions while continuing to oppress the working class. What could be done? Socialize all the coffee fincas? No, I do not believe that is the answer. But the laws of minimum wage and enforcement of labor laws are overseen by those who would directly lose profit if minimum wage increased, and the system is corrupt. Well, I did not intend to give a solution to the issue, just to raise awareness about who helps bring your daily cup of joe to your kitchen.

Note: these figures are averages for El Salvador only; they will vary widely around the world. The majority of information was taken from an article in El Faro, online news source, published on March 18, 2013.

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Rusting Away

Coffee berries, at different stage of ripening, on the slopes of San Vicente Volcano, El Salvador.

Coffee berries, at different stage of ripening, on the slopes of San Vicente Volcano, El Salvador.

Coffee Leaf Rust, a plague affecting coffee plants worldwide, appears to worsen when coffee is grown in full sun, according to recent research published by the University of Michigan (conducting their research in Mexico). Shade-grown coffee has been making  a small comeback for the more environmentally conscious caffeine consumer. Shade-grown coffee means more habitat for birds and other forms of biodiversity; it means coffee growing does not have to be synonymous with deforestation. Shade-grown coffee can also be a reservoir for genetic diversity and reduce the impacts of habitat fragmentation. This type of coffee cultivation is how coffee around the world was grown prior to 1970. But in the 70’s, the increased yields of growing coffee in full sun came to light (no pun intended). Since most farmers look at total yield as a measure of success (a common sense thing to do!), many switched to that method. Additionally, by only having coffee trees, mechanical aids or other tractor-type equipment could maneuver easier among the trees.

Coffee berries, nearly ripe and ready for harvesting.

Coffee berries, nearly ripe and ready for harvesting.

But 1970 was a momentous year for coffee for another reason, one that was not as widely publicized. This was the year that coffee rust made its debut in Latin America. The rust was first discovered near Lake Victoria in eastern Africa in 1861, and formally identified and studies in Sri Lanka in 1867. The plague slowly spread until it reached Bahia, Brazil in 1970 and quickly found its way to Central America. The rust is damaging coffee plantations, causing major foliage loss and even death of the trees. And the plague was only been on the rise. According to recent statistics, coffee harvests in Guatemala and El Salvador are down 34 and 40 percent, respectively, compared to the same harvest period one year ago. This decline has been linked directly to reduced production from trees affected by the leaf rust. Central America provides 14 percent of the world’s coffee, and so a repeatedly decline in harvest could potentially cause world coffee prices to rise, particularly if other countries are struggling with the rust as well.

Coffee collection site. Coffee pickers bring their full baskets here, where they are weighed (on the scale, covered partially by the white bag), and then trucked to the closest coffee cleaning plant.

Coffee collection site. Coffee pickers bring their full baskets here, where they are weighed (on the scale, covered partially by the white bag), and then trucked to the closest coffee cleaning plant.

The study out of Mexico (by way of the U. of Michigan) indicates that farmers would do well to shade their coffee trees again. But growing trees to shade coffee (which generally measure between one and two meters tall) will take several years. Patience will be needed to resolve this problem, as the rust has proven immune to pesticide treatments or other “quick-fix” cures. Keeping the ground litter cleared, replacing affected trees immediately – these are other methods to help prevent the spread, but they are not cures. Bringing back shade grown coffee will be another tool in the toolbox that farmers can use to try to overcome this plague. In the mean time, scientists will continue to experiment and search for varieties resistant to the rust, or other methods of rust control. Hopefully, though, the increase in biodiversity in coffee plantations will bring about a natural cure. Monocultures have never been strong, why would coffee be any different?

A view over the coffee plants on the flanks of San Vicente Volcano.

A view over the coffee plants on the flanks of San Vicente Volcano.

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Saving Traditions

The majority of people around the world are familiar with growing food from seeds; of course, the number is less in developing countries, and less still in urban areas, but overall most people have witnessed the transition from seed to harvested vegetable (or fruit). Fewer people have then saved seeds from that plant they grew to sow in the ground the following season. Naturally, it used to be the only way to ensure you and your family had food in the future. In fact, it was the very action of savings seeds that defined the beginning of agriculture around 10,000 years ago. Over the years, seeds were traded and brought with families as they moved from one town to another, or immigrated to other counties. Eventually, land grant universities and other scientists began to work on creating improved varieties, seeds specially adapted to produce larger ears of corn, or better resist certain plagues.

Typically these new and improved varieties are hybrids, which means that the seeds those plants produce will not come true; the offspring will not have the same characteristic as the parent. This meant that each year, if a farmer or gardener wanted to use that improved variety, they would need to buy the seeds. The additional cost of the seed typically was outweighed by the additional income from less crop loss or greater yields promised (and typically delivered) by these hybridized seeds. So saving seeds by the masses sort of went to the wayside. And the seed companies grew and consolidated, and hybridized seeds were “improved” even further with genetically modified seeds that have genes from other organisms spliced into the genetic code of a variety of common crops. We could have an entire debate weighing the risks and benefits of genetically modified seeds, but for now we will stay focused on seed saving, and how it’s a lost tradition. Many ancient and cultural traditions have been lost, and we haven’t lamented their absence. Most people are probably thankful they do not have to spin cloth to make their own clothes, and having a grocery store nearby definitely takes the pressure off having to store food through the winter. But losing the tradition of saving seeds ultimately puts our food supply in jeopardy.

Chili pepper seeds drying for a week on a paper towel.

Chili pepper seeds drying for a week on a paper towel.

When a plant grows in a certain area, and is native to that area, it typically has certain traits that make it particularly well suited to that exact area in which it’s growing. Perhaps it’s adapted to the specific soil type and pH, or perhaps it’s become acclimated to the particular rainfall patterns or daylight hours. Here in El Salvador, a friend took an avocado sapling from his yard here in the city down to plant at his home near the beach – a distance of 42 kilometers (26 miles). It was dead within a week, and a neighbor told him, with a tone that implied “duh,” that a “city” avocado tree could never survive down there, and neither would a “beach” avocado tree survive being transplanted in the city. By all appearances, the avocado trees are the same species. But over the years, the trees with the traits best suited for that particular environment – be it city or beach – thrived and passed on those traits to their offspring. It’s the basis for evolution. So by buying seeds – all of us, buying from the same seed catalog – and planting them in Maine and Arizona and Wisconsin, we are letting the plants that have worked so hard over the years (centuries, even) to become best suited to that location fall into extinction. So what is wrong with that?

Super hot chili peppers, ready to pick - but don't rub your eyes!

Super hot chili peppers, ready to pick – but don’t rub your eyes!

According to the International Seed Saving Institute (ISSI), over 90% of the world’s nutrition is provided by thirty crops, and only four crops provide 75% of the Calories. These four crops are wheat, rice, corn, and soybeans. These four crops have been the stars of the lab at those land grant universities I mentioned earlier. They have been hybridized and genetically modified and because of that, we have ourselves a very uniform food supply. For anyone that has studied history, or at least paid attention a little during school, they will remember the Irish Potato Famine in the 1800’s. Because the majority of potatoes in Ireland were a single variety, they were helpless when a potato blight came through and ravaged their crops. Peru, having nearly a dozen different varieties of potatoes planted in various regions around the country, weathered the same potato blight with no famine. Hardly even a blip on the radar. Genetic diversity. That is what saved them. And that is what you can help protect when you save your own seeds. Start with the plants you have growing in your garden now (or those you will this spring, if you are in the middle of winter!). ISSI has a comprehensive set of instructions on how to save seeds from a variety of crops. It is so easy that you’ll wonder why you ever bought seeds in the first place! I have started with a particular vigorous and insanely spicy pepper growing in my front garden. I have no idea what variety it is – more research is needed on that. All I did was pick fully ripe peppers, then (wearing gloves), cut the seeds out, removed any pulp or plant material, and spread the seeds on a paper towel in a cool dry place for about a week. Once they were dry, I wrapped them in the paper towel and sealed them in a bag. Hot peppers ready to go for next season (which starts now in El Salvador!).

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Homegrown Antigua

Organic veggies AND an amazing view! It can’t be beat!

Just on the outskirts of Antigua, Guatemala sits an oasis of edible goodness! Coaba Farm produces organic salad greens and lettuce, spinach, broccoli, Bok Choi, sprouts, squash, tomatoes, eggplant, peas, radicchio, fennel, edible flowers, corn, herbs, bananas, avocados, citrus fruits, berries, chicken, and rabbit – not all of these all the time, but on a seasonal basis. Their goal is not just to sell organically produced food, but to promote sustainability and reduce impact on biodiversity beyond the borders of their farm. On the farm, their greens are the most prominent feature – growing in long rows under a clear plastic roof (picture a greenhouse, now remove the walls). The skinny raised beds are watered by drip irrigation and the rows in between and on the perimeter are mulched with the husks of macadamia nuts from the trees on their property. Fruit trees run the border of the property, and next to one lime tree, I saw a small plot of rhubarb and okra – two crops I have yet to come across so far, and I thought they perhaps were experimenting. Something was definitely eating the okra leaves, but the plants had very large okra pods; the rhubarb looked very healthy.

Rows of greens and other small crops under the greenhouse roof.

The farm looks to go beyond organic in their own practices. Of course they do not use any  genetically modified seeds; they either buy certified organic seeds from the States, or they produce seeds on the farm. They are just starting to sell seeds in their store as well for local people wanting to plant their own garden with organic seeds. They only fertilize their plants with compost and mulch produced on site, including worm castings from their vermiculture system. They never use artificial lights to grow their plants, and they turn and improve the soil in between each planting in order to make the land better than when they started farming. To manage insect pests, they use companion planting to naturally repel pests, as well as garlic and neem oil.

Look for this sign!

So when you’re in the Antigua area, follow 5a Avenida Sur away from town….and then keep going. The roads winds a little, but if you keep following it, even after it becomes dirt, you’ll come across the farm on the left just after a small bridge. They do sell to about 100 restaurants in the area, as well as at the local organic shop – Organica, if you don’t want to make the 20-minute trek out to the farm.

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Freshly Cooked School Lunches (at public schools in El Salvador)

School lunch: How many would consider this nutritious? For one, it lacks color. Some red, but that’s about it. Chicken, a small piece of tomato, rice and tortilla. Plus a sugar Hi-C for a drink. I’d give it a C because it could be a lot worse, but it could also be much better.

In 2010, the Ministry of Education in El Salvador undertook a project – Provision of Local Food, Education and Health – to start providing freshly cooked school lunches at public schools around the country. The goal of the project is to help women set up small businesses that provide school lunches, which then feed children for free – incentivizing the children to attend school. The project has three outcomes: strengthening local economies, improving school attendance rates, and enhancing child nutrition. With funding from the World Food Program (WFP), the women have received training in good hygiene practices, how to develop healthy and nutritious meals, and other safety or sanitary procedures, as well as good small business management skills. The WFP has also provided funding for some of the women to increase the capacities of their kitchens in order to cook on a larger scale. The women intend to continue investing to increase the capacity of their kitchens, reinvesting the money they earn to keep their workplace up to the sanitary standard required by the schools.

Students helping themselves to freshly made pesto pasta. Fresh healthy food is delicious too!

The lessons the women have learned in their job training have also been transferred to their day-to-day lives. Knowing more about healthy nutritional habits have allowed them to provide their family with meals that will keep them not just fed, but nutritionally satiated as well. The women have also learned about seasoning food with fresh herbs, disinfecting fresh fruits and vegetables, wearing hair nets, safe hand-washing, water purification, and many other techniques that will have a lasting impact on their lives and their children’s lives. One woman started a business that now provides daily lunch for nearly 500 students in a small town in the eastern department of La Union. Another group of five women in the department of Cuscutlan have band together to form an association that provides 300 daily school meals. They have a shared kitchen that has been stocked with new equipment. They took out a loan of $2500, which at first scared them, but now they are earning a steady income and easily paying off the loan while providing for their families’ needs. These women too have cited that they are now feeding their own families a more diverse diet, and taking better precautions in food safety and hygiene.

Students learning cooking techniques in an industrial kitchen. Cooking well, with fresh and nutritious ingredients is something that more and more youth are not learning. What will they cook for themselves when they grow up?

Overall, this program, if widespread enough, can be a win-win-win for improving rural livelihoods and food security. As long as schools keep providing lunches for their students and these women carefully manage their businesses, the program will be a great success. What is needed is local farms that sell to these women, and then have the school and the women return the uneaten or scrap food back to the farm to be composted for a natural fertilizer….too much? There’s no reason that can’t happen! It also makes for great educational opportunities, to visit the farm where their school meals come from, and see how nutrient cycling works!

Information I could not find: whether or not the government is funding the school’s purchase of these women’s meals (this would impact the long-term sustainability of their business). Also, I could not find where these women purchased the food, or if any of it was home-grown. I would imagine they are buying in bulk from local markets, therefore they are likely using primarily local products (local corn, beans, sugar). But this is not certain.

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A Look at El Salvador on World Food Day

Around the world, countries celebrated World Food Day this past Tuesday, October 16th. It was a day to look at food security around the world and, this year, to see how agricultural cooperatives can help feed our planet’s growing population. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) promoted cooperatives, particularly women’s cooperatives, as a way to help certain areas of the world increase their food security. In a time where the obesity epidemic is headline news in the U.S. and other developed nations, many people in other countries around the world do not have regular access to safe and nutritious food. Teaching farming techniques that can reduce input costs, save water, and increase yields will not only give the farmers more food in their mouths, but money in their pockets.

Cabbage and corn, planted on a steep hillside in Chalatenango, El Salvador. The cool weather makes for a good growing climate, but the terrain is extremely mountainous in this region.

Education is certainly important for farmers in terms of how to improve their harvests, but also for the whole family with regards to what foods make up a healthy diet. Feeling full is a start, but it’s not the whole story. Malnourishment is different from undernourishment. The head of the nutrition department in the Ministry of Health (MINSAL) of El Salvador, Beatriz Sanchez, believes that the majority of her country’s population are ill-informed regarding how to properly feed themselves with a nutritious diet. She further believes that the Ministry of Agriculture and Ranching (MAG) should distribute nutrition information along with the seeds packets. They encourage (through the heavy subsidizing of) planting corn and beans. But just eating beans and tortillas will not cover all of your nutritional needs. In fact, according to data collected by the Institute of Nutrition of Central America and Panama, El Salvador suffers from widespread severe deficiencies of many minerals, particularly calcium and iron, and several vitamins, notably Vitamin A.

Corn, with the stalk broken to start the drying process. Corn for flour (masa) is a staple of the Salvadoran diet.

The ministry’s response is to fortify the basic goods, such as sugar, salt, corn flour and wheat flour. Vitamin A is added to sugar, for example. To me, this is akin to pumping blood into a person dying from a cut in the femoral artery. Sure, the blood transfusions will help, but unless you take care of the root of the problem, it will never go away. Encouraging people to consume sugar for its Vitamin A is certainly not an ideal solution in a country where diabetes is on the rise and few can afford to manage their disease. The Salvadoran Diabetes Association estimates that 800 thousand Salvadorans suffer from diabetes – nearly 13% of the population (compared to the U.S.’s 8.3%).

El Salvador also believes women can be the key to making a positive change in the country’s food security status. The number of rural women make up 51% of the total country’s population, and it is the rural areas where food security and malnourishment are widespread. Many efforts are underway to bring electricity and potable water to rural homes, but many fear that the loss of local food production is being forgotten about, or at least not taken seriously enough. Relying on imports forces the local population to adapt to the fluctuating world prices, which could mean many families will focus on buying the most Calories they can for their dollar, which then might mean that vegetables and other products that would add the needed variety (nutritionally-speaking) to their diet would be foregone.

Cabbage growing on the hillsides. Cabbage is used by the ton every day, in the form of curtido, which is served with the Salvadoran typical food – pupusas.

In El Salvador, 60% of the grain market is controlled by global multinationals (subsidiaries of Cargill, Monsanto and Nestle). This horizontal integration hurts small farmers, who cannot compete with the artificially low-priced imported products. Local efforts are needed to increase production within the country both of staple crops and vegetables, to improve and protect the marketing and sales of these products, to educate farmers in sustainable production techniques and how to handle changes in climate patterns, and lastly, to educate the population about what comprises a nutritionally sound diet. The UN’s World Food Program‘s (WFP) Purchase for Progress (P4P) initiative seeks to empower subsistence farmers by providing low-interest loans and marketing avenues for their harvests. By using their money to encourage small farmers to invest in their farms, they hope to increase long-term food security in the region. Overall, however, the outlook is not a bright one, unless these types of programs dominate and the government (not just non-profits) moves its support towards small-scale local production.

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Coffee Leaf Rust Plagues El Salvador

 

Healthy coffee, nearly ready for harvest (Dec-Jan). For this varietal, ripe coffee “cherries” are ready to pick when a deep red color.

Coffee leaf rust (Hemileia vastatrix) is a fungus that is widely feared among coffee growers. Its full life cycle is not completely understood, but direct contact must be made by the fungus, or the fungi spores, with the leaf to infect it. Scientists also know that the presence of free water is required, and a temperature between 15 and 30 degrees Centigrade. The rust attacks the stomata cells of the plant – those cells that help the plant “breath” – and leaves a powdery, yellowish-orange dust. The fungus attacks the youngest leaves of the coffee plant, sometimes the fruit, and very rarely the older leaves. Physiologically, the rust impairs the plant’s ability to photosynthesize (and therefore produce energy to develop coffee berries), as well as causes premature defoliation (loss of leaves) and reduced flower production (flowers = coffee fruit!). Additionally, new growth is severely limited – due to lack of energy – and the new branches are what will be next year’s coffee crop.

The Salvadoran Foundation for Coffee Research recently estimated that coffee leaf rust is plaguing between 30 and 50% of the coffee plantations in the country. Of those, the majority are seeing well over 10% of their crops damaged by the pathogen. They are estimating minor losses in coffee harvest this year, but a full 28% lower harvest for the 2013-2014 season. The many coffee cooperatives are asking the Ministry of Agriculture & Livestock (MAG, for its Spanish name) to look into this issue and take action; coffee is a cash crop of the country and they feel the government needs to lend a hand in overcoming this plague. At the end of last week, the Salvadoran Coffee Counsel and the MAG completed a comprehensive study of 215 coffee farms in six different zones of the country. Their estimate was that the coffee rust is affecting 10% of the coffee in the country, but on those farms that sprayed fungicide, their infection rate averaged at 2%. They plan on conducting a follow-up study to determine if the rust is spreading, as well as obtaining a count on the acreage affected.

Coffee Leaf Rust – Hemileia vastatrix (fungus).

Controlling this rust from spreading is not an easy feat; complete eradication is widely deemed impossible, but controlling a catastrophe is within reach. Fungicides are only somewhat effective; copper oxychloride – a chemical-fungicide mixture – is the most widely used and most effective. In places such as El Salvador that have long dry seasons, the non-chemical solution of removing affected leaves should be used extensively. Without water, the spores cannot spread, and so the extent of the fungus can be severely limited if the effort is made during the dry season. Full removal of the affected leaves from the plantations is necessary. The MAG says they are negotiating the import of copper sulfate and slaked lime as treatments – a common fungicide used to combat a variety of leaf rusts. Other methods of fighting the spread of the rust is to remove shade trees (a bad blow for the birds and other biodiversity), or to plant resistant cultivars (but “resistant” does not mean immune, so the fungus is still there, just spreading much more slowly). However, over time, the extent of rust damage between coffee farms that cut their shade trees, plant resistant cultivars, and use fungicide compared to those that do not take those actions is minimal. One future possibility involves biological control: there are at least two different species of fungus that act parasitically on H. vastatrix. One fungus species, (Lecanicillium lecanii), seems to work mutually with an ant (Azteca instabilis) to control the spread of the coffee leaf rust. This biological control is only in trial phase, and many more hurdles need to be overcome before it is a practical and common solution to the leaf rust problem. For now, coffee farmers in El Salvador can take comfort in knowing that the dry season is just around the corner, and along with the rain, so too the leaf rust’s damage wanes.

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Livestock in El Salvador

Criollo cattle in Cinquera, El Salvador.

The cattle industry in El Salvador is a small one. It is composed of thousands of small farmers, many of whom raise cattle for their own family’s consumption, or perhaps to sell to their neighbors. The breed of cattle commonly raised are called “criollo” locally, but is actually a variation of Brahman cattle, which is a breed developed in the U.S. from the Indian cattle Bos indicus. This breed was popular due to its ability to tolerate heat as well for its oily skin and smooth coat, which breeders believe increase its resistance to pests such as parasites and diseases. While the breed originated from India, it has been crossbred with European cattle throughout Central and South America. The cattle you can see roaming around the Salvadoran country roads and fields still retain their many of the original features, such as the long, floppy ears, the hump over the shoulder, and a flap of skin hanging loosely from the neck and underside. However, unlike in India, in this region of the world these cattle are used for both beef and milk consumption. They are fed largely agricultural byproducts such as corn stalks, or other materials humans cannot consume. They are often tethered to a stake alongside the roads to graze on the plant life there, or kept in fenced unmaintained pastures (of sorts). Most are consumed either by the family themselves, or sold locally. Due to the fact that El Salvador does not have any inspected and certified slaughterhouses, the local slaughterhouses cannot sell to the export market, nor the local supermarket chains.

El Salvador recently lifted a ban on importing cattle from the U.S., allowing cattle of any age to be imported into the country (previously, the cattle had to be younger than 30 months). Since the majority of beef sold at the supermarkets and in restaurants is from Nicaragua, this new source of beef will likely have little impact on the local production. However, I fear that this will further lower the incentive to build a modern slaughterhouse. The current slaughterhouses are supposed to be closed down, but if there is no additional pressure of farmers wanting to sell locally to larger restaurant and grocery stores, the construction may never begin. This new freedom of export sans verification will also give U.S. corn-fed beef growers a new market; the beef is being marketed as “healthier” than the poor, anemic, grass-fed beef from Nicaragua. Ironic, since the movement in the States is towards grass-fed beef, and although some people still do stand by grain-fed beef, the health claims tend not to support them. Regardless, the supermarket shelves will likely be boasting about the newly imported U.S. beef. (Likely processed and packaged, in part, by illegal Salvadoran immigrants.)

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