Archive for March, 2018

Sugar Coated Documentary

I think it’s fair to say that Sugar Coated didn’t really sugar coat their concerns about the sugar industry. Gary Taubes, Robert Lustig, and Ancel Keyes were all names I recognized when they came up. One of the things that surprised me, though, was that despite Ancel Keyes winning, the fact that there are very serious people with very serious concerns about sugar isn’t new at all. Of course, neither is an industry rerouting money for studies and sponsorships to redirect the discourse. In fact, they point out all through the documentary that Big Sugar’s MO is just the same as Big Tobacco’s. As long as there’s enough doubt as to the danger, legislation can’t be passed and they’ll survive.

I have some disagreements with some of their statements. I don’t think that sugar is sugar is sugar. I think that there is a genuine difference between High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), white table sugar, honey, maple syrup, and agave. However, teasing out those differences would have distracted from the overall message which is that there’s too much sugar out there in everything, and especially in processed food. Since most of what’s in processed food is HFCS, and HFCS is terrible, I can roll with the general sentiment.

The increase in processed food and sugar intake coincided with Ancel Keyes “winning” the debate over whether it was fat or sugar that caused heart disease. Big Sugar bankrolled him against a doctor in London , John Yudkin, who had serious concerns about what sugar might be doing to people. There were the same article headlines in the 1970s that there are right now, does it cause diabetes, hyper activity, tooth decay? Since then, particularly in America, we have reduced our meat and fat intake and increased our processed food intake because of a concentrated effort on the part of the sugar industry to paint themselves as harmless, even helpful. When you make low-fat processed foods, what we were being told was healthy, they taste terrible. The fix to that is to add sugar. Check it out next time you’re looking at yogurt or ice cream. The low fat version is almost never a lower calorie version, and in some cases is actually higher calorie. In a strange twist, though, apparently we haven’t changed our vegetable intake at all since the 1980s.

I appreciate that they point out this isn’t just about fat people. Calories in versus calories out isn’t the whole picture. In fact, when you just look at the non-obese, 40% have the metabolic diseases that we blame on obesity. Which means there’s something going on other than just people getting fat. It’s not a moral question or a question of self control. They interviewed an endurance athlete who was on basically a zero fat diet for years because he’d done his research and that’s what was recommended. Since he was monitoring his daily fasting blood glucose, he got to watch himself become pre-diabetic. This was not on cookies and ice cream, this was on oatmeal and sports bars and endurance training. But there “is no evidence to connect sugar to chronic disease.”

I thought it was quite interesting when they pointed out that non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, something of grave and increasing concern among children, is basically the human version of fois gras. It’s just done on a voluntary basis versus the standard force feeding used for geese. This, along with all of the other diseases that are popping up in children are not only a massive and growing burden on the medical industry, but are of increasing concern of shortening lifespans.

Of course, when you’re looking for research on the harm potentially caused by something, if it’s as big and pervasive as sugar, it can be hard to find research that sugar doesn’t have its sticky fingers in. Government has been reducing research grants for decades, and industry is more than happy to fill the void. Just make sure that you’re coming up with the right answers or you won’t get that grant extension for this project or a new grant for the next project.

They do talk about essentially a sin tax on sugar to make it less accessible. I’m not a huge fan of the idea because it wasn’t that long ago that Denmark instituted a tax on saturated fat using the same reasoning. They recently repealed it since a whole bunch of people were popping over to Germany for their cheese and butter. However, we don’t really, actually know enough about what’s definitely good for us versus definitely bad to be sure we’re taxing the right bad things. If you don’t believe me, just pop into two opposing food forums for a visit. On the other hand, I like their idea of restructuring the farm supports to actually support things we know are good for us, like vegetables. I think that should be paired with backing off the subsidies that go to sugar and grain industries. If sugar and grain are no longer unreasonably cheap compared with real food like vegetables, the food industry will naturally move away from them to protect their bottom line. We just need the people advising the food bill to be farmers, not “food industry” lobbyists.

In the end, we use sugar to say “I love you” but it’s starting to ring as hollow as that chocolate shell bunny in your Easter basket. We need to read labels, but we also need labels that are readable to the average shopper. We need to listen to the experts, but we also need some assurance that the experts aren’t in the pocket of the business they’re supposed to be watching. It’s not a simple problem, therefore it’s not a simple solution. However, we do need to be working on a solution for the health of ourselves and our kids rather than the health of the sugar industry.

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Food Choices Documentary

I’m not going to lie. I knew this was going to be pushing veg*nism from the start and that’s why I watched it. I wanted to poke holes in it, and boy are there holes to poke. But, like a lot of documentaries, even if you’re not sure about the premise, it can still have some good information.

Right in the beginning, I think the second inverviewee, we see Dr. T. Colin Campbell. Coming from the paleo/primal side of things, I promptly rolled my eyes. While he is far from the only person interviewed, I’m sure his name will give the tenor of the information offered. On the other hand, as was noted near the end of the film, if you shoot the messenger, you don’t have to take seriously the implications of their message. Since that’s a very good point, let’s set Dr. Campbell over in the corner for a minute and use the message for target practice.

Once upon a time, the only people who really got what we now consider “lifestyle diseases” were the amazingly wealthy, the kings and queens. Fast forward to now, and a whole lot more of us are living as relative royalty. Compared to the Pharaohs and Queen Elizabeth I, I’ll buy that. For the most part, at least in wealthy countries, we have at our disposal basically all of the refined foods and animal products that we choose to eat. It is now through “nutritional ignorance and lifestyle choices” that we still suffer the same diseases.

They do look at our closest genetic relatives, chimpanzees, and point out that they are frugivores. Ok, as long as we aren’t being strict in the definition. They also point out that we are built more like frugivores than omnivores. Because our big brains and opposable thumbs haven’t given us any technology to move past killing meat with our teeth and eating it raw. (The shot of the narrator chewing on his very patient cat was pretty cute.) Then someone points out that all of the animals we eat for meat are vegetarians. Clearly they’ve never watched a chicken go after bugs or meat scraps. Also, since they point out that meat is, in the end, muscle, it does make sense that some animals do use plants to build said muscle. It’s called the food chain and we learned about it in elementary school. Even, yes, rhinoceroses, elephants, and buffalo, some of the biggest animals on the planet at this point. I’m guessing no one noticed that all those three do is eat in order to get enough calories to maintain their size.

The part where I can’t disagree much is the take down of modern, CAFO meat production. It’s dangerous for humans, it’s terrible for the planet, and it pretty much only benefits the really, really big meat conglomerates. They also bring up the problems with fish, which most don’t. They use the Sea Shephard folks who are, well, a little further out there than most, but the facts are solid. The ocean has lost 90% of the big fish that we consider commercially viable and while their bycatch numbers might be exaggerated, it’s still a serious problem.

They do make a brief mention that “commercial” eggs are particularly bad, given their Omega 6 contents and the microbiome created when you use GMO feed. What they don’t do is talk about how backyard, properly cared for chickens can combat these problems. They also touch on organic, grassfed beef. It’s benefits are a total fabrication by the meat industry, don’t you know? After all, it’s more land intense, and even if they’re humanely raised, there’s no way to humanely kill them, so it’s still eating death and fear. There’s just no way around it!

I did find it interesting that they discussed the place of calcium and protein, which people do question. I did know that calcium isn’t actually all that useful for bones unless it’s in balance with the other nutrients like vitamin D and magnesium. (They didn’t mention the second part of that sentence, just the first.) Protein I know less about. What I do know is that whichever side of the fence you’re on, the ADA recommendations are wrong. They’re either way too high or way too low. The fact that human breast milk has the least protein of any mammal was interesting. A juxtaposition that I found entertaining was in one part they discussed that you can’t get too little protein from a diet of plants,  as long as the calories are sufficient. In another part, they mention that just because the protein line on the label gives an amount, that doesn’t mean your body can process and use all that’s offered. Hmm.

My main beef with the documentary (yeah, I said it), is that they don’t propose veganism just for some people. They propose it as the best and really only option for anyone. They  don’t even allow for vegetarianism. Although I suppose when you think of milk as “cow secretions,” it might be less appetizing. Despite the popular euphemism of a “plant-based diet,” what they insist works for anyone and everyone is a low fat, plant only diet. This includes children. Apparently in Dr. Spock’s last book, he declared that children should be vegan because there’s no need for animal products for health and therefore no need for them to develop the taste. This would be the same Dr. Spock who’s books spent more time on anicdotal evidence than science.

Of course, it ends on a moral note. Even a lot of these statements I can agree with, out of context. “The boat is sinking, so plug the biggest hole.” “We have an invisible belief system that makes us love some animals and eat others.” “It doesn’t matter how healthy we are if the planet isn’t healthy.” “People aren’t stupid, they’re asleep.”

The thing that frustrates me about food movements is that the sides have so very much in common, but they will not or cannot get past the details to allow for other points of view to maybe be right for the person holding them. The information that’s presented is a little shallow, but not bad. I think they come to the wrong conclusions, but that doesn’t mean they don’t also have good points. I’m sure we can all agree that everyone could stand to eat more vegetables.

The Bears and the Bees

The most recent meeting at the Oxford Hills Honey Bee Club hosted Scott Lindsay, a wildlife biologist from the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, to go over information about black bears. Apparently the only state in the lower 48 with a higher population of black bears is Oregon.

At the moment, it is probable that male bears, boars, are are out and about on warm days, 40 degrees and up, but they’re still going back to sleep in between. The female bears, sows, likely won’t be up and around until early to mid-April. That’s also when you’re likely to see cubs in softwood and mixed wood trees. If you do, walk away calmly, since their mother is probably watching nearby.

Interestingly, it takes about a week for their digestion to ramp up after their four to five month hibernation, so their first forays out aren’t gorging. The other interesting piece of information is that as much of a food jackpot as a beehive is, it’s not actually their first choice. If they can find other, natural sources of food, that’s what they prefer. The hard part in the beginning of spring is the limited food supplies outside of the hives ramping up their brood for summer nectar flows.

When I was in Colorado, the bee school emphasized both electricity and physical sturdiness of the structure. Scott prefers making the area around the hive, or anywhere else you don’t want to have a bear, an unpleasant place for the bear to be. This includes electric fencing with a charger giving no less than .5 joules (the horsepower of electricity), and at least a 5,000 volt shock. Something that the bear will remember. However, you can also do things to make the general area unpleasant. There are pyrotechnic shells, cracker shells, that you can get for your 12-gauge. Speak with the ATF and/or USDA for permission. Air horns and firecrackers can also be used to make loud noises. There’s this thing called a propane cannon, but he recommended against using it if you’re in a populated area since it upsets the humans, too. If being annoyingly loud isn’t enough to discourage the bear, you can add some pain stimulus. Aside from the electric fence, you can also get beanbag rounds for your shotgun. If you get rubber bullets, make sure you aim for large muscle masses. The idea is to make the animal uncomfortable, not actually injure it.

If you have a younger bear in the area, they’re easier to train. Because bears are territorial, having a local bear trained to not eat your hives is the best of all outcomes. It will protect its territory, because that’s what they do, and therefore accidentally protect your hives from any not yet trained bears. Not training your local bear means relying on luck to keep your hives safe. Apparently some hives can go years without being touched but half a mile away is an apiary that gets cleaned out on a regular basis. The hard part is that can change without notice. Once the bear finds the easy food source, they’re really, really hard to discourage. A lot of people would like such a bear removed. That’s the second-to-last choice for the department, and it’s also not very effective. First, they’re placed in already claimed territory, annoying the bears on the Quebec border, then they tend to just walk right back home. It really only works with boar bears in the four to five year age group. The odds are, that’s not your bear.

Legally speaking, if a bear is causing harm or damage to you or your livestock, you are allowed to shoot to kill. For it to be legal, you have to call your local game warden within 18 hours. However, most bears have no interest in attacking us and with a little work on our part, they can be discouraged from attacking livestock, too.

One last point. On the off chance that you run into the very, very rare bear that is genuinely predatory and not just trying to intimidate, fight back. Playing dead will not work. However, convincing them that you’re not an easy meal might make them look elsewhere.

A Farmer’s New Year

IMG_6156January has come and gone. Ok, so has February. It is past time to be thinking about what I learned last year and what I’m going to be doing this year. We are well into the season of seed catalogs and getting into the season for starting those seeds. Farming is a highly seasonal occupation, so it’s also time to order bees, chicks, and poults for the coming summer. Unfortunately, I have only just been given permission to put a little weight on my broken ankle and I don’t have an ETA for being functional.

One of the things I learned, after losing my flock to predators, is that I can acquire chickens who are between a few days and a few years old pretty much any time over the summer. However, the older they are, the more habits they’ve established. My current flock is made up of older hens that came from a stationary coop and run that had been scratched down to dirt and younger hens who had been raised in a strictly indoor coop for four months. This has left both groups far less likely to do things like attack the pumpkins I chuck in to them as treats or do serious scratching for bugs. They were getting better at it before it snowed, but they weren’t up to the level of the girls I raised myself and chucked out on grass the minute I could. I also learned that I need to move their mobile coop very regularly to keep the ground clean. That will need to start as soon as it’s warm enough to be planting in the garden where they are currently living. Two strong legs really help with moving the coop.

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Maybe ducklings again? They are adorable.

The latest I can order chicks through the Paris Farmer’s Union is early May. My preferred place to start the chicks, however, is the bathroom upstairs. I should be doing stairs again by the pickup in June, I think. Of course, I also thought I’d be going back to work a month ago. At my bee meeting on Saturday I sat beside a fellow small farmer and we commiserated over broken legs. She broke hers in a February and wasn’t in physical therapy until that August. I was promptly sorry I’d asked about the healing time. There’s not much point in getting chicks in August, since they probably won’t be fully feathered by the first snow. They certainly won’t be big enough to stick up for themselves in the winter coop that is a bit undersized.

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Dead hive in the fall. I think I did the powdered sugar treatment too late. They got damp and caught a chill, most likely.

The real sticky situation is the bees. I have a line on a full 20-frame local hive, but I have to pick it up and do so no later than early May. Because of where my apiary is located, the hive has to be hand carried, and we can’t really break an active hive into smaller pieces to make it lighter. I think my brother will help me with the actual lifting, but it has to be something he can carry, since there’s no way I’ll be able to walk across uneven ground carrying 70# or more of hive and colony by May. The bees are even more time-sensitive than the chickens. If I don’t get them this spring, I won’t stand even half a chance of splitting over the summer to maybe, hopefully, have multiple colonies going into the fall. The other option is to order a box or two of bees. They’re much lighter to handle, but they also won’t have as strong a start and I’ll need to be installing them in mid-April. Of course, they’ll be going into hives with drawn comb, unlike the last batch, so that will help. On the other hand, I’m still going to be on at least one crutch, I’m sure, so checking the queens and feeding them will be extra challenging. Either way, I need to make my decision this week.

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This is last year, this year these are wintering over in the garden.

I had hoped to start a patch of nettles in the yard. I’m not going to be able to get to the boggy parts until it’s too late to plant the seeds. I haven’t even thought about any plants I might want to start for the garden, in no small part because I can’t get down the stairs to our nursery in the cellar. I’ve been struggling with the sprouts I’d like to be feeding my hens before there’s grass available because there is a limited amount of space that I can get to at the moment where there’s both a sink for water and warmth.

Spring is well on its way, the farming year is about to hit its stride, and I am trying to figure out when I’ll be walking again. Happy new year.

Dirty Money Documentary

The documentary Dirty Money unmasks several companies that have been behaving badly. Throughout the series there is a definite common thread. When money and success are sought for their own sake, a whole lot of things fall by the wayside. Silly little details like morality and being a good citizen.

It starts off with the Volkswagen diesel scandal. Did you know Hitler was all about getting Volkswagen up and running? It is literally the people’s car. I had no idea. The company did great for a while, then it did terrible for a while, then it was ready to do great again, but perhaps didn’t have the chops to keep up with the world market anymore. So they, you know, fudged things a bit. Then they got caught. They said, oops, we’ll fix it. Instead, they doubled down on making sure that their cars tested well and who cares about their actual ability to avoid making smog. They got caught again, and, well, we’re still working that out. So why did they fudge the data on how much disease causing mess was coming out of the tailpipes anywhere but in the testing area? Because that was how the man in charge of the company was going to put Volkswagen back on top. Who cares if “clean diesel” is a lie as long as people buy it and buy the cars attached to it?

Episode two has an interesting quote. When Scott Tucker, payday loan business owner, was asked if he was a moral man he replied, “I am a business man.” I really wanted to say that wasn’t the question, but more and more often in today’s business climate, that is one of the options to that question. Moral, not moral, business person and therefore exempt. While I feel terrible for the people that were sucked into his scheme because they just needed a little help, I kept getting stuck on his employees. Specifically, it was the recorded conversations with the phone reps that were really painful for me. These people were told what they were doing was legal. I’d say the odds are they were being paid in the $10-$14 range to spend eight plus hours per day listening to upset, angry customers. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them needed payday loans themselves at times. They were doing their best to be responsible citizens and then they find out that their terrible job was also part of an illegal scheme. Moral, immoral, or just trying to make ends meet?

Speaking of modern business practices, how about a pharmaceutical company who believes “Bet on management, don’t bet on science”? The stock market loved Valeant since their income and net worth went up every single quarter. Why? Because they weren’t doing silly things like coming up with new drugs and therapies, those are too hit or miss. No, they were gobbling up companies that had come up with unique drugs and then jacking up the prices of those drugs. Why did this work so well in the stock market? The people that are making decisions on Wall Street understand M and A (mergers and acquisitions). They are less familiar, and patient, with R and D (research and development). One gives you results within a quarter or two, the other not so much. Who cares that there are people now forced to choose between food and medication as long as the stock keeps going up? Fun fact: nothing the drug company did was illegal. People were becoming uninsurable due to drug costs anyway.

The next episode isn’t Wall Street per se, but HSBC is London’s big bank. Actually, they’re kind of the world’s big bank. They’re also, evidently, the favorite bank for drug cartels. They get caught for doing that and pay what is essentially a wrist slap of a fine. Why? “[W]e don’t want to take them down, we don’t want to cost thousands of jobs, we have to think about the innocents.” Hmm, yes, those poor innocent VPs and CEOs that are making millions on laundering drug money. Why would they casually disregard all of the rules about handling money designed to catch money launderers? Because . . . money. The more they had, the more they made. Money itself is amoral, so it goes very quickly from a bad thing (supporting murdering drug cartels) to a potentially good thing (small business and housing loans). Now because this bank is so big and has its fingers in the pies of so many countries, destabilizing it would be bad for the world economy. Arresting the people who made the decision to launder drug money would destabilize the company. Therefore, they get to keep doing what they’re doing because they’re “too big to jail.” Why protect the innocent when you can protect the rich?

The next episode is interesting, since both sides make really good points. It starts out with learning that Canada has a Strategic Reserve of maple syrup. And someone stole $18 million from it. Naturally, the biggest theft in the history of Quebec was maple syrup. What had led up to the theft was a group, the Federation of Maple Syrup Producers, doing what they could to stabilize syrup prices to encourage younger people to get into the market. People try to avoid taking risks in markets that are more likely to bankrupt them than let them retire. Over time, prices tripled to around $1800 per barrel, meaning it might be a genuine livelihood for some producers. The ones against the “OPEC of maple syrup” also had some valid points. They disagreed with sales restrictions and fines imposed by a group they never agreed to join, and it’s not as if they could move their trees out of Quebec to get away. With prices rising and a fair number of discontented producers, a black market is inevitable. Which is where the theft comes in. The syrup stores well and how do you prove this bottle is stolen syrup while that one isn’t? I’m less sure of who was in the wrong here, aside from the thieves, but I am sure that massive amounts of money in play had a lot to do with what went wrong.

The weird orange icing on the top of the cake is our very own president, Donald Trump. A man who can’t support his claims about his net worth because they’re based primarily on how much someone will pay him to plaster the Trump name on their building. He positioned himself and his brand as the businessman savior we needed to fix this country. Since he’s been working the brand of businessman for a couple of decades at this point, it’s not so crazy that people believed him, and goodness knows we needed something that wasn’t the status quo. But if you scratch the golden trimmings you’ll see it’s not even gilt, it’s pyrite, and probably unpaid for at that. All he has is a successful brand and a rather long string of disasters in his wake. In fact, his disasters were so big that the banks didn’t want him to declare bankruptcy. They couldn’t afford for him to not pay them back. At one point, he was actually on an allowance from the banks of $450,000 per month just to get by. I’m sure it was a terrible struggle on such a stingy amount. Trump’s disinterest in due diligence and long-term investments in favor of gut instincts and quick cash are well hidden behind being a fantastic pitch man. Unfortunately, it’s not clear that he ever actually intended to become president and he may have finally hit an audience that he can’t con with his current national and international stage.

What have we learned from this series on Dirty Money? To start with, they’re going to need a lot more episodes to even scratch the surface and I’m looking forward to them. Secondly, short-term profits being valued over due diligence and quality is a bad plan. It’s also a very common plan in a world where the business’ worth is rejudged with each quarterly report. We really need to work on a new plan, instead of rewarding this outdated, unsustainable way of doing business.