Blueberries without borders

Blueberries have arrived from Peru in my local store. Next they’ll be coming from Chile, then Mexico. As spring moves north, they will arrive from Florida.  Then in late spring they’ll be ripening in Georgia, after that California and Oregon. Washington will start shipping in early July.

image: Investment Agriculture Foundation of British Columbia

The northward march of the blueberries ends in British Columbia, where the largest crops in Canada are grown and the season is long says Corey Mintz:

“Because of the warm, sunny weather blueberries need to thrive; many regions have a growing season of only four to six weeks. But the climate of BC allows for a longer season: nearly three months, from early July to late September (Walrus magazine October, 2018).”

B.C. returns the blueberry favour by sending them south -all over North America. Blueberry production in BC has grown from 4.3 million kilograms in 1980 to 61 million kilograms in 2017.

The fact Canada exports any produce at all may come as a surprise. We can’t compete with American growers for many other crops says James Vercammen, professor of food and resource economics at the University of British Columbia. Economies of scale, higher labour and land costs, give U.S. producers an edge.

But as the sun lingers over Canada in the summer, we have an advantage that Americans lack. Vercammen says that British Columbia is “now growing raspberries and blueberries like crazy.”

Things didn’t look so good at the start of the 2018 growing season. Blueberries, like one-third of the foods we eat, depend on pollination by bees.

Bees prefer a balanced diet. In recent years, honey producers have expressed concerns over the nutritional value of a blueberry diet alone. “It’s a single fruit,” said Kerry Clark, president of the B.C. Honey Producers’ Association, “It’s like going to a buffet and the only thing there is salsa. It doesn’t give you a balanced diet.”

Monoculture crops that cover vast areas aren’t very nutritious for bees. Weakened bees are more susceptible to disease and the wet spring this year meant that growers were applying more fungicides –also not good for bees.

That meant that owners were reluctant to send their colonies to blueberry fields. “It’s become less and less attractive, to the point where the beekeepers have decided not to bring thousands of colonies into the blueberries this year,” said Clark.

While blueberry production has increased, the number of bee hives has not kept up. One beekeeper predicted a loss because he couldn’t supply enough hives:

“There’s definitely going to be a shortage of bees in blueberries this year. It will be worse this year. The plants will be there, but the bees won’t be there to pollinate them, so they won’t get the berries.”

But all the worry turned out to be for nothing. As the damp spring turned into a sunny summer, blueberries thrived and by the end of the year there was a glut of the crop. The lower prices were good news for berry lovers but disastrous for farmers.

John Gibeau of the Honeybee Centre in Surrey was philosophical: “If it’s nice weather we do well. If it’s poor weather we do poorly. That’s farming.

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More reasons for reduced guilt while flying

I feel less guilty flying on vacation now that I’ve compared flying with driving by car. Both contribute to global warming about the same.

image: alternet

Comparisons between the two are tricky because there are many factors like the efficiency of the car and how many are traveling. And the distance the plane flies: more fuel is used on takeoff so longer flights are more efficient. The University of Oslo has weighed these factors and concludes: “With only one passenger in the car, corresponding to 20-25% occupancy, the climate impact is at the level of an average air trip (Yale Climate Connections).”

My burden of guilt might be reduced even further. Canadian airlines are looking at using renewable energy rather than fossil fuels. (Globe and Mail, July 25, 2107)”.

Air Canada has flown eight times on biofuels, most recently from Edmonton to San Francisco on May 2, 2018. The flight reduced carbon emissions by over ten tonnes, a 20% reduction in net carbon emissions. This is equivalent to taking 26 cars off the road for a month according to Air Canada. They are careful to say that the growth of biofuels can’t come at the expense of food crops. That should be easy because some land that is unsuitable for food may be fine for biofuels.

Even more arable land will come available because of global warming caused by people (gulp) going on vacation and spewing CO2 into the atmosphere.

Air Canada has also improved fuel efficiency by 43 per cent since 1990 and they hope to be carbon-neutral by 2020. “These efforts and other green initiatives to increase efficiency and reduce waste were recognized by Air Transport World which earlier this year named Air Canada the Eco-Airline of the Year for 2018,” they say.

Planes are becoming more efficient. That, combined with cleaner burning biofuels can reduce air pollution. According to NASA, a mixture of 50% aviation biofuel can cut air pollution caused up to 70%.

If I flew on a plane that used solar, electric or hydrogen fuels, that would be even better. But for now those sources don’t have the power necessary to launch commercial airplanes.

I could also buy carbon offsets to pay for my sins of emissions. WestJet has teamed up with Carbon Zero. Their calculator shows that my return trip to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, generates 0.65 Tonnes of CO2. For an additional $14.69 I can contribute to an equal reduction of greenhouse gases. They offer two projects. One is diversion of organic waste from a Toronto landfill which prevents methane from escaping into the atmosphere. That’s good: methane is an even worse greenhouse gas than CO2.

However, while I may feel a little better, carbon offsets are a drop in the bucket. Offsets nowhere match the amount of carbon going into the atmosphere.

In addition, carbon offsets only appeal to people who worry about such things. For those who don’t think that humans contribute to global warming, offsets may look like a scam.

No guilt would better than reduced guilt but I can console myself, somewhat, by comparing myself with those who don’t give it a fleeting second thought.

Blockchain could revolutionize global banking

The era of globalization is drawing to a close. Evidence of that has been made clear by President Trump’s withdrawal from global affairs, his attempt to build an economic and physical wall around the United States. It’s a clumsy attempt to express the genuine concerns of Americans who have been left out of the prosperity reaped by a few.

     image: Urban Forex

Two billion people around the world have no access banking. They are unable to make loans to start small businesses; they have no credit, and no means of sending or receiving money.

And the rest of us have is rigged banking system. We are nickeled and dimed in every banking transaction and pay exorbitant interest rates on credit cards.

We are told that a healthy banking system is fundamental to a healthy economy. Yeah, right. Banking funnels money into the pockets of the rich who have so much that it just lays around in piles, uninvested, while worthwhile social programs and enterprises go threadbare.

When U.S. banks failed during the Great Recession of 2008 -because of bad business practices- they were bailed out with taxpayer’s dollars. They were rewarded for bad investments while homeowners who couldn’t pay bank-approved mortgages were thrown out on the street.

Not only is there an asymmetrical relationship between banks and clients in terms of wealth distribution, there is also an imbalance of transparency. While banks know exquisite details about us, we know practically nothing about them. Social scientist Shoshana Zuboff calls this one-sided, extractive interaction “surveillance capitalism.”

The technology of blockchain holds promise to restore balance and eliminate excessive fees through use of a universal digital currency, or cryptocurrency.

The first digital currency, Bitcoin, leaves people wondering. It has a reputation of being highly speculative.  But there are many versions of cryptocurrencies that would work and many possible versions of blockchains –the digital ledger which records transactions.

The advantages of cryptocurrencies over banking are that your money is held in a digital wallet and easily accessed; credit card payments are quicker and less expensive; you remain relatively anonymous (pseudonymous) with minimal information shared; you are the master of your money, there are no banks or boundaries to the flow of money.

If it all seems to be too good to be true, there are hurdles. One is just who controls access to your digital money. If banks control applications that access cryptocurrency wallets, we can expect business as usual. Cultural anthropologist Natalie Smolenski explains:

“This is the crux of blockchain’s catch-22: the public won’t use blockchains without user-friendly applications. But user-friendly applications often achieve that ease through centralization, which replicates the conditions of control that blockchains sought to circumvent (Scientific American, January, 2018)”

A new era would bring public control of cryptocurrencies. As Bitcoins have demonstrated, we already have a blockchain that is open-source and maintained by a global network of volunteer core developers. We have a network of individually-owned computers that process the indelible transactions –a process called “bitcoin mining.”

“Creating digital identities whose existence is independent from governments and corporations is the next grand challenge that blockchains both pose and could help solve,” says Smolenski.

With the dawn of the era of a “Universal New Deal,” cryptocurrencies could redistribute wealth and put money in the hands of those who will spend it.

The titans of technology have feet of clay

Technology seems unstoppable. The accumulated wealth of the Big Five: Apple, Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon, have a combined value of $4 trillion. That’s more than twice Canada’s annual GDP.

     image: Minneapolis/St.Paul Business Journal

Wall Street also looked unstoppable before the crash of 2008. Cryptic investments made amazing returns but finance wizardry also has feet of clay. Conor Sen, business columnist for Bloomberg Views, summarizes that vulnerability:

“Markets became irrational about how profitable the financial sector could become relative to the underlying economy, and in response to these market pressures, finance came up with increasingly elaborate schemes to make money that weren’t sustainable (Globe and Mail).”

Facebook and Google have the advertising world wrapped up. The clever duo don’t have to hire reporters to dig up news because users generate their own content.  Facebook and Google and benefit in three ways: by encouraging users to generate content, collecting detailed profiles of users, and then selling advertisements to those very users. Users happily post pictures of adorable kittens, videos, inflammatory and sometimes interesting comments (but not much actual news).

While Facebook and Google couldn’t care less about the loss of newspapers and other news sources, they should be worried about the financial health of their advertisers. Companies can afford to advertise only because they are viable. Amazon is profitable because third-party vendors choose to sell on Amazon.

“In other words,” says Sen, “for the most part, the big five tech companies exist at their current size and scale only because they serve a larger underlying economy of profitable companies.”

Tech giants exist in an economic ecosystem. There has to be a balance between the top predators and the health of the ecosystem which they feed. There’s going to be trouble for the big fish once the little fish stop feeding them.

Tech giants don’t just suck only advertising revenue from traditional sources. They also provide services that didn’t exist when newspapers ruled; like the cloud computing services provided by Amazon, Google and Microsoft. Cloud computing also depends on a viable economy.

The titans of technology could harm the very businesses they depend on. For example, Blue Apron, a meal-delivery company, has been a prolific online advertiser. What if Amazon were to establish a company and put Blue Apron out of business? It’s not inconceivable. Last year, Amazon bought Whole Foods for $17 billion and even the world’s biggest retailer Walmart took notice. Target is cutting advertising to stay in the game.

Fossil Group has been struggling lately. Sales of their watch have been dropping, perhaps because of the popularity of Apple Watch. If Fossil Group starts to cut back on advertising, Facebook and Google would lose ad revenue. Amazon would lose sales of the Fossil watch as well.

Owning a newspaper used to be a licence to print money. The marriage of news and advertising seemed solid. Now readers get “news” from the internet. Selling advertising on a medium where the content is generated by the target audience seems like a sure thing.

Amazon, Google and Facebook have a parasitic relationship to the economy. Other than advertising and marketing the products of others, their contribution to the economy is minimal.

Blockchain could improve food security

The future of cryptocurrencies such as the bitcoin might be unclear but the technology behind it is solid. Blockchain is the digital ledger where bitcoin transactions are kept. It’s transparent, secure and open for all to see.

    image: Realty Biz News

The origin of blockchain is mysterious. Some person, or group, with the anonymous name Satoshi Nakamoto is credited with inventing blockchain. Who this person is remains obscure.

Blockchain’s usefulness goes beyond cryptocurrencies. Its property of transparency could improve food security. Sylvain Charlebois, professor in food policy and distribution at Dalhousie University explains:

“Blockchain technology allows for users to look at all transactions simultaneously and in real time. In food, for example, a retailer would know with whom his supplier has dealt. Additionally, since transactions are not stored in any single location, the information is almost impossible to hack (Globe and Mail, December 13, 2017).”

If you are buying pork chops in a grocery store, for example, and wanted to know the complete history the animal before you buy, you could scan the QR code on the label and within seconds know the date of the animal’s birth, use of antibiotics, vaccinations, and where the animal lived. (QR codes are a type of bar code in the shape of a square.)

The Public Health Agency of Canada reported earlier this month that 21 people became sick after eating romaine lettuce. While PAHC knew what caused the illness (E. Coli 0157) they didn’t know where the lettuce came from. Tracing contaminants can be a matter of life and death.

“Every year, more than four million Canadians get food poisoning. In recent years 474 cases of [the deadly disease caused by E. Coli 0157] have been reported annually,” says foodqualitynews.com.

Big Food is considering blockchain as way of tracing contaminates. Wal-Mart sells 20 per cent of all food in the U.S. and tested blockchain compared to standard methods of tracing food. They traced the source of mangoes in one of their stores using the standard method and it took six days, 18 hours, and 26 minutes to trace the fruit back to its original farm. Using blockchain technology, it would take 2.2 seconds for anyone –consumers and suppliers alike- to find out anything they want. And it would prevent good food from being thrown out.

“During an outbreak of a food-related health scare, six days is an eternity,” says Prof Charlebois, “A company can save lives by acting quickly. Blockchain also allows specific products to be traced at any given time, which would help in the reduction of food waste. For instance, contaminated products can be traced easily and quickly, while safe foods would remain on the shelves and not in landfills.”

Blockchain won’t be implemented without the involvement with everyone along the food chain. The record will only be as good as the data entered. Giants like Wal-Mart can force supplier participation.

Governments could also force compliance. With the health of consumers at stake, regulated participation would make the records complete and useful.

Cryptocurrencies may be a fleeting gimmick to have investors part with their money but let’s not throw the blockchain out with the bitcoin.

My beef with Canada’s new food guide

Canada’s new food guide is being influenced by agencies whose chief focus is the consumption of their products, not our health. Food industries and a branch of government, Agri-food Canada, are resisting proposed changes by Health Canada.

     Proposed food label. Image : Globe and Mail

Health Canada wants the new food guide to “shift towards more plant-based foods,” less red meats, and to limit “some meats and many cheeses” high in saturated fats.

These are sensible recommendations but not what Agri-food Canada wants. They are in the business of promoting the sale of red meat and dairy industries. AAFC officials wrote a memo marked “secret” in which they worried:

“Messages that encourage a shift toward plant-based sources of protein would have negative implications for the meat and dairy industries (Globe and Mail).”

Yes they would have negative implications but the health of Canadians trumps the meat and dairy industries.

Canada’s food guide is widely respected. Seventy-five years after its first launch, it’s the second most requested government document after income-tax forms. It’s distributed to dieticians and doctors for patient advice, and to schools and hospitals for creating meal plans. The new guide will be around for a long time, so it’s important to get it right.

The current guide, revised in 2007, had a number of flaws. It recommends juice as a serving of vegetables and fruit. It recommends two servings of “milk and alternatives” and two servings of “meat and alternative.” Juice is not a substitute for whole fruit and vegetables. Too much red meat and saturated fats are unhealthy.

There are problems with the “Nutrition Facts” label as well. The serving size is not standard so that breakfast cereals, for example, may appear to have similar calorie content but, in fact, differ because the serving sizes vary.

Health advocates recommend that the new Nutrition facts label be moved from the back to the front of the package, and that foods which are high in salt, sugar, or saturated fats have a “stop” or “yield” sign. At a meeting with Health Canada in September, food and beverage industry reps were furious. They called the warning a “big, scary stop sign,” and that the signs were overly simplistic. They prefer detailed labels on the back rather than blunt symbols on the front. A lawyer for the food industry argued that Health Canada was not giving Canadians the respect they deserve: “They’re not idiots.”

Canadians are not idiots but they’re not nutrition specialists either. The food industry would rather have detailed specifications on the back because many shoppers find them hard to interpret.

The food industry complains that plain symbols like stop and yield signs would make consumers think they are “like a chemical warning sign.”

But warning symbols are appropriate because some foods are unhealthy. More than one-fifth of Canadians are obese. Diet-related chronic illness costs our health care system $7 billion a year. Heart disease and stroke are the leading cause of death.

Under the Harper government, the AAFC held sway. When Health Canada wanted to revise the guide back then to “choose local or regional foods when available,” the AAFC vetoed it. We’ll see how determined the Trudeau government is in shaping a healthy food guide. Will the government defend the health of Canadians or the food industry?

Local content on the new aether

Medieval scientists believed that radio waves were carried through a medium they called the aether. Seems sensible. If sound waves require a medium, why not radio waves? It turns out that radio doesn’t need a medium; a vacuum will do nicely.

radio

     radio waves

The internet is the new aether. The “network of networks” depends on wires and optical fibers to carry signals. The internet wouldn’t exist without it (Wifi is radio but it’s just a connection to the internet).

We straddle both worlds –ethereal radio waves surround us while the internet remains wired. If I put up an antenna, I can receive CFJC TV for free. I chose to pay Shaw cable to have the station delivered to my house.

The internet is as disruptive as early radio and TV was and its role is still being defined. Is the internet a broadcaster? If CFJC is a broadcaster and if I can receive the same station over the internet, it would seem like it.

Not so. In 2012, the Supreme Court of Canada heard arguments from program producers that cable companies were broadcasters. The court agreed with cable companies that they were not.

It’s not trivial matter. If traditional TV stations are broadcasters and cable companies are, then the cost of production local shows and news has to be paid for by the TV stations –they receive nothing for the signals that cable carries.

It’s a problem in small cities like Kamloops because local news and programming is expensive to produce and ad revenue is not as high as large cities.

In the past, cable and satellite companies have grudgingly paid into temporary funds to support local programming but it’s a constant battle. This has left small markets scrambling to make ends meet.

Local news is vital. It not only informs the community it serves, reflects its values, and is vital in emergencies. Rick Arnish, Chair of the Small Market Independent Television Stations Coalition (SMITS), was a strong advocate of local TV before retiring. He also supported free over-the-air TV for people who can’t afford cable. He made that clear in his letter to the Canadian Radio-television & Telecommunications Commission in 2015:

“Over 95% of the participants who posted comments on the topic of over-the-air television in the online consultation held during Phase 3 referred to the importance and value of the ability to receive television programs inexpensively over the air and opposed proposals to shut down transmitters. Canadians value local news, with a CRTC commissioned poll putting the number who consider it ‘important’ at 81%.”

Arnish also made clear that cable companies should share the cost of local TV if small stations are to survive.

“Moreover, all things being equal, with the phase out of LPIF [Local Programming Improvement Fund] now complete, the SMITS Coalition stations as a group will be in the red this broadcast year, given the loss of the $5.4 million contributed by LPIF last year.”

Before retiring last year, Arnish was Program Director at CFJC TV and General Manager of Broadcast Centre and later President of the Jim Pattison Broadcast Group.

The internet transmits the content from traditional sources without paying for its creation. Unlike the old aether which radiated local programming, the new aether sucks the life from local TV.