Friday, 28 September 2012

A Bit of Arsenic in Rice Can’t be that Bad, Can it?

BBC Interviewer: If you are accustomed to eating maybe one or two servings [of rice] a week, it’s not going to make that much difference?

Scientist: No, no that’s absolutely the facts

This morning I listened to this interview with a toxicologist about arsenic in rice. I don’t question scientific studies that report that people seem unaffected by trace amounts of heavy metals in food, in the short term. However, I do question the above BBC interview where a scientist claims it’s, “…absolutely the facts” that one or two servings of rice a week is fine for human consumption, no matter where the rice comes from and no matter how long you are exposed to it. For one thing, this scientist doesn’t address the issue of prolonged exposure to arsenic, found linked to bladder cancer in Taiwan. Most importantly, this scientist doesn’t support his claim with any evidence at all.  

In the journal Nature, scientists recently reported that the arsenic-laden rice in the news likely comes from rice crops cultivated on land used in the past to grow cotton in the United States. In the past, U.S. cotton fields were treated with arsenic-based chemicals to kill pests and to make cotton harvest easier.

The current arsenic scare comes from a study on 200 samples of rice and rice products found in the U.S. Scientists from the FDA say this sample is not big enough to recommend changes in people’s diet. So, these scientists have advised the general public to wait on the results of a study based on 1000 rice samples.

After reading the news and science blogs I asked myself a few questions.

Do we need more evidence to find out exactly where arsenic-contaminated rice is coming from and to clean those lands up?

I think so.

But, do we need more evidence to change our eating habits?

Most definitely not.

The interview I quote at the beginning of this blog scares me. I’m envisioning a reoccurring scenario, when scientists from food organizations say its okay to eat a little bit of heavy metals, just not too much. Take tuna for example, many of these fish have methlymercury levels so high, pregnant woman are warned not to eat them at all. This tuna scare has not been enough to stop many of us from eating tuna. Maybe we have limited the amount of methylmercury-contaminated tuna and maybe will eat arsenic-enriched rice in moderation, but, let’s use our common sense, when was even a little bit of these heavy metals ever good for us?

If cotton-farmers 100 years ago knew the chemicals they put on their crops would be absorbed by the rice their great-granddaughters would be eating, would they still use it? I don’t have that answer. I can say that farmers and consumers today should be well aware of how pesticides, and other chemicals, persist in our ecosystem for generations. Today we are talking about arsenic used a century ago. What will it be tomorrow? For one example, my guess is that our descendants will slap their forehead when they think of all the glyphosate we use today to remove weeds (really any other plant) from our soy, wheat, and cereal crops.

So will a little arsenic in our stir-fry harm us today? Will a little glyphosate in our toast harm us tomorrow? I guess it all depends on what we are thinking when we make our eating choices. Are you simply eating to get by? Or, are you are eating to protect your health and that of generations to come?

Monday, 24 September 2012

From Ghana's Grasscutters to Indigenous Wild Rice: Heirloom Recipes Continued

Ghana’s Grasscutter:
In my last blog, I posted an heirloom recipe using an alternative protein, Tucan meat. Similarly, I found an article promoting another unique source of animal protein, the Grasscutter (also known as the Greater Cane Rat) . Read how farmers in Ghana are raising this wild rodent and selling what A. Bergman calls “The Other, Other White Meat”.

Winnowing Wild Rice in a Birch Bark Basket, Manitoba, Canada

Manoomin for Thanksgiving? 
While heirloom recipes are on my mind, I can’t forget to mention wild rice. Thanks to the Anishnaabe people of Canada, I’ve seen how this hearty grain is processed, I’ve even danced in a wild rice pit! This short story takes you to Indigenous people's wild rice foodscape on the lakes of North America. You'll learn how people canoe to sites of rice harvest and hand-pick this nutty, delicious grain. With North American Thanksgiving right around the corner, try one of these wild rice recipes.

Looking for a Food Adventure? 
Try creating a meal with one of the world’s most endangered foods. If you are in the Americas, choose from this list of endangered foods. If you aren’t sure where to find these rare delicacies, don't be afraid to ask around. On my recent trip to Virginia, I was suprised to find my host growing an endangered fruit, the Pawpaw, in her backyard. Still on my list of foods to find are the Ozette Potato and the Tennessee Fainting Goat

Friday, 14 September 2012

Toucan Soup, an Heirloom Recipe

Before I moved to Costa Rica, I did not think I would add Toucan Soup to my recipe book. My Bribri friends in Talamanca have taught me otherwise. I’ve learned that toucan meat can be prepared in a number or forms, from fried to smoked, much like chicken or turkey; here, I share a recipe that is a favorite among my Bribri friends called Wacho, or, as I’ve translated it, Toucan Soup. Pig or chicken meat is now commonly substituted in this soup, but you’ll still find people who treasure this heirloom recipe.

Recipe for Urrék (Toucan in Bribri)

Pluck and fillet the Toucan as you would any wild foul or chicken (boiling the bird may help remove feathers)

Fry the pieces of meat in a large pot with onion, garlic, wild cilantro and peppers, and salt (root vegetables can be added at this step, such as yucca)

Add water and bring to a boil; keep on the fire until the meat is cooked

 Once the meat is cooked, stir in white rice

 Finish cooking your soup until rice is tender and serve hot

Learning about toucan as a food left me with a few lingering questions: What other wild birds are important foods? Why are these foods important to people who eat them? And, what do they taste like? I hope to learn more about these wild delicacies as my time passes in Talamanca. I often reflect on how fortunate I am to participate in indigenous family traditions that have been practiced for hundreds of years. At the same time, I’m sorry I didn’t spent more time asking my grandparents to show me how to fillet a chancellor chicken or stuff a moose heart.

If you are intrigued to learn a few more heirloom recipes, check out a favorite book of mine called Renewing America’s Food Traditions. Reading these recipes will be even more rewarding if you can find someone who knows how to prepare them. 

Listen to toucans I recorded while visiting a friends' farm in Costa Rica: