Thursday, May 20, 2010

By Way of Explanation

I've been taken to task on several occasions when I write about how I'm trying to learn to do without certain food items - tea, sugar, wheat - and I thought it was time that I talk about why I think it's important that I eliminate (or at least, reduce) these items from my diet.

Tea, wheat, coffee, cocoa, and spices have been staples in the world's diet for hundreds of years. They've been traded around the globe. In fact, according to the history lessons I learned as a child, the whole point of Columbus' voyage, the one that had him landing on an island off the coast of what is now the United States of America (thus, starting the whole westward migration across the Atlantic Ocean) was to find a passage to India that did not entail going around the Cape of Good Hope, which was originally dubbed Cape of Storms, which can give us an idea of why finding an alternate route was desired.

The difference between that time and this can be summed up in two words: fossil fuels.

We have them, and they didn't.

In fact, we are wholly dependent on them. Without fossil fuels, in particular, oil, we will find our lives very difficult.

So, what's that got to do with wheat and tea?

Well, most of the tea we consume in the world is grown in southeast asia, India, and China (for the record, the tea plant, camellia sinensis can be grown, successfully, in the United States. It is hardy to zone 8 ... and if any of my readers in zone 8 would be interested in growing tea for me, I might be convinced to trade you some real, honest to goodness maple syrup :).

The tea leaves are usually hand-picked, but then, they are dried, and I don't know if they use electricity to dry the leaves or if they just allow them to dry in the sun, but I can be pretty sure that the tea leaves are transported to a packing facility using trucks. Then, they are sealed up in little tea bags and put into boxes and shrink-wrapped in an automated factory that runs on fossil fuels. To get to my local grocery store, they are flown or shipped (both airplanes and modern cargo ships run on fossil fuels) to a distribution center, and then trucked to the store and then stocked on the shelves. After the leaves are picked, every step from the field to my cup is heavily dependent on oil.

Yes, it's true that tea has been traded all over the world for hundreds or thousands of years, but five hundred and eighteen years ago when Columbus was sailing across the Atlantic, they had an infrastructure in place that allowed them to travel all over the world without the use of coal or gasoline or oil.

We may have some way cool gadgets, and we may be able to get further faster, but without oil, we're not going anywhere. They lived in a low energy world and could move things from point A to point B. We don't and can't.

Our world no longer has a low energy transportation infrastructure in place, and in the event that fossil fuels become scarce (which I believe is happening right now), the tea trade will be slower, tea will, likely, become more expensive, and it's unlikely that I'll be able to afford to drink ten cups per day ... using a fresh tea bag every time.

It will take time to rebuild a lower energy infrastructure, time and money, and right now, the world is in short supply of both. Even after having at least three US Presidents (Nixon, Carter, and GW Bush, I know for certain) in the last forty years tell us that we need to reduce our dependence on oil, we are still no closer to being able to live in a world without oil. We haven't taken any steps to rebuild systems that can get us from point A to point B without cars, and all of the recommendations (i.e. biofuels, hydrogen, etc.) still concentrate on automobile transport.

So, while I do understand that these things have been traded for hundreds, and possibly, thousands of years, and it's possible that we will continue to trade these items, it is my belief that in the world we live in, once oil becomes scarce, getting those things to Maine will be very difficult, and the likelihood that I will have them in the quantities that I have them today are slim.

As for wheat, there was a time when the work of growing the grain was done by hand. For the vast majority of the world's wheat crop production, this is no longer true. Wheat is grown in huge monoculture farms using tractors, and probably lots of petro-chemical fertilzers. Just growing wheat is heavily fossil fuel dependent, but also harvesting, processing, milling, packaging, and transporting the flour from one point to the next is done with fossil fuels.

Without oil, we will experience a steep decrease in the amount of wheat that is produced, at least initially. We may be able to rebuild production, once we get more people in the fields doing the work of growing our food, but the transition is likely to be very slow and very painful - especially for those people for whom wheat is a dietary staple.

So, I've made the decision for myself and my family to try to reduce our dependence on those foods that don't grow where we live, except as a treat. Appetite fatigue is a real threat, especially for the very young and the very old. The more familiar, every day foods that we have that are grown in our local food shed (especially ones that either naturally occur and can be foraged, or that we grow ourselves) the better off we will be.

We celebrated another birthday today. I made the birthday boy's favorite - pineapple upside-down cake. It's a once a year treat, because pineapples don't grow in Maine.

And because it's something we don't get every day, it really is a special something and worthy of marking the forty-first year in the life of the most amazing man in the world ;).


  1. The health food store in Farmington has local wheat in their refrigerator. It is milled in Skowhegan. Central Maine used to be the breadbasket of the northeast and there are some varieties of wheat that grow fairly well in this state. True, that it is probably planted and harvested with tractors and harvesters, But there is the beginning of an infrastructure to grow a variety of grains in this state.

  2. And while the Zone 8 folks are at it...could they plant Soap Nuts, too?

  3. Try growing soapwort instead of soap nuts. Soapwort is hardy to Zone 3. If I had space I'd be growing the tea plants for trade with you guys :)

    "Soapworts are cultivated for their attractive flowers; they grow freely in any soil and under most conditions. The crushed leaves or roots of S. officinalis have been used as a soap since the Renaissance. Museum conservators still use the soap made from its leaves and roots for cleaning delicate fabrics and it also makes a fine shampoo." - wikipedia

  4. I may seriously have to try growing tea. I believe I am in Zone 7.

  5. I'm in Georgia, zone 7b. My new tea plants will be arriving soon and will be too small right now for harvesting, but next year I can get a small harvest.

    So, I'll make that trade for maple syrup as soon as I can, and throw some soap wort into the garden too. ;o)

  6. We adore pineapple upside down cake and have it for birthday cake. One day I spotted a recipe for strawberry upside down cake and now we have that. I thought I'd add Rhubarb next time.