Food Inc. opening in Canada

I was at our favourite fruit & veggie stand at Kensington Market last weekend, when I heard a woman asking one of the regulars at the store what he was doing the following monday evening. She happened to have a pass for two for a preview screening of Food Inc. at the Varsity Cinema (close to where we live) and couldn’t go. The guy said he couldn’t go and I quickly said “has the movie opened yet? I’m dying to watch it!” I had just written  a post about it the previous day and I wanted to watch it so badly that my initial shyness fell to the way side. She turned to me and said “would you be interested in going?” Oh yeah! “Pass by my store in 15 mins and I’ll have the pass for you.”

The movie opened the last edition of Toronto’s International Film Festival and was released in threatres across the US last Friday to much media attention, leading to some interesting discussions. The screening we attended this past Monday was followed by a Q&A session with local activists as well as Gary Hirshberg, founder and CEO of Stonyfield Farm and one of the people interviewed in the film. There were no surprises for me in the movie. It felt like a film version of the Omnivore’s Dilemma and dealt with the dark side of the American food industry (whose model is exported all over the world, so don’t think you are off the hook for living in Canada or other countries), and deals with everything from the rise of food-born illnesses, the development of deadly strands of e-coli or salmonella, factory farm workers, the powerlessness of farmers who refuse to play the game according to the big industry’s rules, and the presumed powerlessness of consumers. It’s dark and it leaves you stuck between disgust, anger, and frustration.

The basic message sent by Gary and all the others is that although we have known that there are serious problems with the food industry for years, nothing will be done until we are able to make it a mainstream issue rather than a concern of activists only. And to get there, people need to know where their food come from and what is hidden in it. It’s all about transparency and education really. You can’t just pretend it doesn’t affect you. That people are over-reacting. I mean, we are all under the illusion we know what we eat. But that can often be an illusion. Take hamburguers, for example, the quintessential North American food. We all know that eating too many burguers is not really good for us but we assume that’s because too much meat is bad and that’s what burguers are, right? Ground beef. With perhaps a bit of preservative. But do you know that the entire meat industry in the US is controlled by four companies? And that 80% of the hamburguer meat available in the market is washed with ammonia? And that it is washed with ammonia because that meat originally had a much higher content of e-coli bacteria than meat ever had before. You know why? Because cows are fed corn, which their bodies have not evolved to be able to digest. So either you eat hamburguer laced with ammonia or you may share Kevin’s fate.

I have written before on this blog about the importance of knowing what you eat. Some people tell me it is too difficult to eat healthy, that they don’t have the time or the knowledge, or that organic food is too expensive. That’s not necessarily true. Good food can be deceavingly simple. If you are not sure where to start in the kitchen, I highly recommend any of Mark Bittman’s books (or even his site) since they are very didactic and based on principles of cooking rather than holding on to steadfast recipes. As for organic food being more expensive than “conventional” food, yes, that’s true, but only if you don’t consider the hidden societal, health, and environmental costs of this so-called conventional food or the real reason fast food is so cheap. The real reason is that since the entire American food industry is controlled by four or five companies, these multibillion-dollar players have enough power and influence to bend food safety rules and guarantee massive subsidies, allowing them to sell food at well below the cost of production (incidentally, conditions in these factories are so dire that these business have to rely on hiring the powerless – such as illegal immigrants – to work in them) . If sustainable farms could get half of the same subsidies, you wouldn’t have to choose based on price. Also, if there was more demand for organic products, more organic products would be produced. We see that beginning to happen. During the Q&A Gary Hirshberg mentioned how his company’s decision to go for organic sugar made a huge impact on its price and availability. When they made their first orders, organic sugar cost nearly five times the price or regular sugar. With the higher demand, more farmers turned to organic farming methods (which achieve the same yields as “conventional” methods) and began to produce more sugar. Now Stonyfield is able to buy sugar for the same price, if not cheaper, than regular sugar.

There is certainly a segment of the population than cannot afford a 50-cent difference on a particular produce. That is a shame and I’m glad there are organizations dedicated to making organic food more accessible. But many of us can afford to pay a little more to ensure not only optimal health but also encourage the organic food industry. It’s all a matter of priorities. And my health has priority over any other luxury in my life because without it, let’s face it, nothing else really matters.

So do yourself and the planet a favour. Learn about the issues. Watch the movie.

If you have trouble playing the video above, watch it on the official site.


The power of blogs & web 2.0 technology

With the advent of the web 2.0,  the tech-savvy were not the only ones out there pumping content – everybody could share their lives on a blog such as this one, pontificate on wikipedia, and imagine themselves a wannabe Spielberg. Although it is easy dismiss the content of much that is created using web 2.0 technology, the current crisis in Iran has shown the full potential of such tools. Iranians have been using Facebook and Twitter to coordinate protests and students at a Vancouver Film School created the following video about the way young Iranians have used blogs to share opinions and information with the rest of the world.

When I first accessed the internet in 1996, it blew my mind away for its potential – clear to me even back then – to break barriers and democratize access to information. Governments have tried to limit access everywhere, with only limited success. Watch the video above; it’s worth it. Read also this great article about Twitter & the protests in Iran. And as the Landismom put it:

It’s a little humbling, to watch in real time as a father in Iran worries about his daughter, and tweets that he’s just heard that there are military police in the park that she was last in. And it can feel so far away, that park, and that girl—so far away that there’s nothing we can do to help. But every person reading this can do something to help that girl, right now. You can pick up the phone, and call your congressman, and tell him or her to ask the US to intervene. You can wear green to work tomorrow, even though it’s not St. Patty’s Day. In most big cities, you can find a peaceful demonstration in solidarity with the Iranians, and you can attend it.

I couldn’t have said it better. And that’s what all this new media does. It forces us to care, to be engaged.

Clay Shirky, a NYU professor who recently gave a TED talk on the power of new media, gave an interview recently on the Iranian case. He calls it the first revolution catapulted to the world stage by social media. As he puts it,

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Chicago demonstrations of 1968 where they chanted “the whole world is watching.” Really, that wasn’t true then. But this time it’s true … and people throughout the world are not only listening but responding. They’re engaging with individual participants, they’re passing on their messages to their friends, and they’re even providing detailed instructions to enable web proxies allowing Internet access that the authorities can’t immediately censor. That kind of participation is reallly extraordinary.

According to Shirky, of all the new technologies out there Twitter has had the biggest impact in this particular case. It is so simple and so open that although they’ve been trying really hard, authorities have failed to control it or shut it down.

But more than provide an outlet for those in Iran. Twitter has allowed people outside to feel engaged to what happens there:

When I see John Perry Barlow setting himself up as a router, he’s not performing these services as a journalist. He’s engaged. Traditional media operates as source of inofrmation not as a means of coordination. It can’t do more than make us sympathize. Twitter makes us empathize. It makes us part of it. Even if it’s just retweeting, you’re aiding the goal that dissidents have always sought: the awareness that the ouside world is paying attention is really valuable.

But perhaps more importantly, Twitter allowed people to connect without the veil set by governments and ideologies.

But whatever happens from here, the dissidents have seen that large numbers of American people, supposedly part of “the great Satan,” are actually supporters. Someone tweeted from Tehran today that “the American media may not care, but the American people do.” That’s a sea-change.



Home is a HD film shot in 54 countries and produced by Luc Besson. Its English version is narrated by Glen Close. The full length film (90 mins) is being hosted free on YouTube until June 14th in honour of World Environment Day. It’s worth watching. As the friend who passed it on to me said, it’s a powerful reminder of environmental (and social) justice.

You can access the video through this link. There are versions in many languages.

Race to Nowhere


A friend of mine watched this documentary recently on how we, as a society, are over-stressing our children by expecting so much from them. You can click on the image above to see the trailer.  It’s all about making sure they reach their full potential and become highly successful as soon as possible. They have to learn to swim and skate before they can even walk. I have friends who registered their 9-month-old baby in three activities – music “awareness”, storytelling, and baby yoga.  In some schools, kids are expected to do five hours of homework every night just to keep on top of things. The level of stress is palpable. And despite all the extra activities, the hours of homework, the exposure to everything that parents can think of, I don’t see them getting to university any more prepared than they were in previous generations.

I wasn’t particularly fond of school when I was a kid. I liked to social aspect of school and enjoyed going mostly for the opportunity of meeting my friends but wasn’t really engaged at the intellectual side. I was mostly bored all the time. But my parents weren’t really on my case and I never felt that if I didn’t ace a particular math exam my life would be over. Despite never doing much homework, I did learn enough in school but I learned even more on my own and by playing with my friends. I remember being very conscious of the fact that it was great to be a child because that meant I had no responsibilities and lots of free time. I particularly loved the long summer months when I would even forget what day of the week it was because summer meant the end of scheduled activities. The worst summer of my life was when I was 10 years old and my mom was at university at the time and for some reason my parents put us in a day camp at the university. Every day we had to wake up early and go to the university campus for a full day of scheduled activities – volleyball, swimming, painting, you name it. Both my brother and I HATED it. It felt like school. There were instructors that told us what to do and everything was scheduled. And to us, the whole point of summer was not having school. For years my brother and I would make a big scene every time we drove past the university campus just to tease my parents “Don’t look! there’s that concentration camp to our right!” and we would visibly shudder and pretend we were hyperventilating (we were very imaginative kids).

Because I appreciated the feeling of freedom that I associated with childhood, I get very sad when I see how little freedom kids have today. I’m sure some of them are quite happy and well-adjusted but I have to confess I’d hate to bring up a child today. I wouldn’t be able to give them the same childhood I had or the same degree of freedom, which would just make me feel very anxious and unhappy for them.

On another note, one of the points of the film is that we need to re-define success. Currently success is measured in how much money you make and how much you own. So parents put pressure on kids to have high profile careers or get degrees that would set them up for high profile careers, and kids feel that unless they can make lots of money, they cannot call themselves successful. I know people who make lots of money, live in big houses, but who are totally miserable and have no life and no friends. How can they call themselves successful?

Of course I’m not saying you shouldn’t become a lawyer or a big-shot executive. What I am saying is that you should do that only if that’s what makes you happy and fulfilled. If you do the things you are really passionate about, success will follow. I have a cousin who showed an interest in cake design when she was fairly young. I remember that she was 12, 13 years old and would spend three or four days decorating a cake, following a complicated design from a magazine. She loved it. She was also a very smart girl and after high school she got into the top law school in the country, got her law degree and began work as a lawyer. She never really enjoyed law and kept dabbling on gastronomy as a hobby. She worked at a couple high end restaurants, and did really creative cakes for her family. Her work was really creative and well done and I kept telling her that she should do that for a living. She hesitated for a while. She was afraid of disappointing her family; her dad was against it since he felt it wasn’t a “serious” enough profession. All those years of studying would go to waste. But she finally made the plunge. She quit her lawyer job and started investing in her career as a cake designer. She got a few clients, her reputation grew, she went after specialized courses, she made it her job. It’s now a few years later and she’s extremelly happy and is considered one of the top cake designers in Sao Paulo.

And that’s why I always tell my students – just do something you enjoy. It doesn’t really matter what it is. And it doesn’t need to be the only thing you enjoy.

Update: looks like many parents are starting to move away from these trends. See an article on The Star entitled “The slow childhood movement