Hard cold Canadian butter

Perhaps you saw it in the news. There has been a lot of excitement about butter in Canada in the past few days. It made the news headlines about all around the world. The butter in Canada seems to have become harder, and harder to spread over the past year or so. The blame seems to be about the use of palm oil in cow feed. This is interesting because it brings up some matters that I had addressed in my article on fats, earlier on in this blog (in particular read the sections about margarine vs. butter and how the fatty acids profile affects the physical quality of the product). Here are a couple of links about the “buttergate” in which you can find more details.




Butter or frozen cottage cheese?

The funny thing is that I found butter to be a lot less enjoyable the first day I tried some almost when I moved in Canada 22 years ago. I do not think it was just me because right at the beginning of my stay here, I had been asked by a Canadian what I thought of the butter. He was asking me that because he had noticed that quite a few people he knew who had moved to Canada were complaining about the butter. I remember just answering something along the lines of “meh, not the best ever” and I had not paid too much attention to it after that. Yet, one of my neighbours in Vancouver had once started her own ranting about Canadian butter but she blamed the poor quality to the fact that, according to her, Canadian butter is frozen. I have never really tried to find out if it is always the case. Then, after I met the Canadian lady who is now my wife, I took her for trips to Europe about every year. Not only did she find all foods to taste much better there, she really developed an issue with Canadian butter in particular. And the issue has been –and still is- that the bloody thing is much stiffer at room temperature in Canada than the butter in my family in France even straight out of the fridge. One thing I know for sure is that in Canada there is 80% fat in butter, while in Europe it must be minimum 82%. Other thing I had noticed is how the Canadian salted butter is much more salty than in Europe. Anyway, I only buy unsalted butter. She has been adamant to go live in France since then. Food is one important reason for this move, and we are indeed making plans. The current Covid-19 pandemic has delayed this somehow but it is going to happen.

Personally, I have never been a fan of dairy in Canada. I find the butter, as mentioned, stiff and unpleasant to spread on bread. It also tends to break in a rough chunk instead of allowing me to cut all the way through when I cut a block out of the pound of butter to put on my butter dish, which makes the butter look like some frozen cottage cheese, which I always found weird and unappealing. I found Canadian cheeses tasteless and buttery. Ironic to see butter look like cheese and cheese loo like butter. Save me from blocks of cheddar or the likes of it. Actually, those would qualify more as butter to me than the butter. I cannot say anything good about Canadian attempts to make Brie or Camembert. Those have the softness and the appeal of hockey pucks. Not for me. Of course, I can find some imports, but the Canadian dairy sector has managed to get protection from the government and foreign cheese has import duties that make even the dullest Brie of Gouda about as expensive as precious metals. I seriously object paying 2 to 3 times what I consider the normal price of cheese. Along with dull quality, it is the same problem with bread, which is why I make my own, and the same why I make my own deli and grow my vegetables. So, since I am in Canada, I do not eat much cheese anymore. Milk is not any more attractive, either. I always found it somehow soapy and with a weird mouth feeling, not to mention that I really do not need to have extra vitamins in it, and even less so when it is added as a palmitate compound, which is… guess what… related to palm oil. So here it goes again. At least, something is consistent here. Perhaps, they want to feed us as much as palmitic acid as they can because palmitic acid is such a great saturated fatty acid that has this great characteristic that it tend to increase the level of LDL, so so-called bad cholesterol. Thank you Canadian dairy industry and Canadian government for the special care you give us. Ok that was sarcasm.

So, to sum up what is in my previous blog articles and in the two links I gave at the beginning of this article, palm oil is in cattle feed. It seems that the countries where this happens are Canada, the US, the UK, Australia and New Zealand, interestingly enough all Anglo-Saxon countries with a fabulous world-famous cuisine. Some gave us mad cows; others inject their cows with growth hormones. Great foods, because as they will tell you, they comply with government regulations, which we all know are pretty much developed under pressure of industry lobbies to maximize producers’ profits, but have the nation’s seal on it to give it this appearance of independence, objectivity and care for the people. The sad thing with this food system model is that in fact it is a failure. This kind of production exists only because it is subsidized to death and that all inputs to produce are also subsidized to death. If you look at what on average taxpayers pay to subsidise a system that cannot survive without help, you would realize that the price of food is not as cheap as it seems, but since it is in the form of taxes, it will not be counted in the relative percentage of the share of food in the total household budget, which industry always present as a reason why they do such a great job for society. Also not included in the price of food is all the externalities, which we could also called collateral damage costs, such as impact of health and health costs (think cardiovascular diseases, some cancers, diabetes and overweight related ailments), which happens when you cut corners on health for profit reasons.

I have spent many years in the food industry and I also know that the truth is in the middle. I have heard the criticism when I was in the system. Things are never as bad as the opponents claim and they are never as good as the industry claims. That said, deliberately transforming butter into something in the direction of margarine (the original kind which consisted of saturating fats) while the early margarine (not very good stuff by then from a fatty acid profile point of view) industry was trashing butter as unhealthy is almost surrealistic. By then, butter had actually a much more positive and healthy fatty acid profile then the early margarines and got blamed. Once the margarine industry realized that their stuff was not that great, they have done nothing else than copying the profile of the “original” butter. And now, we discover that the Canadian butter industry is doing exactly the opposite of what they should be doing from a health perspective. It is amazing how the quest for more profit impairs thinking. The industry is populated with lots of really good and bright people. The knowledge is there and has been for decades. Yet, and just for profit, it is almost all of that is put to sleep or forgotten, and it really always baffles me to see how the industry, time and time over, is giving its opponents sticks to beat them up. Although food is not as cheap as it means, but it seems deceivingly so at the price label point, I believe it would be much better for all of us if it were more expensive but made healthier and more nutritious, because I have noticed that real quality is much more satisfying and that I get more with lesser quantities.

Copyright 2021 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

The Locavore’s Dilemma

Here is a third popular article from my Food Futurist website, that is actually used in schools curriculum in the USA:

There is a growing trend, or at least a growing noise in favour of eating locally produced food. The “locavores” as they are called, claim that 100-mile food is the way to a more sustainable agriculture and consumption. Is this approach realistic and could it be the model for the future?

This movement is rather popular here in Vancouver, British Columbia. The laid-back residents who support the local food paradigm certainly love their cup of coffee and their beer. Wait a minute! There is no coffee plantation anywhere around here. There is not much barley produced around Vancouver, either. Life should be possible without these two beverages, should not it? The disappearance of coffee –and tea- from our households will make the lack of sugar beets less painful. This is good because sugar beets are not produced in the region. At least, there is no shortage of water.

But this is not all. There is no cocoa plantation around here, and believe me, there are many people who are addicted to chocolate. British Columbia does not produce citrus or other warm climate fruit. If we are to become locavores, we must say goodbye to orange juice, to lemons, to bananas. Even the so popular sushi must disappear because of the lack of rice. There are no rice fields in this area, and neither are there wheat fields. The Asian population certainly would have a hard time eliminating rice from their diet. The lack of wheat means no flour; and no flour means no bread, no pastries, and no cookies. The carbohydrate supply is going to be tough. If we must consume local, our lifestyle is going to change dramatically. Potatoes and cabbage is the way of the future. But before going all local food, the local locavores must realize that British Columbia produces only 48% of all the food its inhabitants consume. One out of two locavores would have to starve. Going exclusively local would also affect deeply the source of animal protein. Most of the animal feed is made of ingredients that come for much farther than 100 miles. The chickens and eggs would become less available. Farmed salmon, BC’s largest agricultural export could not use the type of feed they currently use, as fishmeal and fish oil come from Peru and vegetal oil comes from farms located far away. There would go many jobs with very little alternatives. If we look beyond food, other agricultural products such as cotton and wool would not be an option anymore. Cars would disappear, because the main component of tires, rubber, is not produced under this climate. The 100-mile rule will solve traffic problems. If local consumption is the rule for food, should not it be the rule for everything as well? China would probably have different views about this. Not only would their manufacturing collapse, but also if they have to produce food within 100 miles of the consumer, they would have to give up importing agricultural commodities. For them, a true locavore system would mean famine. The same would be true here in British Columbia. When people are hungry, they are not so picky about the distance from the producing farm.

The problem with concepts such as local consumption is that the basic idea has some value, but the idea quickly evolves into an ideology, and ideologies tend to make their followers stop thinking pragmatically. Today, the idea of eating locally in a place like Vancouver is possible because supply easily meets demand, thanks to the 3,000-mile foods. This is ironical. If the distance to market has to be within 100 miles, farmers in low population density areas, such as many regions of North America, South America and Central Europe, would have a different type of problem. They would produce an abundance of food, but because there are not enough people to consume it locally, the law of supply and demand tells us that the price of agricultural commodities would plummet, food would stay in storage and farmers would go out of business, while people in China, and in British Columbia, would suffer hunger. Clearly, the 100-mile diet needs some amendments.

Intuitively, it sounds logical that locally produced food has a lower carbon footprint than food that comes from 2,000 to 10,000 miles away. However, this is only partly true. The mean of transportation affects the carbon footprint. The environmental impact of transport is much higher for road transport than it is for rail transport, which is also higher than water transport. The type of transport also depends on the type of commodity brought to market. Perishables need to reach consumers as quickly as possible for shelf life reasons, while dry goods, such as for instance grains and oilseeds do not face the same kind of deadline. The quality of the logistics is also crucial to reduce the carbon footprint. A fully loaded truck is much more efficient than a local truck dropping small quantities in many places, thus driving around most of the time with empty space in the trailer.

The emphasis should not be so much on local as it should be about the search for efficient and low environmental impact. More than the distance from the farm to the consumer, it would be more useful to provide consumers with information about the actual carbon footprint of the products they buy. They would have the possibility to make the right choices. Retailers, too, would be able to make decisions about their sourcing strategies. Clean products and clean producers need to be rewarded for doing a good job. Here in Vancouver, local food products are more expensive than similar offerings from California, Mexico, Ecuador or Chile. How do you convince families with a tight budget to spend more for local products that look pretty much the same? This problem needs to be addressed. Currently, farmers markets are much about marketing. They sell the experience as much as their production methods. Only a wealthy minority can afford to buy on these markets. The prices are not based on production costs plus farmers income. They are as high as possible, because the farmers can ask these prices. The wealthy city dwellers are willing to pay a substantial premium above what they can buy from the local supermarket. In this relation farmer-consumer, the price bargaining does not take place. If these farmers were to try to sell to a grocery retail chain, they would never get the prices they get from the consumers who will not haggle about the price. This is why more farmers try to sell directly to consumers: they make more money that way. However, this might change in the future. A number of retailers are working towards offering “farmers market” products into their store. This already makes market farmers nervous.

Is local production for local markets the way of the future? My answer is that it partly will be and it partly will not. I do expect a shift of the location of production for perishables. Consumer habits will change, too. In the West, consumers have been spoiled. They can eat anything from anywhere at any time of the year. This luxury probably will not be affordable for long anymore. The superfluous will naturally be eliminated.

As the economics of energy, and therefore of food, will change, producers will increasingly locate their operations closer to cities; and even inside cities. Urban farming is a growing activity. Although it started mostly in poor neighbourhoods as a way of having a small patch of land for personal consumption, more sophisticated and efficient systems are being developed. My expectation is that production, and consumption, of vegetables and fragile fruit (for instance strawberries) will gradually become more integrated in the urban landscape than they are now. I also think that we will see animal productions, such as fresh dairy, poultry meat and eggs relocate closer to consumer markets. An interesting development is aquaponics, the combination of greenhouse produce with fish production in tanks. The production of non-perishables will not relocate. It does not have to. What will probably change is the transportation infrastructure in many areas where these commodities are produced.  This is good news for coffee drinkers and chocolate addicts. After all, transport of commodities over long distance is not just the result of cheap oil. The Silk Road and the spice trade by the Dutch took place before mankind even knew about oil. Trade has always been a force of progress for humanity. It helps an increasing number of people to have access to goods that make their lives better. The rules of trade may not always be fair, but like all human activities, it is a work in progress. Limiting our food supply to 100 miles would be a regression. Subsistence agriculture has not demonstrated that it could feed the world. Most of the people suffering of hunger live in subsistence agriculture areas.

(This topic is one of the many that are presented and discussed in my second book, We Will reap What We Sow)

Copyright 2010 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.