Standard Pages (they don't change often)

Friday, September 28, 2012

Of Straw Men and Misdirections

I've been in a number of discussions about the upcoming Prop 37 in California, which proposes to require mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods. I'm fairly clear about my opposition to proposed law on a number of grounds, particularly because it isn't based on science, gives legal teeth to quasi-religious ideology, and that it carries an unreasonable fiscal burden. And my concerns stem from Prop37 setting a legal precedent that has repercussions into the future.

I am trying, however, to understand the point of view of supporters of the proposal. The most common rebuttal I've had is the question: "Why do you oppose labeling?"

Let's put that straw man out. On the contrary, I (and others of my position) do not oppose labeling at all. Nothing in current law forbids truthful labeling - and in the case of things like homeopathy, in fact allows some misleading labeling. It's the mandatory labeling aspect that is the problem, and the built in exceptions in the way the law is written.

The second misdirection is the accusation of defending Monsanto - a non sequitur argument. As frequently as Monsanto is invoked, I fail to see how it is even connected to the discussion. Could it be that in the all encompassing rebellion against the multinational company, any way to strike back must be good? Except, of course, no one thinks of the collateral damage. Mandatory labeling will be an inconvenience to Monsanto, but will levy heavier tolls on smaller farmers who cannot participate in Organic Certification.

The third is an accusation of concealing information, of denying consumers "the right to know". Far from concealing the truth, scientists are adherent to reality. Fact is, even without the law, producers can already put on consumer demanded labels - and pass on the costs of that. And we have protections in place against fraudulent labeling already.

I understand that passionate defenders of Prop 37 are doing so because they believe that they have the best interests of society at heart. And I can sympathize. But make no mistake, for all the fancy flyers and propaganda, they are being distracted from logical evaluation of the consequences of Prop 37.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Biryani Power

Spotted in a neighborhood in Singapore.
Driving around Houston, I noticed an increasing number of restaurants touting biryani as their signature item. Indeed, I do think that biryani is rising in popularity, even if ceviche seems to get all the press and notice. What is this wondrous dish? Basically, it's a cooking technique of layering rice (must be basmati, my experiments using shorter grain rice have yielded poor results), spices, vegetables, sometimes meat or fruit, and even yogurt in a pot, and cooking it slowly. The final dish is a one pot meal fragrant with the mixed spices, and revealing treasures as the diner digs therein.

Beef biryani, Nikoz Fusion Grill, Sugarland, TX
A standard in Indian/Pakistani kitchens, a meat-based biryani is an easy crowd pleaser, specially if bringing novices to the powerful flavors of the subcontinent. But biryani, like casserole, is as much a technique as it is tradition, and I think it is wide open for more modern interpretations. Varying the meat would be a start - pork is verboten in the kitchens of its origin, so pork belly biryani would be a daring variant. The long slow cooking time would make it amenable to dried ingredients like machaca, smoked fish, or mushrooms. And the range of spice variations beckon - long peppers, sichuan peppercorns, oregano, or cheeses. 

Lamb biryani in a dum, Great W'kana Cafe

One last thing: dessert biryani, anyone?

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Naked Emperor's Potlatch

On November 6, 2012, California will be voting on Prop 37, The Mandatory Labeling of Genetically Modified Food Initiative. Aside from the demonization of a technology (as with many such objections, the vernacular Genetically Modified or Engineered only refers to transgenics), the justification to such legislation is couched against long disproven talking points, and scientific fallacies. Part of the motivation for the "just label it" drumbeat stems from those who harbor this ridiculous idea that transgenics are manufactured like cookies or soda, and thus, can have ingredients spelled out. But what mystifies me is the sheer persistence of supporters of Prop 37, railing against reason and science, paradoxically clamoring a "need to know" yet actively rejecting the patient efforts of scientists to educate.

Near as I can tell, though, the main motive force for the  anti-GMO movement is a subset of the more mainstream "organic foods" meme. Indeed, under Prop 37,  foods produced with organic certification are automatically exempt from the labeling requirements, giving impetus for food producers to go "organic". As I have written before, finding a consistent definition for "organic" is difficult to say the least. Turns out that this is a pretty old problem - so much so that the government had to codify the definition. At least, the US Department of Agriculture has a certification program - the Food and Drug Administration does not have an enforceable term for "organic".

The publication of a Stanford University meta analysis of over 200 studies concluded that "organic" foods are no more nutritious and marginally "safer" than conventional foods (that latter point looking at values well below acceptable standards, and easily rectified by washing) - and the media has exploded with controversy. The NY Times hosts a "Room for Debate" series strangely conspicuous with a dearth of practicing scientists. In certain communities, anger over the study has mobilized people to demand a retraction on the paper on sheer popular opinion (via petition). This is not how civil scientific discourse works - popular outrage does not trump evidence.

Much of the pro-organic arguments rely upon the amorphous nature of the term itself. Although the USDA has specific certification guidelines to combat fraud, in practice, producers don't pursue the costly certification. Many producers simply declare that their produce is organic, seizing the advantages that aspirational branding brings with it (as well as a mythic justification to the increased price). Writers often forget, however, that "organic" is supposed to just refer to the production process - thus, the results of the Stanford study are hardly surprising. In fact, it is consistent with what's been observed since the 1970s, that on average, the quality of the final produce is little different between "organic" and conventional.

Many argue that the key point for "organic" production methods was primarily for environmental impact - they should consider findings of the meta analysis done at Oxford University - which observe that "organic" farming practices have lower efficiency and higher green house gas contributions, but also relatively better stewardship of biodiversity.

I see a lot of parallels between this situation and the travesty that is the creationism "debate" - scientific evidence is cherry picked, personal attacks are performed on scientists, a preponderance of logical fallacies used in discussion, repetition of talking points even after they are debunked, or evidence entirely dismissed to maintain a certain belief system founded on some dogmatic writing. I am surprised that scientists even take the effort to study it, as "organic" is not founded on scientific principles at all. But then, it occurred to me: practitioners are worshipping it as a deity. Although not formally declaring it a religion, the "organic" foods movement (and it's corollary anti-GMO tribe) enacts most the trappings of religious practice. This clever malversation enabled the creation of the USDA Organic Certification process - as it is effectively an abrogation of the separation of church and state.

"Organic" labeling carries no more value than food labeled halal or kosher - but the enforcement of the latter does not feed off the US taxpayer, nor does it carry the force of law. Beyond tamping down this ridiculous Prop 37, we could save a lot by completely dismantling the USDA Organic Certification program, and stop wasting our time organizing the morass of antiscientific beliefs on a federal level.

For the record, I don't oppose people following the choice to patronize "organic" foods any more than I oppose any religion. I do believe in respecting freedom of choice, and the premium that "organic" foods sales command represent a $30B industry in the US economy alone. Among early Native Americans, the custom of potlatching was a ceremony to establish membership in the tribe by redistributing wealth. Status in the tribe was influenced by how much property is given away. In some tribes, this evolved into the actual destruction of possessions, such that prestige is built by how much wealth one can afford to destroy. Openly defending the choice to support this practice in the face of scientific evidence, clinging on to discredited justification, is perhaps prestige being built in the modern potlatch after we've observed that the emperor has no clothes.

Monday, September 10, 2012


I had written previously about a friend of mine who was recently diagnosed medical condition that precluded, among other things, dairy and gluten. And in my experience, one thing that people on a gluten-free diet miss are crispy food items, as many of the snack items are verboten.

Roasted Kale

To address this, I made roasted kale. It's barely a recipe - start with a healthy bunch of kale leaves, as they'll shrink post cooking. Both curly kale and "dinosaur" kale will work. Preheat oven to 190°C (375°F) as you get things ready. Tear up the kale leaves into manageable pieces, removing the thicker stems for use in soup. Lay the leaves in a single layer on a sheet pan, drizzle some olive oil over it (not much), and a sprinkle of coarse salt (kosher is just fine). Toss to coat, spread the leaves back out to a single layer, and stick it in the hot oven.

Don't walk away, because it'll be done in 5 minutes or so. It'll have little burnt spots, and shrink a bit, but it'll be crispy. Take it out, use tongs to transfer to a serving dish. I then zest a lemon over the mess, and serve it. 

Start making another batch as your guests inhale this. 

Friday, September 7, 2012


Sometimes, a kitchen gadget comes along that seems to address a need that is fabricated. Behold.

The egg scrambler tool. I found this contraption being sold right next to the eggs in the refrigerated section of a local supermarket. Seems to work by cracking eggs into it, and shaking. Seems to have more parts than a bowl and a fork - and the latter has way more uses.