Tuesday, December 03, 2019

A most unsettling story list of this thing we still call farming

Credit: Moscow Ministry of Agriculture and Food
I'm a loyal reader and financial supporter of the British non-profit news outlet The Guardian, and subscribe to its "Animals Farmed" newsletter. Every couple of months or so, the newsletter arrives in my email inbox with news of the wild, weird world of what we still call farming, but that mostly just looks like mass murder at this point.

Even just reading the little summary blurbs about the stories is an excellent reinforcer of my efforts to ramp back my meat consumption to almost nothing. I used to love my farm set when I was a kid, but realistic play with a modern-day "farm set" would require stuffing your cute plastic animals into an overcrowded, hellish stink-barn for a very short life of misery, with not a whiff of green grass or fresh air to be found.

So let's start there with my first link from this morning's newsletter, about how Russian industrial farms are experimenting with virtual reality for dairy cows, to see if tricking them into thinking they see an open meadow will make them happier. And able to produce better milk, of course. Because it's a given that anything we do in industrial farming that outwardly looks like we're being a bit kinder to the animal is in fact just a way to trick them into giving us better, tastier, or more products from their bodies.

Next time you eat a lamb shawarma in the Middle East, think about the 14,346 Romanian sheep that died last week when the cargo ship they were being carried on overturned. Romania is the third biggest exporter of sheep in the European Union, and the sheep were bound for Saudi Arabia. Speculation is that the ship was overloaded, but at any rate, the sheep were trapped in the hold and didn't stand a chance when the ship flipped.

Only 254 sheep ended up rescued. I'm hoping that none of the dead creatures were among these sheep that passed by us when we were visiting Romania this past spring, but the future's not bright for Romanian sheep overall.

The risk of mass sheep death at sea is not just an issue from "over there," either. More than 22,000 lambs a year make the journey from New Zealand to the United States to satisfy hungry consumers, and that number is up 20 per cent from a decade ago.

And how is life going for our pig friends? Not so good. African Swine Fever is in the process of wiping out what's expected to be a quarter of the world's pigs. In China alone, some 100 million infected pigs were killed last year in an attempt to stop the spread of the disease.

But that's great news for "farmers" of non-infected pigs, who are finding surging global demand and increasing sale prices when piggies go to market nowadays. The value of monthly UK pig exports hit £36.4 million - $63 million in Canadian dollars - in September, a 50 per cent increase over a year ago.

In other pig news, Britain's Conservative Party has backed away from a promise to ban farrowing crates, because they go against everything a mother pig would naturally do to prepare for and care for her piglets. But pig producers have worked equally hard to shut down that conversation.
The crates are small cages that pregnant pigs are kept in from before their piglets are born until they are a month old.

Now let's turn to China, the home of my ancestors but also a country that often seems viciously committed to eating every species from the face of the Earth. That includes donkeys, 4.8 million of whom are killed every year just to satisfy China's demand for a gelatinous traditional medicine called ejaio, which is made from the hides of donkeys. If demand continues apace, half of the world's donkey population will be wiped out within five years.

Bummed out yet? We ought to be. I get that humans are omnivores and have a long history of killing animals for food, but we're so far past any kind of hunter-gatherer framework with modern-day industrial farming. One last link before you go, this one to a deadly algae bloom of "red tide" in Florida that wiped out 200 manatees, 127 dolphins, 589 sea turtles and hundreds of tonnes of fish when it hit in 2018, and is now back again.

It's a naturally occurring phenomenon, but you can likely guess what makes it much, much worse. Yup, industrial farming, which in Florida is flooding the sensitive wetlands with agricultural runoff.

I started into "flexitarianism" mostly because there's only so long you can keep telling yourself that your eating habits are harmless, but reducing our meat intake is also a major step toward reducing our individual (and ultimately, global) carbon footprints. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that industrial livestock production is responsible for 14.5 per cent of human-caused carbon emissions.

Do the right thing. Put peas on your fork.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Oh, what are my thoughts on what we need to do to improve social health in BC? Why, thanks so much for asking...

Illustration by Avril Orff for provincial forum

The lines between my professional and personal interests are quite blurred at this stage in my life, as I've had the great privilege of being able to work for many years now on issues that I feel very passionate about personally.

One such issue is social equality - in other words, supports and strategies for better social health that lift us all up, whether we need something relatively mainstream like good childcare and a safe, friendly place to grow old in, or something more intense like trauma counselling, help getting out of a gang, services for mental health, substance use, immigrant settlement and so on. Social health wears many, many hats.

In my role as part-time executive director of a very small umbrella non-profit, the Board Voice Society of BC, I was invited to speak Nov. 15 in Richmond at the Provincial Social Services Forum. I'm part of that forum through my Board Voice role, as there are a number of umbrella organizations sitting at a roundtable with government right now trying to work out a more resilient, mutually agreed upon partnership that will achieve our shared desire to strengthen, organize and sustain good social care in BC.

I was asked to speak on how the work of the roundtable could impact social change in BC. Here's what I had to say:

We do a lot of visioning about social health, in BC and around the world. We do less well at figuring out how to realize that vision. We dream big – ending homelessness, supporting every child, eliminating poverty, creating community well-being. But we rarely have structure in place underneath those dreams to guide us in achieving them.

I like metaphors, so let’s use the roofs on our houses for this one, and start with a suitably sweeping vision: “My family will live under a roof that doesn’t leak.”

It’s a great goal. But what if the reality was that you had leaks all over the place? Buckets overflowing. Bits of weakening tarpaulin pasted over some of the holes. A major reno in one corner that worked for a while but can’t keep up. Leaks patched a couple of years ago that have started dripping again. You’ve spent a fortune in buckets, mops and make-do repairs by this point. But still the roof keeps leaking.

So it is with social care, where we dream big but often struggle to identify and effectively tackle the root causes. The roof leaks until you fix the leak, right? Social care fixes social problems, and supports healthy communities in so many ways.

But just like fixing a roof, the only way to get there is by taking our lofty visions and breaking them all the way down to the strategies that can fix each one. After that, we apply them - in a planned, thoughtful, flexible, routinely updated, client-centred manner that understands that social care is as important as health care and education to all of our futures. Because we know that’s true.

I see the roundtable as a vehicle for getting us there. Nothing about social care is ever simple, but we now have a place to talk about it, one that brings us together as partners with a shared interest in improving social health.

Quality child care. Affordable housing. Interventions for kids with physical, mental or intellectual disabilities. Lifelong supports for people with intellectual disabilities. Services that improve Indigenous people’s lives. Newcomers settled in and helped to find work. Good homes for children in care all the way through to genuine adulthood, not an arbitrary age.

Supported housing for people as they age and lose function. Employment services. Recreational opportunities. Income assistance. Wellness programs. Trauma counselling. Community centres. Good work and fair wages. Clean and green communities.

These are the true determinants of health, and fundamental to the health of a province’s economy and future. Any region, any community, any neighbourhood is only as good as the health and connection of the people who live and work there.

But much like climate change, social health is mired in public opinion, politics, fear, judgment, stigma, and a general tendency in humans to waste a lot of time casting about for someone to blame when people’s lives go sideways.

Do we even think of the same thing when we hear “social services”? I would bet we don’t have consensus even in this room, let alone at a provincial level. I see the roundtable as a means for establishing measurable social goals, so we all know what we’re chasing.

What are the social challenges that are priorities for tackling in BC? We need to agree on that. We need to establish achievable outcomes and then measure them relentlessly, and constantly adjust our approaches and supports to account for emerging issues, changing priorities, unintended consequences.

We need to agree on all these things and then raise that work above the political cycle, as we do with education and health care. Because social care is foundational to a life well-lived, but it can’t be realized in a three- to five-year political cycle.

Emerging social issues are almost always just the visible evidence of problems that began 10 or 20 years earlier, now grown so big that you can’t help but notice them. Homelessness is one such example. If you’re my age, you’ve seen it go from a word that didn’t even exist to a persistent and seemingly intractable problem in every BC community.

There are so many reasons for that. And if you want to vanquish homelessness, you have to do something about every one of them.

Yes, homelessness is about homes, but it’s equally about things like early childhood nutrition and child development, quality education, family supports, mental health, good work, income assistance based on the true cost of living, and the way our justice and foster systems function.

Our governments play a key role in supporting strong foundations for social health. But they can’t stand alone in that important work. This is work for all of us, from the community-based organizations that know this work and how to raise money for it, to the engaged citizens already involved in building well-being in their own communities.

From the BC businesses that get that good social health is fundamental to a strong economy and workforce, to the five million British Columbians who will all benefit when social health is addressed in a planned, strategic, realistic and sustained way in our province.

For me, the roundtable and this forum is a statement that all of that has been recognized – not just by government, but by the community-based organizations that have been doing the work of social care since long before there was government funding for it. I look around at who’s at the provincial roundtable and marvel that we’re finally all there together. And today, here with all of you.

And no, this is not the first time we’ve tried to figure this one out. But it could be the time that changes everything. It could be the time that we actually get this done.

I really appreciate that all of you are here to deepen a conversation that might finally fix that roof, to everyone’s benefit. Thank you.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Allergies: The View from Here

I've been wanting to write about my experiences with allergies for a while now. I expect I have a level of insight that could be useful to others after 60-plus years of a life lived allergically. Permit me to share my thoughts here, with the qualifier that I am in no way an expert on allergies except as a person who has always had a bunch of them.

My late mother used to tell of an angora hat she put on me when I was a baby that was apparently the first indicator that I was going to be allergic. I get itchy just thinking about it. The list grew rapidly to include eggs, animals, pollens, molds, grass, chocolate, dust mites and many other things that are impossible to avoid completely. (I sometimes wonder if the mass giving away of my beloved stuffed animals in the name of a dust-free bedroom was an early childhood trauma.)

Eventually I got old enough - 11, maybe? - to have one of those scratch tests on my back, which made for a horrible hour of being forced to lie still on my stomach while my back raged with itching. The test confirmed that I was allergic to pretty much everything they tried. I've since had a lifetime of unexplained periods of fluctuating duration in which I might have hives, itchy eyes, wheezing, a kind of weird mouth thing that I know as "tingle-lips," and various bumps, welts and scratchy bits that emerge and subside unpredictably.

One time, I ate cheezies while riding a horse in the rain, and some strange combination of that left me looking like a child version of The Hulk for several hours as every part of my face swelled up with itchy bumps and my ears turned into thick, twisted lumps. Another time, I got giant, water-filled hives on my torso from some drug they'd given me for my asthma, and it left scars that lingered for more than a year.

So yes, I know a thing or two about allergies. I'm nothing like how I was when I was kid, but I still get rashes for no discernable reason, and tingle-lips at parties if anybody has put blue cheese too close to the other cheeses on the charcuterie plate. (Oddly enough, a friend cooked blue cheese in a macaroni casserole recently and I ate it without knowing, and nothing happened. Does that mean cooking the blue cheese changed something, or that it's all in my head?)

One of the top learnings from a lifetime of allergies is that controlled and gradual exposure to many of the things I'm allergic to has been a huge help in getting over them. That said, the strategy doesn't work for everything. The tricky thing is in figuring out which of your allergies might improve from gradual exposure and which ones never will.

Cats, for instance. As a kid, I couldn't even walk into someone's house who had a cat without starting to wheeze. But then I grew up and went through many years of owning cats because I loved them anyway, and realized that I quickly got used to whatever cats we had in the house at the time. For a few years, we had a cat that had a lot of litters (I know, irresponsible, but we always found them good homes and loved them madly for those months before giveaway). I'd be allergic to each new litter for about 3 weeks and then would adapt.

Now, I barely think about being allergic to cats. I still can't pick one up and rub my face in its fur, and I wash my hands after petting so I don't accidentally touch my eyes with cat hands (the weak link). But other than that, I'm fine to hang with cats. I'm fine with rabbits, too, having bought a house rabbit for my youngest daughter once upon a time and endured six intense weeks of wheezing, nose-blowing and scratching while getting used to dear Nutmeg.

But then there's mold.

In the 1960s-70s when I was growing up, it was common to give kids injections for their allergies, the theory being that if you were exposed gradually to increasing doses of an allergen, you would develop a tolerance. I'd go in every week or so and get a pollen mix injected in one arm and mold in the other.

The pollen series worked well, and I give those shots credit every spring, when so many others are suffering with their allergies and I'm not. But my mold injections had to be stopped early, because my arm was swelling more and I was getting sicker with each injection.

Just a couple of months ago, I stumbled upon the surprising information that one of the world's most common food additives is produced from a mutant strain of the fungus Aspergillus niger, which is responsible for black moldWhen cultured in a sugary substance, the fungus - a known allergen - creates citric acid as a byproduct.
Photo credit:

That byproduct is everywhere, in a vast array of juices, pops, coolers, cosmetics, "fruit-flavoured" bars, jams and more, even though no research has ever been done on its safety or the impact of increased exposure. More than two million tonnes are produced annually, most of it in China.

Fed up with more than a year of a persistent, itchy rash under my arms and some seriously uncomfortable bouts of heartburn after drinking lemon-lime diet drinks, I scanned the list of ingredients of some of my favourite beverages a couple of months ago and got to wondering about citric acid. So I looked it up, and was stunned to learn that it came from a mold.

Could that be the source of my irritating rash? Hard to say, but it wasn't too tough to excise citric acid from my diet and test my theory. So I did. The rash is gone. Could be coincidence, could be an ah-hah. Personally, I'm just glad to not be itchy anymore. I can live without citric acid.

If my mother the nurse was still alive, she'd probably pooh-pooh my citric acid theory and note that if that were the case, why would the allergies only be bothering me now? To which I would tell her that people in general are experiencing increasing allergies to food and cosmetic additives, because we are being exposed to greater and greater amounts of them in this unnatural life we lead.

The growing exposure to a grand number of weird little lab-made chemicals is creating sensitivities even in people who have never had allergies. I talked to a University of Victoria researcher a while back who told me of the race in the cosmetics world to find a substitute for preservatives like parabens and methylisothiazolinone. Both are now omnipresent in cosmetics due to a shrinking list of safe preservatives, and are triggering sensitivies because of overexposure.

I've tried many vitamins and herbs over the years to see if they help with my allergies. I've never noticed much impact from any of them. The effective strategies for me have been gradual exposure to the things I'm not too allergic to, avoidance of the things that I can't get a handle on (those scented sticks in oil just kill me - what the heck is in that oil??), and antihistamines for the occasional times when I know I''ll be allergic but want to do whatever the thing is anyway. (Horseback riding!)

Antihistamines are very useful when used well and in moderation, but you need to figure out which ones work for you. The word "antihistamine" covers a number of drugs, all of which work in different ways and react differently from person to person. You'll need to do some experimenting and label-reading to figure out which one brings you relief. (For me, it's loratadine. The brand name is Claritin but it's gotten so expensive lately that I've switched to the generic versions, which seem to work equally well.)

When heading into an allergy-rich situation, I take an antihistamine before I go. You never want to wait until the allergies set in, because the drugs don't work nearly as well once that happens.

Photo credit: Vancouver Sun
So if I'm going to a barn party in a working barn, or spending the day at the Saanich Fair, I take one, because hay and big animals like horses still get to me. If I've got the care of a dog that has allergies itself (hot spots, for instance), I know I'll need antihistamines for the first couple of days while I adjust, because something about an allergic dog really makes me allergic, too.

If you've got allergy stories and solutions of your own, I'd love to hear them. Having allergies is the kind of thing that requires a lot of figuring out so they don't interfere with your life, and they feel to me like they're too variable and individualized for modern medicine to respond to well. I think a lot of it comes down to individual strategies.

One last observation: If you're sensitive to pollens, don't believe the assurances of the clerk in the vitamin store that supplements like bee pollen and royal jelly don't cause allergies in people with pollen allergies. I learned the hard way that's not true. I unknowingly triggered a three-week stretch of terrible, almost-in-the-hospital asthma before it dawned on me that the culprit was the bee pollen I'd been taking daily.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

One more Naked Truth

And another good read from The Naked Truth sex work blog and Annie Temple, who writes here about the highs and lows of "squaring up" given that the workplace culture of the sex industry is just so very different than what you find in a more conventional workplace.

My favourite kind of sex-work writing (well, writing about anything, really) is when it's like this: Straight up "this is how it is" kind of stuff. For sex work in particular, the misconceptions people have about the industry are so very far from reality that some people will probably need to read a thousand pieces of writing like this one before thinking starts to shift. But hey, now they only need to read 999 more.

I posted this piece on Facebook as well and heard from a number of connections that Annie's top 10 "cultural shock challenges" resonated with them as well, as they have their own work culture expectations that don't conform to the rather odd one that we tend to think of as "normal."

There's another reason to read more writings of sex workers - because we have the same issues. We are sisters and brothers in the same causes, which is a critical point to emphasize given the amount of stigma, judgment and discrimination sex workers experience because of people in the "square world" demanding that sex workers be viewed as different - so different, in fact, that they deserve to be denied basic human rights.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

The Naked Truth: Susan Davis on the life of a migrant sex worker

Photo of Susan Davis from the
Naked Truth website
There's few better ways to start to understand sex work than reading the writing of sex workers. I'm grateful for The Naked Truth for its efforts to bring those pieces to a broad audience, most especially this fascinating piece by long-time warrior Susan Davis.

Susan is a Vancouver entrepreneur, activist and sex worker who has played such an important role in bringing the issues of BC sex workers into the spotlight, and challenging the tired trope of broken victims in need of rescue. 

Her account here of making her way across Canada as a young sex worker, and the frightening challenges of settling into a new scene when you're in the sex industry, makes for a gripping read.

It will also make for an uncomfortable one for some people, as violence can be a routine part of a sex worker's life due to laws that keep the work in the shadows and make it virtually impossible for workers to avail themselves of police protection. (Reading Sue's many futile attempts to sound the alarm on serial killer Robert Pickton certainly gave me the chills.)

I haven't met many issues as capable of polarizing a conversation as sex work. I've listened to decades of those conversations and once upon a time, used to play way nicer and try to convince people of why it was important to decriminalize sex work to increase worker safety. Not so much anymore on the playing nice. When people literally have their lives on the line because we can't get past our moral objections and uninformed opinions, there's no room for "nice."

Canada has had bad law around sex work for its entire history, and arguably worse law since the former Harper government criminalized the purchase of sexual services for the first time ever in 2014.  The Liberal government made mumbly sounds of "considering the issue" when they first came into office, but never acted (one of the reasons why I have mixed feelings about Jody Raybould-Wilson, who never lifted a finger for sex workers in her time as Attorney General).

While police attitudes in certain Canadian cities have shifted significantly over time, that's still not the case in many communities across the country, where sex workers continue to work in extremely dangerous conditions with no hope that the police officer they approach will be prepared to help them.

You don't have to approve of the existence of sex work to get that criminalizing it is just about the worst way to oversee the industry. All our laws do is increase danger for people in the industry, the majority of whom are women. And yet here we are 152 years on, still doing the same old same old.

Add it to the list of Things That Make Me Weep. Or scream.