Sunday, 14 April 2024

Foodie Freak: Our just deserts?

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In the Bible, Genesis 42 chronicles the tale of Joseph, the famine in Canaan, and his brothers going to Egypt for food. I’ll stop there so I don’t spoil the ending for you.


Rome during the time of Caesar would have been crippled without Egyptian grain. With all of Rome’s men in the military off conquering the world they were lacking farmers and had to import their food.


Now if you are like me, at this point you might start to wonder: how is a country like Egypt, that consists of sand, camels, and pointy brick buildings, so full of food?


Nomadic people settled in ancient Egypt because it had a good climate, grassy fields, and was an excellent place to grow food. They raised livestock and crops, and hunted wildlife in this utopian land. Ancient Egyptians actually called their land “Kemet” which means “black land.” This was referring to the rich black soil that they grew their crops in.


Huh? What? Rich fertile soil? We were talking about Egypt right? I’ve seen the travel posters … lots and lots of sand! But Egypt wasn’t always hot, sandy and dry.


The Nile River flows northward from central Africa. Every year after the rainy season the Nile would overflow its banks and deposits the rich silt that nourished the soil. After the flood waters receded, an elaborate irrigation system kept the farms growing almost continuously under the cloudless skies.


Ancient Egypt was an agricultural economy. They even had the technology to turn unusable property into cultivatable land. Because of this technology they were the world’s bread basket. They had so much agricultural land that they could even grow papyrus to make paper.


I’m sure you are thinking, “So what happened?” The short answer: the Egyptians pushed the land too hard for too long to feed too many. The nutrients that were in the soil went into the grains, and then those grains were sent to other lands, such as to feed Joseph’s family in Canaan and Caesar’s armies all over the known world.


Nutrients to replenish the land weren’t sent back to Egypt. Eventually the land was so weak that it was easily swallowed by the nearby Sahara desert, and without technology from an advanced alien civilization from another galaxy or a touch from the finger of God, it will never be fruitful again.


Scientists have called the process of a rich land turning into desert “desertification.” They are noticing this process start in Central California and can see the conditions being ripe for it to consume the entire Central Valley. They are looking for ways to stop the process but are thwarted by people trying to change the situation by means of stop-gap technological proposals or useless programs. Nobody wants to admit that stopping the desertification is a problem that would need serious social, political and economic changes to occur.


Driving down Highway 5 through the Central Valley you’ll see acres and acres of dead trees. My daughter and I joked at the sad landscape and said, “It’s a firewood farm,” and “You don’t want to over water your firewood orchard!” The sad truth of the situation is that water to the Central Valley farmers is being severely rationed; they get only 10 percent of the water they need to keep their farms fully functioning.


Signs proclaiming the “Congress Created Dust Bowl” are posted along the highway every few miles. This rationing means that not only are we accidentally causing the process of desertification, we are behind it giving it a push.


The reasons for the water rationing have to do with endangered fish and pollution that are affecting the water availability and rights for the Central Valley, but I’m not going to get into all of that with this column.


Desertification has nothing to do with global warming; it has to do with straining the land, so driving a Prius won’t negate the process. Being in the midst of a drought does contribute to the process but it isn’t the only factor.


Just like Egypt shipped away its soil’s nutrients locked in their grain, water in the fruits and vegetables that once stayed in the valley are sent out and not returned. (Actually, we here living around Clear Lake DO return that water to the Central Valley from our lake and reservoir, but the rest of the nation and world does not.) By not remembering the history of Egypt we are repeating it.


Desertification of the Central Valley can only be stopped with water and nutrients being returned and the land replenished. Just like the Middletown Geysers were losing water and needed to be replenished the Central Valley needs replenishing of water and nutrients.


We would need to stop farming the Central Valley, let the water table return to its natural level and allow the soil to lay fallow to replenish, but I’m sure you’ll agree, that ain’t gonna happen. Elected officials will never ask people to sacrifice in order to save the Central Valley, because that won’t get them reelected.


We as a culture are too greedy and will continue to pull everything we can from the valley until it can give no more. We are unable as a species have the patience for a project that could very well take centuries to complete. But short of a desalinization plant in the ocean piping water to the valley and truckloads of compost coming from around the nation around the clock, the Central Valley won’t be able to continue to feed the nation.


I don’t want to sound alarmist but the Central Valley becoming a desert is going to happen; not in my lifetime and not in my daughter’s lifetime, but it IS going to happen. It may even take two or more centuries down the road, but the process has obviously started. Death Valley and the Mojave desert are watching us right now, plotting to join hands and skip merrily northward completely unopposed all the way to Chico.


Lake County will become the dividing line of the dry east and the coastal west of California, our mountains protecting us from becoming desert. Unfortunately, Sacramento will be able to change its name to “New Cairo,” and the Sacramento River can be renamed “Nile West.”


And if you think Yolo County wants Clear Lake water now, wait to see what happens over the next couple of centuries. I can hear the dry raspy voice in my head weakly saying, “Water, please.”


So what, if anything, can we do to at least slow the process of making this “New Egypt” that will run up the middle of the state?


Here are some options:


  • Eat locally grown foods from local growers. The less strain we put on the mass produced vegetable farms, the slower the Central Valley will deplete the soil.

  • Eat seasonal fruits and vegetables. It’s harder on a plant to produce out of season so it pulls more nutrients and water from the land to make a crop. For instance, eat tomatoes in the summer but not in the winter.

  • Don’t eat fast food, eat at locally owned restaurants. Major fast food chains rely on massive amounts of produce from large scale farms, while local restaurants generally use smaller amounts from more local sources.

  • Use less water. The more water you use, the less is available to return to the water table. With a low water table the plant roots can’t find water on their own so they must be irrigated, sending the water table lower. It’s a perpetual and disastrous circle.


For those of you who don’t understand the term “water table,” let me try to illustrate. Imagine you live on the shore of the lake. You could plant a tomato vine in the ground and never have to water it, because the tomato’s roots would grow down and find the water from the lake very easily.


However, if you were to plant that same tomato vine up in the Red Hills that tomato couldn’t find water because the lake level is 100 and more down. You would then have to water that plant on a regular basis to keep it alive.


The water table of the Central Valley was once right at the surface of the soil. Things grew well there and that’s how the Central Valley became the food basket it is. But after growing so much for so many people for the past hundred years, the water table is now over a hundred feet down in places.


Mark Twain once said, “Buy land, they aren’t making it anymore” but don’t worry if you don’t own a piece of the desert, we’re making it hand over fist.


If you would like to buy locally grown produce, visit this Web site for information on the local food movement in Lake County and various farmer’s markets and stands: www.co.lake.ca.us/Assets/Public+Information+Releases/Tomato+Face-off.pdf .


Ross A. Christensen is an award-winning gardener and gourmet cook. He is the author of "Sushi A to Z, The Ultimate Guide" and is currently working on a new book. He has been a public speaker for many years and enjoys being involved in the community. Follow him on Twitter, http://twitter.com/Foodiefreak .

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