Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Hot and Bothered - and Not in a Good Way

“If you asked me to name the three scariest threats facing the human race, I would give the same answer that most people would: nuclear war, global warming and Windows.”
- Dave Barry, humorist and writer
            Last week was a doozy in terms of weather- for those of you living either in the US or continental Europe its been steamy. We’ve gotten 32°C here (for those of you living in Imperial land, that would be 89.6°F). My sister complained that NYC hit 100°F (add another 20 degrees if in the subway). Chicago had 5 straight days of 90°F+ temperatures. Anthony Weiner wasn’t getting any relief either – it was 100°F in DC as well. 
            Where did spring go? And how did summer (the un-fun summer of August mugginess) come so quickly?
            The simple answer for many would be that climate change is finally rearing it’s ugly head and soon New York City will be the Amazonian jungle complete with piranhas near the East River and naked hipsters on the Lower East Side – oh wait a second – that already is the case. Any way you look at it, climate change and global warming are here to stay – and yes, we caused it.[1]
            Most earth scientists would say that true climate change is measured in hundreds of years. The last couple of years of weird weather have been a blip when compared to the long-term trends in global temperatures. Although anthropogenic (that is, people made) global warming is pretty much a given fact by climate scientists, these scientists are the first to admit that they cannot predict regional weather patterns nor attribute current weather patterns without more research.[2] It would be horribly convenient to blame our extreme weather on climate change, but scientists are a conservative lot – they look at the longue durée was the French would say – not just a season or two.
            But one thing is for certain, these extreme changes in weather patterns are wreaking havoc on supplies and commodities prices for staple crops such as rice, wheat, corn and soybeans. Droughts in Australia, fires in Russia and floods across the Midwest US and India have spiked up prices – prices for basic commodities have doubled since 2007.[3] This doesn’t just mean a couple of cents more for Wonder Bread – for the many in the world this is a matter of life and death. According to Oxfam, rising food prices are changing dietary habits, either in quality or quantity, in developing countries across the world.[4] This means a child gets no milk or protein, kids don’t go to school because they have to feed families, populations get weaker due to malnutrition and disease…the domino effect is evident.
            Regardless of the source of these weather fluctuations, food insecurity across the globe will not go away. One reason is obvious – we have a booming world population – the UN estimates that by 2010 there will be 10 billion persons on this earth. [5] The other is not so obvious to the casual observer – agricultural supply. If the UN is correct in their population predictions, we will have to double food production in order to feed them. Grain production has risen across the world, but for the past 40 years, it has not been able to keep up with supply,[6] in spite of technological gains.  While grain production has increased across Asia, Africa has not significantly increased their yields, in spite of the Green Revolution of the 1960’s [7] and their incredible agricultural potential.

            But what does this have to do with climate change? Everything. According to a oft-cited studies by Wolfram Schlenker and Michael J. Roberts[8] have found that corn and soybeans yields will drop significantly with temperature rises above 29°C (84.2°F) and 30°C (86°F), respectively. Seventy-five percent of the world’s poor live in rural areas and make their living from agriculture. If the IPCC is correct in their predictions of a 1.2-6.4°C increase in global surface temperature, millions of persons will see severely decreased yields in the future.[9] Semi-arid areas, already prone to desertification, will become non-arable. Changes in seasonality will affect crop yield and planting schedules. Crops sensitive to minute changes in temperature, such as coffee and chocolate, have smaller yields. For urban dwellers (which is half the earth’s population), any disruption in food supplies and prices push food riots and political instability (this was one of the reasons for the riots and demonstrations in Egypt) For farmers in the developed world, climate change equals more risk, more risk equals higher crop insurance premiums, and higher premiums mean higher food costs.[10] And there are thousands of other deleterious consequences unseen by scientists, politicians and the environment…
            Whether you believe climate change is man-made or not is not the point. It’s here and we will be dealing with the consequences for our lifetime, our children’s lifetime and their children’s lifetime. It’s going be hot for a while and no amount of cold beers is going to make go away.

Vietnamese Fresh Spring Rolls (Goi Cuon)
When it is hot outside, this is the only thing I want to eat. Like many other ethnic recipes, everyone has a slightly different version. I have seen with mushrooms, roast pork, carrots, daikon, and chicken, but they are always made with rice paper sheets, rice vermicelli, fresh herbs and shrimp. All the ingredients are readily available in Asian (particularly Southeast Asian grocers). And if you have vegetarians/vegans as guests, you can easily leave out the shrimp. As for the dipping sauce, I’ve seen both hoisin sauces with peanuts as well as nuoc nam (Vietnamese dipping sauce with fish sauce). I’m not really sure what is “authentic,” but I have included a recipe for nuoc nam. (Personally I like fish sauce, but it’s not for everyone.) And the greatest thing about this? You don’t have to turn on is a water kettle. Genius.

12 round rice paper sheets (they come in 8-9 in. diameter rounds)
1 large bunch fresh mint
1 large bunch fresh Thai basil leaves (you can use Genovese/Italian basil if desperate)
1 large bunch cilantro leaves
11/2 c. mung bean sprouts
24 large shrimp, cooked, deveined and cut in half, lengthwise
4 oz. of thin rice vermicelli (called mai fun in Chinese)
Dipping Sauce (nuoc nam)
1/2 c. fresh lime juice (it’s about 4-5 limes)  
4 tbs. sugar
3. tbs. fermented fish sauce (nam pla)
1 tbs. rice vinegar
1 tsp. of chopped cilantro
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 thai bird chili, minced (optional)

1.     First make dipping sauce. Take all dipping sauce ingredients and stir until the sugar dissolves. Set aside for at least 30 minutes for the flavors to meld.
2.     Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. Place rice vermicelli into the water and turn off the heat. Let the noodles soak until softened, about 10 minutes. Drain.
3.     Moisten a non-terry tea towel and place onto a cutting board. Fill a bowl large enough to fit the rice sheets with hot water. Take 1 sheet and quickly dip into the water, about 20 seconds, until the sheet softens. Place sheet onto the towel. Starting at the bottom third, with about an inch border, place 2 shrimp across the sheet. Place a handful of noodles by the shrimp. Place 1-2 sprigs of mint, cilantro and basil on the top. Fold the bottom end up, fold in the sides, and roll tightly (like a burrito roll). Place on a plate seam side down and cover with a wet tea towel. Repeat with the rest of the rice paper rounds (the first couple might look hideous, but they will still taste great).
4.     To serve: Cut rolls in half and serve with dipping sauce. Can be made 3 hours ahead of time, covered with a damp towel and refrigerated.

[1] Oddly enough, anthropogenic climate change is still a hotly debated topic. When I say oddly, I mean, according to a recent Gallup poll, 47% of Americans believe global warming is due to natural not human causes.
[2] This is, in no way, shape or form, an endorsement of crazy global warming deniers. There are tiny minority of scientists who disagree with the IPCC (the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change) conclusions regarding global warming, but there pretty much is a scientific consensus regarding the fact of the matter: the earth is getting hotter. Most of the denying seems to come in the form of political agendas. For example, the Republican Party (with the exception of Mitt Romney who in his 2010 book No Apology wrote: “I believe that climate change is occurring — the reduction in the size of global ice caps is hard to ignore. I also believe that human activity is a contributing factor.”) in the United States seems to think that man-made global warming is a giant myth perpetuated by pinko-Commie liberals and their tree-hugger friends. (Pew Research Center for the People and the Press from October 2011 polled 38% of Republicans believing in global warming and a scant 16% believing it was man-made.)
[3] The UN Food and Agriculture Organization index (UNFAO) of global food prices hit an all time high in February of this year.
[4] Economists have known this for years. Rising food prices hurt the poor disproportionately as more of their fixed costs goes toward food. Simple math will tell you how it works. Let’s say you make 100 dollars a day. You spend 35 on rent, 25 on food and you have 40 dollars in disposable income. Let’s say your food price spiked 20% (that’s what is happening in Egypt right now). You now have to pay 30 dollars for food – whacking 5 dollars off your disposable income and making you poorer in real dollar terms, although the real value you get is the same.
[5] The rise of the middle class in developing nations, which in turn fuels the demand for more meat, is also a critical problem with food security. This topic, however, will have to wait for another post…..
[6] Many look to Norman E. Borlaug as the genius behind the Green Revolution for his development of high-yielding plant varieties. What has not been emphasized, though, is the amount of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, as well as irrigation techniques needed to support such plants. Fertilizers, pesticides, fertilizers and irrigation need fossil fuels. At $100 a barrel, fossil fuels aren’t getting any cheaper.
[7] The whole debate about biotechnology, including GMO’s, is much, much too big for this post. But it is an important topic and I promise a full blog post dedicated to those issues in the future.
[8] Michael Roberts and Wolfram Schlenker have published a series of studies on the agricultural yields and temperature change. This article is one of many. Michael J. Roberts and Wolfram Schlenker, “Is Agricultural Production Becoming More or Less Sensitive to Extreme Heat? Evidence from U.S. Corn and Soybean Yields,” National Bureau of Economic Reasearch. Working Paper No. 16308, August 2010.
[9] Some scientists have suggested that the increased amount of CO2 in the atmosphere may increase the crop yield.  A study done at the University of Illinois examine both soybeans and corn with respect to higher CO2 exposure. Soybeans had a marginal increase in crop yields. Corn had no increase at all.
[10]For EU and US denizens, this also means more tax dollars. Both the US and the EU have subsidies crop support in the form of crop insurance or yield subsidies.
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