RD Editorial July-August 2018

It’s not the heat

    This summer did not arrive gently and sweetly. More like the bolt of lightning that killed a man in Tabusintac, N.B., on June 29. Inside of a week, we went from huddling around the stove – parts of Cape Breton actually got a couple inches of snow – to receiving warnings about high humidex levels, via “special weather statements” from Environment Canada.
    Some may scoff at meteorological alarmism, especially when we hear these warnings repeated endlessly by the news media, in winter as well as summer. But if, like me, you live in a rather porous house (the opposite of a passivhaus, oddly enough), you know that a “cold wind chill” (as the phenomenon is redundantly described by some CBC broadcasters) means you are going to burn more wood trying to maintain a comfortable indoor air temperature. No harm in having a heads-up so you can plan accordingly, and perhaps avoid exposing your unprotected flesh to an icy nor’easter for extended periods.  
    At the other extreme, many of us can vouch for the fact that undertaking physical work on steamy days may have adverse effects. When the relative humidity is 65 percent, a temperature of 30 degrees C feels like 40 degrees, putting you into Environment Canada’s “avoid exertion” zone. When I should have been channeling my inner couch potato, I recently found myself channeling a scrawnier, sweatier version of Paul Bunyan, attempting to get the last of my firewood done up. Let’s just say I got pretty played out, and had to schedule some recovery time. (My more robust neighbours continued throwing bales.)
    But generally, during heat waves, you’re lucky if you live in the country – near water, likely among some shade-giving trees, and frequently caressed by cooling breezes. In Halifax, on the other hand, volunteers have been distributing sunscreen and floppy hats to homeless people – as well they should. 
    “Been down, isn’t it a pity; Doesn’t seem to be a shadow in the city,” sang The Lovin’ Spoonful. “All around, people looking half dead; Walking on the sidewalk, hotter than a match head.”
    Yes, summer in the city brings far worse concerns than the back of one’s neck getting dirty and gritty. Heat waves kill people.  A handful of Montrealers have perished already this year. The 2003 heat wave in Europe resulted in tens of thousands of deaths. In large, densely built-up areas, known as “heat islands,” the effects are worse because – unlike in the song – temperatures barely fall at night. 

    Hot weather may not be so bad for the affluent folks who live on leafy residential streets, but for most urban dwellers, the only relief comes from air conditioning – in homes that have it, and in virtually all businesses. So they crank the dial, heating up the planet while trying to stay cool. This vicious cycle is projected to cause a huge increase in global energy demand, unless we start doing things differently. 
    All new urban and sub-urban construction – residential and commercial – should incorporate district heating and cooling systems, which involve underground piping to service multiple buildings. It’s more efficient than running a stand-alone system for each building, and it’s more compatible with renewable energy. There’s actually a good example in downtown Halifax, where cold water from the harbour is used for air conditioning at the Purdy’s Wharf office complex. On the Dartmouth side, the Alderney 5 project, which cools five municipal buildings, has the added benefit of underground thermal storage, with a series of 80 bore holes 500 feet deep, allowing super-cold sea water to chill the huge rock mass during winter. (Same principle as the icebox, which relied on blocks cut from a frozen lake. That elegantly simple and environmentally benign technology, which was found in most kitchens before the advent of mechanical refrigeration, might actually be due for a reboot.) 
    Toronto has a large district cooling network that uses water from deep in Lake Ontario to supply A/C for a bunch of downtown buildings, including the very cool restored railway roundhouse that houses Steam Whistle Brewing – where they even use this system to refrigerate their beer for a few weeks during the lagering process. (That’s a gratuitous beer reference, I guess. Another symptom of heat stress. If you must consume this terrible substance, please support your local micro-brewer!) Point is, towns and cities need to do more to reduce reliance on energy-sucking compressor motors and chemical refrigerants.

    I recently heard gardening expert Marjorie Willison on the radio, fielding a call from someone who wanted to know about new crops we might soon be able to grow due to global warming. Willison gently told the caller that this is not really the way things are going to shake out. Even as average temperatures rise, extreme and unpredictable weather will become more common – which is just bad, from a horticultural perspective. In Nova Scotia, producers of various crops still don’t know just how badly they will be affected by the hard frost that hit much of the province this June. Significant yield losses are expected.
    Christmas trees, which cover a lot of acreage in my community, suffered extensive damage, and are now decorated with ugly rust-coloured tips, where tender new growth was frozen. “We’re getting a taste of what the dinosaurs felt like when they saw that cloud in the sky,” said Murray Crouse, a director with the Lunenburg County Christmas Tree Producers’ Association, at a meeting that was held to address the crisis.
    It’s a heart-breaker, because the market is very strong right now. The damaged trees are expected to survive, but will be unsaleable this fall, which means growers will not be able to meet demand. Disaster assistance, through the federal-provincial AgriRecovery framework, may eventually be available to those who hold membership in a local producers’ association. This comes at a time when the provincial umbrella group, the Christmas Tree Council of Nova Scotia, is butting heads with some growers who don’t want to pay the industry levy. If a shortage of trees causes prices to rise further, there could be an uptick in under-the-radar production. We could see marijuana growers trying to make a bit of money on the side by cultivating some illicit Balsam fir in a discreet location. 
    (You may be tired of hearing about pot legalization, but it’s a fascinating market experiment. I recently read that production costs for growing cannabis as a field crop may be less than 25 cents per gram. They call it “weed” for a reason. The capital-intensive, energy-sucking indoor grow-op companies, which are banking on a ganga bonanza, have lobbied hard to prevent dirt farmers from getting a piece of the action.)   
    One of the topics discussed at the Christmas tree meeting was the introduction of improved planting stock. Late budding is widely viewed as a desirable trait – delaying the emergence of those delicate shoots until the risk of freezing weather is much reduced. But I spoke with one grower who was wary of introducing genetic uniformity, in an industry that traditionally relied on the Balsam fir’s great talent for natural regeneration. Seems like a valid point, based on the old-fashioned notion of not putting all your eggs in one basket. Arguably, one of the strengths of this region’s Christmas tree sector is the fact that most producers are also involved in other enterprises, so they can ride out a bad year or two.

    The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has revealed that a small amount of genetically-modified (GM) wheat was discovered growing in southern Alberta last year. The wheat was identified because it survived roadside herbicide spraying, but there’s no explanation as to how it got there. Monsanto developed wheat with this glyphosate-tolerant (Roundup Ready) trait, but has not been registered to grow it in outdoor test plots in Canada since 2004. Apparently the nearest test plots were some 300 kilometres from the recent find (though the exact locations remain secret, of course). 
    GM wheat is not approved for commercial production here or anywhere else in the world, but we allowed it to go feral. As a result of the discovery – if that’s what you want to call it – both Japan and South Korea suspended imports of Canadian wheat, leaving boatloads of the stuff sitting at the dock as new buyers were sought – likely at lower prices. 
    This has happened a few times before in the U.S., when GM-contaminated wheat was found in farmers’ fields. Here in Canada, extensive testing of wheat, both standing and stored, revealed no further evidence of rogue genetics – and as a result, South Korea resumed imports. Japan, which represents a larger and more lucrative market, was expected to follow suit, but had not yet done so when this issue of RD went to print.
    There are always assurances that precautions have been taken to prevent genetic contamination, and yet it happens. It is also likely to happen with GM alfalfa, which is now being grown in Nova Scotia – and there will be serious market consequences, primarily affecting farmers who choose not to grow it. 
    Even if we put aside all the conflicting theories and claims about health and nutrition associated with GM plants, we are left with some very troubling implications for food sovereignty. The use of proprietary seed with “novel traits” reduces the natural resilience that comes with genetic diversity, and it diminishes farmers’ independence, putting ever more control in the hands of a few multinational companies. GM foods should be labeled in Canada, so consumers have a choice. Australia’s labeling regulations may not be perfect, but they offer a basic model.
    A final thought, on the topic of wheat. Check out Doug Brown’s new column, “From the baker’s bench,” on page 36. Doug, who runs Oak Haven Organic Bakery in Belleisle, N.S., is definitely a guy who knows his glutenin from his gluteus. Send us your questions about whole-grain baking, and we’ll see if he can help you out. And if you’re reluctant to fire up the oven at this time of year, support your local independent bakery! DL