Tag Archives: agriculture

Kudos and Criticism for Chipotle’s Farm Ad

It’s been 2 weeks and the buzz still hasn’t died down.
Fast food marketer Chipotle Mexican Grill ran a doozy of a commercial during the Grammy Awards. The company went all out for its first national ad buy, a 2 minute spot during which it screened a short film celebrating sustainable agriculture.

Back to the Start uses stop-motion animation to tell the tale of a small-time farmer who transforms his family farm into an industrialized animal feeding operation, then sees the error of his way and returns to his former small-scale methods. It starts out as a sweet little Fisher-Price playset of a farm, green and lush with a single red barn and open pastures where a handful of spotted cows and plump pink piggies roam freely. Then it scales up to a gray landscape of bloated animals, crowded warehouses, and mechanized feeding lines with sludgy feed and a rainbow of chemical supplements. The soundtrack comes from Willie Nelson singing a mournful rendition of the Coldplay tune The Scientist: “Science and progress/Don’t speak as loud as my heart/Nobody said it was easy/No one ever said it would be so hard/I’m going back to the start.”

The film succeeds on many levels.
It’s playful but unsettling. It confronts the horrors and pitfalls of concentrated, mechanized agriculture, but does so without the stridency and gory shock tactics of most animal rights messaging. It’s simple but not dumbed down.

The critics began chiming in while the final frame was still flickering on TV screens.
Proponents of Big Agriculture blasted the message as a ‘prescription for worldwide hunger,’ claiming that they make the tough calls regarding animal husbandry on our behalf. In a New York Times opinion piece, Missouri Farm Bureau president Blake Hurst warned that our political correctness actually backfires because it drives small farmers out of business because only “big multistate operations will also be able to afford to make the changes, or will at least have the political sway to resist them.” He also questions Chipotle’s assumption that a pig would prefer a pasture to a warehouse. Have there been “porcine focus groups,” he wonders, with “response meters designed for the cloven of hoof?” “… for all we know, pigs are ‘happier’ in warm, dry buildings than they are outside. And either way, the end result is a plate.” [If Mr. Hurst’s name is ringing a bell, perhaps it’s because he first made a name in the food world as the author The Omnivore’s Delusion, the anti-foodie screed he penned in response to Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma]

Chipotle also drew criticism from members of the food reform community. Chipotle, whose motto is “Food with integrity,” has demonstrated a deep commitment to the humane treatment of animals, but has come under fire numerous times for ignoring the unethical and abusive labor practices of some of its vendors. Some also have a cynical view of a corporation that has co-opted a movement and turned it into a marketing tool.

It’s true that we can’t presume to truly know what’s inside a pig’s mind. It’s also true that Chipotle mixes self-interest with the environmental message. But ultimately, it’s the message that matters. Back to the Start addresses deep and important issues about the food supply, and Chipotle succeeded in bringing them to the attention of a broad national audience.


Posted in entertainment, fast food, sustainability | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

The True Story of Baby Carrots

[image via Bent Objects]

Did you ever wonder where those perfect little carrots come from?
Those marvels of the produce aisle, so uniform in shape, size, and color, like no carrot found in nature. You’ve had your suspicions; you’ve heard the rumors.
It’s all true: carrots- yes; babies-no.

True baby carrots are a specialty crop that’s grown to be harvested before maturity. The supermarket version is a manufactured product. It starts with full-sized, fully-grown carrots that are snipped into 2-inch sections, pumped through water-filled pipes into giant whirling peelers, whittled down to lovable niblets, and bathed in a mold retardant before they’re packed in plastic bags for shipping. Organic carrot growers use a citrus-based product called Citrix, but the conventional baby-cuts in your supermarket were treated with chlorine to prolong shelf life.

The baby carrots we’ve come to know were invented in the late 1980’s. Supermarkets have always demanded carrots of uniform size and shape, with no lumps, bumps, spots, or twists. One California carrot farmer had grown tired of culling the imperfect and irregular carrots from his crop. Up to 70% of his harvest would end up discarded or sold at a discounted price for juice and animal feed. He started experimenting with green bean trimmers and potato peelers, dabbling first with 1-inch rounds that he marketed as ‘bunny balls’ before settling on 2-inch thumbs, and an industry was transformed. Ironically, we now pay a premium price for the former cast-offs.

The baby-cut boom has changed the way carrots are grown. The ideal carrot used to be bulky-topped and steeply tapered, grown to a standard 6½ inches for the best fit in 0ne- and two-pound plastic bags. Now growers shoot for long, narrow cylinders. The length gets them more cuts—it’s gone from the original two cuts per carrot to three and even four cuts from 8+ inch behemoths. Straight and narrow means they can be planted closer together for more yield per acre, and less is wasted when they’re carved into the baby carrot shape.

Before the advent of the baby-cut, annual carrot consumption in the U.S. was a steady 6 pounds a year per person. It started climbing in 1986 and topped 11 pounds per person by 2007. We snack on them, throw them into soups and stews, entertain with baby-cuts and dip, put them in lunch boxes, and order them at fast food restaurants. The carrot industry’s Eat’em Like Junk Food campaign has even pushed ‘scarrots’ as a dubious alternative to Halloween candy.

I know what you’re going to say.
Of course it’s cheaper, healthier, and better for the environment to buy whole carrots from a local grower. But we’re eating twice as many fresh carrots as we used to. It’s hard to argue with that kind of success.



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The Food Movement Will Occupy Wall Street Next Weekend


It’s our turn!
Next Saturday, advocates of food justice will be descending on the Occupy Wall Street encampment.

The connection
The food system is linked to Wall Street in ways that impact us personally and directly, as well as globally and ephemerally.

The scale and scope of the agribusiness monopoly puts the giants of Wall Street to shame.
While the 10 largest banks hold 54% of the nation’s assets, a mere 4 food companies churn out 75% of breakfast cereals, 75% of snacks, 60% of cookies, and 50% of ice cream. Inputs like seeds and pesticides, the mills and slaughterhouses that process foods, and even the supermarkets are similarly concentrated in a few hands, and they hold our nation’s food policy in a vise grip.

Then there is Wall Street’s effect on food prices.
The same deregulation that made the stock market volatile also increased price volatility in agricultural markets. Speculators have only been allowed to freely trade in food futures since 2000. Farmers used to trade in futures to guarantee a stable price for their future harvests; now agricultural commodities are just one more investment vehicle for speculators looking to squeeze out short-term profits, putting downward pressure on wages and pushing up prices.

When Occupy Wall Street protestors talks about the 1% and the other 99%, the gap between rich and poor is seen in starkest relief in terms of hunger and deprivation. 17 million school-aged children are underfed, nearly 1 in 5 Americans relies on food stamps, and half of all babies are born into households receiving government food subsidies.

Next Saturday’s demonstration is not just for food activists, or even activists who care about food. It’s for all of us who understand that to change the food system, we need systemic change in the institutions, regulations, and corporate influence that stand in the way of a healthy and just food system.



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A Terrorist Attack on Our Food Supply: Not an IF but a WHEN

For the life of me, I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply because it is so easy to do.
—Tommy Thompson, former Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services at his farewell news conference, December 3, 2004

We may be blindsided by an intentional food-based attack on this nation sometime soon… At present, our primary detection capability is the emergency room.
—John Hoffman, former Department of Homeland Security senior adviser, testifying before a Senate subcommittee on counter-terrorism, September 14, 2011

In the the wake of 9/11, one of our deepest fears was that terrorists would poison our food.
Vowing to draw a protective shield around our food supply, President Bush made food defense a focal point of our National Security Policy and the newly-formed Department of Homeland Security. Presidential directives were signed pulling food into the realm of our nation’s critical infrastructure where it joined priority sectors like communications, energy, transportation, and emergency health services.

10 years have passed, agencies have been created, $3.4 billion has been spent; and a congressional watchdog report, the subject of last week’s Senate hearings, suggests that we remain as vulnerable as ever to the nightmare scenario of food terrorism.

No big surprise.
The past decade of food counter-terrorism activity has been bogged down in bureaucratic tangles and inefficiencies. Food monitoring activities are far-flung and fragmented: there’s the oversight of federal agencies like the USDA, FDA, Department of Defense, and Homeland Security; and in many segments of agriculture and manufacturing, there are parallel systems of self-regulation and voluntary compliance on the part of the private sector. Lines of responsibility are blurred, communications between unrelated entities are scattershot, and there is no one with the authority or accountability to take charge.

The public has also dropped the ball, losing its post-9/11 sense of urgency and lulled into complacency by the relative domestic quiet of the intervening years.

72% of deliberate contaminations take place at the end of the food supply chain—the rat poison in a husband’s dinner or tranquilizers in the city council’s coffee pot. Another 23% take place at the retail grocery or restaurant level. These tend to be mostly thrill crimes, or crimes of passion, revenge, and retribution.

Direct attacks on the food supply are rare. Most have targeted water supplies, food processors, and manufacturers. Conventional contaminants like cyanide and mercury are most common, although in recent years we have seen an increase in the use of biological agents including salmon­ella, ricin, and radiological matter. They are often politically motivated, like a 1984 salmonella attack directed at voters that sickened nearly a thousand Oregon residents, and the more recent poisoning death in London of the former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, who was killed with a lethal dose of radioactive polonium-210 in his tea.

Some might argue that despite our apparent vulnerability, we have little to fear because the world has never seen a large-scale act of biological warfare on a food supply. But then again, the world had never seen anything like 9/11.

You can view a webcast of the recent Senate Subcommittee session, Agro-Defense: Responding to Threats Against America’s Agriculture and Food System, and see transcripts of witness testimony at the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs website.


Posted in food safety | Tagged , | 1 Comment

7 Foods the Experts Won’t Touch

image via Care2

Where do the chefs eat when they have a night off? That’s where you want to go. In the market for a new computer? Ask the head of your company’s IT department what he uses at home. If you knew what toothpaste your dentist’s family uses, you’d probably buy it too.
The skinny, the scoop, the inside track—that’s what you want.

Experts from a variety of food-related fields have made these 7 insider recommendations of foods to avoid. They’re based on professional wisdom and expertise, but more importantly, they represent personal choices. None are banned in the U.S.; they’re all USDA or FDA approved, but those in the know won’t eat them, and they won’t feed them to their own families.

1.Conventional Apples
The grafting techniques of conventional apple growers demand some of the most extensive pesticide usage in all of agriculture. While chemical producers and regulators duke it out over the residue, Mark Kastel, former executive for agribusiness and co-director of the Cornucopia Institute, a farm-policy research group, buys organic only. When that’s not feasible, then peel the apples and wash up well afterwards.

2.Canned Tomatoes
The resin linings of cans contain bisphenol-A, what we know as BPA. It’s a synthetic estrogen that has been linked to ailments ranging from reproductive problems to heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. The acidity of tomatoes causes a large amount of BPA to leach out of the lining and into your food—so much that the BPA level from just a few cans’ worth of tomatoes is enough to have a health impact. Fredrick vom Saal, PhD, an endocrinologist and bisphenol-A scholar at the University of Missouri, won’t touch them.

3.Microwave Popcorn
Actually, the popcorn is fine. The microwavable bag is another story. Its lining is coated with chemicals that, when heated, vaporize and migrate to the popcorn. One of those chemicals, perfluorooctanoic acid, accumulates in your body for years and is linked to infertility, liver, testicular, and pancreatic cancer. It’s such a known threat that DuPont and other manufacturers will phase it out by 2015 under a voluntary EPA plan. Dr. Olga Naidenko, a senior scientist for the Environmental Working Group, won’t be indulging until then.

4.Farmed Salmon
Dr. David Carpenter is the director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University at Albany and a leading authority on contamination in fish, and he won’t go near farmed salmon. Commercially farmed salmon is raised in packed pens and fed an unnatural diet of  soy, poultry litter, antibiotics, and chicken feathers. Contaminants in those items include carcinogens, PCBs, flame retardants, and nasty pesticides like dioxin and DDT. These substances are so concentrated in the fish that Dr. Carpenter says you increase your risk of cancer after just two salmon dinners in a year. Since there are no remaining commercial fisheries for wild Atlantic salmon, Dr. Carpenter sticks with Pacific salmon, like wild-caught Alaskan.

5.Conventional Potatoes
Conventional potatoes are chemically dosed three time: fungicides during the growing season; herbicides before harvesting; and a second herbicide after after they’ve been picked to keep them from sprouting. Since potatoes grow underground, they can’t be sprayed directly. Instead, the chemicals are put into the water and soil where they’re absorbed into the flesh of the potatoes. You can’t washing and peel them away. According to Jeffrey Moyer, chair of the National Organic Standards Board and farm director of the Rodale Institute, potato growers “say point-blank they would never eat the potatoes they sell. They have separate plots where they grow potatoes for themselves without all the chemicals.”

6.Grain-fed Beef
A cow’s steady diet of corn and other grains is, simply put, unnatural. Their multi-chambered stomachs are built for grass, and have never adapted to the corn and soybeans of the feedlots, so favored by most cattle ranchers because they are cheaper than pastured grazing and can fatten a cow for slaughter much more quickly. The feedlot environment, combined with the lack of adaptation in digestion, makes grain-fed cattle vastly more disease prone than grass-fed, and the bacteria they pass to beef eaters is much more dangerous. Joel Salatin, co-owner of Polyface Farms and author of numerous influential books on sustainable farming, would never, ever allow grain-fed beef to cross his lips.

7. Hormone-treated Milk
Most dairy cows are fed artificial growth hormones to increase milk production, and that milk contains elevated levels of a hormone called insulin-like growth factor (IGF). Unless the milk is organic or explicitly labeled hormone-free, it’s in there. IGF  is linked to breast, prostate, and colon cancers, and while the exact mechanism in milk is not clear, Rick North, project director of the Campaign for Safe Food at the Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility and former CEO of the Oregon division of the American Cancer Society points out that the hormones are banned in nearly every other industrialized nation.


Posted in health + diet | Tagged , | 11 Comments

The Ethical Carnivore: Pleased to Meat You

It’s not like you’re suddenly going to go cold turkey, if you’ll pardon the pun. We humans didn’t claw our way up the food chain so we could eat quinoa.

Meat-eating and ethical eating don’t have to be mutually exclusive. There are ways to eat meat that are sensitive to the environment, to our health, and to the animals involved.

All meat is not created equal.
We all know that factory farming is a grotesquery. It’s basically institutionalized animal cruelty and it creates a product that is unfit and unhealthy for human consumption. It depletes resources and is destructive to the environment.

Then there’s grass-fed or pasture-raised beef.
These animals are raised in open, humane, sanitary conditions. They conserve resources by passing on a diet of grains grown with petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides. Better for your health, grass-fed beef contains fewer antibiotics and hormones, is leaner than grain-fed and grain-finished beef, and has a more favorable ratio of omega fatty acids.

The well-managed pasture system sustains natural resources by reducing erosion and water pollution, conserving carbon, and preserving biodiversity and wildlife. Their sales methods—either operating as an independent, selling directly from their own property, or selling through small, locally focused producer groups—help support local communities, promote local foodsheds, and earn a fair price for the producers.

The industrialization of the calf.
We took an earth-friendly, solar-powered ruminant and turned it into a fossil-fuel powered machine.
The problem with banishing all meat from the dinner table is that ranchers of conscience are caught in the sweep, demonized along with factory farmers. These ethical producers should be celebrated as the vanguard of a growing revolt against industrial agriculture, not penalized by association.

Let’s face it, we are not heading toward a meatless society.
But we can be a society of ethical carnivores. We need to eat meat in moderation and avoid animals raised in confined spaces and fed an unnatural diet. Choosing grass-fed beef can have a lasting impact on our health and the health of the planet.



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A Global Warming Amuse Bouche.

image via World Magazine

How’s that climate change thing working for you?
Not everyone is in agreement on the causes, but the effects are undeniable.
Popsicles and iced drinks can only take you so far. What will you be eating as the planet heats up?

2010 was the world’s hottest year on record; that is, until 2011. The National Weather Service reports that 1,400 records for a high temperature have been broken around the country this summer, and we’re not even through July. The current heat wave is exceptional for its duration, strength, and even breadth, and climatologists are telling us it’s just a taste of things to come.

Atmospheric scientists at the University of Washington and at Stanford University’s Program for Food Security and the Environment analyzed data from 23 climate models. They predict, with 90%  certainty, that by the end of the 21st century, average growing-season temperatures will be hotter than the most extreme levels recorded in the past. Barring a swift and sudden reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions, here’s what will happen to our food:

  • Fruit trees will blossom weeks early in the warmer spring weather, before insects arrive to pollinate them. Without successful pollination, small fruit will form and quickly drop off the trees before it can mature.
  • Grapes will wither into raisins before they can be pressed for wine.
  • Dairy cows will experience reproductive failure and produce less milk.
  • Hogs and cattle will go off their feed and take longer to get to market.
  • Chickens will lay fewer eggs.
  • Coffee-growing regions will fade away as growers are forced to either move to higher ground or pack it in.
  • We’ll drink  summer ales year-round—the only palatable brew from weaker, low-acid, warm-weather hops.
  • Fish will flee the southern hemisphere, vegetables will wither in the fields, maple syrup will be just a memory.

We’ve seen food prices rise by 20% as the hot weather torpedoes production, but what if dinner costs 20 times what it did?

The midwestern breadbasket will be redubbed the tropical fruit bowl.
Mashed cassava will stand in for potatoes, we’ll eat french-fried yucca, and scramble the eggy akee fruit for breakfast. It’s already happening across Europe, where England has begun producing bananas, olives, and oranges, and central Russia is planted with fig trees and lemons.

The evidence continues to pile up.
This is not just another summer heatwave but part of a larger trend that is indisputably based on measured concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Global warming as a result of human activity is recognized by the national science academies of  every major industrialized country.

Learn how your personal choices  impact the environment. Read Ten Personal Solutions to Global Warming from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Join 350.com, a global, grassroots movement to solve the crisis.



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Tired of fumbling with round fruit? Try a Square Watermelon.

http://www.crown-melon.com/The%20square%20watermelon.files/kaku-mae-big-shiro1.gifOur first glimpse of a square watermelon was in a cartoon. In Thirty Minutes Over Tokyo, our favorite television family was vacationing in Japan when Homer Simpson squandered so much of their vacation money on Japanese novelties, including a square watermelon, they were nearly stranded there forever.

It took a few more years for Japan’s farmers to catch up with Homer’s prescience.

Leave it to the Japanese to come up with this one. From bonsai trees, to compact cars, to miniaturized electronics, they have demonstrated their mastery of making things work in small spaces, and population-dense Japan is full of them. Homes are compact, the kitchens within them are tiny, and the refrigerators are positively Lilliputian.

Watermelons are big, roundish space hogs that have never fit well in Japanese refrigerators. This has been a particular concern in Japan, where melons hold a special place in society. The rarest and most exotic are sold as high-end gifts in luxury fruit shops. The nation tracks the springtime fruit harvest like baseball stats, when first-of-the season melons sell for astronomical sums—this year, a pair of Yubari cantaloupe fetched the top price of one million yen (about $12,400).

Square watermelons were created to accommodate Japanese refrigerators. While still growing on the vine, a farmer puts each immature melon into a square, tempered glass box that exactly matches refrigerator dimensions. The full-grown watermelon, once it’s removed from the box, fits precisely on refrigerator shelves.

Growers in California and Panama plan to introduce square watermelons into the American market. Even with our big, American-style refrigerators, we can appreciate the space savings—square melons take up less room, and therefore less energy, to cool, transport and display in stores. Less space means a smaller carbon footprint.
If you want round, you can always pull out the melon-baller.

Not just square: one Japanese grower has been fooling around with other shapes. See the watermelon heart, the pyramid, and more at Crown Melon.

Instructables has step-by-step instructions that show you how to grow your own square watermelon.


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Jail Time for Farm Photos










If Big Agriculture has its way, you could get a year in prison for any one of these pictures.

Agribusiness lobbies in farm states are pushing bills that would make it a criminal offense to take photographs, video, or audio recordings on any farm without the owners’ consent. Stop at the side of the road to snap a photo of frolicking lambs during a Sunday drive in the country, and you could be looking at serious jail time. It would even be a crime to possess or distribute unauthorized farm images, making them the legal equivalent of child pornography.
Big Agriculture really doesn’t want us to know what’s going on with our food.

The so-called Ag-Gag bills are aimed at keeping the secrets of industrial farming secret.
Legislation has so far been introduced, though not successfully, in Florida, New York, and Minnesota, and is pending in Iowa. On the heels of some of the worst animal welfare abuses in U.S. history, including the violations that led to last year’s historic 500-million egg recall, the farming industry has chosen to target the whistle-blowers, rather than the violators.

We have a long and storied tradition of food safety and animal welfare whistle-blowing, from Upton Sinclair to people like Kit Foshee, the former corporate quality assurance manager at Beef Products, Inc. who opened our eyes to the execrable path of factory-raised beef, from slaughterhouse to supermarket. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration Food Safety Modernization Act, which President Obama signed into law earlier this year, created a set of powerful legal protections and remedies for food safety whistle-blowers. We need to know more about what goes on behind the barn doors, not less.

Take that sense of Ag-Gag outrage, and do something.

Sign the Slow Food USA petition (43,000+ already have) protesting the lobby’s actions, that will be forwarded to Iowa’s senate.

Take your camera along the next time you visit a farm. Hundred of Farmarazzi (the paparazzi of the farm world) have taken photos—showcasing both good and bad practices—and posted them to the Farmarazzi Facebook page.

Follow the Food Warriors. The Real Time Farms Blog has sent out a small army of interns to document our nation’s food system. The Real Time blog will be sharing their posts, video, and photographs as the interns visit farms, markets, and food artisans in every region of the country.

Read Gigabiting’s Food Safety: No such thing as TMI.


Posted in food policy, food safety | Tagged , | 5 Comments

A Different Kind of Food TV.

We’ve been gorging on food shows.
Let’s be honest—what we watch is like so much junk food.

This is something new.
Food Forward has no celebrity chefs or anyone of the spokesmodel-pseudo-semi-chef ilk. There are no roguish bad boy types or cheeky Brits. We won’t be making over kitchens, egging on competitors, engaging in reality voyeurism, or bearing witness to stomach-churning displays of the gastronomically bizarre.

Food Forward follows Bay Area-based food writer Stett Holbrook as he circles the country in a vintage Airstream trailer, introducing viewers to constituents of America’s good food movement. Starting out in northern California, he’s hitting the road for the summer, film crew, wife, and two small children in tow. He will be introducing us to the new vanguard of food innovators; the producers, growers, chefs, farmers, scientists, community leaders, and teachers who are changing the way we eat.

Food Forward doesn’t dwell on the legion of ills associated with the industrial model of food production, leaving that to documentaries like Food, Inc. and King Corn. Instead, it explores themes like school lunches, urban agriculture, sustainable fishing, and pastured meats by celebrating the people who have succeeded in the creation of sustainable solutions. Each episode will showcase rural farmers, urban homesteaders, food festivals, and heroes of the DIY movement.

Food Forward is ‘penciled in’ to be broadcast on PBS stations this fall. In the meantime, you can follow the blog of the edible journey, currently traveling south through the Sierra foothills. There are key stops planned for Los Angeles, Santa Fe, Boulder, Austin, New Orleans, Memphis, Atlanta, Washington, D.C, New York City, Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Seattle, and Portland; and plenty in between.



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Where’s Our Tickle-Me Loris?

We sure could use a loris.
Cute-as-a-button with beseeching, animé eyes, a homemade video of a slow loris luxuriating in a good tickle session has been viewed nearly 10 million times, bringing loads of attention (and donations) to the plight of this endangered species.
Where’s the poster child for endangered food?

We’re not talking about endangered foods like lobster thermador and cube steaks, though sightings are rare.
Or the truly extinct, like Kellogg’s Banana Frosted Flakes, the McDonald’s McDLT, with its hot-cold styrofoam overkill, and the products that suddenly disappear from Trader Joe’s shelves.
We’re concerned with foods that are on track to disappear from the face of the planet—irretrievably, irrevocably, and completely.

A century ago, we were growing and eating 14,000 apple varieties—nearly every state and region, town, and even neighborhood had its favored, distinct varieties. They came in all sizes, shapes, and colors, with different flavors and textures to suit each community’s taste and cooking style. Today, we’re down to 100 commercially-grown varieties- nearly all of them red, round, and sweet- but you’ll only find around 5 or 6 in your neighborhood supermarket; the same 5 or 6 varieties you’ll find in any neighborhood’s supermarket in any part of the country.

And we call ourselves foodies.
95% of the U.S. cabbage diversity, 91% of corn, 94% of peas, and 81% of tomato varieties have been lost. All in all, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates  that 75% of the world’s agricultural diversity has been lost in the past 100 years. There were those we liked too much and over-harvested, those we didn’t like enough and abandoned, and those that succombed to blight, pests, or climate change; but most were merely poorly suited to today’s large-scale, mechanized farming and long-distance shipping.

Of course quality of life suffers when choices and pleasures are limited, but more importantly, it puts our food supply at risk. There is always the possibility of crop damage  from factors like weather, pests, and blight, plus modern dangers posed by the still-unknown consequences of unleashing genetically modified organisms into the environment. The lack of diversity means that an entire plant species will be susceptible to the same threat—we could see global crop devastation from the spread of a single risk factor.

The solution is unthinkable for the World Wildlife Fund, but when charbono grapes are endangered instead of giant pandas or slow lorises, it helps to eat the species. We can encourage farmers to grow heirloom varieties by creating demand for them at farmers markets, produce markets, and supermarkets.

The genetic diversity of heritage varieties is well worth preserving. Their variations might prove to be the only answer to the crop tolerances and adaptations needed to weather the unknown and unforseeable conditions of farming’s future, and they restore forgotten flavors and pleasures to our tables.

We need to shop for selection and variety beyond the standard, hybridized strains and say no (very loudly) to genetically modified foods.

The US Ark of Taste is a catalog of endangered and threatened foods maintained by Slow Food USA. The website can help you locate growers, producers, and seed exchanges.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is nature’s backup plan, buried deep in an Arctic mountain 700 miles from the North Pole.



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The Reasons for Rabbit

Always a bridesmaid.
It never seems to be rabbit’s turn. Chicken and pork have seats at the table, while rabbit, the other other white meat is a perennial third wheel.
Could this be the year that we fall in love? […]

Posted in food trends, sustainability | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Obama’s Food Policy: Not as we had hoped.

image via Devil's Haven


Those were heady days, back in ’08, when we ushered in our 44th President.
He  knew what arugula was and ate at really good Chicago restaurants. His family avoided high-fructose corn syrup and bought organics.
Could our new President be one of us? […]

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seed bomber by Banksy


Seed bombs of discontent.

It’s a crime to step on private property and plant a flower.
You can be arrested for trespassing, vandalism, or littering.
But it’s also criminal the way that some private property owners neglect unused land, allowing an empty lot to become a barren, inhospitable blight on a neighborhood. […]

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Are There More Pigs or People Where You Live?


Eccentric. Arcane. Kooky, even. It’s the 2010 Census.

The big count takes place every ten years.
It’s a snapshot of us at a point in time, and when we compare it to the baby pictures of past census-taking, it says a lot about where we are, where we’ve been, and where we’re heading.

Since the census is only held once each decade, it leaves us with plenty of time to sift through the data; and there’s tons of the stuff. Naturally, it’s full of demographics: it tells us who lives where and how they voted. We know how wealthy the neighbors are and what the kids are majoring in at college. We can see who’s getting married, having babies, and moving to the suburbs; who needs public assistance; and where the hot retirement communities are located (Sarasota, Florida; Fort Collins, Colorado).

The census is also full of curiously chosen data: we can see that people in their 20’s vastly prefer bowling to bicycling; white and black adults attend jazz concerts at nearly the same rates; more men get a good night’s sleep than women; and in the decade since the last census, what we lost in bookstores we gained in pharmacies (500).

The census data contain plenty of fascinating, food-related factoids:

We’re eating less red meat (but drinking more red wine), less fruit (down by 36 pounds per person since the 2000 census), and fewer vegetables (down by 33 pounds), and most of the vegetables we do eat are canned, frozen, pickled, or otherwise processed.
We’re eating way more cheese and yogurt; we’re drinking less milk, but are six times more likely to demand that it be organic.
We’re drinking twice as much alcohol as we did back in 1990, and for the first time, it’s most likely a woman serving us our alcoholic beverages.

Texas has the most farms; Alaska and Rhode Island the fewest. We’ve added more than 3 million acres of organic farmland since the 2000 census— but also 244% more genetically engineered varieties of corn, and 72% more soybeans.
The honeybees really are disappearing—they were counted too.

And yes, there are five states—Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, North Carolina, and South Dakota— that have more pigs than people.

It’s like a family photo album crossed with the Guinness Book of Records. The Statistical Abstract of the United States, published annually since 1878, takes piles of government data from the Census Bureau, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Bureau of Economic Analysis, and other federal agencies. The numbers are crunched to give an authoritative and comprehensive summary of social, political, and economic status. You can download earlier editions (dating back to 1878) from the Census Bureau’s website, or order your own copy of the current edition (it’s the government’s perennial top-seller) from the U.S. Government Bookstore.


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What the Hay?

Is hay the newest darling of the food world?

Haute barnyard dining.
Hay keeps popping up on restaurant menus. Meats are roasted on beds of hay. Poultry is stuffed with it. Chefs are hay-smoking fish, tossing hay into stocks and sauces, and topping desserts with hay-infused whipped cream. […]

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Backyard Cows: Too Lovable For Hamburgers?

image via.International Miniature Cattle Breeds Society and Registry

We’ve been here before.
First it was backyard chickens. We had a nostalgia-tinged notion of endearing creatures, deliciously fresh eggs, and serious locavore status. The dream ran up against the reality of filthy, shrieking fowl that barely edge out snakes in cuddliness, and are prone to ailments like poultry mites and pasty butt.

So we turned to goats. […]

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Food Traceability: Fed Ex for the food chain


I just ate a banana.
It was grown by the Molina family on their farm in Ecuador’s El Oro province on the southwest coast.
I saw its organic certification from the USDA, and when it was loaded onto a ship in Guayaquil Bay, I could see that it was joined by bananas from two other organic farms.

I know all of this because Dole practices traceability, a concept that is being embraced by more and more growers and manufacturers. Traceability lets consumers trace the origins of their food—not just to a country, but to a specific farm or processor. […]

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How Big is Your Water Footprint?

Who knows their water footprint?
You know about your carbon footprint, that it looks at the impact of your day-to-day life on the environment by measuring the greenhouse gases produced as a result of your activities. Your water footprint takes the same kind of look at water usage.

The water footprint concept just hasn’t gotten the same kind of attention. Maybe it’s because fresh water is so commonplace and ubiquitous, at least in the developed parts of the world, that it’s easy to forget what an incredibly valuable resource it is. But we can’t afford to forget. Here in the U.S., where water is generally plentiful and well-managed, water managers in 36 states anticipate periodic water shortages over the next 3 years.

Americans are the water hogs of the planet.
That should come as no surprise, given our resource track record. It takes 1,800 gallons of water a day to keep each of us afloat, the vast majority going toward the production of the food we eat. On average, each of us uses water at twice the world-wide rate. Typical usage in China is less than 500 gallons a day per person, and even much of Europe uses less than 1000 gallons a day per person.

When you drink a 12 ounce cup of coffee in the morning, you’re actually gulping down 37 gallons of water when you account for the growing, processing, and transportation of  the coffee beans before they even got to the local roaster. A glass of wine at the end of the day? It takes 57 gallons of water to produce just 8 ounces of chardonnay.

The worst culprit of all is beef. Dairy products, poultry, pork—they’re all heavyweights—but nothing guzzles water like an industrially-raised, grain-fed cow. It takes more than 2,000 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef, mostly due to the ton of grain the cow has eaten by the time it gets to market.

Of course it is not simply the amount of water that’s used, but where the water is located. It takes about 500 gallons of water to produce a single bag of peanut M&Ms, and only 50 gallons to produce a jar of spaghetti sauce. The cocoa and peanuts are grown in temperate zones with high rainfalls, while tomatoes need heavy irrigation to grown in their typically warm and dry climates. This makes the pasta sauce much more likely to contribute to water scarcity.

Know your water footprint. National Geographic has an online calculator that tallies your personal usage based on home, garden, diet, and energy practices.

At Water Footprint.org, you can explore a water footprint database of 132 countries, and a footprint gallery of food products.



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Buying Local: Is it style over substance?

image via Hotpoint


Howdy neighbor.

Multinational conglomerates— especially those best known for corporate steamrolling— are touting their locavore cred:

Lay’s potato chips is running a series of television commercials featuring five of the farmers/suppliers who bring the simple happiness of farm life to big cities across America— including one whose ‘local farm’ covers 17,000 acres in 11 states.

McDonalds billboards trumpet locally-sourced french fries that are from here, for you; although the company admits that it hasn’t actually changed its buying practices and, of course, “participation and duration may vary.” […]

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