Monday, March 31, 2008

Ye Olde Farming

It makes me furious when I see conservative op-eds that portray organic as being some sort of 16th-century throwback that is so inefficient that it requires us to tear up all our forests to grow one bushel of hay. Certainly, many organic farmers look towards traditional agricultural methods, but at ag schools there are many scientists who devote their research to new methods that are both organic and efficient. Organic isn't ye old farming, it's a different way of doing things.

Which is why I'm happy when I see studies like the new UW study profiled at Ars Technica which shows that organic crops can compete with their conventional counterparts quite well.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Silent Spring

Now that spring is here, we take it for granted that the birds’ cheerful songs will fill the air when our apple trees blossom. But each year, as we continue to demand out-of-season fruits and vegetables, we ensure that fewer and fewer songbirds will return.

I've already given up out-of-season tomatoes. It's pretty easy given that the typical tomato tastes like water flavored water. But ultimately, I wonder if this is something we should hold consumers accountable for? I used to think consumer-education could be a solution, but now I feel like the vast majority of people are going to chow down on a factory-farmed McDonald's burger topped with an imported tomato no matter how many times Pollan is on the bestseller list.

Maybe I'm being pessimistic and a bad economics student, but I think import restrictions, which hold foreign farmers to our standards, are the unfortunate answer here.

Also: interesting econ aside

The presentation of a pricing policy clearly matters—something disconcerting to economists, who can translate all the pricing into mathematical equations and make the presentation go away. It seems to be acceptable to charge a higher markup for fair-trade coffee, organic bread, or lower-emissions gasoline. It is not acceptable for businesses to say, "We are such fans of exploitative coffee, pesticide-laced loaves, and dirtier gas that we're willing to discount them and accept a lower profit margin." Underneath the gloss, the pricing policies are, nevertheless, identical.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

But it helps developing countries...

the common refrain in arguments about GMOs. Marion Nestle links to a report that blames Africa's problems on cultural elitists who favor heirloom and local over "science-based agriculture."

Um, no. Most of Africa's problems are political and GMO varieties of most of Africa's cash crops don't even exist. Furthermore, those bad ol' cultural elites are a ripe market for specialty varieties of those cash crops, like chocolate, which isn't about to be grown locally anytime soon.

The local food crowd in the US is such a small proportion of the population that blaming them for much is a little laughable. I don't have access to the full version of the article, but I hope it at least mention the EU, the real reason African countries are afraid to grow GMOs, and ag subsidies in rich countries like the US, which depress prices in Africa.

Maybe GMOs can help Africa, but let's not blame the wrong people. I am personally on the fence here. The Boston Globe had an interesting article trying to convince the sustainable ag crowd to join the GMO party.

Maybe GMOs can reduce pesticide use, but they can also preclude other forms of agriculture because of gene flow. If that could be reduced or eliminated, I would be a lot more likely to support them.


At the Chipotle here there is a sign touting their "naturally raised chicken and pork". It says something like "Our Meat Doesn't Require a Prescription" and then goes on to say "no antibiotics" etc.

Did they stop to think of the logical implication? Does the rest of their meat require a prescription? Hmm.

I hear they are shifting towards offering naturally raised beef though, which makes sense because their pork supplier, Niman Ranch, has gotten into the beef business.

They also have teamed up with Joel Salatin, to source from his sustainable farm in Charlottesville. Whether or not this will lead to sourcing locally in other places remains to be seen, but the story highlights some obstacles to doing so ranging from a non-uniform product to food-safety equipment.

Which leads me to another thing I've learned in my work: if you want to source locally, you need someone dedicated to the project. You can't just send in an order form for 400 carrots, you need to be able to work with a lot of farmers with varied methods of production and often you need enough knowledge to help each farmer provide the product you need.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Salmon Virus Indicts Chile’s Fishing Methods

Also not tasty: farmed salmon. In fact, I think farmed salmon tastes absolutely putrid. Besides, that, every time you eat farmed salmon, you are probably contributing to the decline of wild stocks. I guess the question is: as consumers do we want expensive wild salmon occasionally or cheap farmed salmon all the time? Unfortunately, just all most animal-foods, the answer for most consumers seems to be "cheap! we don't care where it comes from!"

Eating polycultural

Dianne of the Migraineur embarks on "Omnivory Month," with the goal of eating a diverse diet

I love this project because most Americans get 72.1 of their calories primarily from dairy products, cereals, refined sugars, refined vegetable oils, and alcohol. Humans evolved to eat a diverse diet, mainly because a diverse diet is far more likely the cover all the nutritional bases than one reliant on standard American staples. I also have to wonder if food allergies have something to do with our excessive reliance on a few staple crops.

Also, I must say that farmer's market and CSAs are a great way to diversify your diet. At the market you can find all kinds of varieties of food that might not fit into the industrial food system well and most farmers will gladly give you tips on how to use each one. Last summer I wrote down all the new things I consumed. The list included red currants, kohlrabi, Japanese pumpkin, hubbard squash, Lebanese zucchini, perpetual spinach, misato radishes, parsnips, and thai eggplant. A CSA is probably even better because you end up with things that might not stand out at the market, such as the plain brown candy-roaster squash which opens up into bright-orange sweet flesh.

Thursday, March 27, 2008


FDA Warns of Salmonella Risk with Cantaloupes from Agropecuaria Montelibano: The agency detains products from the Honduran manufacturer

Tasty...or not. Personally, I'm waiting to buy melons until they are actually in season here and this is just about the salmonella. It's also because, honestly, imported melons aren't that tasty anyway. If I'm going to eat something from thousands of miles away, it might as well be tasty, like chocolate. I have something of an economic equation in my head where the deliciousness of a product must outweigh the impacts of shipping it in from far away.

The melons here in early fall are incredibly tasty and beautiful, providing you pick the right one, which is an art to itself. This lovely yellow melon was from Moore Family Farms and was the perfect size for me.

Hipster-farmer music: Andrew Bird and CAFOs

I've seen Andrew Bird in concert three times. Yes, I like him that much. For the uninformed, Andrew Bird creates some incredible tunes using his violin and his own whistling. He also has a farm where he records much of his music.

No surprise then that his newsletter today linked to Stop the Mega Dairy, a campaign to stop a California (gosh do I hate on California ag enough?)- style megadairy from coming to Nora, IL. If you live in Illinois you should speak up about this.

Also, you should speak up about the proposed rule change which would allow CAFOs exemptions from air emissions reporting requirements under the Superfund and Community Right-to-Know laws.

Livewire: How did you come up with the title The Mysterious Production of Eggs?

Andrew: Well, it came from an old magic catalog. It's been in my head for years and kind of took on multiple meanings when I lived, for a few years, out in my barn. I had 26 chickens and I would go get their eggs for omelets in the morning and make coffee - I would write these songs. It's pretty amazing to hold this egg that just came out of the body of this animal and then go about cooking it and eating it. People just aren't used to having that direct connection.

First Song a song of Galway Kinnell's poem

Then it was dusk in Illinois, the small boy
After an afternoon of carting dung
Hung on the rail fence, a sapped thing
Weary to crying. Dark was growing tall
And he began to hear the pond frogs all
Calling on his ear with what seemed their joy.

Soon their sound was pleasant for a boy
Listening in the smoky dusk and the nightfall
Of Illinois, and from the fields two small
Boys came bearing cornstalk violins
And they rubbed the cornstalk bows with resins
And the three sat there scraping of their joy.

It was now fine music the frogs and the boys
Did in the towering Illinois twilight make
And into dark in spite of a shoulder’s ache
A boy’s hunched body loved out of a stalk
The first song of his happiness, and the song woke
His heart to the darkness and into the sadness of joy.

Why I should stay home today...

Yesterday, just as I was starting to feel the effects of an oncoming cold, my seminar had a lecture about behavioral responses to infections. Mice, lizards, and many other animals also feel tired, antisocial, and lose their appetites. I knew this, having worked with wild animals, but I didn't know that If you somehow override their desire to rest and eat less, mortality rates skyrocket. Also, if you suppress fever, it increases the duration of the infection.

The fasting aspect is particularly interesting given recent studies that show that intermittent fasting has many benefits, similar to those of more torturous daily calorie-restriction regimes. I guess the moral is: follow your instincts, since they have hundreds of thousands of years of evolution behind them. That means letting mild fevers burn and not buying into the whole 3-meals-a-day if you don't feel like it.

Unfortunately, I feel too lethargic to look up actually journal articles.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Garden Aesthetics

Josh Viertel, associate director of The Yale Sustainable Food Project

Irradiation as a band-aid

Can't say I wasn't expecting it: irradiation, coming to bagged spinach near you. Don't worry, the House of Representatives claims it's just as delicious as the regular bland industrially-grown spinach.

Also, a really fantastic paper on the leafy green problem, as well as other subjects, that I found recently: Safe at any scale? Food scares, food regulation, and scaled alternatives

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Future of Food documentary features Mexico as a guardian of traditional corn varieties, but it looks like (thanks to ethanol) GMO corn is on its way

Monday, March 24, 2008

Government and food in Europe

Heirloom seed company in trouble thanks to backwards laws
For those of you who don't know Kokopelli, they're a French-based seedsaver organisation who maintain 2500 varieties of rare and endangered vegetables and run several charitable initiatives in developing countries. Their work is vital and indefatiguable. Unfortunately it's also illegal, due to the preposterously backward seed laws in Europe, and this has now resulted in them being clobbered with a €35,000 fine. The gist of it is that Kokopelli were hounded through the courts by a commercial seed company, Baumaux (shame and damnation on them) because their catalogue of thousands of unique heirloom vegetables gave them an "unfair trading advantage". I won't subject you to the language that came spouting out of me when I read that but it's a truly insidious example of what happens when big business gets waaaaaay too much control of our garden seeds and our food chain. And it sounds a danger signal for the future of biodiversity in Europe.

I'm not really a libertarian, but I think this is a good example of how you have to be careful about giving the government too much control over food.

Do California greens really count as vegetarian?

CSI: Critter Salad

Mechanical harvesting= mangled mouse-thing in your salad.

Reminds me of this great article, Tainted Greens, which is about the atrocity that is industrial California agriculture. In the name of food safety, the presence of wildlife is being actively discouraged. Yes, that means tearing up habitat. It's true that some wildlife harbor E. coli O157, but they didn't get it magically. The real source has and always will be concentrated animal-feeding operations.

Money quote: "We don't like to see animals in a field of lettuce. We don't think people like the idea"- Jim Lugg, senior food safety scientist with Fresh Express.

Support a farm that integrates with the natural landscape instead of paving it over with monoculture. Last week I spent time at Anathoth Community Farm in Wisconsin. The fields where produce was grown were surrounded by a beautiful healthy north-woods forest. I was impressed.

Small farms are not the source of produce-related outbreaks, perfectly illustrated by the fact that when the produce industry instituted strict self-regulation in 2007, there were no more outbreaks. Hmmm.

Here in Central Illinois, early spinach is already available. You do have to wash it yourself, but that's a small price to pay.

Like a man, the farm is headed
for the woods. the wild
is already veined in it
everywhere, its thriving.
To love these things one did not
intend to is to be a friend
to the beginning and the end.
- Wendell Berry, Work Song

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Reading List: Mad Sheep by Linda Faillace

Mad Sheep: The True Story Behind the USDA's War on a Family Farm by Linda Faillace

The USDA is charged with both regulating and promoting US agriculture. Obviously, these goals conflict and the end result is that the USDA often functions as a powerful guardian of industrial agricultural interests.

If they made an X-files about agriculture, it would resemble Mad Sheep. Scary government agents in sunglasses torment this family and seize their sheep without giving them much chance to defend themselves. It seems that this action was less about a disease than about protecting the interests of the cattle industry. Even if these sheep did harbor a disease, the USDA's actions are like shooting a mouse with a machine gun.

Subsidies V. Local Food

My Forbidden Fruits (and Vegetables)

Farmer finds out that growing vegetables on government-subsidized farms has a high price. I guess the government would rather have you chug high-fructose corn syrup than eat a juicy tomato. Not having subsidies is an obvious solution, but even politically palatable solutions like farm flex, which would allow farmers to grow produce without being penalized, have gone nowhere. I'm glad to see this in the NYT. Rural lobbies obviously have the biggest voice in the Farm Bill debates, but this illustrates perfectly why urban arugula-munching consumers should care too.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Bad Ag = Fewer Tasty Fish

Thanks at least partially to fertilizer runoff and idiotic dams, salmon stocks are down dramatically. Farmer's can't steal most of their inputs, but often they are allowed to dump their outputs without paying any sort of cost.