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How green was my alley?

Urban farms won’t feed us, but they just might teach us

rooftop_farming
Evan Long

During World War II, when the government rationed food, Americans turned their backyards and front lawns into “victory gardens” that supplied 40 percent of the nation’s fruits and vegetables. Could we do that again, or even improve on it? If we want to scale up regional food systems and stop giving farmers an incentive to expand into prairies and rainforests, it seems like it would be a great idea to grow a significant amount of our calories right in our cities. It’s a beautiful concept, reuniting humans and nature to solve many of the problems brought about by our urbanization. …

Read more: Cities, Food

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Vermont will label genetically engineered food

vermont-label

Vermont is the first U.S. state to require the mandatory labeling of food produced using genetic engineering. Maybe I shouldn't get ahead of myself -- it's not official yet, but the state House and Senate passed the bill with overwhelming majorities (114-30 in the House, 28-2 in the Senate), and the governor has said he looks forward to signing it.

The law requires retail products to have a label by July 2016 if they contain genetically engineered ingredients. Enforcement of the law will go through the state attorney general's office, said Falko Schilling, consumer protection advocate for the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, which backed the bill. The bill also prohibits the use of a "natural" label on foods that contain genetically engineered elements. The rule will primarily affect processed foods -- such as cereal and bread -- where it can be difficult to impossible for the producer to know whether the ingredients, like corn starch and sugar, are GE or not.

This makes things interesting. Several New England states have been tiptoeing around the issue, passing or considering labeling laws that only kick into effect when enough other states join them, so they might collectively defend against food-industry lawsuits. At the same time, the food industry is working on a federal law that would lay out the ground rules for voluntary labeling of GMOs, while also nullifying state labeling rules. Each side has been eyeing the other, and quietly fortifying its position. Now it may get very noisy.

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin elliptically alluded to the fact that the state could be sued over this law. On his Facebook page he wrote: "There is no doubt that there are those who will work to derail this common sense legislation." Which makes it sound like he's prepared to defend the law in court.

It also ups the ante on the push for a federal voluntary labeling law. When there were no mandatory labeling laws on the books, it may have been a little easier to talk about the federal effort as a simple measure to insure that we had one standard across the entire U.S.. But now the fact that the legislation would also preempt and invalidate Vermont's law will have to become part of the conversation.

There's a whole swarm of issues surrounding genetically engineered food. If you think it's just about your right to know, or your right to inexpensive food, you might want to read my attempt to cut through the debate. I think there are some good reasons to label GMOs. But if I were in charge, there are plenty of other, more important measures of agricultural and nutritional quality that I'd choose to label first.

Read more: Food, Politics

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Fresh fruit for rotting vegetables

When your produce gets wasted, it’s really a cry for help

veggies
ep_jhu

When Nick Papadopoulos looked at all the veggies that didn’t sell at the farmers market, he felt terrible. Papadopoulos is general manager of Bloomfield Organics, and he’d seen all the sweat, all the nutrients, all the coaxing and coddling that it had taken to persuade the land to produce this bounty. These were beautiful, well-proportioned, organic vegetables! And now they were bound for the compost heap. He sipped his beer and thought, there has to be a better way.

We end up throwing out a lot of the food we grow. According to an analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council, we’re tossing 40 percent of our food, the equivalent of $165 billion wasted -- giant lakes of water, mountains of fertilizer, and megajoules of energy, all squandered.

If we’re interested in scaling up regional food systems, we’re going to need a lot more reasonably priced, locally grown calories. And one obvious place to go looking for those calories is among those foods valued so low that they rot, rather than selling in a nearby city. The question is, how do you get people to eat those unloved, unwanted veggies? In other words, how do you solve Papadopoulos’ problem?

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License to till

Now available: 29 flavors of open source seeds, sans patents

quinoa
Bioversity International/Alfredo Camacho

There's been an argument going on for at least 100 years over seeds. Should they be free? Or should the people who develop them control, and profit from, their use? If they were shared, we'd have a more fluid development of agricultural technology, because all plant breeders could experiment with the best stuff. On the other hand, maybe breeders wouldn't want to engage in the hard work of experimenting if they couldn't sell their inventions for lots of money.

It used to be that those who bred new varieties of plants shared them freely, in part because it was almost impossible to control them: As soon as someone buys one of your new tomato seeds, he can use it to make a hundred more.

As Irwin Goldman, a vegetable breeder at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, told NPR reporter Dan Charles, plant breeders used to have a code of ethics that mandated sharing:

"If other breeders asked for our materials, we would send them a packet of seed, and they would do the same for us," he says. "That was a wonderful way to work, and that way of working is no longer with us."

All that changed after seed companies began producing hybrids, which lose their superpowers if you try to grow more of them, and as cash-strapped universities have begun patenting more and more of their seeds. But on Thursday the Open Source Seed Initiative at the University of Wisconsin-Madison released the first set of seeds with an open-source license. It is distributing 29 varieties, including broccoli, celery, kale, and quinoa.

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No-till farming’s Johnny Appleseed — in a grimy Prius

IMG_3574

Let’s start with Jeff Mitchell’s car. From the outside, it looks like a regular, if slightly dinged-up, white Prius. But inside it’s so messy that it’s hard for me to describe it without sounding like I’m exaggerating.

When I say the back seat is packed solidly with papers, I mean that literally: It’s as if Mitchell had pulled up alongside a set of filing cabinets and transferred everything that could fit into the back, carefully filling the leg space until it was high enough to be incorporated into the stack on the seats. The papers are wedged solidly together, three-quarters of the way up to the headrests.

There’s some PVC pipe back there too, some metal tools, a power cord, and some luggage. But that’s just what I could see on the surface. On the front dash there’s another layer of files, and a layer of dirt. And again, when I say dirt, I’m not overstating it. It’s not just a patina of dust; there are big clots of mud clinging to the face of the radio.

“What can I say?” Mitchell said when I asked about the state of his vehicle. “I’m embarrassed. People say I could just scatter seeds in here and they’d grow.”

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I was never able to get a straight answer out of Mitchell as to why his car was so squalid, but it’s easy enough to guess. He has spent years driving up and down California’s long Central Valley, from one field to another, asking farmers to sign up to try new conservation techniques. He estimates that the car has driven 600,000 miles, though he can’t say for sure: The odometer stopped at 299,999. The car really does have to function as a high-speed file cabinet, as well as a mobile tool shed and soil-sample transporter.

“So, is this basically your life?” I asked, after about an hour driving down highway 99.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food

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It takes no tillage

Conventional farmers drop their plows in favor of conservation

Michael and Adam Crowell

The Michael and Adam Crowell duo works this way: Michael handles the crops, and Adam handles the dairy cows; Michael is the colorful wisecracker, and Adam is the straight man; Michael casts about for a word when his tongue outpaces his memory, and Adam fills it in; Michael is the father, and Adam is the son.

I visited their dairy farm near Turlock, in California’s Central Valley, to get a look at the growing trend of conventional farmers adopting ecologically friendly techniques. In the Midwest, where farmers grow a small number of grain crops, this transformation has led to a new normal, with the majority of farmland under some form of conservation management.

Farmers in California’s Central Valley, by contrast, grow more than 200 different crops, and as a result there's a greater challenge to figure out techniques that work for all this diversity. On the other hand, if the diverse Central Valley farmers can figure out how to grow their food while working in greater synchronicity with natural systems, then it means that people growing just about anything can do it.

The primary innovation that Michael and Adam Crowell have adopted is to simply stop plowing their fields. They grow a mix of grasses for the cows in the winter, then cut that hay and plant corn directly into the sod in the summer. When I asked the Crowells what had convinced them to experiment with these newfangled conservation techniques, Michael gave me a one-word answer: “economics.”

Read more: Food

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Blades of gory: Teaching kids to slice and dice

kid-knives-chopping-cooking.jpg
Shutterstock

Play out this scenario in your head: A writer publishes a cookbook for children, and as part of the book promotion, pens an op-ed in which she advocates handing your kid a gleaming chef’s knife so they can begin working on their high-speed lopping skills.

As you might expect, when this actually happened, a lot of people got worked up. For a moment there, Sarah Elton, the writer in question, was trending on Twitter in Toronto, where her op-ed ran.

But here’s what’s surprising about the whole episode: Rather than condemning Elton as a bad mother, practically everyone agreed with her.

Read more: Food, Living

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Teaching butchers — and brewers, and picklers — to stay out of the red

Food Craft Institute
Food Craft Institute
Gavin Erezuma learning his cuts

About a dozen potential students sat in as many chairs, crowded into a narrow room behind a butcher shop in San Francisco. To the right and left were murals of cattle; ahead, a bovine skull with long horns; and, in front of that, people giving a pitch for a three-week intensive class on the business of butchery.

A man in a plaid shirt near the front raised his hand. “What kind of skills do you need going into this? Have most people had some kind of butchery experience?” People come in at all levels, reassured Marcy Coburn, executive director of the Food Craft Institute. “This isn’t a class for learning how to be a butcher. It’s a class for learning how to efficiently run a business.”

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Desert menu

America’s worst food deserts: Map-lovers edition

Pablo PecoraKhongoryn Els-Gobi Desert in Mongolia. Both a literal and food desert. Food deserts are officially defined as low-income neighborhoods far away (a mile or more) from grocery stores. But distance, as the crow flies, isn't that relevant, since only a few mutants and drone pilots navigate their cities that way. What actually matters is the time it takes to walk to the grocery store. The website Walk Score has the data to account for the hills and railroads and warehouses that separate you from food, and it has used that information to rank U.S. cities by food access. Compare the difference between New …

Read more: Food

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Farmers and eaters: Why can’t we be friends?

cowboy-checkers.jpg
Shutterstock

A farmer from Iowa recently told me a story about visiting the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live. He chatted up foodsellers at the Ferry Building farmers market, visited the wine country, and met a lot of nice people. But he also noticed that whenever he told anyone that he was a corn and soybean farmer, the temperature in the room seemed to drop. Oh, that kind of farmer. In the Bay Area, saying "I grow corn and soy" is the real world version of saying Voldemort.

This antipathy runs both ways, of course. Visiting Iowa, I felt a similar chill at times when I revealed that I was a California food writer. Another farmer asked me how I thought we should deal with the problem of people demanding organic foods.

But I truly believe that we’re natural allies. The farmer and the eater should be friends! We all want the same thing: A sustainable system, one that provides fair compensation for food producers and makes the world a more healthy, delicious, and beautiful place with every bite. We should be breaking the path toward this goal together. And yet, instead of mutual respect, there’s acrimony, suspicion, and anger.