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Congress extends farm bill, still manages to screw sustainable farmers

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Is something always better than nothing? In the case of the farm bill extension that was buried in Tuesday’s last minute fiscal cliff deal, maybe not.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) calls the deal -- which will provide $5 billion in subsidies to industrial-scale corn, soy, and wheat farmers while short-changing local food, organics, and beginning farmers, and decimating on-farm conservation efforts -- “deeply flawed.” The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), meanwhile, has referred to it as “blatantly anti-reform,” while the Union of Concerned Scientists calls it “a giant step backward” and “a blow to farmers who want to grow healthy foods and the consumers who want to buy them.” The National Young Farmers Coalition was also “incredibly disappointed with the results.”

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The year in food and farming

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It's been quite a year for food and farming coverage here at Grist. Below is a wrap-up of some of the biggest stories of the year.

1. The worst drought in half a century

Corn withered, farmers scowled and resorted to feeding their cows candy, and many predicted the coming of the real Hunger Games. But the country’s worst drought in over 70 years was far more complex than most news sources reported. Most of that industrial corn was heavily propped up by crop insurance (supplemented with taxpayer dollars), while small farmers often remained invisible. droughtanimEven the silver lining -- the Gulf “dead zone” shrank for the first time in years -- turned out to be a little misleading, as next year’s rains could send more critter-killing farm nutrients into the Gulf of Mexico than ever before. And some scientists believed it was the corn and other huge monocrops that cover the region that were the problem because they leave farms especially vulnerable to changing weather patterns.

Do you want to know what’s really ominous? As of mid-December, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas still hadn't gotten rain.

The official U.S. organic label.

2. Organic takedown

Organics were in the headlines throughout 2012, but two stories grabbed most of the attention. And although they’re very different stories, they may have had surprisingly similar effects. The first was a New York Times article that took a much-needed critical look at the way the organic industry has grown and consolidated in recent years to the possible detriment of the federal organic standards. It was an intriguing piece, but, as I wrote back in July, the author may have overshot the mark when she implied that such changes have rendered the label meaningless.

The second, more hyped story hit the presses nearly two months later, when Stanford University compiled the existing science about nutrition in organic food, and claimed that organic was -- again -- virtually benefit-less. Many in the food world stepped up to point to the facts that a) most people buy organic food for reasons other than nutrition; and b) the science did in fact report significant differences where it mattered most (it showed lower pesticide residue in produce and little or no antibiotic residue in meat), but that didn’t stop many from trumping the “meaninglessness” of the label. My takeaway: Organic food isn’t a panacea, but I’m still awfully glad it’s an option.

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New Agtivist: Rebecca Thistlethwaite knows how to spot farms with a future

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Jen Jones

A few years ago, Rebecca Thistlethwaite and her husband were working 80 hours a week running a large pastured meat and egg operation called TLC Ranch on rented land. The couple had spent six years barely making ends meet. They wanted to buy their own ranch, but the cost of land in Monterey County, Calif., was astronomical. Getting their meat processed presented several challenges (as it does for many small producers) and many of their loyal customers were cutting back on local and ethically produced food after the economic downturn. So, the couple decided to sell the farm and throw in the towel. Kind of.

In October of 2010, Thistlethwaite wrote on her blog Honest Meat:

… we are off to live in an RV for the next couple years, volunteer on farms and ranches around the country that we admire and hope to learn from, write a little blog about our adventure, and have some fun too.

And that’s exactly what they did. The result of this adventure is Thistlethwaite’s new book, Farms with a Future: Creating and Growing a Sustainable Farm Business. As she sees it, the book is a “practical, accessible guide that doesn’t sugarcoat the challenges of farming, but gives people some good ideas.” It’s chock full of concrete suggestions based on Thistlethwaite’s year of research and observation, the kind of book you write precisely because you need just such a guide yourself but can’t find it anywhere. And it will probably help a lot of young farmers. It might also dissuade some from jumping headfirst into a business that is not for the faint of heart -- but Thistlethwaite is fine with that.

We spoke with Thistlethwaite recently about the book, the journey, and the farm she hopes to start next.

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Mercury in seafood: Where does it come from?

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Yes, there is water on Mercury, but there is also mercury in the water. Lots of it.

In fact, according to a giant new report called "Sources to Seafood: Mercury Pollution in the Marine Environment," mercury pollution near the ocean's surface has more than doubled as a result of human activities over the last century.

That mercury is largely invisible to most of us -- invisible as it makes its way into fish and other wild seafood and largely invisible in our bodies when we eat that seafood. That is, until it causes major cognitive or developmental issues in babies born to women who have been exposed.

Of course, these days, most women of childbearing age are told to be cautious about the kinds of fish that are high in mercury (mainly top-of-the-food-chain species, such as tuna, swordfish, and shark). But how often do we hear about where it originates (that is, unless you're a regular reader of Grist's David Roberts)?

US seafood consumtion mercury table
Americans get most of their mercury from tuna (mainly because it's an affordable option).

“People don’t ever seem to know where the mercury comes from,” says Celia Chen, one of an impressive array of 70 mercury and marine scientists from universities across the country, including Dartmouth, Harvard, and Syracuse, who spent two years assembling the report.

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Tech, food experts join forces to hack the meat industry

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All photos by Mike Lee

The meat industry in this country has room for major improvement. As we’ve pointed out before, very few companies control the vast majority of the market. Big producers rely on CAFOs, where they feed the animals huge quantities of antibiotics to produce lots of cheap meat. Meanwhile, small ranchers and producers are often working with no support, and very little technology, while most consumers tend to see sustainably produced meat as a boutique option (and with prices hovering around five times that of conventional meat, how can we blame them?).

Enter Hack//Meat. Last week’s hackathon was much like events that allow tech industry experts to put their heads together in a concerted way to, say, develop a piece of software collaboratively. Only this one was focused on improving the meat industry. For 48 hours, a group of food movement leaders, entrepreneurs, and software developers met to tackle some of the most pressing issues faced by the sustainable meat industry. This is the third such event convened by Food+Tech Connect (it was also sponsored by the GRACE Communication Foundation and the Applegate company).

As Food+Tech Connect founder Danielle Gould sees it, hacking is a necessary approach to today's food landscape. As she writes on her site, "Like the first few generations of computer software and hardware industries, food and agriculture are highly proprietary, consolidated industries. And just as the hacking community seeks to understand how a technology works, people are increasingly looking to know [by whom] and how their food is produced."

The hackathon also included some literal hacking -- a pig-butchering demo with Tom Mylan.
The hackathon also included some literal hacking -- a pig-butchering demo with Tom Mylan.

Food+Tech Connect worked with nonprofit groups like Food and Water Watch and the Consumers Union to devise a series of challenges related to issues such as local meat distribution, slaughter, food labels, and antibiotic use. Food system experts then teamed up with software developers and other tech experts to generate ideas for solutions.

The winning idea was something called Carv, “an internet-enabled scale and label printer that captures and manages data about individual cuts of meat, which can be converted into reports and invoices for anyone in the value chain, including USDA and FSIS [Food Safety Inspection Service].”

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Enough with the Christmas cookies: Five unpredictable homemade food gifts

Tired of Christmas cookies and jam? I try to give something edible every year, and here are some of my recent faves.

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1. Granola

A few years back I was given some homemade granola and it changed my relationship with this cliché hippie food once and for all. Since then I’ve made it for myself and for friends and it’s always unique; sometimes I go really simple with nothing but oats, coconut, and pumpkin seeds. Sometimes I go for ginger and macadamias. And have you seen the cost of artisan granola these days? (I saw a jar for sale for $20 just last week. I kid you not.) Be warned: Once you get really good at making your own granola, you might find yourself craving it at odd hours and opting out of other meals.

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Nanoparticles in your food? You’re already eating them

I've been keeping my eye on the role of nanotechnology in food for a few years now, so I was interested to see a feature-length investigation called “Eating Nano” in this month’s E Magazine. In it, E editor Brita Belli takes a deep dive into the growing role of nanotechnology in food and agriculture, the current lack of oversight and regulations, and the growing consensus that more information and transparency are both sorely needed in relation to this growing field.

Nanotechnology involves the engineering and manipulation of particles at a nano scale. Nanoparticles, as they’re called, are measured in nanometers or billionths of one meter. Another way to put it: If a nanoparticle were the size of a football, a red blood cell would be the size of the field. Although some nanoparticles have been found to exist in nature (carbon nanoparticles exist in caramelized foods, for instance, and silverware has been shown to shed nano-sized silver particles), it’s the nanoparticles that are engineered in laboratories that have environmental health advocates concerned.

The foods above all contain titanium dioxide in nano form. Source: Environmental Science & Technology. (Click to embiggen.)
E Magazine
The above foods all contain titanium dioxide in nano form. Click to embiggen.

Here’s the thing: It turns out most materials start behaving differently at that size. According to the British corporate accountability organization As You Sow, which has been keeping tabs on the nanotech industry for several years, “materials reduced to the nanoscale either through engineered or natural processes can suddenly show very different properties compared to what they exhibit on a macroscale, enabling unique applications such as alterations in color, electrical conductance, or permeability.”

Considering the fact that nanoparticles are now used to help deliver nutrients, keep food fresh for longer, and act as thickening and coloring agents in processed foods, these “different properties” might be cause for concern. Or -- at the very least -- they might be reason enough to conduct thorough research into their health impacts.

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Looking for antibiotic-resistant bacteria? Try raw pork

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In the seeming avalanche that is bad food news, it can be hard to know just how riled up to get about bacteria in meat. Yes, raw meat is a silent time-bomb, but then you cook the heck out of it, scrub your counters with bleach, and the problem is solved -- right?

On the surface this may seem to be the case, but what happens when those bacteria have mutated to resist antibiotics? Several studies, including one last January out of the University of Iowa, have found that such bacteria are widely present in grocery store pork. And now Consumer Reports has found similarly alarming results in nearly 200 samples of both pork chops and ground pork. In fact, like others, today’s study shows that more pork contains antibiotic-resistant bacteria than doesn’t.

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A grocery store for the people planned for West Oakland food desert

Bram Ahmadi, founder of both People's Grocery and People's Community Market.

Brahm Ahmadi spends a lot of time thinking about something most people take for granted: grocery stores.

But it hasn’t always been this way. As one of the founders of the nonprofit People’s Grocery in West Oakland -- the Bay Area’s most notorious food desert -- he and his colleagues started out with more affordable, less ambitious projects, like a mobile food delivery service and a local community-supported agriculture (CSA) box. But it quickly became clear -- as several grocery chains tried to enter the neighborhood and failed, and residents were left relying on corner stores or taking long trips by public transportation to other neighborhoods -- that the area needed a reliable, independent grocery store.

“Residents said, ‘What you’ve brought to the neighborhood is great, but it’s far from a complete solution,’” Ahmadi recalls.

So, he left People’s Grocery, spent time in business school where he became an expert on community grocery stores, and then secured a possible matching loan from the California FreshWorks Fund for around a third of the funding. Ahmadi then hatched a plan to raise the remaining $1.2 million needed to start the People’s Community Market through what’s called a direct public offering. In other words, he’s inviting California residents to invest in fresh food -- literally. For a mere $1,000, anyone in the state can become a shareholder.

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Perfectly seasonal: An interview with Smitten Kitchen’s Deb Perelman

Elizabeth Blick
Deb Perelman says what you see on her blog and her new book is -- more often than not -- actually what she has made her family for dinner.

Deb Perelman is the veteran blogger and photographer behind Smitten Kitchen, one of the more lovely food blogs dedicated to seasonal eating I’ve seen.

Perelman cooks everything from “a puny 42-square-foot, circa-1935, sort of half-galley kitchen with a 24 foot footprint, a single counter, tiny stove, checkered floor, and a noisy window at the end to the avenue below.” But her readers know not to let her tiny digs fool you; she brings a level of awareness and a concern for detail that rivals the chefs cooking in many of the world’s most professional kitchens. That’s why, rather than the six months she set aside to write The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, it took her three years.

I spoke to Perelman recently about the book, her tendency to see meat as a treat, and the fact that her audience is getting younger. (See the info at the bottom of the page to find out how you can be entered in a drawing for a copy of her book.)

Q. How do you characterize the work you do? How is it different from other food blogging/recipe writing?

A.It’s for people looking for quick cooking without compromise. With a lot of quick cooking, the focus is, “Hey, you did it and got out of the kitchen!” But it’s just not about being quick. It’s about making food you’re really proud of and enjoy eating.

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