That said, many sustainable food and farming groups are pushing for a farm bill before the end of the year. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) and 40 other organizations have sent a letter to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), and the group is urging anyone interested in investing in the future of healthy farms, food, and people; protecting air, soil, and water; and fixing farm subsidies that privilege big corporate farms to let Congress know what they think by Nov. 15.
If you drink soy milk, odds are high that you drink Silk. Found in the refrigerator aisle, the brand can be credited with bringing this non-dairy beverage to the mainstream around a decade ago. It’s probably not surprising then that Silk’s umbrella company, White Wave, was founded in the 1970s by Buddhist hippies (because who else was drinking soy milk in the '70s?) but sold for $190 million to corporate behemoth Dean Foods (maker of the Horizon line of organic dairy, as well as many other brands you may know) in 2002.
Silk also makes a really interesting case study of consolidation in the organics industry. You see, for years all the soy milk it sold was certified organic. And by the mid-2000s, the brand had become such a powerful market force that it was keeping a significant portion of organic soy farmers in business.
Then, in 2009, Dean executives made a subtle, but important change; they stopped making their “regular” blue-carton product with organic soybeans, switching instead to non-GMO, conventionally grown soy. They dropped the word "organic" from their label, and for those who were paying close enough attention to notice the shift, they created a special organic line. (Dean did the same thing with milk and yogurt, rolling out a more affordable “natural” line in a way that splintered the market.)
From a consumer’s perspective, the change made little difference. Yes, it took a bit more concentration in the grocery aisle, but for most people, “natural” was close enough. And hey, it still looked healthy, right?
But on the farm, the effects of this simple shift were surprisingly dramatic.
If Proposition 37, California’s GMO labeling measure, gets voted down today, it will be unfortunate and frustrating for many. But it won't happen for lack of a movement.
Last month, in a much-quoted New York Times Magazine article, Michael Pollan framed this state-level ballot initiative as an important test with national implications. If we can translate the growing consumer awareness about the value of organic and local food into a movement with real political will, he argued, then surely this ballot initiative was a reason to pull out the stops and push this burgeoning movement to its limit.
While Pollan didn’t exactly say that a loss for GMO labeling advocates in California would prove the opposite -- that there is no movement afoot -- I have no doubt that some heard it that way. Of course, whenever you set up rhetorical polarization for the sake of motivating a group, there is always the potential for weighty, motivation-killing loss on the other side of the coin.
But over the last few months we have seen grassroots forces standing up to big corporate dollars with a very clear goal (something we can’t say for the Occupy movement, despite its numbers). And that won't be easy to dismiss -- regardless of the final vote on Prop 37.
CAFOs stink. In addition to being crowded, dirty, inhumane, and brimming with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, CAFOs, or concentrated animal feeding operations, produce thousands of gallons of liquid waste with a stench that wafts through the air in the surrounding communities practically daily.
These odors are nasty and hard to live with, but new science suggests they also might put the bodies of those living near them in a state of stress that could have frightening effects on their blood pressure.
A study released last week out of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and published in Environmental Health Perspectives, asked 101 residents of towns in close proximity to large, industrial swine operations to sit outdoors for 10 minutes a day and record the level of hog odor on a 9-point scale. Then they were also asked to measure their blood pressure twice on portable digital devices. As a result, the researchers found a strong correlation between the days when the subjects reported strong odors and regular stress-induced blood pressure spikes.
The study’s lead researcher, Steve Wing, has already looked into some of the more well-known downsides to living near a CAFO. Last year, he released a related study finding that North Carolina residents who live in areas near big hog farms experienced eye irritation, wheezing, chest tightness, shortness of breath, sore throats, and nausea.
From Native American staple to livestock feed to early canned food and symbol of the American hearth, the pumpkin has made quite a journey in the last few centuries.
In her new book, Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon, University of St. Louis historian and professor Cindy Ott tracks the story of the most famous gourd. Ott looks at the evolution of the canned pumpkin industry (Libby's still owns the bulk of the nation's pumpkin farms) and the role this food has played in today's local food movement. Ott writes, "The pumpkin fulfills many Americans' desire to maintain connections to the mythical family farm lore, and it has rejuvenated many small farms in the process."
In the 1990s, Gail Fuller stopped tilling his Kansas farm. He and his brother had inherited the farm and he wanted to move away from the way they’d been doing things in the 1970s and '80s.
“I thought that once you got to no-till that was the answer. But I didn’t change my management practices, so no-till actually failed," he recalls. "We were doing miserably by the early 2000s.”
Farmers like Fuller use the term “soil management” a lot, and the truth is it means different things on different farms. But when he compares the way he’s farming today to what he was doing 10 years ago, it's not hard to understand what he means.
“We didn’t rotate our crops, we didn’t have enough crop residue in the soil, our erosion was high, our yields weren’t increasing, and our herbicide was up. We were on the verge of bankruptcy.”
That part about herbicide is important. You see, most conventional corn and soy farmers till -- or break up -- their soil on a large scale because it helps control the weeds. So it has become common to use more weed killer when you stop tilling. (The practice has been dubbed “chemical no-till” and it’s part of what has made the recent conversation about farm soil controversial.)
I cook with lots of beets, carrots, and potatoes, and sometimes I branch out and roast something crazy, like a parsnip or some Jerusalem artichokes. But I've never considered cooking with arrowroot, lotus root, fresh horseradish, taro, or galanga before picking up Diane Morgan's new cookbook, Roots: The Definitive Compendium with more than 225 Recipes. Now, I'm actually looking forward to winter, (when most roots are in season). Here are a few recipes from this impressively varied cookbook that caught my eye. (And hey, if these beet-colored red velvet cupcakes sound iffy, just think of carrot cake!)
Rutabaga hash with onions and crisp bacon Serves 4 to 6
Make this hash for a weekend brunch or as an easy weeknight supper. I like to serve it with a tossed green salad or a steamed vegetable and a crusty loaf of bread. Pass Tabasco or other hot sauce at the table; the vinegary, smoky flavor of hot sauce complements the rutabagas, bacon, and chiles. Poach eggs to place on top of this hearty hash. The runny soft-cooked eggs are a perfect complement.
6 slices bacon, about 5 oz, cut into 3/4-inch pieces
2 lb rutabagas, ends trimmed, peeled, and cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 large yellow onion, cut into 1/2-inch dice
2 celery ribs, halved lengthwise, then cut crosswise into slices 1/4-inch thick
1 Anaheim chile, stemmed, seeded, and cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 jalapeño chile, stemmed, seeded, and minced
1/2 tsp kosher or fine sea salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper
3 tbsp chopped fresh cilantro, plus more for garnish
Tabasco or other hot-pepper sauce for serving
1. In a 12-inch frying pan, preferably cast iron, cook the bacon over medium-high heat until crisp, about 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to paper towels to drain.
2. Pour off all but 1/4 cup of the fat from the pan. Return the pan to medium-high heat, add the rutabagas and onion, and sauté, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium, cover, and cook, stirring once, for 7 minutes to steam the rutabagas. Uncover the pan, increase the heat to medium-high, and cook, stirring, until the vegetables are browned at the edges, about 1 minute longer.
3. Add the celery and chiles, stir briefly, and then cover and cook for 3 minutes longer. Uncover the pan and add the salt and pepper. Cook, stirring frequently, until the rutabagas are fork-tender and the celery is crisp but not raw tasting. Fold in the cilantro and bacon. Serve immediately, garnished with additional cilantro. Pass the hot-pepper sauce at the table.
Here we are, less than four weeks away from the election, and Mitt Romney finally has something to say about food and farming. Sort of.
In a white paper released Tuesday called “Agricultural Prosperity: Mitt Romney’s vision for a vibrant rural America,” the presidential candidate and his advisers outlined their farm agenda. But the 16-page document talks very little about actual farming; instead it uses agriculture as a lens on Romney’s preexisting tax, trade, regulation, and energy platforms. (For the record, that would be: less, more, less, and ethanol). He also promises to “strengthen our nation’s rural communities,” and “ensure that a strong farm bill is passed in a timely manner.” (This last part is especially amusing, considering the last farm bill actually expired on Sept. 30.) So ... timely? No longer possible.
Romney also plays up the “family farm” element throughout, with nostalgic odes like this:
… it is not only our core values that thrive in our small towns and family farms; our economy does as well, when hardworking men and women are supported by sound policies that promote growth while minimizing unnecessary interference from Washington bureaucrats.
Translation? Romney wants to do away with the estate tax.
Nancy Rabalais doesn’t quit. This marine ecologist has been doggedly studying, speaking about, and agitating to improve the Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone for over three decades. Currently the executive director and a professor at the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, Rabalais is quick to point out that the dead zone is not only one of the biggest human-made disasters we face today, but it’s one we can still reverse if we choose to. (You see, rain washes a steady stream of nitrogen from excess fertilizer and animal waste that heads down the Mississippi River and out to the Gulf. These nutrients create algae that sinks, decomposes, and eats oxygen. The result is an oxygen-free area or underwater desert -- a dead zone.)
Last week, Rabalais was awarded a highly sought-after MacArthur Genius Award. Whereas some MacArthur recipients may take the award as a sign that their work has peaked, this scientist appears to see it as a means to an end, a way to advance her message and to help protect a crucial body of water.
We spoke to Rabalais recently about her work, the recognition, and how our diets impact the dead zone.
Q. First of all, congratulations on the award. It’s great to see you get recognition for this important work.
A. Thanks. I’m not so sure I’m a "genius"; I’m just persistent. I've been working on this for so long and it’s important.
I have a confession to make: I can go a little crazy for pumpkins. As fall sets in and I start seeing those huge boxes outside grocery stores piled high with cheap pumpkins, I often feel the need to take home five.
Can you blame me? Who doesn't like the messy scooping, drawing, cutting, and candle-lighting involved in making a porch-load of grimacing jack-o'-lanterns? Of course, for me and other consumption-conscious, otherwise-organic-buying pumpkinphiles out there (ahem, raise your hands), this mires us in an ethical dilemma.
Here’s how the dialogue in my head went last year:
Voice of hedonism: Buying lots of pumpkins and cutting them up so they'll eventually rot in front of your house is your right as an American. Plus, it's fun!
Voice of conscience: But they’re food. And you are really careful about food. All the winter squash in your kitchen came from local farmers. So why should you get a free pass just because you’re planning to waste these ones?
Voice of hedonism: Look, they have big ol’ giant ones, classy white ones, and teenie tiny ones. Clearly you need one of each!
Voice of conscience: You're right. Is anybody looking?