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Chefs’ disregard for environment leaves a bad taste

Thomas KellerThomas Keller in his kitchen. (Photo by Arnold Gatilao.)

Thanks, Thomas Keller. Now we know where you stand. When you joined forces with Andoni Luis Aduriz and came out publicly in The New York Times this week as a chef who does not feel any obligation to the environment, we heard you.“With the relatively small number of people I feed, is it really my responsibility to worry about carbon footprint?” you asked.

You think it’s not your place, as reporter Julia Moskin puts it, “to provide a livelihood for farmers near [your] restaurants, to preserve traditional culinary arts or to stop the spread of global warming."

Yep, you’re just here to “create great, brilliant food.”

And you know what? That might make sense -- if we lived in the 19th century. Then you could just focus on making your brilliant food (it would probably be served to royalty) and someone else would do the driving, someone else the laundry, and so forth. While the farmers -- out in the countryside -- would do nothing but farm. Of course, no one would dream of writing about you in a national publication, either. You wouldn’t have to be a global citizen of an information age.

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Farm interrupted: Berkeley’s Occupy the Farm ends in arrests

A young farmer is arrested on the sidewalk outside the Gill Tract. Click to watch the raw footage.

The farmers and activists who have been occupying the Gill Tract -- a 10-acre piece of land on the outskirts of Berkeley, Calif. -- since Earth Day, had a rude awakening Monday morning. As the Oakland Tribune reported, around 100 police officers clad in riot gear and brandishing batons appeared at the farm at 6:15 a.m. and made nine arrests. The officers, the report continues:

… encountered fewer than 10 protesters on the field, most of whom were still sleeping. By 9 a.m., the remaining encampment was cleared.

All except a young man who is sitting in a tree near the tract and refuses to come down.

Of the nine arrested, two were detained for sleeping overnight on the actual tract and seven were arrested outside the fence line on suspicion of unlawful assembly.

Read more: Food

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Could insects feed the world? [VIDEO]

Still on the fence about trying some edible insects? This video from Quest might just give you the nudge you need. In it you'll meet several entomophagists (bug-eaters), including Monica Martinez of Don Bugito, a taco stand we covered last fall.

You'll also hear compelling evidence for insects as one answer to feeding a growing population. As one scientist puts it: "Cows and pigs -- they're warm-blooded. When they eat, they have to actually waste a lot of energy producing heat. Insects are cold-blooded. I mean that in a good sense. They don't have to maintain their body heat, so when they eat they don't have to waste energy, they convert that into protein."

The video takes us into the kitchen of a serious bug connoisseur as she prepares roasted figs with sautéed grasshoppers and bee larvae (the "bacon of the edible insect world") -- and manages to make the dish look surprisingly appetizing.

Read more: Food, Sustainable Food

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University strikes back against Occupy the Farm

Photo by Steve Rhodes.

“Maybe you’ll be my one phone call from jail,” urban farmer and activist Ashoka Finley says, just before our phone conversation ends.

He’s joking, but I imagine he can probably see a group of police officers out of the corner of his eyes as he says it. Finley is one of a group of Occupiers who have been living and farming on a 10-acre piece of land on the outskirts of Berkeley, Calif., called the Gill Tract.

Finley has also just told me that he’s prepared to get arrested if things at the Gill Tract escalate. “We’re not going anywhere, we’re going to keep planting and farming,” he says, as if it’s the most defiant thing he can imagine.

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Green eggs, hold the ham [VIDEO]

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We catch too many sardines — but should we stop eating them?

Photo by Andrea Nguyen.

On the Mother Jones website yesterday, contributor and author Julia Whitty posed some important questions about a small, less popular fish that’s begun to come back into vogue in recent years.

The post, called "It's Okay to Eat Sardines...Right?," began like this:

Sardines are considered a "sustainable" seafood, one of the few fish you can eat guilt-free, right? Well, not exactly. Forage fish like sardines and anchovies are the key players in huge but delicate food webs known as wasp-waist ecosystems. These are so complex and dynamic that it's questionable whether we have the know-how to manage them well yet.

Whitty went on to illustrate that we don’t, in fact, seem to know how to manage the world sardine fisheries very well. And she presented a telling and useful chart that tracked the global capture of sardines over the last 50 years. It shows a mountain of consumption that rises steeply in 1975 and goes crashing back down again 20 years later. She also points out that although the Marine Stewardship Council approves of sardine eating, Whitty herself has written in the past about what she sees as lapses in judgement on its part, when it comes to the fishing practices surrounding other types of fish.

I was with Whitty through a great deal of her argument, and I can always get with a considered note of caution about what we eat and how much. So I waited patiently for her to get to the discussion of what happens to the rest of the sardines. But it didn’t come.

You see, as many ocean conservationists and sustainable seafood experts point out, the problem isn’t that people are frying or grilling up too many sardines. The problem is the fish we’re not eating, but feeding to other, farmed fish (like tuna and salmon) and industrially farmed animals (fish oil makes pigs, chickens, and cows grow faster).

Read more: Food, Sustainable Food

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It’s official: China now eats twice the meat we do

If meat eating is a race, China is so far ahead of us we can't even see what color shorts it's wearing. Americans still eat about twice as much of the stuff on a per-person basis, but, well, China has a lot more people.

If you like geeking out about who eats what where and how it impacts the environment, you might enjoy spending some time with this very data-rich post about the recent doubling of China’s meat consumption from the Earth Policy Institute (EPI). But, for those who want a cheat sheet, I've collected what I think are some of the most memorable bits below.

First, take a look at this very telling chart, which shows plain and clear how fast things have been changing:

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Burger King makes a big pledge — but what’s ‘cage-free pork’?

It appears the bulk of Burger King's pork is currently being served at breakfast, but there are plans in the works for a pulled pork sandwich from the chain. (Photo by Mark H. Anbinder.)

As of today, Burger King is calling itself the “first U.S. national chain to pledge cage-free pork and eggs.”

Never heard of “cage-free pork”? Neither had I. In fact, I’m guessing that the PR executives at Burger King may have invented it. There are cage-free eggs, yes. That term refers to eggs from chickens that are raised outside of tiny battery cages (the industry standard), but are still in confinement.

As the AP article makes clear, Burger King is referring to pork raised without gestation crates -- a practice of confining pregnant sows to spaces roughly the width of their own bodies that has long been considered the worst of the worst when it comes to animal husbandry. So yes, the pigs will be free of a certain kind of cage, or pen. Does that mean they won’t live in concentrated animals feeding operations (CAFOs)? Unlikely.

No doubt adding in “cage-free pork” beside the eggs seemed like a nice way to streamline Burger King’s big headline. And like the term “free-range” (which itself has no legal meaning and is now used solely for marketing purposes), cage-free sounds so humane, doesn’t it?

Not that we can chalk this whole announcement up to humane-washing.

Read more: Animals, Factory Farms, Food

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Would you like a bad farm bill — or a terrible one?

Photo by Jeff Cushner.

The 2012 Farm Bill finally appears to be moving forward. Sort of.

On Friday, the Senate Agriculture Committee released their draft of the half-trillion-dollar bill. But not much has actually changed for the better since the behind-closed-doors "Secret Farm Bill" process from last fall. Ag Committee members are still planning deep cuts to crucial conservation funding that both keeps farmers from planting up every acre of available land and ensures that their farming techniques don't endanger clean water and air. Meanwhile, blustery boasts of eliminating farm subsidies are highly exaggerated: Last week, for example, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that "farm subsidy days are numbered." But as was decided last fall, the committee simply plans to shuffle the bulk of "direct payment" subsidy dollars over to crop insurance, where they will continue to prop up the "Big Five" commodity crops (corn, soy, wheat, rice, and cotton).

Shortly after the draft was released, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) put out a statement claiming the bill “will do more harm than good.” Here's more from EWG Senior Vice President for Agriculture and Natural Resources Craig Cox:

It needlessly sacrifices conservation and feeding assistance programs to finance unlimited insurance subsidies and a new entitlement program for highly profitable farm businesses. Rather than simply ending the widely discredited direct payment program, the Senate Agriculture Committee has created an expensive new entitlement program that guarantees most of the income of farm businesses already enjoying record profits. Replacing direct payments with a revenue guarantee program is a cynical game of bait-and-switch that should be rejected by Congress.

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While Walmart boasts ‘sustainability,’ shrimp factory workers protest

A freezer full of America's favorite seafood at America's biggest food retailer (Walmart). (Photo by Linda Tsai.)

Shrimp has been hovering near the bottom of the list of things I will eat for a while. Unless you make a point to get it wild, chances are very good it has been raised in a crowded pond and treated with loads of antibiotics. Factor in its mammoth carbon footprint, and the fact that many of the developing world's mangroves have been displaced in recent years to make room for shrimp farms, and my appetite for these crustaceans all but disappears.

Now we can add labor abuse to shrimp's laundry list of problems.

A group of shrimp workers has been protesting dismal conditions in a Thai factory for weeks. The factory, Phatthana Seafood, is one of several brands under a corporate umbrella called PTN Group, and is distributed by Rubicon, a major supplier to Walmart here in the U.S.

Not only is Phatthana being accused of skimping on the pay they’ve promised to workers (and keeping a percentage of it against the debt workers incur to travel to the factory -- a practice described in the human rights community as “debt bondage”), but they’ve also reportedly been keeping the workers’ passports and releasing them only for a (steep) fee.

Read more: Food