Me, at the Seafood Summit

Taking a dive into the murky future of extracting food from the troubled sea

In my work on food and agriculture, I've focused nearly 100 percent on land-based issues. But the earth's vast and gaping oceans have always been a major source for human nutrition -- and will be only more so as population grows over the next decades. No one who writes on intersections between food and ecology can ignore the seas. I need to educate myself. With that in mind, I'm currently attending the Seafood Summit, a confab sponsored by a combination of NGOs (e.g., Marine Stewardship Council), foundations (e.g., Packard), and corporate interests (e.g., Darden, which owns Red Lobster and other restaurant chains). The hottest topic here is aquaculture -- a truly new practice with a history of around 50 years, compared with agriculture's 10,000-year track record. The question isn't whether aquaculture will continue to grow explosively over the next decades; the question is whether it will mimic the blunders of land-based industrial agriculture, or move in more sustainable directions. Look for my seafood-ish posts over the next couple of days.

Bean town

Seattle museum opens coffee exhibit, downs third cup of the day

Photos by Andrew Waits. Coffee culture is king in Seattle. Whether it's because of the eternally gray weather, the cool, rainy climate, or our inability to socialize outside a dimly lit café, there's no denying the importance of the caffeine bean in a Seattleite's daily life. And certainly we've earned our rep as a highly caffeinated metropolis, with more coffee shops per capita than anywhere else in the country -- many of them artisanal roasters selling specialty coffees. But the story of your steamy mug of joe doesn't begin and end with a moody barista. In fact, it probably started in the hands of someone like Edwin Martinez, a third generation coffee grower who has been picking coffee beans in Guatemala with his family since he was a young boy. From there, they may have passed through a co-op set up to help small farmers process and market their beans. Then they'll move on to someone like David Griswold, the founder of Sustainable Harvest, a specialty coffee importer who bridges connections between the farmers in tropical coffee-growing nations and the roasters in, say, Seattle. The roasting process will awaken the coffee beans' complex aromas and flavors -- and they'll soon be passed from barista to half-awake patron. And though you might be sipping on a half-caf soy latte with sugar-free vanilla syrup, you've really got the whole world in your cup. It's this story that a new exhibit at Seattle's Burke Museum aims to tell. Opening weekend of Coffee: The World in Your Cup featured exhibit tours, coffee tastings, and informative talks by Martinez, Griswold, and University of Washington professor Max Savishinsky. "We're really putting a huge topic in a small space," said Education Director Diane Quinn.

More, better markets

A hint of the future appears at a Miami-area produce market

No, this isn't another cap-and-trade post. I'm talking about the yummy kind of markets. As we grapple with ways to reform food production in this country, one problem that crops up is the loss over time of the old farm-to-market networks that fed cities before air freight and transcontinental trucking took over. So even if we wanted to (or, more ominously, were forced to) re-regionalize our food distribution system, the infrastructure no longer exists. This desire, by the way, is not motivated simply by a need to reduce food miles -- a misleading measure for sure. I and others have talked at length about the misplaced focus on food miles as a way to guide food distribution. Rail, for example, is an especially good way to move food long distances -- especially compared to the option of driving huge fleets of diesel trucks even relatively short distances (which is why rail freight stimulus is such a great idea. Right, Ryan?). But as we explore ways to reform industrial agriculture and its reliance on fossil fuels in food production, more, smaller farms inevitably come up as an alternative -- and for that sort of system to work, they would need to be proximate to population centers. Speaking of the food miles argument, it's likely that, using our existing infrastructure, exclusively procuring produce from farms within, say, 75 miles of urban centers would cause the transportation component of agricultural carbon emissions to go way up. So, there's a lot to do before anything like this could happen. And thus we come to the point -- a means to counteract my recent gloom-and-doom posts. Ready?

Peak everything

Is there anything that isn't peaking?

Felix Salmon mused on the subject of Peakniks recently (and what a neologism that is!) after reading Ben McGrath's entertainingly morbid piece, "The Dystopians" in The New Yorker ($ub. req'd). While it's worth observing that "peaknik" has typically referred to Peak Oilers, I think it's safe to say that we're all peakniks now. McGrath talks mostly about financial doomsayers, i.e. Peak Debt and Peak Dollars, but refers generally, if somewhat dismissively, to the "Peaknik Diaspora" and some of its adherents. These would be folks who "believe" in Peak Oil, Peak Carbon, Peak Dirt, Peak Fish. Personally, I think Peak Carbon is a not a terribly useful way to refer to climate change -- although "climate change" is itself a not terribly useful way to refer to climate change (something that Gar Lipow has taken it upon himself to fix). Peak Things, in my humble opinion (speaking of which, why did IMHO go out of favor? Is there no longer any humility on the Internet?), should only refer to resource maximums. Switching that around for carbon -- i.e. we're trying to stop producing carbon so we can declare/achieve Peak Carbon and continue reducing from there -- is just plain confusing. So let's dispense with Peak Carbon.

The opposite of safety

Recent food safety struggles suggest the limits of regulation

It's been a bad week for food safety. First it was the peanut butter, then it was the high fructose corn syrup, and now it's deadly antibiotic-resistant staph bacteria (MRSA) in CAFO pigs (and their minders). And of course, as Bill Marler -- litigious scourge of the food industry -- reminds us, we're continuing to lose the fight against E. coli. Much has been written about the efforts to track down the sources of contamination.  And invariably the companies involved quickly close the their doors (which is how we lost one of the largest ground beef distributors in the country virtually overnight and why the Peanut Corporation of America is no more). But what's truly worrisome is that in each case, the USDA and the FDA (who have joint responsibility for food safety) had information at hand about all of these problems. In the case of the peanut butter outbreak, the plant in question had a long-documented history of health violations -- discovered, not by the FDA, but by local Georgia authorities to whom the FDA had contracted out inspection services. In essence, short of allowing self-regulation, the FDA managed to find an entity that enjoys even cozier relationships with industry than the FDA itself has. In theory, the Georgia Agriculture Department should have forwarded on reports of violations to federal officials. There's no word yet on where in the lines of communication the breakdown occurred.

Worst idea ever?

I'm having a cow over beef-tallow biodiesel

I heard about this on the radio this morning, and couldn't believe the uncritical reporting on it: The City of Calgary's entire fleet of trucks and buses may soon be partly fueled by biodiesel produced from Alberta beef tallow.Tallow is all that's left over after an animal has been processed. The city has been experimenting with tallow from the meat-packing plant in High River, Alta., as part efforts to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions....Not only is the tallow in ready supply locally, turning it into biofuel recycles a product that would normally be thrown away, he said.Tallow-waste biofuel is also more ethical than other alternative fuels, since it does not displace food crops such as corn, which is used in the production of ethanol, he said. That's a neat trick of sunk-cost accounting. Sure, beef production is ridiculously carbon-intensive, making this biodiesel probably more climate-hostile than even corn ethanol, but hey, we've already got all this surplus cow fat to get rid of. I'm all for waste recycling, but reducing the production of waste is the first step, right? I'll confess this is a first-blush impression, and welcome the opportunity to be proven wrong. But doesn't this sound like a poor excuse to support beef prices?

Lean, green eating machine

How to maintain a green, healthy diet on a budget

Dear Lou, With the economic crunch, how is it going to be possible to afford healthy foods for my family, especially organics? It's not like I can go foraging in the medians of the major roadways. Karl from Southern California  

Take the chill off the bad economy with a frugal, delicious vegetable soup

Photo: Library of Congress In our food system, the part of the animal that delivers the most flavor — the bones — often gets thrown away. Purveyors then sell the boneless meat at a higher price. During hard times, such wasteful practices come into relief. We explore humbler, bone-in cuts of meat and underappreciated vegetables. And we begin to take leftovers seriously, putting them to use in other dishes. Amazingly, our cuisine actually benefits from this frugality. Winter is the ideal time for trying your hand at such rustic, country-style dishes. Tough cuts of meat simmered slowly for hours transform …

Secretary of biofuels ...

Vilsack chats up reporters about climate and ethanol

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack talked about climate change, renewable energy and ethanol blends during a conference call with reporters on Monday. Here are excerpts from the transcript: From Vilsack's opening comments on the call: I also want this Department to be a national leader in climate change mitigation, adaptation efforts. This of course will involve conservation, greater efficiency with the energy that we have, as well as new technologies and expanded opportunities in biofuels and renewable energy. I'm going to work to advance research and development and pursue opportunities to support the development of additional biofuels, wind power, and other renewable energy sources. We need to make sure that the biofuels industry has the necessary support to survive the recent downturn while at the same time promoting policies that will speed up the development of second and third-generation feedstocks for those biofuels that have the potential to significantly improve America's energy security and independence. I expect our farmers and ranchers will play a role in making progress on the great challenge of climate change and on other major environmental challenges. It's important to me that the USDA lead efforts to incentivize management practices that promote and provide clean air, clean water, and wildlife habitat, and to help farmers participate in markets that reward them for sequestering carbon and limiting greenhouse gas emissions. It is my hope that the Farm Bill's provisions in terms of energy and conservation can be implemented promptly and properly and that we see the Forest Service as a new opportunity for us to engage in climate change mitigation/adaptation strategies. ... We also want the USDA to be a supporter of 21st century rural communities. We'll be looking at promoting the expansion of modern infrastructure, expanded broadband opportunities, affordable, energy-efficient housing in rural communities, expanded small business opportunities, and improving the quality of life through community facilities.

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