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Umbra on organic pesticides

Dear Umbra, Recently, an article in my newspaper stated that federal and state guidelines allow the spraying of "organic pesticides" on organic crops. I thought organic crops were pesticide-free. I am very disappointed to find out that there are sanctioned "organic pesticides" which, with probably little to no independently researched information, may or may not pose a risk to my health. Tell me the paper got it wrong (please)! ArtBakersfield, Calif. Dearest Art, Nope. Let me try to soften the letdown, though. What is a pesticide? In the simplest view, it is a substance that kills vegetative or animal pests. …

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The Meatrix II: Now playing at a website near you

Ladies and gentleman. Boys and girls. The Meatrix II: Revolting is finally here. Help Leo, Moopheus, and Chickity fight factory farms.

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Agriculture interests push ambitious renewable-energy goal

A few more strange bedfellows have recently been coaxed into the sack with the enviros, hawks, and labor advocates pushing for a smarter U.S. energy strategy. The newbies include growers of corn, soy, wheat, trees, and even dairy cows, all of which could play a role in cultivating homegrown energy sources. Farmers have gotten wind of a new idea. Photo: NREL. Earlier this month, some 70 agriculture and forestry groups and companies endorsed a campaign dubbed "25 x '25," which advocates that 25 percent of energy in the U.S. come from "America's working lands" by 2025. That means biofuels like …

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Got organic milk?

It may not be as eco as you think

The Cornucopia Institute, an organic watchdog organization, has released a report (PDF) on the "organic-ness" of 68 dairy name brands and private labels. While cow-conscious consumers might assume that the word "organic" on the label means that their milk mustache comes from a happy cow grazing in non-pesticide-laden pastures, that's not always the case; guidelines for organic certification can be variously interpreted, and the USDA is lax on enforcing regulations. Says the Cornucopia press release: [The report] profiles the growth and commercialization of organic dairying and looks at the handful of firms that now seem intent upon taking over the …

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Umbra on free-range chickens and eggs

Dear Umbra, I just read your column on organic syrup, and you made a comment about the futileness of the phrase "free range." I always try to buy free-range eggs and, whenever possible, the same with chicken. Am I wasting my money? Jeff PrittsSt. Louis, Mo. Dearest Jeff, Yes, basically. There is a chance that your egg purveyor uses "free range" in the way that you understand it, but the only way to tell is call them and ask about range freedom on their chicken ranch. The Food and Drug Administration oversees "shell eggs" (jargon of the week), but I …

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Chain, Chain, Chain … Chain of Food

An oil crunch will upend our food system, not just our transportation The end of cheap oil is the topic du jour in environmental circles these days. Blogs devoted to peak oil are popping up like fungi; even mainstream outlets like CNN are devoting air time to it. But discussion seems to focus entirely on how we'll power our houses and cars; organic farmer and food writer Tom Philpott says it's high time enviros thought more about how we're going to feed ourselves once fossil-fuel prices soar sky high.

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Food, sustainability, and the environmentalists

A food-politics writer expresses angst at the obscurity of his topic

The other day, a prominent Canadian journalist paid me a visit to interview me for his book on building a sustainable future. At one point, I expounded on the closed-nutrient cycle of old-school organic farming, contrasting it with what writer Michael Pollan deemed the "industrial-organic" way. In the old-school organic style, which relies on animals, farm wastes are recycled into the soil, providing all the nutrients necessary for the next harvest. The industrial-organic farmer, by contrast, imports his or her soil fertility -- just like the conventional farmer. The difference is that the organic farmer is likely shipping in composted …

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Tirso Moreno, farmworker organizer, answers questions

Tirso Moreno. What's your job title? General coordinator for the Farmworker Association of Florida. What does your organization do? We work to empower communities of farmworkers and the rural poor, focusing on a wide range of issues, from workplace and community organizing to disaster preparedness and response, from vocational rehabilitation to immigrants' rights advocacy for farmworkers and students. The needs are great in farmworker communities. Agriculture is one of the three most dangerous occupations in the United States, and farmworkers have the highest rate of chemical-related illnesses of any occupational group. Farmworkers do not enjoy all the same protections under …

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Umbra on dorm snacks

Dear Umbra, As a hall adviser at a college where social activism is valued, I find myself stuck when it comes to entertaining en masse. Sure, I buy from local farms when buying snacks for myself, but when leaving goodies for my hall, putting the ever-enticing winter squash outside a resident's door does not say "midnight snack." Basically, I want to have my candy and eat it too. How can I appeal to the green in me while appealing to the love for crap food on my hall? Jessie Posilkin Bryn Mawr, Pa. Dearest Jessie, Mmm, raw delicata slices. Fiber. …

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USDA ID-tag plan for farm animals has some small-scale farmers unhappy

If only Orwell could get a load of this. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is promoting a system that would have farm-animal owners and livestock handlers attach microchips or other ID tags to their furry and feathered charges so they could be monitored throughout their lifetimes by a centralized computer network. The National Animal Identification System, as it's known, has been in development by the department since 2002, with help from an agribusiness industry group that represents bigwigs like Cargill and Monsanto. Is the USDA's ID-tag plan a baaaaad idea? Photo: iStockphoto. Sounds like Animal Farm meets Big Brother. Yet, …

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