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Among other accomplishments, the film shows us the lives of agrarians who have managed to hold onto their farms into the 21st century who are now being urged to “expand or die.” Apparently, in the beginning days of research, Bahrani spent time with the family of Troy Roush, the corn and soybean farmer who was featured in the documentary, “Food, Inc.”
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“At Any Price,” revolves around a not terribly loving father-son relationship and 3,500 acres of farmland planted with seeds from the Liberty Seed Company, which sells genetically modified seeds. It’s kind of interesting how in every film where GMOs have a major role, the seller of those seeds is always painted as a bad guy. In recent memory, films such as Bitter Seeds covered the same territory.
Ebert is right, there are many layers to the film, including the father-son relationship, power, familial individuation and greed. But what struck me was the way many of the film’s characters flagrantly disregarded each other.
This was particularly true of the farmer who is also a salesman for the seed company, played by Dennis Quaid. While at the funeral of a neighboring farmer, he expresses his condolences to the widow and her son right there at the graveside, but just seconds later he tries to buy the rights to the man’s land.
Much like the Indian film “Bitter Seeds,” there is a kind of desperation that is implanted by the seed company in those who are both selling the seeds and planting the seeds. Farmers who use genetically modified seeds must agree to strict rules created by the GMO seed companies. Once a farmer buys the GMO seeds, he is required to pay an annual royalty each time the seeds are replanted. After one season, the GMO seeds need additional fertilizers, and as the seasons move forward more insecticides and pesticides. The soil eventually requires more water than a normal saved seed would require. All of this means more and more money for the farmer to lay out, which means somewhere along the line the farmer is likely to become desperate. This is not a sustainable way to farm or live.
On the Whipple Farm, as featured in “At Any Price,” it’s all about bigger yields, bigger harvests and bigger profits. Where the farmer used to be a person of faith and integrity, he is now all about the bigger attitude, which colors everything and leads the main characters to lie about their illegal use of seeds, and to steal and then to lie some more. One of the characters in the film (a girlfriend of the farmer’s son) compares the use of illegally saved Liberty Seeds to a bootlegger who illegally copies DVDs. Ah, that GMOs were so innocuous.
Henry Whipple has two sons. He would like to leave his farm to both of them. After all, his grandfather left it to his father who in turn has left it to him. Three generations already and Whipple would like to make it four. But Henry Whipple’s sons have other lives in mind for themselves. The elder is climbing mountains in South America and the younger would rather be a NASCAR driver. Neither have any respect for their father or the work that he does or the life that he represents.
In his New York Times review in April, Stephen Holden calls farmer Whipple, “a warped caricature of a reassuring American archetype.”
Film raises specter of nation’s ‘wobbly moral compass’
‘Any Any Price’ He says the film is both “a critical exploration of agribusiness and its cutthroat, hypercompetitive ways,” and “a searching, somewhat ham-handed allegory of American hubris in the 21st century and a bleak assessment of the country’s wobbly moral compass.”
The film pays close attention to the stresses that high-tech farming involves and how it freezes small farmers out of their livelihoods. It also sub-plots the kinds of competition that exist between the larger farms and farmers. This is a rivalry that can, and sometimes does, lead to violence.
The movie raises issues that inspire deep reflection. It’s a complicated film, dealing with complicated issues. And it is certainly worth seeing. This is a film that explores subject matters on a variety of levels, all of which deserve our attention.
Top photo: Zac Efron and Dennis Quaid appear in a scene in “At Any Price.” Credit: Courtesy of Ramin Bahrani
I was part of a conversation recently with colleagues in the food world who were griping that nothing much had changed in the health food movement since Adelle Davis’ books, “Let’s Get Well” and “Let’s Cook It Right.” Both books had raised a new public awareness in the 1960s to the fact that unprocessed organic food, grown without pesticides and herbicides, can determine our health. What about Michael Pollan, Alice Waters, Frances Moore Lappé, Mark Bittman, Robert Kenner, Paul Newman, A.E. Hotchner and Wendell Berry, to name a few contemporary food activists? Or even more recently, Anna Lappé, Bryant Terry, Jeremiath Gettle, Daniel Salatin, Katrina Blair or Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney.
I’m also frustrated that there is so much work to be done, but everywhere I look I see evidence of how far we’ve come on the issue.
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I argued that things had dramatically changed in simple ways. For instance, yesterday I wanted to make a chicken tagine with plums and olives. The recipe called for chicken thighs, onions, butter, dried plums and lemons. I needed some lamb for another recipe and some hamburger. I also needed milk, half and half, and yogurt. It was midweek, and I didn’t have time to go down to the farmers market so I shopped at my corner market.
I was able to get full-fat yogurt, a coup these days because in the last 20 years almost everything has become either non-fat or low-fat. This, by the way, does not necessarily mean they are good for you. Fat-free foods may also have added thickeners, flour, sugar or salt. Also you don’t want to avoid all kinds of fat because there’s a decent argument to be made that foods contain both “good” fats and “bad” fats. In the meat department, I was able to get hormone-free, antibiotic-free, organic grass-fed lamb, beef and free-range chicken. I also noticed they had organic, grass-fed bison. In the produce department, I was able to get organic lettuces, organic berries, avocados, apples, pears and bananas. In the dairy case, I had a choice of free-range eggs from three farms, and I also found organic milk, organic half and half, and butter. There are farms all over the United States that sell raw milk. Laws regarding raw milk vary by state, but it is available if you want it. I found dried plums that had not been sprayed with sulphur dioxide, which is great because I definitely didn’t want any of that pesticide on my food because children in my family are allergic to sulphur. I know, of course, our future begins with our children and grandchildren. And I remind my friends that in 1996, Alice Waters created her first edible schoolyard in Berkeley, Calif. Since then the program has expanded to New Orleans and Brooklyn, N.Y.
The health food movement goes mainstream
When President Obama was elected, Michelle Obama told the world she was going to grow a garden. When he ran for reelection in 2012, the First Lady was promoting her new book, “American Grown” about the White House garden.
“The garden is the way to begin the conversation [about healthy food decisions],” she told the National Review. “I learned, in changing my kids’ habits, if they are involved in the growing process of food and they get a sense of where it comes from, they tend to be excited about it. The garden is a really important catalyst for that discussion.”
All over New York City public schools now have roof-top gardens or other areas set aside for gardens. The students at Manhattan School for Children on West 93rd Street give guided tours of their rooftop gardens.
Most colleges and universities offer programs in sustainability and integrated nutrition. We have new words in our vocabulary and dictionary that apply to quality food produced responsibly, such as locavore and sustainability. Most everyone knows about fermentation now because of Sandor Katz’s book, “The Art of Fermentation,” which was on the New York Times bestseller list for several weeks and nominated for a James Beard Award. Although California voters didn’t approve Proposition 37, which would have made the labeling of GMOs mandatory, the big news is that Whole Foods, the grocery chain with 339 stores across the nation became the first retailer in the United States to require GMO labeling on all foods sold in their stores.
Genetically modified ingredients are in much of the food we eat on a daily basis. Food labels give us information about nearly everything else we need to know about the food we’re eating, but there is generally no information about food grown with GMOs. Now, at least at Whole Foods, all foods will be labeled if they contain GMOs.
There are many more ways in which the food movement in the United States has dramatically changed. But in a way, my colleagues are right. Although we’ve done a lot, there is still more to do to protect our good food. And next we need to turn our full attention toward the issue of hunger, and getting that good food to those in need.
Organic produce at Eli’s Market in New York City. Credit: Andrew Lipton
In ancient times, during the winters and in cold climates, people used the weather to freeze and preserve their food. In the mid-1800s, fishermen began using metal pans and salt to freeze their catch for commercial sale. Then along came Clarence Birdseye, whose pioneering discoveries and inventions made it possible for all of us to copy his methods for home freezing our own food.
Birdseye was born in Brooklyn in 1886. As a young man he majored in biology at Amherst College, but he quit school and went to work as a naturalist for the U.S. government.
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He was posted in the Arctic where he watched how the combination of water, wind and ice instantly froze freshly caught fish. When the fishermen would fry up the fish, it was as moist and tasty as fresh fish.
Watching closely Birdseye could see that the cellular structure of the fish was frozen so fast that there was no time for ice crystals to form. The idea of being able to serve his family and friends a diverse selection of freshly frozen meats, fish, fruits and vegetables was an exciting concept for a man who in his heart was a cook.
In 1923 he made a $7 investment in an electric fan, buckets of brine and huge cakes of ice. Birdseye invented, perfected and patented a system for packing fresh food into waxed cardboard boxes and flash freezing the goods under high pressure.
In 1929, Goldman-Sachs Trading Corp. and Postum Co. bought Birdseye’s patents and trademarks for $22 million. This eventually became the General Foods Corp., which founded the Birds Eye Frozen Food Co.
In 1930 Birdseye went into a joint venture to manufacture the boxes and in 1934 he began leasing refrigerated boxcars to transport these frozen foods. The Eastern seaboard states were the first to get this remarkable food. Soon it was possible to ship frozen food coast to coast. However it wasn’t until the 1940s and 1950s that frozen foods of all sorts turned into the business they are today. But, like any other food, we need to know our sources for the frozen food we eat. Often frozen food is processed heavily with artificial additives and ingredients. Knowing where your frozen food comes from is as important as knowing where your fresh food comes from. And reading labels is also important.
The best-case scenario for freezing food involves using food grown on your own land when it’s seasonably ripe. Then you know the whole story. The second best is knowing the farmers who have grown the food you are about to freeze.
The third choice is freezing foods from a local organic or sustainable farm picked in season when the vegetables and fruit are ripe. (When you buy produce from your local supermarket, the food may not have been ripe when it was picked and may not be ready when it went on sale. Thus, when you unfreeze it, you might get mush. But of course that’s not always the case.)
The methods for freezing produce are fairly simple to master and can provide you with fresh-like fruits and vegetables through the year. It is important to remember a few tips:
While most vegetables should be washed and blanched, most fruit does not need to be blanched. Berries should be washed, patted dry and laid out on a baking sheet and frozen.
Peaches, plums and nectarines should be quartered and frozen on a baking sheet. Tomatoes should be washed, dried, quartered and put in a Ziploc bag.
Not all food lends itself to freezing. For instance, you should not freeze most dairy products (although some folks freeze milk). Eggs and canned goods will explode if frozen, and these make a mess.
Freezer burn will ruin frozen foods. This damage is created when air comes into contact with frozen foods.
Frozen foods lose some of their nutritional value. Vitamins C and B suffer the biggest nutritional losses, according to a 2007 study in the Journal of Science of Food and Agriculture. Levels of polyphenolic substances, which act as antioxidants to protect cells, are also lower in frozen fruits.
Finally, even though preserving food in your freezer will prolong the availability of produce, frozen food won’t last forever. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a helpful chart to help you determine how long you can keep various frozen foods.
And, in case of minor injury, a bag of frozen peas or blueberries placed on a bruised or swollen ankle works great as an ice pack.
How to freeze fruits and vegetables
Most vegetables should be washed and blanched (quickly cooked in boiling water) before freezing.
1. Bring 1 gallon of water per pound of prepared vegetables (about 2 cups) to boil in a large pot. Add vegetables, cover, return to boil.
2. Transfer the vegetables to a large bowl of ice water.
1. Spread fruit or vegetables on a single layer baking sheet and freeze until solid.
2. Pack the fruit or veggie in quart or gallon size freezer bags. You may use a vacuum sealer at this point, though you do not have to.
3. Place the packaged frozen foods in your freezer.
Berries in the freezer. Credit: Katherine Leiner
As the Northeast struggles to get back on its feet after the roar of Sandy, so are the fishermen feeling the aftereffects of that wild storm. The hurricane blasted them. Fishermen up and down the coast lost their docks, their boats and their waterfront. Restaurants too paid a high price. So many of them are still digging out. Although Mary Cleaver, owner of The Green Table in New York City, lost power for several days, she managed to save at least 1,500 pounds of food to give to Saint John’s Bread and Life Soup Kitchen. Others did the same.
That said, as the fishermen get back to work and return to their boats, and the restaurants bail out their kitchens and reopen their doors, many chefs have made a commitment to help fishermen in the Northeast and New England by serving their fish. Fisherman and dock owner, Jared Auerbach encouraged people in a blog post to add Northeast and New England fish to their menus to support the effort. New York restaurants such as Cleaver’s The Green Table ABC Kitchen, Mark Murphy’s Ditch Plains and Fred’s at Barney’s were some of the first to offer Northeastern fish on their menus to help fishermen affected by Hurricane Sandy. They were joined by Michel Nischan and Jon Vaast at The Dressing Table in Connecticut, Lonnie Zoeller of Vinoteca in Washington, D.C., and Amos Watts of Jax Fish House in Denver.
These days we all want to know where the things we consume come from, including food. Fish is no different. The easiest way to know where your fish is sourced is to know your fishermen or at the least know the distributor who will know your fishermen and where your fish comes from.
Help finding local seafood, wherever you are
Sea to Table in Brooklyn, N.Y., is helping both fishermen and restaurants to get fresh local seafood from the dock to market and on the table the next day. This is an important job especially now in the immediate aftermath of Sandy.
In 1996 before the Dimin family started Sea to Table, they traveled to a small island at the end of the West Indian archipelago. While on vacation they had the opportunity to watch the local fishermen using the same traditional wooden pirogues, also known as dugout canoes, that had been used for thousands of years to fish their abundant waters. Those fishermen had more fish than they knew what to do with.
An idea was spawned during that vacation. And seven years later, in 2003, the Dimin family built what they’d seen in Tobago, by seeking out sustainably managed fisheries in Alaska; the Gulf Coast; from Florida through the Carolinas to the Chesapeake Bay; and from Montauk, N.Y., through the Gulf of Maine.
What kinds of fish should we be eating?
Fish, especially salmon, herring and sardines, are high in omega-3 fatty acids. So they’re good for us. But fish, like produce, can be full of pesticides, toxins and other sorts of unhealthy matter. Tuna and swordfish have more mercury than some other fishes. Tilefish, mackerel and shark are also high in mercury. So you might want to eat these fish on a less regular basis and look to monkfish, cod, striped bass and flounder as your go-to everyday fish.
Like any other food, it’s important to know if the fish you’re eating is being fished sustainably. This means the area where the fishermen are fishing is not being over-fished.
We’re told now that “wild” fish are the healthiest fish. Recent studies of wild salmon caught off the coast of British Columbia show those fish may be infected with a virus, however, which isn’t so great.
And what about farmed fish? A 2003 report from the Environmental Working Group showed that farmed salmon in the U.S. has the highest levels of PCBs, toxic man-made chemicals. And a widely publicized study in the journal Science in January 2004 suggested that farmed Atlantic salmon had higher levels of PCBs and other toxins than wild Pacific salmon. Subsequent research has found that the health benefits of both farmed and wild salmon exceed potential risks.
More and more customers want to know where their fish is coming from. I am convinced that fresh local wild fish from small-scale fisheries is healthy and delicious.
So this is a call to action for chefs and diners not only in the Northeast and New England, but also all over: Eat and buy local fish. Ask your purveyor what’s local and fresh when you’re cooking at home, and as diners ask your server where your fish was caught.
Consider Northeastern seafood for Thanksgiving
For Thanksgiving, why not consider a stuffed fillet of monkfish? Or a fish stew that includes local mussels, wild littleneck clams, oysters and Maine lobster? You can have all the Thanksgiving Day side dishes such as smashed potatoes, cornbread stuffing, sautéed green beans and a lovely kale and radicchio salad with local gorgonzola cheese. But you’d be helping the Northeast fishermen to recover after a brutal battle with Hurricane Sandy. At the very least, think fish for that special after-Thanksgiving Day party.
Sea to Table provides a direct connection with these fishermen. They know the local fishermen and the waters they fish in the Northeast and throughout the country. They are in constant communication with these fishermen and you can get more information about anything fish related from them.
Top photo: Pots on the deck of the Fishing Vessel Hard Runnin’ Tide, which fishes for lobster in the North Atlantic off the coast of Maine. Credit: Andrea Trabucco-Campos
Almost 40 years ago, Kay and David James started their search in the West for the perfect piece of land on which to ranch and raise children. The couple was young and in love, and knew what they wanted: clean air, a large spread that would accommodate cattle, and plenty of water. Their search ended on 450 acres in the mountains of Durango, Colo.
Although there’s been a chronic drought throughout the Southwest, there’s plenty of water in the ditch that runs through the middle of this sublime land.
Through the 1970s, the James’ raised five children on grass-finished meats, high ideals and the concept of stewarding the land. When these kids graduated from high school, Kay and Dave pushed them out of the nest into the world of higher education and self-sufficiency. They were told if they wanted to return to the ranch in the future, they should bring back something that would add to the already flourishing ranch. And while the mainstay of the ranch continues to be the beef, all the kids have finally come home. And they’ve come home with their talent.
Julie James and her husband, John Ott, raise free-range chickens for eggs, and blue spruce trees. Jennifer and her husband, Joe Wheeling, raise fresh produce, flowers and herbs. Dan James and his wife, Becca, raise pigs and Jersey milk cows for raw milk and artisan cheese. The James food is available at the Durango Farmers Market and also at their own truly exceptional roadside farm market just above where they all live in the Animas Valley.
A second generation returns to the land at James Ranch
Two years ago, Cynthia James Stewart — the third child and last to come home — pulled all the blessings of the ranch together by creating a roadside grill that serves the ranches’ own hamburgers, cheese and bratwurst, thus making the ranch a real destination for dining.
Unlike the rest of the gang, when Cynthia returned to the ranch, she had no plan. She and her husband Robert were not “rancher-type” people. Her siblings suggested she raise meat birds. She just shook her head. But while she and Robert waited for their epiphany, they worked the farm market.
In her former life, Cynthia had been trained at the Fashion Institute in New York City, and then she’d worked for Ralph Lauren. After that she worked for an environmental company that specialized in water filtration equipment.
“Folks laughed when I told them soon they’d be spending more on bottled water than gas,” she said.
When she met Robert 11 years ago, he was in the mortgage industry. They’d both reached a point in their careers where they were ready for something new around which they could build a family. Soon after they began thinking about adoption, Cynthia knew she had to get back to the ranch.
At the bottom of the ranch property in the old hay barn was a wreck of a trailer that Cynthia’s brother Dan kept saying the family had to get rid of. Cynthia asked her youngest brother, Justin James, who was in the restaurant business, how much he thought it would take to put a basic grill and griddle into the cart. She imagined “people sitting around eating all our food, looking out on all of this beauty — the mountains, the cows, the chickens, you know …”
The trailer had to be completely gutted, which estimates showed would cost about $5,000. In the end, the final cost, which included obtaining many permits and putting in a Bob’s John, was nearer to $18,000.
“Before I married Robert I didn’t cook. At 35 years old, I started,” Cynthia said. “I fell in love with how my family were scientifically rediscovering nature’s harmony of food production. I was amazed at how my dad moved the cows each day, how he’d figured out how much grass each one needed.
“My brother Dan’s milk cows only ate grass and what an effort to make sure they get enough food for milk production. He doesn’t supplement with grain. And how much Jennifer has to go through with her vegetables because we’re at high altitude.
“And the huge amount of work Julie has with her chickens and their eggs. She has 450 now! It’s a lot of work.”
The Harvest Grill and Greens
Cynthia and Robert and The Harvest Grill and Greens are now part of the James Ranch circle. Most all of the ingredients are sourced from the James Ranch, including the meat, cheese, tomatoes, all the salad material, and the currant sauce. The blue chips come from the local “chip peddler,” and the bread from local bakeries. All the recipes are Cynthia’s, and she’s not giving away the recipe for her “signature sauce” for the burger.
During summer, the grill has two cooks, one of whom is Robert. In winter, the grill is open only on Saturdays when Cynthia makes chili, stew, sloppy Joes, and other fun food.
“By the end of September, I’ll have a basement full of my sister Jennifer’s squash. I’ll use her squash and pumpkins through March in soups and stews. I take all her Roma tomatoes, put them in olive oil, roast them and then freeze them. Robert is always reminding me how expensive my ingredients are. We have Annie’s ketchup and organic Dijon mustard … probably why we got voted best burger. We use real food, organic, no non-sweetened, no corn syrup, everything the way nature wanted it to be.”
The Harvest Grill and Greens puts all the James Ranch pieces of the food puzzle together. In July, they fed between 120 to 160 meals a day. June and August were also fabulous. “All of us at the James Ranch want people to come to their food source and delight in it. The stars of our show are the remarkable cheese, our grass-finished cows and our organic vegetables. Those things and my recipes using all this great food, ties us together.”
So far, the James Ranch has two generations working their food. Grady James, who is 14, is teaching his first cooking class this fall. The third generation is coming up fast.
Photo: Cynthia James Stewart and Robert Stewart cooking up a hamburger and some chili in their Harvest Grill. Credit: Rick Scibelli
“Every 30 minutes a farmer in India kills himself.” This frightening fact is pointed out in “Bitter Seeds,” the third documentary in “The Globalization Trilogy” directed by Micha Peled. The 12-year project aims to generate debate about public policy and consumer choices in some complex issues relevant to all of us. Peled is the founder of the nonprofit Teddy Bear Films, which he created to make issue-oriented films such as “Will My Mother Go Back to Berlin?” and “Store Wars: When Wal-Mart Comes to Town.”
“Bitter Seeds” follows a season in a village in India from planting to harvest. There are three important stories in this film, each revolving around the multinational corporate takeover of India’s seed market and the effect it has on farmers and farming all over India and the world.
Like most of his neighbors, the protagonist in the film, Ram Krishna, must engage a money-lender to pay for the mounting costs of modern farming; he puts his land up as collateral.
The only seeds available in India now are GMOs (genetically modified organisms), which require farmers to pay an annual royalty each time they are replanted. The GMOs need additional fertilizers, and as the seasons move forward, more insecticides and pesticides. The soil in which these seeds are planted requires more water. All of which means more and more money for the farmer to lay out.
As Krishna’s story moves forward, his cotton is attacked by mealy worms, which threaten to destroy his entire crop. His daughter has reached marrying age and Krishna must find money for her dowry.
Farmers devastated by GMO seeds
Another story weaving in and out of the film is that of a neighboring girl in college who has recently lost her father to suicide, an end claiming lives all over India’s farmlands. She wants to tell his story, along with the stories of all the other suicide victims in the area. Her research and intuition have shown her that at the root of these suicides are GMO seeds. Her family is not behind her desire to become a journalist or to expose the family story, but this young woman moves ahead, interviewing her neighbors.
In the film we also meet a seed salesman who argues that GMO seeds are better than the seeds the farmers previously used, and Vandana Shiva, an activist who speaks strongly about the damage the GMO seeds have done to the agricultural system throughout India and the world.
“Bitter Seeds,” like “Food, Inc.,” shows how much we don’t know about genetically modified seeds, their hidden costs and health effects. The GMO industry vigorously fights in the United States as well as in other countries to prevent mandatory listing of GMO foods on product ingredient labels. This should at the very least raise our concern.
The recent announcement by BASF (the world’s leading chemical company) that it is abandoning its production of GMO crops in Europe because of a lack of acceptance “from the majority of consumers, farmers and politicians” was an acknowledgement of a reality many biotechnology companies have been hesitant to countenance: Europe does not like genetically modified crops.
The GMO labeling debate
Although there is a strong and organized movement pushing for labeling in the United States, why does the U.S. Food and Drug Administration think it’s OK to consider genetically modified seeds harmless until proven otherwise? Why isn’t it the other way around? Why is our health not being protected unless and until GMO seeds can be shown to be totally safe?
Earth Open Source is a nonprofit organization dedicated to assuring the sustainability, security and safety of the global system. In June 2012, it published “GMO Myths and Truths: An Evidence-Based Examination of the Claims Made for the Safety and Efficacy of Genetically Modified Crops” by Michael Antoniou of Kings College London School of Medicine in the U.K.; Claire Robinson, research director of Earth Open Source; and John Fagan, an early voice in the scientific debate on genetic engineering. In the report, the authors explain how genetic engineering poses special risks, claiming that GMO foods can be toxic or allergenic; how GMO feed affects the health of animals; how GMO seeds do not increase crop yield potential; how studies claiming the safety of GMO crops are generally industry-linked and therefore biased. Anyone interested in the “other side of the story” from that fed to citizens by the industry should read this report.
The number of farmers markets in this country has more than doubled in the last three years. Locavorism has become more than a buzzword, it’s an accepted way of eating. People want to know who their farmers are and how they are growing the food. Is it sustainable, organic and/or biodynamic? What seeds were used? People throughout the world are demanding that anything grown with GMO seeds at the very least be labeled. Until there is word that crops grown from GMO seeds are as good for us as their unmodified counterparts, perhaps it is best to avoid them.
Photo: Wheat seeds. Credit: mishooo / iStockphoto.com