Articles in Environment
What is the connection between conventional food systems, erosion and global warming? Climate change accelerates as industrial agriculture, with its heavy plowing and application of pesticides, sends carbon into the atmosphere. This creates soil loss and depletes the amount of carbon the soil is able to store. The Monsanto-sponsored Green Revolution in Africa and Asia was bolstered by the idea that we needed to find a way to break out of nature’s boundaries to provide enough food for a growing population. Yet decades of synthetic fertilizer use and industrial-style monocropping have created diseased soils, broken ecosystems and social instability.
Raj Patel, who has written extensively about the need to shift our relationship to food, says the problem with the food system is not that we don’t produce enough calories to eradicate hunger. Instead, it’s that the system puts a priority on profit and institutional consolidation. The upshot: More than 1 billion people are malnourished and 2 billion are overweight.
Perhaps the answer lies in the dirt.
ZESTER BOOK LINKS
By Juliana Birnbaum
& Louis Fox
North Atlantic Books, 368 pages, 2014
The earth beneath our feet contains billions of microorganisms — huge quantities of carbon in the form of bio-matter. Organic farming, permaculture and other regenerative food-growing strategies enrich soils and restore their ability to store carbon.
I have spent the past eight years documenting regenerative design around the world, deeply motivated as a new mother to find solutions to our global ecological crisis. I’ve used my anthropology background to put together a book, “Sustainable [R]evolution: Permaculture in Ecovillages, Urban Farms and Communities Worldwide.” A catalog of 60 sites and an anthology of articles, it represents the work of a small army of about 100 contributors, including Paul Hawken, Vandana Shiva, Starhawk and David Holmgren. It includes projects in climates as diverse as the Dead Sea Valley in Jordan and the Amazon rainforest, inner cities as well as remote corners of Mongolia.
It also highlights permaculture training, which has been held in approximately 100 countries around the world. One innovative program in Israel, called the Bustan Project, brings Arabs, Jews and Bedouins together for courses. The courses combine teaching practical techniques of natural building, water catchment and traditional agriculture with peace building.
“It is connected to peace, in that we work the land together instead of fighting about it,” says Petra Feldman, a resident of Hava ve Adam, the permaculture center that hosted the training that I and my co-author Louis Fox attended in 2008. Israeli youth work at the center for a year as an alternative to military service. Petra’s husband, Chaim Feldman, began a collaboration with Palestinian farmers involving traditional agriculture. They have shared irrigation techniques, drought-resistant heirloom seeds and other permaculture practices that enable farmers with restricted land access to grow more intensively in smaller spaces.
“The closest thing in the world to the principles of permaculture I’m learning in this course are the principles of traditional Bedouin culture,” said Haled Eloubra, a Bedouin community leader and green architect attending the course.
Permaculture integrates traditional knowledge with appropriate technology, linking ancient and modern approaches. As an international movement, it reconnects native people with ancestral knowledge, as well as giving industrialized societies a framework to meet their needs more sustainably. Some call this approach permaculture. For many traditional people, as Nahuat-Mayan activist Guillermo Vasquez told me, “It’s a practice, a way of life.”
Vasquez founded Indigenous Permaculture, an organization that partnered with residents of Pine Ridge, an Oglala Lakota reservation in South Dakota. There they developed a Wounjupi garden, a local food-security project using ecological principles. He sees permaculture movement as a form of cultural resistance and a healing process.
“This is the way to create a real Green Revolution and make change,” he told me.
Pine Ridge, long associated with native resistance, holds a unique place in the history of indigenous struggle. The reservation is among the most impoverished in the United States, with an adolescent suicide rate four times the national average, unemployment around 80% and many residents without access to energy or clean water. Although there is a good deal of agricultural production on the reservation, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, only a small percentage of tribal members directly benefit from it.
Local leader Wilmer Mesteth has been leading the development of the Wounjupi and systems for water catchment, grey water recycling, seed saving and composting. The organizers see local food security as a path to confront poverty and health issues such as diabetes, and have developed a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. A greenhouse has been built, medicinal plants are being cultivated and workshops are held for residents about perennial agriculture techniques. The harvest provides enough produce to give to families and elders in the community, and even share at an elders gathering in Montana.
Another advantage of biodiverse systems is they are more resilient. While grasshoppers destroyed many other crops on the reservation one season, the Wounjupi garden saw little damage, probably as a result of the permaculture technique of planting flowers that attract beneficial insects that prey on pests. “We’re seeing a major change in the soil due to the addition of organic matter,” Vasquez said. “It’s much darker and richer, and the vegetables are starting to grow really well.”
This kind of soil building also has larger positive implications. In her book, “The Soil Will Save Us,” Kristin Ohlson suggests that the ancient partnership between plants and soil microorganisms that created our planet offers hope for pulling carbon from the atmosphere and sinking it back into the ground. She documents a huge increase in the numbers of “soil farmers” within organic agriculture, and beyond.
More from Zester Daily:
» ‘Symphony of the Soil’ shines light on what's gone wrong
» Eating local year-round in Alaska is hard, but they did it
» Israel’s desert is growing gourmet food. Pay attention.
» Do dangerous herbicides lurk in our garden dirt?
In my part of the world in Northern California, soil farmers in the heart of Oakland are transforming soil tainted by decades of intense industrial pollution, building local community and creating social change at the same time. Oakland’s food security movement has brought fresh organic produce to what was a desert of liquor and convenience stores, and locals are raising bees that pollinate urban crops as well as provide local sources of honey.
The diversity of insect and bird pollinators is crucial to agriculture, and farmers require healthy ecosystems to grow food. Our choices about how our food is grown connect directly to issues of biodiversity, climate change and the survival of natural ecosystems across the globe. Organic and permaculture farms are significantly better at preserving agro-ecosystem biodiversity than conventional farming. With such systems, the number of plant, bird and insect species can often be 50% greater, so developing biodiverse systems should be a high priority. When we choose to eat locally-grown and organic foods, we are giving energy to a diverse and vibrant international cultural movement that is revolutionizing the food system.
And they taste better too.
Main photo: Bedouin community leader Haled Eloubra, left, discussing permaculture with a student at a course in Israel. Credit: Louis Fox
I hope you don’t think it’s rude, but I’m restoring my gut flora as I type. Ever since I discovered that 90% of my health lives in my gut, I decided to take action. At this very moment, I’ve got 10 probiotic strains and 100 billion live cultures on my stomach’s stage. I’m trying to revive my good bacteria because the warmup act was some heavy-metal thrashers.
I got tested for heavy metals, at my doctor’s behest, to see what was causing my liver congestion and inflammation. Turns out I have too much Alice Cooper. Sure, I have Freddie Mercury, Led Zeppelin and Metallica too, but my high volume of Alice, or aluminum, concerns me the most since my dad had Alzheimer’s. I’d like to detox, but not with one of those generic, kale-me-now juice cleanses. I want a chelation plan that’s tailored to my individual chemical body burden, or as I call it, Toxic Life Overload (TLO).
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We all have TLO. I’m not special. The only difference is that I peed in some plastic jugs for two days, and now I’m acquainted with the whole Mötley Crüe. The fact is, we live in a chemical stew of toxic food, water, air and products that we clean with, sleep with and slather on our skin.
Industrial chemical pollution begins in the womb. Lead, mercury, pesticides, BPA and up to 232 industrial chemicals have been found in umbilical cord blood of newborns. The Environmental Working Group tested more than 200 people for 540 industrial chemicals and found 482 of them in their bodies. In 2010, the President’s Cancer Panel declared that the number of cancers caused by toxic chemicals is “grossly underestimated” and warned that Americans face “grievous harm” from largely unregulated chemicals that contaminate air, water and food.
The autoimmune effect
Is it a coincidence that over the last 30 years, the autoimmune epidemic has nearly tripled to more than 100 diseases? About 50 million Americans suffer from autoimmune disease — 75% of them women — including multiple sclerosis, lupus, Crohn’s, Celiac, chronic fatigue, thyroiditus, rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis.
But I’m starting to think that knowing my TLO is TMI. I thought knowledge would lead to prevention, but I’m too busy worrying about Quiet Riot sneaking up on me to prevent anything but a good night’s sleep. From every BPA plastic container to each GMO corn kernel, I hear those Black Flag, Anthrax and Megadeth songs screaming in my head.
The new mind-body connection
Most diseases arise from the interaction between a person’s genetic makeup and the environmental agents to which he or she is exposed. Yet I’ve been reading up on the new science of epigenetics, which is the theory that your thoughts and beliefs can alter your gene expression. I’m talking major shifts in cellular activity leading to physiological changes. Optimism, altruism, visualization, healing energy, meditation and prayer are all said to have epigenetic effects.
Scientifically proven or not, many prominent doctors, scientists and health practitioners are touting this line of thinking. Dr. Bruce Lipton, author of “The Biology of Belief” asserts that genes and DNA don’t control our biology — that DNA is controlled by signals from outside the cell, including the energetic messages emanating from our thoughts. Deepak Chopra claims there’s more and more evidence of the mind-body connection, and that we can transform our own biology by responding to all that we experience, including thoughts, feelings, words and actions. He says that regardless of the genes we inherit, change at this level allows us almost unlimited influence on our fate.
Does that mean if I change the way I think, my dad’s Alzheimer’s won’t necessarily be mine? But what about Alice Cooper? He’s not in my genetic makeup, but he’s still in my blood. Thank God he’s not in my makeup. Who needs all that black and white shmutz on their face? Hey, was that gratitude? Maybe it really works!
OK … here I go. I’m changing my tune. From now on, this Twisted Sister is gonna be more Pharrell Williams. Sure, his songs are lightweight, but at least they’re not heavy metal. If I could just turn down the volume, it might be music to my gut.
Because I’m happy … clap along … sing this song and turn off that Mötley Crüe … Happy … clap along, sing this song and stop stressin’ ’bout the stew …
Main photo: Splashing down in an apple-a-day world. Credit: iStockphoto / dmitryphotos
The cause and cure for much of what plagues our society — obesity, ill health, social injustice — have roots in what we eat. Fix our food system and we are on track to resolve those larger issues.
Belief in this food-first approach is inspiring food entrepreneurs across America to find healthier, more sustainable ways to produce and process food. On Sept. 7, PBS premieres a series championing these food heroes. “Food Forward TV,” a 13-part series underwritten by Chipotle Mexican Grill, is uplifting and educational, packed with stories of people creating food solutions that point toward lasting change.
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A sour note? I’ll get to the episode on genetic engineering later.
Many of the food producers and experts featured in the series are familiar, trusted names to anyone who tracks the food movement. Journalist Paul Greenberg shares new optimism that aquaculture has improved to the point that farmed fish can be a healthy substitute for their wild brethren. The folks at Belcampo Meat Co. — a livestock operation in the shadow of California’s Mount Shasta — explain how they raise animals on a grass-only diet on their ranch, slaughter and butcher them on site, and then sell the meat through their own stores; their system is so old-fashioned it’s positively revolutionary.
There are many reasons to watch the series. An innovative effort to revitalize worn-out farmland using compost containing livestock and human waste has a nice star turn. Effective new methods for teaching inner-city kids to love healthy food in Detroit gives us hope. And far-sighted plans show how urban farms are redefining “local” agriculture. There is so much new information about milk, particularly raw milk, that it gets its own episode.
A cast of young musicians performing food-centric ballads — interstitial segments that by all rights should have been too precious by twice — buoy the series and keep things moving. The Detroit rappers are eloquent.
“Food Forward TV” offers concrete, meaningful ways to use your food dollars to hurry along the happy day when our misbegotten food system exerts a positive impact on both our health and environment.
Slip-sliding away from the GMO issue
The misbegotten-ness of things, however, is important. And the series grapples only reluctantly with how we ended up in this food pickle. This is particularly true in the episode on genetically engineered seeds, ironically the one issue many Americans are being asked to consider in the voting booth.
In this episode, a young Midwest farmer growing GMO crops explains how she switched to non-GMO strains of corn and soy only to switch back because non-GMO crops required more pesticides and herbicides. A round of applause for GMOs might have caused me to raise an eyebrow, but I would have respected the producers for taking a stand on a difficult subject. I would have appreciated hearing the reasons for their endorsement.
Never mind. They punted. The farmer flips the issue by saying she would never feed her family the corn she grows. The GMO debate is far too polarizing to address head on, says series producer Greg Roden. “We wanted to show the two sides of the debate through a farmer who is caught in the system.”
Why wouldn’t the farmer feed her children the GMO crops she grows? Turns out she grows corn for ethanol. It isn’t fit to eat. I wondered what other obfuscations I might have missed.
PBS and Chipotle should be applauded for their support of this series. The profiles of extraordinary folks undaunted by the challenge of bucking conventional agriculture left me more hopeful than not. I learned things that empower me to support food producers who reflect my values.
The show’s underwriters and producers are far from alone when it comes to giving GMOs short shrift, but I expected more from this group.
Check your local PBS listings for show times.
Main photo: One “Food Forward” episode focuses on school lunch programs, including some where kids are not only served healthy food but are growing it. Credit: “Food Forward” TV
If you knew it took 160 days to grow a carrot, would it change the way you think about eating one?
That’s the question that artist and farmer Matthew Moore set out to answer with a series of time-lapse videos of plants growing from seed to harvest. “If you went to the supermarket, bought a head of lettuce and you were able to see the life cycle of that plant in a few seconds or a few minutes, it might change the way you think about that food,” he said.
Pam Weisz is deputy director of Change Food, a nonprofit that works to raise public awareness and educate consumers about problems with the U.S. food system. Learn more at www.changefood.org.
Art, Moore said, “can put us into a state that words can’t describe — it completely simplifies everything.”
Moore talked about the importance of art in making people think about food at TEDxManhattan, a one-day conference in March featuring leading innovators in the food movement. (See embedded video below.)
In his poignant and emotional talk, Moore said that his story began when he realized that although he is the fourth generation on his family’s farm outside of Phoenix, “I’m also the last to farm this land” because of the massive amount of development going on in the region.
“When I returned to run the family business in the beginning of the last housing boom I just inherently knew that I had to document this process,” he said.
He began by artfully showing the impact of suburban sprawl on the land. In one picture-perfect example, he created a replica of a suburban lot map in which he grew 253 homes out of sorghum and made roads out of wheat.
“What art is so good at is asking questions,” he said. “The question I had was: Why does this make sense? Why is this the best, the highest use of this ground?”
He began to make his time-lapse videos on the theory that most people don’t understand what goes into growing the produce they eat, and that if they did, they might approach the supermarket with a different perspective.
The time-lapse films were shown in a Utah supermarket as part of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. When consumers approached a selected vegetable, an LCD screen displayed that plant’s entire life cycle, set to music. And, Moore said, people watched. “We realized that it works,” he said. “I did all these conceptual projects, and all I had to do was let the plant tell the story.”
Moore is part of a larger movement using art to encourage people to think more about their food, at a time when consumer interest in food, and how it’s produced, is rising. Many artists are engaged in this work. Stefani Bardin used pills, designed to record video and sound from the gastrointestinal tract, to examine the effects of eating natural versus processed food; the resulting video has been watched more than 3 million times. Tattfoo Tan has developed a range of specialized paint colors matched to the colors of fruits and vegetables, known as the Nature Matching System. He’s used the system to create, among other things, a place mat that has been sold at the Museum of Modern Art Design Store. Photographer Henry Hargreaves created physical maps using iconic foods of countries for his Food Maps series.
Moore founded a nonprofit, the Digital Farm Collective, inspired by what he describes as “the increasing disconnect between consumers and the source of their food.” The DFC’s mission is to broaden the understanding of how food grows and preserve growing practices by telling the story of cultivated crops using video and digital media in schools and public spaces.
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The DFC has sent cameras around the world, asking farmers to create time-lapse videos similar to those Moore has made. Interviews with farmers and practical data about produce as it grows from seed to harvest are also incorporated. This content is available in the DFC’s “Living Library.”
The DFC shares its work through two other programs. The first, Seedlings, provides curricula for schools to get kids engaged in gardening. “Through that we learn how better to communicate and inspire the next generation of growers and consumers,” Moore said. The second, Lifecycles, works to exhibit the DFC’s content in public spaces. For example, the group’s work was part of an exhibit at the San Jose Museum of Art in Northern California this year.
The goal, Moore said, is to inspire and educate. “Consumers play a role in food advocacy every time they go to the grocery store,” he said. “We have to understand the global implications of every choice that we make.
“And all I know is words won’t cut it sometimes,” he added. “Sometimes we need more.”
Main photo: An aerial shot of Matthew Moore’s replica of a suburban lot map, in which he grew 253 homes out of sorghum and made roads out of wheat. Credit: Matthew Moore
A report by Consumer Reports is calling on the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to kill off one of the most misleading — and downright contemptible — claims you will find on food packaging today.
The natural label claim epitomizes everything that’s wrong with our food labeling laws — or should I say lack of them. The natural wording is found on the packaging of millions of food products sold every day, including meat, dairy and eggs. Consumers consider it an important claim: According to new research from Consumer Reports, nearly 60% of people surveyed look for the natural label term when food shopping. When it comes to meat, dairy and eggs, almost 50% of consumers assume that natural means the animals were raised outdoors and not in confinement. Many consumers also think natural means that no growth hormones were used (68%), or the animals’ feed contained no genetically modified organisms (64%) or that no antibiotics or other drugs were used (60%).
In truth, any of these practices would be acceptable under the natural label. In fact, the term is pretty much a blank check for food manufacturers to mislead and deceive consumers into thinking they are buying something better — when they are not.
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Despite what you might think, a natural label claim has nothing to do with how an animal might have been raised or treated. According to the USDA, “A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed (a process which does not fundamentally alter the raw product) may be labeled natural.”
In other words, the term applies only to how the meat or poultry product is processed. So the farming system may have involved feedlot or confinement systems, or the routine use of antibiotic growth promoters or artificial hormones (for beef cattle), or the feeding of GMOs, or the mutilation of beaks and tails, and other questionable practices associated with intensive, industrial-scale livestock production.
The reality of ‘natural’ meat
The sad reality is that millions of conscientious consumers are potentially being duped and exploited on a daily basis by unscrupulous meat processors that use the natural label claim — many of which are household names and brands. That natural beef you specifically chose, which also happened to display happy cattle in a green pasture, doesn’t mean the animals were raised in a pasture, or fed a healthy diet, or treated according to higher welfare standards.
It simply means the beef contains no artificial ingredients or added colors, and that it was minimally processed after slaughter. In reality most of the cattle slaughtered for natural beef brands are finished on dirt feedlots, where thousands of cattle have little space for their last few months and eat mainly corn and grain to quickly gain weight. Such feedlot cattle are routinely given antibiotics and hormones in a losing battle to prevent disease and maximize growth rates. It’s hardly a natural existence.
Similarly, most natural-labeled eggs will come from industrial indoor poultry operations, where thousands of hens are confined in battery cages. Each bird lives in a cage with several others with each allotted less space than a sheet of letter paper. Beaks are routinely cut back using a hot knife to prevent hens from pecking each other to death out of boredom and frustration. The birds also are fed various pharmaceuticals — such as arsenic — to control pests and diseases. They never see grass or sunlight, let alone roam and forage.
It’s the same story for the 60-plus million intensively raised pigs in the U.S., confined to indoor concrete runs, fed growth promoters such as ractopamine, with their tails cut to prevent tail biting. This pork also is labeled natural. Again, would you or your family call these industrial confinement production systems natural?
Yet the major meat processors that dominate the food industry are making billions of dollars by knowingly misleading well-meaning consumers each and every day. And the USDA — the government agency responsible for “ensuring the truthfulness and accuracy in labeling of meat and poultry products” — is doing nothing about it.
Scientists argue that these marketing claims — in addition to fooling consumers — may also be leading to obesity and diet-related ill health. According to the latest research from the University of Houston, health-related buzzwords — including natural — are lulling consumers into thinking food products labeled with those words are healthier than they are.
We at Animal Welfare Approved are calling on farmers and consumers to unite behind Consumer Reports in its effort to “Kill the Natural Label.” Please sign the online petition. If you have bought natural-labeled foods, why not write to the food manufacturer and voice your displeasure? Tell them with these petitions that you won’t buy their products again until they are honestly labeled.
Misleading labels confuse consumers and threaten the livelihoods of farmers striving to feed the nation honestly and sustainably. Seek out and buy honestly labeled food. The AWA logo is a pledge that our animals were raised outdoors for their entire lives on an independent family farm using sustainable agriculture methods. No other food label offers these distinctions. You can find your nearest supplier of AWA-certified foods at animalwelfareapproved.org.
Main photo: The “natural” label does not cover how animals are raised. Credit: Courtesy HUHA
When my wife started a goat milk ice cream company in 2004, I didn’t know much about our food system. While I had previously documented Italy’s Slow Food movement for a book, that work mainly focused on the cultural aspects of food. I knew nothing about the complex faceless journey food often takes to reach our plates. Watching my wife negotiate with trucking companies and storage facilities about shipping a frozen product, then haggle with supermarkets that required her to purchase ads in their papers or pay to stock the shelves when introducing a product, and even helping her scoop ice cream at endless supermarket and farmers market demos, gave me more insight into how truly difficult it is to profit from producing value-driven goods in a low-margin world.
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By Douglas Gayeton
The experience also showed me how opaque our food system has become. The simplest products — like soda crackers — have hundreds of ingredients, many of which can’t be pronounced. But what bothered me most about the industrialization of our food system is how brazenly companies have hijacked terms like “sustainability” to explain their business practices.
Defining the lexicon of sustainability
In 2009, my wife and I asked ourselves a question: What if we took the meaning of sustainability back? What if we identified the key terms and solutions that really define sustainability in food and farming, then sought out thought leaders across the U.S. who best exemplified these ideas. And then, what if we translated their knowledge into information artworks and films and books and academic materials that would raise the level of discourse and hopefully lead people to live more sustainably?
We began by making information artworks with farmers and food producers in our Northern California community, which includes West Marin and Sonoma counties, then looked across the Bay toward Berkeley and San Francisco. I use “with” instead of using “of” because each artwork displays the actual words of the photo subject we document. This highly personal, handmade approach is time intensive, but the results create a more authentic representation of these people’s valuable ideas.
Conscious of being too geographically focused, we quickly extended our project to cover the rest of the country, even traveling up to Alaska and crossing the Pacific to Hawaii. At first we worked alone, but volunteers and interns quickly appeared (it remains a mystery how these angels always arrive at critical junctures in our project’s development). And while we initially self-funded our work, a mix of companies, foundations, NGOs and even individuals eventually came forward with financial support. Their vote of confidence continues to remain vital to our project’s success.
Our initial perceptions about sustainability, at least as it applied to food and farming, have shifted greatly in the years since. The centralization of nearly every aspect of our food system has dismantled much of the infrastructure necessary for local food systems. Many of these systems must be rebuilt: local slaughterhouses, mills, dairies and processing centers for raw goods that disappeared must return, not only to ensure food security, but also to create the sense of place vital for any community. Who knew food had so much attached to it?
New food movement has no center or single leader
Despite the challenges, this New Food Movement reshaping our country has no center or no single leader. It isn’t composed of people waiting for governments or companies to step in with solutions. Instead, these people are doing it themselves — everywhere.
To capture the explosive growth of locally-based food movements across the country, the Lexicon has expanded to include more than 200 information artworks, a series of short films with PBS called “Know Your Food,” a book called, “Local: The New Face of Food and Farming in America,” and an educational initiative for high school students called Project Localize. In all our initiatives, our core principles remain the same: Use words as the building blocks for new ideas, ideas that create conversation, foster an exchange of new ideas and hopefully shift the way our country looks at food.
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The New Food Movement’s rapid growth has made it fractious and hard to unite. Competing organizations often stymie the coalitions so necessary to translate popular sentiments into legislative action. But words are powerful. They can become tools for building a common language. With that in mind, we will launch The List this summer.
Each week we will introduce talking points for a new conversation dedicated to a single term from the Lexicon. These conversations will feature a network of partners from across the food and farming spectrum. By collaborating to share their own unique vantage points on a shared theme, our partners will enable us to share compelling stories of innovative and inspiring sustainable solutions over a variety of social media channels, allowing users to translate these talking points into communities and conversations around ideas that matter. These conversations are open to one and all. If you’d like to join, sign up at thelexicon.org. As we often say, a conversation starts with words, and we’ve got a few of them.
Main photo: Douglas Gayeton makes a portrait of Xuyen Pham at East New Orleans garden. Credit: Dane Pollok
I’m a butcher, but I’m also a part-time vegetarian. This might seem a little strange, but let me explain.
If I’m out and about and need to grab a bite to eat, I try to eat as a vegetarian. I don’t do this because I’m a self-hating butcher shop owner, but rather because I prefer not to eat meat if I don’t know where it comes from. In my weaker moments, I have been known to eat a Big Mac, but my personal lapses aren’t really the point. The reason I try not to eat meat when I’m unsure about its source goes well beyond what I choose to put into my body; to me, it is really a question of where I want my money to go to.
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By Tom Mylan
The cold, hard truth in this country is that everything comes down to money. In my new book, “The Meat Hook Meat Book,” I try to make sense of these economic webs. When you buy a family pack of steaks at your neighborhood chain store, about 11 cents of each dollar goes to the farmer. The rest of that price? To multinational corporations, out-of-state distributors, giant packing houses and all manner of middlemen in the complex supply chain that brought that package in your hands thousands of miles from where it was produced.
At my Brooklyn butcher shop, The Meat Hook, roughly 32 cents of every dollar goes directly to our farmers, giving them a financial incentive to continue raising local animals properly on pasture. And what about the other 68 cents? It pays small family owned slaughterhouses, local trucking companies, and the salaries of the people who make it worthwhile to shop at a small butcher shop.
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Our local sourcing makes us a part of a community, which inspires us to visit the people behind our products. We have amazing relationships with our farms and slaughterhouses — we can call them up and make butcher jokes, ask them about upstate agricultural gossip, and generally shoot the breeze in a laid-back way that just isn’t possible when you buy your meat in a shrink-wrapped Styrofoam tray.
But this goes beyond riding around in a truck, looking at animals grazing in beautiful pastoral landscapes, and patting ourselves on the back for being such good human beings. When we call on folks such as Mike Debach of Leona Meat Plant in Troy, Pa., we learn all sorts of things.
He goes out of his way to share his lifetime of hard-won knowledge — not just with my partners and me, but also with interns and regular customers we talk into coming along on our farm trips. We are now a part of the evolution of a host of small businesses, and we are in constant conversation with them, asking questions, giving feedback and anteing up our dollars to engage in experiments.
When you buy something, you’re actually voting with your money for that thing to continue to exist. When you choose to buy good meat, you’re supporting family farms, pasture-raised animals, humane handling practices and a better ecological outcome. When you buy commodity meat, you’re choosing mammoth corporations; CAFOs, or Concentrated Animal Feed Operations; dubious animal welfare standards; and drug-injected animals that are developing pathogens resistant to treatment with antibiotics.
The important thing here is that the money spent on good meat stays in the local economy, creating more jobs and hopefully serving more people who want to buy local meat.
Is this reductive? Dumbed down? Of course it is. However, I think that at least on this issue, being reductive is helpful. Not everyone wants to, or can deal with, all of the gray areas and minutiae of meat. There’s so much to know and consider, and the conversations can get so cluttered and complex, that it can lead to apathy on the part of the average person. But that apathy isn’t possible when you know that your meat comes from a visible chain of farmers and slaughterhouses and butchers.
I believe that this kind of local connection with our meat can preserve a community — the businesses, the environment, the way of life. Who knows? It might just save the world.
Main photo: The Meat Hook’s partners at work. From left, Ben Turley, Brent Young and Tom Mylan. Credit: Michael Harlan Turkell
It seems that Americans are not making much culinary use of honey these days and are more likely to value bees for their ability to pollinate crops than for the food they produce. Unlike those living in ancient cultures who cherished honey and considered it the food of the gods, Americans seem to think of it as just another supermarket product and not a very important one at that.
We currently sweeten our food with inexpensive granulated sugar and corn syrup, so the more costly honey is thought of as a specialty item that is most useful to people baking Greek pastries. Many supermarket shoppers are not even aware that not all honey tastes the same. But if you talk to beekeepers, you discover that the nectar that the bees gather from a particular plant will produce honey that varies in flavor from other plants so that, for instance, we get an aromatic honey from orange blossoms, whereas buckwheat produces a dark, deep-flavored product.
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This information was brought home when I had an emergency caused by a wasp nest in my backyard. Expecting houseguests and planning an al fresco lunch, I noticed a menacing stream of yellow jackets zooming in and out of a hole near where I had planned to set up a picnic table. I located someone who advertised himself as a bee and wasp expert, and he promised to come right over. Soon, a yellow truck in the shape of a bumblebee pulled into my driveway and out came a man wearing a straw hat and coveralls, and sporting a straggly beard that reached almost to his waist. He looked like a 19th-century farmer hailing from the wilds of Maine or Vermont.
Adventures in beekeeping
The man eliminated the wasps in a hurry and then joined us on the porch, regaling us with story after story about his adventures as a beekeeper and about the wonders of honey. Before leaving, instead of a business card, he gave me a jar of honey produced from his own hives with a label that had his contact information.That honey was a revelation to me, smooth yet tingling with complex flavors, convincing me that I was eating a new food. Since that time, whenever I am at a farmers market, I head right for the honey people who often provide delicious tastes.
The early Romans prized honey for its flavor and its ability to preserve foods. There are many recipes attributed to Apicius, who lived during the reign of Tiberius. He used honey in sauces served with meat or fish, and often balanced them with vinegar to create a sweet and sour effect. One of those recipes is for mushrooms cooked in honey, olive oil and fish sauce that wind up with a honey glaze, a dish I mean to try. Instead of coating meat in a thick layer of salt in order to preserve it, Apicius suggested coating it with honey, a practice he also used to preserve fruit.
The Romans also added honey to dry white wine to produce mulsum, a drink that was served with appetizers, and they drank mead, an alcoholic drink made of fermented honey that was consumed all over the ancient world. I once went to a banquet featuring a historic Roman meal and had a wonderful time tasting dish after dish of well-seasoned delicious foods and interesting drinks.
Because honey is such an ancient food, it has a long history not only of recipes but of beliefs in its power to cure disease, and it was seen as a talisman, a protector against misfortune. One superstition advised that strings dipped in honey at sunrise and tied around fruit trees would ensure that an excellent crop would be produced.
Bees too have had their legends. For instance, it was thought that if a bee enters your house, it is a sign that a visitor will appear, and if you kill the bee the visitor will be unpleasant. Even today claims are made about the health benefits of honey, suggesting it can ward off cancer, alleviate allergies and soothe minor burns.
Colony Collapse Disorder
These days, attention is being paid to the mystery of the disappearing bees. Commercial beekeepers whose livelihood depends on their transporting beehives from one part of the country to another in order to pollinate crops are experiencing a threat. Bees are mysteriously disappearing from their hives, a phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder, and scientists around the world are trying to work out the causes, speculations that lay the blame at pathogens, fungus, pesticides, and the wear and tear of being hauled around on pollination jobs, or all of these things.
A new study from the Harvard School of Public Health points the finger at a class of insecticides called neonicotinoids, which appear to significantly harm honey bee colonies, particularly during cold winters.
This threat makes me appreciate honey all the more, and I am always on the lookout for dishes that include it — not just sweets such as baklava, but savory dishes that use just a little for flavoring. I found such a dish recently while browsing through a used bookstore, and came across “One Pot Spanish” by Penelope Casas that has a recipe for fresh tuna with a touch of honey. I love this dish and cook it regularly with swordfish, which I prefer, and it has become a family favorite.
Atun Frito Con Miel (Honey-Coated Fried Tuna)
This is adapted from Penelope Casas’ “One Pot Spanish.”
2 pounds fresh tuna or swordfish steaks
½ teaspoon ground cumin
Honey, enough to lightly coat both sides of the fish
All-purpose flour for dusting
Olive oil for frying
1. Cut fish steaks into four pieces and sprinkle both sides with salt.
2. Beat together the eggs with the cumin in a shallow dish.
3. Spread both sides of the fish steaks with a thin layer of honey.
4. Dust the steaks with flour, then coat both sides with the egg mixture.
5. Heat about ⅛ inch of olive oil in a skillet. Place steaks into the pan and cook over medium-high heat, turning once and cooking each side for 4 to 5 minutes until the coating is golden and the fish is cooked to taste.
Main photo: Honey-coated fried swordfish. Credit: Barbara Haber