Articles in Environment

Villagers dance at the Beh Dienkhlam festival in Mosakhia as men carry a life-sized oxen effigy. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

The northeastern Indian region of Meghalaya is rich in native food traditions. Sandwiched between Bangladesh and Bhutan, and with Myanmar to its east, Meghalaya is a lush, hilly area of forests and lakes, with high rainfall, spectacular waterfalls and “living” bridges woven from trees that attract local tourism. Yet many of its villages are remote, with few main roads or other means of access.

Their inaccessibility has helped preserve many traditional food customs, from rice growing to beekeeping.

Keeping the traditional ways

Women bundle freshly cut rice for threshing in Mosakhia. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Women bundle freshly cut rice for threshing in Mosakhia. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

“Our region has been proud to host this year’s Indigenous Terra Madre,” said Phrang Roy, chairman of the North East Slow Food and Agrobiodiversity Society (NESFAS). The event brought 600 members of international indigenous food-making communities together in the city of Shillong for a five-day meeting. “It offered us a chance to showcase the many foods and traditions of the indigenous Khasi communities that are still well-preserved in Meghalaya and its neighboring region, Nagaland.”

Indigenous Terra Madre

Carla Capalbo reports from the Terra Madre event in India. This is the third in a series.

» Part 1: Native cultures push for sustainable food solutions

» Part 2: The fight to preserve traditional pastureland

» Part 4: How Slow Food’s philosophy has shaped the food of the executive chef of India’s "greenest" luxury hotel group

During the conference, the delegates were invited to visit some of the villages to experience these customs firsthand.

In Mosakhia, a village of 94 households in the Jaintia Hills so small it’s not on Google maps, a large crowd gathered to greet the visitors. They re-enacted Beh Dienkhlam, a colorful food festival that is usually held in July. During the festival, two life-size oxen effigies are raised on a large wooden platform and carried in increasingly rapid circles as the population rushes behind them, singing and dancing to the accompaniment of loud drumbeats.

“Its purpose is to drive away epidemics during the rainy growing season,” explained H.H. Morhmen, a NESFAS director in that area. “With their brooms the villagers sweep the evil spirits away.”

A native variety of nutritious brown rice, rymbai, is grown in the small rice terraces around Mosakhia that the villagers harvest in November, the women cutting it and the men threshing it by hand.

An ancient method of beekeeping

Beekeeper Shahjop Khongiong shows his unusual beehive, made of a hollowed trunk.Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Beekeeper Shahjop Khongiong shows his unusual beehive, made of a hollowed trunk.Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Beekeeper Shahjop Khongiong demonstrated his unusual hives. Made of hollowed-out sections of tree trunks (of dieng maleng or dieng shyrngang wood), the hives are positioned in the surrounding forests and in natural rock crevices. They attract local varieties of yellow or black bees.

Khongiong, a cheerful, sprightly 50-something, has been a beekeeper for 37 years but never uses any protection when working with his bee families. He pulled a large chunk of honeycomb from one of the hives barehanded, simply blowing the bees that were on it gently away. The honey was exquisite: With the delicate floral notes of a citrus honey, it maintained its depth and mineral intensity long after it was eaten. Only 12 people still continue this ancient method of beekeeping.

Fish that’s a delicacy

Fish are smoked for several hours beside the fire in the rural village of Umladkhur. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Fish are smoked for several hours beside the fire in the rural village of Umladkhur. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Nearby, the equally rural village of Umladkhur is reached by a dirt road through rice paddies and forests. Alma Mulat squats outside her house by a hose of clean, running water as she washes a batch of fish. When she’s satisfied they’re cleanly gutted, she drives a pointed bamboo stake through each fish, attaching them firmly with cane knots. She carries the fish down to the smokehouse behind her dwelling and smokes them for three to four hours using wood from the local otsyiah tree.

“We call these khabah in our native language,” she said, pointing to chunky fish in the carp family. “My grandmother and ancestors did this smoking too, back when our rivers were clean. But 40 years ago surface coal mining began in this area, and our rivers became poisoned and the fish died. Now we buy fish from a nearby region, though the mining has recently been stopped and river life is gradually returning.”

Smoked fish from this and Thangbuli village are a delicacy in Meghalaya, and Mulat and other women take them to market at Jowai to supplement their families’ incomes.

Going to market

Shillong has one of India's largest and most colorful markets. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Shillong has one of India’s largest and most colorful markets. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Back in Shillong, we visit one of India’s largest and most fascinating food markets. Built in colonial times, it covers a hill in the town with steep, narrow alleys, each filled with boxed stalls of local produce vendors. They come to a pinnacle in the large, open square at the top where brightly colored foods and fabrics compete for the visitor’s eye.

The maket — and the street-food vendors who surround it — showcase the many local and native plants and grains that contribute to the diets of the people of Meghalaya.

Read More
Sheep are herded across a road in Meskhetia, Georgia, in the southern Caucasus mountains. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Climate change and political borders are just two of the challenges facing the world’s 200 million to 500 million pastoralists — women and men practicing animal husbandry, be they nomadic, transhumant or sedentarized.

Herders from five continents recently came together in Shillong, northeastern India, at the second Indigenous Terra Madre (ITM) to discuss these issues and their solutions (the first event was held in Sweden in 2011).

A diverse meeting

Mongolian throat singers perform at the pastoralist meeting. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Mongolian throat singers perform at the pastoralist meeting. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

The ITM session meeting on pastoralists and their challenges regarding pastureland was attended by a colorful mix of people, including yak herders from northeastern India and Mongolia, Bedouin camel herders from Jordan, and sheep farmers from near Siberia and Georgia. The session began with a tribal dance by a Kenyan tribe and ended with one from two Mongolian throat singers.

The Terra Madre network was launched in 2004 when Carlo Petrini, the food activist and founder of Slow Food, invited dozens of food-producing communities from around the globe to Turin, Italy, to meet and share their experiences in a groundbreaking format. Since then, the network has expanded and become a powerful lobbying voice for indigenous people in 158 countries.

Political obstacles

Amina Duba of Kenya's Borana tribe and Ol-Johan Sikku, a herder from the Sami community, speak about being marginalized. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Amina Duba of Kenya’s Borana tribe and Ol-Johan Sikku, a herder from the Sami community, speak about being marginalized. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

“We keep animals; they’re our daily bread,” said Amina Duba of the Borana tribe in northern Kenya, which works primarily with cattle. “We have helped conserve nature for thousands of years, yet we’re often told that our lifestyle is backward. We’ve been socially and politically marginalized too often.”

Terra Madre

Carla Capalbo reports from the Terra Madre event in India. This is the second in a series.

»  Part One: Native cultures push for sustainable solutions

»  Part Three: Indian region Meghalaya, which hosted Indigenous Terra Madre, boasts many native foods and rich food-making culture.

»  Part Four: How Slow Food's philosophy has shaped the food of the executive chef of India's 'greenest' luxury hotel group.

Ol-Johan Sikku, a reindeer herder from the Sami community (formerly also known as Laplanders) that stretches across several Arctic countries, and a member of the Sami parliament, agreed. “We are always surrounded by decisions others have made for us. For example, Russia colonized part of our territory in a move of land-grabbing. They have colonized our lands but also our minds, and we’re now realizing to what extent. When you’ve been colonized like this, you look down on yourself, seeing yourself from the outside. We must give value to our own cultures and ancestral wisdom, and put them first.”

Many indigenous pastoralists are faced with the paradoxical situation of finding their traditional pasturelands off-limits because they have been declared national parks or wildlife reserves by their governments. Others are no longer able to steer their animals to winter or summer pastures because of new political borders, main roads or desertification due to global warming.

Losing their land

A typical Sami tipi in northern Finland. Members of the Sami community say they are losing their culture, as well as their land, through land-grabs. Credit: Copyright 2012 Carla Capalbo

A typical Sami tipi in northern Finland. Members of the Sami community say they are losing their culture, as well as their land, through land-grabbing. Credit: Copyright 2012 Carla Capalbo

“The landscape that indigenous people value most is being taken away from them, either through land-grabbing or wildlife conservation,” said Hassan Roba of the Christensen Fund, a California-based, nonprofit private foundation that backs the stewards of cultural and biological diversity and supported the ITM event.

“In the past, herders and wildlife co-existed and shared access to water points and grazing resources,” Roba said. “The major problem now is that the government policymakers don’t understand how this unique balance, this fragile ecosystem, works. They impose their plans for ‘development’ from the outside, without consulting or taking note of the people who have lived on those lands for centuries, if not millennia.”

In recent years, pastoralists have gained some bargaining power. The 2007 Segovia Declaration of Nomadic and Transhumant Pastoralists focused on their rights and their main demands: customary laws, accessing water and pastures, improving marketing strategies for their produce, and getting better health care and education. Through the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, the Pastoralist Knowledge Hub has been set up as a platform for indigenous pastoralists to exchange information and improve lobbying and development. But there’s more to be done.

Women remain vulnerable

Edna Tuwei of the Kivulini Trust for pastoralists in north Kenya. Women are usually charged with most of the manual and agricultural labor. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Edna Tuwei of the Kivulini Trust for pastoralists in north Kenya. Women are usually charged with most of the manual and agricultural labor. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

As is often the case, women remain particularly vulnerable in these situations. Despite women often doing the lion’s share of the manual and agricultural labor in indigenous communities, including the milking and cheese-making or cultivating crops, as well as bringing up the family, they are just as often deprived of their land and human rights. Many are trying to survive in war-torn countries.

“In our societies it’s not always permitted for women to be part of the decision-making process, or to own land or control the household money,” said Duba. That’s why microfinancing groups, and events such as the Global Gathering of Women Pastoralists in Gujarat, India, in 2010, are so important. “There’s a huge need for animal protein in the world, and we can provide it naturally, with free-roaming animals without the need for industrialization.”

“The world is changing, and so are pastoralists,” said Sikku. “They want the Internet, cars and other commodities too. So the question for our communities is how to renew our culture without losing the traditions. How to see the past and take it into the future. We should listen to our traditional knowledge about how to administer the land and think 10 to 25 years ahead. We can’t go backwards.”

Main photo: Sheep are herded across a road in Meskhetia, Georgia, in the southern Caucasus mountains. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Read More
Members of Meghalaya tribes dance during the Indigenous Terra Madre gathering. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Six hundred representatives of native communities around the world recently gathered in Shillong, northeastern India, for  Indigenous Terra Madre (ITM), an event that helps forge a global network of indigenous peoples, activists and their supporters.

The event, under the auspices of Slow Food, takes place every four years. This ITM was held in cooperation with the Indigenous Partnership for Agrobiodiversity and Food Sovereignty (supported by the Christensen Fund) and was hosted by the Indian region of Meghalaya and the North East Slow Food Agrobiodiversity Society. Their individual stories vary but are closely linked.

Focus on food sovereignty

Rice varieties from northeastern India at ITM, where the focus was on food sovereignty and other sustainability issues. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Rice varieties from northeastern India at ITM, where the focus was on food sovereignty and other sustainability issues. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Chi Suwichan is a member of the Karen tribe of northern Thailand. His people have lived there for centuries, yet the current Thai government does not recognize them as citizens. Maria Bautista Leon, from the Tzeltal indigenous people of Chiapas, Mexico, and a descendant of the Mayans, is protesting the increase of monoculture and the threat of genetically modified corn in her country. Winona LaDuke, a Native American activist of the Ojibwe tribe, has led battles to save her people’s local wild rice as she fights for tribal land claims.

Indigenous Terra Madre

Carla Capalbo reports from the Terra Madre event in India. This is the first in a series.

»  Part Two: At Indigenous Terra Madre, members of international pastoralist communities show and tell.

»  Part Three: Indian region Meghalaya, which hosted Indigenous Terra Madre, boasts many native foods and a rich food-making culture.

» Part Four: How Slow Food's philosophy has shaped the food of the executive chef of India's "greenest" luxury hotel group.

The focus at ITM is on environmental, biodiversity, food sovereignty and other sustainability issues linked to these communities’ way of life, many of which are increasingly under threat. Members of 140 tribes from 58 countries on five continents attended the 5-day event. Open meetings were arranged by themes, including: learning about food systems from matriarchal societies; building bridges between the private sector and indigenous communities; oral history; pastoralists and their challenges; and the future of food.

Prince Charles, who has long been a champion of these kinds of issues, sent a video message for the inauguration. “In our modern world, we are totally disconnected from indigenous knowledge,” he said. “The essential unity of things as reflected in nature has become dangerously fragmented. The modern world has shifted away from the holistic indigenous cosmology of seeing ourselves within nature to us standing apart from it. We must look after the earth and help it maintain its health and balance.” He suggests we listen to indigenous wisdom for the guidance we need to live in harmony with our planet.

Uniting voices for change

Chi Suwichan, of the Karen tribe of northern Thailand, says they are no longer allowed to practice traditional farming. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Chi Suwichan, of the Karen tribe of northern Thailand, says they are no longer allowed to practice traditional farming. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Carlo Petrini, who founded Slow Food 30 years ago in Italy and later created Terra Madre to bring together food-making communities from all corners of the globe, also spoke at the meeting. “Our planet is suffering from the greed of those who want to steal its resources,” he began. “We hope the Climate Change conference in Paris will make constructive decisions about this disaster. Our food has lost its value. It has been turned into a commodity to be paid as little as possible for. The truth is that 500 million small household food communities feed 70 percent of the world, yet they are treated the worst of all. The large multinationals claim ownership of their seeds and promote intensive, genetically modified farming and monocultures that are destroying the lives of these indigenous food-producing communities. There can be no sustainability if we don’t change this model.”

With most delegates attending in their native dress, the get-together was colorful, musical and emotional. At large communal meals hosted by local chefs (the most memorable was an invitation to dinner for everyone at the Shillong Sikh’s Gurdwara temple), there was plenty of time for people to share stories, problems and solutions.

“My people’s history was written in song, in folk tales and by calling the mountains and rivers names in our language,” said Suwichan, one of 500,000 Karen in northern Thailand. “We used traditional natural farming, with a seven-year rotation for our rice and other crops. But since the government has declared our area a national park we are no longer allowed to practice this kind of farming, which has forced us to use chemical fertilizers. We lived in symbiosis with the forest and relied on it for wild plants and foods as we protected it. Now our forest has been designated a wildlife reserve and we are no longer allowed to take anything out of it. But they never consulted us about this, they never consulted our ancestors or our community leaders. My parents say we are now like orphan chickens, that we each have a small voice, but together with the others at ITM it may become louder.”

‘A universal language’

Winona LaDuke, a Native American activist of the Ojibwe tribe, has led battles to save her people's local wild rice. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Winona LaDuke, a Native American activist of the Ojibwe tribe, has led battles to save her people’s local wild rice. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

“As Carlo Petrini says, we need to defend our native plants and animal breeds, our flavors and methods, for they are a universal language,” LaDuke said. “We have fought to reject the patents industrial agriculture has tried to put on our indigenous varieties. Our food is pre-colonial, pre-GMO and pre-petroleum. We are part of a movement to stop the theft of our seeds and land, and the theft of our economies. We fight against the politics of those who try to oppress us, and the closer the links between all of our tribes can get, the stronger our resistance will be.”

Main photo: Members of Meghalaya tribes dance during the Indigenous Terra Madre gathering. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo

Read More
Roopam Lunia, director of marketing at the company in Imperfect Produce in San Francisco’s East Bay, shows off an eggplant culled in the packing sheds. Promoters have struggled with descriptors such as “ugly,” “misshapen” or “funny-looking” -- but how about “practically perfect”? Credit: Copyright 2015 Seth Joel

Would you like to reduce agricultural waste, save water, support innovation, lower your grocery bill and eat farm-fresh produce all at the same time? Imperfect Produce in San Francisco’s East Bay has you covered.

In “Wasted,” a report for the Natural Resources Defense Council, scientist Dana Gunder estimated that 40% of all the food produced in the United States is lost due to inefficiencies in the supply chain. Her analysis showed that, in the case of fresh produce, these losses occur before it even hits retail stores, the greatest percentage happening in the field and post-harvest in the packing sheds — primarily as a means of meeting customers’ “expectation of cosmetic perfection.”

Three committed food-waste experts — Ben Chesler, Ben Simon and Ron Clark — founded Imperfect Produce to reduce this waste by developing a supply and distribution network that brings physically “flawed” yet edible, in-season fruits and vegetables culled from packing plants directly to customers’ homes via a weekly delivery service. As the slideshow explains, it’s a perfect solution.

More from Zester Daily:
» Dumpster dining and roadkill gourmet
» Stop throwing away the best part of spinach
» When lettuce bolts, you can still capture its flavor
» Don’t toss lobster shells

Main photo: Roopam Lunia, director of marketing at the company Imperfect Produce in San Francisco‘s East Bay, shows off an eggplant culled in the packing sheds. Promoters have struggled with descriptors such as “ugly,”misshapen” or “funny-looking” — but how about “practically perfect”Credit: Copyright 2015 Seth Joel

Read More
A farmer holds a handful of germinating barley. Credit: Copyright John Mallett

Malt is a fairly mysterious ingredient, but craft beer is about to change that.

Like milling helps turn wheat into bread, malting helps turn barley and other grains into beer. Malting is the process of germinating (sprouting) and then kilning grains, which allows access to the starches and enzymes necessary for fermentation.

The importance of malt

The one-ton malting system at Niagara Malt allows for steeping, germination, and kilning all in the same tank. Equipment for small-scale malting is not commercially available, so a lot of innovation is accompanying the rise of the micro-malting industry. Credit: Copyright Bob Johnson

“The one-ton malting system at Niagara Malt allows for steeping, germination and kilning all in the same tank. Equipment for small-scale malting is not commercially available, so a lot of innovation is accompanying the rise of the micro-malting industry,” Bob Johnson says. Credit: Copyright Bob Johnson

Malt’s job is not strictly functional, though. Different types of malt contribute flavors and other elements to the final product. Malt is to beer what stock is to soup, as brewer John Mallett writes in his book, “Malt: A Practical Guide from Field to Brewhouse.”

“As craft beer has exploded in popularity, hops have often been seen as the sexy ingredient in beer,” he says. Mallett is the director of Bell’s Brewery in Michigan. “On first glance, malt seems kind of dull, but it actually contributes the key attributes that largely define beer, including color, flavor, foam, body and, eventually through fermentation, alcohol.”

Craft malthouses opening

Two-row barley is the choice of most craft brewers. Credit: Copyright Bob Johnson

“Two-row barley is the choice of most craft brewers,” Johnson says. Credit: Copyright Bob Johnson

At one time, malting was a domestic chore, same as baking bread. Prohibition and changes in farming helped consolidate the industry and put the production largely out of sight. Now, in response to curiosity about this ingredient, craft malthouses are opening across the nation. New York State has more than its fair share.

This is because New York created a friendly environment for micro and nano brewing with the Farm Brewery Law. This licensing, which went into effect at the beginning of 2013, requires that breweries use a percentage of state-grown products. A revival of hops production was already underway, and the law nudged along the boom in malt. Nine malthouses are in operation across the state, and more are in the works.

Brewing at the local level

Newly cured malt is shoveled out into storage super sacks for the resting period. After kilning, the malt has been stressed by high temperatures and needs to rest for several weeks. The malt will also mellow and develop a pronounced "biscuit" aroma and flavor, much prized by English brewers. Credit: Copyright Bob Johnson

Newly cured malt is shoveled into storage super sacks for the resting period. After kilning, the malt has been stressed by high temperatures and needs to rest for several weeks. “The malt will also mellow and develop a pronounced ‘biscuit’ aroma and flavor, much prized by English brewers,” Johnson says. Credit: Copyright Bob Johnson

“It’s been exciting learning a whole new skill, one that’s been pretty much forgotten,” says Bob Johnson, who runs Niagara Malt. A professor of plant ecology and biochemistry at Medaille, a small liberal arts college in Buffalo, Johnson also grows hops, and farms and malts barley. “Malting is relegated to big commodity houses, and it’s nice bringing this whole process … to the local level.”

Buffalo had several malthouses, he notes, and three of its mayors were maltsters. Johnson says regional products lend distinctive flavors to beer.

“Plants really have an intimate contact with the soil,” Johnson says. “I’m at the base of the escarpment and all my soils are very limey; sitting at the base of a limestone cliff — my soils are very sweet as they say. That gives a flavor. The microorganisms in soil strongly influence the health and metabolism of plants.”

Setting standards

Bob Johnson loads barley fresh from the field into a tote for storage before malting. Credit: Copyright Bob Johnson

Johnson loads barley fresh from the field into a tote for storage before malting. Credit: Copyright Bob Johnson

His adventures in making ingredients began with a taste for fuller flavored beers. “I realized the chemicals I was enjoying so much were from hops,” he says. Intrigued, he started to look into hop farming. Three years ago he planted 1,200 plants but lost half of them to drought. Hearing rumblings of the Farm Brewery Law, he realized there was going to be a programmed demand for hops and malt. This gave him the courage to replant and buy some equipment. His hop yard covers 1 1/2 acres and has 1,400 plants.

Johnson malts in the original malting system designed by pioneering Western Massachusetts maltsters Valley Malt. This system malts 1 ton of grain at a time, carrying out all the procedures, from steeping through germination (sprouting) and kilning in a single tank.

As he explores malting, Johnson also benefits by being a member of The Craft Maltsters Guild, which was formed last year to help shape the burgeoning industry by setting standards for production, performance and sourcing, and building a network for sharing information.

Tremendous potential

A field of rye in front of the malthouse at Niagara Malt in New York. Credit: Copyright Bob Johnson

A field of rye in front of the malthouse at Niagara Malt in New York. Credit: Copyright Bob Johnson

Given the rise of the craft beer market, the potential for growth in small-scale malting is tremendous, and New York has created an economic architecture to help develop that potential.

Private/public partnerships are helping to build momentum. Cornell University is researching what varieties of malting barleys are suited to the climate. Greenmarket Regional Grains Project is pairing farmers, maltsters and brewers for collaborations and otherwise working to raise awareness of the local agricultural products. Entrepreneurs are seizing the opportunities in beer. New York has 210 craft breweries, and 78 of those are farm breweries.

“Farm brewers have to use 20 percent New York ingredients,” says Paul Leone, director of the New York State Brewers Association. (The rate will change as the region’s capacity to produce local products increases.) “The market is there automatically for that group, but beyond the license every brewery in the state would use local ingredients.”

A steep learning curve

A field in Niagara County is newly planted with Wintmalt, a German two-row barley. Winter malting barley is usually planted in late September, and spring malting barley is planted in April. Credit: Copyright Bob Johnson

A field in Niagara County is newly planted with Wintmalt, a German two-row barley. Winter malting barley is usually planted in late September and spring malting barley is planted in April, Johnson says. Credit: Copyright Bob Johnson

For now, use is limited by quality and price. Farming malting barley in a region that hasn’t done so for almost a century is a steep learning curve. Commodity malts cost significantly less than craft malts, and beer is thirsty for grains. Even if there were no difference in price, New York could not supply all its breweries. The largest of the new craft-malting facilities in the state only produce three tons a week. A ton of malt can only make about 13 to 15 barrels of beer, or about 26 to 30 kegs.

“What’s unique about New York State and craft beer is that at one point we owned the hop industry. It’s a natural progression to own it again, or a share of it,” Leone says. “Beer does have a certain terroir. The barley that’s grown here and the way that its malted here is going to be a little different than when it’s from out West, same as the hops. Brewers have an ability to engineer their own flavor profile that’s uniquely New York.”

Main photo: A farmer holds a handful of germinating barley. Credit: Copyright John Mallett

Read More
Researchers at Cambridge University have shown that pigs are as clever as 3-year-old toddlers, and they have a well-developed sense of self, a trait once thought to be limited to humans and great apes. Credit: iStock

When I told my partner that I was writing a book about pork, she asked: “Does this mean I’m going to have to give up bacon?”

I spent two years trying to answer that question. I visited a pig farmer who raised 150,000 animals annually in warehouse-like confinement barns, and a Mennonite who raised a few dozen on open pasture. I spent an afternoon in a slaughterhouse that killed and processed 20,000 hogs a day, and spent a day at a boutique abattoir that handled 30, and I spoke to dozens of people in 12 states whose lives had been affected by Big Pig.


“Pig Tales: An Omnivore’s Quest for Sustainable Meat”
By Barry Estabrook, W.W. Norton, 2015, 320 pages
» Enter here for a chance to win a free copy
» Click here to buy the book


My partner and I still eat bacon, but not if it comes from a factory farm. Here’s why:

Animal welfare

Pigs are kept in crates in a factory farm.

On factory farms, these intelligent creatures are kept in barren stalls with hard, slatted floors with nothing to stimulate their minds. Credit: iStock

I knew that pigs were smart, but I had no idea how smart — much more intelligent than man’s best friends. Researchers at Cambridge University have shown that pigs are as clever as 3-year-old humans. Experimental pigs can be taught to play computer games. Hogs can adjust thermostats to keep their pens at comfy temperatures. Pigs have a well-developed sense of self, a trait once thought to be limited to humans and great apes. On factory farms, these intelligent creatures are kept in barren stalls with hard, slatted floors with nothing to stimulate their minds. I will never forget the chilling sight of 1,500 sows in a low, dark barn in crates that were so small that they could not turn around.

Environmental damage

Agricultural pollutants can poison water and earth.

The manure from hog farms poison nearby rivers, killing fish. Credit: Copyright 2014 Courtesy of Iowa CCI

I stood on a bridge over the Middle Raccoon River in central Iowa and watched vast floes of brownish foam drift on the current. They were the result of liquid hog manure that had been washed by rains into the river. The Raccoon is a source of drinking water for a half million citizens of Des Moines, who have to pay $1 million a year just to remove agricultural pollutants from their water. The same water flows into the Mississippi, contributing to a Connecticut-sized oxygen-depleted dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, where no fish can survive.

In North Carolina, the once-pristine Neuse River, now polluted from hog farms, experiences regular die-offs with billions of fish turning belly up in putrid masses. American Rivers, an environmental group, lists the Neuse as one of the 10 most endangered rivers in the United States.

Hog farms also pollute the air. I sat with Elsie Herring in her small frame home in eastern North Carolina as she described not being able to mow the lawn, hang laundry or even sit outside on a summer’s evening because of the stench that (literally) rains down from a neighboring pig operation. And this is no quaintly rural whiff of manure. Sophisticated air monitoring equipment set up by Steve Wing of the University of North Carolina revealed that Herring and her neighbors were inhaling poisonous hydrogen sulfide. They experience difficulty breathing and have developed high blood pressure.

Labor abuse

The rate of injury has soared for slaughterhouse workers. Credit: iStock

The rate of injury has soared for slaughterhouse workers. Credit: iStock

For 13 years, Ortencia Rios worked at a pork-packing plant. She was an exemplary employee. But after her hands gave out, her shoulder rotator cuff tore, and she developed carpel tunnel syndrome — all because of the job — the company told her there was no work for her, according to Rios. During the past 30 years, the wages of slaughterhouse workers have gone into free fall, dropping by 40 percent. The rate of injury has soared. Human Rights Watch declared that the United States is “failing to meet its obligations under international human rights standards to protect the human rights of meat and poultry workers.”

Drug-resistant bacteria

Antibiotics used in livestock feed are giving rise to antibiotic-resistant bacteria such as MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), seen above. Credit: iStock

Antibiotics used in livestock feed are giving rise to antibiotic-resistant bacteria such as MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), seen above. Credit: iStock

In 2004, Everly Macario’s 18-month-old son died a painful death after being infected by bacteria that were resistant to every antibiotic doctors administered. There’s a good chance that the germs that killed the toddler evolved on a pig farm. Four out of five hogs raised in the United States are fed constant low levels of antibiotics — to prevent, not cure infections — a perfect recipe for bacteria to develop resistance.

Food safety

USDA inspector examines pork meat at a swine processing plant. Credit:  Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration

USDA inspector examines pork meat at a swine processing plant. Credit: Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration

When Jim Schrier, who worked as a USDA inspector at a 10,000-animal-a-day pork slaughterhouse in Iowa, began to report unsanitary conditions such as carcasses with hair and feces on them or with cancerous tumors and pus-filled abscesses, Schrier said he was promptly “reassigned” to a slaughterhouse two hours away from his home — an impossible commute. The USDA’s own inspector general reported that there is a reduced assurance that government inspectors effectively identify “pork that should not enter the food supply.”

Taste

Pork from a pastured, heritage pig tastes better.

Most supermarket pork looks like the real thing but possesses none of the gastronomic qualities of pork that comes from a pastured, heritage pig. Credit: iStock

One bite of a chop from a pastured, heritage pig is enough to convince. Like January tomatoes, most supermarket pork looks like the real thing but possesses none of its gastronomic qualities. Good pork costs more than factory stuff, but enjoying great meat while not supporting an industry guilty of more than its share of travesties is well worth the price. But be warned: Once you try real pork, you probably won’t go back to the other white meat.

Main photo: Researchers at Cambridge University have shown that pigs are as clever as 3-year-old toddlers, and they have a well-developed sense of self, a trait once thought to be limited to humans and great apes. Credit: iStock

Read More
The Red Hen Baking Co. has been baking organic bread in central Vermont for 15 years. Credit: Copyright Courtesy Red Hen Baking Co.

Regionally sourcing flour for 15,000 pounds of bread a week is the equivalent of a lunar landing, but in Vermont one bakery has found the way to do so. Red Hen Baking Co. has been baking organic bread in central Vermont for 15 years. By the end of this year, all of the flour that the bakery uses will come from within a 150-mile radius.

“As a baker, it’s a real luxury to have the same wheat all the time,” said Randy George, of Red Hen Baking Co. The Vermont baker spoke about local flour with Quebec farmer Loic Dewavrin at the Northern Grain Growers Association conference in March, in Essex, Vermont. The two have an uncommon partnership.

Such leaps forward don’t register as significant to consumers because growing grains and making flour are almost invisible processes. However, the farmers, bakers and food advocates at the conference appreciated this achievement, and listened hard for details of the challenges en route to this success story.

The importance of local flour

pizza crusts

Pizza crusts are baked in a hearth oven at Red Hen, using organic flour. Credit: Courtesy Red Hen Baking Co.

“Normally, you will see some variation from flour lot to flour lot. You can never count on complete consistency,” George said. The typical roller mill draws wheat from a variety of sources, but the flour from Le Moulin des Cedres all comes from wheat grown by Dewavrin and his family at their organic farm, Les Fermes Longpres.

“Roller mills are incredibly expensive infrastructure. I never heard of one that was on a farm,” he said.

Stone mills located on farms are not uncommon. This type of mill is relatively simple to run and inexpensive to purchase. Roller mills, however, are industrial-scale equipment. Les Fermes Longpres, located just west of Montreal, recently finished assembling a small roller mill. The family took four years to complete the project, using parts from a defunct French roller mill and doing much of the work themselves to minimize the investment.

A family mill makes uniform flour

Sacks of bran

Sacks of bran outside the Le Moulin des Cedres mill. Credit: Copyright 2014 Loic Dewavrin

At Le Moulin des Cedres, the Dewavrin family mills wheat grown on the farm. With an eye toward evening out seasonal irregularities, the flour is made from a combination of two years’ crops. This is why baker George was marveling at having access to uniform flour.

All mills use raw materials that are products of nature and have a wide range of potential expression. Since roller mills pool wheat from multiple sources, the result can vary. Even with careful testing of grains to try to keep the range within limited parameters, mills are blending wheat from many different climates and micro climates, from many different farms with various cultivation, harvest and storage habits, and the flour and its performance changes accordingly.

Le Moulin des Cedres is unique, but exemplary of the farm’s approach. When Dewavrin returned to the family farm after a career as an industrial engineer, he and his brothers began to convert a conventional corn-soy crop farm into a more diversified organic operation. This was in pursuit of a system that could support the brothers financially, and support the farm’s health and long-term viability.

To make the most of what they grew, the brothers sought methods to capture crop value on the farm and avoid selling crops into the commodity market as much as possible. Making sunflower oil was the first value-added process they tackled. Next, they considered whether to do something with the soy they grew, or the wheat. After investigating the markets, they saw that what they could do with soy didn’t hold as much promise. Flour seemed the best route. There was enough whole-grain, stone-milled flour, however, and bakers had expressed interest in locally grown and produced white flour.

Keeping the integrity of the crop

Wheat fields

Wheat fields at Les Fermes Longpres farm. Credit: Copyright 2014 Loic Dewavrin

The idea of having full command of the crop from seed to selling had great appeal to the Dewavrin family. Without running a mill themselves, their production was mixed with grains from other farms.

“Our goal was to keep the integrity of the crop,” Dewavrin explained. Selling wheat to a mill meant their crops were mixed with many others. “We lost the purity of the product and the controlled efforts we put into it.”

Les Fermes Longpres is a very careful farm. The family puts a lot of thought into crop rotations, tillage, and other ways of building good soil, the basic tenet of organic farming.

For the mill, they also worked hard on wheat quality issues, from selecting plant varieties to combating diseases and pests that challenge wheat in the field, and in storage. They began milling slowly last year, determined to understand the process and create a good flour for bakers.

A bakery-mill collaboration

local flour

The bread at Red Hen Baking Co. carries a sign touting the locally sourced flour. Credit: Copyright Randy George

Feedback from bakeries like Red Hen, one of the few bakeries using the mill’s limited supply, helped in this area. In response to what George observed when baking with Les Cedres’ early mill runs, Dewavrin increased the level of starch damage slightly to improve the baking quality of the flour.

“Damaged starch” is an odd term. While it sounds like a bad thing, it’s just milling terminology for opening up the starch granules.

“Getting just the right amount of ‘damage’ is critical so that the flour is in the right state for the baker to continue the ‘damage’ in the baking process,” George said. All mills have to get this right, so the adjustment made is not unique. But the way that the correction came about, through the baker communicating with the farmer/miller was entirely different than the norm.

Leaps forward in decentralizing the production of staple crops don’t register as significant, not yet. But the more that bakers seek local flour, and the more that farmers seek noncommodity marketing options, the more consumers will learn to understand and appreciate the small food mountains people are moving.

Main photo: The Red Hen Baking Co. has been baking organic bread in central Vermont for 15 years. Credit: Copyright Courtesy Red Hen Baking Co.

Read More
Line up for the Taylor Swift of produce. Credit: Adair Seldon

The year 2014 not only beckoned all things local, organic and sustainable, it begged for transparency in our food supply. From growing concerns about GMOs and factory farming to the films “Fed Up” and “Food Chains,” people may finally be waking up to the fact that our food system is as much political machinery as tractors and plows.

Here are six food trends that prove consumers want more healthy, sustainable and humane options.

1. Organically growing

Once thought of as a niche movement for flower children and pretentious yupsters, organics is now as marketable as Taylor Swift. With 81% of U.S. families choosing organic food at least sometimes — and restaurants, food companies and grocery stores acquiescing to customer demand — it comprises about 4% of food sales in the U.S. (about $38 billion). Sales of organic products at Costco have doubled in the last two years (to about $3 billion a year), and Walmart is promising to sell organics at the same price as conventional food through an arrangement with Wild Oats. Where will all this organic food come from? Will the industrial-scale Walmartization of organics weaken organic standards and squeeze out the family farmers who helped commercialize the movement? There are already storm clouds on that horizon.

2. Non-GMO labeling

As consumers are getting hip to Big Food’s genetically engineered ways, the majority of Americans want GMO labeling. But as the big chemical and food companies continue to dump millions into defeating state labeling initiatives, smaller food companies and restaurants are taking matters into their own hands by touting non-GMO ingredients. In fact, Non-GMO Project verification may be the future for GMO labeling. In November, not only was Colorado’s Prop 105 defeated, Oregon’s Measure 92 was so close there was a recount — even though supporters were outspent by opponents, nearly $21 million to $8 million. Vermont is the only state that has successfully passed a labeling law, but it could be held up for years by appeals. Not to mention anti-labelist, corporate-backed politicians have introduced H.R. 4432, a bill that would prevent states’ rights to have mandatory food labeling and would also prevent the FDA from creating a national GMO labeling standard.
 But you can’t put the pesticide genie back in the Roundup bottle. The more these companies try to hide what’s in our food, the more we want to know.

 3. Locally sourced

People not only want to know what’s in their food, they want to know the chicken’s middle name and the arugula’s forwarding address. This new farm-curious mentality stems from the rise of farmers markets all over the country that is  fostering familial, Main Street communities. USDA data shows the continued growth of farmers markets for every region in the country. Five of the states with the most growth were in the South — Tennessee, Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas and North Carolina. Since this region has some of the highest obesity and poverty rates in the U.S., success here is great news. Community-supported agriculture (CSA) farms are also on the rise, including community seafood that sells sustainable seafood directly from local fishermen to consumers. Expect more artisanal companies to crop up, as well as restaurants touting their chickens’ favorite bedtime lullabies.

Gluten-free vegans rule. Credit: Adair Seldon

Gluten-free vegans rule. Credit: Adair Seldon

 4. Vegan and gluten-free menu items

Restaurants jumped on the “V” and “GF” bandwagons, kowtowing to the cow-less and wheat-less among us — not simply to indulge the trendier-than-thou set. People with real food sensitivities want dishes that are safer than thou. Restaurants are getting serious about allergen training, and many have separate menus for top allergens in order to mitigate potential emergency room visits and even fatalities. By law, Massachusetts and Rhode Island require restaurants to provide allergen training to their employees, and similar laws will probably appear in other states or even at the federal level. That way, diners will be less litigious than thou.

5. Dairy-free milks

Many conscious Americans are swapping cow’s milk for plant-based alternatives, and almond milk beats out soy, rice and coconut by a wide margin. However, 80% of the world’s almonds are produced in drought-afflicted California, and 10% of California’s water goes to almond farming (it takes 1.1 gallons of water to grow a single almond), so where does that leave almonds on the sustainability meter? Hazelnuts from Oregon could be poised to respond to the nut milk demand. Oregon grows 99% of the country’s hazelnuts, which use less water, are drought-resistant and can thrive with minimal maintenance. Some high-end café owners actually prefer the taste and are already asking, “is hazelnut milk the new almond milk?”

6. Pasture-raised meats and grass-fed beef

As consumers are getting savvier about factory-farmed animals that eat GMO grains, we’re seeing more pasture- and grass-fed meats at farmers markets from small producers. Grass-fed and grass-finished beef are seeing a greater share of the consumer beef market, and larger producers are selling through chain grocery stores and restaurants. Steve Ells, CEO of Chipotle, says, “Over time, we hope that our demand for grass-fed beef will help pave the way for more American ranchers to adopt a grass-fed program, and in doing so turn grass-fed beef from a niche to a mainstream product. … Most of the U.S. grass-fed beef that meets our standards is simply not produced in sufficient quantities to meet our demand. That’s why we want to encourage more American ranchers to make the transition to raising cattle entirely on grass.

Main photo: Line up for the Taylor Swift of produce. Credit: Adair Seldon

Read More