Articles in Environment

A sign posted by Quivira’s guru Jim Barauski writes the tenets of Biodynamic farming for all to see. Credit: Katherine Leiner

Travel through Northern California and signs of the severe drought are everywhere. In suburban Healdsburg, front lawns are dead, flowers faded, home vegetable gardens finished weeks early. The same can be seen in Sebastopol, Sonoma and Santa Rosa. The Russian River above Redwood Valley is dry.

An article in “The Press Democrat” in Santa Rosa reported a high school sophomore’s unique water fence concept, a fence that stores rainwater. Ingenious. But there’s been no rain to store for at least three months.

California’s groundwater resources are in jeopardy, declining for many years at rates never seen before.

“Reliable groundwater supplies in California are essential to the health and well-being of all Americans. About half of the fruits and vegetables are grown in California. Without an improved management of groundwater in the state, California’s agricultural capacity will become smaller and unreliable,” says Miles Reiter, chairman and CEO of Driscoll’s, a leading supplier of fresh berries.

How are wineries faring in drought?

If the drought is endangering fruits and vegetables, what are its effects on the region’s vineyards?

Quivira and DaVero, two vineyards in the Dry Creek Valley, have incorporated the practices of biodynamic farming.

Biodynamics is a spiritual-ethical-ecological approach to agriculture, food production and nutrition. It stresses a holistic understanding of agriculture, treating all aspects of a farm, from soil fertility to the livestock, as interrelated. The principles, that agriculture seeks to heal the earth, were introduced by Rudolf Steiner in 1924.

People tending biodynamic vineyards have spent years conditioning their soils with preparations made of fermented manure, minerals and herbs, and understanding the use of earthly and cosmic rhythms and cycles in creating a healthy farm.

Biodynamic farmers also pioneered some of the first Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) ventures. CSAs began taking root in Europe and Japan in the 1960s, and the movement had come to the United States by the mid-1980s.

Biodynamic guru

Quivira Vineyards and Winery specializes in small-lot wines from varietals specifically matched to the effects of hot summer days and cool coastal nights on its soil.

Jim Barauski, the biodynamic guru for Quivira says, “Going biodynamic was a decision made with a conscience toward moving away from cultivation and building better soils. Anthroposophy is the spiritual science behind biodynamics. If we take something out of the soil, we put something better back in. We feed the microbiotic life with natural, time-tested techniques.”

The winery’s large demonstration garden is a real awakening. The herbs and berries are neatly arranged in beds, the signage hand-printed and not a weed in sight. The beehives — a design called Golden Hives — were designed for the health and development of the colony and to minimize the impact from human interaction (more frequent opening of hives weakens their health).

Vineyard manager Ned Horton says he quietly works with the bees and rarely, if ever, gets stung.

“The health of the bees has been challenged on many levels, and the difference in bien (one-being, or oneness, that describes a bee colony) has to be understood within the context of the global landscape and the current one-dimensional human world view. The challenges for the well-being of the bees reflect our own struggle in our striving for health and happiness. The bees are intended to support the gardens and herbs, and the gardens of course, support the wines,” Horton says.

Each year, Quivira also plants a substantial amount of cover crops, which helps conserve water use. These plants also decompose, fortifying the soil, and open pathways for worms that aerate the soil, eventually creating a balance or a homeostasis.

Winemaker Hugh Chappelle says, “The light from the environment falls into matter so there is some quality of light in the wine. The entire vineyard is, in a way, like a human being, so complex and so individual. But as much as possible, each living thing on the farm supports the other.”

Winery started with olives

DaVero Farms and Winery, started by Ridgely Evers and Colleen McGlynn in 1982, is a 30-acre farm on which the couple had planted one olive tree. In 1990 they began to import olive trees from Tuscany. Through the years, their olive oil has been acknowledged as some of the best in the world.

In 2000, the couple planted their first small vineyard in Sangiovese and then the rare Sagrantino, Italian varietals because the Dry Creek Valley’s climate is similar to that of the Mediterranean region, characterized by hot, dry summer days and cool nights.

In 2007 Evers and McGlynn began the process of converting DaVero to biodynamic. Mary Foley, the original soil manager, transformed the soil into a vibrant, healthy farm. Foley, however, moved to the Sierra and advises from afar; Michael Presley now has the job.

As the tour finished with a lunch and wine tasting, the temperature at the vineyard had hit 95 degrees.

Presley promised it would begin to rain on Sept. 22. “It always does,” he claims.

Having seen a series of seemingly magical transformations through biodynamic gardening at the wineries, anything seemed possible.

It rained on Sept. 18.

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Roasted Cauliflower salad by Colleen McGlynn, who started DaVero Farms and Winery in Healdsburg, Calif., in 1982. Credit: Katherine Leiner

Colleen McGlynn’s Roasted Cauliflower

Prep time: 25 minutes
Yield: 8 servings
Ingredients
1 head cauliflower
1 garlic glove
3 pieces of anchovy
1 wedge preserved lemon
Fruity olive oil
2 tablespoons golden raisins
2 tablespoons salted capers
Chili flakes, to taste
Handful of Italian parsley leaves, chopped
Kosher salt and pepper
Directions
1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. Separate cauliflower into florets and toss in a bowl with a film of mild olive oil, salt to taste, spread on a sheet pan and put into 350 F oven for 10-15 minutes, or until browned.
3. Make a vinaigrette by mashing together the garlic, anchovy and lemon wedge into a paste. (If you don’t have preserved lemon, you can substitute the zest and juice of one lemon.) Put into a bowl, squeeze in the lemon juice and a “good glug” of fruity olive oil.  Stir together.
4. Combine the warm cauliflower with the raisins, capers, a pinch of chili flakes and chopped parsley, add to the vinaigrette.  Salt and pepper to taste.  Serve at room temperature.

Main photo: Quivira Vineyards and Winery’s Jim Barauski has posted a sign outlining the tenets of biodynamic farming. Credit: Katherine Leiner

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Cynthia Hayes is the founder of the Southeastern African American Organic Network, or SAAFON, based in Savannah, Ga. Credit: Sarah Khan

The demographics of the United States reflect an increasingly global world, and so do the demographics of our farm operators. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently released the nearly complete Agriculture Census for 2012, a database that is completed every five years.

FARMERS OF COLOR


 A three-part series to make visible the lives of the invisible

Part 1: Data, maps and a history of exclusion from land ownership.

Part 2: Female farmers of color.

Part 3: In moving pictures, farmers of color talk about their work, challenges and dreams in three short videos.

With each update to the census, the type of statistical information available increases, in particular in the area of farmers of color. Yet, a simple Google search on basic statistics and stories about Native American farmers or African-American female farmers, for example, uncovers few detailed stories.

More often than not, the information that can be found is about those who dominate the agriculture industry — white male farm operators. Numbers often determine what and who is covered in depth. But equally true is that this country has a long history of institutional exclusion and racism against Native American and African-American farmers, other farmers of color and women. Yet it is Native American and African-American farmers and their ecological knowledge of farming traditions that built this country.

Data on farmers of color in the United States

In the United States, the vast majority of farmers continue to be white men, but the number of farmers of color is increasing.

More than 80% of all principal farm operators in the U.S. — the person primarily responsible for the on-site, day-to-day operation of a farm or ranch, as defined by the USDA — are white men (1.7 million out of a total of 2.1 million), according to the 2012 Census. Of the total principal operators nationwide, 95 percent are white, including 96% of male farmers and 93% of female farmers.

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Credit: Sarah Khan

Between 2007 and 2012 — the period included in the 2012 Agriculture Census — every category of minority principal farm operators increased. Latinos farmers increased significantly, followed by American Indian, African-American, Asian, multiracial and Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islanders.

Where are these farmers of color — in what states and counties do they farm? This series of  four informational maps shows the top five states where farmers of color – Native American, African-American, Latino and Asian — are growing roots by county and state.

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Credit: Sarah Khan

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Credit: Sarah Khan

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Credit: Sarah Khan

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Credit: Sarah Khan

Historical exclusion of farmers

Civil rights abuses in USDA state offices existed from the agency’s inception, based on a 1997 USDA-commissioned investigation,”Civil Rights at the United States Department of Agriculture” and the General Accounting Office’s 2008 report “U.S. Department of Agriculture: Recommendations and Options to Address Management Deficiencies in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights.” More recently, the nation witnessed the Pigford I and II settlements, class-action racial discrimination lawsuits filed by black farmers who were denied loans and other federal aid between 1981and 1996. Many farmers included in the settlement are still awaiting disbursement.

The Pigford settlements, which lately have been mired in accusations of fraud, highlight the country’s ongoing divisive stance about race and reparations. Meanwhile, other groups, including Latino, Native American and female farmers are seeking compensation and awaiting judgment or payment.

To quell growing discontent about reporting civil rights complaints, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack produced a civil rights fact sheet on “USDA Accomplishments 2009-2012.” As of July 2014, the USDA has announced grants to help veteran and farmers of color get started in the industry. Despite these efforts, a profound distrust of USDA offices and officials continues.

Reparations and the white environmental movement

Ta-Nehisi Coates recently published a piece on “The Case for Reparations” in the May 2014 issue of Atlantic. Coates begins by explaining how government programs, instituted from the end of slavery to the present, systematically denied, stole or swindled African-Americans out of their land and home ownership.

In June 2014, Carolyn Finney, a geographer at the University of California Berkeley, published Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African-Americans to the Great Outdoors in which she redefines African-Americans’ long and profound relationship to the environmental movement, though it has largely been invisible or ignored. Through her own family’s story of land dispossession and those of others, Finney has collected the stories of unseen pioneering African-Americans and their diverse connection and commitment to the great outdoors. Her research reinserts African Americans back into the predominantly white environmental movement narrative in the United States.

And finally, the Green 2.0 Working Group published The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations: Mainstream NGOs, Foundations & Government Agencies in June. The report concluded that a green ceiling for people of color; unconscious bias, discrimination, and insular recruiting practices; and a lackluster effort and disinterest in addressing diversity still exist in environmental organizations across the country.

Finney’s book, Coates’ article and The State of Diversity In Environmental Organizations Report reveal a historical context that have allowed exclusion to persist to this day. Both Finney and Coates begin and end with land ownership and dispossession, and both elegantly shine a light on African-Americans and other people of color. They make visible the invisible, and they make people of color the main story.

Main photo: Cynthia Hayes is the founder of the Southeastern African American Organic Network, or SAAFON, based in Savannah, Ga. Credit: Sarah Khan

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The cucumber fields at Flora Bella Farm in Three Rivers, Calif., during the 2014 drought. Credit: Dawn Birch

I feel for James Birch. He is having a tough year. Sitting in the shade, his weather-beaten hands on his lap, he describes prepping his fields for the fall planting. Cutting furrows with his tractor, the blades kicked up thick, Dust Bowl clouds of powder-dry dirt that made it difficult to breathe. In the telling of his story he laughed, no doubt because in the third year of a devastating drought, a farmer needs a sense of humor.

Birch doesn’t complain. He grew up around farming. And farming is what he knows, so he’s not about to quit even if these past several years have been really hard.

Throughout the Western United States and especially in California, farmers have been dealing with a multiyear drought that shows no signs of ending. It’s gotten so bad, fertile fields have been taken out of production because there’s no water for irrigation. That means lower crop yields and higher prices for consumers.

The problem begins in the mountains. Within sight of Flora Bella Farm, the Sierra Nevada runs for hundreds of miles. The line of rugged peaks cuts along the eastern side of the state. The importance of the snowpack that collects on the Sierras for California’s agriculture cannot be overstated.

The farms around Birch in Tulare County north of Bakersfield depend on that water. After a buildup of snow during the winter, when the temperatures warm, the snow melts and collects in the Upper Kaweah Watershed, which feeds the north, middle and south forks of the Kaweah River, irrigating Birch’s fields. But again this year the snowpack was below normal. And that was bad news for Birch.

A hundred-year drought

A dozen years ago I visited Flora Bella Farm because Birch and I were working on a farm-to-kitchen cookbook with California-Mediterranean recipes. On that visit, Birch walked me to the river next to the farm. The cool water ran fast and clear and was several feet deep. Last week he emailed a photograph that showed the problem in the most graphic way.

Birch stands on a completely dry riverbed.

Old-timers tell Birch that the last time the rivers dried up was in 1906 when a cowboy said he rode across the main fork and his horse’s hooves didn’t get wet.

In 2012 and 2013, the drought was bad. Knowing 2014 would be no better, Birch came up with a plan. He began converting his above-ground sprinklers to a drip system. He enlarged his holding ponds and filled them to capacity. But the drought was worse than expected.

Three rivers, now no rivers

One by one the Kaweah River’s three tributaries dried up. And by mid-August he had used all the water in the ponds. In late September, the only water on the farm comes from a low volume well that supplies his home.

Without water, Birch doesn’t have a lot to bring to the farmers markets where he sells his produce. When I saw him recently at the Santa Monica Farmers Market, he had only potatoes, squash, olives and grapes to sell. Around him the other farmers had their usual bounty on display. Why, I asked him, do they seem to be unaffected by the drought?

The answer was pretty simple. Birch relies entirely on the Sierras’ snowmelt to irrigate his crops. The other farms have allotments from the California Aqueduct, which transports water 500 miles south from the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta, or they have high-volume wells that pump groundwater from the vast aquifers, the water-bearing sandy soils that lie beneath many parts of California.

Birch does not have access to either the aqueduct or to groundwater. Because he is in the foothills of the Sierras, the aquifer is too deep for him to reach except at great expense. And, even if he had the money to dig a well, the water-drilling companies in the area have a two-year waiting list.

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James Birch at the Flora Bella Farm stall at the Wednesday Santa Monica Farmers Market. Credit: David Latt

After the rivers and his holding ponds dried up, the only water available was the low-volume house well. That was a tough moment. Whichever plants he didn’t water, died. “First it was the cucumbers, then the peppers, tomatillos, most of the squash, the greens, and then everything in the fields,” he said.

In the orchard, his mature fruit trees produce apricots, Santa Rosa and Golden Nectar plums, nectarines and sour cherries. He also has younger Mandarin orange, lemon and pomegranate trees. All the trees are stressed. He doles out the little bit of water he can from the house well. But ultimately he faces another difficult decision. If the river doesn’t start flowing soon, he’ll have to cut down the older trees and plant citrus trees, which use less water.

Between a rock and a hard place

Birch is preparing the next planting. In his greenhouse he is growing Swiss chard, broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, chicory, collards, cabbage, artichokes, fennel and cardoon seedlings. Now they’re strong and ready to plant. His fields are tilled and planted with mustard, spinach, radishes, mizuna, arugula and kale seeds. If he gets these crops to market, he will do well.

But Birch is in a bind.

Both the seedlings and seeds need moisture to grow. Birch reads the weather forecasts hoping storms will give him the rain he needs. But he has another problem. Winter is coming. The temperatures will soon drop. If the rains are late and the plants aren’t mature enough before the frost comes, they won’t survive.

Looking to the future

The truth is nobody knows when or if the rains will come. If the drought continues, farmers who are currently unaffected will be impacted.

Farmers relying on the California Aqueduct will find their allocations curtailed or eliminated. That has already happened in parts of the San Joaquin Valley, one of California’s most important agricultural areas. In an extended drought, farmers whose water comes from wells will also be affected. Heavy use of the aquifer has caused a dramatic drop in the available groundwater.

To survive in a drier climate, farmers like Birch are pursuing conservation efforts.

Birch has applied for a federal grant from the Department of Agriculture’s NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) so he can switch completely from above-ground irrigation to an underground drip system.

To keep out the deer and squirrels that come down from the mountains looking for food and water, he built an 8-foot-tall fence. He planted a hedgerow of native flowering plants along the perimeter of the property to attract predatory insects to fight back infestations of aphids and mites, which eat the water-starved plants and carry destructive viruses.

In the best case scenario, if winter storms build up the snowpack in the Sierras., then the rivers will run as clear and deep as they have in the past, the aquifer will be replenished and Flora Bella Farm will be back to its former glory but this time needing less water than before.

And if the drought continues, Birch will be as ready as he can be.

Main photo: The cucumber fields at Flora Bella Farm in Three Rivers, Calif., during the 2014 drought. Credit: Dawn Birch

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Bedouin community leader Haled Eloubra, left, discusses permaculture with a student at a course in Israel. Credit: Louis Fox

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.

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.”

In Oakland Calif., “soil farmers” like Max Cadji hope to transform dirt tainted by decades of pollution. Credit: Louis Fox

In Oakland Calif., “soil farmers” like Max Cadji hope to transform dirt tainted by decades of pollution. Credit: Louis Fox

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.

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

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Splashing down in an apple-a-day world. Credit: iStockphoto / dmitryphotos

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).

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

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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.

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.

Among the backdrop of the Brooklyn Bridge, urban beekeeper Andrew Coté points out the queen bee on one of his many rooftop hives. Credit: Greg Roden, © 2012 Food Forward Productions LLC

Among the backdrop of New York City’s Brooklyn Bridge, urban beekeeper Andrew Coté points out the queen bee on one of his many rooftop hives. Credit: Greg Roden, © 2012 Food Forward Productions LLC

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

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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 Credit: Matthew Moore

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.

AUTHOR


PamWeisz of Change Food

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?”

Matthew Moore's floor plan embedded in wheat. Credit: Matthew Moore

Matthew Moore embeds a floor plan in wheat. Credit: Matthew Moore

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.

Time-lapse messages

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.

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

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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.

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.

AWA's Andrew Gunther: Would you or your family call these industrial confinement production systems natural? Credit: AWA

AWA’s Andrew Gunther: Would you or your family call these industrial confinement production systems natural? Credit: AWA

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

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