Articles in Environment
Among other accomplishments, the film shows us the lives of agrarians who have managed to hold onto their farms into the 21st century who are now being urged to “expand or die.” Apparently, in the beginning days of research, Bahrani spent time with the family of Troy Roush, the corn and soybean farmer who was featured in the documentary, “Food, Inc.”
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“At Any Price,” revolves around a not terribly loving father-son relationship and 3,500 acres of farmland planted with seeds from the Liberty Seed Company, which sells genetically modified seeds. It’s kind of interesting how in every film where GMOs have a major role, the seller of those seeds is always painted as a bad guy. In recent memory, films such as Bitter Seeds covered the same territory.
Ebert is right, there are many layers to the film, including the father-son relationship, power, familial individuation and greed. But what struck me was the way many of the film’s characters flagrantly disregarded each other.
This was particularly true of the farmer who is also a salesman for the seed company, played by Dennis Quaid. While at the funeral of a neighboring farmer, he expresses his condolences to the widow and her son right there at the graveside, but just seconds later he tries to buy the rights to the man’s land.
Much like the Indian film “Bitter Seeds,” there is a kind of desperation that is implanted by the seed company in those who are both selling the seeds and planting the seeds. Farmers who use genetically modified seeds must agree to strict rules created by the GMO seed companies. Once a farmer buys the GMO seeds, he is required to pay an annual royalty each time the seeds are replanted. After one season, the GMO seeds need additional fertilizers, and as the seasons move forward more insecticides and pesticides. The soil eventually requires more water than a normal saved seed would require. All of this means more and more money for the farmer to lay out, which means somewhere along the line the farmer is likely to become desperate. This is not a sustainable way to farm or live.
On the Whipple Farm, as featured in “At Any Price,” it’s all about bigger yields, bigger harvests and bigger profits. Where the farmer used to be a person of faith and integrity, he is now all about the bigger attitude, which colors everything and leads the main characters to lie about their illegal use of seeds, and to steal and then to lie some more. One of the characters in the film (a girlfriend of the farmer’s son) compares the use of illegally saved Liberty Seeds to a bootlegger who illegally copies DVDs. Ah, that GMOs were so innocuous.
Henry Whipple has two sons. He would like to leave his farm to both of them. After all, his grandfather left it to his father who in turn has left it to him. Three generations already and Whipple would like to make it four. But Henry Whipple’s sons have other lives in mind for themselves. The elder is climbing mountains in South America and the younger would rather be a NASCAR driver. Neither have any respect for their father or the work that he does or the life that he represents.
In his New York Times review in April, Stephen Holden calls farmer Whipple, “a warped caricature of a reassuring American archetype.”
Film raises specter of nation’s ‘wobbly moral compass’
‘Any Any Price’ He says the film is both “a critical exploration of agribusiness and its cutthroat, hypercompetitive ways,” and “a searching, somewhat ham-handed allegory of American hubris in the 21st century and a bleak assessment of the country’s wobbly moral compass.”
The film pays close attention to the stresses that high-tech farming involves and how it freezes small farmers out of their livelihoods. It also sub-plots the kinds of competition that exist between the larger farms and farmers. This is a rivalry that can, and sometimes does, lead to violence.
The movie raises issues that inspire deep reflection. It’s a complicated film, dealing with complicated issues. And it is certainly worth seeing. This is a film that explores subject matters on a variety of levels, all of which deserve our attention.
Top photo: Zac Efron and Dennis Quaid appear in a scene in “At Any Price.” Credit: Courtesy of Ramin Bahrani
I wonder how many Americans realize their importance in the world of wine. The United States has recently overtaken France and Italy to become the globe’s biggest market, drinking a full 13% of all the wine produced on the planet, more than any other nation. While wine drinking has been declining rapidly in the European countries that make so much of it — France, Italy and Spain — we are amazed at how rapidly and firmly a wine culture has been established in the U.S.
In cities such as New York, Chicago and San Francisco, you can hardly move for wine tastings, wine bars, wine courses and people who are parlaying their interest in wine into building collections, visiting urban wineries and taking wine tours. But even in the vastness of America between the coasts, wine has been catching on. We looked up wine events in Des Moines, for example, and were delighted to find at least one a month. What we like about this development is that these new wine lovers, many of them relatively young, are working out their own preferences rather than being spoon-fed a series of ratings.
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Americans are among top wine producers
But it is not just as a consumer that the U.S. now leads the world. Americans overtook Argentina in the 1990s to become by far the most important wine producer outside Europe, with the total amount of American wine produced gaining on the amount made in France, Italy and Spain. The shifting balance is due in some part to a determined program to rip out surplus, low quality vineyards in the EU.
Robert Mondavi was always convinced that California could make wines that were the equal of Europe’s best. That point was made long ago, but what thrills us is that American interest is so great that wine is now being made in every state in the Union. Hawaii and Alaska have their own wines, and North Dakota has eight bonded wineries. We long ago recognized that California, Washington and Oregon could make great wine, but now is the time to check out what we call The Other 47.
Rieslings in the Midwest
The curious American wine lover would be well advised to investigate the less-celebrated steely Rieslings of northwestern Michigan and the Finger Lakes region of New York. In blind tastings of Rieslings from throughout the world, their offerings have been ranked among the finest. But perhaps the best Viogniers, Petit Mansengs and Bordeaux blends of Virginia would be an appropriate starting point for an exploration of American wine in view of Thomas Jefferson’s early efforts on his Monticello estate to turn Americans into a nation of wine drinkers. (It was the local phylloxera louse that scuppered his early plantings of the European vinifera vines, by far the most dominant vines in wine production.)
In some of the more inhospitable sites for grape vines, where the climate is too cold and the growing season too short to support European Vitis vinifera varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, grape breeders, particularly in Minnesota, have been developing cold-hardy hybrids that ripen their fruit relatively early and produce fully mature grapes that can be vinified into seriously good table and dessert wines. Look for La Crescent and Brianna whites, and Frontenac and Marquette reds. Older French-American hybrids, with names such as Baco Noir, Cayuga, Chambourcin and Vidal Blanc, remain important grape sources in the most challenging terroirs in the Midwest.
More options in the South and Northeast
In wet, humid Southern states, native Muscadine vines, which have adapted to the conditions, produce musky-sweet aromas and flavors that can be an acquired taste for some, but are embraced by others who have grown up drinking them. In New York, Michigan and Pennsylvania, the native Concord grape used so widely for juice, jelly and grapey wines such as Manischewitz, can taste pretty extraordinary to a palate not raised on Cabernet and Chardonnay. However, some American vine varieties — the Norton grape of Virginia and Missouri comes quickly to mind — can produce admirable wines without the rankness associated with Concord, wines that should appeal to any lover of fruity reds with character.
Then again, there are wineries in the U.S. that ship in grapes from sunnier climes (often California), and vinify and bottle them under their own labels. Despite movements across the country calling for only locally grown grapes to go into locally produced wines, importing West Coast fruit keeps many a winery tasting room financially afloat.
And in some parts of the country — Alaska, North and South Dakota in particular — vintners make their living selling wines made from vegetables and non-grape fruits. Pumpkins, rhubarb, berries, cherries, apples, pears, peaches, just about any produce that has natural sugar, can be fermented into wine. Many of them taste surprisingly good.
We feel strongly that the dramatic increase in quality of wines made in The Other 47 deserves more recognition. Be adventurous in your wine choices.
Photo: Jancis Robinson and Linda Murphy. Credit: Michael Wright Studio
The holidays were nearing when I eagerly skipped down the yellow-brick road into Dr. Mehmet Oz’s world of “What To Eat Now: The Anti-Food-Snob Diet.” His opener — that “some of the tastiest and healthiest food around is also the least expensive and most ordinary” — was indisputably welcoming.
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Finally, I sighed with relief, our nation’s favorite star doctor will set the record straight. Eating healthy food doesn’t have to be rocket science. And it doesn’t have to be expensive. OK, yes, all the Google-smart news-speak mavens can choose to buy their fresh foods at the most expensive markets and thereby confirm their conspira-stories that healthy, local food is elitist.
But now, finally, we would get the straight dope on how we can eat well without breaking the bank.
I happily entered Dr. Oz’s world of bright and colorful frozen green peas and carrots. I read that we can enjoy some of our favorite foods — tacos, peanut butter, salsa and guacamole — and we can also “eat frozen and never feel that you are shortchanging yourself.” Hallelujah!
An egg is an egg?
But when Dr. Oz said “organic is great, it’s just not very democratic,” I stopped skipping. What he means by organic is revealed in his next sentence: “truffle oil, European cheeses and heirloom tomatoes.” No mention of everyday organic foods like apples, peas, carrots, beans. A bit later he confesses that he’s doing a “public-health service” to folks who are “alienated and dejected” because “the marketing of healthy foods too often blurs into elitism.” His public health service includes telling us there is no difference between organic and conventional foods. “An egg is an egg,” he says. What’s more, there’s “not much difference between, say, grass-fed beef and the feedlot variety.”
Let me get this straight: Organic is not democratic because … not everyone can afford truffle oil or European cheeses? The only organic food is the kind he shops for? Following that logic, if the only British car I bought was a Rolls-Royce, I could soundly conclude that British cars are not democratic because not everyone can afford a Rolls. That is, of course, ridiculous.
Affordable organic food is available
A real public health service from Oz would be giving devotees the low-down on organic: telling them that eating organic doesn’t mean buying truffle oil. Eating organic can mean consuming affordable, common foods. And eating organic can mean eating more nutritious food. This is where I get to thank Wal-Mart, which, like Dr. Oz, positions itself as serving the common person. Last November, Wal-Mart’s Economic Customer Insights Report announced that its “natural and organic food sales are growing almost twice as much as traditional food products.” This is not truffle oil. This is everyday organic and affordable food.
A real public health service was this recent study, “Is Local Food Affordable to Local Folks?,” which overturned many assumptions about the affordability of local and organic. Comparing prices between supermarkets and 24 farmers markets in 19 communities across six states in Appalachia and the Southeast, the study found that in 74% of the communities, local farmers markets produce was actually less expensive on average by 22%. In 88% of the communities, even organic produce was less expensive, on average by 16%. Overall, although local meats and eggs tended to be more expensive on average, when the costs of similar items were compared, the local food found at farmers markets was either the same or less expensive than in supermarkets in 74% of all cases, with an average of 12% lower cost. What’s more, the great news is that farmers markets are proliferating, meaning more affordable local and organic foods are available to low-income folks. Since 1994, according to a USDA report, farmers markets in the U.S. have more than quadrupled to 7,864 to date, with no end in sight.
Let’s not forget the nutrition argument. An important study showed grass-fed beef is nothing like conventional beef: it’s hugely healthier! Less fat overall, more healthy fats, more minerals, 300% more vitamin E, 400% more vitamin A and 500% more conjugated linoleic acid, which combats cancer, body fat, heart disease and diabetes. Yet another recent study by Penn State revealed striking differences between organic and conventional chicken eggs, with organic boasting twice the healthy fats, 38% more vitamin A and twice the vitamin E.
In my world, a real public health service would spread information not rumors. It would showcase the multiple benefits, including higher nutrition, of organic food. And it would show that, thanks to providers ranging from local farmers markets to Wal-Mart, more and more low-income people now can find — and afford – more healthy, nutritious, organic foods.
I applaud Dr. Oz for addressing the topic of affordable healthy food. Making healthy food more accessible to all is the right goal. But we don’t ridicule those who buy the latest smartphone as snobs and tell the rest to be happy with a rotary dial. Low-income folks don’t want rotary dial phones any more than they want sub-par food. So, Dr. Oz, please come back to the real world where everyone deserves to know the real dope on food: healthier, nutritious food can indeed mean organic foods — and if we look they’re becoming more available and affordable to us all.
Photo: Tanya Denckla Cobb. Credit: Dan Addison
One salient public health fact about indigenous people of California before colonization is that they rarely experienced food shortages or malnutrition. A temperate climate; bountiful fruits and vegetables; game and fish resources; and the especially abundant acorns derived from many oak varieties ensured a nutritious and varied food supply for all. Foodways, the cultural knowledge about how to grow, gather, forage, hunt, prepare, serve, celebrate and dispose of foods, is one aspect of the traditional ecological knowledge that native Californians possessed.
Indigenous oak and acorn wisdom
Beverly Ortiz, an anthropologist, and Julia Parker, acorn aficionado, storyteller and renowned basket-weaver artist, have focused their work on California indigenous people and their deep relationship with oaks and acorns. The two women co-wrote “It Will Live Forever: Traditional Yosemite Indian Acorn Preparation.” Parker, a Kashaya Pomo/Coast Miwok native, learned from her husband’s Yosemite Miwok/Paiute people. Ortiz quotes Parker, “The elders told me when it comes, get out and pick and gather, even if it’s one basketful, so the acorn spirit will know you’re happy for the acorn, and next year the acorn will come.” She adds, “When the acorn does come, there’s dances and songs. Take from the earth and say please. Give back to the earth and say thank you.”
Californian Indian acorn cultures
Different acorn varieties, a staple food for California Indians for more than 4,000 years, contain high levels of fat, protein and carbohydrates, as well as an abundance of phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals. It is estimated that those adults who lived in the Sutter Buttes region — the northern part of the Central Valley of California — consumed the equivalent of a ton of acorns per year. Gathering acorns from field to table required a substantial amount of time, a practice understood and carried out predominantly by women. An excellent online source for historical photographs of the acorn processing can be found in the National Archives.
Facts about gathering and processing acorns
- Collection normally occurs in the fall, but gatherers must make sure to head out before small animals steal the cache.
- Sprouted acorns can also be collected in the early spring.
- Check that there are no small holes in the acorns; this usually indicates an infestation of larvae.
- After collection, the acorns are dried in the sun to decrease the potential for spoilage and mold.
- What was not stored in elevated granaries for later use was shelled and winnowed in handwoven baskets with appropriate tools.
- With a mortar and pestle, nuts were pounded into a meal or flour and sifted accordingly.
- Different species contain varying amounts of tannic acid, which make the nut astringent and bitter. Depending on the species picked, the acorns required leeching, traditionally in running water.
- Today, the acorns can be ground, soaked and rinsed repeatedly until the tannic acid-laden brown water runs clear. The sweet nutty flour, now properly prepared, is ready to cook, like most carbohydrate-rich foods, to accompany meat, fish or fowl as a mush or baked into breads.
- Cooking tools created from maple bark, leaves and dogwood branches such as an acorn flour knocker, soup whip and dough carrier all aided the production of acorn mush and dough.
Today, some California Indians still gather and cook acorns, though not in the same quantities. These days a flour grinder might be used instead of a mortar and pestle to process the nuts. There are no grocery stores or online sources for acorn flour, except a finely ground and highly refined acorn starch found in Korean-centered food stores. Koreans make an acorn jelly called dotorimuk.
Part 1 of the acorn series:
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Sunhui Chang, chef of Fusebox restaurant in Oakland, Calif., noted that when he grew up the elders loved the bland dotorimuk mainly because of the seasoning of soy sauce, sweet wine vinegar, scallions, garlic, sugar, sesame sauce and chili powder. If you would like to make your own unrefined acorn flour, the best way to begin is by gathering acorns from oak trees. Ortiz and Parker in their book provide a glimpse into the nuanced, sophisticated and cultural context that results in nourishing a community and culture. Pick it up and read it, then gather local acorns, make your own flour and participate in reviving a native food. This way you can be a part of the resilience and hope.
Signs of resilience, signs of hope
Here are some other efforts under way to revive native oaks and their habitats in California. In one instance, Californians are working with the California Academy of Sciences on a reoaking project to remedy the serious dilemma of sudden oak death; with others they are collaborating with a local land trust to buy back indigenous lands for stewardship by California Indians; with cartographers they are mapping Winnemem Winto sacred sites; with arts organizations they are undoing the desecrations of the past with ceremony, dance and song; and with the support of their tribes and other organizations, they are working with land managers to bring back prescribed burning of the landscape for cultural purposes and for the health of the environment.
As we inch forward, perhaps we should keep in the forefront that the mind, hand and environment are inexorably intertwined. Pay tribute to those who carry the knowledge. Work with nature and the knowledge holders to invigorate traditions. Either way, we run the wonderful risk of regaining some lost cultural and biological diversity and reviving a slice of the lost landscapes, cultures, and the original people who managed it.
This article was partially underwritten by the The Christensen Fund, a nonprofit organization, dedicated to biocultural and agricultural diversity of marginalized people and landscapes globally.
Top photo: An acorn sits on a leaf. Credit: iStockPhoto
Editor’s note: With the subject “A prosperous future for all: Gender, climate change and biodiversity in a globalized world,” Zester Daily contributor Trine Hahnemann spoke in New York last week at a United Nations event. Hahnemann, a Copenhagen-based chef and caterer and the author of 10 cookbooks, was invited by the Nordic Council of Ministers to participate on the panel.
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Organizers explained that people assume that women and men affect the climate in the same way, and that climate change affects both genders identically. But women’s and men’s lifestyles, behaviors and consumption are often different, and they leave a different environmental footprint. Hahnemann capsulizes the issues for Zester readers below.
How does being a chef and a woman affect your perspective on climate change?
I see the world through food; I have cooked hundreds of thousands of meals in my career. My cooking can only be as diverse and tasty as the produce that the farmers grow. I need diverse products to choose from.
My main focus is on vegetables and grains. I like fish and meat, but not necessarily as the centre of thinking and cooking a meal. I believe we need to change our diet so that 80% of our meals come from vegetables and grains and 20% from animals.
That is a radical change of the diet in many parts of the world, though of course not in India or China, and most parts of Africa. I think we in the Nordic countries should be leading this change, but also show flexibility in its implementation.
We have to change into a more climate-friendly diet: a diet of seasonal vegetables and fruit, more grains, less meat and dairy products. The New Nordic food movement includes ideas to change our daily diet. The new Nordic is in my opinion a frame to understand how this could be a worldwide movement about eating local produce but exchange the ideas globally.
How have our changing, globalizing eating habits affected climate change?
In 2012 in Brazil I met a group of female chefs who wanted to draw attention to organic farming and the use of local produce. One of their focuses was manioc, an indigenous root vegetable, which is not as important in Brazilian food culture as it used to be. It has lost popularity in the competition with wheat. Wheat is not grown in big quantities in Brazil; it is imported.
Brazilians also grow soya and maize, which are exported around the planet to feed cows, even though cows can’t really digest corn but should be eating grass, clover and hay. To do this, Brazilian farmers have cut down the rain forest.
This is an example of how we have changed our diet over the last 50 years. Instead of a diet that relied relatively little on protein, most developed countries eat a diet where about 50% of our calories come from protein from animals. This has had a huge impact on the climate. We have contributed to climate change just by the way we eat. About 18% of greenhouse emissions come from livestock. How we eat in the future is very important when it comes to climate change.
For their part, the Brazilian female chefs pledged to use of manioc in meals at all levels, from fine dining to street food to school lunches.
It can be used for many things, including baking, being cracked like bulgur, sauces and as crisp topping on food.
How is this a women’s issue?
Men and women work from different perspectives. In many aspects, men are more technical; they invent machines, they look for more technical solutions. They are more competitive and are looking for prestige and position and, therefore, the Michelin star system and acknowledgment like that is often very appealing to men.
Women are the ambassadors for the everyday meal. To change the way we eat we need women to take leadership. They cook public meals, which means they cook in hospitals, kindergartens, schools and elderly homes. Women, for the most part, prepare the daily meals in the households. The famous Michelin male chefs can make the light shine and create focus and attention on important issues, but they cannot make the change; they cook for the rich.
What can communities do to contribute?
One way forward is to create action around the way we eat locally, support organic farming and people who work toward a more holistic solution and look at the land and the people around them.
We need poly-faced farms with sustainable holistic systems where nature, humans and food are at the centre. Biodiversity is life, and maintaining biodiversity is therefore a key to understanding sustainable living on all levels, giving back to nature the same resources we are using, keeping the balance. Women around the world have to be an active part of ensuring that, and it should be a human right, that everybody has a right to decent meal day.
Top photo: Chef and author Trine Hahneman. Credit: Courtesy of the author
Nutty, nutritious and abundant acorns populate our globe. California indigenous people have a long relationship managing oak forests and acorn-gathering and processing acorns for food. The first of this two-part series looks at indigenous people from California and how they sustainably managed oak forests and produced trees abundant with acorns suitable for basket-making and essential tools. In the second article, we take a closer look at the labor-intensive process to create acorn flour and the women who oversee it.
How to live sustainably in nature exists in many cultures. In the modern United States, native people carry this knowledge and pass it down from generation to generation despite environmental degradation. Though colonizers systematically destroyed indigenous cultures and forced them to become empty-handed, they did not become empty-headed. Sophisticated oak forest management that led to copious acorns for consumption is just one example of native people’s cultural survival and their contributions to our shared heritage.
Background on diverse people
Part 2 of the acorn series:
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How else does one sustain culture than through the act of story, language and practice? Indigenous people of the area now called California included more than 100 tribes. They spoke 90 languages and more than 300 dialects. The region represented the most linguistically diverse landscape in the Western hemisphere before contact with settlers and the destructive Gold Rush. Yet today, only about half the languages are still alive, according to the Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival. A small revival is under way to revitalize the languages, songs, dances and foodways that still percolate through indigenous Californians. Dynamic descendants, like L. Frank Manriquez, are reconstructing traditions based on cultural artifacts because fragments of culture tell stories. The living legacy of the elder Pomo Indian Julia Parker, who created her renowned hand-woven baskets that grace the most prestigious art collections, is a testament to enduring cultural traditions.
Ecological knowledge spans many disciplines, for example, the geographic shape of the land; how dynamic ecosystems work; whether one utilizes a plant as food, medicine, ceremony or building material; how to apply and accomplish controlled fires for forest management; how to hunt, gather, farm or cook; how to build structures and canoes; how to make clothing; and how to heal. Yet indigenous people assert that the knowledge passed down includes much more than ecological knowledge. Many believe their knowledge is all-encompassing and rooted in spirituality, values, normative rules and cultural practices.
Indigenous management of acorns and oak trees
Beverly Ortiz and Julia Parker have committed their life’s work to enlighten the world about the native people’s rich traditions through the story of oaks and acorns. (Their book will be discussed in the next article.) Eighteen species of oaks are distributed throughout California; tanbark oak is the only oak that belongs to genus Lithocarpus, whereas the rest are of the Quercus genus. The many species vary in size, nutritional value, taste, habitat and more.
Ortiz, a longtime field researcher, summarized the wisdom that native Californians possess about how to sustainably manage vast oak forest landscapes. “California Indians used fire as a management technique to enhance the growth … ensure the growth of mature, open woodland trees with a dispersed understory, and to control some disease organisms and insect infestations.” Ortiz added that native people “used it [fire] to stimulate the growth of fine, straight, supple shoots used for weaving baskets and long, straight, sturdy hardwood branches useful for digging sticks and other tools. They also used it to generate the tender, new growth consumed by foraging animals, which, in turn, the men hunted.” The low-temperature burn would also clear the area underneath the trees to make gathering acorns easier. While precisely pruned acorn-bearing tips of oak branches produced straight and flexible shoots, specifically useful for basketry, it also further increased acorn harvests.
Native Californians effectively managed the vast landscape to create an optimal environment that allowed the collection of acorns. Only then could one benefit from the nourishment acorns provided. Long-term planning with the health of the landscape in mind was an integral part of ultimately collecting food for consumption. In the next article in the series, we will take a closer look at how to process collected acorns for food and flour.
This article was partially underwritten by the The Christensen Fund, a nonprofit organization, dedicated to biocultural and agricultural diversity of marginalized people and landscapes globally.
Top photo: Acorns from an oak tree. Credit: Sarah Khan
Nothing says “I love you” like a box of chocolates. And what’s not to like about a sweet, sensual, mood enhancer that also has antioxidants, lowers blood pressure, inhibits “bad” cholesterol, and is chock full of antioxidants and polyphenols. No wonder the scientific name of the plant that chocolate comes from, Theobromo Cacao, translates as “food of the gods cacao.”
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What about that plant, though? Even though I’m a lifelong chocoholic, I’d never given much thought to the small tree that is the source of all chocolate. That sin of omission was remedied on my recent first trip to Hawaii, the only place in the United States where cacao trees grow.
There, I saw the slender tree that thrives under the shade of the tropical forest canopy, admired its brightly colored cacao pods and popped raw beans from that pod, still encased in their softly glowing slick white coating, right into my mouth. And I learned that the chocolate bar or truffle you offer your loved one (or indulge in yourself) is the end result of a long, arduous, delicate process involving many steps and many hands.
Cacao’s difficult cultivation
Cacao is not an easy tree to cultivate. It grows only in the relatively narrow band 20 degrees north or south of the equator, and in that zone, it must be planted next to taller trees whose canopy protects it from direct sun and high winds. After trees are planted, they take five or six years to start producing, and mature trees bear only about 30 usable pods per year. With between 30 to 50 beans in an average pod, a single tree produces about 1,000 beans, enough to make only about 2 pounds of bittersweet chocolate.
The cacao tree is also susceptible to pests and diseases, which many producers seek to counteract by spraying chemical pesticides. In fact, cacao is one of the most heavily sprayed crops, and the chemicals are toxic not only for the intended pests, but also for other insects, birds, animals, plants and workers. When you seek out chocolate from organic cacao growers, you are supporting farmers who work to enhance biodiversity and protect the ecosystem, including the soil, air and water we all depend upon.
It was at the family owned and operated Ono Organic Farms, on the southeastern slope of the Haleakala volcano on Maui, that I witnessed the vegetal source of chocolate. Having never seen a cacao tree, I imagined the pods would be small and would hang from the ends of branches like “normal” fruit. Instead I saw a slender tree with improbably large pods emerging directly from the trunk. Large and pendulous, it seemed as if a gentle touch would send them tumbling earthward. The pods were the size and shape of a rugby ball and Crayola bright. Depending on the subspecies of the tree, and the ripeness of the pod, the color ranges from green through yellow, orange, red, purple and burgundy.
Chuck Boerner, the proprietor of Ono Organic Farms, pried a few cacao beans from a freshly opened pod and handed them to us. He instructed us to suck the thin, sticky flesh from the dark beans. That sweet, lightly acidic flesh is what kicks off the fermentation process, and although it’s not physically part of the end product, it’s where chocolate flavors begin.
Ono Organic Farms, and in fact Hawaii as a whole, have relatively few cacao trees, so we did not see the larger scale production that takes place in Africa, which produces 75% of the world’s chocolate. But regardless of the location or scale, the steps from cacao bean to chocolate bar are the same, and involve a lot of workers doing a lot of hand labor.
Because the cacao pods ripen at varying times, they must be harvested individually with machetes or knives, taking care not to damage nearby pods or buds. Workers cut the pods open, generally with a machete, and then scoop the beans out. The raw, pulp-covered beans are then placed in shallow wooden boxes, or put in piles and covered with banana leaves.
The sweet white coating on the beans gets fermentation going, as the sugar in the pulp is converted into acids that change the chemical composition of the beans. The fermentation process takes from two to eight days, and generates temperatures up to 125 F, activating enzymes that begin to create chocolate’s flavor profile.
To stop fermentation, the beans are uncovered and laid out to dry in the sun, where they stay until nearly all of their moisture has evaporated. Then they are roasted, and the dry husks are removed. This is the point at which beans are generally shipped to chocolate factories around the world to be made into chocolate hearts and bon bons and bars of all descriptions.
A journey to Fair Trade
Because so many human hands are needed to pick and process cacao, child labor is used in many places around the world resulting in mass-produced chocolate with a “dark side,” according to the 2012 CNN report on “Chocolate’s Child Slaves” and also according to John Robbins, author of “No Happy Cows: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the Food Revolution.” This makes it important to look for Fair Trade labels on your chocolate, just as many people do for their coffee.
After experiencing the beauty of the cacao tree, and learning about the process that starts with the bright fruit of a tropical tree I found myself enjoying the dark tasty treat of chocolate even more. And I realized that the organic and Fair Trade labels are as important on chocolate as they are on kale and coffee, and are another way to do good while eating well, and perhaps impressing your valentine as well.
Look for the Fair Trade and organic labels to do your part to create a better world and enjoy a guilt-free treat.
Where to find cacao and chocolate in Hawaii (not a definitive listing):
- On Maui, the exotic fruit tour at Ono Organic Farms includes cacao, but they do not process it into chocolate. Bob Dye runs Waimea Chocolate Company on Maui, which uses 100% Hawaiian cacao, with their products available at Sweet Paradise Chocolatier in Wailea and at Wailea Wine.
- On the Big Island, you can visit the Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory.
- On Kauai, you may tour Garden Isle Chocolate and Steelgrass Farms.
Pods containing 40-60 cacao beans each hang from a tree in the McBryde Garden, part of the National Tropical Botanical Garden in the Lawa’i Valley on the south shore of Kauai Island in Hawaii. Credit: Terra Brockman
Pick up a pack of beef or a carton of eggs in any supermarket and the chances are the label will proudly display a bucolic farm scene and one of a range of positive sounding claims — usually implying that the food is produced with animal welfare or the environment in mind.
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As consumer interest in how our food is produced has increased, so too has the use of subtle imagery of happy livestock grazing in lush pastures on food packaging. They’re backed up by claims like “all natural,” “cage free” and “organic.” Yet in many cases these labels bear no resemblance whatsoever to how the animals are raised.
While you might think you’re buying food that’s better for animals, for the environment, and/or for your health, the sad truth is that many of the terms and claims on meat, milk and eggs actually mean very little. They are used to hide the same old intensive farming systems that have been used for decades, a billion-dollar business that does not have animal welfare on its short list of priorities.
The intensive farming industry doesn’t want you to know what goes on behind its locked gates, because the chances are if you did, you wouldn’t want to touch your food — let alone eat it. If food manufacturers were legally required to use actual images from the farming systems, most standard egg cartons would be adorned with horrific images of row upon row of caged hens, all with their beaks trimmed to prevent them pecking each other. Pork products would display images of pigs packed indoors in concrete-floored pens, the sows confined in gestation crates. Most of the beef products would have to show the thousands — sometimes tens of thousands — of cattle crammed together on each of the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) that supply 90% of all U.S. beef, where they have no access to pasture and are fed an unhealthy diet of corn and grain and antibiotic growth promoters.
Nothing natural about it
Two of the most common terms you’ll find on meat products are “All Natural” and “Naturally Raised.” Both terms arguably suggest that livestock have a “natural” life, with access to pasture. Yet the term “All Natural” has nothing to do with how an animal was raised and simply means the product contains no artificial ingredients or added colors, and that it was minimally processed. “All Natural” ground beef in stores almost certainly comes from cattle who spent their last three to six months on a dirt-yard CAFO. And while manufacturers who use the “Naturally Raised” label must take steps to ensure the livestock involved were raised without growth promotants and not fed animal byproducts, the animals are usually confined in feedlots or cages. Although there are no independent checks to make sure the rules are being followed.
“Cage free” eggs are becoming increasingly popular as more people refuse to buy eggs from battery cage systems. While “cage free” eggs may come from hens raised without cages, they almost all spend their lives indoors in vast barns or warehouses with thousands of other hens in overcrowded, unhealthy conditions, and receive routine antibiotics to prevent the spread of disease. As the “cage free” hens still don’t have much space to move around, beak cutting is routinely practiced on them as well, to stop them from pecking each other to death.
When food labels that say organic aren’t
Many people put their faith in the “certified organic” logo. Yet an increasing number of headlines show unscrupulous operators are exploiting the weaknesses in the organic rules to introduce practices associated with industrial farming. In 2010, the Cornucopia Institute investigated organic egg production and found numerous instances across the U.S. where industrial-scale operations were managing thousands of hens in single houses without offering adequate access to the outdoors — yet they could legally sell their eggs as organic. These operations make a mockery of the organic principles and threaten the livelihoods of countless real organic poultry farmers who are farming to the high standards consumers rightly expect.
There are even problems among some of the “humane” certified labels. Despite claims that products carrying the American Humane Certified label have met rigorous welfare standards, this animal welfare certification supports caged production for chickens and doesn’t require pasture access for any farmed species. Hardly what most people would consider “humane” practice.
So how can you spot a meaningful label from a spurious claim? Animal Welfare Approved — the industry leader in auditing and certifying family farms to the highest welfare standards — has published “Food Labeling for Dummies.” This free 16-page guide is designed to help decipher the most common terms and claims found on food packaging and, most important, determine whether they have been independently verified. Download a free copy or call (800) 373-8806.
Top photo composite:
Andrew Gunther and guide cover. Credit: Courtesy of Animal Welfare Institute