Articles in Organic
As a kid, I’d follow close on my dad’s heels when he went to the local fishing hole, where he’d spend the day reeling in crappie and bluegill. We’d share peanut butter sandwiches and catch crawdaddies and garter snakes while waiting for the fish to bite. At some point in the day, we’d always hunt for wild asparagus, which also grew around the pond.
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My father will tell anyone who will listen that the asparagus doesn’t grow until the thunder shakes it from the ground. He has a full head of white hair now, and people sit in rapture of his wisdom. Me? I’m not so sure. I picked my first asparagus this year between snowstorms. It made its debut almost seven weeks later than last year.
That might sound frustrating, but it is actually part of the appeal. I only eat wild asparagus, which grows during a narrow window in the spring.
For me, store-bought asparagus will never do. I don’t ever want to see it on my plate at the end of summer, or at Thanksgiving. The fact that it only appears once a year, and in a way that is highly variable, only adds to its charm. When the asparagus finally arrives, it is a herald of the season, and it is marked with a feast. Part of the joy of foraging is only eating foods during the short window of time that they are in season. It makes for an endless series of celebrations.
The wild asparagus I forage, Asparagus officinalis, is the same that Euell Gibbons made famous in his book, “Stalking the Wild Asparagus.” It is also the same species as the one sold commercially. This means that once you know how to find it in the wild, it is readily recognized.
The surest way to find asparagus is to find the overgrown fern-like mature plants from the previous year. For the most part, it grows in the same place from year to year. Old, dried asparagus has a distinctive orange-yellow tone that stands out against the new green growth of spring. Wild asparagus seems to really love fence lines, railroads and drainage ditches, but don’t be surprised to see it growing in the middle of a field.
Some people will try to tell you that only thin asparagus is good. Don’t believe them. Thick or thin, wild asparagus tastes the same. I prefer the thicker ones simply because they provide a more substantial bite of asparagus goodness. The most important factor in picking wild asparagus is to choose stalks that still have tightly closed heads, no matter how tall or thick they should grow.
Wild Asparagus Bites
I prefer to serve these gluten-free nibbles at room temperature, but they are equally delicious eaten hot or cold.
12 spears wild asparagus
1 shallot, sliced into half moons
½ cup ricotta cheese
2 ounces goat cheese chevre
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 egg, room temperature
1 tablespoon cornstarch
¼ teaspoon salt
Black pepper, to taste
1. Heat oven to 425 F.
2. Clean the wild asparagus and prepare them by snapping off the tough ends.
3. Toss the asparagus and shallots with olive oil, salt and pepper, making certain the asparagus and shallots are coated with oil.
4. Place the vegetables on a baking sheet and roast for 15 minutes, or until the thickest asparagus spear can easily be pierced with a knife. After removing the asparagus and shallots, reduce the oven temperature to 300 F.
5 While the asparagus is roasting, prepare the cheesy base. Mix together the ricotta, goat cheese, Parmesan cheese, egg, cornstarch, salt and pepper until they are evenly combined.
6. Carefully cut off the tips of the roasted asparagus and set them aside.
7. Chop the remaining asparagus and shallots. You can do this roughly with a knife. Just make certain the pieces end up at least a quarter-inch thick or smaller.
8. Stir the chopped asparagus and shallots into the egg and cheese mixture.
9. Fill 12 greased mini muffin cups three-quarters full with the asparagus mixture. Place an asparagus tip atop each filled cup.
10. Bake the wild asparagus bites at 300 F for 20 minutes.
Wild asparagus bites. Credit: Wendy Petty
Along with the return of robins and whirling bees, I count the appearance of dandelions among the first signs that spring has officially arrived. I look forward to seeing their cheery butter-yellow flowers, and admire their tenacity as plants. It takes a survivor’s spirit and dogged determination to thrive in the manner of dandelions, growing everywhere from lush fields to the worst of disturbed ground, even in cracks of sidewalks. As much as I admire dandelions’ perseverance, I also particularly enjoy them as a food. Their edgy bitter green flavor is a welcome addition to mealtime after a long winter filled with dreary grey skies and heavy slow-cooked dishes.
Every part of the dandelion plant is edible. Perhaps you’ve enjoyed a salad of bitter greens served with bacon and a splash of vinegar, or savored a cup of dandelion root coffee. You may even have delighted in dandelion flower fritters or sipped dandelion wine. But have you eaten every part of the dandelion?
Where to look for the best dandelions
I learned from edible wild plants expert Samuel Thayer how to eat two of the less commonly eaten parts of dandelions, the flower stalks and crowns. After a few years experience eating them, I’d say that dandelion crowns are among my favorite spring foods.
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To find the best dandelion flower stalks to use as food, seek out large plants in shady areas. These grow in tall grass, which forces the stalk to grow quite long in order for the flower to not be obscured by grass. Longer stalks mean more food with less picking. Seek out the youngest, most pale green flower stalks, as they will be most tender.
Remove the flower heads from the stalks (and be certain to eat them or make dandelion wine). Boil whole flower stalks in boiling water for 10 minutes, as recommended by Thayer, then drain them. Serve dandelion stalk “noodles” dressed with a little butter and salt, or incorporate them into your favorite dishes as a vegetable.
Harvesting dandelion crowns takes a bit more technique. The crown of the dandelion is the tight knot where the leaves meet the tap root. Even in a large plant, it may not be more than a single bite, but it is a very satisfying one. Seek out young spring dandelion plants that have not yet flowered. Look for plants with a tight nest of new buds at their core.
If you are harvesting an entire dandelion plant, either because you intend to eat it, or because you are, gasp, weeding it, the first step is to wash the plant free of as much dirt as possible. Cut off the root, and peel away the outer leaves, and you will be left with the little nugget that is the crown. Rinse it again as thoroughly as possible under running water because it is likely to be very dirty.
Thayer, however, has come up with a clever method of harvesting dandelion crowns without all of the dirt. He uses a sturdy teaspoon with sharpened edges to selectively harvest crowns from the plants. I’ve found that a grapefruit spoon with serrated edges or a pocketknife also work well. Again, seek out large dandelion plants that have yet to flower. Use your spoon or knife to carve a cone-shaped piece of crown right out of the plant, which is still in the ground. Harvested in this manner, the plants require little additional rinsing to remove any remaining grit and dirt. Even if you intend to later remove the entire plant, if you find that you particularly enjoy dandelion crowns, harvesting them in this manner saves time.
Dandelion crowns have a touch of the same bitterness as dandelion leaves and feel like a solid bite of vegetable in the mouth. Use dandelion crowns as you would asparagus, adding them to any soup, salad, or stir-fry. They can be eaten raw, but I prefer to serve them cooked.
My favorite way to serve “yard artichokes” is similar to how I’d serve real artichokes. Steam prepared dandelion crowns until they can easily be pierced with a knife, usually around 10 minutes. While they are steaming, prepare small ramekins full of melted butter kissed with a squeeze of lemon and a pinch of salt. Dip the steamed dandelion crowns into the butter bath before enjoying the tender morsels like the toast of spring that they are.
Top photo: Dandelions. Credit: Erica Marciniec
I was part of a conversation recently with colleagues in the food world who were griping that nothing much had changed in the health food movement since Adelle Davis’ books, “Let’s Get Well” and “Let’s Cook It Right.” Both books had raised a new public awareness in the 1960s to the fact that unprocessed organic food, grown without pesticides and herbicides, can determine our health. What about Michael Pollan, Alice Waters, Frances Moore Lappé, Mark Bittman, Robert Kenner, Paul Newman, A.E. Hotchner and Wendell Berry, to name a few contemporary food activists? Or even more recently, Anna Lappé, Bryant Terry, Jeremiath Gettle, Daniel Salatin, Katrina Blair or Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney.
I’m also frustrated that there is so much work to be done, but everywhere I look I see evidence of how far we’ve come on the issue.
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I argued that things had dramatically changed in simple ways. For instance, yesterday I wanted to make a chicken tagine with plums and olives. The recipe called for chicken thighs, onions, butter, dried plums and lemons. I needed some lamb for another recipe and some hamburger. I also needed milk, half and half, and yogurt. It was midweek, and I didn’t have time to go down to the farmers market so I shopped at my corner market.
I was able to get full-fat yogurt, a coup these days because in the last 20 years almost everything has become either non-fat or low-fat. This, by the way, does not necessarily mean they are good for you. Fat-free foods may also have added thickeners, flour, sugar or salt. Also you don’t want to avoid all kinds of fat because there’s a decent argument to be made that foods contain both “good” fats and “bad” fats. In the meat department, I was able to get hormone-free, antibiotic-free, organic grass-fed lamb, beef and free-range chicken. I also noticed they had organic, grass-fed bison. In the produce department, I was able to get organic lettuces, organic berries, avocados, apples, pears and bananas. In the dairy case, I had a choice of free-range eggs from three farms, and I also found organic milk, organic half and half, and butter. There are farms all over the United States that sell raw milk. Laws regarding raw milk vary by state, but it is available if you want it. I found dried plums that had not been sprayed with sulphur dioxide, which is great because I definitely didn’t want any of that pesticide on my food because children in my family are allergic to sulphur. I know, of course, our future begins with our children and grandchildren. And I remind my friends that in 1996, Alice Waters created her first edible schoolyard in Berkeley, Calif. Since then the program has expanded to New Orleans and Brooklyn, N.Y.
The health food movement goes mainstream
When President Obama was elected, Michelle Obama told the world she was going to grow a garden. When he ran for reelection in 2012, the First Lady was promoting her new book, “American Grown” about the White House garden.
“The garden is the way to begin the conversation [about healthy food decisions],” she told the National Review. “I learned, in changing my kids’ habits, if they are involved in the growing process of food and they get a sense of where it comes from, they tend to be excited about it. The garden is a really important catalyst for that discussion.”
All over New York City public schools now have roof-top gardens or other areas set aside for gardens. The students at Manhattan School for Children on West 93rd Street give guided tours of their rooftop gardens.
Most colleges and universities offer programs in sustainability and integrated nutrition. We have new words in our vocabulary and dictionary that apply to quality food produced responsibly, such as locavore and sustainability. Most everyone knows about fermentation now because of Sandor Katz’s book, “The Art of Fermentation,” which was on the New York Times bestseller list for several weeks and nominated for a James Beard Award. Although California voters didn’t approve Proposition 37, which would have made the labeling of GMOs mandatory, the big news is that Whole Foods, the grocery chain with 339 stores across the nation became the first retailer in the United States to require GMO labeling on all foods sold in their stores.
Genetically modified ingredients are in much of the food we eat on a daily basis. Food labels give us information about nearly everything else we need to know about the food we’re eating, but there is generally no information about food grown with GMOs. Now, at least at Whole Foods, all foods will be labeled if they contain GMOs.
There are many more ways in which the food movement in the United States has dramatically changed. But in a way, my colleagues are right. Although we’ve done a lot, there is still more to do to protect our good food. And next we need to turn our full attention toward the issue of hunger, and getting that good food to those in need.
Organic produce at Eli’s Market in New York City. Credit: Andrew Lipton
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
“People have the right to know what is in their food,” Whole Foods Market founder and co-CEO John Mackey told a gathering of customers at his company’s Pasadena store. And when it comes to eating genetically modified anything, he said, the folks who shop at Whole Foods have made it clear: “They don’t want it,” he says.
Mackey listens to his customers. Last week Whole Foods announced that, within five years, all genetically modified ingredients for sale in its stores will be labeled. He is the first retailer in the U.S. to take this step; the story ran on the front page of the New York Times.
In the battle over the American shopper, Mackey, a baby boomer vegan from Austin, Texas, has called out the big boys of GMOs — Monsanto, Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill and other multinational chemical companies. If they want access to his customers, they’ll have to play by his rules.
“It’s not going to be easy,” Mackey told the group in Pasadena in February, smiling as he shifted his thin frame from one desert boot to the other. “But if the government won’t act, we will.”
Most of the corn and soybeans grown today in the United States is genetically altered, as is a growing list of fresh produce sold in neighborhood grocery stores. And while Mackey has 339 Whole Foods stores in the U.S. and Canada, he’s a junior varsity player in the North American grocery business. The Grocery Manufacturers Assn., a trade group representing major food companies and retailers, wasted now time in denouncing his GMO labeling decision.
But Mackey’s 30-plus years of paying extraordinary attention to his customers’ wants and needs have earned him a fierce loyalty that allows him to punch well above his weight. No one is counting him out in this fight.
It was Mackey’s business philosophy that took me to Pasadena last month to hear him speak during a stop on the promotional tour for “Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business,” a new business management book he co-wrote with Raj Sisodia, a Bentley College marketing professor.
“I believe capitalism is the greatest force for good in the world. It alleviates poverty, creates goods and services and allows the culture to advance,” Mackey said in his opening remarks. His goal in writing the book was to help companies claim an individual sense of purpose, something he believes many businesses lose in the struggle to survive.
If the only goal of a business is to make money, he says, it will fail to reach its potential. In the book, Mackey writes, “Conscious businesses treat satisfying the needs of all their major stakeholders as ends in themselves, while traditional businesses often treat stakeholders other than investors as the means to achieving their ultimate goal of profit maximization.”
Doing it right starts by establishing a “core value” to guide your business, he says. At Whole Foods, it is to be a financially successful retailer providing customers high quality whole, organic products.
With its core value in mind, a conscious business then considers the needs of all of its stakeholders. Meeting the needs of the customers is first and foremost, but it extends to the needs of employees, suppliers, investors, the communities around stores and the environment as a whole. When a company gets the balance right, it can improve the lives of all stakeholders.
GMO labeling follows business philosophy
Viewing his decision on GMO labels through that prism, Mackey didn’t have much choice. His key stakeholders — his customers — made it clear that they wanted to avoid GMOs. But he took his suppliers’ needs into account as well. Rather than force them to immediately comply with Whole Foods’ new requirement, he gave them time to secure non-GMO ingredients or to accept the effect of being labeled accordingly.
Mackey has made similar moves at the Whole Foods meat and fish counters. Some customers won’t eat anything but grass-fed beef. Others think conventionally raised beef is just fine. Which fish are sustainably caught or raised? The labels tell the story. And while the effort is at best a work-in-progress, he is setting a standard that other grocery stores are struggling to match.
It’s all a process, he says. A “conscious business” gradually becomes more and more aware of its “reason for being,” or its core value. Enlightenment, wisdom and all of the higher thinking implied in those words, he says, gets easier with experience.
Conscious capitalism “is about leadership that serves the higher good of the organization, a culture that helps humans to flourish and self-actualize themselves.
“We are not retailers with a mission as much as missionaries who retail,” he wrote in the book. And his mission is to spread the gospel of conscious capitalism and change the world for better, forever. An optimist, Mackey believes any company can be saved. Maybe even GMO giant Monsanto.
Top photo: John Mackey. Credit: Chris Fager
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
My friends abroad hear about the food safety crises that erupt either in China or from food products grown and manufactured in China, and they assume all food in China is toxic. So they’re always surprised when they learn it’s not all exploding watermelons, milk infused with melamine or dumplings stuffed with cardboard here in Beijing. I eat organic-grown and locally sourced food nearly every day. Brought to my door on a weekly basis, I have a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) organization called Shared Harvest (or Fenxiang Shouhuo, in Chinese) to rely upon this fall season.
Organic food is growing in popularity in China, so it shouldn’t come as such a surprise that I can eat food grown without chemicals. According to the state-run China Daily, Lohao, a leading retailer of organic food, sales revenue increased by about 30% during 2011. A story in TriplePundit indicates that, “in 2010 alone, 345 companies obtained a certification from the China Organic Food Certification Center (COFCC),” which was an increase of 18% year on year. In June 2008, Greenpeace commissioned Ipsos Marketing to conduct a survey of consumers in Beijing. The study found that 68% of consumers buy organic food and 80% “state that they definitely would buy organic food in the future.”
Hurdles for China’s organic farmers
What is unique about Shared Harvest, the CSA I trust to deliver me 4 kilos (8.8 pounds) of fresh veggies every Wednesday afternoon, is that the organization is training farmers, on their own land, to cultivate crops using organic methods. This is unusual in Beijing, where organic food suppliers, like these 60 identified by Greenpeace in 2008, typically either purchase or rent private arable land and then hire farmhands to work the land with organic methods. With Shared Harvest, farmers retain control of their land, receive organic training, and then are assured a steady income through the community of Beijing-based consumers who commit to long-term delivery schemes.
Note that “organic” differs from “organic-grown.” These farmers do not yet meet the rigorous organic certification standards because the lands haven’t spent three years sans chemicals. As such, we CSA participants are not only educating the farmers and giving them reliable income; we are also helping them through the choppy learning and financial transition phase leading to organic farming.
During my master’s dissertation field research in Yunnan province in southern China, I learned that one of the biggest factors keeping farmers from turning away from the use of chemical pesticides during food production is the need for certainty. That is, “certainty” that crops will grow regularly, regardless of weather or pests; and “certainty,” therefore, that they will be able to make money when selling products on the market.
Farmers know that organic goods can fetch a higher price, which is an incentive to grow them, but the lack of reliable methods to ensure consistent yields means they can’t confidently sell every season. Moreover, as there is complete lack of trust that labels on products made in China are actually what they claim to be, organic produce often is overlooked by consumers who would rather not spend up to 300% the price of regular produce just to get duped. In turn, the organic market is only growing in fits and starts and won’t necessarily ensure steady income for farmers.
There are reliable organic methods for growing produce, but the Chinese government, for various reasons, doesn’t provide the training needed to help these farmers learn best practices nor to purchase or implement new sustainable technologies. Of course, it is a long, complicated and paperwork-laden process to attain any official organic certification (be it from the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movement, or China’s homegrown bodies China Organic Food Certification Center and the China Green Food Development Center).
A personal connection with China’s organic farmers
While my 12-week package with Shared Harvest is two to three times more expensive than what I would pay at the local market, it is absolutely worth the cost. For one, I have the opportunity to support and build a relationship with local producers: I receive updates in Chinese and English on how things are going on the farm, and there are regular trips to work and cook with the farmers and to observe farming practices myself. Perhaps more important, at least to me as consumer, I am confident that what I’m getting is actually organic-grown, which can’t be overstated because mislabeling is rampant.
Last week, tucked alongside my produce I found a browned piece of paper, the weekly “Shared Harvest Newsletter” outlining the produce I received: “sweet potato, carrot, pumpkin [squash], beets, kohlrabi, lettuce, spinach, coriander, choy sum, bok choy, shallot, and a selection of green leaves.” The newsletter also provided useful tips on how to store vegetables and an explanation that the chickens are not laying eggs as regularly during the cold months and so customers who also order eggs might need to be patient.
The newsletter thanks readers for trusting in Shared Harvest as it develops, explaining, “It seems like we are families rather than just business and customers.” I can’t imagine a better message for Thanksgiving.
Top photo: Farmers learning organic techniques in Beijing. Credit: Shared Harvest