Articles in Agriculture
Back in the 1950s, it wasn’t unusual for fishermen plying the waters off Istanbul to land tuna weighing hundreds of pounds, or to have one of the massive fish leap out of the sea and over the prow of their boat. Dolphins cavorted alongside fishing vessels that hauled in lobster, oysters, razor clams, four kinds of crab and eight varieties of mussels.
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Lüfer Bayramı celebrates the bluefish
Celebrated each October with fishing competitions, film screenings, children’s art activities, talks, and special meals, the holiday is named after one of Istanbul’s favorite fish, the fatty, flavorful — but now endangered — lüfer (bluefish). This Lüfer Bayramı grew out of a campaign the group launched in 2010 to get restaurants, fishmongers and consumers to stop buying, selling and eating juvenile lüfer that aren’t large enough to reproduce. (“Bayram” means “holiday” in Turkish.)
“I grew up in a fish-loving family. My father would grill lüfer on Saturdays, and we’d eat it with fish soup, pilaki [a bean dish], and vegetables cooked in olive oil,” Şenol says. “We weren’t rich, but fish was so cheap then that my father could buy lüfer in big batches at the early-morning fish auctions and give the extra to our neighbors.”
Prices of fish have gone up as stocks have diminished; data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations indicate that the amount of bluefish caught in Turkey has plummeted over the past decade, from 25,000 tons in 2002 to just over 3,000 tons in 2011. Other research suggests that dozens of species have already disappeared from the Bosphorus Strait and Marmara Sea, two of the bodies of water on which Istanbul lies.
Both waterways are part of the lüfer’s annual migration route, a more than 1,000-mile-long journey that gives the fish its strong, distinctive taste, according to chef Şenol. “Bluefish in the United States, where I studied [at the French Culinary Institute in New York], is not the same,” she says. “Our lüfer travels from the Mediterranean up the Aegean to the Black Sea and back. It’s a route with different climates and salinities, and all that really affects its flavor.”
Lüfer season in Istanbul begins in the early fall, when the fish start their trip back down to more southern climes after spawning in the nutrient-rich waters of the Black Sea over the summer. Too many, though, are caught while still too small to breed and are sold, depending on their size, under the name çinekop or sarıkanat.
“People didn’t even realize these were all the same fish, but it’s really just like the difference between a sheep and a lamb,” says Koryürek. “Catching this fish so young eliminates the possibility of having more of them in the future.”
Campaign nets converts to the cause
A lobbying campaign led by Slow Food Istanbul along with Greenpeace Mediterranean has resulted in the raising of the minimum legal catch size for commercially fished lüfer from 14 centimeters to 20 centimeters (roughly 5.5 inches to almost 8 inches) — a good step, according to Koryürek, but an insufficient one. More than 100 restaurateurs like Şenol have agreed to not buy lüfer smaller than 24 centimeters (9 inches), the size activists say would be a more sustainable limit.
“We only have lüfer on the menu at Lokanta Maya for a very short period each year, when it is most plentiful,” says Şenol. She was one of a dozen top chefs in Istanbul who participated in this year’s Lüfer Bayramı by serving a special bluefish-based dish for a limited period of time.
“Since lüfer is a very fatty fish, it works best when grilled so it stays juicy inside as the skin gets crispy,” she explains. “It goes well with stronger flavors, so I paired small portions of the grilled fish with a salad of radishes, arugula, and red onions pickled with vinegar and just a little bit of sugar.”
Şenol and her staff also went out with fishermen to catch lüfer on the Bosphorus, an experience she says gave her a new appreciation for how hard the work is and how difficult it can be to keep from inadvertently landing some undersized fish even when using correctly sized nets.
Slow Food Istanbul has likewise been careful not to demonize local fishermen in its campaign, instead working to recruit them as allies.
“These waters have survived for hundreds of centuries with small-scale fishing,” says Koryürek. “But since the 1980s, the boats and nets have been getting bigger, the technology has changed, and the number of fishermen has gone up dramatically.” She estimates that large commercial boats are now catching 90% of Istanbul’s lüfer, and too often take advantage of lax enforcement of regulations by fishing too close to shore, in illegal amounts, or with methods that are environmentally damaging.
Istanbul’s soaring population over the past few decades — from less than 3 million in 1980 to more than 14 million today — poses a threefold threat to the city’s formerly robust fish stocks. The unchecked growth means increased competition among fishermen, greater consumer demand, and more heavily polluted water and highly urbanized coasts.
“Lüfer is a symbol of all we’ve lost and all we may lose,” says Koryürek. “These fish are a natural resource that is diminishing; protecting them needs to become a joint effort.”
Main photo: A fish market in Istanbul. Credit: Jennifer Hattam
Truffles and sex go together like Maria Callas and opera — and the good news is it’s a splendid year for the voluptuous white truffles of Alba, Italy. The bad news, it’s a poor year for that other essential component of northern Italian seduction, the equally famous Barolo and Barbera wines of Piedmont. It’s a yin-yang thing, a fine equilibrium that dictates the fortunes of hunters, gatherers and growers.
A cool, damp autumn seems to encourage the underground growth of Tuber magnatum pico, but it does little to create a superlative vintage in the immaculate vineyards that cover the rolling, UNESCO-listed slopes of the Langhe-Roero hills. And vice-versa.
Either way, the landscape is at its loveliest in the misty, fading light of a crisp fall day, the gardens bright with the last of the summer bedding. Vineyards glow like jewels: garnet, ruby, topaz and citrine. Yet every sweet hillside is also covered with a hard geometrical pattern of furrows and grooves like a giant corduroy blanket; a goldmine of viticulture exploited down to the very last grape.
Piedmont region’s wines
It took the vision and commercial acuity of the “Barolo Boys” about 50 years ago, to bring prosperity to the area by modernizing and merchandising the local wine until it became one of the most desirable labels in the world.
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At the 84th Alba White Truffle Fair, which runs until Nov. 16, the talk was of truffle and wine harvests. The air was heady with the intriguing pungency of the former. The intense, head-spinning fragrance of truffles permeated the huge, packed tent. The truffle was in use everywhere, in salamis, sauces, creams, pasta, oils, cheese.
Tempting, but I was advised by one local that most products had little to recommend them. “Truffle oil is popular, and relatively cheap, but it is not the correct experience of the white truffle. It’s like buying out-of-season fruit.”
Her words regarding truffle oil were echoed by Carlo Petrini, president of the International Slow Food Movement, who recently wrote, “Let us stop coming up with new systems for preserving it so that it can be exported around the world. Lovers of good food can come here to eat what little there is, fresh, fragrant and perfumed. Let us stop, above all, palming off to a naive public that plethora of ‘truffle-flavored’ products engineered from synthetic chemicals.”
Truffle mythology is powerful; truffle actuality even more so.
Truffles as precious jewels
Top specimens were displayed under glass domes like precious jewels by truffle hunters. Daily prices can be checked on Tuber.it’s website. There are rumors of secret trading rooms, as well as midnight alleys, where the best-of-the-best would be sold to serious traders and shipped directly to Moscow and Tokyo, New York and Monte Carlo.
I held a lumpy, ugly white truffle the size of a grapefruit in the palm of my hand. There was no mistaking the intoxicating aroma and the exotic thrill that comes from possessing something, dug like a dirty diamond from the chocolate-colored earth and ancient oak trees, worth hundreds of dollars.
Prized white truffles, unlike black ones (Tuber melanosporum), cannot be farmed or cultivated. Although the white are also found in various parts of northern Italy, it is the charming, medieval town of Alba in Piedmont that propelled the strange underground mushrooms to worldwide fame.
It was at the first Alba White Truffle Fair 85 years ago that the trade was formalized. In a brilliant marketing coup, they later presented the first of many world-famous celebrities with an outsize truffle. The first, in 1949, was actress and international sex symbol Rita Hayworth, a fitting recipient.
It takes considerable expertise to properly assess the truffles: Their qualities are based on a matrix of color, shape, size and olfactory sensations — and personal preference.
Natale Romagnolo, a fifth-generation trifulau, or truffle hunter, and judge, described how truffle hunting is a passion verging on “illness.”
“You can say a truffle is simply a mushroom in the ground, but you don’t just buy a mushroom. … You buy something that relates to emotions and to women. It’s about good food, good wine, good company … ” he says, with a knowing glance.
Truffle hunting dogs
Truffles, known as “grey diamonds,” are hunted mostly at night with dogs, unlike the pigs used in other parts of Europe. Truffle dogs are highly valuable. And many of them are trained by Giovanni Monchiero at the Truffle Dog University in Roddi, established more than 130 years ago. Holder of the title, Magnificent Rector, Monchiero explains that he usually trains “taboj,” or mutts, not hunting dogs, which would be distracted by the presence of wild game. The key qualities he looks for in truffle-hunting dogs are obedience, a good sense of smell and stamina. Training takes time, love and care. It is a partnership between man and dog.
Eating the white truffle
» White truffles should never be cooked, rather simply shaved over the dish of choice. Black truffles are, by contrast, better cooked.
» In Piedmont, to allow the truffle to best express its complex, intense and overwhelming aroma, you'll find it used with fairly neutral dishes, such as tajarin (tagliarini or very thin and soft, golden noodles made with egg yolks), risotto, polenta or fried eggs. It also can be shaved over assone -- a raw heritage-breed Piedmontese beef, chopped with knives by hand -- or over fonduta, a fondue made with Fontina cheese.
In the grounds of the distinguished Cerreto vineyards, Monchiero demonstrated how his bright-eyed dog, Lila, could scent a ripe truffle from 50 yards, make a high-speed dash and start scrabbling like a four-legged excavator through the tawny leaves to unearth it. To stop her from eating or damaging the truffle, he had to dash after the dog, wrestle her out of the way, and then patiently unearth the precious lump with a specially designed hoe.
Time is of the essence. A mature truffle has a fleeting moment of perfection, starting to deteriorate every hour it is out of the ground. Many have tried to describe their aroma: the words used are honey, fermentation, garlic, hay, spicy, wet ground, ammonia. Nothing quite captures it. Perhaps the real magic is in our minds, and the pleasure it gives us.
In La Piola in Alba, as my plate of tajarin is covered in an abundant shower of shaved white truffle that flutters down on the pasta like greedy moths, I reflect on the words of the French writer Colette: “If I can’t have too many truffles, I’ll do without truffles.”
Main photo: Alba white truffles for sale at the Alba fair. Credit: Clarissa Hyman
» Large truffles are not necessarily any better than small ones, but they are easier to shave over dishes.
» The best way to transport a truffle is covered in paper or a damp cloth and placed in a glass container. This way it may keep for about a week. Some suggest rice, but that can dry out the truffle.
» Despite the Latin name, the truffle is not a tuber but a mushroom that grows underground in symbiosis with the host tree roots.
» There are many different trees that host white truffles including various types of oak, poplar, willow, linden and hazelnut.
» The white truffle cannot be frozen as it will lose its perfume completely, and it ferments if kept in oil. Dehydrated truffles — experiments are going on in order to lengthen the shelf life of the truffle.
» The white truffle season in Piedmont runs from Sept. 21 to Jan. 31, and is at its peak in November. There are many truffle fairs across the region, but the Alba Fair is the main one of international standing.
One major takeaway from Terra Madre 2014 was that that despite the unique culture and traditions that exist within indigenous communities across the world, we are all united by an undeniable web of interconnectedness.
Over and over again during the five-day event, you could see people bridging gaps and forging relationships over the ties that bind us, namely food and how it shapes communities and cultures.
Turin, Italy, was the site in late October of Slow Food’s Terra Madre, a biennial, global event. With a focus on indigenous communities and farmers, some 158 global food communities gathered to exchange ideas on sustainable agriculture, fishing and breeding with the goal of preserving taste and biodiversity.
It was powerful to witness this discovery of interconnectedness that exists despite the distances that separate various indigenous communities. Norman Chibememe, a farmer from Zimbabwe, said that before coming to Terra Madre he thought he was alone in the challenges he regularly encounters at home. “I’ve learned from my new friends from half way around the world that they, too, are working with the same challenges. I am going home with some new ideas of how to change things in my community,” Chibememe said.
Terra Madre unites people from across the globe
During workshops in the Indigenous Terra Madre salon and conversations at country stalls, people from indigenous communities engaged with each other and the public through a vibrant exchange of stories about the problems they face in their respective countries. A French couple I spoke with came to Terra Madre specifically to speak with delegates from African countries confronting security or health challenges. Unable to travel themselves to all the countries affected, Terra Madre gave them the opportunity to get an insider’s view on how food issues are affected by such conditions.
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Participants were also surprised to discover non-food cultural similarities despite living on different continents. A Moroccan woman who produces argan oil stopped two young Sami women who had just arrived from their home in the Arctic to share her astonishment how certain elements of their traditional dresses were like those of the Amazigh people, also known as Berbers, of North Africa. From the color of their clothes to the threading used to the geometric patterns on their ankle coverings being identical to those used in making traditional Amazigh rugs, the similarities were striking.
This was the fifth visit to Terra Madre for Susana Martinez, a yacón farmer from Argentina who is proud to share her knowledge of this crisp, sweet-tasting tuber, also called a Peruvian ground apple, with those outside of Argentina. A farmer from Venezuela whose community has virtually lost all knowledge of how to work with yacón met Martinez and invited her to his region to teach younger farmers how to grow and process the plant. Shea Belahi, a farmer from Illinois who is looking for new crops to grow on her farm and is intrigued about the properties of yacón — it has low sugar levels, making it suitable for diabetics — discussed the growing conditions needed for yacon with Martinez. As she walked away, Martinez said these interactions are the magic of Terra Madre. They “help me in knowing that someone else cares about what I do,” she said.
The wealth of knowledge and the challenges faced by indigenous communities and global farmers, such as climate change, land-grabbing and resource management, were at the forefront of the five-day event and provided visitors the opportunity to gain new perspectives on issues concerning indigenous people around the world.
Phrang Roy, director of the North East Slow Food and Agrobiodiversity Society, or NESFAS, discussed the need for a more inclusive approach that treats the custodians of traditional knowledge and modern-day researchers as equal and diverse knowledge holders. He said more than 350 million indigenous people populate the globe — a greater number than the population of Europe — and they form “a community of people connected to the land, with their own systems of connecting to nature. Basically, they are all agronomists.”
He announced that NESFAS, in partnership with Slow Food and the Indigenous Partnership for Agrobiodiversity and Food Sovereignty, would be hosting the second Indigenous Terra Madre 2015 next fall in Megahalaya in northeast India, a region on the border of Bhutan, China, Myanmar and Bangladesh. Under the theme of “The Future We Want: Indigenous Perspectives, Indigenous Activities,” the event plans to bring together representatives from more than 300 indigenous communities to showcase indigenous knowledge of local food systems and preserve biodiversity within their regions and discuss how to bring their knowledge and vision of food production into modern times.
The infectious energy, friendships and networks developed by the indigenous people and farmers at Terra Madre 2014 demonstrate there is an appetite for change growing among these communities and a global momentum to safeguard their wealth of diverse flavors and cultural knowledge to create a better world.
Main photo: An Indonesian delegate shares her knowledge about Indonesian teas and spices with public workshop participants. Credit: Cameron Stauch
Farmers in Africa who trade their farmlands for mobile phones or even a bicycle become the unwitting victims of corporate greed. That’s the word from speakers at Terra Madre, Slow Food’s biennial event held in Turin, Italy. The practice of “land-grabbing” by multinational corporations isn’t new, but the fact that the concept is being extended to oceans and fisheries is more recent, according to presentations at the global conference.
At the event, people from food-producing communities across the globe are brought together under one roof. So you’re as likely to come across the lofty figure of a camel-herder from Chad as you are a group of female cocoa-growers from the Amazon, with their colorfully embroidered dresses and hair ribbons. African farm workers from Mali’s Dogon, swathed in the bold patterns of tie-dyed indigo, smile with South Korean Buddhist monks — with shaved heads and wearing pale grey — whose Temple Food pop-up was one of the event’s culinary hits.
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Terra Madre is not just a convivial get-together, though that’s part of the excitement. Carlo Petrini, Slow Food International‘s founder and president, had the radical idea 10 years ago to expand the Italian food fair, Salone del Gusto, to enable real-time, real-life exchanges between hundreds of people from more than 150 countries. In a rousing address at Terra Madre’s opening ceremony, he underlined the event’s serious side.
“What does it mean not to be alone, but to be part of a global community?” he asked. “If Slow Food is the rope running through this network, your food communities are its knots. You are the real defenders of biodiversity. We have over 7,000 plants that can feed the planet, but our food system is based on just 30 or 40 of them. Don’t be shy or afraid to protect an unknown vegetable: This network of active defenders is the only valid testament for the future.”
His speech touched on the some of the big themes at the core of Terra Madre’s working sessions: family farms and climate change; the “10,000 Food Gardens for Africa” project; indigenous peoples and sustainability; school food; the politics of farmers markets; food waste; secret international food treaties; animal rights; and land-grabbing.
“Seventy percent of the world’s food is being produced on 25% of the world’s farmland by small and medium farms,” Eric Holt-Giménez, of the Institute for Food and Development Policy, said as he opened the large conference on Land and Ocean-Grabbing. “Contrary to what we are often told, we currently produce one and a half times more food than is needed to feed our planet. There have been record harvests recently, yielding record profits. Yet there is record hunger. In particular, it is women who are going hungry. Indeed, 70% of the world’s hungry are women farmers. Hunger is due to injustice, not a lack of food.
“An area five times the size of Italy — 212 million acres — has been stolen by corporate food regimes in the last seven years from peasants in Africa and other developing nations,” he continued. “The term ‘land-grabbing’ may be new, but states and other groups have been taking foreign land and resources for centuries. The result continues to be the dispossession of the indigenous people whose lands have been grabbed.”
During the conference, many stories were told about recent versions of this phenomenon. In Africa, poorly educated farmers are being offered “gifts” in exchange for their land: mobile phones, fancy watches, even a bicycle is sometimes enough to convince local people to part with land that has been in their family for generations, and without which they are unable to feed their communities.
But who is buying this land, and why? In sub-Saharan Africa, as Ana Paula Tauacale, vice president of the Mozambique small farmers’ union (UNAC) explained, it is the multinationals with a vested interest in corporate models of farming that are snatching the land from local peasants without negotiation.
“People are being evicted and relocated to infertile lands where nothing grows so the corporations can plant genetically modified monocultures, look for gas or build trains to transport the plundered natural resources,” she said. “We have petitioned and tried to block them, and we’ll fight to the death if necessary.”
In South Africa, Ethiopia and Central America, communal land is being “bought” by investors acting on behalf of the Chinese and other nations in the rush for fertile land and extractable minerals.
Land is also being seen as the latest commodity for capitalist investors. Holt-Giménez explains: “There’s a crisis of capitalism today, with lots of cash around but very little to invest in. So if you can grab land and fisheries now, you’ll reap the benefit in five years or so, when their values go up.”
Ocean-grabbing is another aspect of this trend, though the concept is not well known. As Naseegh Jaffer, Secretary General of the World Forum of Fisher Peoples in South Africa, explained, the term covers a range of situations. They include the draining of natural habitats like mangroves in Ecuador to build shrimp farms, the pollution of traditional fishing waters by power stations and industry, and the more complex result of the privatization of the world’s fisheries.
Brett Tolley, a fourth-generation fisherman from New England and community organizer of the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance (NAMA), explained: “The real tsunami is a global strategy to transform fisheries policy from publicly managed access into privatized property, effectively displacing independent family fishermen, putting enormous pressure on the marine environment, and ultimately turning fish into commodities for the international market. This is often done in the name of conserving fishing stocks, but the results can be disastrous for small-scale fishing communities.”
Only through sharing knowledge and solidarity can today’s Davids — be they family farmers or indigenous fishing communities — hope to stand up to the food world’s Goliaths. In this battle, Terra Madre is a great place to start.
Main photo: Alice Waters sits between Carlo Petrini and Naseegh Jaffer in the front row at Terra Madre’s opening ceremony. The person in red behind Waters is a food maker from Colombia who is in traditional dress. Credit: Carla Capalbo
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.
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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.
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.
Colleen McGlynn’s Roasted Cauliflower
Main photo: Quivira Vineyards and Winery’s Jim Barauski has posted a sign outlining the tenets of biodynamic farming. Credit: Katherine Leiner
The meat case at your local supermarket could contain something far scarier than the most bloodthirsty Halloween zombie.
That’s because current methods of meat production are leading to the creation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, or “superbugs.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 2 million people become infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria each year, and at least 23,000 people die as a direct result of these infections.
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.
“The most diabolical villain could not design a better system for creating superbugs than the modern concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO),” or factory farm, said Lance Price, professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health.
In CAFO’s, large numbers of animals are crowded into a confined space, meaning that trillions of bacteria can easily be transmitted from one animal to another. “When I see these operations, I don’t see factories making meat. I see factories making trillions and trillions and trillions of drug-resistant bacteria,” said Price, who holds a doctorate in environmental health sciences.
Antibiotic use in livestock
Price spoke at TEDxManhattan, a one-day conference in March featuring leading innovators in the food movement.
In his talk, Price pointed out that the vast majority of antibiotic use in this country is in animal food production. While human medicine accounts for 7.7 million pounds of antibiotic — which, he noted, is “way too much” — 30 million pounds of antibiotics are used in industrial farming.
Further, he said, “the best estimates suggest that only 20% of that is being used to treat sick animals. The other 80% is being used as production tools, to make animals grow faster, to prevent diseases, or treat diseases occurring just because of the way we’re raising animals.”
This leads to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. “You have tens of thousands of animals crammed together in filthy, stressful conditions. You have loads of bacteria living in those animals. And you have the magic ingredient — a steady stream of low-dose antibiotics,” Price said. From there, he said, “it’s just a matter of evolution.”
“Every now and then, one bacterium will pick up a mutation that makes them resistant to antibiotics,” Price explained. “If that’s happening in an environment where you have a lot of antibiotics, then the susceptible bacteria are going to die off and the resistant ones are going to multiply. And the thing about bacteria is they multiply very quickly. You can go from a single drug-resistant E. coli to a billion in 24 hours.”
Dangers of ‘superbugs’
Drug-resistant bacteria end up on meat when the animals harboring them are slaughtered. “Those bacteria go on to cause drug-resistant infections in people,” Price said.
Major health organizations have been raising the alarm about superbugs. The World Health Organization, for example, states that “antibiotic resistance is no longer a prediction for the future; it is happening right now, across the world, and is putting at risk the ability to treat common infections in the community and hospitals.”
Yet despite this bleak picture, Price says there is room for hope — if we make some fundamental changes.
First, he said, “We have to embrace this idea that antibiotics are different, and value them for what they are. They’re just short of a miracle — they save people’s lives. We should only be using them to treat sick people and sick animals.”
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The key to making this happen is changing the way we raise animals for food. “If you remove the antibiotics from food animal production, many of those bacteria will revert to being susceptible to those antibiotics again,” Price said.
Other changes are also needed, he said. “We need to increase hygiene in our hospitals, homes and food production systems,” Price said. Development of new antibiotics is also needed, although, he noted, bacteria have been developing resistance to antibiotics ever since Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin.
Decoding meat labels
Consumers can play a role by only buying meat from animals raised without antibiotics. Organizations such as Consumer Reports offer guidance on how to decode labels to ensure your meat comes from such animals. The National Resources Defense Council and the Pew Charitable Trusts are among other groups working on this issue.
The meat industry has taken some steps in response to the increased concern. Earlier this fall, for example, Perdue Farms announced it would stop using antibiotics in its hatcheries.
“The good news is the models exist,” Price said. “My dream is that we stop propping up this broken system with antibiotics, that we let farmers be farmers again, that we have animals live like healthy animals again, and that we save antibiotics for future generations. We can do this. But we have to act now.”
Main photo: Cattle at a factory farm. Credit: tepic/iStockphoto
When Carlo Petrini, president of Slow Food International, the global grassroots nonprofit association, launched the “1,000 Food Gardens in Africa” project in 2012, he could never have imagined that within two years the project would have doubled its results and increased its goals tenfold.
“We’ve already launched 2,000 gardens, and are now aiming for 10,000 to be established by 2016 in all 52 countries of the continent,” says Slow Food International vice president Edie Mukiibi, from Uganda, who has coordinated the project. (Californian chef and activist Alice Waters is the association’s other vice president).
Mukiibi was speaking at Terra Madre, Slow Food’s biennial five-day event which, with Salone del Gusto, is underway in Turin, Italy. Both are open to the public. Terra Madre is a global network of food-producing communities from more than 150 countries worldwide, and this year it brought hundreds of representatives from 2,500 of those communities to Piedmont to meet, share knowledge and exchange ideas.
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Mukiibi explains how the African gardens project has been able to increase so fast: “We’ve set up a network using local radio stations and mobile phones to spread the word about the importance of this project in remote parts of the country.” The objectives of the gardens are practical, symbolic and political.
“We have a heavy responsibility to lift Africa from where it now is,” he continues. “Africa is an old continent in terms of its creation but now it has the energy and fresh ideas of its youthful population. This gives us lots of opportunities. Our generation has access to communications and education so we must act and react against industrial farming’s brainwashing. Biodiversity and sustainability must be priorities in the fight against the monocultures of the cynical, market-driven corporations that are trying to dominate the world of agriculture.”
Gardens benefit families and communities
The food gardens follow different models. The largest, of several acres, are community gardens, worked on by many members of a local tribe or village. Family food gardens are also being established wherever possible to increase self-sufficiency. School gardens are another important part of the project. As Alice Waters, who has long led the fight to put school lunch on the curriculum in the U.S. and to create food gardens in schools, says: “Food gardens breathe life into education.”
At the African Food Gardens conference at Terra Madre, many Africans shared stories about their experiences. Moudane Hassan, from Somalia, explained that his people were originally nomadic camel herders who had never traditionally planted vegetables.
“We now have 54 gardens in Somalia, of which 19 are in schools and 24 in communities,” he said. “They are helping us get improve nutrition and free ourselves from dependence on international food aid.”
Julie Cissé, an activist from Senegal and founder of GIPS/WAR (a group of initiatives for social progress in an area called War), has another inspiring story to tell. She runs a network of 300 women who work the land.
“We’ve battled for women to become owners of the land they work, and we’ve had to ask permission for this from our elders and local administrators. We’ve even lobbied government.
“Our most effective argument is to explain that we want to re-create the kinds of vegetable gardens our grandmothers had, and that strikes a chord even with the most macho of men,” she says.
“We believe in sustainability, in farming the land without chemicals and pesticides or genetically modified crops. Now the men see just how productive we are, and how much we are bringing in as food and resources, and they are enthusiastic.”
The Senegal gardens are either family gardens of around 150 square yards, or much bigger, 15-acre community gardens on which up to 120 women may work. Slow Food helps by providing access to technical support and, in some cases, sponsorship from companies and individuals abroad.
The group also came up with an innovative solution for city women and for those who have lost plots to land-grabbing but who want to produce food. Called “One woman, one chicken crate,” it involves wooden crates that are 1.7 square yards. The women can keep chickens in the crate and use the top to grow a vegetable.
“A crate or two can always be fitted into a courtyard or alley and provide the women with a source of healthy vitamins while supplementing the family income,” Cissé says.
Mukiibi agrees: “Our grandfathers fought for independence. We too must stand up and fight malnutrition and the neo-colonialism of land-grabbing and imposed monocultures. Let’s support the biodiversity of our food to save African gastronomy. Start by spreading the word.”
He might have added that this doesn’t apply only to Africa: Planting food gardens in our own schools, communities and backyards can turn the tide on junk-food wastelands and the health problems they are creating everywhere.
Top photo: Julie Cissé at Terra Madre. Credit: Carla Capalbo
The days following a holiday are always a bit of a downer. And all too often it’s just a matter of time before the importance of the occasion becomes a distant memory as we return to the status quo of living our everyday lives.
Wait, you didn’t know Friday, October 24, was a holiday?
OK, perhaps not a holiday exactly, but for food geeks like me it was a day where houses were filled with brightly colored fruit and vegetable balloons and salubrious meals were followed by delicious-but-still-nutritious desserts. Food Day was created by the Center for Science in the Public Interest to raise awareness about the story of food from farm to table and back to soil to encourage dietary changes that support health, community, and the environment.
Why what you eat matters
In my own world, though, October 24 is just another day to do what I always do: teach people about why what you eat matters, farm to fork. I first began making the connections between what I ate and how it affected our planet and its peoples almost 20 years ago, learning from a professor who had been teaching “nutrition ecology” for decades. Learning to think beyond myself when it came to food was an “Aha!” moment for me. It has had an indelible effect on everything I’ve ever done in my career as a nutrition scientist.
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As you probably already know, nutrition is a science focused on how food impacts health and disease, which is in essence biochemistry and physiology. Fundamentally, nutrition is based in the biological sciences, hence rooted to an individual. The concept of “nutrition ecology” was first coined in the early 1980s and remains unfamiliar to most people (including most nutritionists, by the way, since thinking outside the body is not standard practice for them, either). In essence, nutrition ecology expands how we think about food beyond health, a paradigm that includes the impact of our food choices on the environment, economy and society as a whole.
In other words, when it comes to what you eat, it’s not just about you.
Of course, diet impacts your own health, weight and risk of disease: 80% of chronic diseases are essentially preventable through modifiable lifestyle factors such as diet, and better food choices will lead to a longer life filled with more active years. If you’re not yet paying close enough attention to your own well-being, now’s a great time to think about the kinds of changes you can make to improve your own health. Yet the spirit of Food Day truly becomes alive when we step outside ourselves and deeply consider why what we eat matters — apart from our own bodies. How food is grown and what resources are used to produce it, including feed, land, water, fuel, fertilizers and soil; who grows it, and how fairly she or he is treated and remunerated; how it gets to you and how much it costs; and how food is disposed and/or wasted — should you be lucky enough to live in a place where surplus exists — all matter.
Sound like a tall order to consider all of that next time you’re making a meal?
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It’s true that the road to healthy and sustainable eating is rife with complexities. Yet if you’re not up for a semester-long course in farm to fork eating, like the kinds of classes I teach, the good news is that cutting back on animal foods like beef, pork, lamb, and poultry (especially processed products) and increasing your consumption of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, beans, and legumes will go a long way toward improving your health as well as the environment, due to the much smaller carbon- and water-footprint of plant-based diets. And that simple change, if enough people do it, can lead to many other large-scale positive effects elsewhere in the food system.
Sure, there’s a lot more you can do aside from consuming less meat, and Food Day is a terrific opportunity to educate yourself about critical food issues from farming to food waste, chemicals to climate change. And, as long as you ensure your sources are science-based, there are myriad places to help you put into practice the principles of nutrition ecology.
But Food Day is just one day, and now it’s over — and, if we’re being honest, most people probably didn’t even know about it, anyway. And that’s OK because, let’s face it, every day is food day, really. Not only do we need food to live, but food is an integral part of our cultural identity and, for many, a source of joy and connection to ourselves, others, and the planet we share. To quote Kurt Vonnegut, food is practically the whole story every time. Far more important than celebrating a day that quickly lapses into the past is to make your food choices matter in the present every time you shop, cook, eat and drink. With each bite, you have the opportunity to invest not only in your own health, but to cast a vote about the kind of world we want to live in, together.
I hope there will be a time when we don’t need a special day to remind us.
Main photo: The Copley Square farmers market in Boston. Credit: P.K. Newby