Sunday, April 13, 2014

From farm to table.

It seems that spring has finally arrived in Maryland. We’ve had a whole weekend filled with sunshine and crisp, fresh air. There are daffodils popping up along the creek, little green buds on all of the trees, and a constant buzz of little creatures (human and otherwise) venturing back outside. To celebrate this lovely change of events, we are dusting off the grill and making the one food we have rarely had the chance to eat over the past few years: hamburgers.

It may sound strange – hamburgers are one of the most popular foods in the United States – but eating only ethically-sourced meat means avoiding hamburgers almost everywhere. I recall eating them quite regularly back in college, though, both at restaurants and grilled in my backyard. Hamburgers were the mainstay of nearly all get-togethers: the Superbowl, July 4th, or even just a weekend poker party. I remember those times fondly because, above all, they were celebrations of friendships. They certainly weren’t celebrations of food, however. I bought my burger patties frozen, in a big tan box from Costco. I never thought much about how the meat had come to be in its mechanically-pressed, totally uniform state, and I had no idea how the cows were treated in the process.

Today’s event will be quite different. It will be just me and my little family, celebrating life, hard work, and of course, food.

After the 2013 Ancestral Health Symposium, a fellow attendee who lives nearby contacted me about joining a cowpool. I’d never participated in a cowpool before, but I jumped at the chance. Here’s how it works: A group of people pool money to purchase a half or whole steer from a farmer. Typically, the price per pound is lower than if you bought comparable meat at a store or farmers market, and you can find a farmer who uses practices you are comfortable supporting. Depending on the farmer, you may even be able to visit the farm and your particular cow while it is being raised.

Our cow was grass-fed, raised on pasture at Legacy Manor Farm in northwest Maryland. Although the farm isn’t run with quite the level of management of Polyface Farms (i.e. maximizing integration between the different animals and the land), the animals are raised in a natural, low-stress environment without hormones or antibiotics. Our cowpool, which was broken down into 8 shares, purchased a half-steer. A few months later, our intrepid cowpool leader, Steve, met up with our farmer, Kathy, at the midway point between Silver Spring and the farm to pick up our half steer.

Buying a whole or half animal is quite a different experience than buying cuts of meat at the deli counter. Our meat came, quite literally, as a side of beef, which weighed in at 347 lbs. Although we could have had it broken down before delivery), we instead turned to the experts at The Urban Butcher, an artisan butcher shop located in downtown Silver Spring. These guys were amazing. They allowed Steve to attend and photograph the butchering process. Rather than issuing them a list of cuts, Steve simply let the butchers make the decisions about how best to break down our half steer. Due to their diligence and expertise, only 10 of the 347 lbs were unused, and we got some rather uncommon steaks and roasts in addition to T-bones, ribs, ground beef, and the like.

In early February, all the members of our cowpool met up in order to distribute our shares of meat. It was a lovely day, and our hosts greeted us with wine, a warm fire in their backyard pit, and over 300 lbs of vacuum-sealed and labeled beef. Before we started divvying up the meat, Steve gave a toast. He spoke of the gratitude he felt for this food, which was enhanced by his participation and the awareness it gave him of all the time and effort that goes into raising and butchering a steer. We were able to acknowledge and appreciate the life lost in bringing this food to our table, and the efforts of our farmer and butchers to honor that life.


We then picked numbers out of a hat, and took turns selecting cuts of meat until each share-holder had their allotted amount. My family took home about 40 lbs of grass-fed beef, bones, and tallow. The cuts we selected included: neck roasts, oso bucco, ground beef, kabob, “man” steak, top sirloin roast, short ribs, sirloin tip roast, T-bone steak, picanha steak, clod, and flank steak. We paid $210 for our share, which comes out to about $5 per pound, although excluding the fat and bones brings it up to about $7 per pound.



Over the ensuing months, we’ve been slowly working our way through the meat. Everything we’ve tried has been delicious, in part because we treat each of these meals as a special occasion. Even today, grilling hamburgers on the patio for no one but ourselves, it is a celebration. The ground beef has a heftier consistency, with larger chunks of bright red meat and bright white fat, than you would find in a grocery store. We prepare it simply, alongside grilled portabellas, asparagus, and romaine hearts. We pour some wine. Even our toddler can sense that this is a special meal. It’s not just the amazing taste of the food, it’s also the fact that this meal took effort, that makes it so satisfying. This is a hamburger I will remember.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

AHS13: A caveman's guide to world hunger.

In August, I had the privilege of speaking at the third annual Ancestral Health Symposium, which focused on an evolutionary approach to nutrition and health. The title of my talk, “Give them grains? Analyzing approached to world hunger”, was intentionally provocative as this group has pretty negative views of the role of grains in human nutrition. I wanted to get people’s attention because, quite often, the response I get from this community is that they care about making healthy choices for themselves, whether or not those choices are sustainable or widely accessible. While I understand this view, opting out of the conversation about our global food future means that we are less likely to develop a food system that meets the demands of health-conscious people. As it happens, I also care about the accessibility of food, especially for the poor. What follows is the content of my presentation at AHS13.   


According to the UN’s Food & Agriculture Organization, there are more than 850 million starving people in the world. Moreover, there are a staggering 2 billion malnourished people. In fact, malnutrition kills 2.6 million children each year, and 1 in 4 children experience irreversible stunted growth. Vitamin A deficiency alone affects 250 million preschool-aged children; many become blind as a result, and half of the children who become blind die within a year.

Clearly, when we think about how to feed the world, we need to be considering the nutritional value of food as well as its caloric yield. Calories may keep a starving person alive for a day or a week, but to have someone survive for months, years, or decades, nutrition is key.

The most common proposed solution to world hunger is based on the premise that we can use grains to increase the total number of available calories, worldwide. We can do this by growing more grains, increasing grain productivity, and eating more of the grains we currently grow rather than using them for animal feed or fuel. This last point is especially relevant for industrial corn. Several studies have analyzed precisely how many more calories could be consumed if they were eaten “directly” rather than eating animals fed with corn.

To really determine whether eating more corn can help feed the world, we need to consider the type of food produced in this system and the trade-offs between corn and other crops.
In 2011, the US harvested 83 million acres of industrial corn, which does not include sweet corn that you would eat on the cob or out of a can. The same amount of land comprises the entire National Parks system. According to the USDA, 52% of the 2011 corn crop was used for fuel and exports, thereby contributing zero calories to the US food supply. Another 37% of the corn was used as animal feed, leaving only 11% of the crop for food. It seems pretty clear that using more corn for food would produce more calories, but how much more? 
The above chart shows my estimate of the caloric yield of the corn crop based on the current usage distribution. If 37% of the corn crop was eaten indirectly through corn-fed animals and 11% was eaten directly as “food”, I estimate a yield of 1.8 million calories from the 2011 corn harvest. If, however, we had eaten the animal feed ourselves (for a total of 48% in the food category), it could have delivered 2.5 million calories. And, if the entire crop were used for food, it would yield 5.3 million calories. That means we could just about triple the number of corn calories in the food system simply by devoting it all to food. Let’s take this one step further, though. What kind of food do we actually produce from industrial corn?
Before humans can consume industrial corn, it has to be heavily processed. Again, based on USDA statistics, the 2011 corn calories were delivered in the form of high fructose corn syrup, glucose and dextrose, corn starch, alcohol, and corn oil (which makes up the majority of the "Cereals, other" category). Despite the calories, no one can survive on a diet made of these foods. More importantly, consuming calories in these forms does little to reduce the total number of calories a person needs. For example, studies have shown that drinking a soda, which delivers a few hundred calories, will not cause someone to eat fewer calories throughout the day. That means, regardless of how many additional corn syrup calories we can deliver to the food system, we will still need to produce the same number of calories from other foods to meet everyone’s caloric needs. To borrow a term from economics, corn-based calories have diminishing marginal utility.

But let’s forget about calories for a moment. Given that billions of people in the world are malnourished, what are the relative amount of micronutrients that corn would deliver in each of these systems? I chose two micronutrients, vitamin A and folate, for this analysis because deficiencies are known to cause serious, life-threatening health problems.
It turns out that the best source of corn-based micronutrients (based on efficiency and content) actually comes from chicken liver. A back-of-the-envelope calculation reveals that, based on our current corn usage, an acre of industrial corn could provide 141 people with their recommended daily amount of vitamin A and 66 people their RDA of folate through the consumption of corn-fed chicken livers. On the other hand, if we stopped feeding corn to animals, and used it instead to make corn syrup, corn oil, and the like, we would produce zero RDAs of these micronutrients. Finally, if we used all of our corn in such a way as to maximize vitamin A and folate production, we would feed all of our corn to chickens, which would enable us to feed 385 people their RDA of vitamin A and 180 people their RDA of folate with one acre of corn.
Eating our corn directly would provide an increase in available calories, but it would also reduce the already minimal micronutrients delivered by corn. The standard American diet is already rich in the types of food that corn can produce. As a nation, we already generate 3770 calories per person per day, and 70% of the average American’s calories come from refined grain, added sugar, and refined vegetable oil. We also have a nation of very sick people. Over 35% of adults are obese, more than 23 million have Type 2 diabetes, and another 79 million have pre-diabetes. Is this really the diet we want to use to end world hunger?
Given that corn is such an abysmal source of vital micronutrients, it’s worth asking if there is anything better we could grow. Organic produce is more sustainable than conventional agriculture and typically more diverse. The USDA’s organic production survey compiled statistics for the 22 highest yielding fruits and vegetables, which were grow on a tiny 118,000 acres – that’s 0.14% of the land devoted to industrial corn.
Using nutrition data from self.nutritiondata.com, I calculated that the 22 highest yielding organic crops generated 3 million calories per acre. That’s more than corn delivers even if we stopped feeding corn to animals but less than if we devoted the entire crop to food. Nutritionally, however, the organic crops clearly dominate.
To simplify the calculations, I selected two organic crops and used the USDA data to determine the per acre yield of each one. I then calculated the RDAs of both vitamin A and folate. If we grew an acre of organic carrots, we could deliver ¾ of a million people their RDA of vitamin A and more than 1600 people their RDA of folate. From an acre of organic spinach, we would supply almost 61,000 people their RDA of vitamin A and 14,000 people their RDA of folate. 
To summarize, we could produce more calories by eating more corn products, but it would reduce the amount of available micronutrients and not do much to reduce the caloric needs of our population. Sustaining a healthy population is even more problematic as corn provides either micronutrients or calories, but not both. Corn agriculture also requires a great deal of inputs with many negative outputs. In contrast, organic agriculture can provide about 50% of the maximum caloric yield of corn, while also providing prodigious micronutrients. In marginal environments, which are more common in the developing world, organic agriculture can actually produce more calories than conventional, input-intensive agriculture. However, developing truly sustainable agricultural systems, worldwide, will require dedication, creativity, and investments in research and labor.
Overall, growing nutritious crops will likely produce fewer calories. However, globally, we already grow more than 2700 calories per person per day. Even in the countries with the highest rates of hunger, only two actually have too few calories available, and even those are within 100 calories of their daily per capita needs. Chronic hunger and malnutrition are caused by poverty, political instability, and lack of infrastructure. Simply producing more calories, in any form, is unlikely to end world hunger if issues of access are not addressed. Hence, the lower caloric yield of organic crops seems worth the trade-off given their delivery of vital micronutrients, promising yields in places where the poor actually live, and the potential for sustainability.
I think I have made the case that eating more corn products, rather than eating corn-fed animals, is not a good solution to world hunger. In fact, eating corn-fed animal products is the only way to get micronutrients from corn. However, I do not, in any way, support feeding corn to ruminants or raising animals in confinement. Rather, I think we should stop growing industrial corn and go back to raising animals in traditional pasture-based systems. This would likely reduce the amount of meat available in the food system, although I have yet to see a detailed study of the potential yields of polyculture, pasture-based farming systems. Regardless, limiting our consumption of animal products to the level that can be produced sustainably seems like the right approach. 
Overall, this analysis has revealed the importance of considering nutrition, in addition to caloric yield, when making decisions about what we should grow and eat. This above slide lists several ways we can support real solutions to world hunger and organizations who appear, to me, to be taking the right approach. Whether you base your eating habits on what is healthy for you or healthy for the world, I encourage you to get involved and make the food system work for everyone.

I want to thank Eric Huff and Tess McEnulty for their assistance with this project and the Ancestral Health Society for creating a forum for this type of work. Additional citations and background for the calculation of the caloric yield of corn can be found in my previous post. Supporting materials for the hunger assessment by country and specific inputs and outputs of the conventional food system can be found in my 2012 AHS talk, which is described in detail here.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Scientists for sustainability.

As a planetary scientist, I spend most of my time thinking about the moons of Jupiter and the formation of the Solar System. It’s an exciting line of work, but it doesn’t give me much opportunity to help solve the problems currently facing humanity. That’s why I got involved with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a group of scientists and technical experts who help critically analyze proposed solutions to environmental problems. The UCS produces policy briefs and public outreach materials based on quantitative study in the areas of clean energy, climate change, and food systems (just to name a few).

One criticism of our current food system that I’ve highlighted before is that we devote a huge amount of land and resources to growing industrial grain. Because these grains are not directly edible by humans, the grains we grow are used mainly for ethanol fuel, animal feed, and heavily processed food and additives. While many researchers have investigated how we could use grains differently to produce more calories, I have found very little information on what we could grow instead of grains that might produce either more calories or more nutritious food. Recently, the UCS’ Food and Agriculture group produced a really interesting infographic that begins to address this important question.

Plant the plate.

The USDA and the CDC provide recommendations for the servings of fruits and vegetables that each of us needs to eat in order to stay healthy. Vegetables are particularly important because they provide so many micronutrients. According to the new MyPlate recommendations, fruits and vegetables should make up 50% of our daily food intake. The USDA’s food plan calculator offers more specific recommendations. It says I ought to eat 2.5 cups of vegetables a day, varying the kinds of vegetables I eat throughout the week, and 1.5 cups of fruit each day. My husband should get 3 cups of veggies and 2 cups of fruit per day. We actually aim for about 8 cups of veggies a day because that’s the best way to meet the recommended allotments of micronutrients, but 2.5 cups is a good minimum.

Interestingly, the Union of Concerned Scientists determined that we do not actually grow enough fruits and vegetables for every American to consume the recommended daily intakes. Currently, only 2% of the farm acreage in the US is used to grow produce. We would need to more than double that number in order to provide enough food for everyone to eat a healthy amount of produce. Even with these adjustments, the total acreage devoted to fruits and vegetables would only be 5.28% of our total farm acreage.

It’s unclear why we grow so little food that we know is essential for good health. Certainly, the government subsidies for grains play a role – driving down the price of grain, which then becomes an extremely profitable raw material for food companies. Demand also plays an important role, though. Have we become so accustomed to processed food and sugary beverages that we no longer demand produce, or is the price difference between fresh and processed foods turning people away?

Counting calories.

Pro-grain groups often cite world hunger as a justification for using any means necessary to produce more calories. However, in the United States, we have over 3700 available calories per person per day [1] – far more than any of us needs to consume. However, if we followed the UCS’ suggestion and switched 23 million acres of grain-producing cropland to the growing of fruits and vegetables, we probably would reduce the total number of calories we produce.

Grains go through so many changes before they are consumed that it’s hard to say how many calories would be produced on 23 million acres. Here’s my first attempt to estimate how much of an impact such a change would have on the caloric yield of our food. For simplicity, I’ll just focus on corn for this analysis.

According to the USDA’s crop statistics, the 2011 corn harvest was used for a variety of purposes: 40% went to ethanol fuel, 12% was exported, and 9% went to food sweeteners and additives, including high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), glucose, dextrose, food starch, and alcohol. Only 2% of the corn harvest was used to make corn-based foods (e.g. corn chips), while 37% went to animal feed, an indirect source of edible calories. That means 52% of the corn harvest did not contribute to the available calories in the US, and another 37% entered indirectly through consumption of meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs from corn-fed animals.

The whole point of switching from grains to fruits and vegetables is to enable people to eat the daily recommended values of these foods. So, presumably, 100% of the harvest from the additional 23 million acres would be consumed by humans. Because 52% of the corn crop does not contribute to edible calories, the new fruits and veggies could provide only 48% of the calories from the corn they replaced without changing the number of edible calories in the food system.

Of the corn that directly delivers calories, the largest portion becomes HFCS, which contains about 80 calories per ounce*. About 32 pounds – or 512 ounces - of HFCS can be produced per bushel of corn [2]. In 2011, about 25 bushels per acre were used for HFCS, yielding about a million calories over the year. The next largest portion went to glucose and dextrose. If these sugars have similar conversion rates (a big assumption), then the 6% of the corn crop used to make HFCS, glucose, and dextrose produced about 1.7 million calories. I was unable to find enough information to deduce the caloric yields per acre of food starch or alcohol, but these are likely negligible.

Edit (09/05/13): In the above analysis, I incorrectly calculated the number of bushels per acre that were devoted to each type of food product. The numbers should be about 6 bushels per acre for HFCS, 3 for glucose and dextrose, 3 for starch, and 1.5 for alcohol. I have also found the information for the corn starch conversion; one bushel of corn can be used to make 32 pounds of corn starch, which contains 107 calories per ounce. Hence, the total caloric yield of these "food uses" was only 531,000. I am still neglecting calories from corn-based alcohol in this analysis.

Jonathon Foley, of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, stated that the caloric efficiency of converting corn to edible animal products ranges from 3% to 40%, depending on the product (e.g. steak vs. eggs). So the 37% of corn that is used for animal feed contributes far fewer calories than were initially grown. How many calories would the corn deliver if it wasn’t used for animal feed? Well, if it’s made into HFCS, as most of the corn is, the 50.5 bushels per acre devoted to feeding animals would produce approximately 62,000 to 825,000 calories depending on which conversion rate is assumed.

The 2% of the corn crop that is used for food goes into a wide variety of products, from corn chips to polenta. That makes it virtually impossible to determine the precise caloric yield per acre. However, according to the Corn Refiners Association, corn oil is the major food item produced with corn. One bushel of corn produces 0.7 pounds of corn oil [3], which contains about 240 calories per ounce. Making the simplifying assumption that all 11 bushels per acre that were used for food were delivered in the form of corn oil yields just under 30,000 calories.

Edit (09/05/13): As above, the bushels per acre is an over-estimate. The correct number is about 2,  which yields about 13,500 calories.

Based on these assumptions, I estimate that the 2011 corn crop supplied between 1.792 and 2.555 million edible calories per acre to the US food system, depending on the relative amounts of different animal products produced.

Edit (09/05/13): My revised estimate is 600,000 to 1.8 million calories. In the Foley article, he states that the US corn supply delivers about 3 million calories per acre per year, but there is no reference or data provided. I can only guess that my calculation includes some oversimplifications that account for the discrepancy. However, he also states that the corn crop is used to make polenta, which is actually made from sweet corn. The crop data from the USDA, upon which I have based my analysis, does not include sweet corn. So, perhaps we are using different data as well as different assumptions.

Also in 2011, the USDA reports that 1.76 million acres were devoted to the growing of vegetables and melons, which resulted in 43.2 billion pounds of food [4]. That’s ~24,500 pounds per acre. The top three crops were onions, head lettuce, and watermelon. Onions have about 12 calories per ounce, lettuce has 4, and watermelon has 9. Using the average of these three as representative of the caloric yield per pound of vegetables results in 3.14 million edible calories per acre.

It’s pretty surprising to think that vegetables and melons produce more calories per acre than corn. The reason is the way we use corn. If we instead used the 40% of the corn crop currently devoted to ethanol production to make corn oil or high fructose corn syrup, the corn crop would deliver significantly more calories than the vegetable crop. Of course, having more corn oil or corn sweetener may not have a significant benefit to human health.

We could also produce more edible calories if we did not use corn as animal feed. However, as long as we are growing corn, perhaps using it to create foods like eggs and pork is a nutritionally superior choice. Feeding corn to animals, especially cows, has many other drawbacks, though. Overall, the lack of an efficient pathway from the corn crop to nutritious food reinforces the idea that we ought to grow less corn, and use the land to cultivate nutritious foods instead.

The recommendation from the Union of Concerned Scientists is to convert 23 million acres of land from grain to fruits and vegetables in order to provide all Americans with their daily recommended intake of these foods. My analysis, which necessarily required a lot of simplifying assumptions, shows that this switch would actually deliver more edible calories to the food system, in addition to more micronutrients. It also shows how inefficient the corn-based system is at producing actual food. This makes me wonder just how much we could change the food system without a significant drop in calories. Could we switch to all organic production? Diversified farms? Farms that combine plants and animals? Given that we currently produce a surplus of calories, can more extreme changes in production practices (e.g. devoting more land to pasture for animals) still provide enough calories to feed our population? And would those calories provide superior nutrition to what we currently produce? Hopefully, with more research into sustainable farming practices, we can begin to answer these questions and design a food system that can sustainably produce nutritious, delicious food.

I think our food system should produce more fruits and vegetables instead of crops that are not used primarily for food. The Union of Concerned Scientists is doing a great job of showing how to make these changes and informing food policy decisions. You can learn more about their vision for the future of the food system in their recent policy brief, The Healthy Farm. You can also follow their blog, The Equation. If you like what you see, consider joining and taking action. Together, we can “plant the plate” and get on a better path to a sustainable food future.

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Caveat to my analysis: More of the wheat crop is devoted to food products than the corn crop. Hence, switching from wheat to fruits and vegetables could result in a net drop in edible calories in the food system. Most farms cycle between wheat, corn, and soy, so it’s not quite as simple as switching out inefficient corn for produce. Although, perhaps fruits and vegetables could be added to the rotation instead of corn. This type of analysis is necessarily complicated, especially by the diversity of end products from corn, wheat, and soy. If you have ideas as to how it could be improved, or if you know of similar analyses elsewhere, please leave a comment!

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References:
[1] Data from FAO statistics website
[2] Fooducate article (32 pounds) and 2008 Iowa State Extension Service publication (33 pounds)
[3] North Dakota State University Extension Service website
[4] Data from USDA Economic Research Service website

* All calories determined from Calorie King

Sunday, May 5, 2013

A Farmroots Effort.

Between my full-time job as a planetary scientist and caring for my one-year-old, it’s pretty tough to keep up with current events. However, a few recent headlines caught my attention and got me thinking about the best way to approach food system change.

Kid-tested, MOM-approved.

I’ve seen a few signs for MOM's Organic Market, a local grocery chain here in Maryland, but didn’t know much about them. MOM's is now making headlines because its founder and CEO, Scott Nash, has instituted a policy banning products that market to children. Anything with a cartoon character on the package, regardless of how wholesome it may appear to be, is being replaced. After his own toddler insisted they purchase a cereal she had never eaten solely because Clifford was on the box, he decided to make a change. According to Scott’s blog:
“Advertising in and of itself is a rather shady game. I think most of it is deliberately misleading and, at best, beside the point - focusing more on creating shallow emotional attachments to a product rather than pointing out the merits of the product. And unfortunately, it works. This manipulation process begins early when corporations target children. It’s irresponsible and, in my opinion, unethical. Let children be children and at least wait until they’re earning their own money before engaging them in the age of consumerism.”
Marketing to children is an especially contentious issue because scientific studies have shown that kids younger than 7 or 8 lack the capacity to tell truth from fiction [1]. They can’t critically analyze a health claim or see a marketing ploy for what it is. And while, in the end, the responsibility lies with the parent, using cartoon characters in advertising seems like a purposeful attempt to sabotage a parent’s good intentions. Unfortunately, regulating marketing to children has met with a lot of push-back, both from the food industry and from people who are concerned about their personal choices being further restricted. In contrast, MOM's approach offers shoppers a choice. If you would prefer to avoid marketing gimmicks and the potential for meltdowns in the cereal aisle, you can shop at MOM's.

Genetically-modified ordinances.

Recently, Whole Foods grocery stores announced that, by 2018, all of their suppliers will be required to label any genetically modified ingredients in products sold at Whole Foods. According to their website, the decision to require GMO labeling was based on widespread customer demand.

This is not a shocking choice; Whole Foods is all about organic food and sustainable agriculture. Or, at least, that is the niche in which they operate. Regardless, it’s a step in the right direction. Despite widespread popularity, it’s been incredibly difficult to pass labeling laws and other restrictions on GMOs at the state and federal level. But, as with MOM's, it seems like change at the retail level is much more feasible.

This new policy builds upon Whole Foods’ existing relationship with the Non-GMO Project, an organization that verifies whether food products contain any genetically modified ingredients. You can easily avoid GMOs by buying organic, but the Non-GMO Project labels provide extra certainty when it comes to processed or packaged foods. And Whole Foods’ new labeling rules will make it even easier to identify GM ingredients. Labeling is important because it allows consumers to show their preferences and exert market pressure.

Fair Food with Integrity.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) has successfully convinced Chipotle to sign their Fair Food Initiative, assuring that the farm workers who picked the tomatoes served at Chipotle were treated humanely. Until this change, Chipotle’s Food With Integrity program had included concern for the growing conditions of their produce and the treatment of their animals, but issues of farmworker exploitation were notably absent.

The CIW has blazed a trail in improving the conditions for America’s farm workers. And they did so by targeting retailers at the top of the food chain, who can afford to pay a little extra (1 penny per pound) for their tomatoes. Chipotle now joins Burger King, Taco Bell, and McDonald’s in helping make sure farm workers have some basic protections, like access to shade during their workday. Their “Food With Integrity” message means a lot more when it includes the people who keep the food system running.

Customers making change.

In the past, I’ve pointed out the increasing concentration within the food industry. Through mergers and acquisitions, from production to distribution, most food products are owned and sold by only a few companies. Smaller, independent companies are free to make their own policies and offer consumers a meaningful choice. It may take a bit more effort or money to shop at these retailers (although Chipotle has become quite prolific!), but it really is critical that we support diversity in the marketplace.

In all three of these cases, retailers made changes that have been nearly impossible to achieve through governmental regulation, and they did so mainly in response to the desires of their customers. Perhaps this sort of “farmroots effort” is a better approach to changing to the food system than regulation at the state or federal level. Or, at least, it’s an approach we should take in tandem.

With this in mind, I tried to think of some other retailer initiatives that consumers could get behind. One idea is to push Trader Joe’s to institute a similar GMO labeling requirement. TJs already rebrands the majority of their products, so they have ultimate control over what goes on the package. And Trader Joe’s recently signed the Fair Food Initiative, which shows that they are willing to consider policy changes when their customer base is vocal and persistent.

Along the lines of marketing, I would definitely like to see retailers pull products with dubious health claims. I recently came across several sugar-laden cereals that claimed to be healthy because they included whole grains and were high in Calcium and Vitamin D. Careful label-reading revealed that those nutrients actually came from the milk that they expect you to eat along with the cereal. Dubious health claims are often purposefully misleading and set people up to make poor decisions. Somehow these claims do not fall under the category of false advertising, but they are clearly intended to be misinterpreted.

Are these things you would fight for? What else could we do?

There are many ways we can advocate for change within the food system. The simplest is to change what we eat. We can also vote for change, both at the polls and through regular communication with our elected officials. These recent events have revealed an additional option – working with retailers to promote change at the point of purchase. From GMO labeling to food marketing to farm worker rights, we can make a difference.


Related posts:
On the CIW - People for the Ethical Treatment of People
On Chipotle's Food With Integrity program - Eat at Steve's
On concentration in the food industry - To organic and beyond!

[1] I've heard this factoid several times, such as in this NYT article that gave an overview of recent studies on marketing to children. Unfortunately, I have been unable to identify the actual study. More information about marketing to children can be found via the CDC.

Monday, February 18, 2013

What's cooking: Week 1.

Being an ethical eater requires both cooking and planning. It has become a hobby in my household, one that is fun, cooperative, and can be done with a glass of red wine in one hand. But things weren't always easy. It can take some time to get into the groove of meal-planning. So, to help those of you who are just getting started, or merely looking for some fresh ideas, I'll be posting our weekly menus whenever I have the chance. Each meal is intended to serve two people for 2-3 nights, and they are all gluten and dairy free. As always, your feedback is appreciated. If you'd like to contribute recipes and menus from your household, let me know.

Slow-cooker beef with roasted red and sweet potatoes and a fresh spinach salad.

The cook time on this dish is long, between 4 and 8 hours, but you will only need to prepare things at the beginning and again near the end. Makes about 4 servings.

Ingredients:
2.5-3 lb. beef roast
1.5 cups stock (or water)
3-4 carrots
2-3 stalks celery
1 onion
2 tsp thyme
1 bay leaf
Pepper and salt, to taste

3-5 red potatoes
2 small sweet potatoes
Olive oil
Pepper and salt, to taste
Paprika, rosemary, and thyme, to taste

4 cups raw baby spinach
Raisins, apple, or pear
Sesame seeds or slivered almonds
Balsamic vinegar, to taste

1. Chop the carrots and celery into roughly inch-long pieces. Quarter the onion.

2. Add the carrots, celery, and onion to the slow cooker. Add meat and spices. Pour the broth around the meat so as to avoid washing off the spices. Cook on low for 8 hours or on high for 4 hours (depending on your particular slow cooker).

3. When the beef is about 45 min. from done, starting heating the oven to 400°.

4. Wash the red and sweet potatoes and pat dry. Chop into bite-sized pieces, discarding any ugly spots or poky bits.

5. Toss the pieces in olive oil (just enough to lightly coat them), and then spread them out on a lined baking pan. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, paprika, rosemary, and thyme, to taste (probably less than ½ tsp each). Place them in the oven for 35 minutes, “stirring” them after about 25 min.

6. Plate roughly a handful of spinach, top with some raisins and sesame seeds (or slivered almonds), and add a little balsamic vinegar as dressing.

7. Add potatoes to the plate. Slice the beef and serve, topped with veggies and drippings from the slow cooker.

Miso-glazed salmon over rice noodles and sesame broccoli.

A quick and tasty dish, based on two recipes from Simple Suppers. Makes 4 servings.

Ingredients:
4 portions of salmon (4-6 oz. each)
2 Tbsp light miso
1.5 Tbsp mirin
1.5 tsp brown sugar
2 Tbsp rice or cider vinegar
2 Tbsp toasted sesame seeds
Scallion

Pad Thai style rice noodles
Gluten-free soy sauce (look for Tamari soy sauce)

~1 lb. broccoli
1 tsp rice or cider vinegar
2 tsp dark sesame oil
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
1/4 tsp salt

1. Begin boiling water for the noodles. Heat the oven to 450°.

2. Rinse and coarsely chop broccoli and place in a covered, microwave-safe dish with a few drops of water.

3. Rinse the salmon, pat dry, and place skin-side down on a lined baking sheet. Make several slashes through each fillet, but don’t cut all the way through.

4. Bake the salmon for 5 min. While it cooks, combine the miso, mirin, sugar, and vinegar. Slice the scallions. Remember to keep an eye on your pasta water; when it reaches a boil, add the noodles, and begin cooking according to the package directions.

5. After 5 minutes, remove the salmon from the oven. Spoon the miso-mirin sauce over the fillets, and then return it to the oven for another 3-5 minutes, until it flakes easily with a fork.

6. During the final stage of cooking the salmon, cook the broccoli in the microwave on high for 3-4 min, until you reach your desired state of mushiness. Mix with the rice vinegar, sesame oil, red pepper flakes, and salt.

7. Spoon some broccoli into bowls, add rice noodles and a little soy sauce, and top with the salmon. Then, sprinkle the salmon with toasted sesame seeds and sliced scallions. Enjoy!

Thai butternut squash soup with tofu over jasmine rice.

This is another great recipe from Simple Suppers, although slightly modified. Use frozen squash and rice for a quick weeknight meal or cook them from scratch when you have more time. Cooking squash is pretty easy. You can even do it in the microwave*. Makes 4 servings.

Ingredients:
1 cup coconut milk
1/2 tsp red curry paste
1 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
2 cups vegetable broth
4 cups fresh or 24-oz frozen cooked winter squash (e.g. butternut or acorn)
2 cups baby spinach or other leafy green
Juice of 1 lime and 1 tsp lime zest
Optional: 1 Keiffer lime leaf, chopped cilantro

1/2 cake firm tofu (about 8oz)
1 Tbsp gluten-free soy sauce
1/2 tsp red curry paste
1 tsp coconut oil

0. If you are making rice on the stovetop or rice cooker, start it now.

1. In a soup pot, combine coconut milk, curry paste, sugar, salt, and veggie broth, and mix well. Add the squash and the (optional) lime leaf, cover, and bring to a simmer. Cook about 15 min, or until the squash is thawed.

2. While the soup is cooking, dice the tofu and toss it in a bowl with the soy sauce and curry paste. Heat the coconut oil over medium-high heat in a small skillet. Add the tofu and cook for about 5 min, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and set aside.

3. Chop some cilantro. Grate the lime peel (avoid the bitter white pith underneath) and then juice the lime. Add the lime zest and juice to the soup. Stir in the spinach and tofu. Cook until the spinach wilts. If you are making frozen rice, cook it while the soup finishes up. 4. Spoon some rice into bowls. Top with the soup, and garnish with fresh chopped cilantro, if desired.

* - You can learn how to microwave butternut squash here and here. We typically cut ours in half before cooking it, most like the first recipe. Also, microwaving is best for squash that will be used in soups, sauces, etc. If you are going to eat your squash straight, oven roasting is the way to go.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Taking stock: What to do with a whole chicken.

We’ve really enjoyed being a part of the meat CSA program at North Mountain Pastures over the past year. We receive one box each month, with a variety of beef, pork, and chicken. We’ve had the chance to try several kinds of steaks, roasts, and ribs that we’d never had before. We also had a traditional Oktoberfest sausage that was especially delicious with their homemade kimchi. Although the selection is mostly a surprise, one thing we always get is a whole chicken. At first, we were really intimidated. But, over time, we have learned just how easy it can be to cook a whole chicken, and how much food we can get from this one bird. For about $30, we can make dinner for two people for three nights and almost 2 quarts of chicken stock to freeze for later. Here’s how we do it.

Slow-cooker chicken.

Our first task is to cook the whole chicken. We use a slow-cooker, one of the world's greatest inventions for busy people who still want to eat well. We typically eat the legs and thighs one night and the breasts the other night, along with a couple of vegetable side dishes. There is usually enough meat left over to incorporate into a third meal as well. A little leftover chicken makes a great addition to a veggie-laden salad or even a stir-fry.

Ingredients:
  • A whole chicken (4-5 pounds)
  • Approx. 2 cups vegetable or chicken stock
  • To taste – pepper, salt, rosemary, sage, and thyme

1. Place chicken in slow cooker.
2. Add left-over chicken stock or vegetable stock, enough to cover about ½ the bird (at least enough to enter the cavity of the bird).
3. Salt and pepper the outside of the chicken. You can also add about a teaspoon each of rosemary, sage, and/or thyme.
4. Cook for 4 hours on high or 6-7 hours on low.
5. Remove chicken from slow cooker, and cut off the meat to use for dinner. Place the carcass in a large sealable bag or container, and store it in the refrigerator for a few days or freeze it until you are ready to make the stock.

Vaguely Mediterranean chicken. 

Last time we made a whole chicken, I raided the pantry and fridge to make up this easy third dinner. This recipe can be easily modified to include any other veggies you may have lying around.

Ingredients:
  • Olive oil, if needed
  • Leftover chicken
  • 1 can of diced tomatoes or 2 large tomatoes, chopped
  • 1 bunch lacinato kale
  • 1/2 tsp each, Italian seasoning and garlic powder
  • Rice

1. Rinse and coarsely chop kale. Cut chicken into bite-size pieces and dice tomatoes, if necessary. If you are making rice on the stovetop, start it now.
2. Add oil to the pan, and warm over medium-high heat. The amount of oil will depend on the kind of pan you have; you shouldn’t need more than a tablespoon.
3. Give the oil a minute or so to heat up, and then add the kale. Saute the kale for several minutes, stirring occasionally.
4. Add the tomatoes, chicken, and spices. Reduce the heat to low and heat through. If you are making instant/frozen rice, start it now.
5. Once the chicken is nice and warm (about 10-15 min.), serve over rice.
Stocking up.

We mostly follow the chicken stock recipe in Deborah Krasner’s book, Good Meat, which is a wonderful resource for the ethical meat eater. We store our stock in the freezer in food-grade mason jars (like these) that we purchased at a local hardware store. When we're ready to use the stock, we place a jar in a bowl of water in the fridge overnight. Also, we add salt only when cooking with the stock, not in its preparation.

Ingredients:
  • A whole chicken carcass
  • 1 carrot, cut into chunks
  • 1 stalk of celery, cut in half
  • 1 onion
  • 1 whole clove or 1/4 tsp ground cloves
  • 5 whole peppercorns
  • 1 bay leaf

1. Combine all ingredients in a large pot. Add enough water to cover the ingredients (Krasner suggests at least 5 inches over the top).
2. Heat on medium-high heat, uncovered, until the stock begins to boil.
3. Reduce heat to the lowest setting at which you can maintain a simmer.
4. Let the stock simmer for 3-4 hours, until it is golden and fragrant. As it cooks, skim any foam the forms on the surface.
5. Use a strainer or large slotted spoon to collect all the solids; smoosh any veggies to get a bit more flavor and then discard.
6. Place the pot in the sink, surrounded by ice, for about half an hour (or just put in the fridge).
7. When cool, pour the stock into jars or other freezer-safe containers. Chill the stock in the fridge overnight. Then, if you plan to store it for more than a few days, move it to the freezer.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Will vote for food.

With election day almost upon us, we have heard the candidates express their views on the economy, abortion, and foreign policy. They have described how skyrocketing health care costs, and our future health care needs, will impact our society and the national debt. And yet, at no point has either candidate discussed the cost of subsidizing grain production or the impact of cheap processed food on our worsening health. Clearly, these important food issues are still not part of the national political conversation. Although the food movement has made great strides in expanding access to sustainable, nutritious, ethical food, it is equally important to have a political voice.

According to Ballotpedia, there is only one food-related ballot measure being considered in this election: California’s Prop 37, which requires that foods containing genetically-modified ingredients be labeled as such. The biotech companies have poured millions of dollars into defeating this important piece of legislation. They have filled the airwaves of California with negative and misleading ads that paint label advocates as ignorant fear-mongers. A label, they say, will give the impression that there is something to fear about GMOs and may turn away consumers.

In my opinion, there is reason for concern when it comes to GMOs. They are somehow considered different enough from their unmodified counterparts to warrant patents, yet similar enough to not require any additional testing or regulation. GMOs are banned in over 60 countries throughout the world, and even some countries accepting US food aid have declined our donations when the food is genetically-modified.

It is often argued that genetically modifying foods like corn and soybeans is no different from selective breeding of animals to promote certain traits. But GMOs are fundamentally different from anything we have created in the past. They incorporate genetic material from completely different species and deliver this material by encasing it in the cells of viruses (because viruses are so good at bypassing the natural defenses of the original genetic material). Furthermore, GM seeds are not developed in order to create food with more desirable traits. Rather, it enables companies to patent seeds, requiring farmers to buy new seed each season, and to create a better market for their chemicals. For example, the most prolific GMOs are designed to survive application of Round-Up, which is conveniently sold by the same company that owns the rights to the GM seed: Monsanto.

Genetically modified foods are different, both in form and function, but are they dangerous? Frankly, we don’t know because testing is not required by the FDA and the fact that the seeds are patented raises legal issues when it comes to studying them. Adding more regulation or oversight has also proved challenging because the GM seed companies (like Monsanto) are able to exert so much power over the regulatory process. The Citizens United decision, which protects the rights of corporations to make campaign contributions, has only exacerbated the problem.

Another (and perhaps better) way to force biotech companies to prove the safety of their product, both for consumers and the environment, is for consumers to demand it by choosing not to buy GMOs without further study. And really, isn’t that how the free market system is supposed to work? If consumers are afraid of GMOs, it should be the responsibility of the company selling them to prove that GMOs are safe, effective, and better than the competition.

Consumers cannot exert market pressure if they have no way to assess the differences between products. Give people information about what is in their food, and let them decide whether or not to buy it. Empowering consumers in this way allows us more freedom of choice, requires fewer regulations, and gives us the ability to control our food future.

I hope that, come Tuesday, Californian’s will vote yes on Prop 37 and that this fight will inspire similar legislation in other states. Moreover, I hope it will spur those of us in the food movement to take more political action. We need to call our senators and representatives to show our support for food-related legislation. We need to vote in the primaries for our elected officials so we can get more candidates with an interest in food issues onto the ballot. We must take every opportunity to ask candidates and elected officials about their views on farming, nutrition, and the environment so they know they have both the obligation and the support to fight for a better food future. We have to speak up and speak out, and eventually, we will win.

Want more information? Check out these organizations and articles:

Right to Know
Just Label It

Michael Pollan in The New York Times
Frances Moore-Lappe in the Huffington Post
Farmers for truth in labeling
Civil Eats post on the fight for Prop 37