This story originally appeared in Edible Marin and Wine Country.

If you follow Sir Francis Drake Boulevard down the Point Reyes Peninsula toward the lighthouse, beyond the now-vacated Drakes Estero, you might find yourself at Historic Ranch B, also known as Double M Dairy. Here, Jarrod Mendoza raises dairy cows on land his family has ranched for generations.

Despite its sweeping views and windswept vistas, the 1,200-acre ranch isn’t large by today’s standards. The certified organic milk from the 250 cows Mendoza manages usually only fills half of the refrigerated storage tank that is kept in a low-ceilinged room beside the milking parlor. When Jarrod’s father, Joey, ran the ranch using conventional methods, he grazed 500 cows at a time, and the tank was always full. Now, Mendoza sells his organic milk to Straus Family Creamery. The move to higher-priced organic has allowed him to produce less and give each animal access to more pasture during the winter and spring when seasonal rains bring the grass onhis land to life. Read more

Foie gras. Few foods have been quite so polarizing in recent years. But according to Michaela DeSoucey, author of the new book Contested Tastes: Foie Gras and the Politics of Food, the French delicacy-turned-animal-rights-flash-point is much more than just a source of intense debate.

DeSoucey, an assistant professor of sociology at North Carolina State University, who spent nearly a decade researching the culture and politics around foie gras in both France and the U.S., sees it as a useful lens on what she calls “gastropolitics.” We spoke with DeSoucey about the ethical and moral implications of this contested food, and what it was like to spend a decade documenting what she calls, “a clear case of reasonable people disagreeing.” Read more

Who doesn’t want the food they eat to be clean? That may have been what the people behind the Good Food Institute (GFI) were thinking earlier this week when they announced their intention to rebrand lab-grown meat as “clean meat.” According to the new nonprofit group, which represents the companies behind “cultured” animal products such as beef from Memphis Meats, milk from Perfect Day, and other high-tech and plant-based meat alternatives, the term is intended to evoke “clean energy.”

On the group’s blog, Bruce Friedrich, GFI’s executive director and founding partner of New Crop Capital, wrote:

First, “clean meat is a more accurate way of describing real meat grown without animal slaughter. Second, “clean meat” is similar to “clean energy” in that it immediately communicates important aspects of the technology—both the environmental benefits and the decrease in food-borne pathogens and drug residues.

Friedrich’s language immediately problematizes the modern agriculture industry—a great deal of which is inarguably flawed. Alternative proteins could make up one-third of the market by 2050 and the drive to use fewer resources in the food system is important. But will calling this meat “clean” convince consumers? Or will it just make muddier an already-muddy pool of consumer messaging?

In addition to the clean energy comparison, the term also appears to be playing off the idea of “clean eating,” which magazines like Fitness, Eating Well, and Cooking Light define as holistic approach to eating whole, unprocessed foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein.

And while some “clean food” advocates point to the importance of certified organic and antibiotic-free production practices, the lifestyle choice appears, by and large, to be aimed more at people focused on losing weight and achieving optimal fitness than on changing the food system. But that might be part of the appeal.

At its most simple, “clean eating” is a vague and highly subjective effort to mainstream—or sanitize—the type of diet that health and environmentally-conscious people have followed for, well, forever. It’s genius, really. You take foods once considered fringe or “crunchy,” wave a magic branding wand over them and—poof!—they’re Gwyneth Paltrow and Jessica Alba-approved. Not to mention that clean is a close cousin of tidy—a quality that we have been told can bring magic to our lives.

In this sense, the move by GFI makes a lot of sense. But it’s not without its critics. As Nicolette Hahn Niman, a rancher and the author of Defending Beef, sees it, the clean-dirty dichotomy doesn’t work when you’re talking about where our food comes from.

“If you spend even a few hours on a farm, you quickly see that it’s a beautifully messy enterprise that is all about soil—AKA dirt,” Niman wrote in a recent email. “In fact, the best farms are those that mimic nature’s intense complexity. Applying that term [clean] to lab-generated food might actually make more sense, since it comes from a (theoretically, at least) more sterile environment. But that certainly does not suggest to me that it’s healthier or better for the environment.”

Emily Moose, Director of Outreach for A Greener World, a nonprofit that works with farms and ranches and oversees several humane meat labels including Animal Welfare Approved, begs to differ with GFI’s characterization of all meat as “dirty.”

“There are a lot of unknowns about laboratory-grown meat substitutes, from both a sustainability and food safety perspective,” she said. “We don’t know how much energy it will require, and how scalable—or not—it may be. While scientists beta test this new technology, proven solutions are already right in front of us: high-welfare, certified sustainable meat, dairy, and eggs are being produced every day by farmers and ranchers across the continent.”

Echoing Niman, Moose pointed to what she sees as the benefits of meat production done right: “Environmental regeneration, climate change mitigation, and strong rural communities. Taking food production off of the farm rejects farmers and ranchers right when we need them the most.”

She added that while lab-grown meat makes a lot of promises, “there’s a very real possibility that it will only benefit the patent-holder—as we have seen with GMO technology.”

Andy Bellatti, a dietician who often focuses on plant-based foods (and an occasional Civil Eats contributor), feels that that lab-grown meat has a place on the growing list of options for consumers looking to eat fewer animal products. But, he added, branding and language is only one factor when it comes to turning the tide of consumer behavior. “If the idea is to get people to replace animal-based products with these—the top two factors should be affordability and taste,” he said.

Bellatti is also not convinced that high-tech meat alternatives deserve quite as much press as they’re getting. “Within the plant-based market there’s room for everybody—but it’s very easy when looking at the media to think that the only companies that matter are the ones that are based in a lab,” he said. “I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with [lab-based products], but I think we need to acknowledge the other companies as well—whether that’s legacy meat alternative companies or brand new companies,” which are making interesting foods with novel combinations of beans, whole grains, and vegetables outside of labs.

The latter are important, he added, because “When you look at the average American diet, a lot of the nutrients people fall short on—fiber, magnesium, potassium—are plentiful in plant-based foods. I know that’s not necessarily the aim of these [clean meat] companies, but from a public health perspective, we need to keep that in mind.”

It’s tempting to hold out for solutions to all the food system problems at once, but there’s still no silver bullet. And polarizing the debate around the value of animal agriculture may ultimately add more heat than light. Technology can play a role in bettering the food system, but it’s only one piece of a complex and challenging puzzle that will require a wide range of—squeaky clean and down and dirty—solutions.

I’m a huge agriculture nerd. At no point is this fact more evident than on long drives through California’s farm country. Yes, I’m that person who notices when the almond trees give way to a pistachio orchard and calls out, “pistachios!” as if the other people in the car will care.

But this deep-seated love of crop-spotting is only one of the many reasons James Collier’s series of farm landscape images recently caught my eye. Read more

A few weeks ago, we introduced our readers to Patrick Holden, a farmer and the director of the UK-based Sustainable Food Trust. This weekend, Patrick is bringing together hundreds of scientists, advocates, business leaders, and journalists for a three-day conference in San Francisco on the True Cost of American Food. He points out that while food in the developed world is cheaper than at any other point in history, the resources required to grow and make it—and the environmental and health impacts of doing so—are costing governments and taxpayers a great deal. Read more

It’s not easy to change the culture of the institution you work for, but that’s precisely what Dr. Joe Leonard, assistant secretary for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), hopes to do every day, a little bit at a time.

If you didn’t know the USDA had a secretary of civil rights, you’re probably not alone. But at a time when Black farmers make up less than 2 percent of U.S. agriculture, and the sector is still recovering from generations of documented discrimination against Black and Native American farmers, the fact that few lay-people are aware of his work doesn’t appear to be slowing Leonard down. Read more

It’s one of the great ironies of the holiday season: Many of us donate food this time of year, but it’s not usually the type of food that improves the diets of food-insecure folks.

Patrick O’Neill, the founder of a new crowdfunding site called Amp Your Good, estimates that upwards of 75 million people make donations to food drives around the country every year. “All those people are well-intentioned,” he says.But it’s often the wrong kind of food.” Think boxed macaroni and cheese, canned fruit in heavy syrup, and other canned and processed options. Read more

I have a friend who likes to ask: “Do you want to talk about it? Or be about it?”

For years, whenever author and New York Times food systems columnist Mark Bittman was considering his next move, he’d ask himself a similar question. After writing and talking about the nation’s most pressing food system problems, demystifying home cooking, and proselytizing about the benefits of eating more plant-based foods, he decided to get up from his desk and start doing more to help engage people in solutions. Read more