Last fall, after wondering for years about whether I should buy produce from farmers who claim that they are “organic, but not certified,” I dug into some big questions about certification. That process led me to explore many other seemingly respectable food labels that—while much less popular than organic—seemed to offer a similar, if slightly different level of transparency between eaters and farmers.
Find someplace warm to catch up with this week’s food news round-up.
1. Nation’s Top Nutrition Panel: the American Diet is Killing Us (Washington Post)
I vowed never to touch another Thai-farmed shrimp after attending a panel discussion recently at the SeaWeb Seafood Summit in New Orleans.
Steve Trent, the executive director of Britain’s Environmental Justice Foundation, described a multi-billion-dollar industry with a financial model that would not be viable without slave labor. “It’s the most horrific situation I have seen in more than 25 years of monitoring human rights abuses around the world,” he said.
In 1900, the average dairy cow in America produced 424 gallons of milk each year. By 2000, that figure had more than quadrupled, to 2,116 gallons. In this episode of Gastropod, we explore the incredible science that transformed the American cow into a milk machine—but we also uncover the disturbing history of prejudice and animal cruelty that accompanied it.
Eastern Washington is commodity wheat country; over 2 million acres of the grain grow in the state each year. Although researchers and farmers continue to explore alternative crops, today’s soft white wheat is remarkably easy and cheap to grow in this arid region.
Over a decade ago, however, two small Washington farms began embracing diverse varieties of wheat, growing hulled ancestors including spelt, emmer, and einkorn, collectively called farro. It’s often difficult to create demand for an unfamiliar crop—and these two farms took different, yet equally successful, approaches.
In the 2009 documentary Objectified, former New York Times magazine columnist and branding guru Rob Walker said something especially cogent.
“If I had a billion dollars to fund a marketing campaign,” said Walker, “I would launch a campaign on behalf of things you already own.” The idea, he went on to explain in OnEarth magazine, would be to shift consumer attitudes regarding the value of “newness.”
In August, five young men showed up at Soul Fire Farm, a sustainable farm near Albany, New York, where I work as educator and food justice coordinator. It was the first day of a new restorative justice program, in partnership with the county’s Department of Law. The teens had been convicted of theft, and, as an alternative to incarceration, chose this opportunity to earn money to pay back their victims while gaining farm skills. They looked wary and unprepared, with gleaming sneakers and averted eyes.
Last fall, the Culinary Breeding Network organized the first-ever Variety Showcase in Portland, Oregon, an event that brought together plant breeders, seed growers, farmers, produce buyers, culinary educators, and some of the city’s best chefs to taste and evaluate the most exciting new open-pollinated vegetable crops being grown in the Pacific Northwest. It’s tempting to dismiss a bunch of chefs swooning over exotic carrots as a farm to table cliché, but the event refocused attention on the most fundamental aspect of farming and cuisine: the seed.
Few farms save their own seeds. Most rely on a few major seed companies that control the majority of seed production in North America. Historically, the development of new seed varieties was a core public service offered by land-grant universities with strong ties to local communities.
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On Thursday, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-California), Representative Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon), and Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) reintroduced a federal bill that would direct the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)