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    Archive for the ‘farming’ Category

    “What’s Organic About Organic?”: Takeaways

    woaologoYesterday afternoon, I attended a screening for “What’s Organic About Organic?”, a neat new documentary by Shelley Rogers that illustrates the differences between organic and conventional farming, highlights the challenges that many small organic farms face, and touches on issues that fall outside the scope of organic certification.  You can watch the trailer here!

    The darkness of the screening room was no match for my trusty notebook and pen.  Here are notes, factoids, quotes and questions I jotted down as I watched:

    • One organic farmer explains that conventional apples are sprayed with chemicals that are specifically created to withstand rainstorms.  He then poses the question, “how big of a rainstorm can you produce in your kitchen sink?”
    • Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., environmental health scientist and consumer advocate, explains that most agricultural pesticides are simply diluted versions of chemicals originally created for chemical warfare.
    • Colorado organic farmer Andy Grant recounts an anecdote that truly stuck with me.  One day, as a young boy growing up on a farm, he spotted a few grasshoppers that had been sprayed with insecticides jumping close to where his dog was laying.  As a result of the insecticides’ effects on their nervous systems, the grasshoppers were jumping erratically.  This caught the attention of his dog, which ended up eating one or two.  The dog died soon thereafter.
    • Sewer sludge is commonly– and legally — used as fertilizer in conventional farming.
    • Current USDA organic guidelines do not touch upon issues of agricultural workforce.  Some farmers believe that the organic seal should also reflect humane treatment of farm workers (i.e.: providing safe working conditions, providing healthcare, etc.).
    • The best part of the documentary, in my opinion, is a 10 to 15 minute segment in which a conventional dairy farm is juxtapositioned with an organic one. In the conventional farm, the cows are milked three times a day, subsist on an unnatural wheat diet, and are often injected with a wide variety of medications and antibiotics to treat the multitude of symptoms and diseases that are a direct result of their living conditions.  At the organic farm, cows are exclusively pasture-fed.  We also learn that cows’ symptoms (i.e.: diarrhea) are treated with herbs.  As farmer Jim Gardiner explains, a lot of weeds that are considered “nuisances” in conventional farming are powerful medicines for cows.

    I definitely recommend watching this if you get a chance.  It’s not only informative, but also a wonderful “organics 101” for people who may not be fully aware of the issues that pop up with conventional farming practices.  I also appreciated the humanizing aspect of focusing on a small handful of organic farmers.

    Click here to remain informed about future screenings.


    Gummy Bears, Chocolate Cake, and Feathers: A Day In The Life Of A Cow’s Diet

    cows2Think cows’ unnatural agribusiness diets of corn, wheat, and soy are bad?  It gets worse.

    Much, much worse, according to this paper by Randy D. Shaver, PhD of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

    I highly recommend you leaf through that paper.  Here are some highlights of permitted — and commonly used! — foods for cattle:

    • Blood Meal. “Blood meal is produced from clean, fresh animal blood, exclusive of all extraneous material such as hair, stomach belchings, and urine except in such traces as might occur unavoidably in good manufacturing processes. Types of blood include conventional cooker dried, flash dried, and spray dried.”
    • Hydrolyzed Feather Meal. “Product resulting from the treatment under pressure of clean, undecomposed feathers from slaughtered poultry.”
    • Candy. “Candy products are available through a number of distributors and sometimes directly from smaller plants. They are often economical sources of nutrients, particularly fat. They may be high in sugar and(or) fat content. Milk chocolate and candy may contain 48% and 22% fat, respectively. They are sometimes fed in their wrappers. Candies, such as cull gummy bears, lemon drops or gum drops, are high in sugar content.”

    Apparently, then, feathers and gum drops do have something in common — they are fed to our cows.  Gross.


    Numbers Game: Top Crops

    soybeans____ percent of corn and soybeans grown in the United States are certified organic.

    a) 10
    b) 4
    c) 0.2
    d) 1

    Leave your guess in the “comments” section and come back on Tuesday for the answer.


    Is Agriculture The Next Wall Street?

    normal_iil-ian-aj-0163The economic crash of 2008 forever changed the financial landscape.  Consumer confidence sank, investors balked, construction projects around the world halted, and recovery is expected to continue well into the next decade.

    I can’t help but think of Wall Street’s most recent implosion as a possible preview of what may happen with agriculture in the United States.

    After all, the economic crash was the end result of an unsustainable financial system.

    I use — as well as italicize and underline — the word “unsustainable” because it also happens to describe our food system.

    We are, currently, at the peak.  It all appears to be going well, as far as most people are concerned.  Fast food chains offer plentiful food for low prices, while the amount of available calories for each American is at an all-time high.

    You can’t help but wonder, though, how sustainable is the current agricultural system?  It’s becoming increasingly clear that the answer is “not very”.

    Increased pesticide and herbicide use over the past three decades has poisoned bodies of water and severely altered biosystems.  Cattle-feed operations produce millions of tons of manure each year, placing a huge burden on the environment.  Fish farms pollute nearby waters.

    There is no possible way in which the current food system — which essentially sticks up the middle finger at Mother Nature — can continue as is for another decade without serious consequences.

    Unlike the Wall Street scenario, there are no bailouts for the environment.  You can’t simply bring life back to a poisoned river or lake overnight, no matter how many millions of dollars you throw at it.

    This is not a doomsday prophecy.  I believe, more than ever, that we are at the early beginnings of what could be a powerful collective shift in how we view food.

    These issues can be often be daunting — at least they are for me — because it can be difficult to pinpoint what the best starting point is.  For now, I believe that informing others of how our current food system works is crucial.  There is no need for self-created pedestals, or belittling.  After all, each and every one of us, at some point, had absolutely no awareness about any of this.

    Similarly, “the sky is falling!” scare tactics often paralyze, rather than stir people into action.

    While activism and advocacy are great services to society, not everybody has the time, personality, or unbridled energy for headline-making moves.  You don’t have to be a policy maker to take action, though.  If you are part of a book club, suggest that one of your upcoming tomes be “Food Politics” by Marion Nestle, “Fast Food Nation” by Eric Schlosser, or “Appetite for Profit” by Michele Simon.

    Are you a school teacher?  See if you can fit “Supersize Me”, “King Corn”, or “Food, Inc.” into your curriculum.

    Discuss.  Analyze.  Engage in conversation.  And, always, continue learning.


    Coming Attractions

    Over the past ten days I have had the pleasure of watching two upcoming, vastly different food and nutrition documentaries.

    First up? Food, Inc — an incredibly engrossing and harrowing look at the state of farming and food processing in the United States from the people who brought you An Inconvenient Truth.

    To become familiar with the subject matter before its June release date, visit The Meatrix, where all the grizzly details of meat production are explained.

    I also recommend checking this link to see if Food, Inc. will be screened at a film festival near you before its limited big-screen debut later this Summer.

    This is a MUST-SEE for anyone interested in farm policy, agricultural subsidies, agro-business, and the current state of the United States’ food chain. You might want to bring some anxiety medication with you, since the tone of the movie is extremely “doomsday” (in my opinion, sometimes annoyingly so).

    On a more lighthearted note, this past Thursday I had the pleasure of watching upcoming kid-friendly documentary What’s On Your Plate?, “[which] follows two eleven-year-old African-American [New York City] kids as they explore their place in the food chain [and] talk to each other, food activists, farmers, new friends, storekeepers, their families, and the viewer, in their quest to understand what’s on all of our plates.”

    While certainly softer (and much easier for children to grasp) than Food, Inc., What’s On Your Plate? showcases issues of local agriculture, school nutrition, and big business with very little preaching or finger wagging.

    PS: I predict an Oscar nomination for Food, Inc.


    In The News: Michelle On A Mission

    Terrific news!

    “On Friday, Michelle Obama will begin digging up a patch of White House lawn to plant a vegetable garden, the first since Eleanor Roosevelt’s victory garden in World War II,” reports today’s New York Times.

    Alas, this is not a one-person job.

    “Twenty-three fifth graders from Bancroft Elementary School in Washington will help her dig up the soil for the 1,100-square-foot plot in a spot visible to passers-by on E Street. Students from the school, which has had a garden since 2001, will also help plant, harvest and cook the vegetables, berries and herbs.”

    This is no small garden, either. Fifty-five vegetables will be planted, ranging from arugula to cilantro to kale and spinach; berries (and even honey!) will also have their place.

    Mrs. Obama’s parting words of dietary advice are music to my ears. Forget crash diets, low-carb nonsense, Master Cleanse ridiculousness, or “no food after 8 PM” hogwash.

    Mrs. Obama keeps it simple: ““You can begin by eliminating processed food, trying to cook a meal a little more often, [and] trying to incorporate more fruits and vegetables.”

    I love the message — eat more fruits and vegetables. Simple, concise, and relevant.



    Survey Results: The Farm Bill

    I can’t say I was surprised to learn that 70 percent of Small Bites’ latest poll respondents classify themselves as being “not at all” familiar with the Farm Bill and an additional 22 percent as “having heard of it, but not knowing any details.”

    The Farm Bill is, at its most basic, a document that dictates farm and food policy in the United States (ranging from food stamps to farm subsidies to conservation programs to the School Lunch Program).

    Of course, “basic” is an understatement when you consider that the latest Farm Bill spans almost 1,500 pages and is infamously verbose and convoluted.

    If you are interested in a “Farm Bill 101” lesson, I highly recommend this article.

    Up for review every five years, its latest revision took place in 2008.

    Although the entire Farm Bill affects food production, trade, and policy, the two most relevant sections to nutrition are title IV (Nutrition) and title X (Horticulture).

    Click here to see what has changed in title IV as a result of the 2008 Farm Bill
    , and check out this page to see what is new in title X.

    Lastly, this page succinctly highlights a variety of “good news” emerging from the 2008 Farm Bill as far as local foods and consumer benefits are concerned.


    In The News: Wall Street, Farm Subsidies, and Our Health

    The Los Angeles Times published a nifty article tying in the current economic situation, the horrendous farm subsidies (“for the last 60 years or so, the government has subsidized the production of commodity crops — corn, wheat, rice and soybeans — that are ingredients in many high-calorie foods… to receive the subsidies, farmers must refrain from growing any fruits and vegetables,”) and nutrition.

    The article also highlights a study published last year in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, which tracked the prices of 372 foods and beverages sold in the Seattle area for a two year period (2004 – 2006.)

    The conclusion? “The average price increase was 7.9%… [but] foods most dense in calories had dropped by an average of 1.8%, [while] prices of the lowest-calorie foods had gone up by an average of 19.5%.”

    As discouraging as that may seem, here is my by-no-means-exhaustive list of affordable and nutritious foods you can rely on (whenever applicable, buy generic):


    Plain yogurt (non-fat or low-fat)
    Plain quick-cooking oats
    Whole wheat bread
    Natural peanut butter
    Brown rice (cook in large batches and refrigerate)
    Ground flaxseed (a two pounds bag costs between $4 and $5 and will last you months)
    Canned beans (I suppose dry beans are the true money saver, but canned beans are inexpensive and a wonderful source of lean protein)
    Potatoes (the key is to keep the skin on and cook them with little added fat)
    Sweet potatoes
    Garlic (an inexpensive way to add flavor)
    Frozen spinach
    Frozen broccoli
    Canned tuna (ideally chunk light and packed in water, to preserve the Omega 3’s and slightly cut down on mercury levels)


    In The News: The Least Newsworthy Item Ever

    CNN is reporting the results of a study by the University of Copenhagen which concluded that “organic foods contained no more nutrients than non-organic foods grown with the use of pesticides.”

    More specifically, “researchers studied five different crops — carrots, kale, mature peas, apples and potatoes — which were cultivated both organically (without pesticides) and conventionally (with the use of pesticides) and found that there was no higher level of trace elements in the food grown organically.”

    How is this news? Organic foods have never been touted as “more nutritious,” simply pesticide-free, easier to substain, and gentler on the environment.

    As far as nutrition is concerned, an organic orange has just as much vitamin C and fiber as a conventional one.

    If we’re talking solely about lowering pesticide consumption from fruits and vegetables, organic choices are best suited to ones with thin skins or that you eat in their entirety (i.e.: raspberries, as opposed to pineapples.)

    Let’s not lose track of what is truly important — eating a variety of fruits and vegetables every day provides many health benefits.

    You’re guaranteed several nutrients and phytochemicals, regardless of how they are grown.

    Thank you to Patricia D. for forwarding along the CNN article.


    In The News: Which (Antibiotic) Came First? The (One Fed To The) Chicken Or The (One Injected Into) The Egg?

    Ready for a real doozy from the world of chicken raising, antibiotic feeds, and USDA policies?

    Alright, buckle up!

    It was reported earlier this week that Judge Richard D. Bennett of the United States District Court in Baltimore ordered chicken giant Tyson to pull all advertisements from their “chickens raised without antibiotics that impact antibiotic resistance in humans” campaign by no later than May 18.

    Mind you, this campaign was originally billed as “chickens raised without antibiotics.” The United States Department of Agriculture happily gave it the green light.

    Until, that is, they went back and realized they had made a boo boo.

    Turns out Tyson includes antibiotic compounds known as ionophores in their chicken feed.

    Ionophores are commonly fed to chickens mainly as protection from a parasitic intestinal condition known as coccidiosis, as well as to help them gain weight.

    The USDA quickly drafted a letter to Tyson, notifying them that their “no antibiotics added” claim wasn’t entirely true. Consequently, they were asked to remove it from all packaging.

    Tyson rebutted by arguing that ionophores are classified by the Food & Drug Administration as antimicrobials, not antibiotics.

    Well, not quite. Although the FDA recognizes that ionophores have antimicrobial properties, they are technically antibiotics when used as part of chicken feeds.

    Tyson additionally claimed that ionophores are not a concern since they do not impact antibiotic resistance in humans, nor are they used in human drugs.

    After this back and forth, the claim was changed to “chickens raised without antibiotics that impact antibiotic resistance in humans.”

    If you’re wondering why the use for such convoluted language, it’s simple.

    Tyson, like many other chicken companies, injects chicken eggs with antibiotics approximately 2 days before they hatch.

    Ergo, by using the word “raised,” they only advertise what happens with the chicken after it is born.

    Largely due to pressure from Tyson’s competitors (which claim Tyson is misleading consumers), this updated claim is now being axed.

    This specific case doesn’t so much revolve around the “rights” and “wrongs” of including ionophores in chickenfeed, but the idea of misleading advertising and technicalities.

    It is worth pointing out that as a result of increasing consumer need for antibiotic-free food, chicken farmers are considering viable alternatives, including vaccination against a variety of illnesses.

    What do you think? Was Tyson misleading? Do you specifically seek out antibiotic-free poultry?


    In The News: Unmasking the Monster

    Thank you to New York University dietitian Mary Dye for pointing me to Vanity Fair‘s article on infamous agro business bully and genetically modified food darling Monsanto.

    Regular readers of Small Bites may remember Monsanto from an earlier post on recombinant bovine growth hormone.

    This exhaustive and brilliantly researched piece paints a stunningly accurate picture of Monsanto’s repercussions on farming, the environment, and the overall food supply.

    Enjoy (?).


    You Ask, I Answer: Cow Or Soy Milk?

    When it comes to milk, is soy milk better for kids than regular cow’s milk?

    — Anonymous
    Via the blog

    I don’t consider either “better” than other. This ultimately depends on personal preference and a few other factors.

    I don’t have a problem with children drinking skim or low-fat milk, provided that they aren’t lactose intolerant, of course.

    What disappoints me is that so many schools offer chocolate milk to children (and label it a “healthy” alternative simply because it contains calcium).

    A single cup contains a tablespoon of added sugar. It’s fine as a treat, but I don’t find it to be the optimal beverage to accompany a meal on a daily basis.

    Unfortunately, the majority of milk in the United States — chocolate or not — in the United States is produced by cows that chow on corn all day long and are injected with antibiotics and growth hormones.

    Milk in and of itself is a nutritious beverage, though, providing high-quality protein, calcium, vitamin D, vitamin A, phosphorus, and potassium.

    I would highly recommend opting for organic, grass-fed varieties.

    Soy milk is a perfectly fine alternative.

    Most varieties are fortified with vitamin D and provide a good amount of calcium, protein, and potassium.

    I would be more concerned with what they’re eating along with that cold glass of (dairy or soy) milk.

    *UPDATE* Thank you to reader “gd” for pointing out that vanilla and chocolate flavored soy milks also contain quite a bit of added sugar.

    I erroneously assumed everyone reads minds and would telepathically infer I was only referring to regular soy milk in this post.

    So, if you are opting for soy milk, I suggest going for plain or unsweetened varieties.


    In The News: All Corned Out

    The United States’ mind-blowing surplus of corn — largely encouraged by the government for ethanol production — was recently touched upon in this year’s superb documentary King Corn.

    Now, The New York Times’ Andrew Martin takes this issue one step further and reveals the latest crop battle: food vs. fuel.

    In fact, this might very well explain the reason behind the recent rising prices of everyday staples like milk, carrots, and broccoli.

    [Food manufacturers and livestock farmers] seethe at government mandates for ethanol production. The ethanol boom, they contend, is raising corn prices, driving up the cost of producing dairy products and meat, and causing farmers to plant so much corn as to crowd out other crops,” writes Martin.

    Certainly an eye-opening (and anger-inducing) read.


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