ChewsWise Blog

ChewsWise Blog

Trawling for Real Shrimp

It doesn't take a PhD to realize that the price of shrimp has fallen dramatically over the past several years, so fast, in fact, that shrimp consumption has doubled in the past decade. So why is shrimp so cheap?

Gourmet has a good piece on this in its March issue (sadly, not online) by Barry Estabrook, "Do I Dare Eat a Shrimp?" What the article makes clear is that there are truly bad choices, when it comes to these little crustaceans, and less bad ones, but what's not clear is whether there is really a good choice.

First, the bad. Shrimp farms have proliferated in the developing world, created largely by ripping out mangrove swamps and putting in shrimp ponds. These farms kill native fish and pollute surrounding waters, leading to more forest destruction. Like much of factory farming, they are particularly prone to pests and disease, so they become a dumping ground for more than 20 antibiotics and pesticides. One of the most potent, the antibiotic chloramphenicol, can be toxic to humans and is banned for use in the U.S. Plus, these shrimp eat fish protein, which can lead to depletion of feeder stocks (one of the hidden costs of fish farming in many species).

Not surprisingly, the article asserts these shrimp don't taste very good either.

On the back of these operations, the price of shrimp has fallen dramatically, putting trawlers in U.S. waters out of business. But even these operations, which are catching real and tasty shrimp, are not benign. The problem, as with much of the fishing the world, is by-catch (that is, all the stuff that is killed and thrown overboard to catch the fish you want). Used to be it took 10 pounds of by-catch to get one pound of shrimp; now larger-holed nets have reduced that ratio to two-to-one.

But the wild catch amounts to only 200 million pounds a year, compared with the 1.4 billion pounds Americans eat each year. So it looks like farmed shrimp is here to stay, so the question becomes whether it can be done sustainably.

One company in Florida, OceanBoy Farms, is trying with closed inland pens. It recycles its water, grows Talapia feedstock fish, which are vegetarian (a good choice for people too), and also feeds the shrimp organic soybeans for protein. It avoids antibiotics and chemicals by having a superclean, bio-secure environment. Now fish farmers the world over are visiting the operation, since it does not depend on ripping out forests.

Only problem: the shrimp taste okay, not great, and are more expensive than the competition. (Recall that the competition doesn't spend the money to do things right -- it simply rips out more forest).

So what's a consumer to do? The clear choice is to buy a product that can be as close to sustainable as possible, either wild or farm-raised. Right now, that choice usually leads to U.S. suppliers. Or you could choose to stop eating shrimp and make your little dent in the 1.4 billion pounds consumed. Personally, I think it makes more sense to support those trying to do things right and create an alternative.

Now, enjoy your shrimp cocktail.

How Transparency Works

By Samuel Fromartz

I just read three pieces that show the power of transparency in the food system.

First was the op-ed in the Times I missed yesterday on the conditions of sows in the pork industry (should we call it the pig industry?). Nicolette Hahn Niman points out that Smithfield Farm recently decided to stop using gestation cages which "virtually immobilize pigs during their pregnancies in metal stalls so narrow they are unable to turn around."

Getting rid of gestation crates (already on their way out in the European Union) is welcome and long overdue, but more action is needed to end inhumane conditions at America’s hog farms.

Of the 60 million pigs in the United States, over 95 percent are continuously confined in metal buildings, including the almost five million sows in crates. In such setups, feed is automatically delivered to animals who are forced to urinate and defecate where they eat and sleep. Their waste festers in large pits a few feet below their hooves. Intense ammonia and hydrogen sulfide fumes from these pits fill pigs’ lungs and sensitive nostrils. No straw is provided to the animals because that would gum up the works (as it would if you tossed straw into your toilet).

You get the picture. I saw another email on how this sort of knowledge is affecting producers - in this case, in the dairy industry. The source was Dairy Line, a trade publisher for milk producers.

They are concerned that "well-funded activists" are raising questions about rBST, the synthetic growth hormone that pumps up milk production (and reduces the productive lifespan of cows). They blame the activists, but the fact is, consumers are voting for rBST-free milk with their wallets the more they hear about the issue.

As organic milk - which cannot be produced with synthetic hormones and antibiotics - has raised awareness on this issue, other non-organic milk companies have followed suit and are banning rBST (which is not approved for use in Europe).

The email goes onto state that "similar scenarios have developed in other arenas in recent months ... issues that affect poultry and pork production and 'We’re concerned dairy is coming under the same kind of attack,'" the email said.

As consumers learn more, production methods come under greater scrutiny and traditional agriculture feels the heat. It's happening across the food system.

Finally, transparency can effect decisions at the farm. Albert Straus, of California's Straus Family Creamery (an organic milk producer) decided to test his feed for GM contamination. According to Time magazine, he "was alarmed to find that nearly 6% of the organic corn feed he received from suppliers was "contaminated" by genetically modified (GM) organisms.

So Straus and five other natural food producers, including industry leader Whole Foods, announced last week that they would seek a new certification for their products, "non-GMO verified," in the hopes that it will become a voluntary industry standard for GM-free goods. A non-profit group called the Non-GMO Project runs the program, and the testing is conducted by an outside lab called Genetic ID. In a few weeks, Straus expects to become the first food manufacturer in the country to carry the label in addition to his "organic" one.

The bottom line: Transparency changes food production decisions. It is now having a measurable impact on what we eat.


GMO Seed Sales Halted

A federal judge Monday threw out the USDA's approval of genetically engineered alfalfa and issued a temporary injunction to halt sales of the seed.

The unprecedented ruling follows a hearing last week in the case brought by the Center for Food Safety against the U.S. Department of Agriculture for approving GE alfalfa without conducting the required Environmental Impact Statement.

While Monsanto and its allies claimed that delaying the sale or planting of their GE seed would harm farmers, the judge found otherwise. “Disappointment in the delay to their switch to Roundup Ready alfalfa is not an interest which outweighs the potential environmental harm…” posed by the GE crop, he wrote.

The LA Times reports:

The seeds ... are now in their second season of use. Such genetically engineered seeds are grown in 200,000 of the nation's 23 million acres of alfalfa, widely grown for hay and animal grazing.

The seeds were re-engineered so that alfalfa plants can resist the ill effects of another Monsanto product, a widely used herbicide known by the trade name of Roundup. As a result, some farmers say, they can get greater crop yield and better quality alfalfa.

California is the nation's No. 1 alfalfa producer with about 1 million acres under cultivation. The state's 2004 harvest was worth $853 million.

The ban will remain in effect until the judge considers lifting it or making it permanent. Monsanto is banking on increasing the acreage by convincing federal Judge Charles R. Breyer at an April hearing that farmers can use so-called Roundup Ready alfalfa seeds without contaminating neighboring fields.

Organic "Power Brokers" Hit D.C.

We're outing the power lobbyists of organic farming!

But first a few questions.

Do they work on the famed "K St." corridor in Washington, D.C.? No. Are they on a first-name basis with senior lawmakers in Congress? No. Do they have a big Washington association behind them filled with former administration officials and congressmen? No. Do they stay at expensive hotels in town? No.

Actually, they're farmers who had to stay in a hotel way out in Maryland.

Left to right: Tony Azevedo, Double T Acres, Stevenson, Calif.; Kathie Arnold, Twin Oaks Dairy, Truxton, N.Y.; Maureen Knapp, Cobblestone Valley Farm, Preble, N.Y. all certified organic farmers.

As Azevedo says: "We go in the front door and get a nice reception but I imagaine that there's other people going in the back door."

Azevedo and others were in town suggesting that Congress allocate more money for organic farming in the current round of the farm bill -- at least to a level commensurate with its growing role in agriculture. The Modesto Bee had a good piece on the issue. The farmers seek

- a $50 million-a-year grant program to assist farmers in adopting organic practices (which would be a new program)

- $5 million annually to help farmers offset the cost of attaining organic certification (refunding an existing program now out of money). This is the only subsidy specifically for organic farmers, amounting to a grand total of $500 per farm, to offset the costs of organic certification.

- a $25 million-a-year organic farming research program (about double the level currently).

Right now organic food is about 3 percent of the food supply. So if it were to get 3 percent of the $2 billion USDA research budget, that figure would amount to $60 million. Azevedo and others don't think that will happen. They even worry that the $25 million they're seeking now is a long shot.

How much does organic research get now? About $12 million in total, according to Mark Lipson of the Organic Farming Research Foundation.

Genetic Mystery: Contaminated Rice Seed

Editor's note: We welcome Dan Charles, an author and occasional NPR reporter and editor, as a new contributor to Chews Wise.

By Dan Charles

The most mysterious case of genetically engineered guests showing up, uninvited and unwelcome, in farmers’ fields just got more mysterious this week.

There's no genetically engineered rice for sale in the U.S., but tests of conventional rice seed, starting more than a year ago, have found traces of three separate genetically engineered strains.

The latest case, announced by the USDA this week, hit just as farmers began spring planting in Louisiana.

The case shows just how difficult it is to prevent the spread of genes, or seeds, from one field to another. In rice, the cases of contamination have shut down rice exports to Europe and forced seed companies to take two popular rice varieties off the market.

What everybody in the rice industry wants to know is, How how did genetically engineered plants end up in stocks of conventional seeds?

Here's what happened in the latest case.

Samples of a popular rice variety called Clearfield 131 tested positive for a DNA sequence that's commonly used in many genetically engineered varieties. Then inspectors tested for other DNA sequences, ones that are found in the three specific strains of genetically engineered rice that have been approved for sale but not yet on the market. These tests came back negative.

So the gene that's loose in Clearfield 131 appears to be from non-approved line of genetically engineered rice.

As a result, the USDA banned farmers from planting Clearfield 131 -- one of the most popular rice varieties. Planting in some areas was already underway, though. An industry source says at least two fields were planted with the now-banned variety. Those seedlings will presumably have to be destroyed.

Insiders think the contamination probably occurred at an agricultural research station near Crowley, Louisiana, (the “rice capital of America”) operated by Louisiana State University.

This research station conducted field trials, a few years ago, with several different lines of genetically engineered rice. Most of them were products developed by Bayer CropScience, engineered to tolerate doses of the herbicide Liberty, also sold by Bayer.

Simultaneously, this research station was breeding new conventional varieties of rice and growing small harvests of "foundation seed" -- the ultra-pure stocks that seed companies use in growing the seed that they sell to farmers.

The most popular varieties that this research station has released in recent years are called Cheniere and Clearfield 131. These are also the varieties contaminated with traces of genetically modified rice. (Cheniere was pulled from the market last fall.)

Evidently, pollen from the genetically engineered field trials, or a few stray kernels of rice, found a way to cross the few hundred yards that separated these fields. Perhaps harvesting equipment carried the kernels from one field to the other.

Rice pollen doesn't usually travel from one plant to another, but a windstorm might produce a freak instance of cross-pollination. However it happened, the genetically modified material did end up in foundation seed that this research station released to seed companies.

USDA inspectors have been going through the records of this LSU research station, testing every sample of seed that's been stored, trying to figure out where, and when, the genetic contamination happened. Evidently, it happened at least three separate times.

Rice farmers and exporters, at this point, are wishing they'd never heard of genetic engineering. Exports haven’t actually dropped overall; most countries have agreed to accept U.S. rice exports, as long as the industry appears to be making an effort to fix the problem. But the rice industry is worried that will change.

The lesson appears to be that the agricultural system simply isn't able to ensure pristine separation of different genetic lines of grain. Farming is a messy business; grain and pollen get mixed up.

It's been a tough few months for Steven Linscombe, director of the LSU research station in Crowley. Considering the scrutiny he's under, Linscombe has been notably open and willing to discuss exactly what he did in those field trials.

He's learned a few things. Last fall, when I interviewed him for an NPR story on this saga, he said that he'll never again grow genetically engineered rice on the same research farm with conventional foundation seed. Any field trials of genetically engineered rice will take place at a separate location, with separate cultivation and harvesting equipment.
Dan Charles is the author of Lords of the Harvest: Biotech, Big Money, and the Future of Food

Where is Organic USA?

The Organic Farming Reserach Foundation posted a nifty little map, showing the location of all certified organic operations in the United States. It also linked the data into Google Earth, so that you can zoom into your neighborhood. Not surprisingly, the majority of operations are concentrated on the West Coast, Upper Midwest, and Northeast. But these only refer to certified operations, so a tofu plant in Watsonville, California gets the same size dot as a 1,500-acre wheat farm in Montana.

Organic USA map

Mackey-Pollan Smackdown Turns Love Fest

By Carmel Wroth

AMUSE-BOUCHE: Local, of course

The pre-event reception to the Michael Pollan-John Mackey discussion drew quite a crowd.

Hungry (and penniless) graduate students rubbed shoulders with well-heeled foodies, including superstar chef Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, nutritionist and best-selling author Marion Nestle, and Bill Niman, co-founder of Niman Ranch meats.

Of course you’re wondering what there was to eat.

Guests munched on goat cheese fritata, artisanal salami, and crostini, decked with green olive tapenade, warm hedgehog mushroom spread with fresh grated romano, and duck liver pate.

All locally sourced, naturally!

Conversation buzzed—everyone was excited to see the two food luminaries talk. Or maybe they were just pleased they had scored tickets (people were soliciting them on Craig’s List before the event.)

Whole Foods employees had come from far and wide to see their boss.

“John Mackey is cool,” said Elizabeth Wade, a team leader at the Petaluma, California, store.

David Evans, Marin Sun Farms’ owner, who sells his grass-fed meat locally (and not in Whole Foods), said he hoped the Pollan-Mackey conversation would shed light on how “small farms can access a bigger market without sacrificing integrity.”

Yes, indeed, the question of the night.

FIRST COURSE: History Lesson

To start things off, John Mackey - co-founder and CEO of Whole Foods - gave the crowd of nearly 2000 people a 45-minute food history lesson, complete with colorful Powerpoint slides.

He walked us through the entire history of food procurement and production. Six discreet stages of food history from hunting and gathering to Whole Foods Market!

Okay, that’s not entirely fair. Mackey believes that a new era of food is emerging to replace industrial agriculture--what he calls ecological agriculture--and naturally it’s bigger than Whole Foods.

He seems to think his company is the heart of the movement (it may well be), and he clearly articulated a vision for a sustainable alternative to industrial food.

He also broke some news (as he seems to do every time he appears with Pollan). Whole Foods has established a $30 million venture capital fund to make equity investments in artisanal food companies. This presumably comes on top of a $10 million fund set up for farmers last year.

Secondly, the company is launching a “Whole Trade Guarantee” fo the company’s commitment to source certified ethically traded products.

How can you be cynical about this man?

SECOND COURSE: Smack-down Letdown

As the dialogue got under way, there was a rustling of expectation in the audience. The provocative debate was about to begin, right?

After all, these were the two men who disagreed so strongly about whether the organic food business was lapsing into industrialism that they conducted a heated, months-long online argument. (See our previous post for links on the debate)

In person, though, they were almost painfully gentle with one another. They sparred, a little, I guess, but it was more like couple's counseling than a duel.

For starters, there were admissions of mutual gratitude and admiration. Mackey had learned from Pollan. Pollan appreciated Mackey.

The denouement came when Pollan asked Mackey if he blamed the company’s recent stock devaluation on his less than flattering chapter on the Whole Foods. It went like this:

“Well you probably cost us about $2 billion,” said the natural foods tycoon. “Easy come, easy go.”

(Audience laughs)

“Seriously???” (Culinary poet laureate grimaces painfully).

Mackey described how a flurry of unflattering press followed the book, including frequent comparisons to Wal-Mart.

Pollan looked contrite.

Mackey melted: “Aw, I’m just pulling your chain a little bit, Michael!”

What are righteous eco-consumers to make of this not-so-spirited interchange? If you want to see a debate, as one audience member suggested, invite people who are really on opposing sides of an issue.

Pollan and Mackey originally did have their differences, but when Pollan came up with his eloquent critique, Mackey moved rapidly to turn Whole Foods' sustainable battleship in line with Pollan’s vision—or to emphasize the ways it already was already doing so (sourcing more local foods in stores and moving forward with supporting domestic grass-fed meat, for example).

Pollan, for his part, politely closed ranks with perhaps the most influential man in organic and natural food circles, which is, you'll recall, the alternative to 98 percent of the food supply.

Mackey had his own criticism of Pollan, saying “big organic” is not as big and bad as the author claimed.

“You exaggerated the extent of industrialization of organic,” he said, even adding his most contentious comment, “you’ve done some damage!”

Pollan said he “didn’t intend to demonize” big organic. Organic Coca-Cola would be fine by him. (Say what?)

Which leads us back to a fundamental question raised by the evening's discussion, can organic scale up without selling out? Is there a way to produce and distribute enough organic food to reach the vast majority of the population, or will organic food remain in its gilded 2 percent niche?

DESSERT: A challenge

With all these weighty issues on our minds, Mackey asked one last question.

“What is your contribution going to be? What are you going to do to support ecological agriculture?”

Other than shopping at Whole Foods and the farmers' market? We're still pondering that one.

(The Webcast of the event is archived here)