ChewsWise Blog

ChewsWise Blog

Is Organic and Local "so 2008"?

By Lisa M. Hamilton

Organic and Local is so 2008—or at least that’s the case that journalist and “The End of Food” author Paul Roberts makes in Mother Jones this month. The gist of his argument: because the food system’s problems are so deep, the food movement needs to mature beyond its one-dimensional, at times robotic devotion to Organic and Local and instead adopt a broader range of solutions.

He offers the example of Fred Fleming, a noted Washington wheat farmer whose masterful no-till system has greatly reduced erosion from his land. Fleming remains outside the foodie circle because his system depends on using herbicide, but Roberts argues that he is just the sort of farmer we should be embracing.  Roberts does make an important point: agriculture faces many more issues than whether or not farmers use pesticides; to boot, all of those issues are currently being compounded by climate change.

Wes Jackson of the Land Institute recently made a related point underscoring the threat we face from soil erosion. He argues that the most damaging climate-change-related weather events we’re seeing are not hurricanes hitting the Eastern seaboard, but heavy rainfall and floods in the Midwest. In Jackson’s view, even the destruction wreaked by Katrina did not compare to the long-term loss we suffer from having millions of tons of farmland topsoil washed away in floods, as happened last March and April. I can imagine Roberts chiming in to say that if using some Roundup would hold that soil in place, the tradeoff would be worthwhile. It’s hard to disagree with that. 

But after hearing Roberts make his case live at Organicology in February, I would argue that he’s too near-sighted with his remedy. Rather than embrace farmers’ lesser-of-many-evils practices within the existing system, we need to overhaul the system itself. As it is, farmers are expected to be purely economic beings that fit into the free market alongside mortgage securities; the true solution instead lies in seeing them as the ecological caretakers we so desperately need them to be.

Think of it roughly like the National Parks: Years ago, we as a nation recognized the need for large areas of land to be taken out of the real estate market for the express purpose of maintaining them according to a different set of priorities; we saw that wild lands served the public good, and that not protecting them was to our detriment. Well, now we’ve reached the same situation with our working lands, as the constant pressure of the market system has led them to a threatened existence.

I’m not suggesting we buy up farmland and make it government property, but rather that we recognize farmers and ranchers as a kind of public servant. To begin with, replace the Farm Bill’s provisions for subsidies and incentives for commodity production with a true support system of financing, education, and farmer-centered research and market development; that could enable growers to switch their focus from bank notices to caring for their lands long-term. In time, probably most would gravitate to ecological methods such as the organic no-till farming system that Rodale has been developing for the past decade. 

Some, though, might choose herbicide-dependent no-till as the suture that would hold their land in place. In that lies the greatest challenge of supporting farmers: trusting that given the proper tools, they know and will do what’s best for the land. I believe that trust is where Roberts’ argument was leading, even if it didn’t quite reach that conclusion in the MoJo article. If so, it’s a step in the right direction.

Northern California-based writer/photographer Lisa M. Hamilton focuses on food and agriculture. Her book "Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness" (Counterpoint) comes out in May. 

Organic Pasture Rule, Part II

There was an early sense of relief at the USDA's newly proposed organic pasture rule, but the devil, as they say, is in the details. I've been hearing questions about the rule and its mandates that fall outside the much-debated 120-day, 30% forage minimum. I haven't digested the criticism or concern yet, so if you have, post a comment. I hope to write on this further as the issues gel.
- Samuel Fromartz

Organic Controversy in Britain

There was a good segment on the BBC's Food Programme a couple of weeks ago on organic food in Britain, which is facing some of the same challenges and controversies over scale that have roiled the industry in the U.S. It also explores what consumers are doing in a world of higher prices and lower incomes. So if you've got  25 minutes and an interest in the organic food industry, check out this link for the Real Audio file.   

Farmers and Politics and Obama

If you look at those electoral maps of the United States, you often see a big red swath going right through farm country from the Dakotas to Texas. In the organic sector, my impression is that the biggest political force is libertarianism, because these are people who went off on their own, who didn't trust the dominant ideology, whatever it was, and who wanted to do their own thing on the farm.

But they still vote. And in that regard, I'll say two things. First I was encouraged that Obama had actually read and thought about Michael Pollan's Letter to the Next President in the New York Times magazine. Secondly, I thought of farmers when I viewed this video from People in the Middle for Obama (which I first saw on Andrew Sullivan's blog).

- Samuel Fromartz


Organic Middlemen on a Mission

Did you ever wonder where your organic, local food might come from when it appears in a supermarket or restaurant?

In this article I wrote for Edible Portland, I highlighted a couple of wholesalers who are proving vital to the local and organic foods movement. Toooften, middlemen are derided in sustainable agriculture circles, where the emphasis is usually on buying direct from farmers markets and the like. But selling wholesale works for a lot of farmers, as the article points out. A shout out to Portland's EcoTrust for requesting this story!

Here's the lede:

It might be hard to believe that this cold, dank, 27,000-square-foot warehouse in Eugene, Oregon, across the road from several natural gas storage tanks and a giant commercial composting operation, represents a distant ideal of food distribution. But it just might. The cement loading docks of Organically Grown Company are quiet at 8 a.m., but earlier in the morning, well before dawn, workers here and at another facility twice as big in Portland were pushing pallets of organic produce into waiting trucks. Some are stamped with the LADYBUG label, indicating produce grown on farms in the Pacific Northwest. (read on...)

Organic Animals Must Graze, USDA Rules

Resolving a longstanding dispute, the USDA published a proposed pasture regulation that sets new grazing requirements for organic livestock and bans confined feedlots from the industry.

Dairy farmers had been pushing for this rule for at least three years, though variations had been proposed since at least 2000. According to the USDA's document on the regulation, published in the Federal Register, more than 85,000 people sent in letters in support of a stricter pasture requirement (pdf).

Advocates say the USDA actually got the new pasture regulation right. In a press release from the National Organic Coalition, Kathie Arnold, a New York State organic dairy farmer, said: “This draft rule provides specific language needed for enforcement of one of the central tenets of organically produced livestock—that organic livestock spend a considerable part of their lives in their natural pasture habitat and receive a significant portion of their food from fresh, green, growing pasture.”

Previously, the USDA required organic livestock to have "access to pasture," a term that was so loosely interpreted that  several prominent organic CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) arose in the industry, housing thousands of cows with little or no grazing on pasture. The pasture loophole undermined the purpose and intent of organic livestock agriculture.

Now, "Dry lots and feedlots are prohibited," the proposed regulation says.

Animals must graze throughout the growing season, which in some regions may be for the entire year. The bare minimum nationally would be 120 days. In the document, the USDA explains:

In the United States, growing seasons range from 121 days to 365 days, depending on location. By using the growing season as the minimum time period for grazing, the regulations ensure that ruminants raised in areas with longer grazing periods are not denied the opportunity to graze for more than the minimum of 120 days.

In addition 30% of a cow's nutritional needs must be met by pasture, which means they must be eating fresh grass.

If this rule is adopted, as expected, after the 60 day comment period, it will undo the disturbing rise of organic CAFOs and require that organic livestock graze on pasture, as consumers and farmers overwhelmingly expect.

In short, the regulation looks like a big win for organic integrity.

- Samuel Fromartz

Will the Economic Bust Stifle Organic Food?

By Samuel Fromartz

When the commodity boom and rising food prices took hold last year, optimists argued that this might cause people to switch to organic and sustainable foods, because the premium was no longer so high compared with mass market fare.

I was skeptical of the argument then, and even more so now. There are ample signs that consumers are cutting back in the face of a slumping economy and if anything, downsizing to discount retailers that skew towards cheaper food. Sales of Spam are growing. The more committed organic food shoppers will always be there, but much larger number of dabblers are scaling back, unable to see the real value above the cost. 

At Whole Foods, which has built a business on sustainable, organic and high quality perishable foods, sales growth is at a historic low, leading the company to cut back on new store openings and eliminate its quarterly dividend. Executives are emphasizing its value products, many sold under the 365 store brand, and trying to shake its Whole Paycheck image.

I can see why they are concerned. I was shopping in the Whole Foods store in Denver last Sunday in the middle of the day, before heading up to the mountains with the family. Last year, when I was in the same store in Cherry Creek on the exact same weekend, I recall it was bustling. This year, there were fewer shoppers, the aisles sparse.

In contrast, the Whole Foods Markets in Washington, D.C., are still crowded on the weekend to the point of discomfort. But DC or New York City -- where a high number of shoppers don’t drive at all -- might be the exception.

In an interview in May, Whole Foods CEO John Mackey pointed out that people were driving less, which meant fewer trips to the store. What shoppers seem to be maintaining, or even increasing, are buying trips to discounters -- hence the single-digit sales gains at big box retailers like Costco. (Wal-Mart, which has cut food prices in the face of the slowing economy, is also doing well, though I don’t view them in the same retail universe as Whole Foods. Costco likely has greater overlap).

Whole Foods is not unusual on the retail landscape since many companies are experiencing a sales slowdown, or worse. But the more interesting question is what this means for all the grass-fed beef ranchers, artisan cheese makers, organic produce farmers and even organic dairy farmers. Are their products now viewed as a “luxury” that must now be economized out of the family budget? Is this a road bump in the real food movement, or a more fundamental end of the road?

Right now, I’d argue it’s a road bump, though it's uncertain how long or how big the series of bumps will be. The length, depth and vast impact of this current credit-infused economic downturn is unknown. The wisest assessment I’ve heard is that no one knows, because the financial engine of the economy -- banks, insurance companies, mortgage companies, and the like -- keep surprising on the downside with ever increasing credit losses. If the finance companies don’t know the depth of their losses, evident by the repeated quarterly write-offs they take, how can anyone pretend to know when the worst will be over? Or to put it in simple turns, how can anyone predict how large the mortgage bust will be and what will be left when it's over.

This is a horrendous climate for any company but look at the long-term trends. I’ve repeatedly stated that organic foods, sustainable foods, farmers’ markets, and the like, are not a fad. They have only been growing against a troubling drumbeat of news about food safety and health. There is ever growing awareness about rising obesity, tainted food, and what we’re actually putting down our gullets. This supra-economic food trend is evident in everything from the nutritional information now demanded on New York City menus to the fear of imported food from China. Cheap, we know, has a price, and more than a few of us are unwilling to pay it regardless of our shrinking family budgets.

Do you think the questions about where food comes from, how it’s produced, and what it’s doing to our bodies, or more importantly, our kids bodies, will suddenly disappear because we are now more budget-conscious?

You can actually make a convincing counter-argument that values become more important in tough economic times. You jettison the superfluous in favor of what’s really important -- and for some, that might be humanely raised meat rather than premium cable-TV. If you must economize, you might peruse 101 Cookbooks for a great tofu or soba noodle recipe rather than throw in the towel and buy industrially raised meat or pesticide-laden foreign farmed shrimp. 

Local foods present a good case. As consumers grow more concerned about the economy and the foreign provenance of foods, local will become more pertinent. Just as in 9/11, when restaurant sales dipped in favor of home-cooked meals, local food might well see a long boom in the face of growing economic pressures. In tougher times, sure, people want to economize but they also huddle closer to one another, want to connect to and help their local communities, and support their farmers. Community provides solace, and what better way to define community than around food.

In an interesting case in Petaluma, California (about 90 minutes north of San Francisco), an inventive non-profit called Petaluma Bounty started an urban organic farm and a series of community gardens to produce food for low-income people. Now it is gleaning fruit from trees growing in people’s backyards -- 20 tons of it that would have rotted on the ground -- and distributed it to food pantries. This work connects locally produced organic food with a larger social mission in tough economic times.

So sure, in a tough economy, consumers will scale down and look for ways to save money. They might cut out superfluous purchases, like the $4 afternoon latte, $5 chocolate bar, or grass-fed T-bone steak. They might spend more at big box discounters. More recent dabblers in organic and sustainable foods -- who don’t really get the compelling reasons for buying this food -- may decide it’s an unafforable luxury.

But the worst mistake retailers and sustainable foods companies can make right now is too lose their sense of their mission and alienate the core customers who do get the argument, who do find real value in this food and who are economizing  in other areas of the household budget in order to buy it.

These core shoppers, many of who are young, well educated, but on tight budgets, are looking for ways to save money too. Who doesn’t like a sale for organic or grass-fed ground beef or a 79 cent can of organic black beans? But they are not going to economize at the expense of deeply held values. The case for sustainable food is simply too strong. They might look for more affordable options, but they are not jettisoning their deeply held values.

Neither will the smarter companies in this business as they batten down the hatches and ride out the storm. They will stand out from the perhaps less-committed companies who got in, like so many companies nowadays, for a touch of the green aura. Those wannabes will be the first to exit, concerned about a shrinking consumer base and fears about fading fads. Let them go. They never understood what this was all about in the first place, which is about changing the food we eat and the way it's produced.

Those values -- and the trends driving them -- will be around long after this shake out is over.

Earthbound's 100 Percent Organic Leap

At the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Cooking for Solutions event last week, I ran into Drew Goodman, the founder with his wife Myra of Earthbound Farm. The company, which began on a 2-1/2 acre plot in nearby Carmel, is now the biggest organic produce company in the world known for their bagged salad mixes.

But for years, they also had a conventional arm, selling non-organic produce from land that was undergoing the three-year transition to organic production. This so-called "split operation" was a nifty set up, for it allowed them to sell to customers who wanted a non-organic product and it also created a market for transitional crops. You might say this arrangement was crucial to their growth.

It also had a downside, most notably when tainted conventional spinach they processed for Dole was implicated in the e. coli crisis a couple of years back.

Now, Earthbound, or more accurately, the corporate entity that owns it, Natural Selection Foods, is out of the conventional produce business altogether.

"As of April, we're totally organic," Drew told me.

This was surprising news since it meant that they were no longer selling any product off of transitioning land. With prices of conventional salad mix so low, however, it might make sense. It also makes sense given their values -- they are strong believers in the benefits of organic farming and food and now have a robust enough business that they could leave conventional behind.

It also means they no longer run dual lines in their salad processing plants, one conventional, the other organic. Now, all their facilities are organic.

I also asked him whether demand was still growing for their product, in spite of rising food prices. He said it was and didn't expect it to let up anytime soon. In fact, he said, organic spinach sales were extremely high; higher than they were before the whole e. coli crisis struck.

It seems consumers still see high value in the organic salad product, perhaps because it's relative premium to conventional salad mix is so slim. You don't have to pay a lot more to buy organic salad.

Another Earthbound employee told me the organic product wholesales for about $4.75-$5 for a three-pound bag to food service distributors, which means a chef pays about $7-9. Conventional salad mix goes for about $4-4.25 per three pounds.

I detailed the company's evolution in Organic, Inc.: Natural Foods and How They Grew, but suffice it to say that despite criticism they were highly innovative. That continues to this day with this latest step.

- Samuel Fromartz

Las Vegas’s Daily Diet of 60,000 Pounds of Shrimp

That figure comes from Rick Moonen, the chef at RM Seafood in Las Vegas who has a passion for sustainable fish. He mentioned that Las Vegas’s daily consumption of 60,000 pounds per day is more than the rest of the nation combined.

Where does that shrimp come from? Largely from farms in southeast Asia, which have a number of problems: the destruction of mangrove swamps where the farms are based, the application of pesticides and antibiotics in the fish farms that are banned in the U.S., the reliance of low-wage labor. His solution? He uses only wild caught US species.

This came out of a panel at the Cooking for Solutions conference at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which brings together about 60 journalists to learn about sustainable food. It’s one of the few conferences that gathers terrestrial and oceans experts in one forum and is flat-out one of the best conferences I’ve attended on these issues.

The day was opened by Gene Kahn, a founder of the organic food industry, who has since moved onto greener pastures at General Mills. As global sustainability officer, he set the theme of “continual improvement” -- that there is not one singular solution to sustainable food systems and that it demands incremental gains, not either/or approaches.

Kahn said he’s most interested in changing the mainstream since 1 percent change at General Mills is “revolutionary.” As a former organic food entrepreneur, he said he’s no longer interested in “selling food to yuppies” and that the mainstreaming of these values in everyday products represents a “democratization.”

Interestingly, he said the biggest risk to this entire movement is “greenwashing,” that is the practice of companies making claims that are so limited as to be functionally meaningless. The solution was to have transparent goals, processes and results. 

But back to shrimp, which along with tuna and salmon were the topics of the first panel.

The major issue with salmon is the destructive practices of farmed fish, both in pollution and the use of wild caught fish as feeder stocks. None on the four-person panel could endorse any farmed product. Indeed, the only positive farmed products mentioned were tilapia, trout, with a nod to Kona kampachi and barramundi. And of course, mollusks, such as mussels and oysters, which have been highly successful in farmed systems.

Tuna is one of the most widely eaten species, but the only population that won an endorsement from the panel was the pole caught albacore on the West Coast (low in mercury toxins, high in omega 3 fatty acids) and a few poll caught species off of Hawaii. The other major issue with tuna is that governmental norms over its harvest differ or are non-existant. Illegal fishing is also rampant.

“It’s a highly migratory species and requires international agreements that have not been forthcoming,” said Brad Ack of the Marine Stewardship Council. “The (consumer) market has not begun to drive that change, and that’s going to have the biggest influence.”

Pen-raised tuna (much of it in Australia and the Mediterranean) has been put forward as one solution, but Corey Peet of the Aquarium mentioned that these tuna require 25 pounds of feeder fish to create one pound of tuna - a horrendous ratio that is not sustainable. Furthermore, wild caught  juvenile fish are farmed in these pens, depleting wild stocks in which they might breed.

Paul Johnson, owner of the Monterey Seafood Market, said he expected some blue fin tuna populations to be extinct within the next three or four years. Whether he’s right or not is only a matter of degree.

As for salmon, the familiar advice to buy Alaskan wild salmon was widespread; species such as coho and sockeye will be more prevalent and cheaper than king salmon.

But Johnson said, “We are going to pay more for seafood if it’s sustainable.”

The solution: eat a smaller portion ... or different species.

Moonen said that smaller species are generally more sustainable - mackerel, sardines, trout - but that consumers have to learn how to cook them. To that aim, he recently published a cook book on this topic, Fish Without a Doubt, which we soon hope to review.

- Samuel Fromartz

What about those Organic Pesticides?

At an organic conference I attended last fall, I heard a farmer from the Central Valley of California, new to organic farming, bemoan the lack of organic-approved pesticides for production. "You just see aphids wipe out the crop," he said.

"I call that first generation organics," one industry veteran sitting next to me said. "They are just looking for replacements to the chemicals they use. They don't understand that what they really have to do is learn an entirely different method of farming."

A few "natural" pesticides are allowed under organic regulations, such as Rotenone, Pyrethrins (pdf) and Neem oil, and while they break down quickly when exposed to air or light they have various levels of toxicity. (Rotenone is the most controversial). The advocacy group, Beyond Pesticides, notes: "It is important to remember that just because a pesticide is derived from a plant does not mean that it is safe for humans and other mammals or that it cannot kill a wide variety of other life." (This was updated to note that Rotenone is no longer registered with the EPA, as a certifier pointed out in the comments section below).

A farmer or a gardener reaching for these insecticides to replace the chemicals he formerly used isn't truly following the organic method. If organic methods are truly followed -- composting, crop rotation, relying on specific cultivars and the nurturing of beneficial habitat for friendly bugs (that eat the bad guys) -- natural pesticides only become necessary as a last resort.

On this score, a horticulture professor, Jeff Gillman, has just written a book looking at the issue, and, according to the WaPo's gardening columnist Adrian Higgins, appears to have arrived at a reasoned approach: organic methods at heart are about feeding the soil and farming in such a way that reduces the need for pesticides. Higgins writes:

Gillman's fundamental argument -- to which I subscribe wholeheartedly -- is that if you are simply replacing synthetic products with organic ones, you are missing the point. The aim is to reduce the need for fertilizers and, especially, pesticides. How do you do that?

You build the soil with correct amounts of compost and mulch, choose plants that do well and place them in their optimum locations. "These are the true parts of organic gardening," says Gillman, a professor of horticultural science at the University of Minnesota.

But do organic farmers really follow these methods and avoid even those pesticides allowed in their arsenal?

The only work I've seen on this issue was in an annual farmer survey by the Organic Farming Research Foundation in 1998. It found that 52 percent of all organic farmers never used botanical insecticides and only 9 percent used them regularly. Other more benign methods such as insecticidal soap and Bt (a bacteria toxic to insects but not to humans) were cited slightly more frequently.

But what method did organic farmers most rely upon?  Crop rotation, cited by 74 percent. The reason rotation works is that it breaks up the habitat favored by a pest, never giving the pest a chance to breed in an ever-plentiful food supply.

Following Gillman's definition, it would appear that most organic farmers are, indeed, organic, though I would encourage OFRF to do a follow-up survey on organic pest and disease-reduction methods.

Image source: Biconet

- Samuel Fromartz

Honest Tea Founder Talks on Coke Deal

Though I took a critical look at Honest Tea's deal with Coke last week, company co-founder and CEO, Seth Goldman, agreed to chew it over with me in an interview.I worried the deal with Coke would throw Seth and his team off track, or worse. There's more than a few examples of companies that stagnated or died a slow death after a giant took them over. Seth countered that Coke will actually give Honest Tea a push in the market and revealed two new products he's launching this year. Here's the interview:

Read More

Organic Style Rag Rises From Ashes!

RoseOrganic Style Magazine - founded by Maria Rodale, then mothballed, then sold by Rodale Inc. - has been resurrected online by Gerald Prolman, better known as the organic rose guy.

I just got the link to it, so haven't read it cover to cover (pixel to pixel?) but it looks like it's going for the same audience as Yoga Journal, without the yoga.

It has an interview with Maria Rodale and an excerpt from Amy Stewart's book, Flower Confidential, on - you guessed it - organic roses. She visits a rose farm in Equador and explains how it gets by without chemicals. This is a cozy world, for those roses end up at Prolman's company, Organic Bouquet.

My only quibble is that it's a little tricky navigating from page to page -- maybe that's the nature of this digital beast. But it's not a biggee.

May a thousand flowers bloom.

(Photo of Prolman from Organic Style)