ChewsWise Blog

ChewsWise Blog

Michelle Obama and the Launch of the White House Farmers Market


The White House likes healthy, fresh, local food -- that was the message of First Lady Michelle Obama at the opening of the farmers market around the corner from the White House on Thursday. "I have never seen so many people excited about fruits and vegetables," she began. "That's a very good thing."

She linked the market to the garden on the White House lawn. "When we decided to plant the White House garden, we thought it would be a way to educate kids about eating more healthy. But the garden has turned out into so much more than we could have expected," she said. "This has been one of the greatest things I've done in my life so far." 


She also tied it to the health debate now underway. "I realized that little things like the garden can actually play a role in all of these larger discussions," she said. (Full remarks are here).

It was a celebratory occasion, punctuated by screams and yelps from the crowd. And then after her remarks, the shopping began as the First Lady strolled over to the Farm at Sunnyside and bought some organic vegetables from my friend Emily Cook, who I knew as a farm intern years ago. 

USDA Secretary Vilsack was also on hand, drinking a bottle of organic chocolate milk from the grass fed cows at Clear Spring Creamery in Washington County, Maryland.


But the main attraction was the First Lady. Clearly, the White House is interested in this issue. Clearly, they are trying to do something about it. And hopefully, it will move past symbolism and the snarky criticism of columnists who miss the forest for the kale and retread the same old tired ground. A far more subtle and intelligent reading of this entire event -- and an analysis of the First Lady's message -- can be found in this post by Eddie Gehman Kohan of ObamaFoodarama.  

Grass roots activism started this local foods movement, dramatically expanding farmers' markets around the country, but celebrities and policy makers will push things to the next level.

Among them -- Bernadine Prince and Ann Yonkers, who launched the first FreshFarm Markets 12 years ago in DC and made this White House market happen. Farmers markets have come a long way since then and I expect they have a ways to go.


- Samuel Fromartz

USDA Launches Local Foods Blitz, Bans Fried Foods and Donuts in Cafeteria for a Day

I don't usually get calls from the USDA, let alone the deputy secretary, but there Kathleen Merrigan was on the phone from her car and it wasn't a prank. 

She wanted to talk about the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food campaign that the USDA launched this week, which centers on building buzz around local and regional food systems and "spurring economic opportunity." Merrigan is chairing the initiative, which comes not a moment too soon.

The USDA has finally recognized how important and vital local and regional food systems are -- and is tapping into the vibrant activity already underway by making an effort to open up its doors and purse strings. 

Among other things, the USDA is 

This sounds like a lot of hoopla -- you can review the press materials at the USDA links above -- but I did get a chance to ask a few questions, most notably, "What is this about?"

Merrigan said she has been quietly heading a task force since May to push local and regional agricultural initiatives. Representatives from various department programs are meeting biweekly to discuss how best to achieve that goal. Like Obama, Merrigan and her team seem impatient about getting things done.

"The secretary told me he wanted me to take on the local and regional food challenge -- it was a top priority of my job aside from the USDA budget," Merrigan said. "And, I'll always be involved in organic."

Given the size of the USDA - 114,000 employees - Merrigan felt it wasn't imperative to create new programs but to increase outreach to existing ones (and perhaps, though unstated, light a fire within the agency on this new priority). The effort also involves tweaking existing regulations and programs to make these goals easier to achieve.

The initiative even extends to the USDA cafeteria, where your intrepid blogger has actually eaten (I recommend the House Cafeteria up on the Hill instead). In any case, the USDA is offering dishes with locally grown products all week long.

Merrigan said the cafeteria is also banning donuts and fried foods on Wednesday and putting a sign on the soda machine "have you considered water, juice or milk?" Sounds almost radical.

"Maybe this will be my last act as deputy," she quipped.

But if staff groan about food police, at least they get to see a celebrity on hand: White House Chef Sam Kass will be doing a cooking demo in the USDA cafeteria on Wednesday. 

On Thursday, the action shifts to farmers markets, when the one down the street from the White House opens. Merrigan will be on hand. The USDA will also announce a series of farmers' market promotion grants, and research monies aimed at local food systems in the northeast. 

Finally, on Friday, it is trying its hand at internet democracy and launching a web site that includes outreach to citizens for their ideas. Not sure how this effort at crowd-sourcing will work out, given what happened when the White House tried it. But I gotta say, this is a sea change from the last team in charge. 

- Samuel Fromartz

Alaskan Salmon and the Birth of a SeaSA

Coho Salmon, Copper River

This summer, I had the opportunity to travel to Alaska to check out the Copper River salmon fishery and I'm happy to say I came back with more than a story. 

There, I met a fisherman Bill Webber, pictured above, who sells direct to customers. The proposition made sense when I saw fisherman got only $1.85 per pound for Copper River sockeye salmon. This was the same stuff -- or actually a better grade of fish -- than I was buying at Whole Foods for at least $15 a pound this summer. The middlemen can move a lot of fish, but it also creates opportunity for fishermen who want to sell direct to people like me who want a really fresh fish.

I also learned that Alaska has extremely stiff fishing regulations that extend to boat ownership. They require commercial fishermen to be on their boats, preventing one fisherman from owning a fleet of boats in the same fishery. The hundreds of boats in Cordova, Alaska, where I was visiting, were all small businesses protected from industry concentration. (When I mentioned that to a farmer, she said that would do wonders for agriculture).

These fishermen also depend on distant markets, because a few boats could probably feed the entire town for a year -- easily. In fact, without distant markets, there wouldn't be a town since there's hardly anything else going on aside from fishing. Okay, maybe moose hunting.

So I decided to buy fish direct from Alaska, to support the fishermen and the remarkably sustainable fishery up there. 

I told my friends here in DC and we decided to buy seven fish -- 64 pounds total. Last Monday, on Labor Day, Bill went out gillnetting for Coho salmon, which run around 9 pounds each. On Tuesday, he put the chilled fish on an Alaska Airlines jet. On Wednesday, I picked the box up at DC's airport -- just in time to get snarled in traffic because Obama was giving his health-care speech on Capitol Hill, around the corner from my house. Forgot the streets would be on lockdown.

Anyway, I finally made it home, then spent the next two hours filleting the fish listening to Obama on the radio (and cheering him on).

Coho Fillet

The fish were a big hit. As one friend said in an email, "We love our Salmon! It is not only tastier but the texture is very much better than the supermarket or fish market equivalent." We also had a lot of carcasses, which some people passed on. Too bad. There was a lot of meat on them, which one friend made into a fume (stock) and then risotto. Another friend salted the carcass and kept it in the frig.

I think I'm going to pick the meat off the bones and make salmon burgers, then make fume with the bones, leeks, and fennel. I'm using the tail portion of the fish for gravlax. We've already had grilled salmon and salmon aoili sandwiches on ciabatta rolls.

Now, I know, some will say, you're flying fish from Alaska? But if you're going to eat fish, I think the most important thing is the sustainability of the fishery -- and on that score, Alaska is a leader. Plus, this was a first step. I will be looking at nearby sources, too, in the future. But for me, the health of the fishery is more important than the locale when it comes to fish.

With shipping, we ended paying less than retail (though I did cramp my shoulder from all the filleting). Still, it was worth it.

If you missed it, check out the short video I shot on Bill's boat.

- Samuel Fromartz

The Class Trip to the Slaughterhouse, Yes, Really

This guest post is by Joe Cloud, who co-owns T&E Meats in Harrisonburg, Va., with Joel Salatin, the farmer in Michael Pollan's book, The Omnivore's Dilemma.

T&E Manager Joe Cloud

Image: Joe Cloud at T&E Meats

By Joe Cloud

It is no secret that a lot of the energy driving the local food movement is connected to schools. Much of that energy has coalesced in the past several years into organizational focus and legislative action to get more locally produced whole foods into local school systems. At the same time, institutions of higher learning are experiencing an unprecedented push from within the student body to offer more local foods in the dining halls. The breadth and depth of the energy driving these movements is astonishing, prompted by concerns about childhood obesity, climate change, farmland preservation, nutritional density of foods, animal welfare, and local living economies, as a short list. 

This movement has certainly affected our work at T&E. We have begun sending local meats to the dining services at Washington and Lee and Virginia Tech universities. Last year, the Harrisonburg School System built its annual local food meal around 1,000 pounds of locally-raised ground beef from T&E (produced by a Holstein steer from a farm in Elkton, Va., and a Holstein cow from an organic dairy in Dayton, Va. – how’s that for knowing where your food comes from?). This spring we hosted a group of students – both graduate and undergraduate - from the University of Virginia, who are part of a large multi-year project studying local food systems in central Virginia. They spent the afternoon touring the plant and learning about the potential and limitations for production of locally processed meat.

Recently a group of high school students from a local private school connected to Eastern Mennonite University came through. That week was a mid-semester break for them, and a teacher was taking the opportunity to teach a week-long class on local food systems. They went around to local farms, dairies, poultry plants, distribution centers, and T&E. The students came through on a day when we were running the kill floor. They joked around nervously as we put everyone into process-room hair nets and butcher wraps, as required by our sanitation procedures. I led them through the process room and the coolers, and their eyes got big looking at the hanging carcasses and the meat cutting underway. Then we went on to the high point of the tour – out onto the kill floor where, that day, we were slaughtering pigs.

Naturally, there is a fair amount of blood, some neat piles of offal in trays awaiting inspection and disposal, and a few warm carcasses about to be pushed into the cooler. There is a warm biological smell, difficult to describe – the smell of blood? of offal? – that permeates the air. The odor can be faintly nauseating at first and yet simultaneously attractive at some atavistic caveman level. Some people find the smell intolerable, so I told the students that if they did, they should walk out then and there, and there would be no shame in that.

But in fact they all stood their ground, fascinated. Our kill floor is small enough that an observer can witness the entire process from beginning to end from a single vantage point. Due to the compact footprint of our building, our rail line is not linear, but moves through an S-shape from the knock box to the cooler door. Right after the group walked onto the floor, Phillip knocked a large hog using the fixed-bolt stunner, which caught the group’s attention immediately. A blank .22 cartridge fires the stunner, so the noise is inescapable. Playing tour guide, I explained the entire process, but there were few eyes on me. Everyone gazed in rapt attention as Phillip stuck and bled out the hog, and watched as other hogs were being skinned and eviscerated. 

We proceeded to the large carcass cooler where beef and lamb carcasses were hung, along with the hogs. There we discussed anatomy, pointing out where the actual cuts of meat found in supermarkets came from, but I noticed that half the class lingered at the cooler door or listened for the sound of the bolt gun discharging. The death of any animal is profound, whether it is a beloved pet, a barnyard friend, or simply an anonymous pasture denizen. That this process can be executed in an atmosphere of simple respect is revealing. The fact that our government meat inspector literally touched not only every animal, but also did a simple autopsy on all major organs was also revealing, both for the concern for the consumer but the animal itself. 

Several days later I had a chance encounter with the teacher again. He told me that the day after their tour at T&E, the class had visited a large poultry plant. Rockingham County has the reputation as the birthplace of the modern turkey industry in America, and is home to a number of major poultry plants, operated by the usual suspects: Tyson’s; Cargill; Pilgrim’s Pride; Purdue; as well as some independent plants. These are very high volume plants, with thousands of birds going through the line every day.

After that visit, he asked that class what they thought of the difference between the mega-plant they visited and T&E. He said the answer was summed up by one student when she said: “After today, I never want to eat turkey again, but after yesterday, I would be happy to eat any meat that came from T&E.”

Postcard from a dairy crisis: Anatomy of a farm sale

Barry Estabrook over at has a poignant piece on a sixth-generation Vermont dairy farm that went under the auction block, unable to cover its costs. It starts this way:

Last Friday, for the first time in 144 years, no one at the Borland family farm got out of bed in the pre-dawn hours—rain, shine, searing heat, or blinding blizzard—to milk the cows. A day earlier, all of Ken Borland’s cattle and machinery had been auctioned off. After six generations on the same 400 acres of rolling pastures, lush fields, and forested hillsides tucked up close to the Canadian border in Vermont’s remote Northeast Kingdom, the Borlands were no longer a farm family.

The story is well-worth reading. For another perspective, check out Lisa Hamilton's op-ed piece on the dairy crisis at Christian Science Monitor

Is Chipotle Greenwashing in Supporting Food Inc?

Tom Philpott has a thoughtful post over at Grist on Chipotle, which is supporting the film Food Inc. but is refusing to stand behind a coalition of tomato pickers in Florida to lock in a 1 cent per pound raise. I had wondered about this seeming contradiction too, so am glad Philpott looked into it.

Chipotle has a very forward-thinking approach to sustainability, supporting small farms, banning growth hormones and antibiotics in the production of its meat, and taking the extra step on animal welfare. That's why its position on worker rights is so confusing, especially given that McDonald’s, Burger King, Yum Foods, as well as Whole Foods and Bon Appetit Management Co. - a food service company -- have signed on to work with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

I wouldn't say Chipotle's support of Food Inc. amounts to greenwashing, since the company is clearly ahead on sustainability. But it's position with the tomato workers, who have worked in "virtual slavery," is confusing. (Chipotle is escrowing the 1 cent per pound increase but not committing to a program with the workers' main representative).

As author Eric Schlosser, who appears in Food Inc., told Philpott:

I like the food at the Chipotle. I think their efforts on behalf of sustainability, animal welfare, and the misuse of antibiotics are terrific.  But I care more about human rights than any of those things.

If Taco Bell, Subway, Burger King, and McDonald’s can reach agreement with the CIW, I don’t see why Chipotle can’t. It will not cost much—and it will help to end human trafficking in Florida.

Talk about brand risk. Why can't Chipotle step forward and clear up this issue? 

Doctors Rx at AMA: Eat Local and Organic

A couple of weeks ago, the New Yorker had a fascinating article on McAllen, Texas, a  county that ranks among the highest in the nation in health-care costs. Funny thing is, the outcomes of the patients in the system weren't any better than places that spent far less. The moral of the story, by physician and writer Atul Gawande, was that you must control the culture of spending (and earning) to contain out-of-control health care costs.

What he spent less time on was the make-up of the county, which ranks high in alcohol consumption, diabetes and heart disease. The per capita income, he noted, was $12,000 a year and the Tex-Mex diet contributed to a 38% obesity rate (the national average is 34%). While acknowledging these social causes of illness, Gawande didn't take the next step and consider diet as a cost-efficient way to rein in health costs. Obviously, costs have to be contained in the system, especially one that rewards doctors for every test, procedure and visit. But why not include or integrate factors outside the health-care system that breed disease in the first place? Why not change the playing field so there are, in effect, fewer patients for doctors to over treat?

If Gawande didn't consider this argument, I was surprised that the American Medical Association did this week. In a fairly remarkable development, the AMA voted at its convention to support "practices and policies within health care systems that promote and model a healthy and ecologically sustainable food system."

"Preventing disease is paramount in the provision of health care.Hospitals, physicians and nurses are ideal leaders and advocates for creating food environments that promote health. This policy is an important contribution to a prevention-based health-care delivery system," said Jamie Harvie, director of the Health Care Without Harm Sustainable Food Work Group.

This statement wasn't just your usual "eat your fruits and vegetables, cut down on fatty food and exercise" type of recommendation. It was a blanket endorsement of organic and local foods, recognizing that the way food is produced effects health, the environment, even the conditions of workers. The resolution, in turn, was based on a report by its Council on Science and Public Health, which presents an informed view of the current nutritionally deficient food system. The report (pdf) states:

The current US food system is highly industrialized, focusing on the production of animal products and federally subsidized commodity crops, such as corn and soybeans. This has resulted in a highly processed, calorie-dense food supply, instead of one rich in a variety of fruits vegetables, and whole grains ... The poor quality diets supported by this system contributes to four of the six leading causes of death in the United States: heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some cancers.

The report then describes the way industrialized food production has actually threatened health. "These methods have contributed to the development of antibiotic resistance; air and water pollution; contamination of food and water with animal waste, pesticides, hormones and other toxins; increased dependence on nonrenewable fossil fuels (including fertilizers)," the doctors' report says.

It also adds the clincher that I wish Gawande had considered: "Clinical approaches to addressing diet-related health concerns are costly and not sustainable."

The resolution passed this week states:

  • That our AMA support practices and policies in medical schools, hospitals, and other health care facilities that support and model a healthy and ecologically sustainable food system, which provides food and beverages of naturally high nutritional quality.
  • That our AMA encourage the development of a healthier food system through the US Farm Bill and other federal legislation.
  • That our AMA consider working with other health care and public health organizations to educate the health care community and the public about the importance of healthy and ecologically sustainable food systems.

Industrial food producers are already in a tizzy over the documentary Food Inc., but I bet they didn't expect to be facing the nation's doctors.

I would note a last bit of irony to this resolution. For years -- back in the 1950s and 1960s -- the AMA did battle with one of the earliest proponents of organic farming, J.I. Rodale. They investigated him, and brought complaints to the Federal Trade Commission (over Rodale's over-zealous promotion of vitamins). It took a few more years -- OK decades -- for the AMA to change its position and at least endorse one point that Rodale got right: That the way food is produced effects health. He realized this in the 1940s. The AMA acknowledges it today.
- Samuel Fromartz


What Should Nobu Do on Bluefin Tuna? A Few Offer Advice

Image source: Bluefin Tuna, Monterey Bay Aquarium

By Samuel Fromartz

Chef Nobu Matsuhisa is one of the world's most celebrated Japanese sushi chefs, and with partners, like Robert De Niro, he operates 24 restaurants globally that have been a favored haunt of Hollywood stars.

But for several years now, he has come under fire for serving bluefin tuna, a spectacular and expensive species of tuna which is dangerously overfished in the Atlantic and Mediterranean. Bluefin tuna populations are one-tenth of what they once were and industrial fishing, a good deal of it illegal, continues to decimate them.

British environmental journalist Charles Clover has been one of Nobu's loudest critics, and in The End of The Line, a powerful new documentary based on his book, bluefin tuna and Nobu's menu are a central issue. (The documentary opens on Monday, World Oceans Day.) 

In response, Nobu recently added an asterisk describing bluefin as "environmentally challenged" on the menu and putting the onus on diners to eat it or not. This move has not placated critics, like Greenpeace, which has demonstrated inside Nobu's flagship restaurant. Now the celebs who put Nobu on the map have threatened to boycott the restaurant over the issue. Among them: Charlize Theron, Sting and Elle Macpherson. They want a response by Monday.

Given the potential damage to the chef and his restaurant's reputation, I posed the following question to a number of people, including New York Times columnist Mark Bittman, ocean conservationist and writer Carl Safina, and several others, many of whom work on sustainable seafood issues.

What should Nobu do to resolve his conflict over serving bluefin tuna? How can he both protect his brand and ensure the highest dining experience for his patrons?

Michael Sutton
Director, Center for the Future of the Oceans
Monterey Bay Aquarium

As perhaps the nation's most prominent sushi chef and restaurant owner, Nobu has a vested interest in the sustainability of our seafood supplies. Kuro maguro, or bluefin tuna, is one of the most valuable and prized species for the sashimi market. Nobu naturally wants to supply his patrons with the very best sashimi, so it's understandable that he does not want to remove bluefin tuna from his menus.  

But the mark of a real leader is foresight, the ability to consider the future impact of present-day decisions.  And it doesn't take much foresight to see that bluefin tuna is seriously depleted throughout its range and could become commercially extinct in the near future. Nobu therefore has a terrific opportunity to become recognized as the savior of the bluefin tuna rather than a principal factor in its demise.  

If I were Nobu, I would seize the opportunity and issue a press release saying that after considering the long-term interests of sashimi lovers everywhere, I will no longer serve bluefin tuna in my restaurants until fishery managers have taken appropriate action to put the species on the road to recovery. A decade ago, leading chefs did just that by joining forces with the Give Swordfish a Break campaign, which helped build the political will for swordfish recovery.  Many of those leading chefs won praise from their clientele and have now have put swordfish back on their menus, secure in the knowledge that we'll all be able to enjoy swordfish for the future.  Nobu, it's your turn to step up to the plate and into the limelight!

Mark Bittman
“Minimalist” Columnist,
The New York Times

Author of Food Matters: A Guide To Conscious Eating and other books

Nobu is both a “he” and an “it.” I don’t know if “he” or the organization makes these decisions. It’s very simple. He/it either cares about this issue or does not. From a culinary perspective, I agree that yellowfin tuna is not a real substitute. But there is a world of food out there, and good chefs can work around hardships like this. If enough do, maybe bluefin will come back as a commercially viable species. If not – in short order, no one will be eating it, not even Nobu’s customers. Surely this is understandable.

Carl Safina
Author, Song for the Blue Ocean and other books
Founder Blue Ocean Institute

Nobu should do what we should always do: the right thing. The "highest" experience includes the awareness, sense of responsibility, and often the self-sacrifice that goes with real leadership. He should wear the intentional omission of bluefin as a badge of honor. 

The fish is doing extremely poorly specifically because of overfishing for sushi markets, and is listed "critically endangered" in the Atlantic. At the extreme minimum, he should stop selling wild bluefin and wait until the Australians (or whoever gets to market first) have farm-hatched fish for sale (not wild-caught, captive fattened). Even that has problems, but no one should be involved in killing wild bluefins at this point.

As far as I'm concerned, a person who does not care enough to do the right thing simply isn't a leader. Catching bluefin tuna and mako sharks was the most thrilling thing I ever did, and I did quite a bit of it--years ago; not anymore. For one thing, they're so rare it's just sad now. For another thing, I don't want to be part of what's obviously a big problem.

As for the "highest" experience, I'll say this: I would not go to Nobu for a free meal. He's just in it for himself and isn't trying to be part of the solution. That's typical, not "highest." There are, as they say, bigger fish to fry. Except that in this case, they're smaller fish, and they're raw.

Michael Ruhlman
Author of Ratio, The Reach of a Chef, and other books

While I cynically wonder if Charles Clover is using the tactic of singling out a high profile chef to promote the film based on his book, I also think Nobu ought to respond. He can say I'm doing nothing illegal and my allegiance is to my customer, not the fish. Fair enough.

But I believe it is a chef's duty to care for the earth and the source of his or her food. He ignores it at his own peril. If I were Nobu, I would not serve it and urge others not to. His example would be powerful. Also he's a chef, he should be able to make great food out of my lawn. Why does he need any one single fish to keep his business afloat?  Surely he can use his wits and talent to create extraordinary food without relying on the diminishing supply of wild bluefin.

I hear Chilean sea bass is nearly off the endangered list. I'd be willing to go five years or more without bluefin to ensure that it thrived.
Fedele Bauccio
Founder and CEO
Bon Appetit Management Co., a premium food service company focused on ethical sourcing for more than 20 years.

I don't see why Nobu has to serve bluefin tuna to protect his brand. The measure of a good chef should be making great tasting food using ingredients that are grown or harvested in a way that protects the well being of guests, the communities where the food is served and the natural environment that provides culinary bounty. Local, seasonal ingredients have been an honored tradition in Japanese cuisine for thousands of years. Why not build the menu around these treasured elements rather than serving a threatened species?


Barton Seaver
Founding Chef, Hook, Washington DC
Current Chef, Blue Ridge, Washington DC

The business of a restaurant is to satisfy guests and even the greatest can be broken by a fickle clientele. So it's not hard to understand why a restaurant group such as Nobu continues to play cards that work. Bluefin tuna is simply the best tuna in the sea. It also takes a lot of the guess work and variability out of a vast multinational operation.

But bluefin has not always been the king of the menu. Chefs like Nobu had to convince guests to try it. "And you want me to eat that raw?" was most likely the initial response. If chefs like Nobu could vault bluefin to its star status, then certainly they can use their talent to introduce guests to a substitute. Kate Winslet has said Nobu's 'food is like sex on a plate'. That is pretty good praise. Nobu clearly has the talent and credibility to shape tastes globally. It is time for him to do so with a delicious and sustainable solution.

Mark Powell
Marine Biologist, formerly with Ocean Conservancy

Nobu should use his standing to help build change.  For example, he could work with bluefin tuna conservationists to create an action campaign, and he could speak out for conservation and enlist his customers in the effort.  Nobu’s Save the Bluefin campaign could have “action of the month” opportunities such as advocating for specific management measures, e.g. science-based catch limits and protected areas for spawning fish. These could be chosen to address the biggest issues and opportunities as they arise. There’s a great need to work with people’s love for fish as seafood, rather than denying and fighting against such connections. Walking away from bluefin would be the easy way out. Working to correct the problem after years of profiting off the fish would be far more noble.

Kozo Ishii
Director, Marine Stewardship Council - Japan Program

There is a growing market for sustainably caught fish that is being supported by fisheries, fish processors, retailers and restaurants in the world. It remains the responsibility for all of us to support these efforts by recognizing and rewarding sustainable fishing where it is occurring.  As a celebrity chef and restaurateur, I think that Nobu is in a unique position to further accelerate the supply and demand for sustainably caught fish by not only committing to sourcing it himself, but also by using his voice to help drive home the urgent need to secure fish stocks for future generations.

Tim Fitzgerald
Marine Scientist, Oceans Program
Environmental Defense Fund

I'm of two minds on this one. On one hand, it seems clear that the only way forward is to remove it from their menu entirely. And if they really wanted to start repairing their tarnished eco-image, they could even go so far as to call on global tuna fisheries authorities to institute more sustainable management for these species. Or, they could support research to develop eco-friendly aquaculture that does not rely on wild-caught bluefin.

However, consumers have notoriously short memories, and Nobu might decide to weather the PR storm until it blows over. Remember the PCB scare with farmed salmon a few years ago? Six months later the industry was posting record profits as if nothing had ever happened.

The New Green Revolution - Organic?

NPR has been running a series of remarkable reports by reporter Daniel Zwerdling on the course of the green revolution in India. His latest is on farmers who have gone organic, because they were exhausting their soils with fertilizers. He profiles one in the breadbasket of India, Punjab.

Green Revolution advocates have argued for decades that chemicals and intensive irrigation along with new seeds were needed to lift yields. But critics say that approach has meant more chemicals to keep yields up, the loss of biodiversity with concentrated seed supplies and dangerous depletion of water tables. Then there are troubling associations with higher cancer rates in areas where chemical use is rampant.

The approach by the organic farmer in Punjab is instructive. Following the Green Revolution dogma, he found he was depleting his soils and having to buy more and more chemicals. Since going organic, yields have been mixed; he is doing well with rice, less so with wheat. But he's only four years into it and it it often takes years to replenish depleted soils. Even more remarkable, 300,000 Indian farmers are with him, growing organically.

But the mantra of the green revolution is far from over -- indeed, it's as loud as ever  as evidenced by the Monsanto rep quoted in the piece. Fertilizers, seed breeding and intensive production are also being applied to Africa, where soil fertility is especially low. But what we haven't been hearing about are alternatives -- which is why this NPR report was welcome.

Here are links to the previous NPR reports in the series:

- Samuel Fromartz

Image: Amarjit Sharma, a farmer in India's Punjab region, from NPR

Notes from the Sustainable Foods Institute - A Shifting Food Suppy

Blue Fin Tuna

For several years now, the Sustainable Foods Institute at the Monterey Bay Aquarium has held a stimulating conference for journalists and food writers in an attractive location -- the aquarium itself.

So while scientists, food industry reps, academics and journalists talk about the future of food,outside the conference room, sea horses bop, sea otters munch and mystical pink jellyfish swirl in their tanks.

There's always a moment when I leave the talk about dwindling fish and the warming global climate and visit a quiet room to watch the giant blue fin tuna. Somehow the discussions about the rapid disappearance of bluefin are all the more meaningful when you actually can marvel at these wondrous creatures swimming about. 

That's really the point of the aquarium -- to communicate what goes on in the invisible oceans so that we understand them a little better. The conference takes this a step further by connecting the impact of farming and fishing, and yes, cooking, on our food supply and natural world.

What struck me about this year's conference was a slight glimmer of hope amid a usually gloomy subject. This note was struck in the opening remarks by Aquarium director Julie Packard, who noted that 37% of all retailers were now avoiding unsustainable fish supplies, up from just 20% a few years ago. This is due, in part, to the aquarium's Seafood Watch program, one of several by reputable organizations.

She also revealed a few tantalizing figures from an upcoming survey of 22,000 consumers which showed that a third - a figure I found surprising - had heard about sustainable seafood. And among those consumers, most “strongly agreed” with the statement “I worry about the future availability of healthy seafood.”

There were other positive tidbits throughout the two-day conference. Earthbound Farm - the largest organic produce company - revealed that 44% of the spring mix salad segment (which includes spring mix, baby spinach, mache, and arugula) was now organic. And that segment is the largest of the salad business itself.

For those fretting about the 3% share of the market held by organic food, and the less than 1% of farmland in organic production, this figure was stunning. Nearly one of every two salad purchases is organic. We always hear that organic is more expensive, less efficient, a luxury, etc., etc., but these arguments miss the cutting edge of the market.

Now in its 25th year, Earthbound and its partners farm 33,000 acres, a part of it in the Salinas Valley near the Monterey Bay. By farming organically, they avoid applying hundreds of thousands of pounds of pesticides and millions of pounds of fertilizers, much of which ends up in streams and the sea. The fish are clearly better off. So are the people who work in these fields. Locavores might frown, but for the supermarket shopper the company is bringing an organic choice to the table.

Finally, in a discussion about humane animal production, Tim Amway of the American Humane Association said he expected 35% of all livestock operations to be certified humane in the foreseeable future, based on business in the pipeline. Now only 3% are certified. Now we can quibble about which certification regime makes the most sense, but nonetheless this figure was startling. More than a third!

What these figures show is that markets can change. But consumers and companies -- both pushing and pulling -- have to make the right choices. And if they do, we're all better off.

- Samuel Fromartz

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.