ChewsWise Blog

ChewsWise Blog

How your smart phone may be more valuable than you think

On an 8-minute video shot with a smart phone that won a film festival prize

I recently heard Carlton Evans, the director of the Disposible Film Festival, speak about “disposible films”— all the video that is made when you click open your smart phone and start shooting away.We’ve all done it, but what I didn’t realize was the possibility of the medium. Luckily, Evans and his team did and created a film festival around it.

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Is American agriculture really efficient?

Last week, I attended the Sustainable Foods Institute, hosted by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. As in the past, the session-packed affair of panels and keynotes did not disappoint, even though the outlook -- for fisheries, for food production, for humanity in general -- was pretty sobering.

Among the speakers was Jonathan Foley, a professor of ecology and director of the Institute of the Environment at the University of Minnesota. He gave a big picture view, noting that agriculture is not only the single biggest factor in global warming but obviously crucial to feeding a growing world. If there was one surprising takeaway, it was that the highly efficient machine of American agriculture -- and modern agriculture in general -- doesn't measure up to the hype. As Foley stated, "yields from the Green Revolution have stagnated and what we're doing isn't sustainable anyway."

This discussion of how to feed the world often begins and ends with the question of whether we're maximizing crop production per acre of land -- something American farmers do quite well. But what yield doesn't tell us is whether that land could be used even more efficiently to produce more calories of food. Foley pointed out that crops such as corn and soybeans which are then fed to livestock -- or cars -- amount to a grossly inefficient use of land resources. "The elephant in the room is the cow," was the way he put it.

Measured this way, it takes 32 pounds of corn to produce a pound of fillet mignon -- a 3% conversion rate of the calories in feed. (He specified that he was talking about muscle meat, not the leftover parts of the animal that are rendered.) What happens to the other 97% of the calories? It is wasted by this grossly inefficient calorie producer --  the cow. Only 15% of the the Midwest's grains are consumed by humans. "We throw away five-sixths of what we grow," he said. This isn't a rap on farmers, for they are doing precisely what the market or government signals them to do and are quite good at it. The question Folely was raising was whether the entire aparatus is the best way to produce calories for growing populations on a finate amount of land.

Now, I have, on occassion, enjoyed a good steak, but if was clear from his presentation that if the world feasted on steak, as growing numbers of people are doing, there would not be much of a world left. (He also noted that this equation would be different for a cow raised on pasture, since forage grasses cannot be directly consumed by humans. The measurements were less dire for dairy, eggs and poultry which are more efficient at converting feed to calories.) 

While farmers and researchers focus on improving yield, the entire equation is actually stacked against the efficient use of land because the process in the end is so wasteful. He noted that 10 percent of the world's cropland is in GMOs and yet even those yields have stagnated. And since these crops grow animal feed (corn and soybeans) and fiber (cotton), "they're not feeding the world's poor," he said.

Water is another wasted resource, with the differences in efficiency between Israel and India differing by 100-fold. Recall that highly efficient modern drip irrigation was developed in Israel because water is such a scarce resource.

Foley also noted that organic farming still represented a minute fraction of agricultural production, and suggested a middle way in which organic methods would be used but augmented by targeted use of chemical inputs, not unlike taking medicine when you're sick. The better path is to stay healthy, only relying on medicine when needed. He likened the modern model of agriculture to a constant IV drip, an apt metaphore considering the use of sub-therapeutic antibiotics in animal feed.

"I want organic to be the default farming method if we can pull it off," he said, but he noted that no one has a monopoly on the discussion. Useful solutions will have to come from both conventional and organic methods (which I've seen in the adaptation of organic methods by conventional farmers because they can be cheap and effective). 

The bigger issue, though, is that forests are being razed to grow crops, especially in Brazil and Indonesia. This burning of forests is by far the greatest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions that agriculture emits -- and agriculture alone accounts for 30-40% of greenhouse gasses. Transport of food doesn't even come close. If this land is then used to grow soybeans, as it is in Brazil, these dramatic emissions are created in order to feed this inefficient livestock machine, which is another potent contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. 

So what might be a better use of land?

"Potatoes," said Charles Mann, the author of 1491 and its sequel, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created (I highly recommend both books) in another talk. Not only do potatoes produce more food calories per acre than wheat and corn, but unlike most of the corn crop, potatoes are also eaten by humans. That made me wonder whether diets could change enough to alter the current food paradigm. In the following slides, in which Mann laid out the globalization of food trade 400 years ago, it was clear they already had. Potatoes originating in Peru were the direct cause of Europe's early 19th century population boom, the Irish potato famine notwithstanding. The sweet potato even reached China, where it is now widely eaten. Staple diets, in other words, can and do change.

If Foley, though, was implicitly pointing to a more vegetarian diet, he did not explain how we would get there. That he gave us only two decades to fix the current dire state also left me scratching my head about how such rapid change could be achieved. I doubt whether people with the money will forgo a steak for a potato (they tend to want both), unless there is a dramatic reworking of incentives. But it was clear from Foley's talk that those sorts of cultural changes -- rather than simple agricultural science aimed at boosting yield -- will need to be part of the equation. "The choice is between the world we've had and the world that should be," he said. But he left open the question of how we will actually get there.

- Samuel Fromartz


A Few Comments on the Food & Environment Reporting Network (FERN)

I'm pleased to announce that this week the Food & Environment Reporting Network launched. I've been working on this a non-profit journalism venture quiety for some time (two or more years), and now serve as editor. It grew out of an impromptu discussion with several people into an organization with a staff, board and editorial advisory board. Our launch coincided with the publication of our first story in High Country News, an award-winning Western magazine which collaborated with us on the piece.

We're supported in this work by several foundations who believe in our vision of producing stories on food, agriculture and environmental health at a time when interest in those areas is growing but in-depth coverage is waning. In our model, we work closely with reporters and media partners so that these stories can see the light of day. We also have a code of ethics that governs our work. 

Now, you might wonder, why not just start a blog? Well, blogs are good models, but what we have in mind is traditional reporting: sending a reporter into the field on an in-depth investigation and giving them the chance to really look into a story. This kind of work is expensive and often falls through the cracks in the rush of the 24-hour news cycle. If you're tied to a blog, this work is especially tough. 

Our first story is a clear example of how this works. Reporter Stephanie Paige Ogburn went down to New Mexico to look into a story about water pollution arising from large dairy farms, focusing on a citizen who launched a campaign to fight it. The story is a good one, in part because the character isn't your typical "environmentalist." (He sports an NRA hat). Ogburn widens the net from what might be viewed as a local story, tying it into broader issues the West has faced with mega-dairies. She also explains the complex regulatory issues with ease.

In the coming weeks, you'll see more work out of FERN (I'm not going to scoop myself and tell you what it is) in a variety of publications. Until then, I leave you with the lead of Ogburn's story:

Jerry Nivens lives in a trailer in Caballo, N.M., 165 miles south of Albuquerque. A bulky Texas transplant who chain-smokes American Spirits, Nivens cares as deeply for his mesquite-speckled patch of ground as any rural New Mexican. He enjoys driving into the mountains, where he used to while away afternoons panning for gold. He goes fishing Lone Star-style–in reservoirs, not rivers.

On the sunny May day I met him, he spilled out of his GMC Jimmy sporting a National Rifle Association ballcap and Magnum P.I.-style sunglasses. He wore brown corduroy pants hung from suspenders with a matching jacket over a plaid shirt. A giant Marlboro belt buckle completed the ensemble. As we drove around, Nivens marveled at artesian pools supporting desert wildlife, exclaimed as a squadron of baby quail crossed our path, and wondered over underground rivers that run to the nearby Rio Grande. Retired from the refrigeration business, he earns money from an invention of his used for water purification. He spends much of his time alone. “I’m kind of an old hermit,” he says.

Which, in a way, was why I had come–to learn how and why this loner became the driving force behind a movement that brought the state’s mega-dairies to heel. The dairy industry is New Mexico’s largest agricultural sector and an influential lobbying force. Although the state Environment Department has long worked with dairies to reduce pollution, change has been slow: Almost 60 percent of the state’s dairies have polluted groundwater with manure runoff, yet not one has begun the required cleanup. (Read the rest at FERN or HCN). 

- Samuel Fromartz





Welcome to the spin era! Leading ag reporter loses his job

At a time when food policy -- and politics -- is rising as an issue of national concern, one of the leading reporters in this area, Philip Brasher, was let go from the Des Moines Register yesterday. Yes, the paper in the heart of the corn belt shuttering its almost 80-year-old Washington bureau. The news set off a firestorm on Twitter, as Paula Crossfield points out at Civil Eats.

Brasher amazingly was cut just as the jockeying ahead of the 2012 farm bill is getting underway. Conflicts over how to cut agricultural subsidies -- $262 billion between 2005-2010 -- are rising at a time of exploding budget deficits. Brasher was one of the few people around who could cut through the weeds of these issues, which was not only of interest in Iowa. He was also a must-read in food and ag circles.

The take away here: expect more decisions behind closed doors, with a lot more spin. Sure, papers will run a story when something big happens, but the majority of "news" will dribble out from agribusiness associations and farm organization web sites that have a big stake in the outcome -- and the public interest groups that try and counter them. With the ranks of ag reporters exceedingly thin, what you read won't be filtered with an independent set of skeptical eyes; that is, if you manage to read anything at all. Ironic, considering the importance and interest in this area -- food -- only grows.

- Samuel Fromartz


On Sale Now!!! Mark Bittman iPhone App, and Such a Deal!

 image from
 This is hard to pass up -- the Mark Bittman ouvre, How to Cook Everything, which is $21 and change over at Amazon, for the bargain basement price of $1.99 in an iPhone app -- that is, if you've already spent hundreds on the iPhone itself.

Mark Bittman? There's an App for That - Slashfood .

How to get our Bittman fix? Let us count the ways: There's his New York Times "Minimalist" column, of course; his expert contributions at; his health and fitness articles for Runner's World and Men's Health; and, lest one forget, his 1044-page tome How to Cook Everything. I happen to own that $35 behemoth myself; I thumb through it compulsively, getting Bittman's take on everything from scrambled eggs to bouillabaisse. But now the book's contents can be downloaded to your iPhone -- for less than two bucks.

Culinate, the smart food site, is apparently behind the app. What a great idea. I can't wait for more.

Oh, wait there already is more. Michael Ruhlman has an iPhone app too, based on his book Ratio. It helps you calculate ingredients in "all fundamental culinary preparations."

Now, Rodale, where are the organic gardening apps? J.I. Rodale would have been all over this. 

- Samuel Fromartz

Closing the Gap Between TV Food and Real Food

Food is highly entertaining, no doubt about that, and television is perhaps the best medium to really show how to cook something, outside of joining a class. But as many others have pointed out, as food has soared as entertainment, viewers' cooking skills have continued to decline.

In a highly recommended post over at Civil Eats, Mollie Katzen (author of the seminal Moosewood Cookbook) discusses this dichotomy. She says:

The gap between celebrity and real food being cooked is huge. People are watching TV, but there’s so few people cooking good, honest food. That is the stuff of daily life. If you know how to cook you’ve got a skill. Long after the TV’s off, you’re still going to need to eat.

This statement made me think of a proposal Marc R. has over at Ethicurean, challenging Top Chef to take up the ultimate challenge: school lunch.

With school lunch being debated on Capitol Hill, "Top Chef" should get in on the action and focus some kitchen challenges on school meals. One challenge could have each contestant try to cook a collection of delicious and healthy meals (breakfast and lunch) that spend less than $1 on food per meal. Another might be to cook in a real school, perhaps H.D. Cooke Elementary School, the setting of The Slow Cook’s excellent multi-part series on school meals, or use the actual school kitchen staff as assistants, though this one might be getting a bit close to the upcoming Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution on ABC. The contestants could also integrate ingredients from local farms with USDA-provided material.

Washington and the school lunch community also offers plenty of interesting possibilities for guest judges: First Lady Michele Obama, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Chef Ann Cooper (the "renegade lunch lady"), or a room full of cute and opinionated schoolchildren.

What a terrific idea! It would be one small step in making television food real for the ultimate judges: kids. But here's a thought on the ground rules: no pizza, fries, hot dogs or cupcakes. If you're wondering, What's left for kids to eat? That, my friends, is the heart of the problem.

- Samuel Fromartz

Atlantic Writer Blames Arugula for California's Failing Schools

In the media world, the hatchet job has long been a profitable one. It involves finding a major figure, uncovering a supposed flaw and then showing the world how it is a symptom of everything that's wrong with -- fill in the blank -- politics, business, schools, etc. 

Caitlin Flanagan's rant about Alice Waters qualifies as a glowing example of the genre. In the piece, she argues that Water's school gardens are doing everything to disenfranchise poor, undereducated kids by making them work outdoors rather than hitting the books. She leads off with a supposed child of a former migrant worker who goes to school -- only to do migrant-like work at the Berkeley middle school garden that Waters organized.

The child is a figment of Flanagan's hyperactive imagination. Did she go to the school, talk to the kids or parents or teachers, ask if any kids felt they were being exploited, or even wasting time -- in a school garden? Why bother because she already knew the answer. 

I don't think anyone would dispute that schools are in trouble, especially California's with its famous budget troubles. A piece looking into those schools -- something that Flanagan's colleague Sandra Tsing Loh, for example, has done amusingly well in these same pages - would be welcome. And in fact, in the same Atlantic issue, there is a very worthwhile piece on what really makes students excel (hint: it's the teachers). Flanagan, however, fixates on little seedlings and argues not only that the gardens are misplaced but suggests they are the cause of said educational failures. Blame the arugula for school dropouts.

The purpose of this argument is to skewer a person Flanagan viscerally detests. But finding Alice Waters' precious local foodie proclivities distasteful is one thing. (Even I found the bit where she poached an egg over an open hearth on 60-Minutes a bit much). Pinning the ills of the state's educational system on school gardens is something else again. What's next? Blaming the deep recession on Michelle Obama's White House garden because it takes the president's attention off more weighty problems at hand?

It's long been known that adequate nutrition has a direct relationship on children's achievement in school. Whether gardens would have a bearing on this equation is a question Flanagan chooses to ignore. (Oh wait, she does explore this issue by traveling to a grocery store in Compton to get her answer. She decides poor people can get good food, but they mostly like junk and nothing but upward mobility will change that). 

Maybe the gardens can help with the nutrition equation. Perhaps they won't. But you can't get anything to grow without diligence, attention, planning and hard work -- all qualities that can be applied to other endeavors, even farming. (She never considers that a kid really drawn to the garden might end up owning a farm business in the state's $39 billion agriculture industry, rather than being a migrant -- not a far-fetched path in California). Whatever the case, it's clear that the gardens are a minor sideshow in the issues facing the California school system. As she writes:

I have never seen an entire school system as fundamentally broken and rudderless as the California public schools, a system in which one out of five high-school students drops out before graduation, and in which scarcely 60 percent of the African American and Hispanic students leave school with a diploma. These young people are cast adrift in a $50 billion system in which failure is almost a foregone conclusion.

In that universe of problems, she focuses on ... gardens? Frankly, I think her imaginary migrant parents would probably spend more time worrying about Sacramento gutting meager school resources and teachers' positions then about the 1-1/2 hours a week their kid spends tending the arugula. And they should.

Politics of the Plate -- a Notable New Blog

Barry Estabrook was the food politics writer over at Gourmet, where he uncovered some notable stories. Since the demise of that publication, he's launched his own blog that features his writing and reporting skills. Barry's old school. When he has a question, he actually gets on the phone -- what a thought! -- rather than just Googling.  But then again, he's also on Twitter.

The result? Solid stories with quotes, such as this recent one on the controversy over San Francisco's biosolids compost. The city says it's safe. A couple of public interest groups don't think so. 

For the full post please visit

Twitter Food List to Chew On

Kim O'Donnell has gathered a go-to list of people to follow on Twitter from the sustainable food world. Many are my Tweeps. She writes:

For those in the social media know, Twitter has unveiled a beta version of its “Lists” functionality, which allows you to categorize Twitter accounts however you wish.  The list is an interesting way of distilling feeds by theme or topic, making it easier to keep tabs on news, particularly if it’s breaking or timely.

...I’ve just scratched the surface, but already I’ve got 25 (or maybe 27) folks and groups worth considering a follow or at least a quick Twit-peek. Check it out, and feel free to weigh in and share some of your favorites.

via See the full post at

An Undeserved Butchering: Gourmet Magazine

Gourmet magazine celebrated food, where it came from, how it was made, but this last act of butchering was undeserved. Conde Nast decided to shutter the venerable food monthly, giving staff a week (one day, an editor reports) to clean out their desks. 

Now, I understand Gourmet was losing money. But the swift axe comes as a shock, especially at a time when food writing has become elevated and the audience for such fare continues to grow. I cannot imagine that the Gourmet magazine brand would not have been worth something if re-imagined.

I am also saddened because I have worked with Gourmet on occasion and know a few people there. To just single out two, food politics writer Barry Estabrook was among the more insightful, broad-reaching and strong writers in the field. His article on virtual slave workers in Florida's tomato fields led to long-awaited reform. At the very least, his piece deserves consideration for a national magazine award. I would also single out Jane Daniels Lear, senior articles editor, for her keen editorial pencil and deft writing. Ruth Reichl needs no accolades, since she has done so much to change the way food is perceived and written about and I expect she will continue to do so in the future.

Gourmet offered a melange of stylized photo shoots and far-flung travel features; it celebrated chef menus and offered tips on fast and easy food. In short, it tried to navigate between the ideal and utilitarian. The mix worked for me, but maybe in this age of Google-your-ingredient recipes the sense of urgency was missing. With a new food site seemingly launching ever week, though, it's hard to think there isn't an appetite for this stuff. And the weird thing was, Gourmet had a lead on all of them.

I hope Gourmet lives on at its web site, still offering engaging writing and videos, giving us tips and inside stories. But if it doesn't, I imagine these talented people will land on their feet creating what Conde Nast, alas, was unwilling to envision.

- Samuel Fromartz