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Pastries, Ranked

I only have three teeth: a sweet tooth, a carb tooth, and a fat tooth. I put them to good use by eating pastries at any event where they may be available. Mother’s Day brunch? Pastries. Football tailgate? Pastries. Living under a bridge? Pastries.Read more…

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Why North Carolina is doing jam right

April McGregerFarmer’s DaughterHillsborough, N.C. McGreger grew up on a Mississippi farm, where she witnessed all the challenges that farmers face in commodity-crop, “race-to-the-bottom” agriculture. The experience sparked her current mission: make wholesome jams, pickles, and preserves with produce from local farmers. “For me, [this business] started as … keeping as much money as possible in the pockets of farmers,” she says, “and then creating good and honest food with no ingredients we can’t pronounce.” Why we chose these jams: McGreger creates her products based on what North Carolina Piedmont farmers are growing. The idea is to highlight the local produce that farmers can provide, and to encourage a model where the source inspires the recipe — not the other way around. Taste globally, source locally: McGreger says her products “are inspired both by what I want to eat and all the different people in my life.” For example: “My husband is Jewish, and he was very homesick for the pickles of the Northeast, so we make Jewish deli-style pickles. I have a best friend who is half-Korean, so I have kimchi on my menu.” Click to check out the full map.Filed under: Food, Living

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What’s the greenest way to get drunk?

Q. Is beer or hard cider most environmentally friendly? Actually, scratch that – of ALL the alcoholic beverages, which is least taxing on the environment? Jake,Renton, Wash. A. Dearest Jake, I periodically receive this question, or versions of it, from earnest tipplers all over the country. And also from all over my social events, where acquaintances tend to approach me after their third cocktail with a worried look on their faces. I usually begin with an examination of variables such as the carbon footprint of freight shipping versus pesticides used during farming versus energy intensiveness. That’s about when the acquaintance will make an excuse to leave, and funny, the host usually misplaces my invitation to her next party. So today I’m instituting a different method when this question arises, Jake. There are so many variables in alcohol production and distribution – and by “ALL the alcoholic beverages,” I assume we’re including beer, cider, wine, liquor, and fermented mare’s milk – that it becomes very difficult to award one the title of “least taxing.” So instead of sloshing around in the details, I’m going to give you some simple drinking guidelines. Follow as many as you can and you’ll be doing all right, no headaches necessary (at least not until tomorrow morning). 1. Look for local Shipping accounts for a significant chunk of a drink’s carbon emissions, especially if you’re pouring it from a heavy glass bottle. So seek out regional wineries, breweries, and distilleries – lucky for you, the Pacific Northwest is lousy with them – to minimize transport costs. The route your booze takes to reach you matters, too: A recent analysis from a UK efficiency group reported that shipping wine via rail or sea saved 30 percent and 20 percent, respectively, in emissions over truck shipping. Also worth noting: Some brands ship their wines in bulk via huge plastic bladders, then bottle them near the consumer, thereby alleviating some of their carbon debt. Don’t forget about the stuff that goes into the vat, either. Craft distilleries often source their grains and potatoes from the area (as opposed to larger brands that may buy a neutral grain spirit from elsewhere to start their concoctions), and some microbreweries are beginning to incorporate local malted barley and hops into their suds. When in doubt, ask – any brand going out of its way to source locally will probably want to tell you all about it. Winemakers, at least, make it easy to trace from whence sprang their grapes. 2. Buy in bulk The less packaging, the more efficient alcohol is to transport and schlep home – and bulk booze often comes in reusable vessels. For beer, that means a keg is the way to go for parties and a reusable growler that you refill at your favorite brewery is best for smaller groups. For wine, look into refillable wine bottles or even entire kegs, and sample wines on tap if you can find them at local bars. I’m not sure you can (or should) do the same with gigantic bottles of liquor, but let’s all agree that nobody should be buying Pocket Shots. 3. Peer at the packaging Yes, speaking of packaging: If the bulk route won’t do, you want the lightest containers possible (it’s that shipping cost thing again). Beer cans beat bottles in this regard, and many quality brews can now be had in this form. And as we’ve discussed, wine from an aseptic carton is lighter and more efficient to ship than that from a bottle. 4. Investigate ingredients What about all those organic quaffs, you ask? Sipping something that skipped the pesticide and petrochemical fertilizer bath is no doubt a good thing, and you’ll find a growing crop of organic beers, wines, and spirits on the shelves these days. Biodynamic wines – which come from vineyards that use organic practices and more, like natural pest management – are also worth a look. Where it gets tricky: It’s not necessarily a better choice to pick a faraway organic bottle with a big carbon shipping footprint over a local potion. Nor should you burn gas driving around town trying to find that big-O label. As we must often do with the organic-local problem, it’s worth asking your neighborhood boozemasters how they work and where they source ingredients. 5. Support sustainability Some companies promote pretty whiz-bang sustainability measures: turning beer leftovers into electricity, using on-site solar panels, reclaiming and reusing brewing water, tapping geothermal energy, and many more. We should be applauding and rewarding this kind of thing with a toast or two. 6. Make your own I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: The most local (and fun) drink of all is the one you brew/ferment/distill yourself. If you’re at all into DIY foodstuffs, Jake, you could find great success with your own nano-brew, hard cider, or hey, even prison wine. I’m not one to judge what tickles your palate. Tipsily, UmbraFiled under: Food, Living

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Seaweed: healthy, delicious, and legal in all 50 states

Seaweed, on the rare occasions I came across it in my Midwestern upbringing, seemed like a pretty simple deal: beach-borne mass of green goo-ribbons that you don’t really want to step on. Other than a few seaside experiences, I didn’t really think about seaweed much at all. And I da-hefinitely didn’t think about eating it. But I’ve changed my ways. I learned my lesson. I’m a seaweed believer. Here’s why: I read an article in the most recent edition of Lucky Peach, a quarterly food journal, by writer Rachel Khong. In it, she chronicles a summer she spent on the California coast, north of San Francisco, harvesting and preparing edible seaweed with Mendocino Sea Vegetable Company. According to Khong’s research, seaweed is one of the most life-giving plants in the world. Here’s a taste of what she writes in her article: The seashore is where all our stories start. It’s understood that present-day humans evolved in littoral spaces, where the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish and shellfish, originally from seaweed, were needed to evolve complex nervous systems and big brains. Which is to say: eating seaweed — either directly or by proxy — was what made us us. And seaweeds sustain life on earth, producing 70 to 80 percent of the world’s oxygen through photosynthesis… Plus, she notes, “seaweed is an impressively ample source of protein.” The protein-rich superfood feeds almost everything under the sea. Really, all ocean creatures eat seaweed somehow — whether directly or by eating something else that eats seaweed — so it’s the foundation of the marine food chain. Why I haven’t eaten seaweed before (other than as sushi-wrap) is beyond me. Especially considering that humans have been munching on seaweed for thousands of years. Writes Khong: We can’t be sure how long human beings have been eating seaweed — whatever archaeological proof of seaweed that might’ve existed has long since broken down and disappeared — but by most educated guesses it is a very, very long time. The oldest proof we have is the seaweed found in mortars in southern Chile dating to 12,000 BCE. So while seaweed-eating may kinda seem like just another foodie trend, it has deep roots in human history and is supposedly very yummy. So why not go out and forage your own, world? It’s abundant, nutritionally dense, and pairs well with Dijon mustard and fresh tarragon.Filed under: Article, Food, Living

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Artificial Sweeteners May Actually Raise Your Blood Sugar, Ha

If you are the hopeful, “never say die” sort of person who consumes artificial sweeteners in your diet in order to lower your sugar intake, allow me to inform you that you may have been accomplishing the opposite of what you wanted, all this time. Burn.Read more…

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Observer food critic Joshua David Stein goes undercover to review a New York City public school lunc

Observer food critic Joshua David Stein goes undercover to review a New York City public school lunch and declares the Texas Chicken Chili “Not bad at all.” Read more…

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Sea beans are delicious. Here are 7 ways to eat them.

Editors note: You don’t have to know how to fillet a fish or shuck an oyster to eat sustainably from the sea. Here’s a salty green you can forage from your local shoreline, and seven ways to use it. Like burdock, salicornia doesn’t exactly look like dinner — it looks more like something you’d stick in a fish tank rather than on your plate. Perhaps as a result of its unique looks, salicornia has benefited from a marketing campaign (sound familiar?) and is now also commonly referred to as sea beans — along with a slew of other names like samphire, glasswort, pickleweed, and sea asparagus. The succulent has been making appearances for quite a while; It even shows up in King Lear: “Half-way down / Hangs one that gathers sampire; dreadful trade!” (Maybe Shakespeare wasn’t into foraging?) Food 52 / James RansomWhere to Find and What to Look For Salicornia is often found along the seashore, so if you live near a coastal city, you can spot it at your farmers market during the summer. (Though it likes salty springs and marshes too, so you’re not out of luck if you live inland.) You can also forage for it, order it online, or even grow it in your garden. In fact, according to Hank Shaw, it might actually prefer to be in your garden: “The plant loses a lot of its salty tang in sweet soil, but it grows much larger and fuller than it does in the salt marsh.” Choose sea beans that are small, firm, and bright green (1), and pass on any specimens that are limp or slimy. If you’re foraging, snap off small sections from the top of the plants — it’s the most tender and best for the plant. By fall, salicornia can start to turn red, a sign that it has developed a tough central thread — something you probably don’t want to be eating. Stick to having them for dinner in the summer months. Food 52 / James RansomHow to Store and Prep Store your haul in the refrigerator, wrapped in a damp paper towel, and then in plastic; it stores well for about a week this way. If it starts to get a little limp, just refresh it in an ice water bath (2), which will come in handy for cooking, too. Since salicornia can be difficult to clean, Shaw recommends briefly blanching it for 30 to 90 seconds, and then shocking it in an ice bath to preserve color and stop the cooking. How to Use Salicornia shines as a garnish and in crunchy summer salads. You can also add it to a sandwich or a frittata, or use it where you would asparagus or green beans — just be sure to reduce the salt in the recipe. That saltiness naturally pairs well with seafood, too, so try cooking fish or shellfish on a bed of salicornia (discard it after cooking). It can also be sautéed, stir-fried, or even deep-fried: Just take care not to overcook it or it’ll lose its signature crunch. Ready to work salicornia into your meals this week? Check out our ideas and be sure to let us know your tips! Friday: Geoduck with Sea Beans and Porcini Saturday: Black Roasted Cod with Sea Beans and Oysters Sunday: Sea Bean Salad Monday: Wild Salmon with Sea Beans Tuesday: Shauna Ahern‘s Quick Pickled Sea Beans Wednesday: Mussel and Sea Bean Salad Thursday: Scallop Crudo with Sea Beans and ShisoFiled under: Food, Living

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Why New York is doing pasta right

Steve Gonzalez and Scott KetchumSfogliniBrooklyn, N.Y. Brooklyn is the American adoptive mother of pasta — seriously. Antoine Zerega opened the country’s first pasta factory (which was powered by one horse!) in New York’s hippest borough in 1848. Now, Gonzalez and Ketchum are running their own small-scale pasta operation out of the former Pfizer factory in Williamsburg. Why we chose this pasta: Gonzalez doesn’t see using local and organic sources as a marketing ploy. “We don’t really brag that much about it, because we really just feel that’s just the way it should be done,” he says. Gonzalez and Ketchum first started getting their flour from an organic mill in North Dakota, but they’ve since started doing pasta with blended flours, incorporating locally grown, organic grains. On staying small: “Some people have approached us about giving us money, and the first thing they want to do is tell us how to scale up and cut costs, [which] means getting cheaper flour,” says Gonzalez. “I just don’t want to buy it. I don’t care about the extra 5, 10 percent to the bottom line. We want to use a good product, and we want to have a good product.” Click to check out the full map.Filed under: Food, Living

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Fewer hungry humans (but still too many)

Which country has the highest percentage of hungry people? I’ll put the answer at the bottom. (Hint: it’s not located in Africa.) The United Nations’ annual report on hunger has arrived bearing sobering factoids like this one, along with some remarkably good news: There are now 100 million fewer chronically hungry people than there were 10 years ago. The improvements vary dramatically. In southeast Asia, 30 percent of people were undernourished in 1992; now it’s down to 10 percent, a stunning accomplishment. But in the Middle East (here labeled western Asia), the percentage of undernourished people has actually gone up. Worldwide, 11 percent of people still go through most of their lives hungry. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization says that the Millennium Development Goals on hunger are within reach “if appropriate and immediate efforts are stepped up.” What form should those efforts take? The UN urges everyone to remember that hunger is a fundamentally political problem: Lack of food, as we’ve said, is not the problem. The world produces enough food for everyone to be properly nourished and lead a healthy and productive life. Hunger exists because of poverty, natural disasters, earthquakes, floods and droughts. Women are particularly affected. In many countries they do most of the farming, but do not have the same access as men to training, credit or land. Hunger exists because of conflict and war, which destroy the chance to earn a decent living. It exists because poor people don’t have access to land to grow viable crops or keep livestock, or to steady work that would give them an income to buy food. It exists because people sometimes use natural resources in ways that are not sustainable. It exists because there is not enough investment in the rural sector in many countries to support agricultural development. Hunger exists because financial and economic crises affect the poor most of all by reducing or eliminating the sources of income they depend on to survive. And finally it exists because there is not yet the political will and commitment to make the changes needed to end hunger, once and for all. But how do you go about fixing those problems and mustering the political will? The new report suggests: Hunger reduction requires an integrated approach, which would include: public and private investments to raise agricultural productivity; better access to inputs, land, services, technologies and markets; measures to promote rural development; social protection for the most vulnerable, including strengthening their resilience to conflicts and natural disasters; and specific nutrition programmes, especially to address micronutrient deficiencies in mothers and children under five. In other words, the technical solutions can help with the political solutions and vice versa. This is a bit of a chicken and egg problem: Which do you do first: stop the war, or help farmers grow more food? If people are hungry, perhaps it’s better to send grain rather than soldiers. But if militants grab and sell the grain, we’re back to square one. The answer to the chicken and egg question seems to be: both. As for the answer to the question I began with: Haiti is the nation with the highest percentage of hungry citizens. An astonishing 52 percent of people there are undernourished. Filed under: Article, Food, Politics

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Dunkin’ Donuts cleans up its palm-oil act (and Krispy Kreme follows suit)

If you were looking for an excuse to stop and get a cruller at Dunkin’, here you go: Dunkin’ Donuts just committed to buy all its palm oil from sources that do not cut down the rainforest. (Update: One day later Krispy Kreme announced it too was moving to zero-deforestation doughnuts by the end of 2016). In case you didn’t know: Doughnuts have been fried in palm oil ever since the public health push to get rid of transfats. The demand for palm oil has driven farmers to clear forests, threatening many species, including orangutans. Cutting down these forests also has major long-term consequences for humans. So if you’re getting doughnuts from Tim Hortons or Krispy Kreme, you have yet another reason (besides the 190 reasons here) to feel guilty. There is a way to do palm oil right. Back in July, Cargill pledged to provide palm oil that did not cause deforestation, and yesterday it announced it was joining The Forest Trust. That gives doughnut companies the opportunity to get the oil they need without encouraging irresponsible destruction. “More and more consumers, investors, and suppliers around the world have shown that zero deforestation palm oil is possible – and in fact, more and more it is what consumers and investors expect,” Forest Heroes, a group that has been pressuring companies to abandon deforestation-dependent oil, said in a press release. Some 60 percent of palm oil is now produced responsibly. We are close to the tipping point where palm oil will stop being a synonym for “evil” and become an exemplar of a well-managed commodity. Update: Krispy Kreme’s statement on palm oil can be found here (look in the FAQs under “Do you use sustainable palm oil.”) Filed under: Article, Food, Politics

Continue reading Dunkin’ Donuts cleans up its palm-oil act (and Krispy Kreme follows suit)

Dunkin’ Donuts cleans up its palm-oil act

If you were looking for an excuse to stop and get a cruller at Dunkin’, here you go: Dunkin’ Donuts just committed to buy all its palm oil from sources that do not cut down the rainforest. In case you didn’t know: Doughnuts have been fried in palm oil ever since the public health push to get rid of transfats. The demand for palm oil has driven farmers to clear forests, threatening many species, including orangutans. Cutting down these forests also has major long-term consequences for humans. So if you’re getting doughnuts from Tim Hortons or Krispy Kreme, you have yet another reason (besides the 190 reasons here) to feel guilty. There is a way to do palm oil right. Back in July Cargill pledged to provide palm oil that did not cause deforestation, and yesterday it announced it was joining The Forest Trust. That gives doughnut companies the opportunity to get the oil they need without encouraging irresponsible destruction. “More and more consumers, investors, and suppliers around the world have shown that zero deforestation palm oil is possible – and in fact, more and more it is what consumers and investors expect,” Forest Heroes, a group that has been pressuring companies to abandon deforestation-dependent oil, said in a press release. Some 60 percent of palm oil is now produced responsibly. We are close to the tipping point where palm oil will stop being a synonym for “evil” and become an exemplar of a well-managed commodity.Filed under: Article, Food, Politics

Continue reading Dunkin’ Donuts cleans up its palm-oil act

Dunkin’ Donuts (and now Krispy Kreme) cleans up its palm-oil act

If you were looking for an excuse to stop and get a cruller at Dunkin’, here you go: Dunkin’ Donuts just committed to buy all its palm oil from sources that do not cut down the rainforest. (Update: One day later Krispy Kreme announced it too was moving toto zero-deforestation doughnuts by the end of 2016). In case you didn’t know: Doughnuts have been fried in palm oil ever since the public health push to get rid of transfats. The demand for palm oil has driven farmers to clear forests, threatening many species, including orangutans. Cutting down these forests also has major long-term consequences for humans. So if you’re getting doughnuts from Tim Hortons or Krispy Kreme, you have yet another reason (besides the 190 reasons here) to feel guilty. There is a way to do palm oil right. Back in July, Cargill pledged to provide palm oil that did not cause deforestation, and yesterday it announced it was joining The Forest Trust. That gives doughnut companies the opportunity to get the oil they need without encouraging irresponsible destruction. “More and more consumers, investors, and suppliers around the world have shown that zero deforestation palm oil is possible – and in fact, more and more it is what consumers and investors expect,” Forest Heroes, a group that has been pressuring companies to abandon deforestation-dependent oil, said in a press release. Some 60 percent of palm oil is now produced responsibly. We are close to the tipping point where palm oil will stop being a synonym for “evil” and become an exemplar of a well-managed commodity. Update: Krispy Kreme’s statement on palm oil can be found here (look in the FAQs under “Do you use sustainable palm oil.”) Filed under: Article, Food, Politics

Continue reading Dunkin’ Donuts (and now Krispy Kreme) cleans up its palm-oil act

A podcast for those who like food for their brain

I like cooking, and I love eating. But intellectually I’m drawn to food because of the way it bridges human culture and the natural environment. There’s a new podcast that talks about food in just that way. It’s called Gastropod. It’s the work of Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley, two food journalists who met while participating in the 11th Hour Food and Farming Journalism Fellowship at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. “We’re both passionate about understanding food and agriculture through the lens of science and history,” Graber said. “We’re trying to ask, what’s scaleable, what’s sustainable, what’s scientifically reasonable?” The first episode is all about the utensils, and how cutlery changes the way we eat. But Graber promises they have already begun producing podcasts that dive into the meaty issues surrounding food and the environment. You can find it here, or follow @Gastropodcast.Filed under: Article, Food, Living

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Why New Mexico is doing chilies right

Ken and Rosa ArmijoArmijo Farms/My ChilitoSabinal, N.M. New Mexico officially designated the chili pepper as its state vegetable in 1965. (Much like New Jersey, New Mexico appears confused as to the classification of fruits vs. vegetables, but we’ll forgive.) Ken Armijo has been growing chilies on his grandfather’s farm for 20 years, and also sells dried, pureed, and powdered chilies. Why we chose these chilies: Armijo Farms has been certified organic for the past four years. Ken first made the decision to switch from conventional farming methods to organic when he started reading materials from the Rodale Institute. “I really didn’t have a mentor or anybody that I could talk to about farming practices,” he says. “I was really opening my eyes to a whole new world of growing food.” These are your father’s seeds: “When I started growing crops out here, I grew what my dad wanted to grow,” says Ken. “He saved these seeds from when he was younger … He had some melon seeds, corn, beans, chili, different things. He’d come out here and take out his little jar of seeds and we’d plant them.” Click to check out the full map.Filed under: Food, Living

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Grist is taking a deep dive on oceans

We at Grist have a bit of a stormy relationship with the sea. Sometimes it can be gross and scary; sometimes it’s just sad and scary; very occasionally it is cute and only a little scary. But since saltwater covers the vast majority of the surface of our planet, it’s worth turning an eye to how the other half lives — especially when it comes to climate change. It’s no secret that the oceans have helped slow the tide on global warming for years now (thanks, bro!). Meanwhile, overfishing, oil spills, and ocean acidification aren’t doing our salty friend any favors. And while we could easily clog the channels with all the mad n’ sad ocean news fit to print, we’re not going to do that. Neither will we Lisa Frank-ify some big fish tales to make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Instead, for the next two weeks, we will be taking a good ol’ Grist-y look at some of the things smart people are doing to address these ocean woes, and what still remains to be done. We won’t resort to pessimism or pollyanna-ism: We know that sea level is rising and we’re all going to have to deal with it eventually. Finding out how climate resilience, food security, and environmental justice work on the liquid parts of the planet will only help us along. And you can be sure we’ll throw in some sea monsters for good measure.Filed under: Climate & Energy, Food

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Why New Jersey is doing tomatoes right

Theresa Viggiano and Patrick LegerFirst FieldPrinceton, N.J. The official state vegetable of New Jersey is the tomato — and yes, we know it’s a fruit. Seems like Garden Staters don’t spend too much time in the garden after all. Eyyy, ohhh! Since 2011, First Field has been selling sauces and ketchup made from local tomatoes. Why we chose these sauces: Viggiano and Leger have a two-acre organic farm where they grow tomatoes, but it’s not nearly large enough to grow their entire supply. They’ve spent years developing relationships with local tomato farmers with the goal of working with them to transition to organic methods. Example: The couple recently secured a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to experiment with a rye cover crop on tomato fields at Rutgers University. They invited their growers to come and observe the study, and this year a dozen New Jersey tomato growers will implement the new method. How do you change the American agricultural system? Step One: Earn farmers’ trust: “We could be organic very quickly if we said, ‘We’ll buy California organic or Mexico organic,’ but I think for us it’s all about having a dialogue with farmers, and moving the needle from conventional to organic.” Click to check out the full map.Filed under: Food, Living

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California dairy farmers are going nuts for almonds, but at what cost?

This is Part 2 of a two-part series about California’s organic dairy industry. Read Part 1 here. “The bees should be flying around today,” Ward Burroughs says in a slow, deep baritone, furrowing his brow over close-set eyes as he peeks over the steering wheel of his white pickup truck. We’re surrounded on both sides by a sea of pale pink — row upon row of densely planted almond trees, their plump, compact blossoms in full bloom. The thermometer on the dashboard reads 59 degrees Fahrenheit, two degrees above the minimum temperature required for the bees to leave their hives and start pollinating, turning those blossoms into nuts that drive the state’s nearly $5-billion-a-year industry. Ward narrows his eyes, scanning a sky the color of an oyster shell for the little insects that could keep his family farm afloat. As I wrote in my last post, Ward and Rosie Burroughs own and operate Burroughs Family Farms, a pair of organic dairies in California’s Northern San Joaquin Valley. But the Burroughs, along with many organic dairymen in the state’s Central Valley, are in the middle of a perfect storm of sorts: California’s drought and federal water restrictions are quickly drying up cattle pasture and driving organic feed costs skyward. National dairy co-ops like Organic Valley are starting to respond to the crisis by paying farmers more for their milk, but prices throughout the milk supply chain aren’t high enough to meet the rising costs of production. To help weather the storm, the Burroughs have sold a third dairy and ramped up the production of other goods, including grass-raised meat, eggs, and olive oil. Many of their colleagues have decided to leave dairying entirely, though, closing the doors on family farms that have operated for generations. And then there are the almonds. What used to be miles of open pasture surrounding the Burroughs’ farm is now unending swaths of almond orchards — a sight that didn’t exist just a decade ago. Those almonds have been a savior for some organic dairymen, who have chosen to rip out their grass rather than go out of business altogether. But with California now supplying roughly 80 percent of the world’s almonds, the race to establish orchards has become a frenzied one. “The almonds and pistachio crops are really king now in the Central Valley,” Ward says. “Dairies used to be.” Farming, by its very nature, is in a state of constant adaptation — to environmental factors, market forces, and an ever-evolving landscape. But California’s ongoing drought is remaking the land faster than most farmers can adapt to it, and many are tearing out their sustainable, organic pasture to make way for a crop that is both water- and chemical-intensive, and just as vulnerable to the state’s drought. It begs the question: What’s a better use for this land, satiating California milk drinkers, or almond eaters half a world away? *** Almonds are to the 2000s what soy was to the health-food craze of the 1970s. And right now California owns the market — it’s the only state in the entire country that produces almonds commercially. Fueled in part by a growing body of research that touts almonds as an ultimate superfood with pretty considerable cardiovascular benefits, annual revenues from the state’s almond industry have increased from $740 million to $4.35 billion in the past decade. The craze expands beyond the U.S., where almonds have even surpassed peanuts in popularity. In just four years, China, the largest importer of California almonds, has quadrupled its import to 150,000 tons annually. WhiteWave Foods, the company behind Silk, a top-selling soy milk brand, estimates that soy now represents just 35 percent of its plant-milk sales, while almond milk carries more than half of its market. The spike in demand has led many a dairy farmer to pivot from milk to nuts. Farmers who lease land, meanwhile, often find themselves out of luck. Last year, pasture in Stanislaus County, where the Burroughs’ farms are located, was valued at $2,000 an acre, while land for almond orchards was as high as $25,000 an acre, almost 12 times higher. Very few landholders want to lease their land for pasture anymore as a result, leaving many dairymen in a mad scramble for rangeland so that their cattle can meet the 120-day grazing minimum mandated for organic dairy by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Adding to the pressure to sell out and move on, cattle prices are at an all-time high, up 30.7 percent from last year according to the USDA. For many cash-strapped farmers, cows are worth more dead than alive. “In this environment, because the price of a cow is so high, farmers are selling cows instead of milking them,” says George Siemon, CEO of Organic Valley. “I would say that over half of the farmers [in the co-op] have had to downsize some. It’s a significant thing.” But while almonds offer a financial windfall for struggling dairymen — just as organic dairying once did before the drought — the nut-tree boom could be a short-lived one, too. *** Almonds are a long-term commitment and profits are no sure or immediate thing. An organic dairy farmer must rip out his sacred pasture — it takes three years to certify pasture as organic — in order to reset the terrain for an orchard of almond trees, which don’t bear fruit for at least three or four years. The crop also requires massive amounts of water to survive. It takes more than a gallon of water to produce a single almond, and about 10 percent of California’s entire water supply is directed toward almond farming alone. With more than half of California in drought so extreme some experts are considering creating a new “D5” drought category, almond growers are diverting water from annual crops like vegetables – which are much easier to replace than an entire orchard – and drilling a flurry of new wells to keep their trees alive with groundwater. According to the USDA, this year’s production forecast is expected to reach 2.10 billion pounds, up 4.5 percent from last year’s crop. But what happens if droughts continue to worsen across California? The landscape of the Central Valley, the state’s agricultural heart, is quickly becoming an unforgiving one, as the drought deepens and the race for land and water sweeps the West. In the near term, as long as the drought continues, there will be winners, and inevitably losers. Organic dairy farmers will continue to struggle for both land and for market share: While organic dairies are woven into the geography, Big Dairy can work around the drought, keeping milk prices cheap by importing feed from areas where rain is still falling and the price of land isn’t skyrocketing. Economic logic trumps ecological logic once again. But as booming as the demand for California almonds is right now, the crop is just as vulnerable to drought and depleted groundwater as dairy is, making the long-term future for these farmers even cloudier. Young dairymen who have dreamed about taking over their family business are finding that they can’t assume the financial burden, and families with entire foundations built on dairying are suddenly finding them uprooted as almond orchards continue to bathe the Central Valley in a sea of pale pink. But for now, at least, nuts are keeping some organic dairymen on the land — land their families have tilled and plowed and cultivated for generations. There are no clear answers here, but part of the solution rests in the buying power of the consumer. Co-ops like Organic Valley can do their part by raising milk prices to pay their farmers, but organic milk drinkers are going to have to pay more when prices start to climb. And climb they will: Organic Valley recently upped its pay prices to farmers, which translates to a 20 cent increase on supermarket shelves. According to Siemon, we could see another price increase as early as March 2015. “The drought is more than just a lack of water, or only watering just two days a week. It means that for consumers, the cost is going to go up and up,” Rosie Burroughs says. “And that’s farming — we can’t depend on cheap food year after year.” The future of farming in the Central Valley, she says, rests on the fate of the family farm. “If you can’t hand it down to the next generation,” she says, “then you can’t farm.”Filed under: Article, Food

Continue reading California dairy farmers are going nuts for almonds, but at what cost?

As farmland runs out, seafood looks better than you think

To create a more sustainable and equitable food system, we’re going to have to produce more food. That’s the conclusion I’ve come to as I’ve worked through the arguments over feeding ourselves. We’ll need to share that food more equitably and limit population growth as well — but it turns out that increasing food production can help with both those things. (For all of you shouting “food waste!” at your computer screen, I can hear you, and I will get to it.) There’s a lot of arable land left for farming, but almost all of that land has something wrong with it. In some places the soils are poor; in others, the rain never falls (or never stops). Some of the land is rainforest or designated as a wildlife sanctuary. Much of the remaining “available” land is, in actuality, already being farmed by disenfranchised people whose names don’t appear on any official title. So where do we go to produce more food when land is lacking? Perhaps to sea. FAOThat seems like a possibility. I’ve heard legends of cod so thick in the North Atlantic you could walk from Maine to Greenland. If we were able to get anywhere close to that, those wild fish could feed a lot of people. In his book, The Perfect Protein, Oceana CEO Andy Sharpless lays out a similar vision: We reduce fishing long enough to let wild stocks rebound, then take a higher sustainable catch each year. He writes, “If the world’s fisheries were better managed they could yield up to 40 percent more of the world’s healthiest, most environmentally friendly protein: wild seafood.” Well, maybe. But the majority of researchers have a considerably less rosy view. Humans currently catch about 80 million tons of fish a year. Trevor Branch, a fisheries scientist at the University of Washington, thinks that we could increase that to 90 or 100 million tons with better management. The FAO, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, has about the same estimate: “Rebuilding overfished stocks could increase production by 16.5 million tonnes.” There’s just not much room for improvement, Branch told me. But what about my idea of skating to Greenland on cod? “There are some populations that you could catch more of, like cod in the Atlantic. But a lot of fisheries are doing fine. In the Baltic Sea, cod is at near record highs. If I were to grade global fisheries management [for sustainability], we’re between a B and an A right now,” Branch said. I was honestly astounded by this. The FAO gives fisheries a C — 71 percent of fish stocks are caught at a sustainable level. But still, I would have guessed the grade was a D or F. I told Branch that I’d assumed that we were steadily driving every fishery into collapse. It seems like everything I hear about fish is tinged with catastrophe. “Bad news gets more press, good news gets less,” Brancy said. There’s good news all the time: Just recently there was evidence that blue whale populations had rebounded, and that rockfish off the Pacific coast were now numerous enough to support regular catches. People talk about bad news to try and fix problems — there’s less reason to talk about good news. Ray Hilborn, another fisheries scientist at the University of Washington agreed. “Capture fisheries really aren’t going to be able to grow much.” Okay, so there’s not that much room for growth through better management. What about catching new creatures? We could be hauling up a lot more krill and there are lots more fish hiding out beyond the reach of nets in the mesopelagic zone (the middle ocean — below the normal fishing depth). There are 100 to 500 million tons of krill on any given year, and it’s been suggested that the mesopelagic zone is home to as much as 95 percent of the world’s fish, but neither is a great solution to our problems. Krill are at the base of the Antarctic food web: They support penguins and whales and other fish. And the weather in the Antarctic make them hard to catch. David Csepp, NOAA/NMFS/AKFSC/Auke Bay Lab/WikimediaLanternfishMesopelagic fish are also hard to catch, because they are spread out at low density around the world. “If you go out into the open ocean and switch on your fish finder, there’s this mid-level scattering layer everywhere,” Branch said. These are mesopelagic species, like lanternfish. They are just too deep and diffuse to catch with any efficiency. If we were to catch more krill or lanternfish, we’d be in real trouble: We’d have to figure out how to eat them. Krill isn’t part of any food tradition, but we might be able to get used to them. Lanternfish, on the other hand, “are watery, tasteless… They are pretty horrible,” Branch said. It’s going to be tough to pull a lot more wild fish out of the ocean. But what about domesticated fish? Aquaculture got a bad reputation in the early days because people were focused on salmon. It took three pounds of feeder fish to grow a pound of salmon. When you farm salmon you are basically taking a lot of fish and transforming it into fewer fish. Not good if you want to feed more people. Now salmon on farms eat grain mixed with fish, and it’s efficient — so 16 ounces of salmon might only require 14 ounces of feeder fish (plus corn and soybeans). You can also farm vegetarian fish — or omnivorous shrimp — with grain and agricultural waste products: they convert feed to meat at about the same rate as chicken, which is to say, better than all the other farm animals. “Fish have an advantage over livestock,” Hilborn told me. “They don’t have to stand upright, they just float.” Use a little less energy to stand up and you gain a little more energy to grow. Even better than vegetarians are the filter feeders, like oysters and clams, which filter tiny food particles out of the water and clear up pollution in the process. There’s room for a massive expansion in shellfish farming. Production from aquaculture is rising at 7 percent a year, which is extraordinary. Farming yields might rise by 3 percent on a particularly good year. “The growth is staggering,” Branch said. FAOOf course aquaculture takes up space, and it requires water. But there’s the potential to make double use of both that land and water. China, which is responsible for over 60 percent of the world’s aquaculture, produces some 1.2 million tons of fish in rice paddies. The fish eat insects that come to attack the rice, and their poop works as fertilizer. Fish production in China’s rice fields has increased thirteenfold since 1992, according to the FAO. Francis Murray, WorldFishOf course, there are just as many examples of ways to do aquaculture horrifically wrong. But the point is that getting it right is possible: There are no hard limits, and no devastating environmental tradeoffs to aquaculture done right. And that’s Andy Sharpless’s larger point. We really could feed ourselves with fish. The average human currently eats 19 kg of fish a year. Compare that to 10 kg of beef, 14 kg of poultry, and 15 kg of pork. Fish are an incredibly important source of protein. Increases in fish production could make a huge difference.Filed under: Article, Business & Technology, Food

Continue reading As farmland runs out, seafood looks better than you think

Do I have to hang up my gardening tools during the drought?

Q. Since we are in the middle of a drought, a lot of people in our town let their backyard vegetable gardens dry up this year to save water. But does it take less water to grow your own vegetables or to buy them from farms? Valerie M. Santa Cruz, Calif. A. Dearest Valerie, And the drought questions keep pouring in! In honor of the many water-related issues still inundating my inbox, I hereby extend Drought Week into Drought Week Point Five. Next up: Are those store-bought veggies all wet? Or is the new victory garden (in the Southwest, at least) no garden at all? I do have an answer for you: It depends. Oh, not that wishy-washiness again? Well, a crop’s total water requirements — its water footprint, if you will — is going to depend on factors like weather, climate, and soil. If you hold those variables constant for the backyard garden and the farm, what we’re really looking at is how efficiently the watering is being done. Will a drop-counting home gardener who drip-irrigates from a rain barrel beat a commercial farmer using old-school flood irrigation? Will a farmer employing ultra-efficient watering technology beat a home gardener who simply turns on the hose and walks away? The answer, in both cases, is probably. I posed your question to Mark Van Horn, director of the Student Farm at UC-Davis, and he had this to say: “Farmers are professionals and water is a really precious and costly resource, so most of them use it quite efficiently.” But that doesn’t mean you must let your pole beans wither on the vine. “If you buy vegetables, you don’t necessarily know how efficiently they were grown,” Van Horn said. “But if you grow your own, then you can be sure.” And because homegrown veggies can have so many other environmental and health benefits — like zero transport cost, no chemicals, and maximum freshness — Van Horn considers their irrigation demands water well spent. I’m inclined to agree. The key for you and your neighbors, Valerie, is to water your backyard plots as carefully as possible. (That is, if local water restrictions allow for irrigation at all. Me, I’d sooner shorten my showers than give up my prizewinning tomatoes.) A water-smart garden can actually begin in the planning stages, before any spades hit soil: Deeper-rooted plants tend to need less water, so think about native beans, tomatoes, melons, squash, and asparagus over shallower-rooted options such as tubers and cabbage. Also consider how many veggies you can truly handle (and truly like to eat); planting more than you can use means water wasted. Once you’ve sown your seeds, Valerie, I’d point you to the three commandments of drought gardening: Thou shalt weed, mulch, and compost. Weeds are thirsty little buggers that will compete with your crops for each valuable drop, so yank them early and often. Mulch greatly reduces water loss from evaporation, cutting your irrigation needs by as much as 50 percent, so smother that soil with a layer of grass clippings, leaves, shredded bark, newspaper, or straw. And high-quality compost means your soil can hold more moisture for longer. Finally, to the watering part: First off, don’t do it unless your plants really need it. To check, grab a handful of soil from four to 12 inches down and squeeze — if it holds together, it’s probably wet enough. If not, most water-use experts recommend putting in a drip irrigation or soaker hose system rather than using a sprinkler or regular hose. Turn it on in the morning, when it’s not windy, to further reduce evaporation loss. And if you’re creative, you can also augment the supply by reusing the water from boiling veggies in your kitchen, warm-up water from your shower, various other graywater sources, and the aforementioned rain barrel. I’ve barely scratched the surface of all there is to know about water-wise veggie gardening, Valerie, so I encourage you to reach out to your local cooperative extension to learn more. But rest assured you can responsibly raise a vibrant harvest, even in a drought. And keep this in mind, too: Every time you choose an eggplant (store-bought or homegrown) over a steak, you’re saving buckets upon buckets of water anyway. Meat requires staggering amounts of water to produce compared to any plant. So really, your strongest drought-fighting tactic is to grow, buy, and eat more veggies, not fewer. Saturatedly, UmbraFiled under: Food, Living

Continue reading Do I have to hang up my gardening tools during the drought?

Whole Foods’ Anti-GMO Swindle

The confusing debate over genetically modified food isn’t going away soon. And the longer consumers don’t understand what they’re buying, the more places like Whole Foods benefit.

Continue reading Whole Foods’ Anti-GMO Swindle

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