KAT's blog

No Impact Food Day Q & A with Colin Beavan


Colin Beavan's experiment in low impact living compelled him to reassess just about every aspect of our daily lives: how we get around; how we shop; how we stay cool and keep warm; how we entertain ourselves; and, of course, how we eat. The production/distribution of food products uses an extraordinary amount of energy and has a huge impact on our environment. So, for the purposes of the project, Colin, Michelle and Isabella had to alter their eating habits radically.

Once his family switched to eating only foods produced within a 250-mile radius of New York City, the farmer's market became a regular ritual. Such American dietary staples as pizza, take-out Chinese--even peanut butter sandwiches--became off-limits, either because they contained non-local ingredients or generated trash.

The No Impact Project week's in full swing now, and those of us who've signed on are taking a closer look at our carbon "foodprint" today. So I asked Colin to tell us a bit more about his year-long adventure in ecological eating:

KT: Did you know when you embarked on the No Impact experiment that our eating habits play such a crucial role when it comes to climate change?

CB: I knew that the centralized, agri-giants that produced food put good nutrition and people's health very low down on their priority list. After all, they don't profit from our eating healthily; they profit from our eating more. So the environmental and human degradation caused by centralized food production and distribution came as no real surprise to me.

And the problem is not just climate change. There is a 75 square mile dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico caused by the amount of chemical fertilizer washed off American farmland and down the Mississippi.

I like eating locally because the farmers are not anonymous corporations. I can look them in the eye and become friendly with them. I can choose to trust them to make sure that they care for our land, water and climate. And I trust them to provide food I can trust for my little girl too.

KT: You've emphasized in your public appearances--on Good Morning America, for example--that reducing our meat consumption is one of the most significant ways that we can curb our carbon "foodprint." Were you a vegetarian prior to beginning the project? What inspired you to make the shift to a plant-based diet?

CB: Did you ever see the Humane Society video showing the cruelty to the cows in confined animal feeding operations (CAFO)? I'm talking about the video that sparked the largest beef recall in US history.

Becoming aware of the cruelty and the climate impact of the beef industry has done me in forever. I used to have occasional bacon and pepperoni slips, but no more.

Thinking again of the cruelty I witnessed. I can't help but believe that somehow the energy of that cruelty and unhappiness enters the animal and that energy might get passed on to whoever eats it. I don't want my little girl to be the recipient of that energy.

For those who choose not to give up meat though, I know many local farmers who treat their animals kindly. When cattle are raised well in pasture, their manure fertilizes the land, causing more plants to grow and more carbon to be sequestered in the land. This is a way better choice, in my view, than CAFO meat.

KT: You're also a strong advocate of eating locally and seasonally. Critics of the locavore movement have attempted to dismiss it as a single-minded fixation on "food miles." But your impetus for eating locally was motivated as much by your desire to stop generating all the garbage that comes with processed convenience foods and take-out. How do you pitch the ecological benefits of a predominantly local diet to skeptics who've been swayed by anti-locavore diatribes?

CB: Look at the funding for the research that is used to back up the anti-locavore spin and look where it has been published. Often times, [they are funded and published by] chemical giants. The ones that produce chemicals local farmers don't use. The ones that have the most to lose if we change our agricultural system.

But the amazing thing about local food is that it is not just good for the environment. It's better for my family too. The food, itself, is better for us. And Isabella, who sometimes doesn't eat veggies, will absolutely eat them when she has seen where they have been grown.

Local food allows for trust and community relationships. When I pay a farmer I know for food, my money supports something I care about and people I care for. I can't say that when I buy from the frozen food section.

KT: You understandably had a craving for various foods that were off-limits for the duration of your project. What did you miss the most? When the year was up, what formerly verboten foods gave you the greatest pleasure?

CB: Pizza and peanut butter.

KT: In your book, you write that the television used to be the center of your life. When your family gave up the big screen TV, the kitchen table took center stage; making meals became the proverbial "quality time" with Michelle and Isabella. And when your project put you in the media's glare, you found refuge in baking bread.

Now you're out on book tour and promoting your foundation, which presumably doesn't leave a lot of time for treks to the farmers' market, home cooked meals with friends and family, or bread making. As anyone who travels knows, finding fresh, healthy, sustainably grown food on the road can be a challenge (though the Eat Well Guide is working to make it easier all the time!). How are you eating these days, if you don't mind my asking?

CB: Badly. And this points to an important point. It is not always easy to live and to eat sustainably. That is because our major cultural systems--food production, energy generation, etc.--are not sustainable. We have to find ways to live outside those systems if we want to live sustainably.

This shouldn't be so. Our systems should be designed to be good for the people and good for the planet. You shouldn't have to "resist" the temptation to eat from your grocery store when you want to take care of yourself and the planet. Living healthily and sustainably should be as easy as falling off a log.

And that's why just changing our individual lifestyles is an important part of the equation but not the whole equation. Joining in with others to ask for system change via our city, state and federal governments is also important. To do this, finding community in grassroots environmental organizations is a big help.

And of course, you're always welcome to join in at NoImpactProject.org, too!

Cross-posted from The Green Fork.

Meat Takes a Beating, Gets a Blessing on Larry King

Two cornerstones of American culture collided Monday night on CNN:
Larry King and cheap processed meat. Or should I say colluded? After all, they've got a lot in common: both smush together scraps of debatable value and dubious origin and extrude them as suitable fodder for our more credulous compatriots. And both have the potential to poison us, whether by tainting our food supply with pathogens or contaminating our national conversation with lackeys and lobbyists.

Cross-posted from The Green Fork.
The topic of King's show was the question "Does a healthy diet include meat?" It seemed strangely fitting to have the King of the MSM (mainstream media) explore the industry that gave us another MSM: mechanically separated meat, "a paste-like meat product produced by forcing beef, pork, turkey or chicken bones, with attached edible meat, under high pressure through a sieve or similar device to separate the bone from the edible meat tissue."

This method enabled meat processors to minimize waste, use less expensive ingredients and thereby offer us cheaper hot dogs and other processed meat products.

MSM was declared safe for human consumption in 1982. In 2004, the USDA decided that it wasn't, stating that "mechanically separated beef is considered inedible and is prohibited for use as human food."

Why the change? Three words: Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, aka BSE or mad cow disease. So, no more MSM in your ballpark frank. Now, you just have to worry about E.Coli in your ground beef, as Michael Moss's scathing New York Times exposé showed. Or do you?

King posed this question to a panel that included: Patrick Boyle, president and CEO of American Meat Institute; Bill Marler, the nation's leading foodborne illness attorney; bacon-loving celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain; and Jonathan Safran Foer, the acclaimed novelist who advocates vegetarianism in his soon-to-be published Eating Animals. King also brought on two nutrition professors, one pro-meat, one anti, a food safety advocate who lost her son to an E. Coli-tainted burger, and a mother whose 7 year-old daughter died after visiting her E. Coli-sickened grandpa in the hospital. Who knew that you could contract E. Coli by coming into contact with someone who's got it?

Anthony Bourdain defended meat eating on the grounds that we're designed to be carnivores:

Bourdain: ...we have eyes in the front of our head. We have fingernails. We have eye, teeth and long legs. We were designed from the get-go, we have evolved, so that we could chase down smaller, stupider creatures, kill them and eat them.

He noted, however, that we are not designed to "eat fecal choliform bacteria":

Bourdain: I think the standard practices of outfits like Cargill and some of the larger meat processors and grinders in this country are unconscionable and border on the criminal.

Jonathan Safran Foer, who gave us a taste of his upcoming book in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine, agreed with Bourdain's indictment of industrial meat production but took issue with Bourdain's assertion that it's natural to eat meat:

Foer: I'm not all that interested in what humans seem designed to eat or what is quote, unquote natural, because the entirety of human progress is defying what's natural. If we're so concerned with what was natural, we wouldn't be in this TV studio right now having this conversation.

The thing that's really important that Anthony said is that there's a certain kind of meat, which is produced on factory farms, that is in every single way unconscionable. It's unconscionable to feed to our children because of the health. It's unconscionable because it's the single worst thing we can to do to the environment by a long shot. And it's unconscionable because of what we're doing to animals who are raised on factory farms.

What Anthony didn't say, and I wish he had, is that upwards of 99 percent of the animals that are raised for meat in this country come from factory farms. When we're talking about meat, when we're talking about the meat they sell in grocery stores, when we're talking about the meat we order in restaurants, we are effectively talking about factory farms.

Bourdain conceded that the cheap ground beef that dominates the average American diet is the issue:

Bourdain: My major area of concern is the chopped meat.
You know, supermarket quality fast food quality, pre-chopped meat.
Those practices, if you read the Times article that came out recently on this most recent E. Coli outbreak, it's truly terrifying. The stuff they're putting in these burgers would not be recognized by any American as meat...

Patrick Boyle, the American Meat Institute CEO, gave the obligatory industry rebuttal:

Boyle: I think some of the comments have been grossly uninformed about the industry and our products. This industry, the member companies of the American Meat Institute, of which Cargill is one, have invested tens of millions of dollars over the last ten years in research programs to make our products safer....

...And hamburger is compromised of trim from more expensive pieces of meat like tenderloins and roasts. It's perfectly safe, perfectly wholesome. It's produced under the continuous inspection of the U.S.
Department of Agriculture.

One other comment if I might, Larry. The whole comment about factory farming, from my perspective, that's a negative reference to high volume, low cost, efficient meat and poultry processing facilities, that give Americans an abundant variety of safe and wholesome products at a very reasonable price. The lowest price in terms of disposable income spent in any developed country in the world.

Some nutrition professors might argue that a diet dominated by cheap beef and other animal products full of saturated fats is not such a great idea. In fact, King invited one such expert, Cornell University's Colin Campbell, author of the China Study, to share his view that meat-eating is unnecessary and undesirable:

Dr. Campbell: ...a whole foods plant-based diet really has all the nutrients that we actually need at optimum levels of intake.
And what we learned early in my career, that instead of protein, especially animal protein, being a good nutrient, so to speak, and creating good health, what we learned is that we could actually turn on cancer development by simply increasing the level of animal protein intake above the amount of protein that we really needed. We could turn it off by simply taking it away...

...the conclusion was that the closer we get to consuming a whole foods, plant-based diet the healthier we're going to be on all accounts.

But Dr. Nancy Rodriguez, a professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Connecticut, disputed Campbell's claims:

Dr. Rodriguez: I believe that when you're looking at living a long, healthful life, that certainly animal proteins, which are the foundation of life and what we do, can fit in that healthful approach. And some of the recent studies, again, from my lab and others, peer reviewed science, using whole foods that include beef, dairy, eggs in the diet, have shown that there is some benefits to the muscle, without any detriment to cholesterol levels, benefits, perhaps, to Diabetes management and high blood pressure.

That's right, eating meat, eggs and cheese doesn't necessarily raise your cholesterol, and may in fact be a useful tool in the management of diabetes and high blood pressure. Huh. That sounded wrong to me, but what do I know? I get my nutritional advice from folks like Marion Nestle and Joan Gussow, whereas Dr. Rodriguez has done all kinds of research that's been generously funded by such organizations as the National Dairy Council, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, and the Egg Nutrition Center.

Dr. Rodriguez warned that we should think twice about reducing our consumption of animal products:

Dr. Rodriguez: ...when you make a choice to eliminate those animal products from your diet, it becomes a challenge, particularly for certain vulnerable populations, such as infants and children, to get those nutrients in.

So, if you need reassurance that bacon cheeseburgers are an essential part of a heart-healthy diet, especially for kids, Dr. Rodriguez is your woman. She's looked into it--with the help of the meat, egg and dairy industries.

Tricks and Treats of the Vegan Lunch Box

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You can tell fall's in full swing, all the signs are there: the chill in the air, the fiery foliage, the stores stocked with cheap plastic landfill-ready Halloween tchotchkes that are probably chock full of phthalates, bisphenol A, and who knows what other toxins. Not to mention the lead coated wires on all those light-up spider webs and skulls. And the swine flu's back with a vengeance; will medical masks outsell the usual disguises this Halloween?

Scary stuff, indeed. But the start of the school year creates another frightening dilemma for many parents; how to fill your child's lunch box with something less horrifying than, say, a Kraft Lunchable?

There are plenty of parents who'd rather send their kids off to school with a more wholesome, less processed lunch. And though we all think of October as the season for harvests and Halloween, it's also Vegetarian Awareness Month, which kicks off today with World Vegetarian Day.

So now's the perfect time to get acquainted with Jennifer McCann, the veggie-loving blogger who began documenting the delicious and delightfully inventive plant-based lunches she created for her son on his "first day of school in 2005," as the New York Times recently reported. Thousands of parents desperate for a healthy alternative to the lamentable Lunchables began flocking to Vegan Lunch Box, McCann's website, and trying her recipes, launching her on a new career as a cookbook author.

McCann's cookbooks, Vegan Lunch Box and her latest, Vegan Lunch Box Around the World, may be geared towards children, but they're perfect for anyone--kids or no kids--who enjoys simple, eclectic dishes featuring fresh takes on familiar foods. Her stated goal is "to inspire others to eat more healthy, plant-based meals and move more." I interviewed her recently via email to find out more about how this "bento blogger" became a publishing phenomenon.

KT: How did you first become interested in making bento boxes for your family?

JM: When my son started first grade. I had never packed lunches before, and at first I couldn’t come up with any vegan ideas beyond peanut butter and jelly. Then I asked my son what he wanted for his first day of school and he said “Sushi!” It opened up my eyes and I started thinking of all kinds of dishes I could pack. They looked so cute in his colorful lunch box, I started taking pictures and blogging and doing more things to make his lunches little works of art.

KT: Did you ever imagine when you first began blogging about your son's lunches that your website would find such a wide audience?

JM: Not at all! I thought there would be some other vegan moms looking for ideas for their kid’s lunch boxes, but I never imagined that it would grow so big so fast, with thousands of people checking in each day to see what my son had for lunch!

KT: Your cookbooks offer a culinary whirlwind world tour, with recipes inspired by just about every cuisine under the sun. I know you're partial to Japan, the birthplace of bento, but what other countries' cuisines are among your personal favorites (if you can answer that question without precipitating an international diplomatic crisis?)

JM: Oh, so many! I’m very partial the cooking of Mexico and Africa, especially West African and Ethiopian cuisine.

KT: You've made a name for yourself with your creative, plant-based variations on classic comfort foods like chicken pot pies and corn dogs, as well as more wholesome versions of Twinkies and goldfish crackers. What was your toughest challenge in this category, and which adaptation's been your greatest success?

JM: The toughest was definitely tuna. My son sat next to a boy who ate tuna fish sandwiches every week and he really wanted to have one. We tried store bought fake tuna but he didn’t like it. I finally came up with a good recipe for Chickpea Salad with vegan mayonnaise that makes a great sandwich filling and made him happy, but it’s not tuna.

The greatest success would have to be Twinkies. They’re so much fun and everyone loves them!

KT: You are a fearless promoter of such under-appreciated veggies as kohlrabi and kale. Is there any vegetable that you couldn't persuade your son to eat regardless of how entertainingly you presented it?

JM: Absolutely, all kids have their own tastes. Some veggies, like onions and peppers, my son won’t try in any form. Others, like salad or kale, he’ll only eat occasionally or if I make it a certain way.

KT: Your profile on your website suggests that you're an avid gardener. How much food gardening do you do? Was there anything you planted that wasn't worth the trouble, in retrospect? What's grown especially well for you?

JM: I do like to garden! I have a large vegetable garden in my backyard. Tomatoes grow wonderfully here; I usually can enough tomatoes to last us the rest of the year. I also have great success with zucchini, melons, winter squash, okra, raspberries and strawberries. Brussels sprouts and broccoli have been a disaster -- they get buggy.

KT: Have you ever contemplated working that McCann magic with breakfast or dinner?

JM: Well, we often eat something for dinner and then feature it in a lunch the next day -- leftovers make great lunches! But breakfast almost never changes -- it’s always a smoothie made exactly the same way. I guess none of us are ready for an adventure first thing in the morning!

Cross-posted from The Green Fork.

If You Can't Stand The Heat, Get Into The Garden

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I'm always amazed by the number of folks who think that most of Central Park is some kind of natural habitat of indigenous plants, a pristine terrain onto which we plunked our bike paths, boathouses and pretzel vendors.

In reality, nearly every square inch of Central Park was painstakingly landscaped back in the mid-nineteenth century to the specifications of Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux. A massive public works project, it required some 20,000 workers to subvert existing swamps and blow up bluffs to create a soothing pastoral landscape in the English romantic tradition.

Oh, and there was the little matter of evicting the Irish pig farmers and German gardeners who'd built shantytowns on the land. And destroying Seneca Village, the "first significant community of African American property owners on Manhattan". The five acre settlement, which included three churches and a school, was seized through eminent domain and demolished.

All this, so that cooped-up city dwellers could get their fix of "nature". Our civilized way of life is so removed from the natural world that Central Park's manicured, manipulated acres are as close to a bit of wilderness as we can hope to get within the borough of Manhattan.

But you can catch a glimpse of what Manhattan was really like before we invaded it and tamed it by watching the fascinating video that architect/educator Fritz Haeg's created in collaboration with The Mannahatta Project. The video documents Haeg's Lenape Edible Estate installation, which was designed to "provide a view back to the lives of the native Lenape people, how they lived off the land 400 years ago" on the island that was then called Mannahatta.

The Lenape project was installed back in June when Haeg and a team of volunteers descended with shovels and soil on a triangle of uncultivated land in front of a Chelsea housing project to plant the beans, corn, squash, berries, and other edibles that the Lenape tribe lived on centuries ago.

The project offers a "meditation both on the historical facts and the future possibilities for our occupation of the island," as Haeg notes. He hopes that it "may also serve as a model for modest small scale urban edible landscapes and as a possible prototype for future green spaces on similar housing sites across the city."

I'm delighted to see Haeg bring his verve and vision to an American urban setting. His U.S. plantings have been primarily in the 'burbs, as documented in his book Edible Estates: Attack On The Front Lawn (which also includes an installation at a London housing project). Edible Estates, written in 2007 and published in the winter of 2008, anticipated--and surely helped inspire--the recent kitchen garden renaissance. Haeg's book sold so well that it's now out of print.

Happily, a new edition will be released next spring. The new Edible Estates will include more stories of lawn-to-lettuce conversions and an expanded preface from Haeg on how the edible landscape scene has changed since the first edition. Urban ag genius Will Allen's contributing a piece, and there will be a nod to the White House kitchen garden, whose role in helping to inspire millions of new gardeners this year is indisputable.

As Haeg noted in an op-ed this past spring in the Guardian, the First Family's 1,100 square foot patch of veggies is "not just a pretty garden, or an empty symbol, but a place for a family to grow the food that they like to eat, on the land that is around them" (that's why there's plenty of cilantro and tomatillos, for salsa, but no beets--Obama doesn't like 'em). Haeg adds:

Many American children today do not see evidence that food comes out of the ground or experience the pleasure of eating food fresh from plants. Instead their diet is causing epidemic childhood illness. The introduction of a food-producing garden into their early lives is our best hope for changing the situation in a meaningful way.

But there's another compelling reason to start growing some of your own food, whether it's in your yard, on a rooftop, or in a window box: it's one way to help curb your carbon footprint, or, rather, foodprint. No one is seriously suggesting that city dwellers can produce all our own food in our yards, community gardens, or urban farms, but it's just one of the many steps that we can take to lower our impact.

During World War II, planting a kitchen garden was pitched as our patriotic duty. Isn't it time we made growing your own food a civic virtue once again? Only this time, the fight is against the fossil-fueled American life that's given us an increasingly unhealthy populace and an overheated planet.

And we're in imminent danger of losing that battle. "Current emissions trajectories" are hurtling us towards the point of no return, i.e. "the worst-case scenarios" of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, according to the New York Times.

At a daylong conference on climate change held Tuesday at the United Nations, Rajendra K. Pachauri, the chairman of the IPCC, told the world's leaders that "Science leaves us no space for inaction now".

This bleak pronouncement comes on the heels of a headline blaring "We're Screwed" on the front page of Monday's New York Post--or, rather, a remarkably New York Post-like publication that was passed out to unsuspecting commuters by activists. The hoax was orchestrated by the Yes Men, that pair of pranksters who've so masterfully manipulated the mainstream media, as documented in their upcoming film, The Yes Men Fix The World.

It looked an awful lot like the real thing and fooled a lot of folks. But on close inspection, you could tell that it was a fake because, unlike Rupert Murdoch's publication, "the faux Post is filled with factual information on the threats posed by climate change," as USA Today observed.

You'd never see an article in the real Post touting the potential of rooftop farming to help curb New York City's carbon foodprint, or a shout-out to an upcoming presentation hosted by NYU on Food and Climate Change: The Meat of the Matter, that explores the significant contribution that meat and dairy production make to rising greenhouse gas emissions.

Meanwhile, Monday's edition of The Daily News ran an article about the 18,000 pounds of fresh produce that inmates on Rikers Island have grown this year to supply the city's soup kitchens and food pantries--further proof of the tangible, quantifiable benefits of urban agriculture.

Monday's Financial Times also echoed the Yes Men's "We're Screwed" headline with an article entitled "Scientific Consensus Over Dire Consequences," which noted that:

The gap between the glacial pace of negotiations and the rapid progress of global warming is now endangering the safety of the planet, scientists are warning. Martin Parry, of Imperial College, London, says: "That is what is at stake. I don't think people have realised. We are nowhere near tackling this."

Can we muster the collective will to alter the way we live in order to avert the worst repercussions of climate change? Those of us who live in densely populated cities already have the advantage of mass transit--and, ironically, greater access through farmers markets and CSAs (though not nearly enough in many communities) to the freshly harvested plant-based foods that form the cornerstone of a low-impact diet.

I don't know if we'll ever manage to liberate ourselves from the petroleum-based processed foods that currently dominate our food chain. But I'm heartened by the sight of so many New Yorkers attempting to grow food, whether it's on the roof of a Brooklyn warehouse or the back of a Brooklyn-based pick-up truck, behind the barbed wire of Rikers Island, or in front of a housing project on the island formerly known as Mannahatta. Let freedom spring!

Cross-posted from The Green Fork.

Colin & Michelle's Excellent Adventure

I have a love/hate relationship with Colin Beavan, aka No Impact Man. Used to hate him, now I love him. And his wife Michelle, too.

Not in a menage-a-trois-y kinda way, though. I just really like this smart, funny couple who attempted, for a year, to wean themselves and their toddler Isabella off the fossil-fueled conveniences we all take for granted. This meant, for starters:

~No driving, no flying, or even relying on mass transit. They got where they needed to go on foot, bike or scooter. No more elevators, either; they took the stairs to reach their 9th floor apartment (several exceptions to these rules were made; two train rides to visit upstate farms, and an occasional elevator ride when security measures or double-digit floors in a midtown hi-rise required it.)

~No buying new stuff, except for foods produced within 250 miles of Manhattan. So, no more take-out, out-of-seaon produce, or coffee (though Michelle fought for, and won, a concession on the coffee front). And no meat, because livestock production is such a fossil-fuel intensive process.

~No watching tv; the family eventually went off the grid entirely, playing cards by candlelight and otherwise amusing themselves without electricity.

~No washing machine or refrigerator. Abstaining from these two appliances proved especially challenging, as No Impact Man, the film documenting Colin's endeavor, memorably shows.

The No Impact Project, which Colin conceived--and foisted on an indulgent though leery Michelle and eternally cheery Isabella--was an arbitrary, utterly quixotic endeavor. Colin's intent was, ostensibly, to ask "Is it possible to have a good life without wasting so much stuff?"

Oh, and not incidentally, to make some money off a book and a film that would chronicle his attempt to answer that question.

And it's a question we really need to ask: though we make up just 5 percent of the world's population, we hog roughly 30 percent of the planet's resources, and generate one fourth of the world's greenhouse gases in the process.

But Colin cooked the whole thing up to clinch a book deal chronicling his family's eco-extreme exploits. An article in The New York Times famously branded the project The Year Without Toilet Paper, generating a bit of a media frenzy and leaving a lot of folks, myself included, with the impression that Colin was an opportunistic schmuck.

I dismissed Colin's endeavor as 'conspicuous unconsumption'. In true Holier-Than-Holden Caulfield style I called Colin a phoney, a peddler of 'pseudo sustainable schlock'. I threw in a swipe at Michelle for splurging on two pairs of fancy new boots as a last hurrah before subjecting herself, head to Chloé-clad toes, to Colin's draconian carbon-footprint binding.

Now, with the release of Colin's film, and the book of the same name, it's deja "ew!" all over again. Folks in the media are wasting precious space fixating on how Colin and his family handled their waste--the forgoing of toilet paper, the adoption of a bin of red wiggler worms to compost their kitchen scraps.

This time, though, I won't be piling on to the bash-Colin bandwagon. I realized, after hearing him speak at Cooper Union's Great Hall, that I had been wrong to mock him. I came away from the Cooper Union lecture convinced that Colin's Jimmy Stewart-style earnestness was genuine. I became a fan, a friend, and a defender.

So when No Impact Man co-director Justin Schein asked if I'd be willing to go on the record and explain my change of heart, I said yes. Because, with all the controversy over the effectiveness of Colin's methods, as well as his motives, two things stand out to me:

First, he's infiltrated the mainstream media in his 350.org t-shirt, encouraging folks to eat less meat, take a breather from buying, volunteer with environmental organizations, and lobby their legislators to tackle climate change.

As Colin wrote in response to Elizabeth Kolbert's dismissive review of his book in the New Yorker:

...my hope in living and writing about my year was to put myself in a crucible in which to examine some important cultural issues surrounding our solutions to our environmental crises and the quality of life crisis which is so closely related to them. And yes, I hoped to popularize these important issues.

To that end, Colin's launched a non-profit foundation, noimpactproject.org, whose mission is "to empower citizens to make choices that better their lives and lower their environmental impact through lifestyle change, community action, and participation in environmental politics."

We can argue about how many people Colin will ultimately inspire to make meaningful changes in their lives, but what, exactly, is so terrible about his desire to inspire "massive citizen participation," his stated goal?

Lastly, what's wrong with wanting to make a living speaking and writing about environmental issues? Colin's never claimed to be an expert, simply a layperson who wanted to enlighten himself and others about how our choices affect ourselves, our communities, and the planet.

Isn't there an infinite array of far more objectionable, and harmful, ways to support your family? And there are surely easier ways to achieve financial security than putting yourself in the public eye as a potential figure of ridicule and contempt.

Colin doesn't claim that he's going to change the world, only that he wants to be the kind of person who's game to try. If you are, too, No Impact Man will strike a chord with you.

Otherwise, it may strike a nerve. We've had the Kolbert retort. Stay tuned for the Colbert Report on Thursday, October 8th, when Colin will once again subject his No Impact project to the master of mock mockery. When the No Impact project began, Colbert described it as "like Gilligan's Island, only completely implausible." I'm hoping that this time around, America's favorite faux blowhard will transcend truthiness and reveal that Colin is the real deal.

Cross-posted from Alternet.

A Julia Child for the 21st Century: Meet Lorna Sass

Nora Ephron's effervescent Julie & Julia has evidently sparked a mad dash to snap up Child's epic Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Butter's back, and margarine's been marginalized. Three cheers for real food! After all, as Joan Gussow says, "I trust cows more than chemists."

Any film (or book) that gets Americans psyched about cooking real food can only be a good thing, of course. But when Julie Powell hatched the Julie & Julia Project, latching on to Child's old-school continental cuisine to lift her out of a dreary day job, she hitched her blogger bandwagon to a diet dominated by meat, eggs, and dairy.

Back in the day, that was OK: in Child's era, phrases like "manure lagoon," "gestation crate," "battery cage," or "bovine growth hormone" would have sounded even more foreign than "boeuf bourguignon" or "sauce béarnaise."

But a half century or so later, I'm less excited about dishes that require preheating the oven to 350 degrees than I am about recipes for reducing our greenhouse gas emissions to 350 parts per million (ppm). That's the level of CO2 in the earth's atmosphere that scientist James Hansen and Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, agree that we need to achieve to avert catastrophic climate change. We're at nearly 390 ppm now.

We won't get back to 350 on a diet of denial and duckfat; a better blueprint for eating green would be meals centered around foods grown through photosynthesis, not fossil fuels--i.e., fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains. But before you can say "Bittman, " I'd like to nominate someone less well-known, but uniquely--and supremely--qualified to be this century's Julia Child.

Meet Lorna Sass, one of America's foremost experts on pressure cookers and whole grains. Think of her as the Ed Begley Jr. of the cookbook world--a pioneer in the art of low-carbon cooking. She's been showing us how to eat low on the food chain for decades with a series of cookbooks that provide all the techniques you need to prepare fast, simple, and satisfying plant-based meals.

Her 1992 cookbook, Recipes from an Ecological Kitchen (dedicated to Mother Earth, naturally) was so ahead of its time that her publisher decided to downplay Sass' emphasis on environmentally concious eating when the book came out in paperback, rechristening it Lorna Sass' Complete Vegetarian Kitchen.

And now the truth can be told about 1997's The Short-Cut Vegetarian: it was essentially a vegan cookbook. But back then, nobody knew what vegan meant. So William Morrow has published a new edition with the more accurate title Short-Cut Vegan. In addition to the usual fast, easy and flavorful recipes revolving around beans, veggies and whole grains, it contains tidbits like this:

I'm convinced that quinoa will become the rice of the nineties, as more and more people discover this light, quick-cooking, nutritious grain.

OK, so she was off by a decade or so; her prediction is finally coming true, and the timing couldn't be better for the new edition. Short-Cut Vegan is a lovely little paperback crammed full of easy-to-make, tasty-to-eat recipes, along with plenty of tips on ways to create wholesome dishes in just a few minutes.

Mastering the Art of French Cooking became Julie Powell's bible. I refer to a half dozen of Sass' books religiously, including her James Beard Award-winning Whole Grains Every Day, Every Way, and Pressure Perfect: Two Hour Taste in Twenty Minutes Using Your Pressure Cooker. Like Sass, a former vegan turned conscientious carnivore, these books are not vegetarian. But, like Sass, I try to minimize my meat-eating, so the book I refer to almost daily is her Great Vegetarian Cooking Under Pressure.

The subtitle of Great Vegetarian Cooking Under Pressure is "Two Hour Taste in Ten Minutes," and therein lies the secret to Sass' ecologically savvy cooking. With a pressure cooker, you can whip up all kinds of beans, grains, soups, stews, curries, chilies, risottos, whatever, in a flash. In the time it takes to get take-out, or have a pizza delivered, you could throw together a tasty, wholesome meal using fresh ingredients instead.

Sadly, the pressure cooker suffers from a terrible PR problem. Most Americans seem to think it's some kind of culinary IED (improvised explosive device). Mention the words "pressure cooker" to just about anyone and you're liable to get an apocryphal anecdote about the time Grandma's old-school jiggle-top pressure cooker exploded and left spaghetti sauce on the ceiling.

But there's a whole new generation of pressure cookers that are totally safe and easy to use. And with the publication in November of the 20th anniversary edition of Sass' long-out-of-print Cooking Under Pressure, you'll have the definitive guide to help you master the art of low-carbon cooking.

What Julia Child did for meat, eggs and dairy, Lorna Sass does for fruits, whole grains and vegetables. Now, if only PBS--or the Food Network, or whoever--would give this warm, witty, down to earth woman the opportunity to share her wisdom with a wider audience. In our climate-challenged era, it's time to bid farewell to the French Chef and bring on the Fresh Chef. And it's gonna be sunny Sass, not Rachel Ray.

Cross-posted from The Green Fork.

Why Does McWilliams Lambast Locavores When His Real Beef Is With Meat Eaters?

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Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong And How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly is the literary equivalent of a turd blossom, the Texan term for a flower that pops up out of a cow patty. James McWilliams, an associate professor at Texas State University, has written a cogent critique of America's unsustainable addiction to meat and then buried it in a mound of manure about 100-mile diet diehards who want to take us all out to the foodshed and paddle us senseless with fresh, local, organically grown produce.

Just Food is framed as the lament of a lapsed locavore, a simple, sustainably minded guy who's been driven into the arms of Agribiz by food mile militants who, according to McWilliams, number in the millions. These legions of rabid locavores are abusing their purchasing superpowers in a diabolical plot to deprive the world of out-of-season strawberries, genetically modified monocrops, and other wonders of industrial agriculture. In fact, the original subtitle of McWilliams' book was How Locavores Are Endangering The Future of Food And How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly.

The new subtitle is still a bit inflammatory, as McWilliams even acknowledged on NPR's Science Friday last week. McWilliam's contrived contrarian take on the eat local movement won't surprise anyone who followed the flap over his disingenuous op-ed in The New York Times alleging that free-range pork poses greater health risks than pork from factory farms.

After it was pointed out by Marion Nestle and others that the study McWilliams relied on to bolster his argument was funded by the National Pork Board, the Times amended the op-ed with an "oops, we goofed" editor's note admitting that McWilliams should have revealed his source.

McWilliams does nothing to repair his credibility with Just Food, which contains enough straw men to build a straw bale house. He trots out a tiresome twist on the mythic cadillac-driving welfare queen: the SUV driver with the self-righteous hemp shopping bag who routinely drives miles out of her way to purchase locally grown heirloom tomatoes. Just Food also poses hilariously boneheaded questions such as:

What would happen to local traffic patterns if every consumer in Austin made daily trips in their SUVs to visit small local farms to buy locally produced food?

When he's not scratching his head over such pointless ponderings, McWilliams is busy bending over backwards, and then some, to advance his contrarian schtick. Folks like Michael Pollan are fond of noting that the farmers market is the new town square, where eaters and farmers meet up and have meaningful exchanges, as opposed to the soulless commerce of the supermarket.

But things are not so sunny in the parallel universe where McWilliams researched his book; according to him, farmers' markets are a potential hotbed of civic unrest where a shortage of gourmet produce is liable to spark ugly disputes between haute chefs and home cooks.

I've been going to New York City's Union Square Greenmarket several times a week for literally decades, and I have yet to see Greenmarket regulars/celebrity chefs Dan Barber or Peter Hoffman come to blows with other buyers over who'll get the last bunch of baby fennel or Japanese turnips.

Moreover, I don't know anyone who actually attempts to adhere to a strictly local diet, unless you count Colin Beavan, aka No Impact Man, who limited his family's diet to local foods for a year as part of his experiment to minimize their carbon footprint.

But food miles were only one part of the equation for Beavan, as the film about his endeavor makes clear; of equal importance were the relationships he formed with the farmers and other vendors at the Greenmarket and his desire to eliminate excess packaging from his food purchases.

McWilliams ignores both these aspects of buying local and dwells obsessively on food miles, presumably because he couldn't acknowledge these benefits of shopping at farmers' markets without undermining his own arguments. This pattern is repeated throughout the book; McWilliams selectively cites the facts that support his claims and omits those that don't. The valid points that he does make--organic doesn't necessarily mean toxin-free, biotech could be a boon in non-corporate hands, aquaponics offers a sustainable source of protein--get lost in this cynical, sales-grabbing shuffle--collateral damage in his war on locavores.

It's too bad, because, sandwiched between the caricatures of loco locavores and McWilliams' hey-ho-GMO cheerleading, lies the meat of the matter; we can't go on eating animals at our current consumption levels, regardless of whether they're raised in factory farms or on grass.

In chapter 4 of Just Food, "Meat--The New Caviar," McWilliams tallies up the cost of our unprecedented appetite for animal products and concludes:

Environmentalists who ignore the ecological costs of producing meat are in denial of one of the greatest threats to the world's ecosystems and to the prospect of eating ethically.

As responsible consumers, we really have no choice but to confront the reality bluntly articulated by World Watch: "It has become apparent that the human appetite for animal flesh is a driving force behind virtually every major category of environmental damage now threatening the human future." Unlike so many other environmental issues, our response here can be direct and personal. As Gidon Eshel, a geographer at Bard College, writes, "However close you can be to a vegan diet and further from the mean American diet, the better you are for the planet."

And therein lies the needle in McWilliams' hyperbolic, straw man-stuffed haystack: if you want to eat ethically, ease up on the meat, dairy and other animal products. McWilliams evidently made the calculus that it would be more lucrative to demonize farmers' market fanatics than mindless meat eaters, but his opportunistic posturing ultimately overwhelms the more thoughtful analyses contained in this book. Just Food is a tedious, tendentious read that doesn't compel and probably won't sell.

Cross posted from alternet.org

Earth Days: Dare To Care

Earth Days, the new film that opens this weekend from acclaimed documentarian Robert Stone, is being promoted as a history of the environmental movement in the United States. But it's more of a road trip, really: the road less travelled. The road not taken. The road to hell, blazed by grassroot good intentions that got asphalted and AstroTurfed.

AstroTurf once referred to the fake grass brought to us by the clever chemists at Monsanto, but in this era of tea-baggers and birthers and death panelists, it's become shorthand for cynical pr campaigns funded by fat cats posing as watchdogs.

Stone's skillful blend of archival footage and new interviews with the environmental movement's founders documents a movement still in its infancy when an oily alliance of extraction-happy industrialists and the Don't-You-Dare-Ask-Americans-To-Care contingent conspired to smother it in its crib.

The movement survived, but it didn't thrive. Next year marks Earth Day's fortieth birthday. Will it be a milestone, or a millstone? Earth Days depicts the birth of a movement that started with so much promise but ran aground on the shoals of shallow self interest, blithe indifference and callous greed. It's Stone's fervent wish that if enough folks turn out to see Earth Days, we might be able to get this boat floating again.

When Rachel Carson published her seminal Silent Spring in 1962, the chickens came home to roost and discovered that in the mad dash to feather our nests we'd done a fine job of fouling them, too. Carson's watershed work got the ball rolling, but it took the acid-inspired global vision of Stewart Brand, who published the ground-breaking Whole Earth Catalog in 1968, to popularize the notion that we've only got one Earth and we might want to stop stomping on it.

The movement really picked up steam in 1970, when 20 million people turned out across the nation to celebrate the first Earth Day. It was the first time in our history that we began to grapple with the reality that no country, no matter how big or how bold, has infinite resources.

After the energy crisis of the seventies, though, and Jimmy Carter's cardigan-coated, much-maligned but sadly prescient message to turn down the thermostat and chill on the consumption, our collective will to find alternative ways to fuel the American dream ran out of gas. A key turning point in the film--and our future--is captured, painfully, by a clip of Ronald Reagan essentially enshrining the squandering of the world's resources as an American birthright.

The New York Times declared Earth Days "a bittersweet stroll down memory lane." But Stone intended it as a road map to get the environmental movement back on track by showing how it got derailed.

Yes, it's a cautionary tale, but as Stone notes in his director's statement:

...it also illuminates the historical fact that positive changes in social attitudes, technological possibilities and political determination can take place very rapidly if the will exists to make it happen. We were halfway there a generation ago, but then we lost our way. As we at last begin anew to tackle our many environmental challenges, it's vital to know how we arrived at this predicament and what lessons from the past we can draw upon in facing an uncertain future.

That is why I made this film, and why I made it now.

Earth Days hits awfully close to home for me, and not just because Stone happens to live a stone's throw from me in our mass-transit accessible Hudson Valley hamlet. Growing up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, I felt acutely alienated by our car-centric community; the only time my dad ever spanked me was when he caught me throwing rocks at passing cars. Some guy I hit pulled over and tattled on me, and my dad got so mad he paddled my auto-hating ass.

I didn't know it then--this was in the mid-sixties--but I was a kinderKunstler (that's "kinder" as in "kindergarten", not "kinder, gentler".) Of course, it would be decades before peak oil prophet James Howard Kunstler declared the American suburb "the single greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world."

I don't know if history will prove Kunstler right, but Earth Days provides plenty of ammunition to back up the statement he recently made to pop culture pundit Stephen J. Dubner:

Sometimes whole societies make unfortunate decisions or go down tragic pathways. Suburbia was ours.

Earth Days is a thoughtful, entertaining film that documents pivotal peaks and low points in the environmental movement. You really ought to see it, if only to catch a glimpse of a rare species that's nearly extinct now: the pro-conservation conservative. To borrow a famous phrase from the first President Bush: Message--they cared. Will we?

Bring On The Front Yard Farmers

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Reusable shopping bags and compact fluorescent light bulbs are an easy place to start, once you've resolved to curb your carbon footprint. But why not go for some low hanging fruit that you could actually pick? Growing food in your front yard is a simple and tasty way to combat climate change.

Maintaining a lawn, on the other hand, is an exercise in monocrop masochism. As architect and edible landscape advocate Fritz Haeg wrote in Edible Estates: Attack On The Front Lawn, "...there is nothing remotely natural about a lawn. It is an industrial landscape disguised as organic plant material."

Those innocent-looking, wispy green blades are just a façade; at its roots, a lawn is a high maintenance monster, demanding regular feeding, seeding, weeding, watering and mowing.

And squandered resources are only the start. Gas-powered lawn mowers generate tons of air pollution. Excess fertilizer seeps out of our lawns and encourages equally lush growth in our waterways, where nitrogen-fed 'algal blooms' choke all kinds of aquatic life.

Yet, for so many Americans, a patch of green grass is still the gold standard when it comes to landscaping. As Haeg notes:

In the United States we plant more grass than any other crop: currently lawns cover more than thirty million acres. Given the way we lavish precious resources on it and put it everywhere that humans go, aliens landing in any American city today would assume that grass must be the most precious earthly substance of all.

Why not feed ourselves, instead of the grass? That's the simple goal of Haeg's Edible Estates project. Starting in 2005, Haeg enlisted the help of a small army of grow-your-own volunteers, and began converting lifeless lawns into productive food gardens, one front yard at a time. He's helped folks all over the country plant gardens that nurture themselves and their neighbors, and documented the happy end results in Edible Estates, published in 2008.

Since the book came out, the homegrown revolution's moved full steam ahead, with a big boost from Michelle Obama--not to mention an economy that's got folks growing their own food on a scale we haven't seen in decades.

So it's time for a new, expanded edition of Edible Estates. Are you the proud owner of a once sterile, now fertile front yard farm? Do you live in hardiness zones 3,4, 5, or 9? If so, Fritz Haeg wants to hear from you:

For this new edition of the book (Metropolis Books, 2008) we are looking for more reports from across the country from those that have decided to engage in "full frontal gardening". Have you replaced the lawn in front of your house or apartment building with a completely edible garden? We will be selecting one garden story from each zone, with each contributor receiving a copy of the book.

The deadline for submissions is Monday, August 31st, and you need to submit:

- a 500 word story about your garden
- 4 or 5 photos of your garden at the highest resolution
- your name, mailing address, size of garden, date established, and USDA Plant Hardiness Zone

Zone 9 includes: Houston, Central Florida
Zone 5 includes: Des Moines, Chicago
Zone 4 includes: Minneapolis, part of Wyoming
Zone 3 includes: Northern Minnesota and Montana

Don't know your zone? You can look it up here.

Send your questions and submissions to [email protected]. Here's your chance to help wean your fellow citizens off the grass and sow the seeds for our homegrown revolution. Kitchen gardeners of the world, unite and take over!

Cross-posted from The Green Fork.

Saving The Bed-Stuy Farm: Choose Better Nutrition, Not Demolition

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Give Mother Nature a vacant city lot, and she'll fill it with weeds and wildlife. Then human nature comes along and dumps clumps of consumer goods-gone-bad and construction debris on top of the pigweed and pigeons.

It takes visionaries like Reverend DeVanie Jackson and her husband, Reverend Robert Jackson, to convert a garbage-filled Brooklyn lot into a productive urban farm that provides 3,000 people a month with fresh, healthy food. The Reverends Jackson, who run an emergency food pantry in Bedford Stuyvesant, the Brooklyn Rescue Mission, became urban farmers out of sheer necessity back in 2004, challenging the 'charity' of serving poor people even poorer food.

I first wrote about Reverend Robert Jackson and the Bed-Stuy Farm after hearing him speak at a forum last year sponsored by World Hunger Year (WHY), a non-profit dedicated to fighting hunger and poverty. Jackson explained how his frustration over the salty, sugary, unhealthy processed foods typically passed out at food pantries compelled him to become a farmer:

Jackson, seeing the need all around him, asked, "Why wait for food? Why not grow our own food?" He collared everyone he could, from seniors to substance abusers, to help convert empty lots to thriving food gardens. Call it a soil revival, or a soul revival; either way, Reverend Jackson's giving folks the means to wean themselves off of junk food and other junk, too.

The Reverends Jackson started the Bed-Stuy Farm with the help of NYC's GreenThumb program on a junk-filled lot owned by a nonprofit developer. An old house on the site, slated to be converted into affordable housing, had such severe structural problems that it had to be torn down. The land was left to languish, becoming a dump and an eyesore.

Today, the Bed-Stuy Farm is a stellar example of urban agriculture that produces 7,000 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables annually. Tomorrow? If the developer has its way, the Bed-Stuy Farm may soon be plowed under and paved over.

"The intent was always to do affordable housing on this site," Housing Preservation and Development Department official Margaret Sheffer told the New York Daily News last week. "The garden had essentially come in as a squatter." The HPD wants to sell the lot in order to pay off a debt of roughly $275,000 incurred by the developer, Neighborhood Partnership Housing Development/Direct Building Management.

But, as Nadia Johnson, the food justice coordinator for Just Food, noted, the "HPD has its choice of many other vacant lots. It would do well to consider them before this lot, which in its current form is contributing to the neighborhood in such a positive and healthy way." A petition calling for the preservation of the Bed-Stuy Farm has already been signed by more than 1100 folks; supporters of the farm are hoping to garner 1200 signatures to demonstrate support for this invaluable community resource.

Yes, we need affordable housing, but affordable healthy food is often even harder to come by, and it's tragic to pit these two equally worthy causes against each other. Our famed free market has mysteriously failed to meet the demand for either one.

Chalk up the rising interest in urban agriculture not only to hard times--as this story in Tuesday's New York Times about the urban chicken-keeping phenomenon does--but to the inequities of our current food system, as well as a desire to know where our food comes from and whether it's healthy and safe.

Do the words "urban farm" sound oxymoronic to you? Let me ask you this: isn't the term "factory farm" even more incongruous? What's more unnatural: building a chicken coop in a Brooklyn backyard, or packing a stinky, sunless warehouse with chickens stacked up on top of one another as though they were pallets, not pullets?

Folks all over the world--including in the US--have been growing food in their own backyards for centuries. Of course, we had to, because we didn't have the means to mass produce food the way we do now.

But industrialized agriculture liberated us from having to cultivate our own land, and thereby paved the way, for, well, a whole lot of paving. And now, we're reaping a bumper crop of unhealthy, alienated Americans. We learned last week that obesity rates have nearly doubled over the past decade or so; this week, Bloomberg News reported that the use of antidepressants in the US essentially doubled during that same period. It's hard to say who's more chemically dependent--us, or our over-fertilized lawns.

Defenders of a centralized, uber-efficient food chain will tell you that industrialized food production gives consumers the food they want at the price they're willing to pay. As for healthy eating, it's a matter of personal choice, they say.

And yet, there are communities all over the country where you can't find decent, fresh fruits and vegetables at any price. But it's not because the folks in those neighborhoods don't want them. Community gardens and urban farms have sprouted in cities across the US, planted by inner city residents fed up with finding drugs and guns more readily available than fresh greens.

But pressure from developers often threatens these urban oases; witness the devastating destruction of our nation's largest community garden, captured in the excellent documentary The Garden.

Developers demolished an extraordinary 14-acre oasis of edibles lovingly tended by low income residents in South Central Los Angeles because too few politicians were willing to fight on behalf of the residents who relied on the farm to feed their families. Today, where acres of fresh, healthy food once flourished, you'll find a vacant lot awaiting development.

Please don't let a similar fate befall the Bed-Stuy Farm. Help save one of our own urban oases before it's too late.

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