KAT's blog

WEEKEND GREENMARKET BLOGGING

This little piggy went to market…and went hog-wild over the freshly dug sweet potatoes, baby beets and blue potatoes, bell peppers, romaine lettuce, and an array of exotic goodies you can only buy straight from the farmer: pea shoots (a good alternative to spinach!), fava bean greens, sweet ‘n’ tart autumn olive berries, and mouth-watering Muscat-flavored Reliance grapes. That’s the beauty of biodiversity--niche crops of rare, tasty treats.

 

AMARANTH: A GRAIN, A GREEN, & A HEDGE FUND DRAWN TO DISASTER

Most Americans have never heard of amaranth; those who have know it best as a grain. Gardeners know it better as the ornamental “love-lies-bleeding,” and its fluffy, arching seed plumes in glorious shades of red, green, and gold do look gorgeous in the garden.

Another kind of amaranth lies bleeding, this week—Amaranth the hedge fund, which lost a jaw-dropping $6 billion this month. Apparently, Amaranth was counting on a hurricane or two to drive up natural gas prices, and the absence of any such catastrophe proved, well, disastrous for the Connecticut-based hedge fund.

Amaranth founder Nicholas Maounis told investors, “We feel bad about losing our money. We feel even worse about losing your money.”

Tell that to the retirees and workers who were counting on their pensions from the San Diego County Employees Retirement Association (SDCERA), which sank $175 million into Amaranth last year.

They would have been better off investing in the kind of amaranth I’m growing in my front yard. At the very same time that Amaranth’s fortunes were falling, the stock of my amaranth stalks was rising, thanks to the E. coli outbreak.

Amaranth is, you see, an excellent spinach substitute. Sometimes called Chinese spinach, it’s also known in the Caribbean as callaloo. The Aztecs grew it, and it’s one of the most important leaf vegetables of the African and Asian tropics, according to Elizabeth Schneider, author of a definitive vegetable encyclopedia entitled, appropriately, Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini.

Schneider notes that “the flavor of the leafy greens is fairly constant: earthy and spinachy, not sharp or bitter. Some types are rather assertive, in the manner of beet greens, while many are milder…Amaranth is at its best cooked, when it is almost as versatile as spinach and can be used in similar ways…”

Amaranth greens are chock full of vitamins and minerals, too, including vitamin A, vitamin B6, vitamin C, riboflavin, folate, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, copper, and manganese.

Amaranth is also a decent source of antioxidants, according to Mark Bittman’s Leafy Greens cookbook. Sadly, he adds that amaranth greens aren’t grown commercially, making them all but impossible to find.

It seems there are some greens that money can’t buy.

E. COLI STRAIN GOES AGAINST THE GRAIN

The E. coli strain that could put growers of leafy greens in the red is a natural by-product of the unnatural practice of feeding cows grain instead of grass. As Nina Planck pointed out in yesterday’s NY Times, E. coli O157:H7 is an unusually nasty strain of this generally non-lethal bacterium that flourishes in the intestinal tracts of cows fed a diet of grains instead of the grasses their digestive tracts were intended to digest.

Cows who graze on pasture don’t develop the unnaturally acidic stomachs that afflict feedlot cattle and provide ideal conditions for E. coli O157:H7, which thrives in an acidic environment. Notes Planck:

It’s the infected manure from these grain-fed cattle that contaminates the groundwater and spreads the bacteria to produce, like spinach, growing on neighboring farms…

…There remains only one long-term remedy, and it’s still the simplest one: stop feeding grain to cattle.

Those of us who preach the grass-fed gospel say “Amen!”

RUSSELL STOVER ROLLS OUT ORGANIC SAMPLER

Can a box of drugstore chocolates be a bellwether? Here’s the copy from the back of a box of Russell Stover’s new certified organic assorted chocolates:

… Russell Stover Organic supports the growing farming community dedicated to rigid organic agricultural practices that respect the Earth’s natural balance. Our ingredients come from eco-friendly crop management practices which avoid the use of long-lasting pesticides, herbicides or genetically engineered seeds. Dairy cows are provided with only organically grown feed, fresh air and outdoor access…

The box bears the USDA Organic label and notes that the chocolates are trans-fat and gluten free. The samplers began shipping to stores on the first of September, but it seems to be some kind of stealth launch; Russell Stover’s done virtually no promotion and there’s no information on their website about the new organic line. The company also owns Whitman’s and will be marketing an organic Whitman’s sampler, too, according to a company representative I spoke with. The chocolates will be sold nationwide.

Packaged Facts, a market researcher, has the skinny on Russell Stover’s trans-fat free, sustainable samplers:

In an era of near-epidemic levels of adult and child obesity—and correspondingly of anti-junk food initiatives and a harsh spotlight on advertising to children—candy with a conscience has a political and public relations appeal to marketers, as well as a direct dollar motivation. Most notable in the recent past has been Russell Stover with its diet/low-carb chocolates, products that have led the mass market in dollar sales gains and single-handedly reversed a declining trend for Russell Stover…

…sales of organic chocolates are growing at a 30% annual clip. In addition to organic’s natural food and sustainable agriculture positioning, other environmental and socio-economic causes combine readily with the organic appeal…”

I never thought I’d see the day that a Kansas City-based candy manufacturer whose chocolates are marketed to the masses would mention pesticides, genetically modified seeds and organic agricultural practices on its packaging. Can Joan Dye Gussow’s hypothetical organic Twinkie be far behind?





SENATOR ALLEN ACKNOWLEDGES JEWISH ROOTS, HASTENS TO EMBRACE PORK

Virginia Senator George Allen, still stinging from his macaca debacle, found himself in yet another ethnic brouhaha this week after a reporter questioned him about the fact that his mother’s father was apparently Jewish.

Allen, visibly angered by the question, accused the reporter of “making aspersions about people because of their religious beliefs." He later issued a statement acknowledging his Jewish heritage, but emphasizing that his mother was raised a Christian.

"I don't like my mother getting dragged into it," he told the Richmond Times-Dispatch, adding, “I still had a ham sandwich for lunch. And my mother made great pork chops."

What, no Chicken Soup with Matzoh Balls for the Southern Strategy Soulless?

(hat tip to TPM & AmericaBlog)




GM SEEDS SOW DEBT & DESPAIR IN INDIA

We keep hearing about how India’s economy is on the rise, with Bangalore call centers bringing prosperity to the tech-savvy Indians who talk us through our hard drive crashes and software glitches.

But two-thirds of India’s population still lives in rural regions, where small scale farmers are at the mercy of monsoons, Monsanto and moneylenders who charge exorbitant interest rates.

Farmers anxious to benefit from the agricultural advances allegedly offered by genetically modified crops are digging themselves deep in debt to buy genetically modified seeds, which reduce the need for pesticide use but cost nearly twice as much as ordinary seeds.

Anil Kondba Shende, a 31 year-old cotton farmer, took out a series of loans this year to plant three crops of Monsanto’s Bt cotton on the 3.5 acres that were his sole source of income. The first two crops failed due to a lack of rain; the third was destroyed by too much rain when a monsoon flooded his fields.

So Shende incurred one final debt, borrowing about $9 to buy a bottle of pesticide that he then drank, leaving behind a wife, two small sons, and a way of “living” that’s driving farmers all over India to despair.

Shende’s tragic tale may not sound like front page news, but that’s where the NY Times featured it yesterday, drawing much-needed attention to the problems plaguing food production in developing nations.

Half a century after the advent of India’s “Green Revolution,” which brought significant increases in grain production through agricultural innovations funded in part by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Ford Foundation, Indian farmers are grappling with new problems posed by globalization and high-priced GM seeds.

India’s government launched a legal challenge that forced Monsanto to slash the royalty it collects on its patented seeds; Monsanto, whose sales of Bt cotton have more than doubled in the past year, is appealing the ruling in India's Supreme Court.

Other attempts to ease the crisis include the expansion of rural credit and investment, and $156 million in aid for “suicide prone” districts all over the country. 15 years of economic reforms have left Indian farmers facing global competition with no safety net to help them survive pests, bad weather and predatory lending practices:

Subsidies, once a linchpin of Indian economic policy, have dried up for virtually everyone but the producers of staple food grains. Indian farmers now must compete or go under.

In Shende’s case, make that six feet under.

FUN WITH FUNGI

Astro Boy lands on Planet Puffball. Fall is peak season for these Styrofoam-like, soccer ball-sized mushrooms, which grow wild throughout North America. Slice them up and sauté them if you can resist the urge to kick them into a million puffy pieces. This one popped up in our neighbor Cynthia’s yard, and Astro Boy’s flown all the way from Seattle to colonize it, with some help from Photoshop.

CRUELTY: IN THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER?

Flogging a dead horse is about as productive as waterboarding a detainee, but could flogging a dying horse save its life?

The question arose when a carriage horse named Juliet collapsed in Central Park last Thursday and her owner, Anthony Provenzano, tried to revive her with a whip. Provenzano called a vet and was advised that the horse “probably had colic,“ and needed to get walking to push gas and waste out of her system.

So Provenzano proceeded to whip the horse, which drew a crowd of furious onlookers.

"I'm trying to save my horse's life and all of a sudden, everyone's yelling, 'Stop beating that horse; you're going to kill it,"' he told The NY Times. A cop showed up and threatened to arrest Provenzano.

When the vet and police officers from the department’s mounted unit arrived, the flogging resumed, but attempts to keep Juliet on her feet failed. She was wrapped in a rug from the nearby Ritz-Carlton, dragged into a police trailer, and taken back to her stable on 38th Street, where she died.

The ASPCA is investigating the circumstances of Juliet’s death. Is it a case of animal abuse, as the angry onlookers assumed, or was Provenzano trying frantically to save a horse he described as “a member of my family?”

How we treat horses in this country was hotly debated on the Hill earlier this month when the House voted 263 to 146 to pass the Horse Slaughter Prevention Act. The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank trotted out a troughful of horsey puns to lampoon the legislation, which took precedence over less pressing matters such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or, say, rising health care and energy costs.

We don’t actually breed horses for food in the U.S., but when a racehorse has run its last, the finish line may well be one of the three slaughterhouses in this country where unwanted horses are slaughtered for export to places like France and Japan, where horsemeat enjoys a popularity unthinkable in this country.

Demonstrators in support of the Bo Derek-backed ban carried signs with a decidedly Francophobic flavor: “Stop Feeding Our Horses to the French!” and “American Icon, Not Foreign Delicacy!”

Pony power goes way back in this country; little girls have cherished Black Beauty and Misty of Chincoteague for generations. And My Little Pony’s popularity continues unabated; Princess Sparkle has a recurring role on Fox’s “The OC,”and she’s got her own sassy blog. Sometimes she even gets to sub for Wonkette!

Now, I’m as fond of horses as any aging starlet, be it Bo or Brigitte Bardot, but I really don’t know what to make of the Horse Slaughter Prevention Act. Some 90,000 unwanted horses were slaughtered last year, and while I personally find the idea of eating a horse utterly unappealing, the fact remains that there will be thousands of horses whose owners will, for whatever reason, be wishing to dispose of them somehow. Is it really adding insult to injury, once they’re dead, to ship their carcasses off to Les Boucheries Chevalines?

Do the slaughterhouses treat the horses inhumanely? If so, they’ve got plenty of company, because millions of cows, pigs and poultry are being subjected to all kinds of cruelty every day in this country.

RedState blogger Red Hunter reacted to the passage of the bill by expressing the fear that animal rights activists won’t settle for just saving the horses:

They believe that family farmers in “red states” are factory farmers that treat animals inhumanely. Horses are the first species targeted by these animal rights extremists. But horses won’t be the last. If H.R. 503 becomes law, it would be only a matter of time before their non-consumption campaign extends to cattle (beef), swine (pork) and other species…

To which a reader replied, “a huge percentage of Americans would stop eating meat altogether if they had any concrete idea how it gets to the store shelf.”

Better lock the factory farm doors! Oh, wait, I think it’s too late. The hogs have already squealed to Bob Herbert and Eric Schlosser.

WEEKEND GARDEN BLOGGING

Memo to my hydrangeas: upstate New York is supposed to be turning blue, not pink. Get with the program.

FDA: BAG THE BAGGED SPINACH

The FDA is advising consumers not to buy bagged spinach after an outbreak of E. coli killed one person and made at least 49 others ill in recent weeks in Wisconsin, Connecticut, Idaho, Indiana, Michigan, New Mexico, Oregon and Utah. Bagged spinach appears to be the culprit in each of these cases.

The source of the tainted spinach hasn’t been identified, but don’t be surprised if it turns out to be Northern California’s Salinas Valley. The self-proclaimed “Salad Bowl of the World” makes a mint off its leafy greens, selling nearly $1 billion worth of lettuce and other greens annually.

But E. coli outbreaks have been a recurring problem there; eight of the 19 E. coli outbreaks from contaminated lettuce and spinach since 1995 have been traced to Salinas Valley, according to the Center for Infectious Disease Research & Policy at the University of Minnesota.

The FDA announced the launch of a Lettuce Safety Initiative on August 23rd, which happens to be the same day the first case of E. coli was reported. It’s good to know the FDA can spring into action the second somebody gets sick. It would be even nicer if they could be proactive about protecting consumers from this kind of E. coli, an especially virulent strain “which produces a toxin that can lead to bloody diarrhea, kidney failure and, in rare cases, death,” according to today’s NY Times.

Forty or so farms, packers, and processors in Salinas will be inspected by the FDA, in conjunction with several California agencies, but the findings will take months to compile.

We’re left to wonder, in the meantime, how a bacteria found in the bowels of cows and people is finding its way into our salad bowls. Some experts suspect a link between dairy production and lettuce contamination; others point to E. coli-tainted creeks and rivers that occasionally flood the fields. There’s concern, too, about workers’ access to toilets and hand-washing facilities.

Most of the E. coli cases have occurred in women. Men, it seems, just aren’t that keen on greens. Although I did see a guy at an upstate farm stand the other day pointing, excitedly, to a pile of kale. He exclaimed to his friend, “Hey, look, there’s that stuff they’re always cooking on the Food Network!”

Who knows? Maybe Rachel Ray can pick up where Popeye left off and get more guys to eat their spinach; after all, look what she’s done for olive oil. One thing’s for sure; the bagged spinach industry is going to need some serious spinning.

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