Eating Liberally

Eating Liberally Blog

THERE’S SOMETHIN’ FISHY ABOUT FARM-RAISED ORGANIC

Carnivorous fish pose a real conundrum when it comes to defining “organic.” If “you are what you eat,” how can a farm-raised fish whose diet consists of smaller, non-organic fish really qualify as organic? And what about wild fish who feed on smaller fish in untainted waters?

The USDA’s been puzzling over which fish could be certified organic since 2000, when a task force was formed to study the issue. The task force determined that wild fish could not be labeled organic. As one member of the advisory panel, Rebecca J. Goldburg, a senior scientist at the advocacy group Environmental Defense, told the NY Times, “What it comes down to is organic is about agriculture, and catching wild animals isn’t agriculture.”

Aquaculture, by contrast, is indeed a form of agriculture; some salmon hatcheries are essentially underwater feedlots, with fish crowded into pens that foster disease and parasites that spread to the wild salmon population, threatening to decimate it. Fish farmers are fighting the parasites, called sea lice, by feeding their fish pellets laced with an unregulated pesticide, which then contaminates the water, potentially poisoning all kinds of marine life.

The Marine Stewardship Council certifies Alaska salmon as a “Best Environmental Choice,” but it will never be USDA certified organic.

“If you can’t call a wild Alaska salmon true and organic, what can you call organic?” protests Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican from Alaska. Murkowski’s fish industry constituents fear they’ll miss the boat on the organic boom while their farm-raised competition unfairly profits from dubious aquaculture practices that contradict the very notion of organic.

As chef/journalist Jay Weinstein writes in his excellent cookbook-cum-manifesto The Ethical Gourmet, “Wild Alaskan salmon is a well-managed fishery, with strict catch quotas coming from remarkably pristine waters…While salmon farms require huge ocean harvests to generate the synthesized feed on which their fish subsist, these wild salmon are part of the ecosystem, and source their sustenance directly from the most plentiful natural resources.”

The 2000 task force determined that “farm-raised fish could be labeled organic as long as their diets were almost entirely organic plant feed.” But the USDA shelved those proposals and sat on the issue till 2005, when a second task force, well-stocked with aquaculture advocates, was convened.

This second task force, according to the NY Times, “recommended far less stringent rules, including three options for what organic fish could eat: an entirely organic diet; nonorganic fish during a seven-year transition period while fish farms shift to organic fish meal; or nonorganic fish meal from “sustainable” fisheries. Sustainable fisheries are those that ensure that their fish stocks do not become depleted.”

“…It seems to be a complete deception of what organic means,” Andrea Kavanagh, director of the Pure Salmon Campaign, an advocacy group working to improve conditions for farm-raised fish, told the NY Times. “Organic is supposed to be on 100 percent organic feed.”

Welcome to the Orwellian, Alice-in-Wonderland world of organic standards, warped by agribusiness and guaranteed to confuse consumers. No wonder ABC World News is airing a three-part series exploring the organic industry’s growing pains; when ABC anchor Charlie Gibson’s talking about “grass-fed” and “pasture-raised,” you know that "organic has really gone into the mainstream," as author Samuel Fromartz told Gibson last night. And Fromartz should know, since he literally wrote the book on this subject, Organic, Inc., a thoughtful take on the transition from whole food to Whole Foods.

When it comes to ethical eating and aquaculture, vegetarians come out on top, predictably. “There is broad agreement that the organic label is no problem for fish that are primarily vegetarians, like catfish and tilapia,” the NY Times notes, “because organic feed is available (though expensive).”

American farmed catfish and tilapia are far more environmentally friendly than their carnivorous counterparts, too. They’re raised in inland ponds that don’t affect the ocean’s ecosystem, and fed a mainly grain-based diet that doesn’t deplete the wild fish population, as farm-raised salmon does.

The problems plaguing farm-raised salmon, on the other hand, are systemic and serious, so until there’s a way to verify that the salmon industry has truly cleaned up its act, I’ll stick with wild salmon. It may not be organic, but then, in my book, neither is farm-raised salmon given non-organic feed. But hey, what do I know? I’m just a self-appointed anti-agribusiness activist. Evidently, the folks at the USDA know something--or is it someone?--I don’t.

BUY NOTHING DAY: IT’S A HARD SELL

Happy Cyber Monday! Time to go online and order a PlayStation 3 from your work station. Beats trying to beat everyone else to the mall on Black Friday, which used to begin at dawn but now starts at the stroke of midnight, before you’ve even had a chance to sleep off all that turkey. You snooze, you lose.

The mindless rush to the mall—rechristened “Black and Blue Friday,” according to the NY Times--could be a scene from George A. Romero’s classic zombie flick Dawn of the Dead, except that the zombies were less ferocious than the shoppers at an Ohio Wal-Mart at 5 a.m. on Friday, who pinned employees to stacks of merchandise in their frenzy to get the goods:

“Oh, my god, stop pushing me, oh, my god,” screamed Linda Tuttle, a 47-year-old employee at the store.

Grace Smith, a 22-year-old customer in the store, was stunned by the scene. “I heard it would be crazy but I never thought I’d see anything like this,” she said.

Consumption used to be another word for pulmonary tuberculosis, a wasting disease; now it’s a disease of waste. Our insatiable appetite for cheap consumer goods has left us with mountains of debt, mountains of crap, and mountains of empty cargo containers stacked so high they cast a shadow over one California community near the ports of Los Angeles, as CNN’s Casey Wian revealed on Lou Dobbs a while back. We haven’t got anything to ship back to China, so the containers just pile up.

All the more reason to support Buy Nothing Day, an international campaign to go green on Black Friday. Buy Nothing Day is sponsored by the Adbusters Media Foundation, a Vancouver-based non-profit organization dedicated to fighting the “erosion of our physical and cultural environments by commercial forces.”

But how do you sell a nation of shopaholics on this self-proclaimed “festival of restraint?” Adbusters’ website quotes a statistic that “per capita consumption in the U.S. has risen 45 per cent in the last 20 years.” Kalle Lasn, Adbusters co-founder, cites the urgent need to raise awareness of the true cost of our buying binges:

“Our headlong plunge into ecological collapse requires a profound shift in the way we see things. Driving hybrid cars and limiting industrial emissions is great, but they are band-aid solutions if we don’t address the core problem: we have to consume less. This is the message of Buy Nothing Day.”

Most Americans have never heard of Buy Nothing Day, and many would no doubt consider its message of “More is Less” downright unpatriotic. After all, our Commander in Chief essentially ordered all of us to go out and shop after 9/11; apparently, if we stop buying stuff, the terrorists win.

W. would be proud of Cindy Milsap and her daughter Ashley, who drove to their nearest Wal-Mart before dawn on Friday to buy a 52-inch high definition television for $474. “We don’t really need a new TV,” Ms. Milsap told the NY Times. “But at that price? C’mon.”

If you missed Buy Nothing Day, don’t feel bad; Buy Nothing Christmas is just around the corner! As Adbusters points out, “Buy Nothing Day isn't just about changing your habits for one day. It’s about starting a lasting lifestyle commitment to consuming less and producing less waste. With six billion people on the planet, the onus is on the most affluent – the upper 20% that consumes 80% of the world’s resources – to begin setting the example.”

According to our current administration, though, we’re under no obligation to do any such thing. At a May 7th, 2001 White House press briefing on the issue of energy consumption, a reporter (I think it was ABC’s Terry Moran) asked press secretary Ari Fleischer the following question:

Q Is one of the problems with this, and the entire energy field, American lifestyles? Does the President believe that, given the amount of energy Americans consume per capita, how much it exceeds any other citizen in any other country in the world, does the President believe we need to correct our lifestyles to address the energy problem?

MR. FLEISCHER: That's a big no. The President believes that it's an American way of life, and that it should be the goal of policy makers to protect the American way of life. The American way of life is a blessed one.

Well, yes, except that it’s damning the whole world to a future that’s not so hot, unless you see global warming and sectarian strife as a good thing.

WEEKEND GREENMARKET BLOGGING

The early bird gets the eggs—these free range beauties from Gorzynski’s Ornery Farm in upstate New York sell out by mid-morning at Saturday’s Greenmarket. That’s “ornery” as in “organic but not certified.” John Gorzynski’s been farming organically for more than two decades, but feels the USDA certification process has degraded the meaning of organic to such a degree that, like many local farmers, he’s gone “beyond organic.”

The label to look for when it comes to eggs is "free range;" buying free range eggs from a local farmer is one of the best ways you can fight farm animal cruelty. If you can’t find free range eggs, “cage free” is the next best thing; at least the hens aren’t crammed into battery cages so tiny they can’t even flap their wings. Sadly, 95% of the eggs sold in the U.S. come from these battery hens, their beaks seared off to keep them from pecking each other. They’re starved periodically, too—deprived of feed for weeks at a time to induce “forced molting” which stimulates greater egg production.

Free range eggs from humanely treated hens have a bonus for humans, too; their deep yellow yolks are naturally rich in omega-3’s. It’s the sunniest sunny side up you can get, so go free range and boycott battery caged eggs. If de-beaked hens could speak, they’d tell you “no animal deserves such beastly treatment, not even ‘just us chickens.’”

FIGHT THE GOOD FOOD FIGHT: GIVE AGRIBUSINESS THE AXE

We here at Eating Liberally are dedicated to the notion of saving the planet one plateful at a time. So we were pleased see Corby Kummer’s op-ed in Thursday’s NY Times. Kummer, the Atlantic Monthly’s senior editor, warns that global warming is already wreaking agricultural havoc here and abroad, with much worse expected to come.

Drought is driving native crops northward, and warmer temperatures have created a more hospitable environment for all kinds of pests and diseases. Kummer predicts that we’ll have no choice but to rely on genetically modified crops designed to withstand all these calamities and tolerate megadoses of pesticides, and adds:

Let’s hope that we have plentiful, side-effect-free drugs to counter the carcinogenic effects of increased pesticide residue. And that we can enact and enforce international food-safety regulations that will keep confined animals away from lettuce processors, so we don’t get the everything-green panic that seemed certain to follow the spinach panic of last summer.

Politically correct food is one thing (and a good thing). Global-warming-altered food is another, and a concept to add to our worry list. Thanksgiving, that most food-centered and nationalistic of holidays, might be a time to think again about how food is being grown where you live and what you can do about it. You might even dip a finger into environmental advocacy — after, of course, buying a share in a community-supported agriculture farm near you, to help a local farmer get through one more long, income-free winter.

Tom Philpott of Grist also celebrates Thanksgiving’s potential to spread the good food gospel. He asks the question “Does Thanksgiving suck?” and, after exploring the low points and highlights of the holiday, concludes that no, it doesn’t; on the contrary, Thanksgiving is the perfect opportunity to make delectable dishes and create new converts to the concept of sustainability:

…let's revive Thanksgiving as a sumptuous feast, a banquet, a party to awaken the sensual pleasures of cooking and eating together.

This is not mere hedonism talking. I fervently believe that the fate of the sustainable-food movement -- on which much rides -- rests on its ability to seduce people with the vibrant flavors of carefully grown, well-prepared fare.

Appeal to people's sense of guilt or duty, and they quickly backslide, cramming themselves with "Thickburgers" and other noxious junk. Appeal to their senses -- say, through a deftly prepared butternut squash soup, or turkey not dried out by bad cooking technique or made flavorless by industrial agriculture -- and you've potentially got a convert on your hands.

From there, you might be looking at a budding environmentalist. In an era when life for many means shuffling from climate-controlled vessel to climate-controlled vessel, food is what tethers us to the earth. We've fetishized cleanliness and demonized dirt, but not even the most high-tech agriculture can sever its tie to the ground beneath our feet. Highly processed and packaged food obscures the connection and encourages ignorance; fresh food displays its provenance and imparts a hunger for knowing.

So, no, Thanksgiving doesn't have to suck. It's your excuse to spend the day (or two) hanging out with your friends and family in the kitchen, blow a wad of cash at the farmers' market, break out a challenging cookbook, try a sumptuous recipe, open a great bottle (or case) of wine. Eat, drink, and be merry -- and a pox on industrial food, historical amnesia, and social dysfunction.

To which we say “Amen!” Take a seat at the Sustainable Table, and don’t just say grace, say GRACE, as in Grassroots Action Center for the Environment. Because the future of the planet is on your plate.

GIVE THANKS LIBERALLY!

In this world of sin and sorrow there is always something to be thankful for; as for me, I rejoice that I am not a Republican. ~H.L. Mencken

TIME TO STICK A FORK IN FOOD INJUSTICE

Michael Pollan’s been running around the country scribbling “Vote With Your Fork!” at book signings for his bestseller The Omnivore’s Dilemma. The idea is to boycott the industrial food chain by, say, shopping at farmers’ markets or joining a CSA.

But as Eric Schlosser, Marion Nestle and Pollan himself noted at the Princeton conference last week, we can’t just shop our way out of the problems plaguing our food system. We have to change our nation’s agricultural policies.

A slide in Nestle’s power point presentation summed the problem up nicely; for $5, McDonald’s will sell you five burgers or one salad. While the FDA dutifully chants the “more fruits and vegetables” mantra, our government manages to make beef cost less than lettuce thanks to the agricultural subsidies that make fast food so “cheap.”

Fresh produce, by contrast, is for the privileged, or at least that’s the perception. A faint aura of elitism hangs over the stalls at the Greenmarket, with its artisanal cheeses and biodynamic purple broccoli. Foodies find all kinds of exotic--and expensive--epicurean oddities and delights.

But farmers’ markets are actually a pretty egalitarian enterprise; where else do shoppers rub shoulders with world-class chefs vying for the finest and freshest from our local farmers? And most of the produce isn’t pricey at all—there’s no middleman, so your dollar goes farther, and it all goes to the farmer.

The problem is that farmers’ markets are generally located in more affluent neighborhoods, while many poor communities are a virtual wasteland of bodegas and fast food joints. This sad phenomenon even has a name, now; such neighborhoods are known as “food deserts,” i.e., “areas of relative exclusion where people experience physical and economic barriers to accessing healthy food.”

We’ve come a long way since that historic day on February 1st, 1960, when four young black men launched a sit-in at a “whites only” lunch counter in a Woolworth in Greensboro, North Carolina.

“I wanted a cheeseburger with french fries,” recalled Jibreel Khazan, whose name at the time was Ezell Blair Jr. Woolworth’s refused to serve him.

Now, of course, there’s no shortage of fast food joints flooding the inner cities with all the cheeseburgers and fries they can stomach—and then some. What’s lacking is access to healthy foods. The end result has been an explosion of obesity and diabetes among the poor; it’s a terrible cost to pay for all those cheap calories.

There’s a movement to fight the food deserts, with programs to bring more farmers’ markets to poor communities and school cafeterias that serve food from local farms. We need to encourage these efforts, but we’ve also got to lean on our government to scale back the subsidies that promote agribusiness monoculture, and ramp up support for the small and medium-sized farms that grow all those fruits and vegetables the FDA keeps telling us we need to eat more of.

Let’s see them put their money where their mouth is, because this “eat what we say, not what we subsidize” routine is getting really old. The message from Marion Nestle and her “food cop” colleagues? Get political. Fight the food system that makes beets cost more than beef.

Update:

From my lips to God’s ears: Mayor Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn have just announced that New York City will name a food policy czar who will be charged with raising the amount of healthy food sold in low-income neighborhoods. Here’s hoping other cities will follow suit.

DEMS MORE FIT TO LEAD

We passed Bob Kerrey in full running regalia on our way to the Greenmarket last Saturday, and it got me thinking: are Democrats literally more fit to lead? We read last week about Harry Reid’s morning yoga routine; it wouldn’t surprise me if Nancy Pelosi does pilates. And let’s not forget John Kerry’s windsurfing, as much as we’d like to.

Sure, there are a handful of fitness enthusiasts in the GOP: Schwarzenegger, Huckabee, and, of course, W himself, who brings the same flair and skill to his mountain biking that he displays in his international diplomatic dealings.

But by and large, Republicans are represented by such porky personas as Hastert, Rove, and Cheney. All those free filet mignons from Jack Abramoff’s steakhouse, combined with a sedentary lifestyle, really packed on the pounds.

Fitness trainers are fond of suggesting that we try to work exercise in to our daily routines. Republicans could start with some simple stretches like reaching across the aisle, for example.

But the fact is, it takes real discipline to stick to an exercise regimen. Or to balance the budget. The Republicans can’t seem to do either one.

WE CAN DO BETTER THAN BUTTERBALL

Last week Joyce Wharton, a fourth grade teacher in Virginia, asked her class to write a Thanksgiving essay from a turkey’s perspective. Out of the mouths of babes:

My family and I think that you shouldn't eat turkeys for Thanksgiving dinner. We are bad for your health, we are treated mean…we live on crowded and dirty farms. We do not get fed well. The farmers give us shots to make us grow fast which is not good for us. Many of us suffer like this every year just so you can eat turkey on Thanksgiving. You should feel bad about eating us.

Yes, but we should feel good about nine year-old kids catching on to agribusiness animal abuse. Peter Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton and long-time animal rights activist, talked about one of the more appalling aspects of a factory farm turkey’s lot in life when he spoke at Princeton’s “Food, Ethics & the Environment” conference the other day.

Singer noted that turkeys nowadays are bred to have such large breasts that they can no longer mate naturally. The Butterball Turkey company hires workers to extract the turkeys’ semen and artificially inseminate the hens at a rate of about one hen every twelve seconds. It’s a nasty job, and it’s hard to say who hates it more, the hens or the workers.

For the sake of research, Singer and Jim Mason, who co-authored The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter,” actually got themselves hired at Butterball’s Carthage, Missouri poultry plant and experienced this awful process firsthand: “It was the hardest, fastest, dirtiest, most disgusting, worst-paid work we have ever done…we lasted one day.”

And if the way Butterball treats its turkeys doesn’t leave a bad enough taste, consider this; their birds are so bland and dry they have to inject them with salt and broth to give them “flavor.”

There are plenty of small poultry farmers offering humanely raised turkeys. We’ve been fortunate to have Quattro’s Farm in upstate Pleasant Valley providing free range poultry at the Union Square Greenmarket for more than two decades. It’s not exactly a new concept; until the advent of industrial agriculture, all farm fowl was free range.

Will we look back on this era of agribusiness as an aberration? Of course, I like to hope that Abu Ghraib was an aberration, too. What would Joyce Wharton’s fourth graders say if she asked them to write an essay from a water-boarded detainee’s perspective? Could they muster up as much compassion for an alleged terrorist as they managed to feel for a factory-farmed turkey?

WEEKEND GREENMARKET BLOGGING

Oh, no! There’s a wild boar trampling through our locally grown spinach! Should we call the FDA? They’re blaming feral swine for the contaminated crops in California; who’s spreading the manure, now?

FOOD EVANGELISTS PREACH THE GRASS-FED GOSPEL AT PRINCETON

Princeton University has brought the biggest stars in the galaxy of food politics to a conference entitled “Food, Ethics, & the Environment:” Peter Singer, Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle, Eric Schlosser, Gary Nabhan.

The conference kicked off yesterday afternoon with Singer and Schlosser and continues today. Schlosser, a Princeton grad (class of ’81) noted that the last time he had been to that particular auditorium was for a Talking Heads concert. More Songs about Buildings & Food, maybe?

I’ll write more about the whole conference when it’s over and I’ve had a chance to, uh, digest it all, but I’ll just say that it’s awfully exciting to have all these culinary culture warriors in one place at the same time!