The Call, Column 50 – “Organic”, “Natural”, “Healthy”?”: Deciphering Food Label Claims

31 07 2016

(July 3, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

“Organic”, “Natural”, “Healthy”?: Deciphering Food Label Claims

            Because variety is the spice of life, I’ve decided to break up the series of renewable energy technologies, alternating them with some other columns that I have planned about gardening and food topics.

Today, in preparation for the Independence Day holiday, I want to arm you with the knowledge you need to navigate the tricky world of food labels and claims, in order to make the best decisions possible about the types of foods to buy. There are a whole range of buzzwords used on and around food products, to make us feel good about purchasing them. Some of these are strictly regulated (like “organic”), while others are essentially meaningless (“all-natural”), and others, if you ask the right questions, mean a whole lot more than even organic (truly “sustainable”).

Agricultural Methods

(beyond-organic/sustainable > organic > responsible agriculture > non-GMO > natural)

            These buzzwords apply to both plant and animal agriculture. Let’s start with the least valuable and work our way up.

Natural. This word is essentially meaningless in a marketing sense, not regulated by the government or actually applicable to any concrete agricultural method. It has been adopted by large food companies for precisely this reason: it makes people feel good about the foods they buy without requiring much actual attention to food quality on the part of the manufacturer. What the FDA does state officially, is that it won’t object to the use of this term when it is used to designate the absence of artificial ingredients – colors, flavors, preservatives, and other additives – which makes it a bare-bones indicator of suitability for human consumption.

Non-GMO. This one is a tough for me. I am a strong proponent of GMO labeling and, if you’ve read a couple of my past columns, generally against the use of genetic engineering in agriculture because it produces little value for the consumer (or even the responsible farmer), yet introduces an uncomfortable level of risk to everyone involved, and the environment. That being said, this label does little more than “natural” in designating good agricultural methods or food quality. It’s often used on foods for which there isn’t a genetically-modified alternative anyway (non-GMO olive oil, anyone?). And even if not, it tends to be used in order to give consumers the same feel-good sentiment as organic, despite being essentially unregulated and saying nothing about toxic residues, synthetic additives, growing methods, animal welfare, environmental effects, or health in any other way.

Honestly, I also find it a bit disturbing when people equate non-GMO with sustainable agriculture and use it as their sole metric of food quality, when it is by no means the only agricultural issue, nor the most important. The overuse of this label exacerbates that problem.

Responsible agriculture. This one isn’t as much a buzzword as an umbrella of ideas on the spectrum, between industrial agriculture at one end and truly sustainable at the other. It is useful when you can glean more detailed information about a food product either by asking the farmer herself or from a particularly informational food company website, and is generally what you’re looking at when it’s clear that the farmers and manufacturers pay honest attention to agricultural methods in order to reduce the use of pesticides, herbicides, artificial fertilizers, genetic engineering, and unhealthy food additives, and provide for environmental and animal welfare. It includes things like IPM (integrated pest management, where pesticides are used as strategically and minimally as possible), GAP (good agricultural practices) certification, and other similar methods that can be determined by asking your farmer. Only if it’s part of a wider set of methods, I would happily put “non-GMO” into this category as well.

Organic. This is probably the biggest buzzword of all, but is actually pretty strictly regulated by the USDA’s “organic standards”. Among other things, organic farms: cannot use synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, nor land which has been treated with this things for a number of years; cannot use genetically engineered seed; and must raise animals without the use of antibiotics and synthetic hormones, and in adherence to arguably minimalist standards of animal welfare. Organic foods must be free from a nice, long list of harmful additives.

Organic is by no means perfect. It leaves plenty of room for industrial agricultural methods to sneak in (there are organic-certified CAFOs, factory animal farms), is an expensive and difficult certification process especially for small farms, and does not provide any incentive to use methods that are above-and-beyond its own regulations. But with that said, organic certification does give consumers a well-defined anchor upon which to base their food choices, and is an important stepping stone in the right direction.

Beyond-organic/sustainable. Even better than organic, though, is truly sustainable, “beyond-organic” food! This is not backed by a legal definition; rather, it is a very broad, general idea that requires us to talk to the people who grow our food and actually understand their methods.

Admittedly, “sustainable” is probably as watered-down of a buzzword as organic, but it is still my favorite descriptor. Simply put, my definition of sustainable agriculture (or anything else) is that which 1) could be performed indefinitely into the future, without permanently depleting the resource base upon which it relies, and 2) when the accounting includes our entire planet and a long enough time period, has a net zero or (better yet) positive effect on the Earth’s balance sheet.

This is a pretty tall order, and more easily-defined on a case-by-case basis. However, it’s not an incredibly difficult thing to do, given that nature has done it for something like 4.5 billion years with far less human cranial capacity than we have today. Let’s look at a couple of broad examples.

At its base, non-intensive annual or perennial (or permaculture) planting is sustainable. When artificial pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers are avoided, and the soil is mulched, irrigated with sustainable sources of water, and built up with natural soil fertility methods, this type of agriculture produces plant foods while generating a healthier environment in the process. Again, this is irrespective of whether they are certified organic or not. My friend Christina, and her amazing vegetable and flower operation at Blue Skys Farm, is a perfect example of this. Check them out at As a side note (and not because I’m at all biased), grain and legume agriculture cannot be done this way at all.

On the flip side, the system of exclusively pasture-raised livestock is sustainable, and far beyond organic. The equation is simple: a herd of grass-eating animals (cows, bison, buffalo, sheep, goats, llamas, rabbits, etc) + healthy pasture + freshwater + the farmer’s ingenuity = meat + more animals + healthier pasture + the same amount of freshwater. This system is not only sustainable by every metric, but actually yields a healthier biosphere. That’s probably why the Earth was populated with billions of these animals prior to the expansion of humankind (which is true, despite the best attempts of certain agenda-driven, anti-scientific advisory groups to ignore this fact). This type of animal agriculture is perfect, pretty much irrespective of whether the meat is “certified organic” (which would really only further guarantee no use of hormones/steroids/antibiotics, something that can easily be verified with the farmers). Aquidneck Farms in Portsmouth is an example of this. Check them out at

As a quick final note, I want to make it clear that none of the above words are necessarily synonymous with “healthy”. I will talk more about nutrition sometime in the future, but I want to point this out in response to a debate that I had on Facebook a while back. Sugar is sugar, grain flour is grain flour, soy is soy, and refined seed oils are refined seed oils, and all of these things are unhealthy, period. It doesn’t matter if they’re GMO or natural or organic or sustainably grown, they are unhealthy. And I would go so far as to say that the improvement in health made by removing them from your diet altogether is far superior to that made by switching from conventional to non-GMO/organic/whatever. Conventionally grow vegetables and factory farmed eggs are healthier for a human body than organic cane sugar or organic tofu. Choose organic, sustainable foods for the many good reasons above; not as the sole metric of healthy food.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.

The Call, Column 43 – Like I Said, Just Label It!

28 03 2016

(March 27, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

Like I Said, Just Label It!

I spent most of the afternoon last Tuesday in the State House, amongst other activists and Rhode Island senators. I’m happy to report that the GMO labeling bills (S2458 and S2459) are being heard again by the Rhode Island legislature, with notably more support than last year’s.

For those of you who don’t remember my previous column on this topic, here’s a brief refresher. GMO stands for “genetically modified organism”, but a better label is “genetically engineered” (GE). GE crops and animals are those whose genetic information – their DNA – has been altered through biotechnological processes that would not otherwise occur in nature.

There are two commonly used types of genetically engineered seed – herbicide tolerant crops (i.e. “RoundUp Ready”), which can be doused with the weed-killers (the carcinogen glyphosate, aka RoundUp) and not be killed, and Bt crops, which are engineered to produce an insecticide within their own cells. Crops including soy, corn, cottonseed, canola seed, and sugar beets are the most commonly genetically engineered ones (usually for one of those two traits). And it’s no mistake that these crops and their derivatives are the building blocks of the unhealthy processed foods that make up over half of the Standard American Diet.

The United States federal government is wholly a proponent of GE crops (and now, also genetically engineered salmon), structuring subsidy programs in ways that encourage farmers to grow them and absurdly streamlining their approval process through the FDA. That process involves minimal safety testing, almost exclusively done by the companies who stand to gain from the sale of the crop or animal.

Now that you’re caught up, the fun begins. Something like 64 countries around the world, including much of the developed world, label foods containing genetically engineered ingredients, so that consumers are afforded with the necessary information to make their own safety assessments, and tailor their buying habits accordingly to their preferences. The United States is not one of them.

In fact, the US federal government has consistently refused to instate a national GMO labeling program, opting instead to attempt to pass the so-called “DARK Act”, which would essentially stop the individual states from mandating GMO labels within their own borders. Thankfully, this legislation was voted down last week, prior to the state senate subcommittee hearing that I attended.

As urban farmers, this issue should concern us deeply. We care about our health, and that of our families, friends, and fellow human beings – and we should be wary of consuming something with such inherent risks. We care about the health of the environment – and nothing that puts so much herbicide into the soil, and disrupts the proper functioning of the ecosystem, could be good for the Earth in the long-term. And we care about the preservation of our own freedoms – at the forefront is the right to know, and choose, exactly what we are putting into our bodies.

Unfortunately, the public testimony at the hearing brought out the same, tired old voices, industry representatives whose opinions really shouldn’t be factored into the decision about a labeling mandate at all. We heard from lobbyists sent by the Grocery Manufacturers Association and other industry protection groups, complaining that they do not want to bear the miniscule cost required to make their product labels truthful – who believe that their bottom line should be protected by the government, and should always trump your right to know what you’re eating. We heard from individuals at the employ of the biotech industry, throwing around their academic credentials, as if that makes them fit to opine on the efficacy, safety, and appropriateness of a technology from whose public acceptance they stand to gain.

And sadly, we heard from the Rhode Island Farm Bureau representatives, who implied that a bill that calls into question a modern agricultural method or technology is equivalent to actively oppressing farmers. (So I guess we can’t do anything about CAFOs and the massive amounts of toxic pesticides being dispersed into the public commons, then. Sorry.) Their testimony was disappointing, if I may be honest. And I was very surprised when one labeling opponent began to yell at, and personally attack, a consumer and proponent of the bill for “keeping people in the dark”. As far as I’m aware, a truthful product label does quite the opposite.

Honestly, when all is said and done, this bill makes no comment, one way or another, on the safety of genetically engineered crops and animals. As I stressed in my testimony, it does no more, and no less, than to ensure that a piece of relevant information about a food product is fully disclosed to the people deciding whether or not to consume it. That is the motivation behind labeling the amounts of Vitamin C and calcium, including an expiration date, and listing the ingredients in cosmetics or food – a market is free only when the demand patterns of consumers are allowed to naturally tailor the practices of the producers, and this can only occur when the consumers know the relevant information about what they are consuming.

The debate in the senate subcommittee hearing was fundamentally between “big fish” – food industry representatives, complaining that greater labeling transparency might hurt their bottom line – and “little fish” – consumers and activists, offering reasons why a GMO label would be relevant to their decision-making process. If you ask me, only one of these two positions is even logically relevant in the labeling debate…and it’s not the food industry’s.

I’m about to make a personal request: CALL YOUR SENATORS, and email them, and express your support for GMO labeling! You can find your senator and his or her contact information by going to and inputting your street address and city/zip. A quick call has the potential to change the course of history.

I want to give a huge thanks to Senator Donna Nesselbush, who has been a tireless advocate in this issue and who is the lead sponsor of the bills, and the great folks at Right to Know RI and Citizens for GMO Labeling. I have a good feeling about this year, and I believe we have the potential to join Vermont, Maine, and Connecticut at the forefront of this growing movement.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.

The Call, Column 37 – The Most Wonderful Time of Year: Ordering Seeds for the Spring Garden

8 02 2016

(January 3, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

The Most Wonderful Time of Year: Ordering Seeds for the Spring Garden

Despite the snow, frozen soil, and minimal egg yield, the winter is one of my favorite times of the year in terms of urban farming. Why, you ask? Two words: seed catalogs!

It’s time to begin the preparations for next year’s garden, and the eight or so seed catalogs I’ve received in the mail over the past month make that task a whole lot more fun. They form the basis for my spring garden plan, how and what I decide to plant come springtime. Today, I want us to go over how an urban farmer should go about making this plan: what types of decisions you will have to make and how to go about making them, my personal methods for planning my garden each year, and some resources that I’ve found helpful in the process.

The first two decisions that you must make are: what you want to grow, and how much. These decisions are nuanced, and how you make them depends very much on your and your family’s goals in planting a garden.

If the purpose of your garden is the simple quest for good food, you probably want to focus on tried-and-true favorites: culinary herbs, heirloom potatoes and beans, and varieties of fruits and vegetables bred for taste. A good yield is important to you, but a bushel of tomatoes is worthless of they are bred for industrial production or cooking down into sauce, and taste like mushy water raw.

This is even more true if you make a few, specific recipes often, and are growing the garden to supply the ingredients for those recipes. If Italian food, for example, is a personal forte, then basil, oregano, and good Italian tomatoes are a must.

On the other hand, if you are growing with the goal of maximizing production in the confines of your backyard, whether for some measure of food self-sufficiency or even just to stock the cupboards for the winter, your focus will be different. High-efficiency, high-calorie-density crops like grains, beans, brassica vegetables, white and sweet potatoes, and root vegetables are the best way to accomplish these goals.

If, instead, you have found that eating a sufficient quantity of vegetables and low-sugar fruits (10 servings per day) can get cost-prohibitive, you might endeavor to supplement your food budget with a garden. The crops you’ll want to focus on are those that give you the greatest return on your labor investment – for example, nutrient-rich and calorie-poor crops like leafy greens, can run a pretty big food bill if you want to make them a significant part of your diet. It’s a great idea to combine what you buy at the farmers market (which is already cheaper than what’s in the supermarket) with the products of your own garden.

Personally, as I’ve grown and matured in my knowledge of agriculture, ecology, and human nutrition, the emphasis of my diet has shifted from high-calorie, high-carbohydrate foods to “high-nutrient” foods. In turn, the subtle focus of my garden has and will continue to shift in this direction – rather than spending so much effort and space on things like white potatoes, sugar beets, corn, and other manner of grains, this year’s garden will be largely based on all manner of nutrient-dense vegetables and low-sugar fruits, and especially leafy-greens (with some sweet and white potatoes and other root crops mixed in, for the self-sufficiency aspects).

In all cases, how much you decide to grow of each crop should be made to match its intended uses. If you’ve decided on a “stock-the-cupboards, self-sufficiency” garden, you need to look at how many potatoes, how much cabbage, and how much corn your family eats throughout the year, both fresh while it is in season, and preserved, if there is a good way to do that.

In my case, tomatoes and peppers are a high-yielding, easily-preserved, nutrient-dense crop that my family uses a lot of. By growing many plants of these types in my garden, the goal is for us to have enough for much of the year. In terms of leafy greens, there are some that we like more than others – I go through a lot of spinach, kale, lettuces, arugula, and cabbage, so I will grow a lot more of that this year than, say, Swiss chard (which I like, but only in small doses).

Now that you have an idea of the types of crops you want to grow, and how much you should plant, you need to actually order the seeds! Here’s my organizational strategy.

It all starts with seed catalogs. If you haven’t bought seeds or plants from an online supplier before, you will need to go to each website and request a catalog; if you have, they usually begin sending you one around this time each year. I normally get catalogs from Fedco Seeds (along with their other plant divisions), Gurneys Seed and Nursery, Bountiful Gardens, Pinetree Garden Seeds, Burnt Ridge Nursery, and Baker Creek Heirloom Seed. Some of these are from the local area, and otherwise they specialize in very high quality seeds and plants (organic, heirloom, permaculture-based, etc).

While you are deciding which companies to order catalogs from, and again after perusing their catalogs (which have way more information than a website ever could), you have to decide which companies you actually want to order your seeds and plants from. This decision can be based on many factors, but usually includes their prices in comparison to the others, how local they are, whether they offer specific seeds or plants you desire, and other company’s policies – about GMOs, organic seed, business structure and practices, and even practical considerations like ordering timelines. I usually limit it to two or three companies to order my seeds and plants, because there are a few whose quality has been proven (Fedco is my go-to for seed!), and otherwise because shipping can add up if you spread your order too thin.

For those who have grown a garden in recent years, you then need to make a seed inventory of what you already have. This is a big step for me, because I easily have over 200 seed varieties that I use every year (I know, this is excessive), and this step helps me organize my thoughts about what I liked, what I didn’t, what I still have, and what I need to order again.

Everyone’s inventorying strategy is different, but I use an Excel document and list out all of the different seeds that I have, based on crop type (Nightshades, the tomato family; Alliums, the onion family; Cucurbits, the squash family; Herbs; Brassicaceae, the cabbage family; Leaf Crops; Root Crops; Beans and Grains; Flowers; and Fruit). Next to each type of seed, I write the year that it was packed for (which can be found on the seed packet), a rough estimate of the amount of seed I have left of that type (either a number or, as I did this year, a designation of “few”, “some”, or “lot”), and a guess at the viability, based on how long seeds of that type or family usually last (I designate “viable” or “questionable”, based on my experience and tables like this one at I also designate which varieties I actually ran out of this year.

            From this, I extract a rough list of specific cultivars and general crops that I want to plant again; and therefore, for those that I did not save any seed (which I admit happens far too often for my liking in my own garden), those cultivars and crops that I have to order again, and which company I got them from (if applicable). Start by designating those cultivars which are definitely viable (i.e. tomatoes or lettuce marked for last year) and which you also have a lot of left, as “in inventory” (and therefore don’t need to be ordered), while those that probably aren’t viable and/or you have little left, but that you liked as “out of inventory” (and therefore need to be ordered).

            You can then peruse the offerings of each company by the above crop categories, keeping in mind 1) which crops and how much you decided to grow; 2) what you already have for seed; and 3) what you definitely need to order again. For me, this is the Year of the Leafy Greens – I have some lettuce and kale seed from last year, but I’m stepping up my game and need to include quite a few of them in my order.

            Finally, I create another Excel sheet (can you tell my mom is an accountant?), organized by company, of the specific seed varieties (and plants) that I need to buy. Include their name, as well as other identifying information – production number, weight or count, and price – to keep you organized, make it easy to build your shopping cart (if ordering online), and keep a rough estimate of total prices. Also, if shipping is calculated by weight or total order cost, you can include a formula to calculate it for each company in a cell below the company’s listing.

            Good luck, and happy (seed) hunting!

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.

The Call and Times, Column 21 – Just Label It: GMO Labeling in Rhode Island

27 05 2015

(May 24th, 2015)

The Urban Farmer

Just Label It: GMO Labeling in Rhode Island

Yesterday [Saturday], millions of people around the world took to the streets in the annual March Against Monsanto, including in our own capitol of Providence. All were united under a common belief – our food system is sick, and genetically modified (GMO) crops are a symptom, not a cure.

Last year, I wrote about GMOs, and why they might not be such a great bargain for the consumer. Without repeating too much, here’s a quick recap.

Genetic engineering is when the plant’s DNA is changed in such a way that would not otherwise occur in nature. Few legitimate safety assessments have been done on these crops, but in light of the modern understanding that of the complex expression of genes, and a study performed by French molecular biologist Gilles-Eric Seralini that linked GMO corn to cancer and hormone imbalance, there’s genuine reason for concern.

These crops were first grown in the US in 1994, but have now dominated the market – upwards of 85% of the corn, soy, canola, cottonseed, and sugar beets grown here are GMO.

Around 70 countries worldwide have mandatory labeling of foods with GMO ingredients. These people and their governments are weary of GMOs for a variety of reasons, which mostly boil down to: the negative effect on human health of carcinogens, toxic chemicals, and novel allergens; the environmental dangers of increased topsoil loss, pesticide use, and crop monocultures, and uncontrollable “genetic drift”; and the social and political inequities involving Intellectual Property (IP) laws and lax federal regulation, which result in lawsuits and farmer suicides.

Monsanto is the biotechnology company that controls a significant portion of the seed market worldwide. While genetic engineering is more generally used to force crops into the broken mold of industrial agriculture, there are two major varieties of GMO seeds that Monsanto produces. Bt crops have been engineered so that the plant produces it own toxic pesticide, and RoundUp Ready crops are engineered to survive liberal applications of the toxic herbicide glyphosate – both result in toxic residues, destined for your dinner plate.

In response to all of this, concerned consumers have a simple request for their government – label foods produced with GMO ingredients so we can make informed decisions about what we eat. It’s a shame that this simple label has stirred up such controversy, and is opposed so strongly by (emphasis) industrial farmers and special interest groups. Here’s the simple, reasoned argument for the labeling GMOs:

1) Consumption of GMOs is risky for the consumers. As discussed earlier, our health, environmental welfare, and social equity are all negatively affected by GMO agriculture.

2) But it doesn’t provide us any benefit. Flavor and nutrition aren’t improved, and yields don’t really increase on the long-term, so the end product isn’t better, cheaper, or more abundant.

3) They’re easy to label. Farmers know what they’re growing, distributors and retailers know what they’re buying, and companies often change a few pixels of ink without so much objection.

4) Therefore, it’s reasonable to ask for labels. The society-wide benefit of truthful labels is much greater than the benefit of continued misinformation. For capitalism to function correctly, consumers need the information to make rational decisions.

5) People want labels! Polls consistently show 80 to 90% of people want their food labels to be truthful about GMO ingredients, because, surprisingly, they care about what they put in their and their families’ bodies.

6) The duty of the government is to provide for the common welfare. This is in our founding documents and is central to the definition of a representative democracy.

And so, labels are reasonable, they are desired by the people, and they are the government’s duty – in the paraphrased words of Gary Hirshberg, the founder of Stonyfield yogurt, “just label it!”

So now, the question that I hope is on all of your minds: “What can I do about this?” I’m glad you asked.

Personal changes – buying organic or certified non-GMO when possible and growing your own food – are good ways to minimize risk to your family in the short-term. However, the most difficult battles are won by armies, not individuals.

There are currently bills in the Rhode Island Senate and House of Representatives that would mandate the truthful labeling of foods with GMO ingredients. They have a lot of support, but are currently sitting on committee tables, waiting for us – the consumers, the electorate, the eaters – to convince our elected officials to pass them. We have an opportunity to stand with Connecticut, Maine, and Vermont in a regional push for common sense transparency in food labeling, setting the precedent for the rest of the nation.

I’m working with Right to Know Rhode Island, the organization responsible for promoting the GMO labeling law in our state. Yesterday marked the beginning of our 2015 Week of Action: each day, we invite you to engage your family, friends, and elected officials in different ways, so that we can send a strong, unified message that we have a right to know what’s in our food.

Tuesday, you should Call Your Legislator; Wednesday, we want to Grow the Network of our institutional partners; Thursday in Movie Night, where we will host screenings of the documentary film, GMO OMG; Friday, we need to Stop the DARK Act, in which the federal government is attempting to illegalize state GMO labeling laws; and Saturday, we will be Targeting Leadership by canvassing the district Senator Josh Miller, and chair of the Senate Committee where the bill is being held.

Please go to, and for more information about each day of action, and to find out how to get involved.

I will be hosting a screening of GMO OMG in the Woonsocket Harris Public Library the next Monday, June 1st, at 7pm. There will also be a screening in the Rochambeau Library in Providence. We hope to see you there.

And now, like I often do, I’ll leave you with a bit of an enigma to ponder as you participate in our Week of Action. The opponents of truthful labeling argue that a mandatory label is as good as a skull-and-crossbones – “if we label it, people won’t buy it!”

Now, readers, if knowing a simple fact about their food would actually make people less likely to buy it, if people would choose not to consume something because their personal assessment, to which they are absolutely allowed in our free society, finds the risks too great and the benefits too few – how, then, is the appropriate, governmentally-endorsed response to withhold that information from them? At what point are we no longer entitled to make such decisions for ourselves?

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times. The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.

The Call and Times, Column 14 – You Get What You Pay For: Why Cheap Food Isn’t Cheap, and Sustainable Food Is Worth It

7 11 2014

(November 7, 2014)

The Urban Farmer

You Get What You Pay For: Why Cheap Food Isn’t Cheap, and Sustainable Food Is Worth It

            We’re all guilty of it – asking why organic, local, sustainable food is more expensive than conventional; using the difference in price as a reason to opt for the conventionally-grown tomato, the factory-farmed beef, and the garlic that’s traveled through more continents than most people. Even those who are preachy about these issues (your humble columnist included), often suffer from the persistent, Depression-era predisposition toward frugality in food choice, leaving them stuck, helpless in the grocery store, debating about whether to pay a little more for something that seems, as far as appearance is concerned, pretty much the same. But beauty is skin deep, and in a few words, sustainable foods come with a whole lot less baggage than conventional.

It’s not easy to say exactly what “sustainable food” is, because the word “sustainable” has been so overused and inflated, that it’s all but meaningless. In my view, today’s sustainable agriculture is that in which an honest, conscious effort is made to avoid negative environmental impacts, to produce a good quality of living for animals and people, to enable the building of resilient communities and local economies, and to accomplish all of this without stealing from the future their opportunity to enjoy the same. This is not exactly the same as organic. Organic certification is prohibitively expensive for some small farms, and its legal standards are sometimes unfeasible, out of place, or not strict enough for a particular farm or a particular area, meaning that not all sustainable agriculture is organic, and not all organic farms are sustainable. In contrast to both organic and sustainable, conventional (modern, industrial) agriculture entirely disregards the principles of environmental welfare, community health, and non-depletion of resources, in favor of the pursuit of maximum profit at the greatest short-term efficiency.

So what exactly do I mean by the “baggage” that comes with conventional food? This is the many hidden costs, charged secretly by industrial agriculture and paid in full by the people and the environment, often without their knowledge and always against their best interests. These costs can be grouped into four major categories, based on who or what bears the direct responsibility of paying them.

The first, of course, is our environment’s welfare. Between climate changes that are accelerated by the huge amounts of fossil fuels used by industrial agriculture, localized pollution of toxic, cancer-causing pesticides and herbicides, and the destruction of land and marine ecosystems by over-farming and over-fertilizing, the environment pays a big price for modern agriculture.

The second is our communities. Conventional agriculture funnels nearly every cent of the American’s food dollar out of the hands of the farmer and local community, and into the hands of pesticide and fertilizer manufacturers, biotech corporations, and packagers and shippers of junk food. Local economies, once built on the foundation of a strong agriculture, are crumbling, communities are losing their vitality, and foreign and domestic labor alike are exploited near to the point of slavery, under the guise of further increases in the short-term efficiency of the agricultural system.

The next bearer of hidden costs is the people and, because of how closely our fates are tied, the animals we keep. Between Mad Cow Disease, antibiotic resistant bacteria, and salmonella-contaminated meat and eggs, factory animal farms are an outbreak-waiting-to-happen. Our food is littered with residues from toxic pesticides and herbicides, and potentially hazardous genetically modified (GMO) crops make up huge percentages of the raw ingredients. The nutrient-emptiness of today’s food has left us very unhealthy as a nation, and all the while, our factory farms torture animals in abhorrent, inhumane conditions, because food needs to be cheap, period.

And finally, each of these financiers – the environment, the community, and the people – will pay dearly in 10, or 50, or 200 years in the future. The growth of dangerous diseases and environmental destruction aside, modern agriculture’s rapid depletion of fossil fuels, stored freshwater, and even topsoil will leave our descendents, somewhere down the line, with a precious lack of these essential resources. So guess what? Ultimately, all of these costs are borne by you and me – and we are paying dearly for cheap food.

It’s hard to put honest numbers on the long-term risks, and nearly impossible to quantify the loss of communities and local economies. But Barbara Kingsolver, in her book “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle”, summarizes what we are paying very bluntly: between subsidies to Big Agriculture, government cleanup of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and the treatment of food-related illness, conventional agriculture costs the average American household between $750 and $1000 per year above and beyond the sticker price of its products. So it might be worth asking that question again: how cheap, really, is cheap food?

Sustainable agriculture comes with essentially none of this. There are as many approaches to this practice as there are farms that do it, but they all have some things in common. Animals are treated well and fed on pasture, sparing us the moral woe of eating the products of factory farming and preventing the environmental problems associated with it. Topsoil is built up over time, rather than depleted, and significantly less fossil fuel is used in each step of the process. Unlike conventional agriculture, sustainable does not use toxic pesticides, herbicides, and GMOs, and regular doses of antibiotics are unnecessary. Communities and local economies can be, and still are, in some places, built around small, sustainable farms, and the environment, the animals, the people, and the future are all the better for that.

The idea for this column came to me when I was driving back from one of my favorite farms in the area. I had paid a little more for the meat that I bought than I would have in the store. But as I held the frozen meat, all I could think about – all I needed to think about – was the cows grazing contentedly on the pasture, and the pigs rummaging through the forest; of that purchase helping a local family’s business grow, validating their efforts to sell a better product and help to form a sustainable future; and all of this taking place in my state, in my community, just a score of miles from my home.

This are in such stark contrast to my uneasiness while holding conventional meat in the supermarket. What life did this animal live? What type of war was waged on some local environment, on the ecosphere as a whole, to get me this food? Under what conditions, and with what pay, were the laborers working in order to justify this price? How much of my tax money, and that of my descendents in the distant future, would be spent ironically to ensure that this sticker price was low? On my best days, I don’t think a few dollars in savings could make me stomach all of that, especially not when I have spent $3 to rent a movie, or $4 for a cup of coffee.

In sustainable agriculture, the “pastoral ideal” that so many write off as a ghost of the past is alive and well. It is possible, and it will ultimately prove necessary, to have an agriculture that feeds us all while actually building the health of the environment, the health of communities, and the health of the people. When the government stops using our money to subsidize conventional agriculture; when corporations stop exploiting our environment as a limitless source of raw materials and a willing dumping ground for waste; when people see these hidden costs for what they are – actual costs – and, in the wise words of Michael Pollan, when we vote with our forks, and our food dollars; then, and only then, will we stop spending so much for cheap food.

My column appears on the first Friday of each month in The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times. The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.

The Call and Times, Column 11 – Garden Like Nature Does (Organically!)

12 08 2014

(August 8, 2014)

The Urban Farmer

Garden Like Nature Does (Organically!)

It’s midsummer, the height of the urban farmer’s year. The days are long, the temperature is hot (at noon, anyway), and the cold, bleak winter of so few months ago is but a distant memory. You can walk outside and almost hear Nature buzzing with life, almost see the garden grow before your eyes. As every experienced gardener knows, I’m not only talking about our carrots, tomatoes, and corn – this is also the time when the weeds, pests, and plant diseases threaten to squeeze the life out of our almost defenseless gardens, and where the resilience and determination of every urban farmer is put to the test by Mother Nature herself.

It is tempting, in such trying times, to fight back with the most potent weapons in our arsenal – artificial pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers – the veritable chemical weapons in this war we call gardening. These magical elixirs brought to us by conventional industrial agriculture certainly do the trick, delivering on their promises of death, defoliation, and sterilization – necessary traits in any good weapon. Certainly an enticing promise, but if we look further than the next harvest, our very declaration of war is called into question. For this, I think it’s worth asking ourselves: why are we at war, are we sure that we really want to win, and is there any other way to get our gardens to grow? The short answers to these questions: we’re fighting the wrong entity; there are ways that everyone can win; and we have to garden like nature does.

In this column, I will go over four of the major components of garden care – pest control, weed control, soil fertility, and crop selection – and explain, for each, why the conventional approach is wrong. I will go on to discuss the systems that are “used” in most natural ecosystems on Earth, and how and why urban farmers should take advantage of these alternative methods, Nature’s valuable tools, to make our gardens grow better and stronger, and to make our urban farming more resilient and more sustainable.

The first major component of garden care is soil fertility, the most elemental requirement for the land to produce food. Industrial agricultural operations tend not to give too much value to long-term soil fertility: the soil is left bare, exposing it to the elements and causing it to erode at an astonishing rate (with maybe 60 years left of absolutely-necessary-in-order-to-grow-food topsoil, as discussed in April’s column). Erosion which, as bad luck would have it, robs the soil of not only essential nutrients, but of its very ability to naturally replace these nutrients.

To solve this problem, industrial agriculture opts for the short-term boost of artificial, chemical fertilizers, the same ones that are often used by home gardeners. These fertilizers are derived from fossil fuels, and while they may somewhat increase plant growth when they are applied, the soil is left less healthy than before (an unsustainable system if there ever was one), and they don’t help to build the organic matter content of the topsoil, which is absolutely necessary to its long-term health.

The next component is crop selection. In conventional agriculture, large swatches of land, literally thousands upon thousands of acres, are planted to the same crop. This practice is called “monocropping” or “monoculture”, with corn and soybeans at the forefront. This is done to streamline seeding, watering, and harvesting, and because the government parts with our tax dollars, as agricultural subsidies, far more readily when farms are massive fields of the same crop. This monoculture results in major problems with insect pests and diseases, in basically the same way that head lice and the Flu spread through a crowded elementary school. While not nearly as big an issue in home gardens, pests and disease can become a problem even on that scale when areas are planted to monoculture.

That leads to the third component, pest control. On industrial farms and many backyard gardens alike, artificial, toxic pesticides are the tools-of-choice when it comes to dealing with insects that threaten destroy the crop. At its very base, the use of these chemicals amounts to spraying poisons – neurotoxins, carcinogens, endocrine disruptors – on things that we intend to eat. That fact alone should give anyone pause, because, as the old adage goes, “the dose makes the poison” – if it kills insects, what’s to say it’s safe for us, after a lifetime of exposure?

Furthermore, agricultural pesticide use is responsible for the decline in pollinator populations – most notably the threats to the bee, on whose pollination services one-third of our food depends. And finally, as if to nod at the absurdity of spraying toxins on plants destined for human consumption, insect pests have a history of adapting a tolerance to pesticides, rendering them useless – at least, that is, until something more deadly is discovered.

The final major component is weed control, the bane of the farmer’s existence, urban and rural alike. Because modern agriculture keeps the soil bare, it is especially prone to weed growth. To this, industrial agriculture has responded with two main practices – tilling the soil to uproot the weeds, and spraying the soil with toxic chemical herbicides, both practices often used in home gardens. Tillage is a complex subject, but at the basis, it’s proving damaging to the environment to rip up the soil and expose the subsoil to air. This causes it to release a lot of climate-change-accelerating carbon dioxide, and has a harmful effect on soil fertility.

On the other hand, chemical herbicides come with their own set of problems. It has been shown that, despite the constant denial by the companies that produce these chemicals, they remain in the soil much longer after spraying that intended, causing a slow sterilization of the soil’s fertility that doesn’t really make sense if you actually want to grow food there. These chemicals, like pesticides, are carcinogenic and generally toxic to human health, and produce “super weeds” – invasive plants that develop a resistance to the defoliating effects of herbicides, which brings me to my final point. The use of these chemicals effectively makes farmers dependent on the companies that produce them – that would be Monsanto, to name the most prominent.

In general, conventional agriculture’s so-called solutions ultimately result in problems of a greater or more long-term nature. These approaches are expensive, yield dependency on someone or something (always fossil fuels) and generally death in the ecosystem, and result in dangerous food; by gardening like Nature does, our solutions would actually fix the problems at hand, would yield safe food and self-sufficiency, and are essentially free. So now, let’s figure out what Nature does better, and how we can do the same.

The first nearly universal technique used by Nature to make things grow is to cycle nutrients between plants, animals, and microorganisms. In basically every ecosystem on Earth, leaves or needles fall, grass dies, and animals eat and…defecate. The wastes of this year’s growth are broken down, to become next year’s soil, in a sustainable process that actually results in more topsoil – more carbon captured in the soil, more soil fertility, and a healthier ecosystem. This is easy to mimic in our own gardens – by keeping a compost pile as the destination for all garden and yard waste, and by keeping a couple of chickens to eat food scraps and contribute to the compost, we can supply all of the soil fertility we need, without resorting to artificial fertilizers.

For her next trick, Nature uses a very simple tool – mulch! If you take note, next time you’re wandering in any undeveloped or wild-kept area, the topsoil is almost never visible. This is the result of millions of years of a symbiosis of sorts, between the Plant Kingdom and the great living organism that is the topsoil. Because open soil space is valuable, both because of the rich soil nutrients and exposure to sunlight, plants of all sorts find their niches to make complete, highly-productive ecosystems. This is more or less the reason that weeds are so invasive (they evolved that way), but if we keep this system in mind, we can prevent them as well.

By ensuring that the soil is well-stocked with plants, and that it is kept mulched with dried grass, hay, chopped leaves, or any material like these, gardeners can do even better than nipping the problem in the bud – by preventing it in the first place. Mulching has the added benefits of helping to conserve soil moisture (less watering, anyone?), boosting soil fertility by composting back into the soil and preventing erosion, and preventing the water from splashing on the soil and back up onto the leaves of plants – a cause of many of the common plant diseases. Also, to put it into perspective, most weeds – dandelions, plantain, lamb’s quarters, nettle – are perfectly edible and often have medicinal qualities. So maybe, just maybe, that odd weed or two that make it through the mulch…are just another valuable crop.

Finally, there’s biodiversity, probably one of the most astounding tools that Nature uses to make life happen. To quote my first column, “there is no forest of just spruce trees, no sea of just cod, and no lawn of just Kentucky Bluegrass”. Nature’s fields are diverse, a mixture of many different plants and animals, with vastly different purposes. By doing this, and ensuring that ecosystems evolve year-after-year, Nature has this magical way of preventing a significant outbreak of disease or infestation of pests, and manages to build the fertility of the soil. With so many different plants in an area, pests and diseases can’t get a serious foothold in natural environments; and the low-level exposure to these things makes plants stronger, and, in the case of crop plants, more nutritious.

By practicing polyculture – planting a variety of different plants in the same area, selecting our crops with companion planting methods in mind, and “rotating” crops each year (that is, change where a specific vegetable or fruit is grown), we can take advantage of one of the best parts of Nature’s gardening method. Pests and diseases are unable to build up to significant amounts in the soil, nutrients are given time to replenish between plantings of the same crop, and the quality and nutrition of the things we grow is improved.

In our gardens, what we’ve essentially done is cut a chunk out of an already well-established ecosystem, a “piece of Nature”, and attempted to completely control it, to use it to our advantage. This mirrors what we do as a society, as a species – and this has led to an extractive economy, one that grows on the back of the decimation of the Natural World.

But when we look really hard, both at our economy and at our gardens, we see Nature not as our opponent in this frankly unwinnable war, but instead, as our benefactor. She provides the land, the water, the atmosphere, the beneficial microbes, the sunlight (depending on how far-reaching your definition is), and all sorts of cleaning, filtering, energy-capture, and decomposition services. Nature is well-equipped with all of the tools necessary to produce food for the rest of life, and she doesn’t use toxic chemicals, monocultures, or artificial fertilizers. If we take a page, or more like ten million, out of her book, and take advantage of these tools, we can break free of the crippling hold of industrial agriculture, and just maybe produce better, safer, more sustainable food. If our society did this, if our farmers did this, if urban gardeners did this, we’d be in better as a nation and a species – so let’s try something new, and garden like Nature does.

My column appears on the first Friday of each month in The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times. The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.

The Nerve

1 05 2012

First of all, sorry all for not posting in a while (has it been over a month?). I’ve been busy with school, an independent alternative energy project, etc.

That being said, here’s the way I see it:

Let’s say that I’m Monsanto (I know, I feel dirty already). 20 years ago, I developed this new technology – I found an efficient way to take genetic material from anywhere in any of the Kingdoms of Life, and put it in a plant. I also found a way to inject cows with something that makes them produce 10% more milk, no questions asked (except for a malfunctioning uterus, increased mastitis, and the chemically altered milk…shhh). I decided that these technologies were quite good, and because I had enough money from the last century of manufacturing toxic pollutants and my Better Living Through Plastic campaign, I went full-force in implementing them. So a little later, I was going about my business, slowly integrating my creations into the food supply, when out of blue, an obstructive Big Government gets in my way with unfounded questions like “Are you sure that’s safe?” and “Should the FDA label your stuff?”. Well, I put them in their place, or more accurately, I replaced them with my own people: Michael Taylor, Deputy Food Commissioner at the FDA, and Clarence Thomas, Supreme Court Justice. You got it, they are both mine. Well, at this point, the unthinkable happened. Some idiots in the local and organic foods movement started talking about my business, my products, and my unannounced presence in the refrigerators of most Americans. They touted lies (i.e. complete truths) about how my genetic tinkering created new allergies, how my RoundUp gave people cancer, and how my milk made 8 year olds go through puberty – well, I would have none of that, so I did what any sensible multinational corporation would do, and denied it all. I hired lots of researchers to worship the merits of my products, got a bunch of lawyers to sue the pants off of people and governments in court, and insisted, in debate after debate, that my opponents had no true arguments and that they were just bitter Luddites. Also, just for good measure, I slapped the phrases “farmers” and “Feed the World” on my website a couple thousand times, to convince people of my altruism. Well, what good any of that did: it was time for brute, multinational corporate force. Try to label milk from cows treated with rBST…BOOM, you’ve got a multimillion dollar lawsuit on your sorry keister. Try to label GMOs…BOOM, lawsuits for everyone! Basically, I adopted the stance: I am here to stay, I make a bunch of probably dangerous food products, and if you don’t like that, too bad. You’re going to eat it, and if your government tries to give you the choice not to, everyone gets sued. Period. Deal with it. It’s not my problem. My newest strategy is working quite well, don’t you think?

Here’s some thoughts that have occurred to me along the way:

  1. Pretty much all of the things I genetically modify and sell are made into fat-based foods – soy, corn, cotton(seed), and canola are damn near the only sources of oil in the U.S. (aside from that olive oil, and those Europeans are hard nuts to crack with their objection to GMOs), and the milk is mostly made into cheese and butter. Plus, soybeans produce a chemical, phytoestrogen, similar to human estrogen (shh, don’t tell anyone) and the milk is laced with IGF-1, a human growth hormone. So, excessive amounts of lipids, sex- and growth-hormones in all the wrong places – I always say, “a fat, hormonally confused population is a subservient population”, so bring on the soybean oil and rBST milk!
  2. Once I got farmers to spray enough RoundUp and petroleum fertilizers on their farms while growing RoundUp resistant soybeans, they were pretty much hooked. Fertilizers depleted the natural fertility of the soil and the residual RoundUp made everything sterile and lifeless, so all they could plant next year was my soy – job security! Corn was pretty much the same. When the bugs became resistant to all but the most powerful pesticides (because of my overuse), I showed up with a corn that produces just that. Yum!
  3. A little slogan I like to live by: If something moves and it’s not a potential customer (so, if it’s a farmer or a bug), spray it with the most powerful neurotoxin available. If it’s a potential customer, give it high cholesterol and hormone imbalances with the ol’ Trinity of corn, milk, and soy, and launch a Monsanto Pharmaceuticals Division.

Am I not the most disgusting, immoral thing you’ve ever heard of? Well, guess what: As of January, 2010, I’m a legal Person in the United States, and I’m allowed to buy off your politicians and tell you nothing. What do you think of me now…….? That’s what I thought.

**Just as a quick note, I want to mention that, when I sarcastically refer to Monsanto’s use of helping farmers and feeding the world, it is not done with malice toward the farmers or poor people in third world countries. I believe in taking action to make sure there are no starving people, and it keeping at the forefront of my mind the value, tangible and intangible, that farmers add to society – I just don’t believe any of what Monsanto does actually helps any of these people, and is in fact making the third world poorer and the farmers bankrupt.