Making Connections

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Earlier this week, the news broke of a manure spill in Allegan County, Michigan – about an hour and a half north of where I live. The spill originated at a dairy farm and was discovered last Friday – although they were unable to determine when the leak had started and how much manure had seeped into Bear Creek, which runs into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River and ultimately empties into Lake Michigan. They’ve estimated that the plume has travelled about five miles downstream at this point.

I was actually sitting in the newsroom at my workplace (I work for a radio broadcasting company) when my coworker announced the manure spill. Offhandedly, I cringed and said, “That’s why I don’t eat meat!” He looked at me like I was crazy – what does that have to do with a manure spill??

(Admittedly, I made my comment before I knew the spill was from a dairy farm and not a meat-production farm – meaning that ultimately I do share a part in the blame, since I eat cheese. But in my mind, a CAFO is a CAFO, and the problem is still the same! Concentrated animal feeding operations contribute to pollution of our waterways – and more.)

My coworker didn’t immediately make the connection between my choice to avoid meat and the manure spill that took place last week. He tried to defend the industry by countering that we need manure. “But you’re a vegetarian! It fertilizes our crops. Our vegetables!” he said.

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An image of Bear Creek, the site of the manure spill. (Andrew Kuhn – MLive.com)

I tried to explain that the amount of manure we produce (not to mention the poor-quality, hormone-laden, disease-ridden manure we produce) is totally unnecessary for growing vegetables. The EPA has estimated that a farm with 2,500 cows on it can generate as much waste as the people in a city the size of Miami.

That’s a lot of poop.

Last year, the Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health performed a 5-year follow-up to the 2008 report, Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America (published by the Pew Charitable Trusts). The general findings of the original report concluded that industrial animal production as it is performed today (2008) is unsustainable. “It represents an unacceptable level of threat to public health, an unacceptable level of damage to the environment, is harmful to the animals housed in the most restrictive confinement systems, and is harmful to the long-term economic health to the communities near their location” (Robert Martin, Food System Policy Director at the Center for a Livable Future and former Executive Director of the commission formed for the 2008 study).

The follow-up study reported that all of the original problems outlined in the 2008 publication have only gotten worse. More concentrated animal production. Greater antibiotic resistance. And yes, the public health threat from livestock waste has grown.

In a statement released by John Schaendorf, the farm owner responsible for the spill, he said, “It’s new for everybody. It’s never happened before.” Except that it has, and it certainly could again, in my state and elsewhere. And the scary part about animal waste is that unlike human waste, which undergoes treatment by law, animal waste is not regulated at all. Instead, it’s held in giant manure lagoons before being diluted and spread over cropland. It takes nothing more than a large storm to sweep through and overflow these manure pits – leeching hormones, pathogens and toxic metals into the nearby water table.

As it happens, that’s exactly what occurred in Allegan County; the spill is now being blamed on an icy, snow-covered “pipe and valve that failed in a storm water system”. With all the rain and snow melt Southwest Michigan has received in the last two days (and the warnings of flash flooding), that means that whatever cleanup is left will be virtually impossible.

This is why it’s so important that we make those connections – between the supply and demand of our diets, and the health of our immediate environment. They are intricately linked to the very health of our own families and neighbors. And as we are pounded with more and more extreme weather each year, spills of this type are bound to happen again.

The Seven Deadly Sins of Greenwashing: Part II

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After learning about greenwashing and it’s history, I wanted to do a little comparison research on the products in my own kitchen. I chose to compare two brands/items that we regularly buy in our household: Silk soymilk and Meijer Naturals whole wheat flour. (Meijer is a Michigan company that owns several brands, including “Meijer Naturals”, “Meijer Organics”, “Meijer EcoWise”, “Meijer Gold”, and “Meijer Elements”.)

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Silk Organic Soymilk

Silk makes a lot of lofty promises on its packaging. The carton emphasizes that Silk is a trustworthy, honest company and guarantees that if you don’t love the product, you’ll get your money back. Ingredients, they say, are “grown responsibly, and… as close to nature” as possible. No artificial colors, flavors, high-fructose corn syrup, dairy, or GMO. To back up that last one, it displays a label that reads “Non-GMO Project Verified”. It also provides a web address where you can track where the soybeans came from (North America) at SilkSoymilk.com/TraceIt.

I followed this link to their website to have a look around. In fact, Silk seems to do a pretty nice job of backing up their claims. In the Our Story section, you have the option to read about Silk’s commitments to Non-GMO ingredients, resource and water conservation, and recycling. They partner with several seemingly respectable organizations, and provide links. These partners include The Non-GMO Project, Change the Course Colorado River Restoration Project, Carton Council, Bonneville Environmental Foundation, and four others. Following these links, I’m taken to organization websites that, for all intents and purposes, seem to be perfectly credible. Back on Silk’s website, they explain their involvement with these partners and reference actual reports published by the USDA as well as assessments of their Life Cycle and Water Footprint.

I’m impressed with their transparency. I can’t positively identify any of the Seven Sins of Greenwashing. They make specific claims, and then back them up; they do a good job of explaining why they make the environmental choices they do, which eliminates any worry of irrelevance; their Non-GMO label is backed by an actual project which allows consumers to make informed decisions. I guess I have no way of knowing whether there are hidden trade offs or fibs without doing a much more in depth study of the company and their practices. But they seem to have a pretty comprehensive view of sustainability, focusing on water, recycling, resource conservation, and non-GMOs, so I feel safe believing that there are no hidden trade offs, and have no reason to believe they are lying about anything. I give Silk an A+.

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Meijer Naturals Whole Wheat Flour

We started buying from the Meijer Naturals line of food items over the “regular” Meijer items because the prices seemed comparable and they promised natural, non-GMO ingredients. Personally I’m not fully sold on the idea that GMO products are the evil that some would make them out to be – but I usually choose non-GMO if given the option, based on the assumption that overall, natural is probably best. (I’m still reading up on this, and I do think consumers should at least be informed of potential GMO ingredients.)

There is no direct web address listed anywhere on the packaging, but Meijer is a well-known company in Michigan, so I just googled “Meijer Naturals” and arrived at their “Brands” page.

This was a big disappointment. Basically, this page just lists the names of their different product lines: Meijer, Gold, Organics, Naturals, EcoWise, Elements. These logos do not seem to be clickable, so I can’t learn about the individual product lines or what sets them apart.

On the package of the whole wheat flour, it does give a description that reads: “Meijer Naturals – minimally processed products with no bioengineered ingredients (GMOs); no high-fructose corn syrup or artificial sweeteners; no artificial additives or preservatives; and no hydrogenated oils or trans fats.”

Basically, they make nearly exactly the same claims as Silk’s packaging does – but Silk’s website backs it all up, whereas Meijer’s website simply states: “Our brands not only meet, but often exceed the quality of comparable national brands. Many supercenters have their own brands, but Meijer takes it a step further by addressing your specific needs with specialty brands….”

Specialty brands? That’s all I get? You haven’t even made a claim as to what specific needs your product is possibly addressing…. Nor have you compared any data with that of “comparable national brands”. Definitely Meijer is committing the sin of no proof, and likely others as well (“Naturals” – vagueness! Their own non-GMO label – maybe a false label? Fibbing?) After seeing this rather sparse website, I have little reason to believe the truthfulness of their claims. I give Meijer and all their brands a big fat F!

Data Counts!

I was a little surprised at how vague Meijer’s website was in that they don’t even try to define their different product lines or why they make them. I expected at least some jargony differentiation between their Organics, Naturals, and EcoWise lines. However, I did expect Meijer to be less environmentally conscious than Silk. I’ve always been under the impression that Silk was a fairly “green” company – mostly because of their packaging and their “Love it or Your Money Back!” promises. My research today confirmed this. I can’t say, though, that I wasn’t disappointed to learn how exaggerated Meijer’s claims were.

Do you have any greenwashed labels in your kitchen? I’d love to hear from you! Tell me what you find out in the comments below.

Anatomy of an Evening Meal

It really has been awhile since my last post – a month! Truly I haven’t meant to be away for so long… and I’ve been up to so many things!

Recently I’ve been looking at what the world eats, and what sustainability means in those many different places. I discovered the FAOSTAT, a unique tool introduced by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (my nerdy-foodie-anthropologist-junkie self loves this – it can tell me about food all over the world!) I’ve been thinking about the impact of globalization and how farming practices and foreign policy in one country affect families in countries half the world away. I’ve been thinking about the growing population problem, and what it means that our planet will soon need to feed 9 billion people. And, in thinking about the strain that kind of food production could put on our Earth, I began to explore what can be done about global food waste.

So you can see I’ve been busy. And I want to think hard on all of those topics and perhaps discuss them here later.

Today though, I decided to take a deep look at just one meal. I wondered, what does it take to produce an average meal? Where does my food come from? How much energy and water is used to produce it? What happens to my kitchen waste? It’s by no means a comprehensive study, but here’s what I learned.

For dinner tonight we decided to use up a bunch of produce we had in our fridge – we tend not to eat it up FAST enough and it sometimes goes bad before we get to it (read: consumer-level food waste!) Stir frying is usually a good way to throw a variety of veggies together. I’d also been wanting to try my hand at making mango lassis and had recently bought the ingredients, so I made that as well.

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Part of our stir fry prep

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Mango lassi prep – pardon the poor photos

Stir fry ingredients: tofu, kale, green onion, mint, red bell pepper, zucchini over rice
Tofu marinade: lemon juice, sesame oil, soy sauce, honey, corn starch, red pepper flakes
Lassi: mango, yogurt, honey, salt, cardamom

Where our food was grown (we live in southwest Michigan):

  • Kale, green onion, zucchini, mint – locally (within a few miles)
  • Red pepper – unknown
  • Lemon juice, yogurt – distributed by Grand Rapids, MI company, but growing area unknown.
  • Cardamom pods – distributed out of Ohio
  • Corn starch, tofu – USA
  • Salt – Canada
  • Sesame oil – Japan
  • Mango – Mexico
  • Honey – Argentina
  • Rice – India


When/how our food was grown:
 The kale, green onion and zucchini were grown within the last 2-3 weeks – we get them in our CSA basket, which comes from a transitional-organic mixed-crop farm at a local university. The mint was picked fresh off a plant in our backyard. For everything else, the “when” and “how” are unknown.

Processing for our meal: Tofu was seared, then tossed with other chopped/diced vegetables in a wok. Marinade ingredients were mixed and then tossed in the wok also. Water was added to rice to cook in a rice cooker. Mango was cut off the pit, turned into pulp with a blender, then blended further with yogurt, honey, cardamom and salt.

Transportation/Distribution: Our meal was both very local and very foreign! Ingredients came from as close as our backyard, across our country, and from as far away as Asia and South America. I’m sure it got to us via as many kinds of transportation as you can imagine – my best guess would be by truck and by air. I can’t know for sure about any of them except those grown through our CSA program – those get trucked to the produce stand directly from harvest, and then we pick it up and bring it home in our car.

Acquisition: All but the mint was purchased either from the CSA farm or one of our local grocery stores.

Packaging and storage: Fresh produce from the CSA comes in a basket. Fresh produce in the store is usually not packaged until we bag and purchase it. Sesame oil and soy sauce are in glass bottles; red pepper flakes, lemon juice, cornstarch, and yogurt came in plastic containers; cardamom pods came in a plastic bag. We store the perishables in our refrigerator and everything else in cupboards/cabinet.

Preparation: Veggies were washed under running water, rice was cooked with water (2 cups), and we periodically rinsed our hands – rough water estimate about a gallon, maybe more. For utensils we used knives, cutting boards, blender, wok, nonstick Teflon pan, spatula, and a wooden spoon. Stir fry was cooked over a gas stove; lassi was blended using an electric blender. Total cook time was about an hour if you estimate 20 minutes searing the tofu, 20 minutes stir-frying veggies, and 20 minutes cooking the rice.

Our kitchen: Our kitchen is average-sized for an apartment – open floor space where our table is but not very much counter space. It’s lit mostly with energy-efficient CFL bulbs except for one fluorescent bulb over our sink. Our home is heated with gas (in the winter – not right now) and a nearby nuclear power plant supplies our electricity.

Cleaning/Disposal: Utensils and dishes will be hand washed in the sink. We usually wipe up after cooking with a damp towel – may use a cleaning agent if we need to scrub areas of our stove. Packaging from food goes mostly in the trash as we do not have a recycling service in our area (I really wish we did – throwing away perfectly recyclable plastic and cardboard pains me every time). All organic waste ends up in our compost. Sewage from our home goes to a septic tank.

This was a fascinating study of my meal. One of the most surprising things I learned was all the countries represented within my own kitchen. I do try to buy as locally as possible – which works here in southwest Michigan in the summer, because being next to the lake means our climate and growing region are second only to California in terms of productivity and variety!

But when I stop to think about it – well, of course, where else would I get rice but from Asia? Where did I expect the mango to come from? Most surprising was the honey – from Argentina?! That’s one I know I can do better on – I know I can get local honey, and I’ll pay attention to that the next time I buy some.

This is our second year participating in the CSA program. We get a fresh basket of locally-grown produce every week. Last year we found ourselves with abundances of certain veggies that we just couldn’t eat fast enough – yellow and jalepeno peppers, cucumbers, cabbage, etc. Often they would rot in our fridge. Part of it was that we didn’t know what to do with them in such quantities. This year I’ve been reading about the processes of fermenting vegetables, and I’m hoping to reduce our food waste by using fermentation as a preservation method. I just made my first batches of sauerkraut and pickles!

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We’ll see how they turn out!

The New Norm: Food Security in an Age of Change

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Wind turbines (Vendsyssel, Denmark, 2004). Photo © 2004 by Tomasz Sienicki

Every day, we drove past them: acres upon acres of dry corn, blackened by the summer sun, withering where it stood. Summer of 2012 was a hot one, and our farming neighbors in rural southwest Michigan were feeling the heat.

Michigan lost much of its harvest last year – our cherries and apples, corn and soybeans. It was an unusual growing season in that it started out hot – too hot, for March. The early warmth of spring tricked the fruit trees into thinking it was summer; they began to bud and blossom. And then out of nowhere, it seemed, frost descended and killed the crops before they even had a chance; our harvest was effectively “nipped in the bud”. The early heat and freeze, followed by an intensely dry summer, prompted the USDA to declare the whole state – all 83 counties – a natural disaster area due to heat and drought.

The hardship was familiar to farmers across the Midwest. In fact, in late July of 2012, the USDA “designated 1,369 counties across 31 states as disaster areas… making all qualified farm operators in the areas eligible for low-interest emergency loans”. It was estimated that two-thirds of the entire country were experiencing drought.

Scientists and climatologists tell us that such extreme weather may increasingly be the “new norm”. At the 2013 Colorado Farm Show in Greeley, Colorado, Nolan Doeskan, the State Climatologist, told a sobered group of farmers that “if the computer models are anything close to right… 2012 will be an average year in just a few decades”. While many laypeople – about half the American public – say they don’t believe in global warming, in fact 97% of scientists agree that it is happening, and that it is caused by humans.

Whether or not we choose to believe in climate change, the fact remains that we see extreme weather events occurring at increasing rates across our country. Whether hurricanes, tornadoes, drought and other weather events of heightened severity are attributed to global warming, or simply natural fluxes in historical weather patterns – they are happening at an unprecedented rate, and they affect our food security and our economy.  The complexity of our food system is incredibly sensitive to changes in weather patterns: heightened levels of CO2 contribute to these ever more frequent “freak” storms and droughts. Warmer temperatures also invite invasive pests and disease, cause plants to grow faster than the time needed for maturation, and reduce the ability of land to produce adequate amounts feed for livestock. The harm in adamantly denying there is change is that if we continue to do “business as usual,” we risk our very homes and livelihoods. Our inability to adapt and seek mitigation will cost us in terms of our economy and well-being, as we see food grow scarce and prices continue to rise. If we hope to find solutions, we need to pay attention to climate change now.

Climate change skeptics sometimes defend greater CO2 levels in the atmosphere. In an op-ed published by the Wall Street Journal last month, scientists and known skeptics Harrison Schmitt and William Happer argued that “increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will benefit the increasing population on the planet by increasing agricultural productivity.” While it’s true that CO2 is a natural atmospheric gas and that it does contribute to accelerated growth, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. What Schmitt and Happer fail to acknowledge are the detrimental effects of higher CO2 to human agriculture and, more generally, our planet’s natural ecosystems. These adverse effects far outweigh any potential benefits. The EPA states that while moderate warming and more carbon dioxide may be a boon to plant life in the short term, “more severe warming, floods and drought may reduce yields” over time.

This is how: while human agriculture may experience accelerated growth, so will weeds. Warmer temperatures will also create optimal conditions for insects and fungi to flourish. As our planet warms, problematic weeds, pests and disease common to southern tropical or subtropical areas will see a growing geographical range in which they can thrive. This poses new problems for farmers who must quickly learn alternate weed management strategies and invest greater time and energy in protecting their crops from invasive species.

According to the USDA’s February report on climate change and agriculture in the United States, agricultural crops are heavily dependent on a complex set of interactions between temperature, CO2 levels, solar radiation and precipitation. Temperature thresholds specific to individual crops determine the plants’ growth and reproduction. With higher temperatures plants may grow faster but smaller if they do not simultaneously receive the required water or soil nutrients for maximum yield. Moreover, because agriculture depends so heavily and fundamentally on a stable climate, the timing of plant maturation with the lifecycles of pollinating insects has an effect on crop output.

All of these factors together inflict hardship on food producers; they spend more time, energy, and money contending with weeds, pests, and diseases that threaten their crops. In dry areas and when water is scarce, fields require heavier irrigation. Much of the country relies on groundwater to supply irrigation systems; with a long enough drought, the absence of rainfall may inhibit groundwater recharge.

But reduced crop yields are problematic not just for the farmers that grow them; it also hurts consumers’ wallets. As a result of last year’s drought, the US is seeing inflated food prices. Dairy, eggs, beef, poultry and pork prices are driven up because animal feed is scarcer. Food insecurity will force the US to rely on feed and produce exports from abroad – meaning that food is more expensive, and uses more fossil fuels to reach us. The drought last year cost our government, too: in August 2012 the USDA authorized a combined total of $30 million in emergency assistance for “moving water to livestock in need, providing emergency forage for livestock, and rehabilitating lands severely impacted by the drought.” Climate change has a very real effect on our economy.

There are solutions, if we act now. Citizens can write to their legislators to advocate for more investment in wind and solar energy, and less coal mining and fossil fuels, which contribute heavily to atmospheric warming. Support research for agricultural adaptation methods and greater fuel efficiency standards. Eat less meat. Seek out sustainable, closed-loop food systems, or better yet, learn to grow your own food. Reduced food security and food sovereignty do not need to be “the new norm.” But before we can have any hope of stopping climate change, we’ll have to make some changes ourselves.

For further reading, please see “Outgrowing the Earth,” a 2004 book by Lester R. Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, and the USDA’s February, 2013 report entitled Climate Change and Agriculture in the United States: Effects and Adaptation.”