Innovative Agricultural Methods Mimic Nature

Nowadays I think a lot of our food choices are defined by labels: is this apple certified organic? Was this chicken “free-range” and “humanely-raised” on a family-owned farm? Though labels are definitely helpful and important, in this post I want to point out that truly good farming might defy a label or a certain list of requirements. It is an entire holistic approach. And often the correct approach takes after nature in some way. This approach is effective because nature’s cycles are efficient, sustainable, and waste-free, which is exactly what we are looking for in farming. One example is Permaculture, which you can read about in my earlier post. Not only are these methods fascinating, I think they have a lot of potential for growth if applied to our current conventional agriculture model. One such method is management intensive grazing.

Management intensive grazing or MIG is the name for a variety of methods of rotating livestock on separate patches of grass (also known as paddocks). This might sound kind of boring but I promise it’s pretty cool! Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms famously implements MIG with his cattle. In this method, different paddocks are sectioned off by electric fencing so that cows only graze in one area for a certain number of days at a time. Cattle rotate between paddocks at a precisely calculated time based on the number of animals and size of the paddocks among other things. It may not seem incredibly innovative or complex, but there is a lot of science behind the technique. It offers many benefits to the land and animals.

In letting cows find their own food, fertilize the ground with their waste, and roam around with lots of room, farmers avoid costs and inputs like feed, fertilizer, and antibiotics. These benefits are similar to those of regular old grazing, but because the system is controlled and managed so precisely, the benefits are maximized to get the most out of a given area of land.

Grass-fed beef is often hailed as a sustainable alternative to more conventionally grown beef, but critics point out its huge space requirements.  They claim that it would be impossible to feed the US on grass-fed beef because it would take too much space, about 35,000 square miles or 10% of US land according to one estimate. However, this estimate does not take into account the space-efficiency of MIG. With MIG, Joel Salatin can raise 85 cows on 100 acres, which is about 1.2 acres per cow, much better than the 2.5 acres per cow that the above figure was based on.

How can we fit more cows on the land by just moving them around? In rotating cattle through different paddocks, the animals are forced to eat grasses that might not be their favorite. They therefore get the most food out of a given area. Usually a cow eats the young, fresh grass closest to its comfy spot in the shade and ignores much of the rest. In a conventional system, each cow may need a few acres of land but it doesn’t eat all of the grass on those few acres, only 30-40% according to this paper. Though I can’t provide an exact number, I’m sure the figure is much higher on intensively grazed land.

Since the farmer is making the cows move around and eat differently, MIG might seem to go against the natural behavior and diet of the cows. Yet the cows’ diversified diet and increased movement is surely beneficial to them. And when MIG and other agricultural systems copy nature, they can’t do so exactly and completely because farmers are still aiming for production and practicality. In nature every loop feeds back into itself, but on our farms we take out the finished product to eat or use. That finished product is the goal of the endeavor so we can’t forget about it in the quest to mimic nature.

In subsistence farming, a family can effectively become part of the farm food chain because it produces only to feed itself. The loop is contained. But otherwise, and especially if a farmer is growing food for hundreds of people, the farm or pasture differs inherently from its wild counterpart because it extracts and distributes that finished product. The farmer must tweak nature to find a balanced technique that produces for us and still keeps the land and creatures healthy.

The use of cows’ waste to fertilize the land helps illustrate this balance. In a conventional feedlot, cows are so concentrated that their waste becomes a pollutive problem. But what can be toxic in such large amounts is healthy in more moderated amounts. Cowpies are a natural fertilizer for the grass and help return nutrients to the land. On conventionally grazed land, the cows’ waste is enough to benefit the land but not overwhelm it. And in MIG, with more cows per acre (known as a higher stocking rate), the cows’ waste is more concentrated to optimally fertilize the land. Whereas the conventional feedlot sacrifices the health of the environment to achieve its finished product most cheaply, MIG balances the need for productivity with a need to keep the land healthy.

MIG mimics nature in that it is designed to take advantage of the fascinating and surprisingly complex relationship between grazing animals and grass. This process starts when the cow takes a bite of grass. The grass plant likes to keep an equal balance of leaves and roots so it will shed some of its roots to make up for the lost leaves. In turn these roots decay into fertile soil, and provide room for air, water, and a variety of creatures which are all beneficial to the land. We wouldn’t see these benefits had the cow not eaten that bit of grass. The grass (and the land) are actually better off with the cow around. Yet this process would end if the cow were to come back, take another bite, and prevent the grass’s re-growth. Thus the cow must be moved to another paddock in order for the grass to recover, just as a field may lie fallow to replenish its soil’s nutrients.

MIG also increases the diversity of grass species in a field. Cows may eat and cut down taller grasses and in the process make room for shorter varieties. But the cow must be moved off the paddock before they can decimate any one species (as may happen on conventionally grazed land). This precise system helps to create a balance of several different species, each important to the function and fertility of the land. With this balance, we can maximize the land’s use of sun and water. For example, drought-resistant species can thrive in drier times and seasonal varieties can ebb and flow during different parts of the year so that the field’s grasses are making the most of the present conditions and resources. Keeping every patch of ground always covered in grass prevents weed growth and erosion to maintain a long-lasting fertile topsoil.

As Michael Pollan puts it in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, “the grazing of ruminants, when managed properly, actually builds new soil from the bottom up.” Though many studies show that mismanaged grazing can severely damage land, we can see that grazing indeed has a positive effect on the soil if managed properly. I find it fascinating that the most efficient and sustainable way to graze land includes the use of electric fences when the free-for-all roaming of cows may seem more natural. We might not picture tons of electric fences when we think of happy cows out on pasture, but in this case a technology so seemingly unnatural is indeed our best tool to keep nature healthy. Go MIG!

I was originally planning on talking about a number of other techniques like aquaponics and conservation tillage, but there is so much to talk about with MIG that I got a bit carried away. I’ll continue to talk about innovative farming techniques in another post. Thanks for listening to me talk about cows eating grass for so long. Below are my sources for this post:

The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan


TED talk from Jonathan Foley: “The Other Inconvenient Truth”

Recently I re-watched a TED talk by professor Jonathan Foley about global agriculture. I found that in his talk Foley voiced a lot of my larger beliefs about farming, why it is important to examine, and how we can change it for the better. When I first watched the presentation I was thinking “Yes! These are my thoughts exactly!” I highly recommend the talk and you can check it out here.

I like this talk because it is practical and scientific. Foley starts out by framing the issue in a larger global context, showing how humans have come to dominate our planet. This large lens is fitting for such an important issue. I think it stresses the underlying truth about farming and environmental issues: all of this comes down to simple self-preservation. No matter what, we need food just as we need nature and all the creatures that make up our environment.

Foley has researched the global environmental effects of agriculture in depth. With this knowledge, he looks pragmatically to the future to see what questions arise and how we can answer them. He doesn’t get caught up in the sometimes myopic mindset of “local-organic-will-save-the-world.” It’s easy to go down that road when considering the problems with our current agricultural system, but Foley’s perspective is that of a professor and a scientist. He is going over the big important issues.

Foley uses stunning and shocking pictures to point out the long term effect of farming on our environment. According to Foley’s estimates, agriculture uses 40% of our land, 70% of our fresh water, and contributes to 30% of our greenhouse gas emissions. When I presented my senior project, I included similar figures to explain how important farming is to the future of our environment. As Foley points out, farming lies at the intersection of many environmental issues: energy, water, and land usage; climate change; biodiversity loss and habitat destruction; as well as air and water pollution.

Towards the end of the talk Foley gets to a really important point: there is no single simple answer to all these issues. Foley and I (and hopefully most people) are really in agreement here. This idea is central to my perspective on agriculture and I brought it up in the conclusion of my senior project presentation. Farming raises so may complex questions that there could not possibly be a single cure-all solution. I like the picture below quite a lot and I think it gets the idea across.

(credit to this blog for the image)

Though Foley’s proposition for a new type of agriculture that combines the best of many models is a bit vague, maybe that’s kind of the point. It’s all open-ended and we don’t know what it’s going to look like. As Foley says, we have to “reduce the controversy” and “increase the collaboration” in order to find out. His video provides some more concrete examples: economic incentives for farmers, new agricultural methods like drip irrigation and conservation tillage, as well as a smarter diet on the consumer’s side (this is where we non-farmers come in!). There are lots of things we can do and with this blog I hope to point out some of them.

My next post will cover a number of cool new agricultural methods and technologies that have the potential to help solve some of our current problems in farming. And after that I’ll try to write one that covers all the different actions we can take to make a real difference in these issues.


The Potential of Golden Rice

First off, I realize I haven’t posted in a while but I have been working on this post for a long time and it got pretty long so please don’t be scared off by that. I promise it’s thorough! And now, for the information, thoughts, all that good stuff:

Golden rice is a variety of rice rich in beta-carotene (also written as β-carotene), a substance which the human body converts to vitamin A. Vitamin A is an important vitamin and helps with vision and immune function among other things. Beta-carotene gives carrots, pumpkins, and sweet potatoes their orange color and is responsible for the color and name of golden rice.

A side-by-side comparison of golden rice and a more typical rice variety.

A side-by-side comparison of golden rice and a more typical rice variety. (Picture from this Forbes article)

A single bowl of golden rice provides 60% of a child’s daily vitamin A needs. The rice could potentially help children in developing countries where vitamin A deficiency can lead to blindness and increased vulnerability to a number of diseases. Since many of these developing countries are in Asia where rice is often a staple, golden rice could be substituted for less nutritional rice to help alleviate vitamin A deficiency. According to a 2011 study, supplementing vitamin A can reduce child mortality of all causes by 24%. And golden rice can play a key part in alleviating vitamin A deficiency in the future.

At first golden rice sounds like an amazing solution to a number of problems, but unfortunately it isn’t that simple. Here comes the controversial part: golden rice is genetically modified. Scientists had to manipulate the genome of the rice plant to make it produce beta-carotene in its grains. (You can earn more about genetically modified organisms and my thoughts on them in my earlier post.) It is the genetic modification of golden rice that led a group of protesters to destroy a test plot of the rice in the Philippines earlier this month.

Though I disagree with the protester’s actions and reasoning, the event did have one positive outcome. It got people thinking and talking about golden rice in all its controversy. And people like Michael Pollan had a lot to say. Most of the scientific community strongly support golden rice. On the other hand, environmental groups like Greenpeace fight violently against the development of golden rice largely because of their dogmatic opposition to all GMOs. That said, I think they do bring up some good points that should be addressed.

First of all, is this solution effective and efficient? It’s true that golden rice doesn’t address the root problem that contributes to malnutrition in developing countries: poverty. But poverty is a complicated problem rooted in deep-seated political and societal factors. Long-term solutions to poverty are therefore complicated and require huge gradual changes. In the meanwhile though, I think that golden rice provides effective short-term aid, especially compared with other potential solutions.

Currently, some programs give vitamin A supplements (called mega doses) to children in developing countries twice yearly. Though this only costs $1 per child per year, there are several millions of children who need this help and it is a recurring cost. As economist/scientist Alexander Stein points out, many logistical problems arise when we consider the “lack of qualified medical personnel” in these countries and that “children in remote rural areas or in urban slums may not be reached and older children and adults are not covered at all.”

Golden rice on the other hand would be given to farmers for free. After that single first handout, the crop would likely spread naturally as the farmer replants the seeds the next season and distributes the rice and seeds to others. The technology gets to many people with little recurrent costs.

Some may make the argument that golden rice is just a marketing tool, something to help the PR of big businesses like Syngenta (the company that initially contributed intellectual property to the development of golden rice royalty free). It looks good to consumers that these companies seem to be working on such a admirable humanitarian cause. I agree that these companies may play the “we’re helping all the poor kids” card too often. However, the humanitarian intentions and origins of the golden rice project are undeniable. Golden rice was developed by two professors, the Swiss Ingo Potrykus and German Peter Beyer, not by any agribusiness giant with a stake in the American seed industry. The original idea for the plant came from a discussion in 1984 at the International Rice Research Institute (or IRRI), the NGO that is currently testing plots of golden rice.

The project has been in the works for 20 years or so. As Greenpeace estimates, tens of millions of dollars have been spent on golden rice, much of which game from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Many people and organizations like Greenpeace often doubt golden rice because of how long it has taken to develop. However, the project might be coming along faster if it weren’t from the harmful opposition of groups like Greenpeace itself.

Also, it is easy to understand why the process would take this much time and money. A lot needs to happen between the moment the idea is introduced and the moment people can start growing and eating the crop. It took about 10 years to find the right gene to trigger beta-carotene production in rice and to figure out how to implant this gene into the rice genome. In 2005, Syngenta introduced golden rice 2, with a higher amount of beta-carotene than the first prototype. After this, studies and tests must be done to see if the genetic engineering caused other changes in the plant’s nutrition, growth, or disease-susceptibility among other things. Lastly the palatability and effectiveness of golden rice as a vitamin A supplement must be tested. And it has been tested, with positive results.

One 2012 study on 68 children showed that “β-carotene in [golden rice] is as effective as pure β-carotene in oil and better than that in spinach at providing vitamin A to children” (Tang et al.). The children’s blood was tested to deduce the level of vitamin A  present after eating spinach, golden rice, or pure beta-carotene in oil. There are debates about the validity of this study because the children tested weren’t vitamin A deficient as the target population is. That said, I still find this early study promising as it provides evidence that humans can metabolize the beta-carotene in golden rice.

From my view, the time that it is taking to fully test the crop counters some of Greenpeace’s arguments about the unintended consequences of genetic modification on the genome of the rice plant, the environment, and the health of the people eating the food. In a 2012 Greenpeace report, Though some of these are valid scientific concerns, I have faith that the people at IRRI are doing all they can to ensure the safety of the crop before distributing it (which will likely happen in the next two years).

One of Greenpeace’s concerns is that golden rice seed and pollen could contaminate the stock of traditional rice varieties in nearby fields. Rice is wind-pollinated so cross-pollination is common and as the Greenpeace report points out, there are already records of rice contamination (from non-GMO varieties). This contamination is a real possibility. For me though, the potential for good (relieving vitamin A deficiency across developing countries) outweighs the potential for bad (the possible contamination of the seed of traditional rice varieties).

Overall, despite some downsides of the crop, I support the continuing study and development of golden rice alongside author Michael Pollan, scientist/economist Alexander Stein, and environmental activist Mark Lynas.

If you agree with me about the potential of golden rice, I would urge you to sign this petition to show your support of the crop. Whichever side you’re on, make sure to check out my sources at the bottom for more information. 

I find golden rice fascinating because it represents for me the positive potential of GMOs when they are developed in the right hands for the right reasons. I maintain my position against other GMOs because the majority of these crops are completely different than golden rice in every way: they were created with different intentions by companies with notoriously bad business practices. The place these GM crops hold in America’s pesticide-ridden large-scale agriculture and the industry that backs it is virtually the opposite of the place that golden rice could hold for citizens and societies of developing countries. Instead of paying the greedy, monopolistic seed companies (who are often the same as the pesticide companies) year after year as some American farmers do, farmers in developing countries could save their golden rice seed for free and they wouldn’t be under the control of any corporation.

In fact, my main opposition to GMOs comes from how they are used currently, not the process of genetic modification itself. And I believe that golden rice is being used in a truly beneficial way. It’s not perfect nor is it going to solve the root problems that cause vitamin A deficiency, but I think it’s a great crop, a great idea, and a great start.

I know I bashed the big seed companies pretty hard earlier so once again I would encourage you to check out my earlier posts on GMOs as well as other sources of information and different perspectives before forming your own opinion on GMOs. The issue is so complex and it is always best to hear from both sides.


The Alexander Stein writing I mentioned:

The Greenpeace writing I mentioned:

Other favorite articles:


All my other sources:

The Process Food Takes to Get to Us

Over the last five weeks, I have been teaching at Peninsula Bridge, a fun academic summer program for under-privileged kids. I taught a “Food, Gardening, Cooking” elective at Bridge in which my students and I attempted to get closer to our food by making and growing it ourselves.

In the first class, I handed every kid a chocolate chip cookie but instructed them not to eat it until later. First, we worked together to brainstorm the different ingredients that made up the cookies in front of us: flour, eggs, sugar, salt, baking soda, chocolate, vanilla, coconut, and milk (in the chocolate chips). These store-bought cookies had palm oil in them as well though you might not add that to your home-baked ones.

Next, I sketched up a map of the world on the chalkboard and we went through every ingredient, brainstorming to identify its source. Each time we figured out where something was grown or raised, we plotted it on the map and drew a line from the source to the Bay Area. (Though really they all stopped by L.A. first since Trader Joe’s distributes its food from Monrovia, CA according to the label on the package.)

As the group worked and I contributed a little bit of earlier research, we began to put everything together. Flour comes from wheat probably grown in the midwest, eggs from chickens most likely also raised in the midwest, sugar from sugar cane in Brazil. Salt is harvested from the ocean (I chose the Atlantic off the east coast of the US, based on that tiny bit of research). The chocolate in the chocolate chips came from the beans of the cocoa tree which are often imported from Northwest Africa and the milk in the chips came from California cows (most likely). The Vanilla extract came from pods of the Vanilla orchid possibly from Madagascar among other countries. The palm oil was extracted from oil palm plantations in Indonesia or Malaysia. The coconuts were probably grown from Indonesia or another Southeast Asian country as well. And after all this collective thought, I told everyone that they could now enjoy their chocolate chip cookie as long as they ate slowly and savored it, appreciating all that went into producing it.

Tracing these ingredients back to their beginning was pretty eye-opening for everyone. The map ended up looking pretty crazy, but even beyond the sheer number of miles travelled, we thought about all the energy, resources, plants, animals, and people that went into that little cookie. I explained that this exercise wasn’t meant to shock or discourage them. From my point of view, feeding seven billion people is necessarily going to take a lot of energy and resources. But we can still take the process into our own hands to get to know it a little better. And that is what we set out to do.

Each kid planted vegetable seeds in recycled egg cartons and had a chance to watch them grow. Together, we learned the art of making bread from a friend of mine who is an expert in the subject. We made pesto pizza from scratch (except we bought the cheese). We learned about keeping chickens and the difference between home-grown and store-bought eggs. The former have stronger shells, brighter, firmer, more nutritious and flavorful yolks all because the chickens have a more diverse diet.  We cooked up our own eggs (courtesy of my five chickens). I even brought in my chicken Misty so everyone could see where their eggs were coming from.

I wanted the class to be fun and I saw quickly that anything remotely lecture-based would not hold their attention or gain their enthusiasm. So, I tried to make everything as hands-on as possible. We made and grew whatever the kids wanted to. And through all this, I tried to always remind the kids of the process going on in front of our eyes that we had helped facilitate. Sometimes we took flour, water, yeast, and other ingredients to make bread or added sunlight, water, and soil to grow plants. When we were baking, I would say that “only a few minutes ago this bread dough was just raw ingredients. Now they’ve combined to make this amazing and delicious thing.” I would tell them all to look at the tiny lettuce seed in my hand. And I would ask, “Can you believe that with a little time and some energy from the sun, this will give us tons of awesome veggies?” It’s so fascinating to think of the humble beginnings at which everything starts and to watch the process unfold in a series of little transitions until we have our finished product, delicious and fresh.

Sometimes the process is simple: I can walk down to the creek near my house and pick blackberries to eat right then or juice the the apples from the tree in my backyard and drink the juice that day. In both cases, the plant grows and I pick it: no cooking or processing (except for juicing) or shipping. Sometimes the process is more complex: feeding grass and grain to a cow as it grows, slaughtering and butchering the cow, processing and shipping its meat, and eventually cooking it.

If the process is shorter and simpler, it may often be more energy efficient and lest wasteful. It also may be easier to take into your own hands. It is more straightforward to grow your own tomatoes than to raise your own cow. And for the people who have the time and motivation to do it, this process can be really rewarding and enlightening. On an individual level, it can even have less impact on the environment. In eating my own chickens’ eggs, I am avoiding any factory farmed eggs (as I pointed out in my last post).

However, it is in my opinion a mistake to think that taking a simple process into our own hands is going to solve everything that is wrong with our food system. Many people out there rely on the long complex systems like those involved in producing meat, cheese, or highly processed foods. It is true that we can through different changes in policy bring more whole foods to those who wouldn’t ordinarily eat them. But still I think that realistically there will always be a demand and necessity for those foods which come from the long and complex processes that no citizen can realistically take into their own hands. After all, those are often some of the most calorie and nutrient-dense foods because we can combine many ingredients (and their flavors) into a single yummy product.  I think that the true answer to many problems with our food system lies in changing these processes to make them more efficient and sustainable. And that is the hard part, the really hard part. But it all starts with just knowing and appreciating all that went into that chocolate chip cookie.

On another note, this is the 50th blog post! The blog has been around for about two years now. I’m excited to keep it going for a long time.


Why I Eat Eggs from My Own Chickens and Not from a Factory Farm

As I started this blog and was just beginning to think about how my diet affects the environment, I focused mainly on the idea of vegetarianism. All of my first posts on this blog centered around this idea of avoiding the products of animal agriculture. Though I have learned more and my perspective on the issue has evolved, I still think that this is one of the most important dietary choices we can make to help out the environment. Since I haven’t talked about this issue for a while, I want to come back to it and add everything that I have learned, every reason that my diet has changed to become what it is now. Just as a warning, this post got pretty long. But that’s just because there is so much to say! Please don’t be discouraged and maybe read it in chunks if necessary because I think this is really important stuff.

I choose to avoid factory farmed animal products (meat, eggs, milk, gelatin, honey, leather, etc.) because I believe that factory farming is our single biggest impact on the environment. Let’s consider the issue of climate change, for example. According to a 2010 study by the FAO (Federal Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), livestock alone are responsible for 18% of human-caused CO2, more than that of transportation. In other words, the cows in the world contribute more to global warming than the cars in the world.

Water conservation and usage is another important factor in the future of our environment. According to author Dr. Richard Oppenlander, animal agriculture accounts for 50% of global freshwater usage. Looking closer, the amount of water used to produce one pound of beef is roughly equivalent to the amount of water a person uses in showering over the course of an entire year. As I like to put it, if you want to lower your water usage by about 5,000 gallons, you can stop showering for a year or not eat a few hamburgers. It might seem shocking that animal agriculture uses so much water and contributes so much to climate change, but a lot if it has to do with ecology and biology.

In eating meat, we are eating from higher up on the food chain. Instead of eating grain, we are eating an animal that ate grain. Since the food calories take a more circuitous route to our mouths, many are lost along the way: the cow uses much of the energy from its feed to function, to grow or metabolize nutrients for example. Quantitatively, the cow gains only a single pound for every 8 pounds of food it eats. (Chicken on the other hand, need just two pounds of feed to gain one pound.) We can look at this food chain in terms of water usage. In raising a cow (or chicken), we need the water to grow the grass/grain it eats, the water for it to drink, and the water to clean and process the animal, among other things.

We can also look at a cow’s life as an energy transfer in terms of calories. According to author James McWilliams, for every calorie of energy we put into growing grain, we get 1.5-2.5 food calories out. But the figure is shockingly inefficient when we look at livestock. For every 33 calories of energy we put into raising cattle on a feedlot, we get only 1 food calorie out. This energy comes mostly from fossil fuels and a little bit from the sun.

The environmental harm of industrial cattle farming also comes simply from the biology of the cow. Cows are ruminants which means they digest their food by fermentation, regurgitation, and chewing cud. This fermentation produces methane as a byproduct. Our cows are responsible for 37% of the methane we put into the air. Methane has a greenhouse gas potential 25 times that of carbon dioxide, meaning that one molecule of methane traps 25 times the amount of heat than one molecule of carbon dioxide does. Hopefully it’s now easy to see how animal agriculture can play such a big part in larger environmental issues such as water conservation, energy usage, and global warming.

I am vegan also because of the cruel treatment of animals that takes place on a concentrated animal feeding operation or CAFO. On a CAFO, farmers treat animals like production machines to get the most meat or eggs or milk with the least time and money. A layer (a hen raised for eggs) has on average 67 square inches to move around in, less than the area of an 8 1/2 x 11 piece of paper. The layers only produce eggs when it is light out and they are awake, so the lights in a CAFO are often kept on for 18 hours a day to maximize egg production. Needless to say, this is tiring and unhealthy for the chickens. Because animals are kept in such close confinement and such stressful conditions, they can get violent. To avoid the animals harming each other out of stress, chickens are often debeaked and pigs have their ears and tails clipped without anesthetics. And since animals are disease-prone when so tightly concentrated, they must be fed antibiotics. As we can see, lots of moral problems arise with raising animals in such concentration along with the earlier mentioned environmental problems.

It’s all these factors that lead writer Jonathan Safran Foer to assert that “someone who regularly eats factory-farmed animal products cannot call himself an environmentalist without divorcing that word from its meaning.” And It’s important to realize that these are inherent biological traits of cows, no matter how you raise and kill them. Even if they are the happiest, healthiest, most-humanely treated cows on the earth, they need to eat grain or grass and give off methane (though chickens don’t need to eat as much and don’t give off methane).

The unchangeable biological traits of farm animals accounted for, there are still many cattle farms which have a lower impact on the environment than the typical CAFO: they use less water, produce less carbon dioxide, and pollute less. In some ways these farms actually take advantage of a chicken’s or cow’s inherent biological traits to form an intricate web that imitates nature itself.

At Polyface Farms, farmer Joel Salatin keeps chickens, rabbits, turkeys and cows in this kind of interconnected system. Instead of bringing in water from the outside like a conventional farm, Salatin uses water from surrounding ponds in a gravity-fed system, practically eliminating water usage by taking advantage of that which naturally collects from rain or runoff.

At Polyface, with a method called management intensive grazing, cows are moved between paddocks of fresh grass every few days. The cows leave cowpies (as would happen on an industrial farm). But on an industrial farm, this waste would go into a huge waste lagoon which is even more disgusting and pollutive than it sounds. The lagoon emits greenhouse gases and sometimes leaches into groundwater or surrounding bodies of water. But at Polyface, Salatin cycles the cows’ waste back into his interconnected system rather than leaving it to pollute. A few days after the cows leave, Salatin brings chickens onto the paddock where they eat grubs out of the fresh cowpies. Salatin also uses animal waste to create compost to grow the grass which in turn feeds the animals that produce the waste.

Unlike a conventional system which has many outside inputs and negative byproducts, this cycle minimizes waste and pollution by keeping everything in one self-enforcing loop. Instead of farming the same species in high concentration, Salatin farms many different species who work together and have a lot of room. Chickens get to run around and be chickens, eating an omnivorous diet as is healthiest for them. Joel Salatin likes to say that he lets the animals do the work. They go about their day, eating what is best for them and acting as they like. Lo and behold this lifestyle isn’t just healthier for the animal, it’s healthier for humans and the environment too.

And it’s these types of farms that lead me to believe not all animal agriculture is bad for the animals and the environment. It’s these exceptional methods of farming that stop me from being completely vegan. Why make an exception to my veganism? I believe that it is important not only to avoid the bad farms but to support the good farms. Factory farms like the ones I described above produce about 99.9% of the animal products in America. But there is still that .1%. There are those special farms out there like Salatin’s which care for their animals and the environment. As author Michael Pollan says, “It’s the practice, not the principle.” I don’t think farming animals is inherently cruel in principle. It’s just the way that farming is commonly practiced. e.g. on a CAFO. Cows on a farm like Polyface can be perfectly happy and healthy.

I want to bring about change by supporting those .1% of farms until they take over the other 99.9%. We can’t accomplish this just by avoiding all animal products. I really believe that we have to seek out and support those farms which are doing it right. Maybe that means buying milk from a farm like Claravale Dairy in Panoche, CA. At Claravale, a small  herd of 60 cows has room to roam around. Claravale has a closed herd which means all their cows are born there and never bought from anywhere else. Unlike factory-farmed cows, which is stuffed with corn and other grains to fatten them up, Claravale cows are fed on pasture for most of the year and on organic hay and grain when pasture isn’t available. The farm never uses pesticides or chemical fertilizers. Antibiotics are used only when a cow gets sick and it is completely necessary for the cow’s health to medicate him or her.

So I drink raw milk from Claravale Farm and I raise my own chickens for eggs. I raise my chickens in the way that is healthiest and happiest for them. They get to run around my backyard and eat grass, worms, fruit and veggies, along with the traditional grain. In taking advantage of the wastes of my kitchen (food scraps) and the natural diet of the chicken (grass and bugs), I am buying less grain from an outside source. I am decreasing the energy and water input to raise these hens. If I were completely vegan, I would be denying that it is possible to raise animals in this humane and sustainable way.  Claravale and Polyface farms are examples of this possibility.  Still though, I don’t drink milk or eggs from any other farms.

I think it’s important to realize that eating factory-farmed milk or eggs is in many ways the same thing as eating factory-farmed beef or chicken. Dairy cows and beef cows are kept in pretty much the same conditions. Though we might defend the industry saying that cows like to be milked and milking feels good to them, it’s not that simple. In order to keep a cow producing milk, the cow must be continually impregnated. So where do the offspring go in this process? Depending on the gender, the calf either becomes a dairy cow like its mother, or is sold to become a veal calf. So in drinking milk, we are indirectly supporting the veal industry. I think the treatment of veal calves typifies the cruelty of CAFOs. Veal calves are kept in crates so small they can’t stand up. (Their practically unused muscles lead to more tender meat.) Veal calves often never see the light of day until they are brought to slaughter after 20 or so weeks. On factory farms, cows aren’t milked by humans but by machines. And though you don’t have to kill a cow to get her milk, dairy cows aren’t saved from a painful slaughter. Once a cow has passed her prime milk production, she is sent off to the slaughterhouse to become meat just like all the other cows. For these reasons, vegetarianism is no longer enough as I aim to avoid all the cruelty and environmental harm of factory farming.

Even though this post is getting very long, I would like to cover one last topic: the healthfulness of a diet low in animal products. It’s easy to think that a meatless diet is unhealthy because it lacks the protein, iron, or other nutrients found in meat. However, there are many other foods that are rich in these nutrients. Nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, and tofu are all high in protein. Spinach actually has more iron than beef. A lot of products like soy milk or rice milk are fortified with vitamins that would be found in milk or other animal products. These fortified products are really the best vegan source of B12, an important vitamin found most commonly in animal products. Personally, I would be vegan even if I thought it wouldn’t be the healthiest option for me. I want to put the health of the environment and animals above my individual health.

In all actuality though, there are many real health benefits to a diet lower in animal products. According to a report by the American Dietetic Association, “vegetarian diets tend to be lower in saturated fat and cholesterol, have higher levels of dietary fiber, magnesium and potassium, vitamins C and E, [and other nutrients such as] folate, carotenoids, flavonoids, and other phytochemicals.”

The report also states that “vegetarian diets are often associated with a number of health advantages, including lower blood cholesterol levels, lower risk of heart disease, lower blood pressure levels, and lower risk of hypertension and type 2 diabetes. Vegetarians tend to have a lower body mass index (BMI) [that is, thy are not as fat] and lower overall cancer rates.” Because of these health benefits I believe that a diet free of factory-farmed animal products is not only better for the environment, but also our own health.

Even though I believe very strongly in avoiding factory-farmed animal products, I realize that it is hard to completely and suddenly change your dietary habits. And I realize that we all have tons of stuff to do and can’t always prioritize based on the health of the hens or the environment. Still though, any change is helpful and meaningful if it is based on something you believe in. Even if it is just starting with meatless Mondays or trying to cook more veggie burgers than hamburgers at home, it’s important to act on this belief. And as someone who truly loves the taste of meat and cheese, it isn’t as hard as you might think to give these up, especially if you do it gradually.

As I have learned more about animal agriculture, my diet has evolved. I started by taking red meat out of my diet, then I decided to take out all meat, and eventually I became vegan. Then I added my own chickens’ eggs back in and the occasional glass of Claravale raw milk so that my family would be buying less products from factory farms.

I think one of the strongest testaments to the plausibility and logic of a diet low in animal products is that several of my friends at school have decided to take on this diet. I do not actively try to convert anyone or rant about my dietary choices. In fact, I am usually pretty shy about my diet and rarely mention it. Nearly all of my friends are vegetarian or vegan, just because it just makes sense in so many ways. It speaks to the environmentalist or animal activist in all of us. Some of my friends have environmental reasons, others take a more moral perspective. Either way, there are several reasons (like the ones I mentioned above) that my friends and I try to avoid factory-farmed animal products.


Summer Projects and Random Stuff

Since the last few posts have been pretty long and informational, I wanted to write a lighter post that possibly has more to do with our daily lives. I’m excited because it’s summer and it’s nice out. Hopefully, we all have a little more time off, some free time and family time. So here are my ideas for a few summer projects.

1. Grow your own mushrooms. I’ve never done this before but I’m looking forward to trying it soon and I don’t think it will require much work. To start, you can either buy spawn from a place like this or you can do it the cheaper and more DIY way and start from mushrooms you buy at the super market. For the DIY way, go to a farmers market or any store has mushrooms in a connected clump so that they are all attached to each other like this or this. Then eat your all your delicious mushrooms except save the bottom ends where they all attach. You might have to cut apart the base a little so that you have several little mushroom ends.

Get a plastic bag (the bags bread comes in or any long thin ones work especially well). Fill the bag with any or all of a variety of materials (shredded newspaper, coffee grounds, cut up yard waste, straw, sawdust, etc.) to form the substrate on which your mushrooms will grow. As you are filling up the bag, mix in your mushroom ends or the spawn you bought and make sure everything is evenly distributed. You may need to add some water to make sure everything is moist but not too wet. Tie the bag closed so it’s nice and airtight.

Put the bag in a dark place and wait for the fungus to colonize and grow lots of hyphae (root like structures) which together make up a web of mycelium. This will probably take several days. When the bag is visibly covered in the white mycelium, take it out of the dark, cut a few holes in the sides of the bag and place it in indirect light. Mist the holes every day to make sure it stays moist. Now just wait for your mushrooms to grow out of the holes until they look something like this. (It’s amazing how everything comes together, right?) Wait until they get nice and big then pick a few at a time and the bag should keep producing mushrooms for a while.

2. Find some edible wild plants in your area. This isn’t really a project but  it’s still an interesting new connection to have with your food. As you eat your wild food, you can think about how it came from nature and didn’t require any inputs like it would if grown on a farm. It was growing in the woods only minutes ago. Just as Native Americans have been doing for thousands of years, you can use local knowledge to eat from the land with a small footprint.

If you live in the bay area, some edible plants that grow in the summer include blackberries, fennel, and herbs like bay leaves and sagebrush. Blackberry is a thorny vine that you can likely find growing at a local park or hiking trail. The plant likes moist and shady places and is commonly found closed to creeks. Right now most plants just have flowers or immature fruit, but later in the summer they will be covered in ripe berries.

Fennel is an invasive plant from the mediterranean that likes dryer areas and can often be seen on the hillsides along highway 280. The plant is in the same family as dill, carrots, and parsley and produces tons of little yellow flowers like this. The plant tastes like black licorice or anise and the bottoms of the stems are really good in salads. I love their crisp and crunchy texture, almost like the texture of a fresh apple. This is the only plant on the list that you will have to actually uproot and kill to harvest it. (Don’t worry though because it’s invasive).

The native California Bay Laurel produces leaves that have the same strong flavor as the bay leaves used  in Italian and Indian cooking. These trees are common in forests and woodlands and can be found at most hiking trails around the bay area. The leaves are long and narrow, smooth, and medium to dark green. You will know you have found a bay laurel if you crumple up the leaves and smell a pungent scent like that of the traditional bay leaf. You can use the leaves fresh or dry as a seasoning.

Another herb that grows wild around here is California Sagebrush. It has a sage-like odor and can be found on dry hills like those by 280, similar to the place you’ll find fennel. The fuzzy, light gray-green leaves are thin, needle like and give off a strong but nice smell. As with the bay laurel leaves, you can use it to flavor dishes or in a tea. Both plants have been used by Native Americans for their medicinal properties.

Two edible plants that grow earlier in the year around spring time are yellow woodsorrel (or sour grass) and miner’s lettuce. The leaves, stems, and flowers of woodsorrel are edible and have a sour flavor. Woodsorrel pops up pretty much everywhere as it starts to rain and you can probably find it in your backyard or along sidewalks around March. The plant’s leaves look like clover and it has yellow flowers. Miner’s lettuce is a healthy green that is high in vitamin C  and got it’s name when gold miners ate it to prevent scurvy. Both types of leaves, the spade-shaped ones and the round ones below the flowers, are edible and great in salads. They taste just like spinach to me.

Sorry if you don’t live around here and I just rambled on about plants that aren’t relevant to you, but to me a lot of the fun is doing the research yourself and figuring out what plants around you are edible and delicious. If you do live in the bay area, you can check out the book, The Flavors of Home or take a “Wild Food Walk.” There are tons of edible plants that I haven’t mentioned here that are just waiting for your discovery.

If you do go out and pick from local plants, make sure you don’t take too much to ensure the plant survives. Often times, like with a huge bay laurel tree or blackberry vine, it seems that there are far too many of the leaves or berries for you to even make a dent in the number. This is probably true a lot of the time. And with an invasive plant like fennel, taking everything will only help our native plants. Still though, be conscious of what you are taking from nature and try to spread out your harvest, taking a little from every plant or area rather than decimating one spot.

3. Plant some veggies. Though it’s not optimal planting time right now, we are lucky to be in a place like California with such a long growing season that gardens can thrive right into the fall. You can definitely still start a lot of different veggies, especially quick-to-mature ones like lettuce or green beans. Lots of different types of vegetables are super easy to care for. Obviously, if you get more into gardening you’ll find that different veggies like slightly different amounts of sunlight and water; different planting times, spacing, and depth; different soil types/nutrients; pest control and maybe some pruning. But honestly, you can get a perfectly great crop with just a pre-started plant from the nursery, maybe some potting soil, a sunny spot, and daily watering. You can use a container or just plant right in the ground.

Popular and easy warm-season crops include nightshades (tomatoes, peppers, eggplants), different squashes and melons,  lettuces, and green beans. Lettuces are nice because you can harvest as soon as they are producing big enough leaves and keep coming back as the plant continues to produce for a while. Pick the biggest leaves at the bottom and harvest in the morning for the crispest, sweetest lettuce. You don’t need any kind of cages, stakes, or anything like that. Just plant, water, and watch it grow. It’s such a rewarding process to help create food and grow it right from the land. It always amazes me that a few resources and energy from the sun can grow into such a beautiful edible product.

I realize I haven’t given many specific gardening tips, but check out a couple gardening sites on the SITES page, do your own research, or ask the people at your local nursery. It’s not much work and it’s so worth it.

4. Start a compost pile. This goes along with growing a garden and it’s a gratifying way to cycle your food waste back into producing more food rather than just throwing it away. With compost, the leftovers from your food decompose into a nutrient-rich soil amendment that will help grow your garden and produce your food in the future. The cycle is so simple yet so beautiful.

Most food waste can be composted (other than dairy or meat which attract pests). There are tons of different ways to compost, but the key principals are the same across the board. The main idea is to maintain the proper ratio of carbon and nitrogen in the pile. To do so, a balance must be achieved between carbon-rich and nitrogen-rich materials. Carbon-rich materials are usually dry and brown: dried leaves, wood chips, sawdust, shredded brown paper. Nitrogen-rich materials are green or fresher things like food scraps, grass clippings, coffee grounds, or manure. By maintaining a roughly equal ratio of “browns” and “greens” you can achieve an environment which fosters the growth of insects, fungi, and bacteria to break down your waste. Layering the browns and greens in 3-4 inch layers is a good way to get a good mix of each.

You can use a bin if you like or just pile everything up. You will want to water your pile a bit when you add stuff to it or when it looks dry in order to maintain moisture and encourage decomposition. You will know your pile is too wet and has too much nitrogen if it stinks a lot. If your pile is too dry and has too much carbon, it will break down very slowly.

Temperature is another important part of composting, but not something you have to worry about too much. The temperature will kind of take care of itself if you do other stuff right. As your pile gets bigger and decomposition gets going, it will be able to sustain a higher temperature since much of the pile will be unexposed to outside air. At the same time, some fresh air is good because we want to attract aerobic bacteria (ones that need oxygen). The unpleasant smell of a wet and overly nitrogenous pile comes from too much anaerobic bacteria, which thrive in an environment free of oxygen. To introduce some air into the pile, you can turn it with a pitchfork every week or so. As you can see, the process is pretty straightforward and it will yield some amazing stuff to add to your garden.

I realize this post got very long which is what I was trying to avoid, but hopefully it wasn’t too dense or boring. I think these projects are a great way to find a new connection to your food. I think the long-term gains of the projects will help benefit the health of our bodies, minds, and environment.

On another note, today marks the beginning of National Pollinator Week. As you can see in my earlier post about Honey, bees (and other pollinators) are amazing creatures that are completely vital to our food supply and environment. Two articles I just read stated that bees pollinate 80% of the plants around along with 40% of the crops we need to eat. Go bees! To help keep the population of different pollinators healthy, you can plant flowers that attract different insects.

According to an article in the SF Chronicle, hummingbirds like lilacs, fuschias, and snapdragons. Butterflies like goldenrod, asters, and nasturtium. They both favor red flowers. Milkweed attracts monarch butterflies specifically. Bees will like a variety of purple, yellow, and white flowers planted together. Some of their favorites include asters, lavender, sages, and borage. A lot of the veggies we plant in our gardens are ones that bees will like too. Even if you aren’t going to plant anything in your backyard any time soon, I feel it’s important to think and learn about pollinators. Check out the events happening this week in the bay area to learn more about our fascinating and essential pollinators. Thanks for reading another long post!


Education: The Edible Schoolyard Project and The Green Bronx Machine

I think that educating our youth about food–nutrition, gardening, farming–is an important step for the future of our food system. From a young age, kids can develop a close relationship with their food and learn about what goes into making it- the planting, growing, harvesting, cooking, etc. Kids who learn about this stuff at school are more likely to make healthy choices in the rest of their life and stay involved with their food. And though consumer choices can only go so far, I think that just knowing and connecting with your food is powerful. The more people who get to know their food, especially those excited about it from a young age, the more who are likely to go and make larger, important changes in the food system.

One really cool program that brings gardening, cooking, and healthy food to the public school system is the Edible Schoolyard Project. Their website can be found here. The organization was started by Alice Waters, owner of the famous Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse and an early leader in the organic food movement. The project began with the implementation of a school garden at Martin Luther King Junior middle school in Berkeley. Slowly, the garden grew to include 100 varieties of fruits, vegetables, and herbs along with a flock of chickens and ducks and a kitchen/classroom. The garden began reaching out to the community:  creating a summer program for students, hosting events, and offering tours to the public.

As is demonstrated by the Edible Schoolyard, gardening and cooking can become and intersection of many class room subjects. The students learn the math of multiplying recipes or the science of the water cycle taking place in the garden beds. The program shows the power of experiential, hands-on learning. As you can tell in this video, kids get really excited about what they’re learning and take away from the program skills in cooking, gardening and healthy eating.

But the program at this Berkeley middle school was only the first of many school gardens and kitchens to come. Now, the organization includes a network of over 2,000 school gardens as well as a few hundred kitchen classrooms. The project connects these schools with each other and offers resources, lesson plans, and training for teachers. The growth of the project and network from such a small beginning is really inspirational to me.

Across the country in New York, another inspiring program is taking place. At a high school in the Bronx, teacher Stephen Ritz started to use vertical farming (like this) in his science curriculum and got students involved in the garden. The project eventually involved into the Green Bronx Machine, a program which includes a student-run farmers’ market and a student work force which has built vertical gardens for a huge range of companies and houses. The project has achieved an impressive list of national and international awards and recognition. A very enthusiastic and energetic teacher, Ritz emphasizes “the potential to bridge gaps in culture, race, and ethnicity  rooted in the universal common denominator of food.” In his TED talk, Ritz explains how the program has started his students on a path toward success, supplying them with jobs, healthy food, and a creative outlet. The school is fittingly a member of the Edible Schoolyard network.

I think it is easy to see the scope and power of these programs: they offer students a strong start of health, knowledge, and hands-on experience. They bring joy and sustenance to communities across the country. Go education! And be sure to check out the SITES page for some awesome websites I’ve recently found.


New Page: Movies and Books

I spent a while creating a new page about the movies I’ve seen and books I’ve read about food and farming. Check them out in the MOVIES & BOOKS tab above. If you scroll down for a while, you’ll get to Just Food by James E. McWilliams which I mentioned in my earlier post on GMOs. I just finished this book today and I really recommend it. Even if I don’t agree with his conclusion on GMOs, McWilliams has done his research and has a lot of great information and ideas about the big controversies in farming.

And because you can never have enough pictures of chickens and garden veggies, I’ll include some photos of my garden right now as it’s starting to get going and my five beautiful chickens. (They’re even bigger than they were in the last pictures.)


Here's some rainbow chard to sautee tonight. Yummm

Here’s some rainbow chard I picked to sautee tonight. Yummm

Misty is enjoying some yummy grass. She lays little cream-colored eggs.

Misty is enjoying some yummy grass. She lays little cream-colored eggs.

The hens forage through the grass.

The hens forage through the grass.

Mandy likes perching on the bench.

Mandy likes perching on the bench.

The hens are eating their grain.

The hens are eating their grain.

Bubbles lays the dark chocolate brown eggs.

Bubbles lays the dark chocolate brown eggs.

Peach is drinking from the fountain. She lays the light green eggs.

Peach is drinking from the fountain. She lays the light green eggs.

The hens are digging around for bugs.

The hens are digging around for bugs.

These are a few of our raised beds.

These are a few of our raised beds.

The artichokes have gotten quite huge.

The artichokes have gotten huge.

Here's another lettuce variety.

Here’s another lettuce variety.

Here's one of the lettuce varieties.

Here’s one of the lettuce varieties.

This is a baby peanut plant that my biology teacher started from farmers market peanuts. I've never grown peanuts at all so I'm trying it out. I can't wait to see how it goes.

This is a baby peanut plant that my biology teacher started from farmers market peanuts. I’ve never grown peanuts at all so I’m trying it out. I can’t wait to see how it goes.

This is rainbow chard left over from the spring garden. Since it never really got that cold we have a ton of plants leftover from spring- kale, spinach, and onions among other stuff.

This is rainbow chard left over from the spring garden. Since it never really got that cold we have a ton of plants leftover from spring: kale, spinach, and onions among other stuff.

The babiest of baby apples are starting to appear.

The babiest of baby apples are starting to appear.

Beans are starting to grab onto the post and climb up. Baby pepper plants are there in the background.

Beans are starting to grab onto the post and climb up. Baby pepper plants are there in the background.

Strawberries are for me a summer classic.

Strawberries are for me quite the summer classic.

This is some Bloomsdale spinach left over from the spring garden.

This is some Bloomsdale spinach left over from the spring garden.

In one bed we have a mix of lettuces and some random kale and cabbage left over from the spring garden.

In one bed we have a mix of lettuces and some random kale and cabbage left over from the spring garden.

Here's a nearly ripe artichoke in the garden. This plant is young and just maturing so this is it's first flower. I'm excited to pick it, cook it up, and eat it.

Here’s a nearly ripe artichoke in the garden. This plant is young and just maturing so this is its first flower. I’m excited to pick it and cook it up.

This is one of Misty's eggs. Check out how orange that yoke is! Feeding her veggies gives the egg beta-carotene (which is responsible for the deep orange color and makes the eggs healthier than store-bought ones).

This is one of Misty’s eggs. Check out how orange that yoke is! Feeding her veggies gives the egg beta-carotene (which is responsible for the deep orange color and makes the eggs healthier than store-bought ones).


I’m vegan, but I will make exceptions to my veganism if I know that a certain product was raised in an ethically and environmentally responsible way, if I know everything about how it was grown. So by default, I’ve never eaten honey because it is an animal product. I’ve always wanted to know more about how honey is produced on an industrial scale and on a smaller scale. So I wanted to do some research about beekeeping (also known as apiculture) and I’ve tried to summarize what I learned in the following post.

To start off with, about 3/4 of the honey you buy in stores is not certifiably honey. This honey is ultra-filtered to remove all pollen, which is the only way to identify the honey’s source or be sure that it even is honey. Ultra-filtering honey may also take away some of honey’s health benefits. According to the FDA, if the product doesn’t contain pollen, it isn’t honey. A recent study shows that your chances of finding honey with pollen in it are much better if you buy it from a place like Trader Joe’s or if the honey is labelled organic. The interesting thing about an organic label on honey is that bees will fly far from the hive to get nectar from flowers and it is impossible to be sure that there are no non-organic pesticides, fertilizers, etc. in that huge of a radius.  The study also shows that most of the “organic” honey comes from Brazil, where the organic standard may not be regulated or held up very well.

There is really only one reason that foreign producers of honey like China would ultra-filter their honey. Since removing the honey renders its geographical untraceable, China can try and sneak its honey into the US market. They’ll go through other countries and counterfeit documents to do so. Why would China need to sneak its honey into the US? We’ve tried to stop China from selling their honey here because its so cheap that it pushes US honey producers out of business. Not to mention China’s lack of environmental regulation means that their honey can often illegally contain antibiotics. The honey may be diluted with other sweeteners such as high fructose corn syrup, as well. Many doubt how well the FDA checks for all of these additives or for ultra-filtration. They claim to have never detected ultra-filtered honey but often fail to elaborate or release details about their detection process.

So after learning this, I wasn’t eager to eat any store-bought honey even though I didn’t really know the industry’s practices for beekeeping. I found more out later, with some research. As you might expect, a lot of the typical practices aren’t very good for the welfare of the bees’ themselves. It’s almost just like factory farming adapted to honeybees. Often, the industry tries to get the absolute most out of the bees and don’t care about their health, which means they have to provide inputs like pesticides to keep the bees alive.

The Langstroth hive, which is used by the majority of beekeepers, has easily removable frames on which honeys build their comb. This hive design encourages the farmer to check up on his bees fairly often by removing a few frames. The bees spend their time creating a complex atmosphere of the perfect scent and temperature to ward off pests and communicate with each other, but removing a frame completely destroys this carefully cultivated environment. Bees also obviously spend a lot of energy to produce honey, their food source. When a beekeeper takes all of the bees’ honey and leaves them with only sugar water to eat over the winter, the bees become less healthy and weak. Honey is nutritious and antibacterial. It is what the bees are used to eating. Sugar water is a simpler food that isn’t enough to keep the bees strong over winter.

These methods along with others common to the industry, tend to weaken the bees so that they require the use of pesticides and antibiotics as protection from microbes, pests, etc. If kept in  a way that was more respectful of their own processes, bees could fight these pests on their own. The pesticides or antibiotics used may also breed resistant pests and bacteria or end up in the honey itself. The pesticides can also destroy bees’ abilities to navigate and find their way home, which may lead to Colony Collapse Disorder or CCD. CCD is a huge problem for the bee population. CCD is the name given to an increasingly common phenomenon in which all the worker bees from a hive (the ones that get the pollen) suddenly disappear.

I think that beekeeping probably requires occasional intervention in the bees’ life cycle. We are indeed trying to take honey from these bees which necessarily involves some manipulation of their usual environment and life. I could even see how the occasional and responsible use of pesticide can be justified and not too harmful for the bees, the environment, or us. But many industrial practices like the ones outlined above are damaging and unhealthy for the bees. Beekeepers may try to justify their practices with increase yields and economic efficiency. It is true that we need more and more food to feed an ever-growing population. But think about how important bees are for every food we grow: they pollinate the flowers that give us fruit and that give us the seeds we need to continue farming the next year. If industrial beekeeping practices are indeed harming bees, contributing to CCD, and decreasing bee population than they can’t be justified.

Bees are really fascinating animals that employ lots of complicated methods for communicating, maintaining hive health, and producing honey. Any honey that I  buy must  respect and support their life cycle and processes.  There are lots of different hive designs and approaches to beekeeping that are better for bees than the traditional industrial methods. Beekeepers may take only the bees’ surplus honey, which allows the bees to live through the winter on their own honey and stay strong. Using a different type of hive such as a vertical top bar hive allows the bees to continue with their processes uninterrupted so they can stay warm and healthy, especially in the winter. In general,  intervening less and using less inputs (pesticides, sugar water, etc.) helps support the hive as it would function in nature- with other insects living alongside bees and maintaining a hardy and complex ecology.

So I think the next time I see a produce stand selling honey, I’ll be sure to ask them about their methods- what hive design they use, what inputs they add, etc. As consumers, I think we should support this kind of low-impact beekeeping when possible. But to be completely realistic, it’s hard to decide exactly what to do in our every day lives and purchases with all this information. There really isn’t a simple go-to answer. I think for a start it’s good to know where our honey comes from and to be sure it’s produced in the US. Then all we can do is learn more about the specific practices involved and try to support what we see as the most sustainable producer. Maybe even ask the honey people at your local farmers market about their practices. Even if the beekeepers use a Langstroth hive or can’t get rid of some inputs, I bet that they use a lot less pesticides than the unknown Chinese producers who grew the honey at the drugstore.

Here is a cool, informative Food Safety News article/study if you want to learn more.


Genetically Modified Organisms, Revisited

Sorry for not posting on here for the last few weeks. I have been a little busy but I’m going to try and be as consistent as possible. Also, just a warning: this post got pretty long even though I was trying to be concise. I promise it will give you a better idea of the issues surrounding GMOs, though!

Right now, I’m reading this great book that counters some of the pro-local, pro-organic ideology that is common among people interested in food and farming (especially us in the Bay Area). I’ll be sure to write a full-fledged post about the book once I have finished it. For now, I just read the chapter on genetically engineered crops which brought up some new ideas about the issue and I figured it would be cool to revisit the idea of genetically modified organisms (or GMOs) that I talked about in an earlier post, here. While I am still against GMOs, I enjoyed hearing some of the author’s points which helped me understand the issue as a whole and consider the strengths of the opposing side.

In this chapter, McWilliams points out the stigma attached to GMOs because of misinformation or a lack of knowledge. Many people think of GMOs as unnatural, toxic, and dangerous. It would be just as easy to say that much of modern plant breeding is unnatural, involving radiation or chemicals that cause genetic mutations. While genetic engineering does involve directly combining or modifying genes, many people may not know the difference between modern plant breeding and genetic engineering. We might have a generally negative idea of GMOs based on vague ideas that it is “unnatural” without knowing much about the technology. It’s easy for this to happen with many harsh but vague ideas of GMOs floating around in the newspaper or on the internet. My point here is that we should stop with the unchecked extremism, avoid calling GMOs “frankenfoods” and the like, before we get to know the facts better. I personally don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with modifying an organism’s genome, especially if it can bring higher yields and pest-resistance that will have a positive affect on the world’s food supply.

Many people oppose GMOs because of their potential health risks and other uncertainties associated with a “new” technology. In this case, new means about 20 years old as the first commercial sale of GM crops began with the Flavr Savr tomato in 1994. Many argue that this is not enough time to evaluate the long term effects of the technology on the health of humans, other non-target species, and the environment. Many concerns have to do with the science behind combining genes. Frequently asked questions include: what if a certain gene causes unexpected and harmful mutations when inserted into a certain genome? What if certain “sleeper” genes with unseen, unknown traits are activated with genetic modification? Here, the approval process for GMOs would make us more sure that these mistakes aren’t going to happen. GMOs must be approved by the USDA, and often the FDA and EPA too, depending on the specific crop, but there is still a lot of controversy around this process. A critique of this process is that the biotech organizations themselves can conduct their own studies ( like environmental impact studies) without peer review, which the USDA will look at when considering the crop’s approval.

One potential of GMOs is a higher yield. With crops engineered for higher yields, farmers can produce more food on the same amount of land which reduces the necessity for expansion and habitat destruction. These higher yields are fitting for a growing population and for preserving biodiversity. Additionally, a crop like Bt corn (which is explained more deeply in my earlier post) can actually reduce pesticide use by essentially manufacturing its own pest-resistance. Many studies have confirmed this. However, this is just one crop and depending on who is doing the study and what crop is being studied, many people have drawn different conclusions about the effect of GMOs on pesticide use.

To get an idea of just how complicated the whole issue is, let’s look closely at Roundup Ready crops, which are engineered to resist Monsanto’s pesticide Roundup. Someone on the anti-GM side might tell you that this pesticide resistant crop encourages farmers to use excessive amounts of Roundup as a cure-all. It might also be said that the ubiquity of a single pesticide might breed pesticide-resistant weeds (which it has already done). Once these Roundup resistant crops pop up, a cocktail of other pesticides must be used to kill the new weeds. And since Monsanto sells both the seeds and the Roundup, farmers are encouraging the agribusiness monopoly of Monsanto, a company with a history of being zealous with their lawsuits and lobbying as well as other unethical business practices.

Recently, I was able to talk to two farmers who farm using GM crops. They pointed out that Glyphosate, the main chemical in Roundup, is not very toxic compared with pesticides such as 2, 4-D which were used more before Roundup.  Essentially, the enzyme which Glyphosate bonds to in plants is nonexistent in humans and animals and it therefore makes sense that it would not have drastic effects on our health. Pesticides are pretty much inherently toxic however, and if we consider the other ingredients in Roundup which might be even more toxic then Glyphosate itself, there are impacts on water and soil quality that we can’t overlook. These are valid points, but if all industrial agriculture uses pesticides, are Roundup Ready crops making it any worse? It depends on who you ask, whose studies you want to trust, and how you look at things. I’ll come back to this later.

On another note, one farmer explained to me how he was able to adopt closed to no-till practices (in which the soil is not plowed/tilled at all) because of Roundup Ready corn. Avoiding or decreasing tillage has innumerable environmental benefits including less erosion and run-off which maintains soil structure and quality while decreasing the amount of fertilizer and pesticide that ends up in water. Another huge benefit of no-till farming is that the soil holds carbon dioxide rather than releasing it when the field is tilled, doing its part to contribute less to global warming. While I don’t think these benefits negate the downsides of Roundup Ready crops or other GMOs, it was  good to hear from these farmers. I saw that the people using GMOs and monoculture don’t necessarily disregard the environment in the quest for higher yields. The people I talked to are farming in a way they truly believe is sustainable and productive. They try to take care of their soil and land and only adapt a practice when it agrees with their personal agricultural philosophy.

Another thing I mentioned in my earlier post was pesticide resistance and the “high possibility” of superweeds. (I’m quoting myself there.) I think the destructive possibility of the Roundup resistant gene in the wild is an argument commonly employed by those against GMOs. From a scientific point of view, I was incorrect to say there is a high possibility of superweeds as there are many biological barriers which make the superweed unlikely. If you google “superweeds,” you’ll find many articles which explain how Roundup resistant weeds are increasingly occurring. For this reason, I want to clarify what I mean by superweeds. I am talking about plants which cross-pollinate with GM crops, take on the genetically engineered trait and become invasive, taking over local plants. The superweeds that the media likes to talk about because of the phrase’s catchiness and shock value are simply pesticide resistant weeds, which are indeed popping up more and more.

I’m not denying that pesticide resistant weeds are a problem in agriculture. They’re a huge problem for the farmer, who looks to grow the most of a certain desired crop. But we have to realize that in the wild, a gene for pesticide resistance is completely useless. There is no reason that a Roundup resistant weed would have any advantage over other plants outside a corn field and therefore would not out-compete them to become a superweed. All of a GM crop’s genes code for a plant that necessarily requires maintenance- water, fertilizer, etc. to survive. GM corn has been bred and manipulated to increase its yield and pesticide resistance given that it receives a number of inputs. In the wild, it will not receive these inputs and will not establish itself among much more competitive weeds. On top of this, there are many other very unlikely steps that must occur for superweeds to survive. For example, a GM crop can only cross-pollinate with a closely related plant and therefore a wild relative of the crop must exist nearby.  This doesn’t happen many places around the world. If you read McWilliams’s book, you can learn about further unlikelihoods of superweeds.

McWilliams adds that GMOs offer a potential benefit to third-world countries whose citizens may struggle to find a consistent source of food or income. After all, farming offers both of these (though we’re mostly talking about subsistence farming here). And GMOs offer the possibility of crops modified to survive in dry or nutrient-poor conditions and produce larger yields of nutritionally fortified crops. We are essentially zooming out to look at the place of GMOs in areas other than the United States. GMOs may have negative environmental impacts when linked with American industrialized agriculture, but they could be implemented completely different in third-world countries, where rural citizens would be farming on a small-scale and without pesticides. GMOs could potentially benefit these countries socially, economically, and environmentally. This potential adds a whole new side to the issue and makes it more complicated. As McWilliams acknowledges, GMOs are still controlled by agribusiness giants who are often interested more in their own monetary success than the welfare of starving Africans. But with the intervention of NGOs such as Bill Gates’s Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (or AGRA), GMOs can be successfully implemented in third-world communities. This implementation would help alleviate poverty and hunger while creating a trend of sustainable farming in these countries. This is the kind of company that is implementing GMOs in sustainable, mindful ways. At the moment however, American agribusiness companies by far outnumber these NGOs.

As McWilliams points out, many of the problems we have with GMOs are simply problems of agribusiness and industrial agriculture such as increased pesticide usage, resistance, and run-off. I want to say again that I am not against the idea of modifying an organism’s genome. I just don’t agree with the methods currently being used to employ GM crops. And for me, it doesn’t seem like Monsanto is suddenly going to die off so that tons of NGOs can take GM seeds to poor African communities and independent, sustainable farms can grow a few acres of GM veggies. Though I want to support organizations like AGRA as much as possible, I think that in our current situation, most GMOs are inextricably linked to corporate farming/agribusiness.

In many ways you could argue that GM crops aren’t making industrial farming any more environmentally harmful than it already is. Proponents of GMOs may make this point, but it doesn’t mean GMOs have a negligible affect on the environment. It only means that GMOs are bundled up in the environmental destruction of industrial agriculture, both of which I disagree with, both of which I reject when I avoid products containing GMOs. A connection with industrial agriculture isn’t an excuse or a reason to support GMOs, it is the reason to oppose them. And as with many other agricultural issues, it is important not only to avoid the unsustainable (from biotech companies like Monsanto, DuPont, Bayer, etc.) but also to support the sustainable (from non-profits like AGRA).

Here are some of my sources if you’re interested in learning more:

Otherwise, most of the post came from already known information or McWilliams’ book, Just Food.