Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Problem with GMO's...Part 1

If you are at all involved in a local food movement or love your local farmer or are one of the millions across the country who care about what’s in your food, it’s difficult to get away from all the talk about GMO’s (genetically modified organisms) these days and the evil Monsanto, or Monsatan as some like to say. This past Saturday, May 25, was the world-observed March Against Monstanto. Connecticut and Maine Legislatures are working to pass bills that would require GMO’s to be labeled. There is the infamous Monstanto Rider that was snuck into the most recent extension of the Farm Bill. Lots of people are up in arms about this company’s bully tactics.

But there still may be some folks who are wondering what the big deal is. Or maybe you don’t like not knowing what’s going on with your food but don’t really understand why GMO’s are so bad.

Here are some of the basics:
The most common genetically modified crops are corn and soy. At least 80% of all corn grown in the US is a GMO variety. About 90% of all soybeans grown are GMO. The vast majority of these crops go to feed livestock in factory farm settings or to be used in processes foods. Other crops that can be GMO varities are alfalfa, canola, sugar beets, zucchini and yellow squash, and papaya. The Non GMO Project has more info.

The first problem is that genetic modification is different than plant breeding. Plant breeding occurs naturally as a part of nature’s workings. Genetic modification of the kind being done to crops like corn, soybeans, squash, tomatoes, and others does not.

Plant breeding is similar to dog breeding – plants are selected for specific traits and bred to enhance those traits. It’s also not unlike cross-pollination that happens when you plant several varieties of hot peppers together. Each pepper has it’s own mystery level of heat!

Several years ago, I had a conversation with a sweet potato farmer who told me about a project he was involved with that was taking a variety of sweet potato and breeding it back with morning glory (the two are closely related in the plant world) to strengthen the sweet potato against a specific disease. Apparently the variety of sweet potato was having trouble with a particular disease, so researchers were taking undiseased or less diseased plants and breeding them to renew the strength of the variety. While this may sound a bit unnatural, the methods used to make this happen were all natural processes.

Photo from www.noble.org.
On the other hand, genetic modification involves inserting genes from other species or a specially designed gene that will produce certain traits. In 2000, the Consumers Union released an essay called Genetic Engineering Is Not An Extension Of Conventional Plant Breeding: How genetic engineering differs from conventional breeding, hybridization, wide crosses and horizontal gene transfer. This article does a good job of explaining the basic process of genetic modification. It points out that inserting genes onto a DNA strand does not happen in nature. To make the process happen, a gene "gun" or a bacterial "truck" is used. This is a bacteria that is mixed with the to-be-inserted gene. A chemical or electrical process is then used to make the receiving DNA strand susceptible to the new trait. A virus is also added to act as an “on switch” to make the gene trait active. Scientists can insert foreign genes into a DNA strand, but they can’t control where these new traits land on that strand. “[T]he lack of control over location is a significant cause of unexpected effects.”

Second, because of the proprietary nature of genetically modified crops, unbiased research on the possible “unexpected effects” or the long term effects of genetic modification on crops, crop production, soil health, environmental impact, or our bodies isn’t really possible. We just don’t know enough to know what the problems could be. Some believe that the increase in digestive issues and other illnesses are linked to genetic modification of crops. But we just don’t know for sure.

And consumers can’t know for sure whether they are consuming GMO foods unless they are growing all of their own food or buying from
local farms that do not grow GMO seeds or purchasing all certified organic products that are not allowed to contain GMO products.
Labeling would be a really great way to allow consumers to make their own decisions. But that has met with its own resistance from Big Ag and Big Food companies.

So, there is a start to some of the problems with GMO’s. Stay tuned for more about the use of fertilizer and herbicides and GMO’s, bully tactics employed by Monstanto, the consequences of cheap food, and more.... 

Monday, March 4, 2013

Warning! Potentially Persnickety Eater!

This seems a bit silly to be writing about now, as I look back on it…but this is what happened.

I was headed to eat with my parents after a friend’s daughter’s senior art exhibit – which was amazing, by the way! And the show evoked a bit of an emotional response that surprised me, a mix of pride and amazement at this 18 year-old’s talent.

We headed to a nearby shopping center with several restaurant choices. I suggested that we choose a well-known local icon cafeteria, thinking that would a great way to get some real food. Y’know, veggie, fruit, protein.

Once we walked in I began questioning my choice. There was something about the atmosphere that yelled stereotypical cafeteria. I guess I was expecting something different. But I decided I would power through. I eat at chain restaurants. I can do this, I thought. I began to think about what I might want to eat here.

We got closer to the line. A big medallion plate hung on the back wall announcing the Plate Special. The top half of the plate read “EntrĂ©e and roll”. My brain saw “huge portion of sauce-covered meat”. The lower left quarter read “one vegetable”. The lower right quarter read the same. After teaching a six-week class in nutrition and healthy cooking that includes a similar plate, only emphasizing fresh fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and smart consumption of grains, I sensed a slight queasy feeling in my stomach.

As I walked to where the line started, I surveyed the food choices. Suddenly, I knew I couldn’t eat there. I was looking at food I wasn’t going to enjoy. Vegetables that were over-cooked and poorly seasoned, soaked in their juices. Macaroni and cheese made with Velveeta. And meats from who-knows-where. I told my parents that I couldn’t eat there. And we left.

This cafeteria was indicative of some of the many things that are wrong with our current food system and eating in this country. Yes, there were vegetables, but they weren’t prepared with care for methods that would keep the most nutrients in the food. If the spinach had been fresh when it arrived at the restaurant, it was indistinguishable from the canned kind once placed on the serving line. The meat choices were either heavily breaded with who knows what or covered in a sauce of unknown origin to keep it from drying out as it sat waiting to be selected by diners.

This wasn’t locally-produced, simply-prepared real food. It was a nod in the direction of real food and of good nutrition. But it was neither. And my sensibilities couldn’t handle it that day.

Ironically, my other suggestion was a locally owned Tex-Mex place across the parking lot. At least there, I knew exactly what I was going to be eating. And I was able to get fresh spinach in my enchiladas!

The straddle between a food system providing fresh, local, sustainably raised foods and the status quo, industrial food system evokes some interesting responses… And makes one a potentially very persnickety eater. 

Monday, November 12, 2012

An Ideal Food System

Around the country organizations have created new models for food production and distribution. The community food movement takes into account all parts of the food system from growing and harvesting to distribution to composting. This movement is changing the conversation, looking for new solutions to issues of food production and food insecurity. It emphasizes fresh, nutritious fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins. It works to educate residents on where their food comes from and is tackling the issue of diet-related disease from the standpoint of education and food access. Food policy is part of this discussion.

Just over a year ago, a group came together to start talking about some of these issues. Out of that group came the concept of the idea food system as a SHOVEL. The group isn't meeting anymore, but the idea has gained some tilth to its frame. It has become very relevant to a new group working on some of these issues. So we wanted to share this with you....

So how does one describe the ideal food system?

What is a food system?   The food system is everything associated with the growing, shipping, processing/packaging, sales, purchase, and consumption of food. Everything about the food we eat each day is part of the larger food system.
And an ideal food system is one in which every person has access to enough nutritious food - all the time. Yes, there are many aspects to making this happen.

In a fit of spontaneity, a group discussing food policy in Dallas created a way to talk about the aspects of our DFW food system. An acronym was born.

What? You’re tired of acronyms? You will like this one. It’s a useful tool!
So here is what you need to dig in…

Secure – a secure food system is one that provides access to healthy, quality food for all and enough food for all. It’s also a system in which food comes from a variety of sources so that if crops fail or there is a food related illness, there is still food available. An ideal food system advocates sustainable agriculture as a secure way to ensure continued production of healthy fresh foods. 

Healthy – healthy food is real food (fresh, nutritious fruits, vegetables, grains, and protein) with as little processing as possible. A healthy food system is one in which residents know where their food comes from, have plates that are usually filled with real food - not processed food, and have experiences growing and harvesting foods they regularly see on their plates. This food system creates healthy environments and ecosystems.

Open – an open food system is one that allows lots of people and lots of companies to be involved in the production of food. It encourages small food enterprises and micro-economies that help everyone have access to real food. Plenty of room exists for citizens to get involved- help on the CSA farm, volunteer at the farmers market, be a part of food policy committee, do advocacy work, and many other activities that support the food system.

Vibrant – a vibrant food system has a food culture that expresses the community’s values about food. The community is excited about locally produced food and recognizes its local food economy as something special and unique of which to be proud. The community looks forward to the changing of the seasons and celebrates these changes as well as the new foods available with each part of the year.  Many connections and conversations happen around food activities because a vibrant food system is a relational, interactive food system.

Equitable – a healthy food system is one that emphasizes healthy eating habits and works toward equal access to real food for all residents. With equitable access comes an increased opportunity for better overall health and wellness, for the individual and for the community. Food producers are always valued for their importance in the food system. Small food businesses whether food producers or food artisans are valued as much or more than large food producers because they are essential to an ideal food system.

Local – Local aspects contribute to and help shape the secure, healthy, open, vibrant, and edible food system. In order for a community to value its food system, it must be in touch with where that food comes from and who grew it. A local food system provides a stronger local economy which reinvests for an even stronger local food system. 

Developed by Susie Marshall and the Dallas Food Policy Discussion Group

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

No Sweet Potato Round-Up

Once again, we have to cancel our sweet potato gleaning event, the Sweet Potato Round-Up, this year. We are really bummed about it.  But the crop is just not big this year, and growers are picking up everything they possibly can for sale. There just really isn’t anything for us to glean.

It is sad for us because we love hosting this event! But it is even worse for the growers. They have not had a good year since 2008. They were due one this year, but not enough rain fell on the east Texas fields to help the potatoes grow to any size. Irrigation is just too costly. Fruit and vegetable growers do not receive crop subsidies.

This situation just can’t go un-discussed any longer. The hardworking families that grow our food are struggling. These days, we as consumers expect low-cost food. We want the best deal. But what we don’t think about is who is on the other end of our food purchase. With the way in which the vast majority of our fruits and vegetables are grown, pack, shipped, and distributed, the farmer who actually grew them gets a few dimes for every dollar you pay. They can barely afford to pay wages for their workers to harvest for them, but they can’t do it without the extra help.

Those who once produced food in the North Texas area can usually no longer afford to do so. We once had a vibrant truck farming system (as did most places in the US) in which growers grew a few crops really well. Harvested them once or twice a week, took them to the nearest town or city, and sold them to local grocery stores and restaurants. Today, so many of our fruits and vegetables are raised in huge mono-cropping environments all over the world. The fields, groves, and orchards are owned by or contracted to multi-national corporations. They are often picked well before they are ripe – ever wondered why that peach from the Superstore never has any flavor?- , packed and shipped at least 2000 miles, if not more, before it gets to the store where you buy it.

This system brings us low-cost food, but it hurts anyone left in North, East, or Central Texas trying to produce food for the DFW area. When you purchase from local producers, you can get tree-ripened fruit and veggies picked just the day before. And the money stays in our local greater North Texas economy. Buying from the growers or through a local co-op or delivery system removes steps from the distribution system, and growers earn more money. We are helping support our neighbors down the road, not some CEO in another part of the country who you will never meet.

I don’t like to listen to the stories of struggle from these growers who have become my colleagues. Each year, they plant again. They understand that we can’t control the weather. They know the tricks to growing a good crop. We have to be willing to purchase locally grown foods, ask for it in stores and restaurants, and know that it may cost a little more, but we are supporting our neighbors and eating really fresh food!

Friday, June 8, 2012

Community food? What’s that?

No, community food doesn't have to do with considering food community property. But it does see food in terms of a larger community system. Community food is a term that has been around for a while now, just not one we usually hear in Dallas, or much in Texas for that matter. If you were to join the COMFOOD listserv, you would see the hundreds of projects and workshops and jobs and trainings that are happening around the country to bring food back to our communities.

Community food is an approach to dealing with the issues of hunger and food insecurity that looks at more than just feeding people for that day. It believes that all of the programs that feed people – school lunches & breakfasts, SNAP, WIC, summer lunch, food pantries etc – are all important to ending hunger. But the community food approach also considers community gardens, farmers markets, creative urban agriculture programs, education in nutrition and food preparation, and local production agriculture as all part of providing equitable access to healthy, fresh fruits and vegetables for those who don’t always have good access. Yes, community food is aimed in a basic way to fix the problems of healthy food access, to begin to address issues of chronic diseases that come with less than ideal nutrition, and similar issues.

But one of the underlying values of community food that I have come to understand is that we are all part of the larger community. And the community is healthier as a whole when more of its members are participating. Community food works for greater self-reliance and self-sufficiency for its members. But this is not a self-reliance that is individualistic. It’s not a Texas-style, I-don’t-need-anyone’s-help, up-by-the-bootstraps kind of self-reliance or -sufficiency. Community food strives to help community members better able to participate as productive members of the community. There is the understanding that everyone deserves the opportunity for healthy food, has the ability to learn to prepare, and will benefit from eating it. In the long term, the community is healthier, stronger, and more vibrant because more people are able to participate. More people are healthier and happier.

Hopefully, with all of the things happening in Dallas around food, you will hear more about community food projects in the coming months!

Friday, November 25, 2011

How Sweet Potatoes Are Harvested

Ok, sweet potatoes aren’t harvested; they’re dug. But “How Sweet Potatoes Are Dug” just doesn’t quite sound grammatically correct, though it might be. And ‘dug’ is the past tense for dig, which is how one gets sweet potatoes out of the ground.

This kind of terminology is one of the things I’ve been introduced to as I’ve gotten to know sweet potato growers over the years. I don’t always pay attention to the fact that some of the lingo of East Texas farmers has snuck into my usual way of talking about them and with them, until someone asks me to clarify something.

So, sweet potatoes are dug. Not usually by hand if the grower can help it. There are machines for that, of course. On a small farm where only a few rows or a couple of acres have been planted, a grower can simply use a plow to turn up the dirt in the middle of the row, which exposes the potatoes.

Oh yeah. Uh, sweet potatoes grow on a vine and the potatoes develop underground, like a white potato does. They are related to the morning glory family. They are biologically different from a yam. No, really, they are. Sweet potatoes and yam (real yams) are from different plant families. See here

Ok…back to how the potatoes are dug. When growers plant many acres, like the folks I’ve known in East Texas, they have a digger and they “bar-off” the rows. First, the vines are mowed down just a bit. Then an attachment on a tractor is taken through the rows. It creates definite wide rows so the tractor driver knows where to place the plow to reach the potatoes.

The digger is basically a plow on a trailer that is pulled by a tractor. As the tractor goes along, the plow (sometimes there are two) at the front of the trailer digs into the soil and loosens the vine and the potatoes. Just up from the plow is a metal chain conveyor belt that is down at the level of the soil being loosened. As the potatoes are disturbed from the ground, they are carried up the conveyor belt to the main part of the trailer. Going up the conveyor the soil and vines fall through the metal chain belt. On the trailer are real people who sort the potatoes as they go by. One person picks out all the No. 1’s, another person the No. 2’s. Still another person will pick out the Jumbo’s. Often the grower will also collect potatoes that can be sold to the canneries. These “canners” are potatoes that aren’t pretty and aren’t necessarily small (sometimes they’re huge!), but they will make great canned sweet taters. You know, the kind that are sweetened and usually have some cinnamon added – candied yams, as they are sometimes called – though they aren’t really yams.

So, on the trailer stand the people picking out the potatoes as they go by. The potatoes are placed in large wooden crates that when full hold about 1,000lbs each. This is skilled labor, even if it doesn’t look like it. The different grades of potatoes – No. 1, No. 2 – have specific characteristics that are standardized in the industry. To be able to pick out potatoes with specific characteristics as they go by on a conveyor belt and be accurate takes skill.

In a good year, a grower will get 20,000/acre of potatoes. I think that is for No. 1’s and No.2’s together, but it’s been so long since I’ve talked to a farmer in a good year that I’ve forgotten. The growers I have worked with usually plant about 50-100 acres. Most often they own some portion of the land they plant on, but the majority of it is leased.

Once the potatoes are dug and placed in the wooded crates, the crates are put on a truck and taken to the potato house or potato barn (usually just a few miles away) where they are stored to cure. After a week or two of curing, the potatoes are washed and boxed for sale. The curing process – which is really just storing the potatoes in the right temperature and humidity range – thickens the skins slightly and allows the sugars in the potatoes to sweeten.

The potatoes going to the cannery are simply kept in the large wooden crates until the big trick comes to pick them up. There is a cool feature on the forklift that allows the crate to be lifted and then dumped into the open top of the truck. To do this, the forks on the forklift actually rotate.

So that’s how the potatoes are dug. It’s really a wonderful experience to see how all of it works. Farms like these are small businesses that may have an ancient truck that hauls the potatoes from the field to the barn, but they some great technology to help them along the way. You just never know, though, when your sweet potato grower also has a Master’s degree in Agribusiness, even though he tells you, “They’s a lot of potatoes out there!”

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Sweet Potatoes

Did you know that it’s sweet potato time in North East Texas? Yep! Sweet potatoes! They are planted in May and harvested beginning about the middle or end of September. The fourth Saturday in October should be a big weekend for my non-profit organization. But it’s not this year. Sweet potatoes have been the crop for gleaning in the fall. But they aren’t this year. They are easy to glean because they can stay on the ground in the field for a week or more after being dug (harvested) without suffering much damage. This means that we can schedule volunteers to come out to the field on the weekend when it’s convenient for them.

But times are changing for Texas-grown sweet potatoes. Wood, Upshur, Van Zandt, and Rains counties have been where the sweet potatoes were grown. Upshur County began losing growers first. The others have followed. The last several years, the weather has been the main problem. But really, there are other problems that growers face that sometimes makes planting impossible – that’s for another post.

When I started working as a gleaning coordinator in 2003, the little community of Golden, TX in Wood County had six sweet potato growers that I could name without thinking about it. (There were a few more; I just really didn’t know them.) They each grew 50-100 acres of sweet potatoes and could count on 20,000 lbs per acre yield. The potatoes were sold to wholesale distributors, grocery stores, individuals, and canneries (for the ugly potatoes). These guys were even featured as one of Oprah’s Favorite Things in 2004-5 (http://www.sweetpotatoblessings.com/oprah-video/oprah.htm). For a short period of time, these growers box and shipped sweet potatoes around the country because of Oprah’s show, but they couldn’t keep up with the demand. Of those six growers in Golden, one 1 is left growing sweet potatoes.

One farmer in Emory, TX has been growing vegetables his whole life. His father was the tomato grower. As a young man, this grower used to drive to the Dallas Farmer’s Market at midnight to get in line to get a spot to sell tomatoes the next morning. He’s grown cucumbers and a few other crops. But he’s grown sweet potatoes the longest. That might be in jeopardy, though after the last several years.

Gilmer, TX still has its Yamboree and Golden, TX still has it’s Sweet Potato Festival. These two areas have very few people who are still growing sweet potatoes, but they continue to celebrate their heritage.

What does it mean that we are losing local growers? How does this affect the quality of the sweet potatoes we eat? How does it affect the local communities that have for so long relied on these crops for a significant part of their economy? 

We may not think about these things very often, but they are important issues to be aware of, regardless of where you live!