Category Archives: Green

The Scent of Bitter Almonds


“It was inevitable:  the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.”- Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

The drought in California is bringing to us a preview of what we could be facing regularly in the near future: water scarcity. The response to the water crisis aimed at cutting down water  use has been criticized for going easy on agriculture , which is the largest consumer of water in the state.  Some argue, though, that farmers have been receiving less water already and were forced to leave 400,000 acres unplanted last year as they would not have enough water to sustain the crops. And while the drought may be forcing the issue of water use to public regard for the first time, water scarcity has been a reality for farmers over the years, compensated by the largely ignored method of ground water pumping.

Well, who is to blame for this? It was suggested that the state should tell farmers to stop planting water guzzling crops (like almonds) and turn to less water intensive crops like tomato. And all of a sudden, almonds became the poster crop of bad water use. But why did this happen? Was it simply an  error of judgement on the part of the farmers? No, this almond rush was catalyzed by the information about the impressive health benefits of almonds that flows out in the media every day. Suddenly all of us are eating more almonds or drinking almond milk, and this is not just in the  U,S but also around the world (California provides about 80% of the world’s almond supply). This means huge profits to almonds growers and in turn, good revenues for California and the nation. And while everything was going well, no one complained about too many almonds, so allegations of “water abuse” by nut farmers do sound a little unfair. Faced with other crop failures due to lack of water, farmers may actually be motivated to turn to almond farming now because of the high value of the product in the market.

Or, they could turn to alfalfa, a crop which many of us may not have given much thought to in the past, but which, we now learn, is in high demand in countries like China and the UAE. It is grown for forage using the water resources already under pressure in Arizona and California and being shipped abroad. In 2012, 50 billion gallons of water were exported to China, virtual water embedded in the alfalfa that would feed animals in that country.  But we too have been consuming virtual water from elsewhere: embedded in the asparagus we demand in winter or the avocados that we need all year round.

So, what solutions are possible? As noted, it has been suggested that farmers grow crops that require less water, so that water use in agriculture is more efficient. Could the answer also lie in a sensible shift in our eating patterns? Yes, almonds are good for us, but we could also choose other healthy options, and asparagus are delicious but we can wait for spring instead of having them shipped over and contributing to the depletion of resources in another country. Every few years a new “superfood” is announced when , in reality, there is nothing of the sort. Choosing a plant rich diet with moderate portion size would be a useful tip for a healthy life. Eat kale, almonds, coconut oil, all the good stuff but in a reasonable way. Sometimes too much love can be as bitter as unrequited feelings. We will have to learn to love almonds a little less.





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Economic Benefits of GMO Crops for Non-GMO Growers


 Most studies on the economic benefits of GMO crops are focused on farms that grow GMO crops. A new study from the University of Minnesota finds that there are economic benefits for those who choose to grow non-gmo crops as well. This is based on 45 years of data on pests in the corn growing areas of Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska. The European corn borer which is the most common threat to crops here cannot distinguish between Bt corn and non Bt corn so it lays eggs in both types of crops: in the bt corn plants as well as the non-bt refuge plants.  Since the pests cannot survive in the fields growing bt corn, the threat to the non-bt fields is also diminished.

This process is reflected in remarkable numbers: over 14 years, the benefit from growing bt corn in Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin was $3.2 bn, but even the non-bt corn growers benefited from lower crop loss to the extent of $2.4 bn. There could possibly be gains for produce as well which benefits from suppression of the European corn borer but this is not documented yet. Here is the original paper.

Fair Standards for Animals Raised for Food


 When Chipotle made its pork shortage announcement recently, I was somewhat skeptical. How low were the standards that Chipotle was concerned about?One could be led to think that this was some horrible factory farm scenario gone wrong. But, in fact, it was simply that Chipotle objected to two standard and widely accepted practices used by farmers: farrowing crates which enable them to ensure the safety of newborn pigs and slatted floors which are critical to maintaining cleanliness. NPR spoke to a farmer whose standards meet and extend those of Chipotle  but who was skeptical of this demand from Chipotle. He pointed out that while a small farm with fewer pigs could allow them to roam outside, this is not practical in a large scale operation. And the demand for pork, not juts from a particular fast food chain but from the market as a whole is huge. To meet this, large scale operations are essential. While no one wants a dilution in the care of animals, the demands often come from the consumer side. Most of us, to be perfectly honest, have little or no clue about the raising of pigs.

Yes, as this farmer describes it, we want to think about pigs being raised outdoors because we have a mental image of a gorgeous , sunny summer day. Th reality of a winter day in Minnesota, as she relates might mean broken legs and frost bite for the animals. The writer also takes issue with the vilification of farmers for brand enhancement. Perhaps it is not so much about the pork as it is about nudging consumers toward other options:  Chipotle recently debuted a tofu item in an effort to keep costs down. Maybe the concern over animal welfare would make us pick that instead. And for those who would like their usual options but worry about how green it is, there may soon be an app for that!

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The Tower of Label: What We Do Know

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This is a somewhat delayed post, and I almost did not write it, but then it sort of kept going around in my mind and I just had to put it down. It all started when I realized that it was the middle of December and my to do list to prepare for the holiday season was untouched. And though the chilly days were calling out for soup, the only thing that was likely to be simmering in my home, given the mountain of unfinished tasks, was me. So I ventured into the soup aisle to pick up a few options for back up.

Since I usually do not buy soup I was again amazed at the variety of options, somewhat overwhelming, really! Within moments, though, this became a real time experiment to see how much information is already on the cartons or cans and how much of it is accurate or, useful.I see so much about the labeling debate on social media, here was the opportunity to see it in action. Consider the first example, in the image above: it said, “natural” which, while vaguely comforting , does not give any real information at all. Although, some consumers might confuse this with “organic” or “sustainable” though there is no evidence that it si either of those things.

In the second category were the soups which came with volumes of information:

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“New”, “No GMO” (so, conventionally grown corn but not organic I suppose), “No MSG”, “All Natural” “Low in fat and calories” and “No Cholesterol”, that is quite a lot to, well, process! Pressed for time, surrounded by kids asking for treats, not many of the shoppers around me were actually reading the carton at all. “What soup do you want?” they would ask and into the cart would go the choices that were voiced. The one criterion that they did stop to consider? the price. “Let’s get one of those, they are on sale” was frequently heard. This was interesting to me and bore out what many believe: the push for labeling is less about information and more about marketing. Just as labeling spiked the prices of  GMO related products in Europe,  forcing them off the supermarket shelves, the same would be seen in the US were mandatory labeling to be introduced, and this would give a huge advantage to other players in the market notably the organic producers.

I was pleasantly surprised by the third category, the cartons with minimal information:

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“Gourmet Bisques” is all it said and named the soup. Just for that it did get my vote and, subsequently, came out at the top of the taste test of all the soups I got that day. When I ask around, most people say they pick the flavors they like and keep in mind the price, that is all. Of course, there are those who will not buy anything but organic ( and those soups were in the organic aisle, easily sorted for their convenience). Since that label already exists, it is hard to understand why another label needs to be added.

But, of course, one must consider the pro-label point of view. And that is where this piece  is so insightful. The writer believes in the “right to know” and sets out to research whether costs would really go up in a prohibitive way if labeling was mandatory. A survey of work in this area does support the position that costs would rise: to the farmer,  the state and of course, the consumer. Added to the dollars and cents price, there would be a larger price to pay. If rising costs lead to the substitution of GMO ingredients with non-GMO ones, there would be a decline in the research and development of GMO technology and this is crucial. GMO technology is not simply about yield or profits, it also offers the ability, for instance, to combat malnutrition by fortifying foods that people eat daily with essential nutrients. The most famous example of this is Golden Rice which can be used to prevent deaths from Vitamin A deficiency. Equally crucial is the potential of biotechnology in developing drought resistant or flood and salinity tolerant varieties of crops which would be able to combat the challenges of a changing climate. The choice of GMO  crops also has other environmental consequences which are often overlooked, discussed here.

Ultimately, the writer decides that the right to know, while important, has to be considered in conjunction with the realization that while some have the luxury of choice, for others, even the right to eat is an uncertain one. A show I was watching recently had the now familiar scene, where the server recites the provenance if each item in the menu to the diner. After describing in glowing terms the grass fed beef, the carrots and broccoli from the local farm “only x miles from here”, when the server kept it short with the “fresh asparagus”, the irritable diner snapped back “That’s it? You expect me to eat my dinner without any clue about the early life and upbringing of the asparagus?” Our world includes this diner and also the one who will go to bed hungry with no asparagus at all, and our policies need to work for both of them.

What if we were provided information like this: “This crop was grown using biotechnology which meant that less cropland was required to grow it and some land could be left for conservation. It  requires less pesticide use making it gentle on our planet and on our farm workers. This is a variety that was developed to grow with less water so we could conserve our shrinking water reserves. It is fortified with a nutrient that will prevent a common deficiency and ensure better health for children.”Now, that is a label which would have my support.

Weekend Reading: Future Food, Subsistence Living and the Problem with Solutions


It is a cold, rainy Saturday, and the plan was to catch up some long deferred reading and stay off grid. The first worked beautifully , the second, not so much!

The first sentence that jumped out at me: “…urging a back-to-the-land movement as a  cure for what ails America. Nostalgia for a direct, uncorrupted relationship between between people and animals and plants that sustain us may be as old as civilization itself, and it cycles in and out of fashion, but it seems particularly potent in times of economic crisis..” An excellent explanation of the pull toward “natural” that takes up so much space in the food debate, from “Off The Land” by David Treuer in the November issue of Harper’s Magazine (paywall).  Writing about people following a path of subsistence living, the author finds that “Subsistence…isn’t a philosophy of quiet, inward-turning wonder about how we relate to the land. It’s a mad, violent pragmatism intent on extracting calories and advantage.”

A very interesting piece on how and why development solutions are effective or not and what might be the ways to go forward suggests a change of perspective. Instead of fixating on one, big, perfect idea and trying to, as the author puts it, unfurl it over the whole world like a picnic blanket, perhaps the answer lies in thinking small, trying what works in a particular context and tweaking as we go. Also relevant in the food world where there seems to be so much conviction that there is only a single perfect solution, when a more realistic focus would be to incorporate different approaches in the most optimum combination for the particular problem/part of the world.

In an NYT article, the writer is convinced of the need to stop interpreting  “eating locally” in a narrow way, but is equally sure that organic agriculture is the only solution to food system issues. Looking into the future however (via the popular YA novel, Divergent) shows us that a very different solution could unfold: “Most of what we eat is frozen or canned, because farms these days are far away. My mother once told me that, a long time ago, there were people who wouldn’t buy genetically engineered produce because they viewed it as unnatural. Now we have no other option.”

Hope you enjoy the reads, and let me know what you think!

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#Farming Friday 25: Drought in California is Changing the Way Farmers Work


The drought in California has thrown into focus a harsh reality: climate change is going to disrupt the way we grow our food. Unprecedented events like this not only hit jobs and incomes hard, they also compel us to look at the tough questions: how are we going to deal with this challenge as we go into the next growing season? Sometimes that brings out interesting solutions: farmers are trying not new experimental varieties of grasses that require less water for seeding pastures, or conserving waste water that was earlier and allowed to go back to the environment; for farming, to ease pressure on ground water.


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The Problem With Solutions to “Feed the World”


It seems like everywhere on social media there are pieces on meetings and  conferences to discuss the challenge of “feeding the world”. There are lots of lists of solutions, assertions that this innovative project from Country Y is the perfect answer, it just needs to be replicated across the globe and then objections that this would completely destroy the food heritage of Country Z and should be abandoned. At first, it appears to be just a muddle, but the debate is intense and sometimes severely combative: scientific research is targeted and destroyed and websites dedicated to scientific communication are hacked and prevented from functioning.

Perhaps it might be helpful to take a closer look at the question to begin with: at issue here is the intent to tackle global hunger and malnutrition, with population still rising and arable land in short supply, and all this in a time of probably the biggest challenge humans have faced: climate change. Often the aspects of the food system which get the most prominence in the media are those of individual consumers: so consumers in one part of the world might vote to ban GMO crops but how do we justify this to parents who are watching their children struggle and suffer from Vitamin A deficiency but have no access to Golden Rice. The food system debate touches everyone so solutions have to be evaluated in that context as well.

Sometimes we hear the argument that our ancestors did this/did not do that so we should continue to follow that path or return to it. Certainly we can carry forward the knowledge of the past but the future is not a replication of what we have lived through and needs different approaches. Small farms existed before the growth of agribusinesses but that should not preculde the idea that big farms as well as small ones can participate together in creating and being a part of a better food system. Faced with altered growing conditions, can we adopt ways to conserve water in rice farming as well a technique that can help plants process excess salt and flourish? There is no reason why we cannot do both, other than the desire to maintain entrenched positions.

Another source of controversy arises from viewing climate change as solely related to the environment, and the effort to nurture and conserve nature is in opposition to agriculture. Worsening air quality hurts our health but also impacts the productivity of our crops.  So cleaner air brings even more benefits than we might have considered earlier. Agriculture does not have to mean the end of habitats and indigenous plants. Conserving nature can work with the goal of sustaining people as these successful projects show.

That so many lists of solutions are available is great but we cannot stick to one or the other set of answers. The clock is running against us on climate change and we need to use the best tools possible.

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