Friday, October 31, 2008


One of the things that strikes me again and again is the need to affirm and recover local knowledge in the transition to a sustainable food system.

Local knowledge has not often been taken seriously (a hangover from the 19th century missionary movement?) in fostering "better" agriculture practices in the developing world.

But one of the things I wonder is, how long does it take for local knowledge to be lost? If folks have been emulating industrial monocropping for more than a generation, as is true in some places, how much helpful local knowledge have they retained? Are the elders there to transmit it? And how does local knowledge hold up in the face of accelerating climate change?

In the U.S. it may be even more challenging. We are so mobile - it takes a while even to figure out where the local knowledge is. I don't know the history of the land where our community garden is, and I bet no one tending a plot there does. This is something we need to research - and find the folks with the stories.

I worry a lot about the loss of household skills in food preservation and preparation. I met a woman on the plane yesterday, about two decades younger than I am, who grew up in rural Iowa in a household where everyone went fishing and berrying and there were work parties at harvest time to can and prepare foods for freezing. Frankly, I never thought I would meet someone younger who did these things; it was reassuring. There still are people to pass these skills along. But Faith now lives in a "town home" with no garden space, and has lost touch with all but a few sources of local, sustainably grown food.

One of the five R's for Environmental Change-makers is ReSkill. The challenge, I think, is how to find and nurture those who can help us with the work of reskilling, of handing on the local knowledge, the skills of a local, sustainable, secure food system.

A brief for agricultural change

I've been carrying around a paper by Lim Li Ching posted on the Oakland Institute web site, "Sustainable Agriculture: Meeting Food Security Needs, Addressing Climate Change Challenges" which advocates for a transition to sustainability to deal with both.

The paper includes startling statistics on increasing food prices, a critique of the Green Revolution, a summary of research about the gains to be had from using sustainable agricultural methods, and some ideas about how to get there.

The most striking thing to me was the evidence for high gains in both crop yields and farm income in the developing world when switching to sustainable practices. Just a little gain in developed countries, compared with 50-100% gains in the 2/3 world.

The paper also led me to conclude that if we wish to decrease the degradation of our agricultural lands and lower other environmental impacts of industrial agriculture in this country we would shift our subsidy system to 1) reward farmers for carbon sequestration, and 2) help support them during the several years of transition back to diversified, sustainable farming.

another Pollan report

This arrived in my email inbox last evening:


Obama Response to Pollan Article!

"I was just reading an article in the New York Times by Michael Pollen [sic] about food and the fact that our entire agricultural system is built on cheap oil. As a consequence, our agriculture sector actually is contributing more greenhouse gases than our transportation sector. And in the mean time, it's creating monocultures that are vulnerable to national security threats, are now vulnerable to sky-high food prices or crashes in food prices, huge swings in commodity prices, and are partly responsible for the explosion in our healthcare costs because they're contributing to type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease, obesity, all the things that are driving our huge explosion in healthcare costs. That's just one sector of the economy. You think about the same thing is true on transportation. The same thing is true on how we construct our buildings. The same is true across the board. For us to say we are just going to completely revamp how we use energy in a way that deals with climate change, deals with national security and drives our economy, that's going to be my number one priority when I get into office, assuming, obviously, that we have done enough to just stabilize the immediate economic situation."

But there's the rub... What will need to be done in the short term that will work against reform in the long term?

BTW - in passing a few days ago I heard a caller to public radio suggest Michael Pollan for secretary of agriculture. Maybe not - journalism turned advocacy seems to me a different set of skills than administration and planning - with advocacy, of course.
But is there a likely candidate who has the skills and knowledge but is not bought and sold by industrial ag? Is there someone who will renew the traditional connection between environmental concerns and agriculture? (Forestry, after all, is a part of the Department of Agriculture.)

Thursday, October 23, 2008

No Comment

In an article in yesterday's New York Times on breeding and genetically engineering crops for drought resistance (emphasis mine):

"No single approach is likely to suffice for all types of dry conditions. 'Probably no one has found the magic gene yet,' said Jian-Kang Zhu, a professor of plant biology at the University of California, Riverside. 'Probably there is no magic gene.'

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Fear mongering and elections

I wasn't going to say much about Proposition 2 here, because it seems to me such a no-brainer. We've all seen the Meatrix, right? And we like the A in the LOAF acronym for ethical eating - Animal friendly?

But last night I heard an ad on television which made me very angry. It appealed to people's fear of food borne illness (bird flu!), it appealed to people's xenophobia (food from Mexico!) and it appealed to people's romantic notions of "farmers" - who would all be out of business.

Please, let's not call people who own CAFO's farmers, with all the farmer in the dell images the word conjures up. Watch the Meatrix again, to deromanticize your notion of industrial farming.

Here's the link to Oprah's exploration of the topic:

And here's a nice quotation from the Nicholas Kristof opinion piece that apparently got her going on this topic. (Think of him as a former Oregon farm boy who eats meat.)

"I draw the line at animals being raised in cruel conditions. The law punishes teenage boys who tie up and abuse a stray cat. So why allow industrialists to run factory farms that keep pigs almost all their lives in tiny pens that are barely bigger than they are?"

And one more resource. The National Conference of Churches Eco-justice unit has published a children's curriculum on "Sacred Food" with lots of info about animal cruelty. I just learned of this today, but will review it soon. You will need to go to their site and sign in to download it, an unfortunate feature of their work.

Finally, I just noted on the Prop 2 web site that United Farm Workers support Prop 2. If you can't think about animal rights, think about human rights, and the tremendous toll it takes on workers in CAFOs to disregard the life and comfort of animals day in and day out. Dakota by Martha Grimes was my least favorite book she's written, but the descriptions of the stench, the stress and the learned callousness of those working in a CAFO made me shudder.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Precedents for presidents

I might have to change the name of this blog to the Michael Pollan report...

He reprised and extended his NY Times article of last week on Fresh Air yesterday. If you prefer podcasts to reading on-line, you can download it here:

Much of the interview is scripted from the article, but there are additional details. One factoid I liked especially was that during WWII Victory Gardens supplied 40% of our produce needs in this country. Wow! I knew it was good, but not that good. Pollan offered this while mentioning Eleanor Roosevelt's victory garden as a precedent for the next president tearing up the south lawn of the White House and getting planting. As he pointed out, this leading by example would be far easier to implement than changes requiring legislation.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Michael Pollan's open letter

Now that my baseball season is over I continue to catch up on my food reading.

First, a pet peeve vindicated. Both Marian Nestle and Michael Pollan refer to "healthful" food. Of course, I want my tomato plants to be robust, and my chicken - if I ate it - not to be diseased - but when we speak of the effect of food on our bodies it is healthful food we desire and "healthful" we should use, not "healthy".

I'd heard of Michael Pollan's modest proposal in his open letter to the Farmer-in-Chief elect, to turn the South Lawn of the White House into an organic garden. But I hadn't realized the letter, which appeared in last Sunday's New York Times magazine, was so thorough.

He begins with the thought that little has been said about food during the campaign (my observation, too, in these notes) but that three issues that keep coming up all have food policy dimensions: energy independence, climate change, and health care.

He also points out the international dimensions of food policy which sorely need attention, and food's interrelationship with national security.

"While there are alternatives to oil, there are no alternatives to food."

Pollan's basic proposal is to resolarize our food system.

Will we be able to produce enough food this way? The only way to find out, he figures, is to try. He points out some of the upside, and also identifies the challenging bit - the people needed to farm when sun energy, not fossil fuels, are the basis.

There are several little things he suggests that intrigue me. His idea of real estate developers needing to complete a "food system impact statement" is probably something we have needed for a couple of generations. Fortunately I live in a part of the world where there is now some attempt to confine sprawl and preserve ag lands - but not enough.

I also loved his idea for a second bar code on food products, which could be scanned by consumer devices, not just store equipment, and would tell the story of that food item's production and journey. This is way beyond COOL.

Perhaps dearest to my heart is push for decentralizing our food system in this country. "Whatever may be lost in efficiency by localizing food production is gained in resilience."


I've finally done some reading up on the Country of Origin Labeling regulations which went into effect September 30 - except that there is a 6 month grace period.

The faqs at USDA could be better written, but here they are

It seems pretty clear to me that these regulations are next to meaningless.

Fish and shellfish have had to be labeled since 2005, but I still find my questions are not always answered at the supermarket. And if you go to a fishmonger that doesn't sell produce, they don't have to disclose country of origin. Ditto a butcher.

In all cases, any food that has had something done to it other than something mechanical (slicing or dicing or grinding in the case of meat, but not peanuts) is exempt.

The produce department of your supermarket must inform you, but the deli department does not need to.

Only fresh and frozen foods are covered. Canned and dried foods have had something done to them.

Chicken that is grown here and goes to China to be cut up - well, you won't be told that.

Offal - not covered. So those chicken livers, where all the toxins are concentrated - who knows where they are from. Only muscle meats are covered.

Labeling does not need to be readable with the naked eye. The USDA notes that stickering of fruit and veg is not 100% effective. No kidding. You need a magnifying glass for much of it.

Foods that are combined with other foods are not covered. Frozen peas, si. Frozen peas and carrots, not necessary. Breaded chicken or fish pieces, no.

Which reminds me - grain products are not covered. This is only about perishable food, which I guess means food that will deteriorate rapidly without refrigeration or freezing.

Some things not covered by COOL legislation are covered by tariff laws. Things that you've noticed have been labeled with their countries of origin for years would be because of this.

It seems to me the best tack is still to ask. If enough of us ask enough questions of our retailers we will encourage them to know where things come from, not just prices. If enough of us not only question, but refuse to buy products whose origins are muddy, and tell retailers about it, we may eventually skew the system so it works to our benefit. Right now it's a nod to us and endless exceptions responding to pressures of various trade groups.

Here's a one page summary

I'm off to the garden where I know the origin of my produce. Santa Rosa Creek, Laguna de Santa Rosa, Russian River watersheds, California floristic region, North America.

Late for October 12

How many of these foods did you eat today? Or, better yet, imagine a day with none of them. All are indigenous to the Americas.

kidney/lima/butter/pole/kidney/navy/haricot/snap/string beans
blackberry and raspberry
blueberry, cranberry and huckleberry
cacao (chocolate)
cashew nut
black cherry
corn/maize and popcorn
concord grape
capsicum/chili/cayenne/paprika/bell/sweet pepper
pumpkin/squash/vegetable marrow/gourd
(cucurbits are tricky - they are a global family and given to natural hybridizing and sports)
wild rice
sunflower, including Jerusalem artichoke
sweet potato (which is emphatically not yam - which is an African food plant - no matter what it says at your supermarket)
tomatillo/ground cherry

Some of these crops which we now grow traveled from South American and the Caribbean to Europe and beyond, then were transplanted to North America. This has confused their stories. But such a long list does make one pause and give thanks for the stewardship of first peoples in the western hemisphere.

hectic autumn

I seem to have missed World Food Day and World Poverty Day, not to mention Indigenous Peoples' Day and the advent of COOL, so on a curiously free Sunday - except for garden chores at home and at the community garden and the last AL game of the year - I am going to do some catching up.

It's not that I haven't been thinking and talking about food issues. Our local food systems working group resumed meeting for the fall on Wednesday. My goal for working with this group is to push for a thorough baseline survey of our county food system. If we know where we are starting from, we will know where the leverage points are to improve - access, sustainability, localness and worker justice. I drafted a paper for the group which others will now add to, to make our case.

At dinner on Friday I chatted with folks from St. Stephen's in Colusa where there is interest in a community garden. Chatted may be the wrong word - I really dropped the whole load. Someone pushed the right button and I cranked up the enthusiasm - the evangelist of community gardens c'est moi.

I think our gardens are going to be needed even more with so many people's income and wealth declining while food prices rise. I don't know what kind of saving home or community gardening growing represents in the food budget, but I know the quality is better, and time spent in the garden is time spent in wholesome activity that doesn't cost a penny. As people cut back on shopping for recreation and expensive vacations, why not spend time in the garden? And you don't need a special outfit for it like you do, it seems, for every sport these days; you can wear your oldest clothes. Gardeners become re-users and producers, not so much consumers - which addresses one of the sacred cows of our U.S. economy that got us into this mess in the first place: consumerism.

Also on the food front, I was happy to be able to take tomatoes and baby green beans and squash from my plot for a raw veg platter at the Total Ministry Gathering reception. I also made homemade roasted tomato salsa to go with chips - which turned our really well for a first time improv. There is something about the companionship in good food that makes a meeting better. Most of the food at our gathering was prepared by members of the Redwood Cluster who were also participants in our conference, so that earth, food, friends in Christ were all connected. Whatever the topic of a meeting, such efforts make a difference. When the topic is servant leadership as a note of Total Ministry, it makes all the difference.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

More Episcopal Community Gardens

I keep learning about more community gardens at Episcopal churches, ones I would have liked to have included in my article.

St. Mary's, Los Angeles built a community garden last year, the Yamazaki Memorial Community Garden. A quick web search yielded only this photo.
For those of you who aren't familiar with it, St. Mary's is a 100+ year old congregation rooted in the Japanese American experience. John Yamazaki, for whom the garden was named, was a new priest when he went to camp - internment camp, that is - during World War II. I had the privilege of knowing him when I worked in the Diocese of Los Angeles.

The neighborhood around St. Mary's is no longer one of folks of Japanese descent, but of newer immigrants from Mexico and Central America, and near the current Korea Town. The garden is proving to be a place where commuter members of the congregation and those who live in the neighborhood can come together. Thanks to Steve Nishibayashi for bringing this to my attention.

Just today I learned about a garden at St. Andrew's, Arlington, Virginia, serving those in need in their area. They have a blog - using the same canned header and color scheme as this one! - where you can see pictures of their pretty large garden. It's posted to the right.

If you didn't see the photo album published by Episcopal Life On-line, here is the link:

Monday, October 13, 2008

Is there such a thing as faux pho?

In catching up with emails and feeds I came across this fun article on fake foods,0,2298491.story

which raises all sorts of questions about what is fake and what is real and why that might lead to questions about much more than food.

The first fake food I remember eating as a child was mock cherry pie - which was a winter pie made with fresh cranberries and raisins.

Oh - but what about margarine? and when does a fake food become it's own reality?

I do eat soy simulations, for example, and find myself thinking of some as definite fakes and others as their own real thing. One eats soy burgers for the burger experience. At least I hope one does. Surely it is not for the taste, but for the bun and condiments? And tofurkey anything is really an ultra-processed food fantasy, because first the tofu needs to be made, and then all the distortions need to be wreaked on it to make it resemble meat. True confessions: I do eat tofurkey Italian sausage, again for the meat experience, which doesn't quite make it, but also for the spicy taste. But I think of soyrizo as a food with its own integrity. And you have to think of soy milk as something else, because if you compare it to milk, you will always be disappointed. But "soy beverage" is just too awkward.

The writer does mention Lent in passing - but there might be a fascinating project in searching old cookbooks for fast day deceivers.

And one has to wonder, prices being what they are and climbing while wealth and incomes fall, will there be new fake foods for this new era of belt tightening?

The article would have been even better with more attention to Japanese faux foods. I recall the first time I explored a vegan cookbook with all the clever fakes from the Buddhist tradition, with their emphasis on the visual.

As for Japanese inventions that are widely available, I have been known to say "It's not imitation anything, it's real surimi."

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Susatainable Fishing

A BBC story caught my eye, and led me to a new World Bank - FAO report on fishing.

The reality would seem to be simple - more and more effort, at greater and greater cost, for less and less fish - with the endpoint somewhere around mid century. We probably already knew this.

The antidote seems to be major reform - and the article suggests that if there is a move toward reducing the size of fleets and building up stocks, fishing could be profitable again worldwide.

The pull quote in the BBC story says it all:

"Sustainable fisheries require political will to replace incentives for overfishing with incentives for responsible stewardship. " Kieran Kelleher, World Bank fisheries team leader.

Ah - political will. With the opposite of political will being short term gain (or supposed short term gain) and greed, I think.

Reading the article I wondered how much of the resistance to a change to sustainability comes from the way of life of fishers - my sense, having known some, is that there is almost more emotional attachment to fishing as a way of life, generation to generation, than there is to farming. Turns out the report does have some things to say about this - and the need to invest in the transitions of persons who are displaced by increased management of fisheries. But what about beyond the economic considerations - to considering what such displacement does to people's sense of self, sense of place in creation?

Here's the report: "The Sunken Billions: the economic justification for fisheries reform",com_docman/task,doc_view/gid,742/Itemid,98/

I love Swiss Chard

as you might have guessed from the photo here. I've been struggling to get some started in my community garden plot, but something keeps chomping it. I will probably have better luck growing it again in the planters in my small backyard - in fact, I think I already am.

There's one chard plant - from the spring's donation of starts - growing in Marilyn and Stan's plot. They don't eat it, so I have been harvesting it - and it's power as a cut and come again vegetable never ceases to amaze me.

What does amaze me is the number of people who don't eat it or don't know what to do with it.

Here among the NY Times healthful recipes for the week are some recipes.

Most use other seasonal things and things I can source locally. I am hungry just reading these recipes!

Monday, October 6, 2008

A Tale of Two Stories

When you don't have an absorbing audiobook or aren't mentally rehearsing a sermon on the Sunday morning drive of course you turn to NPR.

Yesterday's show had two interesting food stories, especially when you take them together. One was about the Obamas' favorite restaurant in Chicago, Rick Bayless' flagship. Reporter Daniel Zwerdling clearly has a pretty narrow range - all Mexican food in the US is not TexMex - but he probably never has explored the slow food traditions in New Mexico or California, which include much more than Chili's and tacquerias.

You can find a recipe for Michelle's favorite steak tacos a la Rick on the NPR web site.

If you can afford the steak.

The other story was about a young couple who live in the Sacramento area and are caught between student loans and an 80/20 ARM on their house (which has declined in value in two years from $285,000 to <$150,000). They work three jobs between them, and have $200 left after fixed expenses at the end of the month. What do they eat? Rice, beans and multi-vitamins.

The young woman recalled her grandfather always having a pantry stocked with non-perishable foods. With a friend's generosity in the form of grocery gift cards she planned to stock up on meat and pantry items.

This at a time of year and in an area where produce abounds, and at far cheaper prices that we in vineyardland pay at farmers' markets and produce stands. I wanted to yell at the radio - please at least buy some California apples, onions, and winter squash - and maybe even some almonds.

And if you can hang onto the house, don't just sit in your backyard after working your two jobs - plant a garden.

I'm wondering if the chasm is widening between those who eat out at mid-high end places with some regularity, and those who don't eat out at all. And I'm wondering if the home arts of kitchen and garden will be rediscovered to make the most of what we can afford at the market. What would be truly wonderful - if eating in one another's homes became common again as a means of celebration.

Friday, October 3, 2008

I feel like doing a kind of "dear diary" entry today. What a day - I filed my story for the November Episcopal Life about environmental education at Episcopal Camps, we got real rain - for which the garden and I thank God - the Red Sox beat the Angels again AND

the on-line photo album of Episcopal Community Gardens was finally published!

I had such a wonderful time doing this story, phoning and emailing with folks committed to community gardening all around the country. There are a couple more that I did not receive photos from, but with whom I am in touch. Several have blogs which I am going to post links to here.

They are all wonderful witnesses to that place where care for the earth, care for the poor, and building community among generations and cultures come together.