We can eat “ugly” carrots too!

uglycarrotBy Anna Lee –  March 13, 2015 – The Washington Post

You can always tell when I’ve been munching from a bowl of tortilla chips because the only ones left are the perfect ones: all three corners intact, no folded edges, no giant air bubbles. The broken chips and burnt bits and crumbs usually lurking at the bottom of the bowl are gone. I ate them.

I like to eat the weird ones, whether it’s chips or cauliflower. I habitually seek the nonconformist food products: the intertwined “love carrots,” the kiwi twins, the apples with codling moth damage, the kale leaves that the cabbage loopers have nibbled. I picked up this habit while I was working on an organic farm in California, where we grew everything from strawberries to chard to sweet corn. When we harvested “seconds” — the perfectly edible, often slightly more delicious, fruits and veggies that weren’t quite pretty enough to offer to our customers — they went directly to our own kitchen, where we ate them with (or made them into) relish.

That farm was lucky to have a built-in community of people excited to consume the odd ones, but that’s not how the rest of our food system works. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that high cosmetic standards in the retail industry exclude 20 to 40 percent of fresh produce from the market. Sometimes farmers can sell those unwanteds to processors making jam or cider or pickles, but as those systems rely increasingly on mechanization, they become less flexible when it comes to shape and size. Tons of food — 800 to 900 million tons globally each year, the weight of 9,000 Nimitz-class aircraft carriers — rot in storage or don’t make it out of the fields because farmers can’t find a market.

The organic farm where I worked marketed primarily through a farm stand and a subscription service, so we had the luxury of communicating directly with our customers about why our produce looked the way it did. But farmers selling through distributors face very different standards. Some criteria are rightly based on food-safety and shelf-life considerations, but many are manifestations of misguided normative ideas about what produce should look like. Cucumbers should be straight, cauliflower florets should be tightly held, and rhubarb stalks should be ruby red. If not, retailers tell farmers, consumers won’t buy them.

I worked on a second farm that sent much more produce to the compost pile. Beet butts, the ones that have deep vertical creases, and knobby potatoes were doomed. Kohlrabi that had grown too fast and split and Brussels sprout stalks that had seen any aphid action also got axed, even though the bugs pose no health risk. Even on the organic farm, we had to leave a lot of chard in the fields — our subscription-service customers, who tended to accept or even prefer imperfect produce, objected to certain types of damage to chard leaves.

Farmers recognize that they’re at the whim of nature, and they plan accordingly, sowing extra seed with the assumption that pests, diseases or weather will take out some of the crop. That’s part of life. But when plants survive all of that, only to be rejected because they happen to be too small, a little twisted or not quite evenly colored, the loss is harder to face. My heart broke a little as I wheeled barrows of unmarketable onions that had grown long and skinny instead of short and round to the compost pile, or surveyed a field dotted with winter squash that we’d had to leave behind because the vegetables had been nibbled by bugs or were too small. The nutrients in that produce would go back into the soil and nourish next year’s crops, which was a noble purpose in its own right. But it was not the future we’d planned for our seedlings. Good farmers invest themselves in their crops with visions of feeding their communities. To see our produce fall short of its potential, our efforts thwarted by senseless prejudice, struck me as an absurd injustice. Plant an extra row for the bugs, or one for the gophers, or one for the drought, sure — but an extra row for narrow-mindedness?

This system hurts more than the wallets and feelings of farmers — it’s a tremendous waste of resources. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that global food wastage, about half of which occurs during production and post-harvest handling and storage, was responsible for 3.6 billion tons of CO2 equivalent emissions in 2007, the most recent year for which data is available; that’s more CO2 than Brazil, Japan and Australia together emitted in 2011. Wasted food also takes 250 cubic kilometers of water to produce every year, which is 38 times the amount used by all households in the United States combined.

By insisting on perfect-looking produce, customers also cheat themselves of taste and variety. Apple breeders used to select specifically for russetting because it was associated with longer shelf life. That’s how we got Hudson’s Golden Gem, a delicious variety that’s a favorite among my farmer friends. But you’ll never find a Gem in a standard grocery store today, precisely because of that russetting. We’ve decided that apples should be shiny, not rough; large, not small; and red or green, but definitely not brown; so now what we find in stores are piles of uniform Red Delicious apples with latex-like skin, mealy flesh and no complexity of flavor. Customers are missing out on the pleasures of a russetted apple: the coarse texture against the tongue and the concentrated flavor of the dense flesh that accompanies it.

Consumers waste plenty of food after the point of purchase, and we can change our habits to curb that — by planning our grocery trips better; by ignoring “best by” dates, which indicate nothing about the safety of the food; by saving those overripe bananas for banana bread. But we can help cut waste upstream as well by embracing broader aesthetic standards. Choose the odd tomatoes and the gnarly parsnips. Buy the undersize beets and the broken almonds. Tell our grocers and our farmers that we’d rather have a slightly dented butternut squash than a hot, dry planet. Support businesses that help get the less-beautiful produce out of fields and onto consumers’ tables. (One French grocer, Intermarché, began buying “ugly” produce in 2014 and selling it at slightly reduced prices at several locations; the success prompted the company to expand the initiative to all of its stores.) We can stop our valuable food — every pound of which represents a sizable investment of energy, water, labor and money — from leaving the system without fulfilling is purpose.

By all means, eat the beautiful ones and celebrate the unblemished apple that nature is capable of producing. But don’t neglect their equally nutritious, no less wondrous, slightly unconventional brethren. When you stop to consider how much you’re really saving, you may even find they taste better.

Original Post




The following is an interview with one of the producer/vendors at the All Things Local Cooperative Market.

Gabor Lukacs of Gabor’s Eggs

Egg Shaped Gold – by Caroline Seymour

It’s so easy to separate the grocery store from the farm.  Eggs come from chickens, obviously, but on a weekly trip to Stop and Shop it’s hard to remember that eggs don’t just come from cardboard cartons.  What’s more, we’re even made to believe that all eggs are created equal.  You might feel good about buying cage-free eggs, but if there’s really no difference between the eggs then it’s not worth worrying about, right?

eggsWrong!  The color of an egg’s shell doesn’t really matter, but what’s inside can vary widely based on the life of the chicken it came from, and the difference is big enough to see.  Try putting one supermarket egg in a bowl next to Gabor’s Eggs from All Things Local, and the difference is clear. Gabor’s eggs have a richer, more brightly colored yolk.  The yolks stand taller, they’re stronger, and they even taste better.  And as you might expect, the difference doesn’t come from chemicals and hormones, but from something even more unusual: treating chickens like chickens.

It turns out, letting chickens do what chickens like to do causes them to produce better eggs.  This means letting them out of the little cages (commonly called battery cages) that commercially raised chickens live in and letting them outside.  Gabor Lukacs, an Amherst resident who raises chickens of his own, knows exactly what this means.  His chickens live in a wide area around his garden, picking at bugs and grass and choosing whether they want to stand in the shade of their summer enclosure or their more sheltered winter enclosure.  He knows they have enough space, because “Some space in their area is still covered in grass, which means they haven’t had time to get to it all – it means they have plenty of room.”  Letting chickens act like chickens means their stress levels are at a minimum; they don’t have to fight each other for space, they have a variety of food to eat, and they can focus on living happy chicken lives.

gabor1It may sound surprising to hear that Gabor’s eggs aren’t certified organic.  They’re free to live in the open, and aren’t treated with hormones or antibiotics.  But Gabor raises his chickens in an environment that’s about something even more important: he focuses on living locally.  In his own words, “Local creates community.  Organic doesn’t.”  Today, the term ‘organic’ is regulated by the government, which unfortunately means that it’s expensive to become certified, and the term doesn’t necessarily mean that anything is produced in a sustainable, humane way.  Gabor’s chickens and gardens are designed to be sustainable; he doesn’t have to buy commercial chicken food or fertilizers, but relies on the resources in and around Amherst.  This includes recycling food waste from the All Things Local café; chickens eat grains, of course, and they love the vegetable leftovers like carrot peels.  So even though they’re not certified organic, they are local, sustainable, and produce delicious eggs!

The benefits of these eggs go even deeper than taste.  All eggs provide some level of vitamin D, an essential nutrient that plays an important role in bone health and digestion.  One study found that free range chickens living outdoors produced eggs with four times more vitamin D than chickens living in battery cages[1].  Imagine eating four supermarket eggs to get the amount of vitamin D in just one of Gabor’s eggs!  It’s important to note that just because eggs are labeled ‘free range’ doesn’t mean they have all the space they need; commercial free range chickens can still be packed together, which makes them stressed out and more likely to fight.  Another study found that chickens treated similarly to Gabor’s had twice as much carotenoids than commercially produced eggs[2].  Carotenoids are precursors to vitamin A, which is essential for vision, and can also act as antioxidants, which protect the body from damaging chemicals.  Carotenoids give foods a yellow or orange color, which is why Gabor’s eggs are so much brighter than those bought from the grocery store.

Why don’t all eggs just get these benefits?  It’s simple – chicken farms don’t know how to manipulate hormones and nutrition to produce eggs as good as Gabor’s.  The simple truth is that there’s no substitute for chickens’ natural diet and habits when it comes to producing good eggs.  This is food that you can feel good about buying, and really enjoy eating!  If you haven’t already tried them, pick up some of Gabor’s Eggs next time you’re in All Things Local and see the difference for yourself.

To support Gabor and other producers like him, please become a member and buy your food at the All Things Local Cooperative Market!


[1] Kuhn J, Schutkowski A, Kluge H, Hirche F, Stangl, G. Free-range farming: a natural alternative to produce vitamin D-enriched eggs. Nutrition. 2014;30(4):481-4.

[2] Hesterberg K, Schanzer S, Patzelt A, et al. Raman spectroscopic analysis of the carotenoid concentration in egg yolks depending on the feeding and housing conditions of the laying hens. Journal of Piophotonics. 2012;5:33-39.

Original Post was in the All Things Local Newsletter

They are drilling for water millions of years old

df445f6f-703f-4629-a9b3-681e90efbeb5-1020x612Kim Hammond does not want responsibility for her neighbours’ livelihoods, or for the crops which stretch in all directions as far as the eye can see, or for the earth itself in this corner of California.

But these days, her little bungalow office in the yard of her family’s drilling company can feel like Mount Olympus.

“It’s just way too stressful, playing God,” said Hammond, a grandmother who co-owns the company and works as its secretary. “Every day we have people on the phone or here in person, pleading. It breaks your heart. But I always give it to them straight. I don’t sugarcoat it.”

It is her job to tell farmers when – or if – a team can visit their property to drill for groundwater and make a well which can save a crop, avert bankruptcy and, perhaps, preserve a way of life.

As California faces a likely fourth year of drought, demand for drilling in the Central Valley has exploded. Hammond’s company, Arthur & Orum, can barely keep up: its seven rigs are working flat-out, yet a white folder with pending requests is thicker than three telephone books.

The waiting list has grown to three years, leaving many farmers to contemplate parched fields and ruin in what has been one of the world’s most productive agricultural regions. It supplies half of America’s fruit, nuts and vegetables.

“We’re overwhelmed. We’re going crazy,” said Hammond. “Everyone is in a desperate situation. Everyone has a sad story.”

Arthur & Orum has bought an additional rig for $1.2m, and out-of-state drillers have moved into the area. But as drills criss-cross the landscape, boring ever deeper into the earth, there is a haunting fear: what if they suck up all the groundwater? What if, one day, the water runs out?

“We’re having to go deeper and deeper,” said Hammond. “They say we’re tapping water millions of years old. That boggles the mind. I can hardly grasp it.”

Meagre rain has depressed the water table so much that in some areas drills bore more than 1,500ft. Sucking up water stored long underground can cause soil to subside and collapse. In some places the land has dropped by a foot. Hydrogeologists have warned that pumping out groundwater faster than it can recharge threatens springs, streams and ecosystems.

Hammond said she was conflicted that the family business was saving some neighbours’ livelihoods for now but risked long-term devastation. “They say we’re cutting our own throats. I live here. I don’t want to live in the desert.”

Sensing drama, a reality TV production company has asked the family company about doing a show.
Desperate times

The spectre of desertification inched closer this week. The Sierra Nevada snowpack, which supplies about a third of California’s water, is paltry. The California Cooperative Snow Surveys Program found just 6.7in of snow – close to the lowest on record – at a survey spot near Echo Summit.

Storms in December and February mean reservoirs hold more water than this time last year, but they remain well below average. Conservation efforts are slipping. In January urban areas used 9% less water than January 2013, far below the official target of 20%.

El Niño, the weather system which often douses the western US, has returned after a five-year absence but promises little relief. Mike Halpert, deputy director of the Climate Prediction Center, said in a statement it is “likely too late and too weak to provide much relief for drought-stricken California”.

Federal officials warned last week that for a second consecutive year irrigation projects were likely to allocate zero water to Central Valley farmers without senior water rights.

“This is an absolutely devastating shock,” said Ryan Jacobsen, executive director for the Fresno County farm bureau. “Unless things change dramatically in the next six weeks, we expect 2015 to be much worse than last year.”

Crisis is apparent as you drive through the valley. Many fields are fallow – some idled last year, others more recently. The earth is baked hard. Preliminary estimates suggest Fresno may have recorded its warmest-ever February, prolonging what has been dubbed the “time without winter”. Roadside signs warn of the consequences. “No water = no food.” “Food grows where water flows.”

The American Meteorological Society has found no definitive link between climate change and California’s drought, but a recent report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences said rising temperatures caused dry periods to overlap more often with warm periods.
‘It’s like frigging chemotherapy’

Computers and state-of-the-art irrigation have not spared Shawn Coburn, 46, who owns a farm near Dos Palos, in Merced County. Last year he abandoned alfalfa and pomegranates and cut his 1,000-acre tomato crop by two-thirds. “This year I’ll fallow all of it. You’ll see a lot more land fallowed this year.”

Like many farmers, he assailed pumping restrictions aimed at protecting the delta smelt, a threatened fish, and other environmental regulations, branding them ruinous and futile. Environmentalists call them vital to the entire ecosystem.

Coburn has spent almost $4m on wells but said in some areas water plumbed from ever lower depths was often laden with salt and other minerals. “It’s like frigging chemotherapy,” he said. “You can get away with it for one year. By the third year you’re basically killing the tree.”

Even so, many farmers see no alternative.

Clarence Freitas, 56, who owns 70 acres of almonds and grapes, watched with relief as a team from Arthur & Orum drilled into his baked soil, boring through 80ft a day until reaching 440ft and an expensive, urgent replacement for his old 160ft-deep well.

“My heart hurts, my bank account hurts,” he said, as muddy water gushed from pipes. Neighbours advised him to go deeper, in anticipation of the water table plunging further, but Freitas said the men in his family tended to die young – “I hope it’ll last 20 years and by then I’ll be gone.” He was not optimistic about the valley. “This could go back to being desert, the way it was before irrigation.”

Many farmers are descendants of migrants who fled here to escape the 1930s dust bowl, a trauma immortalised in John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath. It could happen again, except this time in California’s man-made Eden, said Matt Hammond, 51, Kim’s husband, on his way to a drilling site.

“They’ll keep growing crops around here until they pump the valley dry. If something doesn’t change, everything will dry up and die. It won’t be farmable anymore.”

The community had hoped for a “miracle March” of bountiful rain but that seems unlikely, he said, scanning azure skies. “Nobody’s fault but God’s.”

Original Post

Share your thoughts on the Massachusetts Food System at this open forum at UMass

ma-food-plan-web-logoListening Sessions for the Massachusetts Food System Planning Process

Tuesday, February 3, from 4:00 to 5:30 p.m.

 Amherst Room, UMass Campus Center, 10th floor

Do you have a perspective on an aspect of our food system that you believe should be heard by the people who are developing a Food System Plan for Massachusetts, the first such plan in over 40 years?

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, through its Food Policy Council, has engaged a partnership of four agencies to develop the plan. The plan will recommend a number of strategies to strengthen our food system, including legislative, regulatory and budget recommendations as well actions that many individuals and organizations can pursue. It will focus on increasing food production and related jobs within the state as well as on access and equity within the system and ecological resilience.

Last Fall, the Planning Partners held a number of Listening Sessions in eastern Massachusetts to seek input into the plan. Now, several groups on the UMass Amherst campus have come together to sponsor a Listening Session on campus for people from on-campus and off-campus. All are welcome. These include faculty, students and staff from UMass and the Five Colleges and all Mass. residents. Attendance at this Listening Session will be very appropriate for those who would like an introduction to the planning process and, most importantly, to provide input to the planners.

Planning Partners: Metropolitan Area Planning Council, Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, Franklin Regional Council of Governments, Massachusetts Workforce Alliance, Fertile Ground.

Listening Session Sponsors: UMass Center for Public Policy and Administration; UMass Center for Agriculture, Food and the Environment; UMass Auxiliary Services.

Listening Session Co-Sponsors: UMass Department of Nutrition, the Sustainable Food and Farming Program at the UMass Stockbridge School of Agriculture, UMass Real Food Challenge.

Details about the Listening Session:

  • Date: Tuesday, February 3, from 4:00 to 5:30 p.m.
  • Place: Amherst Room, UMass Campus Center, 10th floor
  • Admittance is without charge and RSVPs are not required. Parking is available in the adjacent Campus Center Parking Garage. For further information contact Joe Shoenfeld, shoenfeld@cns.umass.edu, 413-545-5309.

Industrial Agriculture is Really Good at “Public Relations”

By Jonathan Latham, PhD

By conventional wisdom it is excellent news. Researchers from Iowa have shown that organic farming methods can yield almost as highly as pesticide-intensive methods. Other researchers, from Berkeley, California, have reached a similar conclusion. Indeed, both findings met with a very enthusiastic reception. The enthusiasm is appropriate, but only if one misses a deep and fundamental point: that even to participate in such a conversation is to fall into a carefully laid trap.

The strategic centrepiece of Monsanto’s PR, and also that of just about every major commercial participant in the industrialised food system, is to focus on the promotion of one single overarching idea. The big idea that industrial producers in the food system want you to believe is that only they can produce enough for the future population (Peekhaus 2010). Thus non-industrial systems of farming, such as all those which use agroecological methods, or SRI, or are localised and family-oriented, or which use organic methods, or non-GMO seeds, cannot feed the world.

Dustbowl and soil erosion USA, 1935's

To be sure, agribusiness has other PR strategies. Agribusiness is “pro-science”, its opponents are “anti-science”, and so on. But the main plank has for decades been to create a cast-iron moral framing around the need to produce more food (Stone and Glover 2011).

Therefore, if you go to the websites of Monsanto and Cargill and Syngenta and Bayer, and their bedfellows: the US Farm Bureau, the UK National Farmers Union, and the American Soybean Association, and CropLife International, or The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation, USAID, or the international research system (CGIAR), and now even NASA, they very early (if not instantaneously) raise the “urgent problem” of who will feed the expected global population of 9 or 10 billion in 2050.

Likewise, whenever these same organisations compose speeches or press releases, or videos, or make any pronouncement designed for policymakers or the populace, they devote precious space to the same urgent problem. It is even in their job advertisements. It is their Golden Fact and their universal calling card. And as far as neutrals are concerned it wins the food system debate hands down, because it says, if any other farming system cannot feed the world, it is irrelevant. Only agribusiness can do that.

The real food crisis is of overproduction
Yet this strategy has a disastrous foundational weakness. There is no global or regional shortage of food. There never has been and nor is there ever likely to be. India has a superabundance of food. South America is swamped in food. The US, Australia, New Zealand and Europe are swamped in food (e.g. Billen et al 2011). In Britain, like in many wealthy countries, nearly half of all row crop food production now goes to biofuels, which at bottom are an attempt to dispose of surplus agricultural products. China isn’t quite swamped but it still exports food (see Fig 1.); and it grows 30% of the world’s cotton. No foodpocalypse there either.

Of all the populous nations, Bangladesh comes closest to not being swamped in food. Its situation is complex. Its government says it is self-sufficient. The UN world Food Program says it is not, but the truth appears to be that Bangladeshi farmers do not produce the rice they could because prices are too low, because of persistent gluts (1).

Chinese net food exports

Even some establishment institutions will occasionally admit that the food shortage concept – now and in any reasonably conceivable future – is bankrupt. According to experts consulted by the World Bank Institute there is already sufficient food production for 14 billion people – more food than will ever be needed. The Golden Fact of agribusiness is a lie.

Truth restoration
So, if the agribusiness PR experts are correct that food crisis fears are pivotal to their industry, then it follows that those who oppose the industrialization of food and agriculture should make dismantling that lie their top priority.

Anyone who wants a sustainable, pesticide-free, or non-GMO food future, or who wants to swim in a healthy river or lake again, or wants to avoid climate chaos, needs to know all this. Anyone who would like to rebuild the rural economy or who appreciates cultural, biological, or agricultural diversity of any meaningful kind should take every possible opportunity to point out the evidence that refutes it. Granaries are bulging, crops are being burned as biofuels or dumped, prices are low, farmers are abandoning farming for slums and cities, all because of massive oversupply. Anyone could also point out that probably the least important criterion for growing food, is how much it yields. Even just to acknowledge crop yield, as an issue for anyone other than the individual farmer, is to reinforce the framing of the industry they oppose.

The project to fully industrialise global food production is far from complete, yet already it is responsible for most deforestation, most marine pollution, most coral reef destruction, much of greenhouse gas emissions, most habitat loss, most of the degradation of streams and rivers, most food insecurity, most immigration, most water depletion, massive human health problems, and so on (Foley et al 2005; Foley et al 2011). Therefore, it is not an exaggeration to say that if the industrialisation of food is not reversed our planet will be made unlivable for multi-cellular organisms. Our planet is becoming literally uninhabitable solely as a result of the social and ecological consequences of industrialising agriculture. All these problems are without even mentioning the trillions of dollars in annual externalised costs and subsidies (Pretty et al. 2000).

So, if one were to devise a strategy for the food movement, it would be this. The public already knows (mostly) that pesticides are dangerous. They also know that organic food is higher quality, and is far more environmentally friendly. It knows that GMOs should be labeled, are largely untested, and may be harmful. That is why the leaders of most major countries, including China, dine on organic food. The immense scale of the problems created by industrial agriculture should, of course, be understood better, but the main facts are hardly in dispute.

But what industry understands, and the food movement does not, is that what prevents total rejection of bland, industrialised, pesticide-laden, GMO food is the standard acceptance, especially in Western countries, of the overarching agribusiness argument that such food is necessary. It is necessary to feed the world.

But, if the food movement could show that famine is an empty threat then it would also have shown, by clear implication, that the chemical health risks and the ecological devastation that these technologies represent are what is unnecessary. The movement would have shown that pesticides and GMOs exist solely to extract profit from the food chain. They have no other purpose. Therefore, every project of the food movement should aim to spread the truth of oversupply, until mention of the Golden Fact invites ridicule and embarrassment rather than fear.

Divide and Confuse
Food campaigners might also consider that a strategy to combat the food scarcity myth can unite a potent mix of causes. Just as an understanding of food abundance destroys the argument for pesticide use and GMOs simultaneously, it also creates the potential for common ground within and between constituencies that do not currently associate much: health advocates, food system workers, climate campaigners, wildlife conservationists and international development campaigners. None of these constituencies inherently like chemical poisons, and they are hardly natural allies of agribusiness, but the pressure of the food crisis lie has driven many of them to ignore what could be the best solution to their mutual problems: small scale farming and pesticide-free agriculture. This is exactly what the companies intended.

So divisive has the Golden Fact been that some non-profits have entered into perverse partnerships with agribusiness and others support inadequate or positively fraudulent sustainability labels. Another consequence has been mass confusion over the observation that almost all the threats to the food supply (salinisation, water depletion, soil erosion, climate change and chemical pollution) come from the supposed solution–the industrialisation of food production. These contradictions are not real. When the smoke is blown away and the mirrors are taken down the choices within the food system become crystal clear. They fall broadly into two camps.

Vegetables growing

On the one side lie family farms and ecological methods. These support farmer and consumer health, resilience, financial and democratic independence, community, cultural and biological diversity, and long term sustainability. Opposing them is control of the food system by corporate agribusiness. Agribusiness domination leads invariantly to dependence, uniformity, poisoning and ecological degradation, inequality, land grabbing, and, not so far off, to climate chaos.

One is a vision, the other is a nightmare: in every single case where industrial agriculture is implemented it leaves landscapes progressively emptier of life. Eventually, the soil turns either into mud that washes into the rivers or into dust that blows away on the wind. Industrial agriculture has no long term future; it is ecological suicide. But for obvious reasons those who profit from it cannot allow all this to become broadly understood.  That is why the food scarcity lie is so fundamental to them. They absolutely depend on it, since it alone can camouflage the simplicity of the underlying issues.

Soil erosion, USA, 1935

Reverse PR?
Despite all this, the food and environmental movements have never seriously contested the reality of a food crisis. Perhaps that is because it is a narrative with a long history. As early as the 1940s the chemical and oil industries sent the Rockefeller Foundation to Mexico to “fix” agriculture there. Despite evidence to the contrary, the Rockefeller scientists derived a now-familiar narrative: Mexican agriculture was obviously gripped by a production deficit that could be fixed by “modern” agribusiness products (The Hungry World, 2010). This story later became the uncontested “truth” that legitimised the green revolution and still propels the proliferation of pesticides, fertilizers, GMOs and other agribusiness methods into every part of the globe.

Yet in the age of the internet it is no longer necessary to let an industry decide where the truth resides. It is possible to restore reality to the global discussion about food so that all potential production methods can have their merits fairly evaluated (IAASTD, 2007). Until this is done agribusiness and chemical industry solutions will always be the default winner, alternative agriculture will always be alternative, if it exists at all.

The evidence with which to contradict the lie is everywhere; but in an unequal and unjust system truth never speaks for itself. It is a specific task that requires a refusal to be intimidated by the torrents of official misinformation and a willingness to unembed oneself from the intellectual web of industry thinking. (That will often mean ordinary people acting alone.)

The task requires two things; the first is familiarity with the basic facts of the food system. Good starting points (apart from the links in this article) are Good Food for Everyone Forever by Colin Tudge or World Hunger: Twelve Myths by Joseph Collins, Peter Rosset and Frances Moore Lappe.

Power, lies, and consent
The second requirement is a shift in perception. The shift is to move beyond considering only physical goals, such as saving individual species, or specific political achievements, and to move towards considering the significance of the underlying mental state of the citizenry.

Companies and industries pay huge sums of money for public relations (PR). PR is predicated on the idea that all human behaviour is governed by belief systems. PR is therefore the discovery of the structure of those belief systems, mainly through focus groups, and the subsequent manipulation of those belief structures with respect to particular products or other goals.

Thus human reasoning, which asks questions like: Is it fair? What will the neighbours think? can be accessed and diverted to make individuals and groups act often against their own self-interests. Two important general rules are that it works best when people don’t know they are being influenced, and that it comes best from a “friendly” source. PR is therefore always concealed which creates the widespread misunderstanding that it is rare or ineffective.

Anyone who desires social change on a significant scale should seek to understand this, and its corollary, that the food crisis lie is far from the only lie. As philosopher Michel Foucault documented for madness and also criminality, many assertions constituting supposed “reality” are best understood as establishment fabrications. Those described by Foucault mostly have deep historical roots; but others, such as the genetic origin of disease, or the validity of animal experiments, are untruths of recent origin. The function of these fabrications is always social control. As Edward Bernays, the father of modern PR, long ago wrote:

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”

The possibility of manipulating habits and opinions, which he also called “the engineering of consent” was not an idle boast.

Foucault, who was concerned mostly with the power held by governments, considered that the fabrications he had identified were not conspiracies. They were emergent properties of power. Power and knowledge grow together in an intertwined and mutually supportive fashion. He argued that knowledge creates power but is also deferential to power and so is deformed by it. An example is when US newspapers decline to use the word “torture” for when torture is used by the US government. These newspapers and the US government are together doing what Foucault theorised. The US government gets to torture and gains power in the process while the public is simultaneously deceived and disempowered. In this way the preferred language of the powerful has historically and continuously evolved into the established public truth, to the disadvantage of the people.

Bernays, however, worked mainly for corporations. He knew, since some of them were his own ideas, that many of the more recent fabrications were not emergent properties but were intentionally planted.

The essential point, however, is to appreciate not only that companies and others deliberately engineer social change; but also that when they do so it begins with the reordering of the “reality” perceived by the people. The companies first create a reality (such as Mexican hunger) for which their desired change seems to the people either obvious, or beneficial, or natural. When it comes, the people therefore do not resist the solution, many welcome it.

The structure of “reality”
Dictators and revolutionaries provide an interesting lesson in this. The successful ones have achieved sometimes extraordinary power. As always, they have done so first by changing the opinions of the people. The dictator, like any corporation, must make the people want them. As a general rule, dictators do this by creating new and more compelling false realities on top of older ones.

Hitler, to take a familiar example, harnessed a newly synthesised idea (German nationalism) to a baseless scientific theory (of racial genetics) and welded this to pre-existing “realities” of elitism and impugned manhood (the loss of WWI). These ideas were instrumental in his rise to power. But the important lesson for social change is that none of the ideas used by him possessed (now or then) any objective or empirical reality. They were all fabrications. It is true Hitler also had secret money, bodyguards, and so on, but so did others. Only Hitler found the appropriate combination of concepts able to colonise the minds of enough German people.

But Hitler is not known now for being just another leader of Germany. He is infamous for two events, the holocaust and World War II. The same lessons apply. Millions fought and died for almost a decade in a struggle to assert ideas that could have been destroyed by the intellectual equivalent of a feather. But that is how powerful ideas are.

The lies told in more democratic societies are not so very different to those used by Hitler in the sense that the important ones have predictable properties that can be categorised and sorted. What the food scarcity lie has in common with Hitler’s use of race, and with myths of nationalism, or of modern terrorism, and many others, is the creation of a threat, in this case of famine and possible social breakdown. The creation of an internal or external threat is thus the first category of lies.

The second category recognises the necessity of “efficient government”. No government can issue direct and separate orders to all the people all the time. Nor can it possess the resources for physical enforcement of those orders. It must therefore find ways to cause the people to govern, order, and regiment themselves, in exquisite detail. Therefore, governments supply and support guiding principles in the form of artificial unifying aspirations, such as “progress” or “civilisation”. Typically, they also strongly encourage the desirability of being “normal”; and especially they reinforce elitism (follow the leader), and so on.

Anther structural category follows from the recognition that the effective operation of power over others, unless it is based on pure physical force or intimidation, usually requires an authoritative source of ostensibly unbiased knowledge. The population must be “convinced” by an unimpeachable third party. This function is typically fulfilled by either organised religion or by organised science. Scientific or religious institutions thus legitimate the ideas (progress, hierarchy, normality, inequality, etc.) of the rulers. These sources conceal the use of power because they combine the appearance of authority, independence and disinterestedness. These qualities are all or partly fictions.

Another category are fabrications intended to foster dependence on the state and the formal economy. These aim to undermine the ancient dependence of individuals on the land and each other, and transfer that dependence to the state. Thus the worship of competition, the exaggeration of gender differences, and genetic determinism (the theory that your health, personality, and success derive only from within) are examples of fabrications that sow enmity and isolation among the population.

Another important category, which include the myths of papal infallibility, or scientific and journalistic objectivity, exist to reinforce the power of authority itself. These fabrications act to bolster the influence of other myths.

The above list is not exhaustive, but it serves to introduce the idea that the organising of detailed control over populations of millions, achieved mostly without resorting to any physical force, requires the establishing and perpetual reinforcement of multiple interlocking untruths. This itself has important implications.

The first and most important implication is that if the lies and fabrications exist to concentrate and exercise power over others (and then conceal its use), then it also follows that genuinely beneficial and humanitarian goals such as harmony, justice, and equity, require retrieval of the truth and the goals will follow naturally from that retrieval.

The task of anyone who wants harmony, justice, peace, etc to prevail therefore becomes primarily to free the people from believing in lies and thus allowing them to attain mastery over their own minds. At that point they will know their own true needs and desires; they will no longer “want” to be oppressed or exploited.

The second implication of this entwining of knowledge with power is that, when properly understood, goals of harmony, understanding, health, diversity, justice, sustainability, opportunity, etc., are not contradictory or mutually exclusive. Rather, they are necessarily interconnected.

The third implication is that an empire built on lies is much more vulnerable than it seems. It can rapidly unravel.

Given that resources are limited, the problems of achieving broad social justice, of providing for the people, and of restoring environmental harms consequently become that of discerning which of the lies (since there are many) are most in need of exposing; and perhaps in what order.

Thus the necessary shift in perception is to see that, as in most wars, the crucial struggle in the food war is the one inside people’s heads. And that the great food war will be won by the side that understands that and uses it best.

This food war can be won by either side. The natural advantages of the grassroots in this realm are many. They include the power of the internet–which represents a historic opportunity to connect with others; second, that it takes a lot less effort to assert the truth than it does to build a lie-many people only need to hear the truth once; and thirdly, that in this particular battle the non-profit public-interest side doesn’t necessarily need a bigger megaphone because, unlike the industry, they are (broadly) trusted by the public.

Consequently, it is perfectly possible that a lie that took several powerful industries many decades to build up could be dismantled in months. It is necessary only to unleash the power of the truth and to constantly remember the hidden power of the people: that all the effort industries put into misleading them is an accurate acknowledgement of the potential of that power.

There are many writers and NGOs, such as Pesticides Action Network, IATP, the EWG, the Organic Consumers Association, the Center for Food Safety, and others, who are aligned with the grassroots, and who are doing a good and necessary job of explaining the problems and costs of industrial agriculture. But these arguments have so far proven inadequate. Agribusiness knows why that is.

But by combining these arguments with a refutation of the food crisis they can help destroy the industrial model of agriculture forever. And when that happens many of our worst global problems, from climate change and rainforest destruction down, will become either manageable or even negligible.

It is all in the mind.

(1) Thanks to Prof J Duxbury, Cornell University.

Billen et al (2011) Localising the Nitrogen Imprint of the Paris Food Supply: the Potential of Organic Farming and Changes in Human Diet. Biogeosciences Discuss 8: 10979-11002.

Cullather, N. (2010) The Hungry World: America’s Cold War Battle against Poverty in Asia (Harvard)

Foley et al (2005) Global Consequences of Land use. Science 309: 570.

Foley et al (2011) Solutions for a cultivated planet. Nature 478: 337–342.

Peekhaus W. (2010) Monsanto Discovers New Social Media. International Journal of Communication 4: 955–976.

Pretty J. et al., (2000) An Assessment of the Total External Costs of UK Agriculture Agricultural Systems 65: 113-136.

Stone GD and Glover D. (2011) Genetically modified crops and the ‘food crisis’: discourse and material impacts. Development in Practice 21: DOI: 10.1080/09614524.2011.562876

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Subjecting animals to torturous conditions is not acceptable

FILE-This Sept. 10, 2008 file photo, chickens huddle in their cages at an egg processing plant at the Dwight Bell Farm in Atwater, Calif. The New Year is bringing rising chicken egg prices across the country as California starts requiring farmers to house hens in cages with enough space to move around and stretch their wings. The new standard backed by animal rights advocates has drawn fire nationwide because farmers in Iowa, Ohio and other states who sell eggs in California have to abide by the same requirements. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez,File)

FILE-This Sept. 10, 2008 file photo, chickens huddle in their cages at an egg processing plant at the Dwight Bell Farm in Atwater, Calif. The New Year is bringing rising chicken egg prices across the country as California starts requiring farmers to house hens in cages with enough space to move around and stretch their wings. The new standard backed by animal rights advocates has drawn fire nationwide because farmers in Iowa, Ohio and other states who sell eggs in California have to abide by the same requirements. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez,File)

The headlines in the mainstream Associated Press about the change in the California Chicken laws was:

chickenThe story which appeared in local papers nationwide focuses on how eggs will cost more because California now requires a minimum amount of space per bird.  The “big news” is all about dollars and sense!  The average retail price nationwide ranges from 15 cents to 20 cents per egg and economists predict the new California law will cause a jump in price from 10 to 40% making the highest price it may reach is close to 28 cents!

We know that from the perspectives of pure economics it makes sense to mistreat animals to squeeze as much profit as possible from the enterprse.  Thanks to Mark Bitman for printing “another side of this story.” 

nytBy Mark Bitman – December 31, 2014 – New York Times Editorial

The most significant animal welfare law in recent history — California’s Prop 2 — takes effect today. The measure, which passed by a landslide vote in 2008, requires egg and some meat producers to confine their animals in far more humane conditions than they did before. No longer will baby calves (veal) or gestational pigs be kept in crates so small they cannot turn around and, perhaps more significantly, egg-laying hens may not be held in “battery” cages that prevent them from spreading their wings.

The regulations don’t affect only hens kept in California. In 2010, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law a bill that extended the protections of Prop 2 to out-of-state birds: You cannot sell an egg in California from a hen kept in extreme confinement anywhere. For an industry that has been able to do pretty much what it wants, this is a big deal: It bans some of the most egregious practices.

Does limiting confinement for hens mean the end of cages? Maybe. It might become impractical for growers to build bigger cages; that is, it might be easier simply to keep hens in groups that meet the new minimum area required per bird, and so keep the hens “cage free.” That’s not a panacea, but it is an improvement.

The new minimum is not specified in numbers, but the courts have said that it “establishes a clear test that any law enforcement officer can apply, and that test does not require the law enforcement officer to have the investigative acumen of Columbo to determine if an egg farmer is in violation.” Hens must be able to spread their wings without touching a cage or another bird.

There is, however, another new state regulation — the so-called shell egg food safety regulation, aimed at reducing salmonella — enacted by the California Department of Food and Agriculture. This requires a minimum of 116 square inches per bird, compared with the current 67 square inches, which is less space than an 8-by-10 photo, and just a tad more than a standard iPad.

Prop 2 trumps this rule, and birds probably need more than 116 square inches to spread their wings. In fact, many experts think something closer to 200 square inches is more realistic. But some farmers may think they can get away with 116; law enforcement will determine whether they’re right, and noncompliance is a criminal offense.

The new regulations will probably raise the price of eggs. Surprisingly, as producers in California switch production systems to comply with the new law, eggs raised by so-called conventional means sometimes cost more than cage-free eggs. This belies the arguments that the conversion process is difficult or prohibitively expensive; it just shows that many producers failed to take advantage of the five years between the extension of the new housing standards to all birds, and its taking effect, to adequately prepare. What have they been doing instead? Predictably, filing lawsuits fighting Prop 2, all of which have failed.

That Prop 2 is supported by a majority of people in the country’s biggest ag state, and that its legitimacy has been supported by courts, shows the direction in which the raising of animals is headed. Gestation crates are on their way out, and battery cages will soon join them. With this measure, the table is set for similar action in states all over the country.

“We’ve worked on passing anti-confinement laws in 10 states now,” says Paul Shapiro, a spokesperson at the Humane Society of the United States. At least three other states are to take up similar legislation in 2015.

The most important part of the new law may be that every whole egg sold in California must adhere to the standards set by Prop 2, regardless of where it’s from. And since California can’t raise all the eggs eaten by its citizens, millions of those eggs — perhaps as many as a third consumed in the state — will come from elsewhere. From Iowa, for example, where more than 14 billion eggs are produced each year. (Interesting: There are just over 3 million people in Iowa, and nearly 60 million laying hens.) There has been talk of shortages, but they would be short-lived.

So, in California, just as you had to meet higher emission standards than required by federal law if you wanted to sell cars, now you must meet higher welfare standards for hens if you want to sell eggs. Whether farmers comply, or disobey, or leave the business remains to be seen. But Prop 2 means a new norm; eventually it will be, well, normal.

Just how high are the standards set by Prop 2? “By itself, the law means that many millions of animals will no longer be held in cramped cages, and that’s huge,” says Mr. Shapiro. “But the message it sends to the factory farming industry is clear: Business as usual — that is, subjecting animals to torturous conditions for their entire lives — is no longer going to be acceptable.”

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Flower Power: changing the world with flower seeds

seedbombI’ve never thought of myself as much of a rebel. You generally won’t find me smashing car windows or setting garbage cans aflame. (Let’s get real: You probably won’t find me speeding. Such are the depths of my rule-following nature.) But I realize now that all along, I’ve just been waiting for the right weapon with which to battle The Man.

Wildflowers, of course. More precisely: ping-pong ball-size globs of clay and compost laced with wildflower seeds called seed bombs (or green grenades — military nomenclature is a must). The other day, I stood in front of a fenced-off lot on a busy stretch of asphalt, fingering the tiny seed arsenal I’d packed into a Ziploc bag. I looked back and forth, took a deep breath, and let one fly over the chain links; the ball came to rest on a scrubby patch of dirt in the sun. “Take that!” I muttered under my breath.

Finally, I was beginning to understand the rebel thrill. This must be what Marlon Brando felt like.

Lobbing that seed bomb was my first foray into the worldwide movement of “guerrilla gardening,” or reclaiming underused land — empty lots, vacant yards, alleys, and other areas you technically don’t have the right to plant — for lovely and/or productive gardens. In this case, the enemy takes the form of a disinterested, wasteful society that misses out on abundant opportunities to beautify the ugly and cultivate the barren.

Sometimes it’s as simple as taking over an adjacent lot with some extra pepper plants, but often there’s more at stake. Among guerrilla gardeners, you’ll hear plenty of chatter about “land use,” “re-creating space,” and “Who actually owns the earth, man?” Make no mistake: Those petunias are political.

eggsSome guerrilla gardening reportedly plays out like a scene from a spy movie: Black-clad growers sneak out to till and water vegetable patches in the dead of night. While that does sound fun, I had something a little less intense in mind for my first time out. Then my research uncovered seed bombs — perfect for inaccessible yards, tough-to-tend spaces, and ‘fraidy cats. Make a few green grenades, toss them all over town, and wait for the blooms to take over. This I could do.

And I did. Whipping up a batch of proto-wildflower balls is surprisingly simple — mine cost me about $10 (for seeds and clay; I grabbed the compost right from my worm bin) and 10 minutes. I picked up the native wildflower mix at my local grocery store and found the natural clay at an art-supply shop, where the clerk assured me “this is just what the Girl Scouts used to make their seed bombs last year.” (Fight the power, Brownies!) After letting the bombs sit out overnight to dry a bit, I was ready to sow some rebellion. (See below for step-by-step instructions on how to make them.)

ggsb1lExperienced guerrillas recommend seed-bombing right before rain is forecast. This usually wouldn’t be a problem in Seattle, but we were just about to enter an unusually warm and sunny period. Still, I couldn’t wait to dip a toe into the movement, so I loaded my bag with a handful of seed bombs and went out in search of abandoned space begging for wildflowers.

My destination was a busy thoroughfare near my apartment with a slightly, ahem, seedy reputation. Pocked with cheap motels and overgrown, weedy patches that don’t clearly belong to anybody, I figured it presented a prime opportunity for my “floral attack.” Plus, it’s close enough to let me check in on my gardens’ progress as the weeks go by.

I found my first site before I even reached the intended street: a plowed-over slope strewn with trash and construction detritus that’s lingered, untouched, for months. Nobody was around, so I chucked a seed ball into the expanse. (I don’t know who would object to a few blossoms here and there, but these days you never know when tossing an unidentified object — one you’re calling a bomb, no less — might get you tackled by a SWAT team.) “Good luck, little seeds,” I whispered.

Next up: A weedy patch near a lonely bus stop. Then a clear, empty dirt meadow. The fenced-in lot next to a boarded-up house. I strode along that eyesore of a road like a modern-day Janie Appleseed with safety pins in her ears, spreading flowers and righteous garden activism with every step.

I reserved the last ball in the bag for a quiet corner of my shared backyard. The lawn doesn’t need it, as neighbors have planted plenty of flowers, herbs, and veggies around the periphery, but I wanted to keep one seed bomb close so I could check on it every day. Hell, I might even water it. You might point out that cultivating flowers in my own backyard hardly counts as guerrilla gardening, but hey — like a true rebel, I totally did not ask my landlord first.

I’ll report back on my illicit wildflower patches and other excursions into guerrilla gardening as the spring goes on. ‘Til then, happy planting, everyone. Keep it on the downlow, and remember — if you get caught, you didn’t hear this from me. It was the Girl Scouts.

Homemade Seed Bombs

5 parts clay soil/potter’s powder
1 part wildflower seeds
1 part compost/worm castings

1. Combine the seeds and compost in a large bowl; stir well.

2. Add the clay soil. If you’re using a dry clay, slowly add water, stirring as you go, until you have the consistency of thick mud (you don’t want it too watery to mold).

3. Shape the mixture into golf ball-size globs.

4. Set seed bombs in a tray and let them sit in the sun for a day or so to harden.

5. Get bombin’!

And for more instructions see: http://www.guerrillagardening.org/ggseedbombs.html


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