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Michael Pollan: Forget Nutrition Charts, Eat What Grandma Said Is Good for You

Harry Kreisler, The New Press via alternet
This excerpt originally appeared in Political Awakenings: Conversations with History, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission. Copyright © 2010 by Harry Kreisler.

Harry Kreisler: Where were you born and raised?

Michael Pollan: I was born on Long Island in the town of Hempstead and grew up the first five years in Farmingdale, on the South Shore, and then in a town called Woodbury on the North Shore.

HK: And looking back, how do you think your parents shaped your thinking about the world?

MP: Oh, in many ways, my parents and my grandparents. I got very serious about gardening as a young boy. I had a grandfather who had been in the produce business, and he was a passionate gardener–this is the late ’60s–and he was very kind of reactionary, and there was not too much we connected on except plants.

I put in a garden at our house, too, in imitation of his garden, but I didn’t call it a garden. I called it a farm stand, and every time I could get six strawberries together in a Dixie cup, I’d sell them to my mother. She was the only customer.

That was one thread. Another was that I have a mom who’s a terrific cook and very aware of food. My grandparents still cooked very traditional Jewish food, used duck fat, goose fat, or chicken fat to cook with. I remember stuffed cabbage, big deal special holiday food, and blintzes, and a whole range of Eastern European Jewish cooking. My mother did not cook that way. She fashioned herself more of a cosmopolitan, and she cooked every different ethnic food–sometimes French, Chinese, Italian–it was the ’60s, it was that moment, you know, the World’s Fair.

You wanted to cook in every different kind of cuisine, and she was very good at all of them. And she doesn’t cook the way my grandparents did; I don’t cook that way now. So, one of the things that has struck me, writing about food, is how little stability we have in our food culture in this country, that we haven’t held on to the immigrant traditions. Certain ethnic groups have more than others, but Jews? I don’t think to such a great extent…
(16 Feb 2008)

Green Eyes On: Is Bees’ Thirst Leading to Their Demise?

Sara Snow, treehugger
Beginning back in 2006, beekeepers began reporting that their honeybees were disappearing, sometimes at rates as high as 90% of their hives. The sudden and unexpected loss became known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). The main symptom being no or few adult honeybees left in the hive, though the queen bee still lives and there are no signs of dead bees in or around the hive. It’s like the bees have vanished.

A map from February 2007 showed that over half of the states in the continental US were reporting instances of CCD. Given that bee pollination directly or indirectly makes possible at least 1/3 of the foods that we eat (at a dollar value of about $15 billion in crops), it’s a startling and concerning issue. And while many private organizations as well as larger groups like the USDA have reported on a number of theories, few are brave enough to put their finger on the single one thing they think may be causing our precious honeybees to disappear.

However, according to an article in The Organic Center’s most recent newsletter, The Scoop, a key discovery has strengthened the link between pesticide use and colony collapse disorder, a long considered cause of CCD. In the article, the Organic Center’s chief scientist, Dr. Charles Benbrook explained that scientists in Europe have discovered a new pathway through which bees are ingesting nicotinyl insecticides (the Sierra Club is currently working on banning this class of insecticides) in virtually all intensively farmed regions.

The new pathway? Drinking water…
(15 Feb 2008)

‘Old environmentalists’ are challenging an obsession with land productivity

Matt Lobley and Michael Winter, the ecologist
Everyone has an opinion on how best to use land in the UK, but bridges need to be built between those who want to see every inch producing food and fuel, and those who believe that land means more than farming

Land and food are at the forefront of the domestic policy agenda in the UK to an extent unprecedented since the 1950s. Climate change lies at the heart of the new debate and it was the climate change agenda that prompted the UK environment minister David Miliband to launch a national debate on land use in 2006.

‘Food security’, until very recently seen as the last refuge of a backward-looking agricultural fundamentalism, has reappeared in the political vocabulary. With scarcely a backward glance at the ‘old environmentalism’ of multifunctional agri-environments and its emphasis on biodiversity and landscapes, agricultural supply-chain interests have embraced the ‘new environmentalism’ of climate change with enthusiasm. They proudly proclaim the readiness of the industry to produce both food and bio-crops, and to do so with a neo-liberal confidence in markets to determine the balance between food and non-food crops in land use.

For instance, in his speech to the National Farmers Union (NFU) Centenary Conference in February 2008, Gordon Brown stressed the ‘core responsibility’ of British farmers to ‘grow and produce the majority of food consumed by the British people’, alongside a ‘front line’ role adapting and reacting to the challenges and opportunities of climate change, and exploiting the potential of farmers to become ‘energy exporters’. Farmers and their advisors have been quick to embrace the ‘new productivism’, with the agricultural consultants Andersons stating that the ‘PR battle is being won, and farmers, as producers of food and fuel in a dangerous world, are being valued once again.’


A recent collection of essays entitled Feeding Britain, with a foreword by the government minister Hilary Benn, contains papers by representatives of the key sector development bodies, such as the Home Grown Cereals Authority (HGCA) and the Horticultural Development Company, and presents a bullish outlook.

For example, Jonathan Cowens, Chief Executive of the HGCA, is emboldened to suggest that environmental cross-compliance measures (modest though these may be in the eyes of most environmentalists) could lead market-orientated cereal farmers to forgo the Single Farm Payment so as to avoid the restrictions. In a SWOT analysis, he identifies ‘environmental use of land’ as one of the threats to the cereal sector, alongside ‘loss of pesticides due to legislation or resistance’.

…Moreover, the far-sightedness of the old environmentalists is beginning to challenge some of the assumptions of the new proponents of food security, particularly their inherent ‘productivism’. Is it axiomatic, they ask, that agriculture’s best contribution to tackling climate change is to grow bio-crops, or invest in anaerobic digesters, or make land over for wind farms? Might not there be an equally important role in maximising the carbon sequestration or water-holding properties of biodiverse land? Some have even suggested that biodiverse-rich ecosystems allow for maximum carbon sequestration.

Asking the right questions

Our new book does not set out to provide definitive answers to these questions. It is too soon to do that and much of the science is too immature. Rather we seek to establish and to explore the contours of the new debate. The book has three premises:

The first premise is that food and energy security issues now occupy centre stage in policy thinking about land use and this is likely to remain the case for some time to come.

The second is that this new emphasis on food and energy security will not mean an abandonment of a continued public policy emphasis on multifunctionality and ecosystem services. Indeed this emphasis is likely to continue to grow.

The third premise is that there will be ‘local’ trends that may on occasions seem counterintuitive in a global context.
(11 Feb 2008)
The author’s book is called What is Land For, and the first chapter can be read here.

More biofuel waste for cows, plus a California beef packer pulls a Toyota

Tom Philpott, Grist
Agricultural societies, I imagine, have always fed waste products to livestock. On diversified farms, pigs and chickens get lots of kitchen scraps and “culls”—produce that can’t be sold. And it’s worthwhile to keep cows around if you have access to pasture—cows convert a wild, low-input perennial crop (grass), which humans can’t digest, into highly nutritious beef and milk.

But as agriculture industrialized, the waste products that farmers serve to farm animals have industrialized, too. Before the rise of massive facilities that house thousands of chickens and vast feedlots that confine thousands of cows, I doubt anyone thought of feeding “chicken litter”—feces mixed with bedding, feathers, and uneaten feed—to cows. Chicken litter was a valuable fertilizer; it added not just nitrogen and other nutrients to soil, but also plenty of organic matter.

But with the rise of industrial chicken production, farms produced way too much litter to be absorbed by nearby land (not that they don’t often severely overload the land around them).

So what was once a resource has become a waste problem—and one solution has been to feed chicken litter to cows. Cows consume between 1 million and 2 million tons of chicken waste per year—and then we consume those cows This is a vile practice that should be banned. Here’s how Consumers Union describes the quality of chicken litter as cow feed:

Poultry litter consists primarily of manure, feathers, spilled feed and bedding material that accumulate on the floors of the buildings that house chickens and turkeys. It can contain disease-causing bacteria, antibiotics, toxic heavy metals, restricted feed ingredients including meat and bone meal from dead cattle, and even foreign objects such as dead rodents, rocks, nails and glass. Few of these hazards are eliminated by any processing that might occur before use as feed. The resulting health threats include the spread of mad cow disease and related human neurological diseases, the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria, and the potential for exposure to toxic metals, drug residues, and disease-causing bacteria.

That description reminds us that the regulation of livestock feed is pretty minimal…
(16 Feb 2008)

Perennial Plants from Seed

Sharon Astyk, Casaubon’s Book
Few of us, I suspect, can afford to fill our gardens with all the huge, healthy plants we’d love to own from the best nurseries. And yet what are those with dreams of cottage perennial gardens, food forests or big herb gardens to do if we can’t afford to order plants? Well, one option is to get division or other shared plants from friends, but you can also grow a majority of useful perennial plants from seed. And if you are prepared to wait a bit for them to hit maturity, and deal with a greater variability than you will get otherwise (and for those interested in backyard plant breeding or genetic diversity, variability is often a good thing) you can fill your garden with beautiful plants you’ve known since they were in the seed stage.

One of the great things about starting perennials from seed is that it can optimize space you otherwise wouldn’t be using – no need, unless you want them to flower the first year, say to plant your viola or coreopsis seeds in February, when your windowsill is full of tomatoes and peppers. Instead, you can wait and start them in June or July, and transplant out in early fall when there is more moisture for the plants than in summer – they won’t mind. Or for plants that need stratification to break dormancy (ie, they need to feel they have gone through winter – more on this in a forthcoming post), plant the seeds for your trees or plants in a spare garden bed in fall, and then transplant them before the summer crops go in.

Speaking of sources, here are a few, some of which I’ve recommended before and some not:

1. If you dream of growing all sorts of things you won’t find anywhere else, the catalog for you us Thompson and Morgan They are spectacular, have Canadian, British and American sites, and really push the limits of what’s available.

2. Join Seedsavers and the herb and flower exchange. You’ll find an astonishing variety of plants you can grow from seed, and people who know how to germinate them.

3. For herbs (and broadly construed herbs) , and is a stunning source of all things herbal. The definition of “herb” is very broad here, so even those not interested in medicinal herbs will find things – I’ve found seeds of cinnamon vine, running bamboos and many perennials

4. Johnny’s Selected Seeds and Park Seeds and are two companies that keep a wide range of unusual perennials in stock from seeds. Baker Creek Heirlooms is another that keeps a remarkable selection So does Bountiful gardens
(18 Feb 2008)

Omaha World-Herald: Kenyan farmers persevere despite cultivation challenges

Danielle Nierenberg, Worldwatch Institute blog
Check out this opinion-editorial that I co-wrote today with Nancy Karanja and Mary Njenga in the Omaha World-Herald:

Karanja is a professor at the University of Nairobi. Nierenberg is a senior researcher with the Worldwatch Insitute in Washington, D.C. Njenga is a Ph.D. student at the University of Nairobi.

Driving through the crowded streets of Kibera slums in Kenya, it’s nearly impossible to describe how many people live in this area of about 400 hectares, the equivalent of just over half the size of Central Park in Manhattan.

Everywhere you look, there are people. Anywhere from 700,000 to 1 million people live in what is likely the largest slum in sub-Saharan Africa.

And despite the challenges people here face — lack of water and sanitation services, space and lack of land ownership are the big ones — they are thriving and living.

We met a “self-help” group of female farmers in Kibera who are growing food for their families and selling the surplus to their neighbors.

Such groups are present all over Kenya — giving youth, women and vulnerable people the opportunity to organize, share information and skills and ultimately improve their well-being while giving them a voice that otherwise would not be heard.

The women we met were growing vegetables on what they call “vertical farms/gardens.” But instead of skyscrapers, these farms are in tall recycled sacks filled with soil, and the women grow crops in them on different levels by poking holes in the bags and mainly planting seeds/seedlings of spinach, kale, sweet pepper and spring onions.

The women’s group received training, seeds and sacks from the French NGO Solidarites to start their sack gardens…
(15 Feb 2008)