Influences in the Industry

The change in the way that we eat happened gradually; the change from local farms to factory farms didn’t happen overnight. Today, most of our food comes from very far away.

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Factory farm locations in the US. Note the lack of equal distribution – factory farms tend to be far away from large population centers.

For a lot of us, we simply kept on buying and consuming food from local stores, irrespective of the source of the food. A small handful of people, however, have been very vocal about this change and have worked hard to keep food production local. These voices, coupled with the advances in social media outlets, began to shape the conversation and create a community.

The concept of producing and procuring food at the local level goes back to the Localism Movement. Those who subscribed to it wanted to keep production from becoming centralized, with the goal being that each local unit can benefit from both the production and consumption of a product or service. Community gardens, farmer’s markets, and farm shares are all examples of localism’s influence on food production.

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Orly Munzing founded Strolling of the Heifers in an effort to bring attention to the plight of local Vermont farmers. The event not only brought attention to the local economy, but grew in magnitude – in 2002 Strolling of the Heifers was a one day event, and by 2013 it became a week long affair and was rated one of 2013’s top 10 summer festivals. Orly’s dedication escalated local food from a niche movement to something that is well within the public conscience.

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Strolling of the Heifers collage.

Similiary, Carlo Petrini saw a local problem that he wanted to bring to worldwide attention; a new McDonald’s being built just outside the Spanish Steps in Rome spurred Petrini to start the Slow Food Movement. Slow Food is a movement which looks to keep the characteristics of food, such as production, consumption, flavor, and varieties, local and decentralized. Slow food has grown a simple manifesto in 1986 to having 100,000 members across 15 countries in 2011. Furthermore, the movement has spawned the opening of a university of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy, which confers undergraduate and graduate degrees in food science. The success of the university has spawned similar programs in the US.

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Gastronomy students at UNH

Today, social media allows local communities to communicate and organize. Before social media, producers such as farmers and activists had to actively push their message. Now social media now allows consumers to speak directly to the producers to create a pull effect. More and more consumers are looking for fresh and local options, and farmers are responding. As such, food localism is becoming both accepted and mainstream.

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Food Production and Climate Change

This week I have been reading a lot about climate change and how our food production and consumption go hand-in-hand with the causation factors for our planets increasing temperature. This topic can be very overwhelming but at the same time there substantial changes going on not only at the local level with community-based conservation, but also on a much larger scale like the The People’s Climate March in NYC last month.

My perspective on these topics really started to take shape after reading The Big Pivot by where author Andrew Winston specifically outlines the issues we need to tackle and provides thoughtful instructions on how we can go about doing so. Winston explains that our main issues are that we live in a “hotter, scarcer and more open world”, and that we not only need to slow down climate change, but we also have to prepare to live in a world already affected by it.

Food production and climate change is in a strange feedback loop – Our food production contributes to climate change, climate change alters our food production, and these alterations lead to worsening contributions to climate change.

For instance, the introduction of modern beef ranching has increased both beef demand and the distance between source and consumption. The methane produced by cows is a major greenhouse gas (that’s right – you can blame last year’s freezing winter on cow farts), as is the CO2 produced by the beef distribution network.  Ranchers will inevitably need to move their herds to more climate stable pastures, thus increasing transportation related CO2.

I believe my solution to this issue is fairly straightforward – we need to continuously evaluate our diets while favoring locally sourced food production. Though I’m not here to tell anyone to eat less meat or go vegan, I think it would be fair to acknowledge that our society’s meat consumption is considerably more than it used to be. Similarly, we rarely talk about just how far our foods travel to get to our plates. By buying from local farms, we simultaneously support out surrounding communities, reduce the CO2 output from food transportation, eat healthier and fresher. Seems like a win-win to me.

Here are some farm shares in my local area that I’m looking to trying out.

Stillman’s Turkey Farm

Walden Local Meat

Red Fire Farms

A Look At GMOs

There is a lot of discussion in the news about GMOs – organisms whose genomes were modified using DNA recombination.  Those who have a strong opinion on the matter tend to argue that GMOs are unnatural to nature, unhealthy to humans, and should not be part of our modern diet. While these arguments may have merit under certain circumstances, taken as a whole I do not believe that GMOs are a threat. In fact, I believe that GMOs can hold the key to bringing freshness, flavor, and supply to our food markets.

For the last 10,000-13,000 years, the only way for food cultivators to introduce a desired trait into a plant organism was to crossbreed sexually compatible species and hope for a positive outcome. Generally, this was a very positive strategy – we’ve created many species of food items which maximize edible parts, minimize useless parts, and confer characteristics that make agriculture easy.

Top: A cultivated, modern banana. Bottom: A “wild” banana, the kind you’d encounter before agriculture.

However, crossbreeding is a very imprecise act and desired outcomes often require scores of generations. DNA recombination sidesteps this process by allowing desired genes to be transferred with pinpoint accuracy. The most typical traits that are inserted into food species confer herbicide tolerance, resistance to pests, and resistance to viruses.  The basic idea is the GMOs can be grown in the absence or reduction of harmful farming techniques (i.e. pesticides, tilling, fungicides, virucide, etc.).

Anti-GMO activists tend to argue that these desirable traits can have undesirable consequences, ranging from unintended cross-breeding to serious health effects. Some of these claims are true but disingenuous: though unintended cross-breeding is a concern, it is not solely relegated to GMOs – all newly introduces organisms pose the risk. Other claims are patently false: there is no scientific evidence to suggest that GMOs cause generic illnesses. These and other unsubstantiated claims have caused a bottleneck in the production and dissemination of GMOs into our food supply.

Though I am generally wary of corporate farming techniques, I do not believe that GMOs are a part of the problem. I want my food to be grown in an environment that closely resembles my home garden, so I would much rather eat a tomato whose genes resist pests than one that was covered in neurotoxic pesticides or broad based herbicides. I would rather the world have a steady supply of high yield corn than to let people starve over unscientific hysteria. I would rather my food production be highly regulated (as is mandated for GMOs) than to eat food that has never seen scientific scrutiny. I would rather help craft legislation that controls the industry than dismiss GMOs as a viable production method for my food. I am no friend to Monsanto, but neither do I support pseudoscientific fear-mongering. GMOs have a place in our modern society, and I fully support having them as a part of my food source.

Vote with Your Fork Rally

This month’s Let’s Talk About Food festival kicks off with the Vote With Your Fork Rally on the 26th at Trinity Church in Boston. There will be speakers on hand to talk about why voters should look at food and farming platforms for candidates when casting votes.

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The scheduled speakers include Chef Barton Seaver (Director of the Healthy and Sustainable Food Program at Harvard University’s School of Public Health), award winning chef Michel Nischan, Representative Chellie Pingree and Ken Cook the president and co-founder of Environmental Working Group (EWG).

Michel Nischan was recently interviewed as part of the National Geographics’ Future of Food series where he talked a bit about the importance of using our collective buying power, as consumers, not just to make healthier choices for ourselves, but also to improve our local economies. Someone made a comment on the interview about the cost of produce at local farmer’s markets still being too costly in comparison to the cost of produce in commercial venues. I thought it was interesting that Michel Nischan had actually addressed this point somewhat in his interview, where he is, I think, calling for a shift away from thinking about the cost of buying the “product” towards thinking about the cost of buying the seeds/plants and growing our own food in individual or community settings.

Personally I find the quality and longevity of the farmers market products to be far more reliable than to those of a traditional supermarket. I have also noticed an uptick in the individuals using government assistance at local farmers markets. Within Massachusetts EBT/SNAP benefits can be used at farmers markets throughout the states.

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Nationally the WIC Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program is helping to expand this benefit. These programs are helping to provide healthy food choices to families who may be experiencing food insecurities. I’m looking forward to hearing this year’s Vote With Your Folk speakers address these issues further.

The purpose of this blog.

I grew up eating food from nearby farms and our large garden, but when I moved to the city I was happily exposed to all sorts of different flavors, cultures, and ethnic cuisines. Over time, I became interested in how these foods arrived to the stores and restaurants that I frequented. Through this blog, I will be exploring how food production, transportation and consumption has an impact on a city’s health, sustainability, and culture. I’m specifically interested in how social media is used to help food producers, restaurateurs, stores owners, and consumers communicate and change the current food production and consumption climate.

I love that food production and food sourcing is becoming a very big topic. People use sites like Twitter, Yelp, and Urban Spoon to talk about their foods, and to advocate for closer relationships between farm and plate. Before social media these voices weren’t well heard, but now anyone can talk directly to a farm or a restaurateur and ask about their ingredients. This has lead to a lot of new food movements, such as slow food and farm to plate.

For instance, check out this new restaurant I just dined at while visiting Seattle:

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The Walrus and the Carpenter

All of their food is locally sourced, and even the farms producing the ingredients are specifically listed on their website! This is what gets me excited about the use of social media and it’s ability to have a direct impact on informed choice.