Math lessons for locavores

Stephen Budiansky, the author of the blog, writes in the N.Y. Times today that the local food movement now threatens to devolve into another one of those self-indulgent — and self-defeating — do-gooder dogmas.

Arbitrary rules, without any real scientific basis, are repeated as gospel by “locavores,” celebrity chefs and mainstream environmental organizations. Words like “sustainability” and “food-miles” are thrown around without any clear understanding of the larger picture of energy and land use.

The statistics brandished by local-food advocates to support such doctrinaire assertions are always selective, usually misleading and often bogus. This is particularly the case with respect to the energy costs of transporting food. One popular and oft-repeated statistic is that it takes 36 (sometimes it’s 97) calories of fossil fuel energy to bring one calorie of iceberg lettuce from California to the East Coast. That’s an apples and oranges (or maybe apples and rocks) comparison to begin with, because you can’t eat petroleum or burn iceberg lettuce.

It is also an almost complete misrepresentation of reality, as those numbers reflect the entire energy cost of producing lettuce from seed to dinner table, not just transportation. Studies have shown that whether it’s grown in California or Maine, or whether it’s organic or conventional, about 5,000 calories of energy go into one pound of lettuce. Given how efficient trains and tractor-trailers are, shipping a head of lettuce across the country actually adds next to nothing to the total energy bill.

It takes about a tablespoon of diesel fuel to move one pound of freight 3,000 miles by rail; that works out to about 100 calories of energy. If it goes by truck, it’s about 300 calories, still a negligible amount in the overall picture. (For those checking the calculations at home, these are “large calories,” or kilocalories, the units used for food value.) Overall, transportation accounts for about 14 percent of the total energy consumed by the American food system.

The real energy hog, it turns out, is not industrial agriculture at all, but you and me. Home preparation and storage account for 32 percent of all energy use in our food system, the largest component by far.

NYC’s Birdbath Bakery closed for filth and inadequate refrigeration on rickshaws

Who would name a food place the Birdbath Bakery?

Birds are factories for salmonella and campylobacter and I wouldn’t want them bathing around food.

If the goal is to be New York City’s most sustainable bakery, then why not. But sustainable is not the same as sanitary.

Grub Street New York reports inspection results indicate the bake shop couldn’t present a Food Protection Certificate, there was evidence of mice, and food-contact surfaces weren’t properly sanitized.

But an employee tells us that the main reason for the closure was that Birdbath had started transporting savory items (salads, pizzas, sandwiches) by rickshaw from City Bakery and didn’t have adequate refrigerators for keeping them at the Department’s required temperature of 41 degrees or below.

Whole Foods, Target, playing same game of consumer deceit with seafood

Seafood in Kansas sucks.

Of course it does, we’re at least 20 hours from any major body of water.

 But the available choices became a bunch more confusing.

I chuckle when one of the local upscale restaurants advertizes mussels from Prince Edward Island (that’s in Canada) for some outrageous price to pay for the air transit. They’re mussels, a buck a pound in Ontario.

Whole Foodies announced a few days ago they would continue selling farmed fish, but only under the Whole Foods Market Responsibly Farmed logo, verified by third-party auditors, which is completely meaningless.

Now Target Corp., another of our regular shopping destinations, has announced it has eliminated all farmed salmon from its fresh, frozen and smoked seafood sections at stores nationwide.

The discount giant said it wanted to ensure that its salmon was "sourced in a sustainable way that helps to preserve abundance, species health and doesn’t harm local habitats."

The Minneapolis company said salmon farms could hurt the environment through pollution, chemicals and parasites.

So who’s right? Whole Foods or Target? I want aquaculture, to save the oceans, and don’t buy into some third-party auditing bullshit.


Pollan gets $25,000 to speak with students?

I figure the Chinese–funded U.S. bailout has at least been good for Denis Leary, Howie Long, and the dude who does dirtiest jobs cause they all got gigs selling American cars.

What’s worse is that sustainably-minded Michael Pollan is stiffing students for $25,000 to come and share his menu planner.

As reported in Feedstuffs today, Pollan spoke at the University of Wisconsin-Madison last week, some farmers and aggie types challenged Pollan’s, uh, views of agriculture, and that Pollan was paid  $25,000 to speak.

Pollan has a university gig like me, although I’m not sure how he got it. My cv or resume is on-line and anyone can see it. Today I got two requests to speak: one with the Missouri public health folks, one with some food safety conference in Chicago. In both cases, I said, cover my expenses, cause otherwise I’m taking money away from undergraduate and graduate students, money that I have to raise. But no fees.

Why anyone would waste $25,000 on Pollan is baffling.

Gratuitous food porn shot of the day – grilled salmon and sweet potato fries

Sorenne eating lunch with dad, Oct. 1, 2009.

Marinate farmed salmon fillets (I prefer aquaculture because it is more sustainable) in lime juice, garlic, olive oil and fresh rosemary.

Microwave 2 sweet potatoes, cool, cut into fry-like segments; baste in oil and rosemary.

Turn grill to high. Put fries on upper rack, salmon on direct heat; cook until an internal temperature of 120F.

UK Food Safety Agency is now the sustainability agency; serve it piping hot

The U.K. Food Standards Agency has decided it is now the deciderer of sustainability. I’m not sure what that has to do with food safety, or the agency’s mission.

But, in addition to telling British consumers to cook their turkey until it is piping hot, FSA has now entered the sustainability word barf fest:”

“… the advice is being set more firmly in the wider sustainability context and consumers are now being asked to think about the choices they make when they choose which fish to eat.”

The Food Standards Agency is now encouraging consumers to:

try to choose fish that has been produced sustainably or responsibly managed
look for assurance scheme logos
be adventurous and eat a wider variety of fish species

The Agency worked with Defra, the Department of Health, the Scottish Government and other Government departments, responding to recommendations from stakeholders such as the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution and the Sustainable Consumption Roundtable.???

That’s a lot of government salaries sitting around the table. And nothing to do with food safety.

Beer can be made at home: so why is Whole Foods featuring beer shipped from Germany? Not sustainable

Pointing out the hypocrisy of Whole Foods is like going quail hunting with Dick Cheney: too easy, too stupid, and someone’s going to get shot in the face (or near the heart).

Whole Foods, defenders of all things natural and sustainable, is featuring beer imported from Germany — or Czech Republic, depending on who’s brewing it — this month.

Beer is one of those things that can be fairly easily produced in a local venue: hops, malt, water, yeast.

Whole Foods CEO John Mackay was right last week when he said Whole Foods sold a bunch of junk.

Do Master Gardeners know food safety?

This is why we go to Florida in summer. The heat and humidity – especially this year – is ridiculous in Kansas and the closest beach may as well be Florida.

Amy, Sorenne and I wandered the grounds earlier this evening to view the overgrowth, eat a few fresh blackberries, let the dogs tear around the yard and for me to once again observe how much I suck at gardening. I’m better at taking care of the seven-month-old.

Maybe I need to call one of them there U.S. Department of Agriculture Master Gardeners, a cadre of volunteers who provide free gardening tips and have a wealth of science-based research to answer questions

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, said the other day,

“Growing fruits and vegetables in your own garden not only promotes a healthier lifestyle, but helps communities develop a safe, nutritious and sustainable source of food."

Safety is one of those words that gets thrown around a lot, like sustainable. I didn’t see anything about microbial food safety in this release, nor have I seen any evidence that local is safer, more nutritious or more sustainable. It’s a fun hobby. But as Vilsack should know, farming isn’t a hobby, it’s a skill. Society needs professional farmers. And parents.

Food producers – speak up

I have a garden.

This is the spinach Amy harvested yesterday. Good crop, although I need to get out there and weed (or convince some students that it’s part of a local, natural experiment and they should volunteer; happens all the time).

I don’t think it’s sustainable to drive 11,000 miles to brag about it
. I just like my garden.  And I have an excellent crop of blackberries and raspberries coming in.

I still won’t drive 11,000 miles to brag about it.

I was on this panel discussion at Kansas State about a month ago, where we were all told to talk for 6-8 minutes, and of course, the organic person talked scientific bullshit for 40 minutes.

And she drove to the meeting, while I rode my bike.

At what point did organic/natural/local types capture the language of sustainability? Even if they drive 11,000 miles to talk about it? I know lots of farmers who grow lots of decent food (far more than I could) and they are the stewards of sustainability, yet, the critics have captured the language.

Conventional farmers, get your voice out there.

Colleges dumping cafeteria trays – what about cross-contamination?

The New York Times reports that scores of colleges and universities across the country are shelving cafeteria trays in hopes of conserving water, cutting food waste, softening the ambience and saving money.

The story has lots of the usual fuzzy stuff about sustainability but mentions nothing about sanitation. In the absence of trays, the silverware better stay on the plate because the accumulated microbiological mess on the cafeteria tables would cross-contaminate any forks, knives and spoons that were placed on the table.