Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Genetically Modified Foods: Unanswered Questions

Genetic modification (GM) is a process commonly discussed but rarely defined. Without a clear definition of GM, how can we critically assess the benefits and costs of GM for human health and the health of the planet? At the very least, GM technology has increased our vocabulary. Nowadays, Transgenic, Genetic Engineering, Recombinant DNA, and Biotechnology are widely used in agricultural and political discourse. But, has this new lexicon led to a better understanding of how, why, and for whose benefit are we modifying our foods?

Starting with its most general definition, GM means altering an organism’s genetic make-up. GM is often synonymous with genetic engineering - a process whereby genes from one life form are transferred into the genes of another life form (a.k.a Recombinant DNA technology). If we understand GM as genetic engineering, the first commercially grown GM crop was tobacco. GM tobacco contained genes from other plants that were resistant to the common tobacco virus. GM crops were also created to prevent rotting. The “Flavr Savr” GM tomato was created in the 90’s to slow the ripening process to prevent it from pre-mature softening.

GM technology was revolutionized in the late 90’s. The creation of herbicide and insect resistant plants was made possible by inserting genes from other organisms into food crops. You may have heard of examples of these GM plants such as Bt Cotton and HT Alfalfa. Bt refers to the bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis and a Bt crop contains a gene taken from this bacterium that confers insect resistance. HT means “herbicide tolerant” and an HT crop means it contains a gene that gives it immunity to a chemical weed killer. HT crops can survive spraying with weed killing chemicals, and thus HT crops are ideally used to maximize agricultural output. 

What distinguishes GM through engineering from human’s long history of domesticating plants?

Some have argued that GM through engineering is a continuum of the natural processes of plant modification in human history. This makes sense if we remember that indigenous peoples’ sustained efforts to cultivate multiple varieties of forest plants have resulted in the domestication of numerous foods we continue to eat. But, can we now equate the processes of domestication, trade, and exchange of wild plant varieties with the engineering of life forms by moving certain desirable genes into plants? 

Plant modification is part of human existence on earth. But, it is hard to assess the social and ecological impacts of gene-modification without an understanding of the bigger picture. Why are we manipulating plants? Who is doing the manipulation? What sectors of society benefit from the GM technology? Who are these new technologies excluding? Presently, we know that most GM crops being used have been modified to maximize agricultural profits. Very few initiatives to increase nutritional content of plants through genetic modification have reached marginalized peoples. To my knowledge, Golden Rice – a plant engineered to aid vitamin A production (critical for vision) and to be used where people are vitamin A deficient - was proposed in 2000 but has not yet reached the market.

Also, we know very little about how the successes of GM initiatives have been measured? For example, when the use GM crops are reported to have increased farmer’s yields, what are we comparing these numbers to? Are we improving crop yields compared to industrial monoculture or compared to long-standing traditions of organic and agro-ecological farming methods? Before we uncritically accept the widespread use of GM crops, these questions need to be addressed.

Different approaches to GM crops by country:


Stone, G. D. (2010). The Anthropology of Genetically Modified Crops Annu. Rev. Anthropol. , 39 (1), 381-400 : 10.1146/annurev.anthro.012809.105058

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Tropical Forest Foods: Sharing Manioc’s Story

Manioc Plant (

Sharing food is sharing a story. No matter where in the world I find myself, every food has its own tale to tell. Food stories often involve where and with whom we shared the ‘best’ meal. But, many stories about food remain untold. This weekend, in preparation for a farewell dinner before I head off to Costa Rica, I uncovered manioc’s food story.

Manioc Roots (

The edible part of the manioc plant we find in supermarkets (Manihot esculenta) is a large root. Similar to the sweet potato, this is a storage root also called a tuber. The roots of manioc are harvested from plants 1- 5 meters tall; these shrubs belong to the Euphorbiaceae family of plants. In the tropics, manioc plants are typically found in people’s gardens and cultivated for small-scale use. 

Manioc (also known as cassava, yuca, or mandioca), may not be well known in Canada or the United States, but it is a dietary staple for people living in the tropics. In fact, next to wheat and rice, manioc contributes more to the diet of people living in the tropics than any other food.

Indigenous people have practiced manioc cultivation for millennia. The manioc domestication process began in South America somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago. Much later, around 400 years ago, manioc was introduced into West Africa.
Edible Manioc Roots 

There are many different manioc varieties and indigenous peoples in Latin America may manage the cultivation of 100 or more varieties at a time (here in North America we likely only see one of these varieties). Some varieties of manioc are bitter and some are sweet. The bitter varieties are toxic for human consumption if eaten raw because they contain cyanide. Indigenous peoples have devised various systems to detoxify these bitter varieties of manioc. One such system involves the roots (tubers) being peeled, grated (like you would grate cheese), and the pulp placed into cylinder shaped containers. These cylinder containers are hung with a heavy weight attached to the base. The weight attached to the containers serves to compress the manioc pulp and expel any toxic juices. Once the toxic juice is removed, the manioc pulp can be washed and roasted, and prepared in many different dishes. In Brazil, for example, manioc pulp is made into flour (farinha) and used to make bread or tapioca. In Ghana, manioc is made into a paste (fufu) and served with many dishes, much like rice elsewhere. In many countries manioc is also fermented and used to make beer.

One of the reason’s manioc is an attractive food source is that it is easy to grow. It tolerates drought and infertile soils, recovers quickly from pest damage, and can be planted at any time of the year. While living in Costa Rica, I was always surprised with manioc’s heartiness when I found manioc plants in unexpected places, such as abandoned fields or roadsides.

Although manioc is high in calories, it is low in protein, vitamins A and E, iron and zinc. Considering manioc’s role in meeting the needs of many people, it may not be a surprise for me to tell you that research is underway to modify the nutritional content of these plants. This research is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Monsanto, and is an attempt to genetically engineered manioc varieties that are relatively high in iron and zinc.

Monsanto’s support was not provided without certain conditions. This corporation reserved the right to charge farmers for the use of these improved varieties if their income exceeds $10,000 a year.

Nutritional improvement, such as genetic engineering, is one way to address hunger, nutrition, and food security. Another is to work with people to understand some of the root causes of malnutrition, poverty, and food ‘insecurity’. As outsiders, often our perspectives of these problems are different from those of the people eating and growing plants. In planning my research, I received some wise guiding words from my Bribri (an indigenous group) colleague in Costa Rica. He expressed to me, in reference to studying how people use plants, how important it was to talk to people that use plants before making assumptions regarding what is needed to improve people’s lives. All too often, outsiders go into research with preconceived notions that indigenous people are poor and malnourished. In the case of many Bribri people, my colleague expressed this was not the case. Rather, tropical forests provide them with ample nutritious foods. More pertinent problems for the Bribri concern their rights to access plant resources in the face of rapid changes in land-use planning and property rights (e.g., intellectual property rights). This is a grave reminder that support for genetic engineering on rural people’s crops should not be granted without the guarantee that access and rights to these resources will not be lost in the process.

For those interested in trying manioc, it can be used as an alternative to potatoes or grain. In fact, 80 % of manioc’s total dry weight is edible (compared to only 35% for grain). And, even though manioc is highly perishable if left unprocessed, manioc products, such as flour and breads, can be stored a year or more. If you want to try manioc but don’t have an idea of how to prepare it, I suggest you start with fried manioc. Here is my Costa Rican recipe for yuca frita with chimichurri salsa.

Fried Manioc Recipe (serves 4):

1 – 2 manioc roots
butter and/or oil


Using a sharp knife, cut the manioc roots in half or in three parts. Peel the waxy thick brown skin off and rinse the white inside of the root. Chop this white root into rectangle-sized pieces, a little thicker than the size of carrot or celery sticks. I boil these sticks until you can stab them easily with a fork. Drain and set aside. Heat a pan of oil at medium heat and fry the boiled manioc sticks until golden brown. If you wish to use butter add this near the beginning of the frying process. Eat the fried manioc with chimichurri or dip these manioc fries into any of your favorite salsas.

Chimichurri (Salsa):

1 tomato
1 white onion
1 cucumber
1 juicy lime


Dice tomato, onion, and cucumber. Add a handful of cilantro and the juice of one lime. Add salt and pepper to taste. 

Nassar, N., & Ortiz, R. (2010). Breeding Cassava to Feed the Poor Scientific American, 302 (5), 78-84 DOI: 10.1038/scientificamerican0510-78

Heckler, S., & Zent, S. (2008). Piaroa Manioc Varietals: Hyperdiversity or Social Currency? Human Ecology, 36 (5), 679-697 DOI: 10.1007/s10745-008-9193-2

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Hoppers Poppers

In light of World Food Day, and continuing with the alternative foods theme, here is a guest post from David Steen on green and healthy eating! David A. Steen received his Ph.D. from Auburn University, his M.S. from the State University of New York-College of Environmental Science and Forestry, and his B.S. from the University of New Hampshire. He researches the ecology and conservation biology of wildlife and blogs about his work at His copyrighted work appears here under a Creative Commons license.

Courtesy of

I’ve eaten bugs.  I can’t honestly say it was by accident either, because I went online beforehand to look for recipes. Now, before I lose you completely, let me explain myself.

A few years ago I read an article about a man that was attempting to promote insects as food in the United States (and he’s not the only one). Insects, he argued, are an abundant food source and a more sustainable form of protein than the animals Americans typically eat, particularly cows.  Raising cattle can be costly; each cow requires a vast amount of resources before they can be consumed.  In fact, more energy goes into raising cows than we get back from eating them. Plus, cattle can produce a lot of greenhouse gases. Together with concerns about antibiotics and growth hormones administered to livestock and animal welfare issues associated with large, factory farms, some have grown dissatisfied with the system.  Insects represent a food without the baggage.

That’s not entirely true, I suppose, as bugs could benefit from a public relations campaign.  After all, they’re gross.  But I was intrigued by the prospect of a cheap source of protein and my thoughts kept drifting to all the grasshoppers that would fly out of my way when I walked through the field next to my house. I kept telling myself that eating insects wasn’t really all that unusual, after all, many cultures have eaten insects throughout history.

When a friend announced that she was hosting a potluck dinner with the requirement that dishes needed to contain ingredients that we foraged for ourselves, I had the excuse I had been waiting for.  I would make fried grasshoppers.  I started referring to them as hopper poppers, hoping a catchy name would remove images of antennae and wings from everyone’s thoughts.

Catching the grasshoppers proved to be more difficult than I had planned.  I didn’t recall have any problems catching bugs when I was a kid (no, I didn’t eat them).  But after I ran around my yard pouncing after grasshoppers, I was left sprawled on the ground, arms outstretched in a futile attempt to grab one.  They would see me before I could see them; grasshoppers erupted out of the grass and flew away as I walked, always just out of reach.  I hoped that nobody was watching.  Don’t mind me, I’m just trying to get something to eat, I imagined explaining.

A change in strategy was warranted.  After borrowing a sweep net I was ready to try again.  I rapidly swung the net back and forth in front of me as I strode through the tall grass, hoping that I was snagging grasshoppers as I went.  It was tiring work.  After about ten minutes or so I ventured a glance into the net and I was pleased to see a wriggling mass of insects at the bottom.

I kept the grasshoppers alive overnight so they’d have a change to purge themselves of anything in their digestive system and then I placed them in the freezer.  After a quick bake in the oven to ensure they were cooked through, I dipped them in egg and breaded them in a mixture of flour, bread crumbs, garlic powder and oregano.  After that, they only needed to be deep fried for about 20-30 seconds before they were crisp and golden brown.  My roommate used about 20 grasshoppers to dip in melted chocolate. 

So there we were, standing in our kitchen looking at about 100 prepared grasshoppers.  All that was left was to eat them.  With a deep breath, I closed my eyes and threw one in my mouth.  They were good!  They tasted just like anything else you might deep fry.  Although the recipe called for removing the wings and legs, we decided that the ones I had caught were so small it would probably be okay to leave them on. Nevertheless, I will probably remove these parts next time (if there is a next time), or at least have a toothpick handy.

When we arrived at the potluck, everyone wanted to see me eat one first so they knew this wasn’t an elaborate plan to get them to eat bugs while I laughed.  After I obliged, everyone tried at least one.  Elaborate ruse or not, I still thought it was funny.

Courtesy of

Dave isn't alone in this feat. Check out what others have to say about eating insects:

Sunday, 2 October 2011

GM Alfalfa: Changing the Future of Dairy and Organic Farming?

With “World Food Day” approaching - October 16th - I thought it was timely to bring up some of the more ‘global’ issues reaching our ‘local’ food systems.

Let’s explore what COWS, BEES, and MONSANTO have in common.

The answer is ALFALFA!

Alfalfa Plants (photo courtesy of
Some may be thinking, so what? I don’t eat much alfalfa myself. But, if you eat chicken eggs, cheese, ice cream, or cows, you do eat alfalfa. Alfalfa is used as cow and chicken feed. In fact, it is the backbone of the dairy industry. Alfalfa also creates its own natural fertilizer. It captures nitrogen from the atmosphere and makes it available in the soil. This makes alfalfa a key resource for organic farmers who do not use chemical fertilizers.

Alfalfa Hay
The dairy industry, and organic farming in general, is about to change drastically with the proliferation of genetically modified alfalfa, aka GM alfalfa. GM alfalfa seed is the project of a multinational company, Monsanto. GM alfalfa was once banned in the USA, but courts have recently overturned this ban. GM alfalfa is not yet legal in Canada, but a quick Google search, or conversation with a Canadian farmer, will reveal that the pressure is on

We know the links between dairy, Monsanto and alfalfa, now where do bees fit in this equation?

Bees pollinate alfalfa. Once a GM bee-pollinated crop is let loose there is no turning back (recent history tells this story for GM canola). Bees go everywhere; therefore, so does the pollen they collect and exchange among distant plants. An exchange of pollen from a GM plant to a non-GM plant can result in the exchange of genetic material. Successful exchange of genes means that the seeds of a new plant generation in the non-GM fields may be genetically modified (aka “genetic contamination”). Because bee pollinated crops are at high risks of genetic contamination, even farmers who want to avoid these GM plants often can’t. For certified organic farmers, the introduction of GM alfalfa is particularly alarming.  As you may know, organic certification prohibits the use of genetically modified seeds. Therefore, farmers that rely on non-GM alfalfa can run the risk of losing their certification if they are found with GM plants in their farms.  

Organic Alfalfa Put To Use!

What is GM Alfalfa?

Like other Monsanto-modified seeds, such as soy or canola, GM alfalfa is genetically altered to be resistant to a broad-spectrum herbicide. This herbicide called “Roundup” – also produced by Monsanto - is marketed because of its chemical capacity to kill weeds. “Roundup Ready” crops can be sprayed with the herbicide Roundup to support industrial-scale crop production (on the short-term). Although GM crops are resistant to herbicides, components of such herbicides (e.g., glycophosphates) can affect other life forms, such as aquatic organisms, as well as soil system complexes. 

Canadian farmers I’ve spoken to see no reason for GM alfalfa. They also view Monsanto as the only beneficiary. First, this company will benefit because the use of their seeds goes hand in hand with the use of their Roundup chemicals. Second, Monsanto holds the patent, thus the legal rights to control the GM seeds (and the herbicide-resistant genes for that matter). Therefore, once crops become contaminated with GM genes, farmers are no longer owners of their crops. This prevents farmers from saving-seeds after harvests, and implies the need to purchase new seeds from companies each year. The implications of this cannot be overstated. For millennia farmers have saved and traded seed maintaining natural sources of diversity. In the words of Bartlett and Steele, “Monsanto has turned this ancient practice on its head.”

One farmer I spoke to sees a benefit in GM crops.  This Manitoban said that his “Certified Local Sustainable” bee farm is stuck in a sea of crop monocultures frequently sprayed with pesticides. In his opinion, GM crops have resulted in less frequent spraying of herbicides because GM crops have a high level of pest resistance. He said that less spraying has resulted in his bees picking up fewer chemicals. We ended our discussion on the note that more attention to GM crops is needed, especially because the human experience with GM crops is extremely limited.

This begs the question, why are we modifying crops in the first place? Or similarly, why are we growing so much of the same thing?

Being that there is strong political and economic support for seed modification, I am curious what support exists for those that explore alternatives to GM seeds. If you weren’t sure how to contribute on “World Food Day”, here is an issue we can talk about. If anyone has any GM crop-related comments, please feel free to post them here, or to e-mail me.

Also, in light of World Food Day, I hope to post a few short posts related to unique projects seeking alternatives to industrial food production. Any ideas? Send them my way!


Relyea, R. (2005). THE LETHAL IMPACT OF ROUNDUP ON AQUATIC AND TERRESTRIAL AMPHIBIANS Ecological Applications, 15 (4), 1118-1124 DOI: 10.1890/04-1291

Doublet, J., Mamy, L., & Barriuso, E. (2009). Delayed degradation in soil of foliar herbicides glyphosate and sulcotrione previously absorbed by plants: Consequences on herbicide fate and risk assessment Chemosphere, 77 (4), 582-589 DOI: 10.1016/j.chemosphere.2009.06.044

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Meet Your Farmer

In many posts, I’ve suggested that the best way to find out just where your food comes from is to talk to the farmer that produces it. The opportunity for me to do just that arose recently during “Open Farms Day”. To encourage farming and food education, the province of Manitoba organized this event, which included around 40 open houses at participating farms. To take advantage of this opportunity, I took a 45 minute drive and spent some time on the Blue Lagoon, certified organic farm. Here are a few highlights.

My visit began with a walk through a chicken coop. The chickens barely noticed me, they were busy pecking at melon rinds outside of their coop. I couldn’t help but ask, don’t chickens eat grain? Sure, replied Stefan, a farmer and Manitoban chef. He explained that the chickens are happy to eat parts of their food compost, and they especially love fruit seeds. Stefan continued to explain that the melon rinds were left over from his gelato experiment.  In fact, Stefan explained that the chickens are great composters, they work food remains into the ground as they peck and graze. This year Blue Lagoon has not used any mechanical tilling of the soil. Instead, chickens are moved around to different soil patches. Just letting the chickens roam around can help transform the soil from hard unworkable land to aerated and more fertile ground.

Next, I hopped on a wagon towed by a tractor and was greeted by Stefan’s parents, Lori Ann and Rene. Clearly proud of their farm, which was recently certified as organic (the only one in St. Fran├žois Xavier), they explained how every patch of land has its purpose. In the fields you could find rows of veggies, each row a different species, and within rows different varieties. Less fertile land was filled with alfalfa plants. Alfalfa breaks up hard soil and also provides a natural source of nitrogen. It looked perfect if you ask me. But, as Lori Ann soon pointed out, things weren't as simple as they looked. She drew our attention to the live raccoon traps within the fields, as well as garbage bag flags used to deter hungry mammals. Some of their most common visitors are deer. Deer are especially fond of their organic strawberries. So much so these farmers confessed to have forfeited their strawberry crops over the past few years to curious and hungry deer.  

Because these flags are always moving, they are thought to simulate predators and discourage crop thieves
I inquired if animal thieves and crop pests present the greatest challenge for organic farmers. In response I was informed this was partly right, along with the challenge of maintaining soil fertility without chemical inputs. Lori Ann pointed out their cauliflower plants whose leaves had been chewed on by insects. In fact, there are only two things organic farmers can use as insect deterrents while retaining their certification. One is Btk, a bacteria thought non-toxic to organisms with the exception of some insects. The second is row cover, a cloth used to cover plants. Although Btk is an option, Blue Lagoon rarely uses it. They prefer to keep things as natural as possible. 
Cauliflower Plants

I was surprised to later find out that the only insect ‘pest’ this year had been the crucifer beetle, it was this insect that had caused the cabbage damage I noticed earlier. At the end of the tour, Stefan convincingly explained how their farm doesn’t actually have that many pests simply because they don’t grow too much of one thing.  Because this farm is surrounded by a matrix of canola monocultures, it was no coincidence that the crucifer beetle found them. Crucifer beetles eat cruciferous plants, which include crops such as cauliflower or canola. The beetles thrive on monoculture farms, such as the ever-expansive prairie canola fields. A vast crop of the same species is also a concentrated food resource for pests. In addition, because monocultures simplify the complex landscape, this means monocultures have less natural enemies around to control thriving pests. This is a clear example of the far-reaching impacts of industrial agriculture, even organic farmers can’t avoid them.

In previous posts, I’ve discussed the pros and cons of organic certification and the benefits of supporting farmers who aren’t officially certified but practice organic, or nearly organic, farming. I thought I would get an expert’s opinion on these subjects. Lori Ann enthusiastically responded that she sees a strong benefit in purchasing food that is certified as organic, as well as being an organic-certified farmer herself.  I smiled as she said, “this ensures that us farmers don’t cheat!” She explained how hard it is to watch as your crops are destroyed and not be able to do anything about it, no matter how tempting it may be to use something like chemical sprays. The threat of losing the organic certification is a big motivation in holding off on the chemicals.

I’ll leave the choice to support certified organic, or other sustainable practices to the readers. What I do recommend is a farm visit or a conversation with a farmer at any chance you get. Thanks again to Stefan, Lori Ann, and Rene for sharing their time and experiences as organic farmers.

For more information on the ecological role of biodiversity in agricultural systems: 

Altieri, M. (1999). The ecological role of biodiversity in agroecosystems Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, 74 (1-3), 19-31 DOI: 10.1016/S0167-8809(99)00028-6

Saturday, 17 September 2011

How Would You Like Your Eggs?

Living in Winnipeg gives me the chance to connect with farmers who sell eggs from chickens that are organically fed, and free to roam. For all of us egg-eaters however, we’ve surely been in the position where we’ve had to choose between natural, vegetarian-fed, omega-3, free-range, free-run, or certified organic eggs, at the supermarket.  It’s just plain confusing if you ask me. In this blog, I hope to clarify what you get when you shop for eggs.

Thanks to the Vancouver’s Human Society, the “Chicken Out!” program has made egg shopping a little easier. Here is what this, and other sources have to say about egg-labels.

Free-run: Hens are free to run inside a barn, but lack outdoor access. However, this label is unregulated.

Free-range: This label suggests hens have “access” to the outdoors. But, this does not tell us how often or for what amount of time.  As Kelly Myers, an Oregon chef says, on an industrial scale this label is likely to mask the scenario of thousands of chickens found in a large shed with a small door (through which the chickens may or may not venture).

Cage-free: Hens are not confined in cages. This generally means thousands of hens are roaming around a barn floor.

Because Free-run, Free-range, and Cage-free labels are not certified, and thus unregulated, Chicken Out recommends visiting farms or checking references to be sure their practices live up to these standards.

Certified Organic: Of the labels, this is one of the best and it ensures the most space for hens. Hens can roam outdoors, they are provided with perches, nest boxes, and dust-bathing areas. Certification means farmers are inspected for animal welfare.

SPCA Certified or Certified Humane: These labels are sponsored by humane societies. Hens are free-range or free-run. Like Certified Organic, hens have perches, nest boxes, and dust-bathing areas. Farmers are audited for animal welfare.

Farm Fresh, Natural, Vegetarian-fed: These labels sound good, but they are unregulated and do not consider animal welfare. This means eggs come from hens raised in battery cages. Vegetarian-fed means no-animal by-products are used in the feed.

Omega-3: Omega-3 means a hen’s diet is supplemented with fish or flax omega-3 oils. One study looked for differences between oil content in certified-organic eggs versus omega-3 eggs, and found differences were negligible.  

Summary: Certified Organic and SPCA Certified/Certified Human, are the only regulated eggs which guarantee the best animal welfare as far as labeled eggs go. If you want to support Free-range or Free-run eggs, make sure to check their source because these are unregulated labels. Natural, Vegetarian-fed, and Omega-3 eggs, among others, do not account for animal welfare and are from battery-caged hens. For more specific information about farming practices and animal welfare standards click here

If you want to be safe, contact the egg farmers. This can even be done in urban areas where chicken farming is becoming more popular. Remember, bigger is not always better. My experience both in North America, and in Costa Rica, with very free-roaming chickens has opened my eyes to what happy, healthy chickens' eggs look like. Although egg size may vary with chicken breed, I bet you can guess which eggs in the picture below are from factory-farmed hens, and which are from the free-running, healthy eating kind.

One way to get around deciphering labels is to raise your own chickens! For the rest of us with chicken-free homes, here is a helpful guide to help with your informed egg-eating choices.

Other Sources:

A friend of mine has recommended the booked “Eating Animals” by Johnathan Safran Foer, for a more in depth discussion on this topic. 

Saturday, 10 September 2011

No Farms No Foods: Is Organic Farming Always Sustainable?

The more we learn about what our foods go through to be bigger, better and stay fresh, the more convincing it is for us to buy organic. However, due to high social and economic costs, organic certification is not always a viable option for small-scale farmers. In this blog I want to address a popular question, how do we support local farmers and still make healthy and environmentally conscious decisions?

To do so, I would like to introduce you to a family of pecan farmers who are health and environmentally conscious, but not certified organic.

I first met George and Becky this summer at the Auburn, Alabama Farmers Market. What caught my eye was their pecan honey granola. Before taking some home, I inquired if their products were organic. Here is what they told me:

“We prefer to use the word sustainable…”, George kindly explained. He added that they don’t feel that there is anything wrong with organic farming, but the costs of starting and keeping a certified organic farm are steep; these costs are often unrealistic for small-scale farmers. Instead, George and Becky explained to me, the sustainable farming practices they follow allow farmers to make a living while being as environmentally sound and as healthy as possible. Let me give you an example.

Becky and George started with a pecan farm. They did not want to use chemical fertilizers to keep the soil rich for their pecan trees, so they came up with a sustainable solution, planting clovers! Clovers provide nitrogen to the soil; therefore these plants serve as a natural fertilizer (the biology of this is a little more complicated). But the story does not end there. Clovers do not grow without pollination. To use clovers as fertilizers, Becky and George decided they would need a healthy population of bees. Conveniently, Ben, the head of the local beekeepers association, was able to help them start a small beekeeping operation. Now, not only do they have a fertilizer-free pecan harvest, but honey as well. 

The story is more complicated still. Wild grasses often take over in fields, meaning clovers have trouble growing alongside them. The easy way to get rid orchards of grasses is to use a weed killer. Instead, Becky and George looked for a sustainable solution. This time it was cows, which roam through their orchard while foraging (and cleaning up) the wild grasses. Since these farmers do not spray with pesticides, they also produce pesticide-free, grass-fed beef.  I’ll stop here because Becky and George’s story goes on, but, in a nutshell, this is what they meant by sustainable farming.

After hearing this story, I asked, if you are so careful to practice environmentally sound farming, why don’t you advertise as organic?

C. Leopold (Flickr)
George explained to me that although they do their best to be sustainable, there are still many challenges for farmers. For pecan farmers it is the “pecan scab”. Pecan scab is a hard-to-control fungus that attacks pecan trees with the potential to decimate entire pecan harvests. For now, these farmers spray pecan trees once a year to protect trees from this pest. If these farmers were to become organically certified, they would be required to have a pesticide-free farm for minimum three years (among other hurdles). Because there is no effective organic control of pecan scab, trying to go ‘organic’ may mean drastic losses on their orchard and drastic losses means big hits to their income.

Although Becky and George would like to eliminate all use of pesticides one day, for now they are satisfied with sustainable small-scale farming. As Becky told me, sustainable cannot only be defined in relation to the environment, there has to be something in it for farmers too. If not, there is little motivation to continue these practices.

Although I talk about pecan farming here, this story is not unique to George and Becky. After speaking with many farmers on this topic, I’m encouraged to look a little further past a label in order to best support innovative and sustainable farming practices.

Certified organic is an excellent choice when we are trying to reduce the amount of chemicals in the environment. But, there are many benefits to buying local as well, including supporting small-scale farmers engaging in environmentally-sustainable practices. As always, the best way to find out more about the food you eat is by talking to the people who grew it.

A great way to meet them is by purchasing your vegetables at farmers markets or through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) networks. Here are a couple links that allow you to search for farmers markets near you in Canada or in the U.S.A. 

For more information on the health and environmental effects of pesticides: 


Friday, 5 August 2011

What is Causing Honey Bees to Disappear?

Honey Bees (Apis Mellifera)

After my recent blog on the environmental benefits of honey, readers have asked about global reports of bee declines. Among these reports is the case of the honey bee – one of many species of bees. This is different from the bumblebee (Bombus spp.), which you will probably have observed in your garden or eating pollen from wild flowers. In fact, there are hundreds of species of bumblebees. As for the honey bee, there are also many species, but the most common domesticated species used for honey production is Apis mellifera.

In 2006 people began to observe large numbers of honey bees vanishing from their hives. As you may know, less bees means less pollination of many of our crops. Without bee pollination, many foods can not be produced. For example, almonds would cease to exist if it weren’t for bees. Before I promise any answers, I should make clear there is no straightforward answer to what is causing honey bee deaths and their entire colonies to collapse. That’s why people have called this mysterious phenomenon “Colony Collapse Disorder”.  Here, I talk a little about what this means. 
Stacked White Boxes = 1 Bee Hive

My first real experience with honey bees occurred only recently. A few weeks ago, I introduced myself to Ben McGehee at the farmers market out of a curiosity regarding his work, and my love of honey. I asked if I could tag along on a day in the life of a beekeeper. When six-thirty am rolled around, and I was all suited up in my bee-gear, I went out with Ben, and his beekeeping student Mollie, to talk about bees and find out why colonies are collapsing.

Colony collapse is the loss of many adult worker bees from a single hive in a short time span. It does not necessarily affect all of the hives in one area, as Ben explained, but one day you may go out to find one or a few beehives absent of their adult bees. To give you an idea of what that means, a healthy hive can contain from 55, 000 – 70, 000 bees.  So, losing one hive is a devastating loss for beekeepers. As Ben, as well as researchers report, the cause, or causes, of colony collapse are not fully understood. 

So, what do we know?

Ben and Mollie Working at the Hives
Causes of colony collapse are thought to be multiple and interrelated. Pests and pathogens may be among the most important factors related to colony loss (Ratnieks and Carreck 2010).  One of these pests is the bee mite (Varroa destructor).  Mites alone however, cannot account for all the losses in bees.  In fact, the mites arrived to North America in the 80’s, but recently has it been suggested that they play a role in transmission of viruses that affect honey bees.  As Ben explained, the Varroa mite was first found on the honey bee in the USSR in the 60’s and appeared in the USA in the late 80’s. Although mites are believed to be important in the mystery of colony collapse, they are also problematic in general.  Most beekeepers have to treat for the mites no matter what, and this involves chemicals.  Ben has a few tips for natural ways of handling mites.  One is to dust the bees with powdered sugar. As the bees naturally groom themselves to rid themselves of sugar, they will hopefully clean off the mites too.  Natural ways of controlling for mites exist, but as Ben pointed out, they are less effective and involves a significant time investment for beekeepers.
Brood Comb Where the Queen Bee Lays Eggs

Mites and pathogens are probably not something most of us think about, however, there is one factor thought involved in colony collapse that will make us think twice…Pesticides. Pesticides, intended to rid fields and home gardens of insects other than bees, may also play a part in colony collapse. Honey bees forage during the day, collecting nectar and pollen from wild flowers or the flowers of agricultural crops. In doing so, they are subject to the harmful chemicals sprayed on crops or grasses. Honey bees are insects too, and just because they aren’t the target of pesticides doesn’t mean they aren’t harmed by them. If we continue to spray our fields with pesticides or support these practices by buying foods that are farmed with the use of pesticides, we may play more of a role in colony collapse than we would like to believe.  Although pesticides may not the primary cause of the collapse, it appears they are an important part of the puzzle. 

While out with Ben and Mollie, pesticides were mentioned to be a large concern for his 35 hives. Ben’s hives are placed in different agricultural fields, such as cotton and peanut, to help pollination (farmers hire him to complete this essential process). Spraying anywhere around these field can directly affect the foraging honey bees.

In sum, from what we know so far, a combination of agents are likely responsible for colony collapse.  These may include, pests and pathogens (mites, viruses), pesticide use, poor weather conditions that affect a bee’s ability to work, a lack of food, among other stressors. Although here I’ve described threats to domesticated honey bees, similar factors affect wild bumblebees (click here for a summary).  Unlike honey bees, bumblebees must make their own nests and suitable sites can become harder to find in fragmented habitats. Bee declines are indeed complicated, but what is good for the bees does not seem unreasonable. I know I prefer living near pesticide-free farms and landscapes that support flowers and nests for the bees.


Ratnieks, F., & Carreck, N. (2010). Clarity on Honey Bee Collapse? Science, 327 (5962), 152-153 DOI: 10.1126/science.1185563

Goulson, D., Lye, G., & Darvill, B. (2008). Decline and Conservation of Bumble Bees Annual Review of Entomology, 53 (1), 191-208 DOI: 10.1146/annurev.ento.53.103106.093454

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Local vs Global Pizza

While reading the latest issue of Audubon magazine, I was inspired by a project conducted by San Francisco university students curious about the sources of their food. These students found some tacos at a local food truck and then traced the origins of everything that went into each taco.  To their surprise, these California tacos were made from ingredients as far as Northern Thailand.  This got me thinking, even in areas where we can find an abundance of locally grown food, we are often tempted by price, habit, convenience, or curiosity to purchase food from global sources.

To understand our ‘eating’ footprint, my partner and I challenged ourselves to make a meal from as many local ingredients as possible and compare the result to a more typical meal derived from conventional ingredients.  We chose a meal we both enjoyed while allowing us to get creative: Pizza.  Because some of the more common products available at our farmers market (like sweet potatoes, onions, and fresh fruit) don’t necessarily belong on your typical pizza, we thought it would be an interesting challenge.

We chose the local ingredients based on what was available at the weekly farmers market and compared this “Local Pizza” to one of our conventional Friday night pizzas, a.k.a. “Global Pizza” – all of which were homemade.  We made two local pizzas but I only did the math on one.  To get the distances of the grocery store ingredients, I checked product labels and e-mailed the companies.  For our local pizza, I talked to farmers to find out where their farms were.

Here is what we found:

Approximately how far did our ingredients travel?

(Distances are best possible approximations, and I’ve used miles considering I’m currently in the U.S.A.)

To give you an idea of the cumulative distance the ingredients in our Global Pizza traveled, it was almost equal to flying across Canada three times (from Vancouver to St. Johns Newfoundland), or making the trip between Seattle and Miami more than three times! Assuming the trucks that brought our ingredients get 15 miles per gallon, our Global Pizza used 574 more gallons of fuel than our Local Pizza. Although this is a simplification, it gives us a general idea.

Here is the breakdown:

Mozza, Mushroom, Olive "Global Pizza"
Global Pizza 

997 miles
Mozzarella cheese: La Farge, Wisconsin

879 miles
Mushrooms: Kennett Square, Pennsylvania

4,565 miles
Olives: Product of Spain

2,296 miles
Pizza Sauce (organic, canned): San Joaquin Valley, California

Local Pizza 
Red pepper, Tomato, Ricotta-like Cheese "Local Pizza"

12.8 miles
Goat Cheese: Notasulga, Alabama

43.9 miles
Peppers: Fort Mitchell, Alabama

34.7 miles
Tomatoes: Shorter, Alabama

34.7 miles
Pizza Sauce (made from ingredients at the market): Shorter, Alabama

Although not the goal of this specific challenge, we did not notice that our local pizza differed from the conventional in terms of garbage produced. Here’s the breakdown:

Local: Plastic wrap on cheese

Global: Plastic from cheese, plastic from mushrooms, 2 aluminum cans (olives, pizza sauce).

Now, to the question that is on all of your minds: How did the local pizza taste compared to one derived from grocery store ingredients?

Bulger Creek Goat Cheese
Although we found it hard to make straightforward comparisons because the two pizzas we created were so different, we were pleasantly surprised at our local creation.  Our favorite local pizza was the roasted red pepper and goat cheese creation, made possible from a donation from Bulger Creek Farms (you can find them throughout south-central Alabama but we purchase our cheese at Auburn University’s Market at Ag Heritage Park).  Bulger Creek has done a great job of creating goat cheese in diverse forms and tastes, and with the added benefit of being made close to home and made with no preservatives.  Although most of you would probably be apprehensive to leave mozzarella behind, we had our pick of a ricotta-like cheese, goat feta, and even goat cheddar.  All have performed excellent on past pizzas.

To our surprise, we had an unexpected dinner guest that night.  We offered him his choice of the roasted red pepper or potato, eggplant and goat cheddar pizza, while warning him not to expect a traditional New York slice.  Whether he was humoring us or not, he seemed to have enjoyed both as well as the idea of ‘local pizzas’.  I think his preference would have been a meat option, so I was happy to report that the market also had a wide selection of grass-fed meats coming from farms less than 20 miles away.  Although this time we went vegetarian, we do have our eye on the rabbit sausage for a future local pizza!


Lowe, M. 2011. Global Taco. In: Audubon (July – August), pp. 16.