From an organic pioneer, a vegan cookbook

© Scott Campbell PhotographyOne of my favorite events each year is Cooking for Solutions, a conference and food festival staged beautifully by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. It’s a gathering of smart people who are passionate about food–how it’s produced, its impact on the environment and on health and, of course, how it tastes. Monterey is a great place to spend a few days and the aquarium is world-class. This year, I met some great chefs who I hope to be able to write about in the weeks and months ahead.

I also re-connected with Myra Goodman, who with her husband Drew co-founded Earthbound Farm, an organic industry powerhouse. Myra and Drew host a breakfast outdoors each year at Earthbound’s Farm Stand in Carmel Valley, which is usually followed by a panel about the organic industry.

imgresThis year, Myra made news herself. She and Drew sold Earthbound to an even bigger organic firm, White Wave Foods, and she and her daughter Marea have written a cookbook called Straight From the Earth: Irresistible Vegan Recipes for Everyone. I haven’t had a chance to try any of the recipes yet, but I did write about Myra and her book last week for Guardian Sustainable Business.

Here’s how my story begins:

Myra and Drew Goodman never planned to become farmers. They were two kids from New York City who graduated from the same high school, went to college and then made their way to northern California to take a year off before grad school. Living in a 600-square-foot home in rural Carmel Valley, they grew organic raspberries and sold them at a roadside stand. “A romantic adventure”, Myra calls it.

That was 30 years ago. Grad school never happened, but their company, Earthbound Farm, became America’s largest grower of organic produce. In January, the Goodmans and their shareholders sold Earthbound to White Wave, a Colorado-based company whose brands include Silk and Horizon Organic, for about $600m.

That’s a lot of lettuce.

I sat down with Myra Goodman last week during Cooking for Solutions, a conference and foodfest presented by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. We talked about the growth of the organic food industry, the problems with meat and why the word “vegan” isn’t in the title of her new cookbook of plant-based recipes, Straight from the Earth.

Over the past three decades, Goodman, who is 50, has helped change the way crops are grown in America; now she’d like to help change the American diet. “We need to eat a lot less meat,” she says, “and a lot more plants”.

It looks like America may be moving in that direction. Last week, the organic food industry reported that it is growing again after a sluggish few years, post-recession. Sales of organic products in the US jumped to $35.1bn in 2013, up 11.5% from $31.5bn in 2012, the fastest growth rate in five years, according to the Organic Trade Association.

The story goes on to explain why eating less meat — particularly conventionally raised beef — is one of the simplest steps anyone can take to reduce carbon emissions. You can read the rest here.

Seafood is having its Portlandia moment

nonflash-1

Cooking for Solutions is a delightful annual conference, fund-raiser and celebration of seafood sustainability produced every spring by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I’m just back from the 2013 event, and there is reason to feel good about the progress the seafood industry is making.

Consumers, chefs and, most importantly, major retailers in the US and Europe are more aware than ever that the choices we make about what kinds of fish to eat–and not to eat–have an impact on the health and sustainability of global fisheries.

The result is that, in the last decade or so, virtually every major retailer and food service company in the US and EU has adopted a seafood sustainability policy. Some are stronger than others, but the issue is on the agenda and not going away.

“Large corporations may very well turn out to be our angels of salvation,” said Matt Elliott, an oceans expert at California Environmental Associates, which last year published a landmark report on global fishing practices.

You could say that seafood is having its Portlandia moment. I’m referring, of course, to the hilarious scene on the cable TV show in which a couple interrogate a waitress about the chicken on the menu. (“How much room did the chicken have to roam?”) Chefs who gathered last week in Monterey told me that they are asked by diners if their salmon is wild or farm-raised, and whether their shrimp is local or imported from Asia.

By themselves, consumers can’t drive changes in fishing practices. But when consumers make themselves heard, and emerge as part of a larger ecosystem that includes activist NGOs such as Greenpeace, business-friendly environmental groups such as the World Wildlife Fund, certifying bodies like the flawed but important Marine Stewardship Council and brands like Whole Foods Market and Darden, change happens. Regulation of the oceans–a public commons if ever there was one–is important, but markets, too, can drive sustainability. [click to continue…]

Big and small questions about food

I’ve just returned from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Cooking for Solutions conference feeling optimistic about the potential to change the way we grow food, cook and eat. Maybe it’s the wine, the seafood, and the wonderful fruits and vegetables (fried artichokes!) from nearby California farms, but I don’t think so. More likely it’s the passion that food reformers bring to their work, and my sense that more people are coming to understand that that we need to get smarter about how our food is produced. Our food system is depleting the earth’s resources and making us sick, even as 1 billion people around the world go hungry. It’s got to change, and it can change–so long as we don’t get distracted by small questions about food and lose sight of the big ones.

Take the brouhaha over labeling food containing genetically-modified organisms. A national petition drive to get the FDA to require labels for GMOs has collected more than 1 million signatures, as well as a ballot initiative in California to require labels. What, exactly, will these campaigns accomplish? There’s a broad scientific consensus that GMOs are no worse (or better) for human health than crops developed using using traditional breeding methods.

Then there’s the discussion about “food miles” and eating local. The USDA promotes farmers’ markets and a Know Your Farmer program. Walmart is buying more local food. But to what end? Shipping food, even long distances, accounts for only a fraction of agriculture’s environmental footprint. And there’s nothing “green” about driving a truck with a few bushels of fruits and vegetables to a suburban farmer’s market 50 or 75 miles away.

Now, before you get annoyed with me, let’s stipulate that transparency is laudable, “local” tends to be fresher than “global” and browsing around a farmer’s markets is a pleasant way to pass time on a weekend morning. But the big question about food is this: How can agriculture meet the world’s growing need for food while doing less environmental harm? That was the topic of an excellent presentation in Monterey by Jonathan Foley, an ecology professor and the director of the Institute of the Environment at the University of Minnesota. [click to continue…]

Food for thought from Tyler Cowen

This month, just for fun, I’m doing to devote most of my writing to food and sustainability. My plan is to write about organic vs. conventional yields, a controversy around Fair Trade, the giant candy company Mars, clean cooking fuels in Mozambique and the goings-on at a pair of upcoming events where I’ll be moderating: the 2012 National Policy Conference of CropLife America, about “The Politics of Food and the 2012 Farm Bill,” and the always-fabulous Cooking for Solutions extravaganza at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Today, though, I want to tell you about a quirky, provocative and enjoyable book called An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies (Dutton, $26.95), by Tyler Cowen.

A free-market economist who teaches at George Mason University, Cowen writes for a broad audience. His blog, MarginalRevolution, is extremely popular. He contributes  to the Sunday NY Times business section. His interests are wide ranging (see this Grantland column on the end of football) and he seems to read every nonfiction book that matters.  His short ebook, The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All The Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better, is very smart, and a bargain at $3.99: It argues that what ails the US economy is not merely the aftershocks of the 2008 financial crisis or the distortions caused by the collapse of the dot-com bubble but a more fundamental slowdown in innovation that dates back for 40 years.

In An Economist Gets Lunch, Cowen muses about loosely-connected topics, ranging from how American food got bad (it’s not what you think) to the mysterious differences between Mexican food in El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, its neighbor across the border (US regulators comes into to play) to what happened when he spent a month shopping at an Asian supermarket called Great Wall in Merrifield, VA (he ate healthier, fresher, cheaper foods).

Tyler Cowen

If, like me, you’re interested in the social and environmental impact of the food, you’ll want to read Cowen’s defense of agribusiness, technology and global supply chains. He rejects the argument summed up by the title of the movie Food Inc. that American food is bad for us and bad for the planet because of the commercialization of food. While Cowen is no fan of donuts or McDonald’s, he notes that by the end of the 20th century “more people ate well than ever before” and “the American poor are more likely to be obese than starving.” He writes:

Cheap, quick food–including its embodiment through our sometimes obnoxious agribusiness corporations–is the single most important advance in human history. It is the foundation of modern civilization, and the reason why most of us are alive.

The reasons why American food isn’t very good, he says, have less to do with business than with us, i.e., our government and culture. Prohibition all but killed fine dining because restaurants make more money from liquor than from food. Anti-immigration policies “kept American food away from its best and most fruitful innovators for decades.” Because “Americans spoil and cater to their children,” he argues, we grow up eating food that is “blander, simpler and sweeter” than food elsewhere:

[click to continue…]

Maria Rodale: Organic food is the answer

Maria Rodale

“If you do just one thing–make one conscious choice–that can change the world, go organic….No other single choice you can make to improve the health of your family and the planet will have greater positive repercussions for our future.”

That’s a bold statement. Is eating organic more important than avoiding meat, stopping coal plants, biking instead of driving or donating to worthy causes?

Yes, declares Maria Rodale, the CEO of the Rodale Inc. publishing empire (Mens Health, Prevention, Runners World) and author of the aptly-named Organic Manifesto: How Organic Food Can Heal Our Planet, Feed the World and Keep Us Safe (Rodale Books), from which the quote is drawn.

“There’s so many benefits that come from that one choice,” Maria explains. “You’ve removed a bejillion pounds of dangerous, synthetic, disease-causing environment-destroying chemicals from the soil, the water our bodies. We would all immediately be healthier. Our children would be healthier.”

Farmers and their families and farm workers would be better off, too, she goes on: “And our kids would be smarter. There are actually studies that show that a lot of these chemicals do reduce intelligence.”

I arranged a phone interview with Maria after meeting her last spring during Cooking for Solutions, a great conference and food fest on sustainable agriculture and fishing organized by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I’d read her book and wanted to delve deeper into the issues surrounding organics. Tomorrow, I’ll offer a dissenting view from Steve Savage, an agricultural consultant who is dubious about many of Maria’s claims. [click to continue…]

Ted Turner: Telling it like it is

It would be easy to dismiss Ted Turner as a billionaire with a big mouth, a blowhard or even a buffoon.

Wrong, wrong and wrong.

Ted was on display in all his Ted-ness the other day at the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Cooking for Solutions conference on food and sustainability. He ranted, he raved, he clowned, he ignored questions from interviewer, Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post. Moderating Ted is about as easy as domesticating a bison. (His herd numbers 50,000.)

But what Turner said made a lot of sense, even as his answers wandered, ADD-like, all over the map.

I’ve covered Ted, on and off, since the late 1980s,when I was a media writer.  He’s always been underestimated. Conventional wisdom in the broadcast industry was that CNN, his pioneering 24-hour news channel, would never work. Much later, after he merged his Turner Broadcasting  Co. with Time Warner (my employer at the time), he was one of the few top execs who opposed the disastrous merger from the start. He has always lived his values, using the platforms he created to support causes dear to him–the environment, nuclear disarmament, the end of the Cold War. Remember the Goodwill Games?

His bombastic demeanor  may be a reason why he hasn’t gotten the credit deserves for his philanthropy. Turner, who is 72, has given away more than $1.3 billion to the Turner Foundation, the United Nations Foundation, the Nuclear Threat Initiative, the Captain Planet Foundation, and the Turner Endangered Species Fund. He also took the Giving Pledge put forward by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

As if that weren’t enough, Turner owns about 2.1 million acres of land in the U.S., making him the nation’s 2nd biggest landowner (behind his fellow cable mogul John Malone). Most of his land is protected from development.

So what’s on his mind these days? Lots. Some highlights:

Food, population and women: “What really concerns me is if we go to 8 or 9 billion. The natural world is collapsing all around us. There are two things we can do that won’t cost a lot of money… Millions of women don’t have access to family planning. If you provide people with  family planning, they won’t have unwanted pregnancies and they won’t have to  have abortions. The second thing we could do and we should have done it a long time ago is half the women in the world don’t have equal rights with men. In the Arab world, people are treated like dogs. They can’t vote in Saudia Arabia. They can’t drive a car. They don’t get an education. Women need to have equal rights with men, and equal education and equal rights to a job, and when women have that, they will choose to have smaller families.” [click to continue…]

Why we can’t shop our way to sustainability

Can we shop our way to sustainability in the supermarket aisle?

Eco labels are cluttered, confusing and unreliable.

Organic food gets a tiny slice of the market.

Most shoppers don’t pay much attention to environmental factors. Perhaps understandably so. They’re busy, or  ignorant. Or they don’t care.

Which makes me believe that we can’t count on consumers to bring about a sustainable food system.

So, like it or not, that it’s going to be up to business to fix the food system.

That’s my takeaway from today’s discussions at the Sustainable Food Institute, part of Cooking for Solutions, a great event on food/ag/sustainability organized by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I’m here for a couple of days of good talk, good food, good wine, shared by reporters, chefs, people in the food business, scientists, activists and a farmer or two.

In several panel discussions–one on eco-labels, another about the popular but nevertheless limited Seafood Watch program run by the aquarium, and also during my own interview with Louise Nicholls, a sustainability executive from the British food and department store Marks & Spencer–it became clear to me that the dizzying complexity of food and agriculture systems, including as they do health, environmental and economic concerns, will make it very difficult to communicate simply to shoppers what’s “good” and what is not, even assuming scientists can reach consensus on that.

Persuading shoppers to then change their habits is even tougher. [click to continue…]

The surprising roots of Earthbound Farm

goodman_revDrew and Myra Goodman never planned to become farmers. Two kids from New York City,  they graduated from the same high school and made their way to northern California, where Drew went to UC-Santa Cruz, Myra to Berkeley. (She majored in “The Political Economy of Industrial Societies.”  Ah, Berkeley. ) Grad school was next on her agenda—Myra anticipated a career in international relations—but she and Drew decided to take a year off to live in a 600-square-foot home in rural Carmel Valley. “A romantic adventure,” she called it.

But, as John Lennon once wrote, “life is what gets in the way when you are making other plans.” Drew and Myra grew raspberries on a two-and-half acre plot, selling them first at a roadside stand, then to restaurants in nearby Carmel. They didn’t know much about farming, but because they didn’t like the smell of the chemical fertilizers and pesticides, they tried organic farming, guided by Rodale’s Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening. They grew salad greens, too, and while they made only $9,800 in their first year, 1984, they decided that grad school could wait. And then wait some more.

earthboundfarmA quarter century later, their Earthbound Farm is America’s largest grower of organic produce. Drew and Myra were the first to sell the pre-washed bagged salads that are now on supermarket shelves everywhere, and they dominate that market. Today, Earthbound processes and markets more than 100 varieties of salads, vegetables and fruit, gathered from about 150 farmers who tend 35,000 organically-farmed acres from British Columbia to Mexico. Earthbound Farm products are available in 75% of supermarkets across the country, and the firm makes store brands for chains like Costco, Safeway and Trader Joe’s. Annual revenues top $400 million.

Talk about organic growth!

“We’ve been sprinting nonstop,” says Drew, just to keep up. Things eased up a bit lately after he  [click to continue…]

A food revolution?

OgAAAOMz3dH0-HafZx1TctR2lFMwnVnyn6UpdLUHNQ_8SAcyDMFhCebvsjC51YuU8w8gRAXu46wPNy5WHetI_9W0XewA15jOjFRxqljFWwNaFDgYenGcIpUAl50UHave you noticed? A food revolution has begun—with the goal of making our food and agriculture systems better for us, better for the environment, maybe even better for workers and democracy.

So, at least, says Marion Nestle, the author, activist, NYU professor and corporate critic, who gave a rousing closing speech at Cooking for Solutions, a mind-stretching, belly-expanding conference and foodfest organized by the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

The revolution will be inspired, in part, from the top—symbolized by the White House organic garden, First Lady Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaign and some encouraging legislation, including a requirement in the health-care law that fast food restaurants put calorie labeling on menus.

“I can’t remember every having a First Family that was interested in the issues that I’m interested in,” said Nestle, a veteran of the food wars and author of six books, including a new volume about pet food.

More important, the energy for a food revolution is being generated by diverse, decentralized grass roots (pun intended). Signs include the robust growth of organic food, albeit from a small base; the slow food movement; the rapidly increasing number of farmers markets across America; strong interest in local agriculture; Jamie Oliver’s broadcast TV prime time anti-obesity crusade; other celebrity chefs who tout “green” practices; the battle to reform school lunch programs; the campaign against bottled water; the animal welfare movement; and the obsession with food issues in so much of the media, ranging from Michael Pollan’s bestsellers to indie movies like Food Inc. to the  legions of food bloggers, many of whom came to Monterey.

When you look at it that way, there’s a lot going on. [click to continue…]

The high cost of cheap food

hamburger-and-fries-l“We have very, very expensive food in this country.”

“It’s just that the prices are cheap.”

So said Paul Hawken, the environmentalist, entrepreneur and author, in a speech that began Cooking for Solutions, a conference on food and the environment, accompanied by lots of marvelous eating and drinking, this week at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, CA.

The American industrial food system, he said, is bad for the planet, bad for farmworkers and bad for consumers.  “How did we make destroying our land, our children and our health a big business?” Hawken asked.

This was not an upbeat way to start the two-day event, but it’s hard to argue with his analysis. Big Ag produces lots of food–particularly grain and meat–at very cheap prices. According to USDA (cited by Bryan Walsh in this terrific article in TIME), Americans spend less than 10% of their incomes on food, down from 18% in 1966. Farm price supports, cheap fossil fuels and vast amounts of water all drive down the price of food.

And the true social and environmental costs? Let’s tally them. They include millions of tons of fertilizer that runs into rivers and the Gulf of Mexico, created an oxygen-starved dead zone that kills of sea life. Hog and chicken waste that contaminate waterways and the Chesapeake Bay. Overuse of antibiotics on animals that helps create antibiotic-resistant bacteria. If you care about animals, there’s the horror of confined animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. We’ve got food safety risks. Tons of global warming pollution. And, oh yeah, an epidemic of obesity, which, again according to TIME, adds $147 billion (that’s billion with a B) a year to our medical bills.

Ugh. And so, for the rest of day, scientists, activists, academics and a sprinkling of farmers and food company executives such as Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield Farm and Margaret Wittenberg of Whole Foods Market talked about how to make our food system more sustainable.

Here are a just a few highlights: [click to continue…]