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

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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…]

Verlasso: Farming salmon the right way

salmon“In the fish counter, all the salmon are dead, all the salmon are red, and none of them can tell a story. It’s incumbent on us to tell the story.”

That’s Scott Nichols, the director of Verlasso. Verlasso, a joint venture of DuPont and AquaChile, farms salmon in Patagonia, and seeks to do so in a responsible way. So Scott has a story to tell.

“We feel a tremendous urgency to get this right,” Scott said, when we met recently in Washington. “We have to learn our way into it. We don’t have all the answers, and we may not have all the questions.”

Scott Nichols

Scott Nichols

A PhD. biochemist who studied business at Wharton, Scott, who is 57, never expected to find himself in the business of fish farming. But as he researched new business opportunities for DuPont in the mid-2000s — he had earlier worked on improving the productivity of maize and beans and on Sorona, the company’s plant-based fiber — he got interested in salmon aquaculture. Aquaculture was booming, for obvious reasons: demand for fish is growing, and the supply of wild-caught fish is flat. The problem, was, salmon aquaculture then and now usually relies upon fish feed made in part from forage fish, such as anchovies, herring and sardines. About four pounds of wild-caught feeder fish are typically needed to produce the fish oil to make one pound of salmon, according to Verlasso. So salmon aquaculture, rather than easing pressures on the ocean’s stocks of wild fish, was actually making things worse.

“The system was broken,” Scott said.

Scientists at giant DuPont (2012 revenues: $35 billion) discovered that they could substitute a genetically-engineered yeast for the fish oils, and preserve the [click to continue…]

Deep sea farming

You’ve heard of the trade deficit. You know about the federal budget deficit. Now comes a California businessman with bold plans to tackle what he calls “the nation’s $10.4 billion seafood deficit” — meaning that we import much of the fish we eat, mostly from Asia.

Phil Cruver, who is president of a company called KZO Sea Farms, last month won permission from US Corps of Army Engineers to build what would be a pioneering shellfish farm about five miles off the coast of Huntington Beach, CA. The farm, where his company plans to grow mussels and oysters, would be the first commercial shellfish farm in federal waters.

Cruver, who is 67 and a lifelong entrepreneur, has to raise about $3 million to build and equip the farm. (The mussels would grow on long lines of rope, the oysters in pens.) He also needs permission to operate from California’s state coastal commission, which isn’t known to be industry-friendly. If he succeeds, Cruver says he’ll help jump-start an industry that will be good for the economy, good for the oceans and good for the health of shellfish eaters, while easing the US’s dependence on imported seafood.

“The potential here is just incredible,” Cruver told me, when we chatted recently via Skype.

He’s right about that, although I don’t think the “seafood deficit” — that fact that we import, rather than catch or grow our own fish — is cause for worry. (What’s next, the “coffee deficit” or the “chocolate deficit”? Trade is a good thing, folks.) More important is what we might think of as a potential protein deficit: the challenge of feeding a growing population that craves meat and seafood. Producing beef, chicken and pigs taxes the planet’s resources, and the supply of wild fish is limited. [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…]

Is organic food the answer?

Well, that depends on the question.

Of all the things I write about – energy, the greening of business, the politics and policy of climate change, geoengineering – food is by far the most emotional. With near-religious fervor, people debate the merits or demerits of, broadly speaking, two ways to produce food.

The first can be described, depending upon who’s talking, as big, fast, modern, conventional, industrial, intensive, chemical, genetically-modified, processed and global. It’s the system that delivers most of the food that most Americans eat.

The second is described as organic, sustainable, local, small-scale, family-owned, natural, agro-ecological and slow. It’s driving the growth of farmer’s markets and community-supported agriculture, as well as Whole Foods, and it’s increasingly being taken seriously by big companies like Walmart, Safeway and Kroger’s.

As shoppers and as eaters, most of us partake from both worlds. But make no mistake about it- the advocates of conventional food and those pushing reform are deeply polarized, as I’ve seen first-hand lately. [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…]

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…]