Archive | March 2014

3 Highlights from Michael Ruhlman’s review of Deborah Madison’s new cookbook

dmvegcooking A fine review of what I’m sure is a fine book.

Ms. Madison is not a vegetarian, and meat figures in more than one of her other cookbooks. But it was Ms. Madison—as a founder of the San Francisco restaurant Greens, which opened in 1979—who gave America its first taste of delicious menus of food that deliberately did not include any meat or fish. Having cooked for two years at Chez Panisse, probably the first American restaurant to focus on seasonal, local ingredients, and having later been a student (and cook) for many years at the San Francisco Zen Center, of which Greens was a part, Ms. Madison created arguably the first vegetarian restaurant to appeal to everyone.

I recently emailed Ruth Reichl, who I knew had written about California’s restaurant scene in the 1970s and ’80s, asking what she recalled of Greens when it opened. “It was a very big deal,” she responded. “The only vegetarian restaurants at the time were horrible macrobiotic places, and along comes this beautiful place on the water with such delicious food. James Beard and Chuck Williams were both fans, as I recall. Marion Cunningham too.”

I was thrilled to see that her brief discussion on knives, originally subtitled “Your Most Important Tool,” is now called: “Your Other Most Important Tool.”

What does she now recognize as your most important tool? “Your hands.” Thank you, chef.

Then she wrote a book to figure out what understanding such botanical connections could mean to a cook: “Vegetable Literacy: Cooking and Gardening With Twelve Families From the Edible Plant Kingdom” (2013). “When we look closely at the plants we eat and begin to discern their similarities,” she writes in the introduction to this substantial and lovely volume, “that intelligence comes with us into the kitchen and articulates our cooking in a new way.” She considers lily (including onions), grass, mint, knotweed (including rhubarb), legume and morning glory (sweet potatoes), among other groups of foods.

I loved her chapter on the alluring and dangerous nightshade family: belladonna (deadly nightshade), eggplants, husk tomatoes, peppers and chiles, potatoes, tomatoes, tobacco. The alkaloids in these plants can be toxic, yet it’s hard to imagine a kitchen without peppers, tomatoes and potatoes. Ms. Madison gives us history, botanical facts and, ultimately, recipes. And guess what? These related ingredients—eggplants and tomatoes and potatoes and peppers—pair fabulously well for countless dishes.

It is astonishing (and delightful) to learn that the cabbage family, which she calls “the sometimes difficult crucifers,” includes such diverse plants as arugula, bok choy, cauliflower, collards, horseradish and wasabi, tatsoi and turnips. And not a poisonous plant among them.

You are in good hands here.

The Future of Farming: Big, Small, or Practical?

In late 2013 and early 2014, journalists, pundits, and food activists lamented the woes of the “farm bill,”that every-five-or-six years episode of Capitol Hill wrangling and handwringing over subsidies, SNAP, food stamps, and milk supports (the arcana of which almost no one understands). While it’s easy to dismiss the squabbling as Beltway insider baseball, the debate over details stands as a proxy for a struggle over the future of American agriculture.

On one side of the conflict stand the members of Team Big. They support an “industrial” model of farming that includes large scale, specialization, and the use of technologies like concentrated agricultural feeding operations (CAFOs), specialized seeds, and genetically modified organisms.

On the other side stands Team Small: Reformers who argue that industrial agriculture is bad for people, animals, and the environment. They want to replace it with small-scale, family-owned-and-operated farms that rely less on “inputs” and more on nature and are oriented to local rather than national and global markets.

I’m not a betting woman, but if someone demanded my money or my life, I’d bet on Team Big. Not because I believe that the industrial model is inherently superior, but because Team Small’s boutique-like alternative ignores the structural and historical realities that the industrial model was designed to address. Yes, in our affluent society, there’s room aplenty for the niche agriculture favored by Team Small. But as a foundation for agriculture as a whole, history shows that it cannot succeed.


For four centuries, domestic and global demand has shaped both the form and texture of American agriculture. Even in the earliest years of the colonial period, farmers strove to produce beyond subsistence, knowing that they could sell excess crops and meat in a global market. In the wake of the American Revolution, global opportunities expanded apace but farmers confronted a monumental new task: feeding a non-food-producing urban population. In 1820, only about seven percent of Americans lived in town; a century later, more than half did.

But the twentieth century delivered challenges that baffled even the savviest farmers. Urban growth continued apace; today nearly ninety percent of us live in cities. American harvests played a crucial role in geo-politics. A number of new economic sectors depended on agricultural products, not least the behemoth “food service” industry that emerged to supply hotels, hospitals, universities, airlines, and school systems. (Today Americans spend half their food dollars eating away from home.)

Ideas and tools that served agriculture in the nineteenth century proved useless in the twentieth. Worse, the nation’s farmers, their numbers dwindling by the decade, were hobbled by chronic labor shortages, the consequence of Americans’ preference for city life. As cities grew in both size and number, farmers competed for land with developers eager to build houses, highways, and hotels. Congress cobbled together a collection of “subsidy” programs, but those were not enough to address agriculture’s structural needs.

The turmoil prompted a prolonged national discussion about how to use government, science, and technology to help farmers serve the nation and the world. That discussion led Americans to what seemed then a logical solution: farmers should adopt the industrial, factory-like mode of production employed in other sectors of the economy. That model consisted of large scale, specialization, vertical and/or horizontal integration, automation, and any and all tools that science could supply.

Farmers obliged. Livestock producers, for example, coped with shortages of labor and land by moving cattle and hogs off expensive pasture and into confinement, using automation to feed and water their animals. Short-handed crop farmers trying to coax high yields from marginal lands turned to inputs such as commercial fertilizers, hybrid seeds, combines, and mechanical irrigation systems.

In the 1950s, Harvard agricultural economist John H. Davis coined the term “agribusiness” to describe the new agriculture’s intimate relationship to the rest of the economy. As a neutral descriptive, however, that word enjoyed a short history. In the early 1970s, rural activists inspired by Ralph Nader’s crusade against corporate power commandeered the term. In their hands, agribusiness was the enemy and the target of a crusade to combat [alleged] corporate control of agriculture.


Today’s Team Small is the grandchild of that crusade. Like their activist ancestors, they regard corporations as the enemy. They reject the industrial model on grounds that small and “natural” is better for the environment, for our diets, and for the national soul. But Team Small’s proposals fail to acknowledge the ways in which agriculture anchors the economy as a whole or that industrial agriculture was born as a solution to real problems. Eliminate the model in favor of boutique farmsteads, and the loss will ripple through not just the U. S. economy, but the lives of those around the world who rely on the products from American farms.

We Americans enjoy the wisdom of a rich agricultural past. Historically, agriculture has attracted the nation’s best minds, men and women who eager to reinvent and reimagine the agricultural ideal. Our long commitment to agricultural productivity has also shaped national identity: We were the people who supplied beef to Europe after disease wiped out most of that continent’s cattle herd in the 1870s. We were the people whose grain helped end Asian famine in the 1890s. We were the people who fed millions around the world in the dark days that followed World War II.

And our ancestors’ willingness to re-imagine agriculture freed one generation after another to focus on education, manufacturing, and science. Today we enjoy the luxury of debating agriculture in part because we need not spend our days growing and processing food.

By all means, let’s ponder agriculture’s future. But let’s make sure that the discussion addresses the practical realities that farmers must face.

Convenience Fruits

Joining that Arctic Apple in the quest to become more lunchable is the kiwi fruit.

“When you actually look at the top 10 fruits in the world, six of the top 10 are convenience products,” says Lain Jager, chief executive of Zespri Group Ltd., the world’s biggest exporter of kiwis. “Having a kiwifruit that you could eat in a convenient way would be fantastic.”

I was surprised that it was only 6. It’s hard not to imagine that meeting the consumer’s demand for convenience will be a precondition for the success of any fruit in the future. Berries less perishable. Melons yielding more more flesh per skin for salads. The peels of handheld fruits must be edible or peelable without a tool or juicy mess.

Good news for picky kid, travelers and those that pack lunch bags. Bad news for gourmands.

The REALFOOD.ORG Reader: Pesticides

As a follow up to the post highlighting the CHAMACOS Study on the impact of pesticides on the children of California, I thought it would be a fine idea to gather some informative readings on pesticides.

Warning Signs: How Pesticides Harm the Young Brain
Susan Freinkel | The Nation | 11 March 2014

From infancy on, the children of the mothers with the highest levels of organophosphates were at the greatest risk for neurodevelopmental problems. That association was present at every stage the researchers checked in on the kids. At 6 months, they were more likely to have poorer reflexes. At 2, they were at higher risk for pervasive developmental disorder, an autism-related condition, like Asperger’s, in which children have trouble connecting to others. At 5, they were more likely to be hyperactive and have trouble paying attention. At 7, they scored lower on IQ tests, by an average of seven points—the equivalent of being a half-year behind their peers. Eskenazi can’t say whether the associations persist, because she hasn’t been funded to keep looking.

Pesticides: Probably Less Scary Than You Imagine
Steve Savage | Applied Mythology | 23 September 2012

One of the best ways to look at what is being used in both conventional and organic farming is to look at the extensive and transparent, California Pesticide Information Portal (CalPip).  California has a tremendous diversity of crops and also a very large share of the organic market.  It is a source for data which comes from mandatory reporting of all commercial pesticide use in the state.  CalPip posted two lists of the top 100 pesticides used – one based on total pounds applied and one based on the total number of acres treated.  I created a list that combined the two without the surfactants or other spray additives.  That left 104 materials.  I then looked up the publicly available, MSDS documents (Material Safety Data Sheets) to get the acute toxicity (oral ALD50) for each of the products (see graph below).

How Wrong Is The Latest Dirty Dozen List?
Steve Savage | Applied Mythology | 16 May 2013

They grow a crop as best they can, and use pesticides only as necessary and within the strict rules established by the EPA. Much of what they use are pesticides with very low toxicity. In years that their crop is selected for the PDP, random samples of their commodity are purchased in stores, including examples coming from other countries. They are taken to federal and state laboratories and scrutinized for trace residues of hundreds of different chemical pesticides. When the data is finally published (usually two years later), the highly qualified experts of the USDA, EPA and FDA conclude that the system is working and that consumers should confidently purchase and eat the crop without concerns about residues. In fact, studies show that the anti-cancer benefits of eating things like fruits and vegetable far, far outweigh and minuscule risk associated with pesticides.

Then each year, the EWG takes advantage of the transparent availability of the USDA-PDP data, but then performs their own “analysis” which experts have rejected as utterly anti-scientific. They generate an incorrect “grade” for the crop and post it as part of their “Shopper’s Guide,” and on their notorious “Dirty Dozen List.” The grower’s virtually perfect grade gets forgotten and what is passed along by an un-critical press and blogosphere is the distortion that the crop is “dirty.” Many consumers believe this and heed the EWG’s suggestion that they need to buy organic versions of that crop (the actual agenda of the EWG is the promotion of organic and also their own fundraising). Worse still, there is some evidence that this disinformation causes consumers to purchase and eat less produce. At a minimum, many consumers feel guilty for not buying organic.

Roundup in 75% of Air? What the Report Actually Says
Kevin Folta | Biofortified | 2 March 2014

Figure 4 shows the difference in herbicides between 1995 and 2007. Peak applications are in May, as expected. What you see is that glyphosate becomes the main herbicide detected. What the activist literature does not bother to tell you is that the increase in glyphosate substitutes for “other herbicides”. Atrazine levels decreased 36%. Trifluralin was present in almost every sample but its levels were 20 times lower than 1995. Essentially, glyphosate removed the need for other herbicides with higher environmental impact, a fact well documented (e.g. Duke et al., 2012).

Concentrations? Oh, and don’t forget to look at the y-axis units. We’re dealing with nanograms per cubic meter. Considering these compounds are biologically relevant at the conservative level of milligrams per kilogram, we’re talking about levels millions to billions of times below any biological relevance.


. . . Here’s another set of data that the dirty green media forgot to report, but more likely they didn’t read it because it was not in the abstract. The trend from 1995 to 2007 shows a decrease in insecticide use. In 1995 methyl parathion was heavily used in Mississippi on cotton (160,000 kg!). By 2007 its levels dropped twenty fold. In 1995 there was high reliance on Chlorphyifos and malathion, and by 2007 the levels were down substantially, the authors citing ”no local use”. All “other insecticide” levels were lower as well.

Why? Why the decrease between 1995 and 2007?

The introduction of transgenic (GMO) Bt cotton and Bt corn, the two principle crops of the region.

Do GMOs Really Increase Pesticide Use?
Anastasia Bodnar | Biofortified | 24 November 2009

The 2008 report GM crops: global socio-economic and environmental impacts 1996- 2006 (pdf) produced by PG Economics did answer these questions*. They used an index called EIQ (Environmental Impact Quotient) which was first described by Kovach et al in 1992 (to learn exactly how the EIQ is calculated, see the American Farmland Trust’s explanation). The EIQ actually factors in how toxic a pesticide is as well as how much active ingredient is used. This report found (on page 60-61) that, in soybeans, the global impact has been:

In 2006, a 6% decrease in the total volume of herbicide [active ingredient] applied (10.1 million kg) and a 23.7% reduction in the environmental impact (measured in terms of the field EIQ/ha load)

Since 1996, 4.4% less herbicide [active ingredient] has been used (62 million kg) and the environmental impact applied to the soybean crop has fallen by 20.4%.

A similar global impact was seen in maize:

In 2006, total herbicide ai use was 8.3% lower (10.9 million kg) than the level of use if the total crop had been planted to conventional non GM (HT) varieties. The EIQ load was also lower by 10.8%

Cumulatively since 1997, the volume of herbicide ai applied is 3.9% lower than its conventional equivalent (a saving of 46.7 million kg). The EIQ load has been reduced by 4.6%.