Brown Bag Monday: Seed Saving

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It used to be common no less than a one hundred and fifty years ago for farmers to still save and replant seeds from their most productive plants, their tastiest plants, their prettiest plants and so on. This technique had been passed on from generation to generation since agriculture was invented over 10,000 years ago; and it lead to the creation of over 7000 apple varieties alone by the 1800s.

Since that period the United States has gone from not having a commercial seed industry, to having the largest. In the process most farmers and home gardeners have lost the impetus, means, or skills to carry on the agricultural history of saving seeds.

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While the seed industry was getting larger other agricultural changes were occurring as well. Starting around the 1930s and rapidly increasing after World War II, farming and the food distribution system became more and more industrialized. With larger fields, abundant fertilizer, combine harvesters, trucks and factories; planting, growing, harvesting, transporting, packaging, distribution, and resale became faster, cheaper and easier. For the first time plant varieties were reduced to eliminate the hassle of different shapes and sizes and to select the varieties that held up best to travel. Fast forward several decades and we are at a point where “experts estimate that we have lost more than half of the world’s food varieties over the past century.

Today the global seed industry is dominated by just 6 main companies and a single one, Monsanto, rules the roost. Monsanto is famous for creating genetically modified organisms (GMOs) for corn, soy, cotton, sugar beet, and canola; that are all (among other things) immune to the herbicide glyphosate (aka Roundup to Monsanto). Their marketing was clear, buy their seeds, spray their roundup, fertilize like normal, and you’re crop yields will be through the roof. And the marketing worked: “90% of maize, soybean, cotton, sugar beet, and canola planted in the United States are glyphosate-resistant“. What about the crop yields? Well the research is coming in and we are finding “that plant communities with many different species are nearly 1.5 times more productive than those with only one species (such as a cornfield or carefully tended lawn).

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Regardless of the safety of consuming the end products of GMO seeds (here’s the most pro Monsanto/GMO health article you’re likely to find these days), the lack of diversity and ongoing loss of plant varieties in itself is a major concern. Pinning the vast majority of the worlds calorie supply onto the hopes of fewer and fewer plant varieties means today’s food supply is at a greater risk to the effects of a single plant pandemic than ever before. Monsanto may know how to make insect resistant corn for today, but can they predict and be ahead of the corn earworm, corn borer, corn sap beetle, or corn root aphid mutations of tomorrow? And what about corn loving bacteria and fungi?

History may hold a few answers. The Irish potato famine is well known and lasted between 1845 and 1852. During it’s course nearly 1 million would lose their lives. The culprit, potato blight – a type of fungus, recently had its strain positively identified as HERB-1. Later in the same century European wine grapes started dying off from phylloera (an aphid like pest) accidentally brought back on American grape vines (which are resistant to the critters). “In France alone, total wine production fell from 84.5 million hectolitres in 1875 to only 23.4 million hectolitres in 1889.” The European wine grape industry was saved by grafting varietals onto a common phylloera resistant root stock. Even more recently a new strain of puccinia graminis (a wheat fungus that causes root rot) showed up in Uganda in 1999. UG99, as the strain is referred to, has now spread to many other African countries. UG99 causes up to 100% crop lost and could seriously jeopardize world wide wheat production if it spreads further.

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Seed saving organizations are trying to alleviate the risk we have placed on our global food supply by racing to save local varietals across the globe. One such organization in the United States is Seed Savers Exchange. Each year Seed Savers Exchange posts a seed exchange catalog to promote participatory conversation by getting saved seeds into the hands of gardeners and farmers across the country. In addition on  their farm outside of Decorah Iowa they grow and preserve the seeds of thousands of heirlooms that have been donated to them.

In their own words:

The strategies and tactics being employed by the agricultural biotechnology industry are diametrically opposed to our efforts to protect and share our garden heritage, and to increase the genetic diversity available to gardeners and farmers growing healthy food for their families. Seed Savers Exchange was one of the original signers of the Safe Seed Pledge in 1999:

“Agriculture and seeds provide the basis upon which our lives depend. We must protect this foundation as a safe and genetically stable source for future generations. For the benefit of all farmers, gardeners and consumers who want an alternative, we pledge that we do not knowingly buy or sell genetically engineered seeds or plants. The mechanical transfer of genetic material outside of natural reproductive methods and between genera, families or kingdoms, poses great biological risks as well as economic, political and cultural threats. We feel that genetically engineered varieties have been insufficiently tested prior to public release. More research and testing are necessary to further assess the potential risks of genetically engineered seeds.”

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Hopefully we will only need heirloom fruits and vegetables to alleviate our boredom from the tasteless, colorless varietals offered up by industrialized agriculture. Still, it’s reassuring to know that if we ever need them for more serious reasons then there are folks doing all they can to help make sure it remains a possibility.

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Lolo’s Dad

Brown Bag Monday: What’s in Season?

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Other than meat, dairy and eggs, nearly everything we eat can trace its roots to an angiosperm aka “flowering plant“. Angiosperms are over 140,000 million years old, and their lineage traces back to a branch from gynosperms (seed producing plants that don’t wrap their seeds in fruits) over 200,000 million years ago. Since then they have exploded into between some 250,000 to 400,000 distinct species and have adapted to virtually any environment.

All angiosperms follow a distinct lifecycle: seed → germination → sprout → leaf → flower → fruit and then death (annuals) or repeat (perennials). Regardless of the parent plant’s survival or demise, the seeds of the next generation sit safely ensconced in the fruit that is the culmination of each growing seasons trials and tribulations.

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Barbara Kingsolver walks readers of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle through the life cycle of the “vegetannual” as a means “to recover an intuitive sense of what will be in season throughout the year”. This helps you recognize what was likely flown, trucked, trained, or boated to your grocery store from thousands of miles away, even when the stores do their best to hide the seasons from us.

The vegetannual is a single plant that produces an entire seasons worth of food. The seed of the vegetannual will germinate shortly after the last frost when the ground begins to warm. From the germinated seed, a root shoots downward, two seed leaves pop and a true leave shoot sprouts upwards. Eventually sunlight awakens the chloroplasts in the true leaves, and from then on the seedling is on its own.

Now the leaves start to multiply and “spinach, kale, lettuce and chard (April – May)” are ready to be picked off the vegetannual. The leave heads continue to mature so next comes “cabbage, romaine, broccoli and cauliflower (May – June).” Flowers lead to fruit so early immature edible fruits are the next to the dinner plate: “snow peas, baby squash, cucumber (June), followed by green beans, green peppers, and small tomatoes (July).” Next comes large “tomatoes, eggplants, red and yellow peppers (late July – August)”. Finally your mature hard fruits are ready, like melons, pumpkins and apples (August – September). Last are the root crops: potatoes, sweet potatoes, beets and turnips (autumn – winter).

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If you can remember that the order of things is “leaves, buds, flowers/green fruits, ripe fruits, hard fruits”, then roots, and that each stage lasts for about a month or two beginning near April, then you’ll have a good idea what’s in season without having to read the fine print.

What are your favorite fruits or vegetables? If you haven’t been aware of their true season before, can you make a guess at what their season is now? How close were you?

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Last week we started to get snow peas from my first raised garden bed. After completing a third bed I jokingly referred to the first pea we took as our “500 dollar pea”. If I counted my time too and not just the material it would have been worth an even more exorbitant sum! As tasty as it was I am sure no one would pay that much for a pea, even a fresh local organic one! Luckily each snow pea I pick reduces the cost significantly. Now that I’ve picked 10 of them, each would have only been 50 dollars a piece; I’m almost willing to pay!

Lolo’s Dad

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Brown Bag Monday: Topsoil Health

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Photo courtesy Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection

the dirt crust broke and the dust formed. Every moving thing lifted the dust into the air: a walking man lifted a thin layer as high as his waist, and a wagon lifted the dust as high as the fence tops, and an automobile boiled a cloud behind it.” – The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck

Soil fertility is an immensely important characteristic of our life sustaining Earth, yet if you are like me you may think little of it. I vaguely recall reading and hearing in passing such subjects as “loss of topsoil” and “soil degradation” in the past, but I never sought out any data on the topic. Maybe gardening and reading The Grapes of Wrath for the Slow Food book club has made me more interested. Certainly anyone that lived through the dust bowl period and was impacted by it knows how critical healthy soil is to ways of life we might otherwise take for granted.

When the term soil fertility is mentioned usually it is the amount and quality of the A horizon aka “topsoil” that is being referred to. This is because topsoil is the first layer of real soil and contains the most richly broken down organic matter and microorganisms. This means earth worms and plant roots love it! While plant roots do penetrate the layers of soil beneath topsoil, they don’t get nearly as much of their nutrition from this depth. Furthermore most seeds can’t be planted very deep anyway so – no topsoil no produce.

There are two natural ways topsoil is lost; wind erosion and water erosion. Drought can speed up the effects of wind and water erosion but doesn’t really destroy soil by itself. On the flip side soil is naturally produced all the time. Organic matter that hits the earth is automatically transformed into soil by microorganisms and other critters. This process has a capacity to produce soil at around 1 to 2 inches every 100 years.¹ Lose more than 1 to 2 inches every 100 years and you are slowly eating away Earth’s capacity to provide us with healthy topsoil.

Now toss man into the equation and we speed up these natural methods. How? The primary cause is tilling or plowing. Traditional farming practices state that you till the ground at the end of the growing season to remove the dead plants and prepare fresh ground for next springs planting. But in between fall and spring you have winter’s rains and winds. Soil exposed with no roots to keep it in place is much more likely to be washed and blown away. The impact of tilling, along with lack of crop rotation and a few years of drought was the primary cause of the American dust bowl of the 30s that forced 2.5 million Americans to migrate west. 200,000 “settled” in California were they where greeted by the derogatory phrase Okie, terrible pay, and regular harassment by law enforcement and towns people that wanted the “undesirables” out of their country.²

Besides our ability to speed up erosion, we also created some of our very own soil degradation issues. There are many ways to list out the types of man made soil degradation, but basically you have salination (caused by the leaching of salts to the surface in dryland that is irrigated to raise crops), chemical (we dump toxins in the soil and then can’t grow anything there), and raising or lowering of the water table to unhealthy levels by poor irrigation practices. Here’s a link to an interesting map on the global impact of man’s effect on soil degradation (unfortunately from 1990 ).

The good news is that farmers certainly recognize the impacts of soil erosion and degradation and more and more of them are using no till or organic methods that treat the land much more naturally. In 1982 the United States lost 3.06 billion tons of soil on crop land due to erosion. In 2007 our crop land soil losses were down to 1.73 billion tons a year.³ Pretty significant progress but there are still quite a few green and red dots on this map, each of which represents 100,000 tons of soil loss above the natural soil loss tolerance rate.

Lolo’s Dad

¹ http://www.seattlepi.com/national/article/The-lowdown-on-topsoil-It-s-disappearing-1262214.php

² http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/general-article/dustbowl-mass-exodus-plains/

³ http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/national/technical/nra/nri/?cid=stelprdb1041887

Brown Bag Monday: Obesity

The video above was shared by our friend (and reader) Adam in the comments of our previous post ‘Who’s Cooking Your Food?‘. I hadn’t had a chance to watch the first video until last weekend. Right off the bat the chart on the increase in obesity from 1970 to 2010 was pretty shocking. For me it validates that there is a modern day obesity epidemic.

Another section I connected with was how the video attacks the notion that all you have to track to lose weight is calories in and calories out. I know there is a lot more to nutrition than just calories, so this message has always rung hollow to me. How can a calorie of pure sucrose equal the nutrients behind a calorie of leafy vegetables? Obviously it can’t, and on top of that only .26 grams of sugar gets you 1 calorie, whereas it takes 5.6 grams of green leaf lettuce to get 1 calorie. I’m pretty sure our bodies are going to get a little more bang for the buck out of the 5.6 grams of green leaf lettuce than the 1 gram of sugar. Now multiply the above results by the number of calories you need a day and you quickly get a sense of how easily empty calories can rob us of so much health.

The video also covers the diseases caused by metabolic syndrome: type 2 diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and lipid problems. As if these classic diseases weren’t enough, they are also now finding that non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, polycystic ovarian syndrome, cancer, and dementia can also be caused by metabolic syndrome.

To further dampen the mood, metabolic syndrome isn’t just for the “obese”. 20% of those that are obese show no metabolic syndrome and will live normal lives. Meanwhile 40% of normal weight patients have metabolic syndrome and will be susceptible to the same litany of diseases. In the United States today a full 60% of all American’s have signs of metabolic syndrome.

The video wraps up by comparing rising health care costs to the rise of the 8 diseases caused by metabolic syndrome, then looking at these impacts on developing nations as well. What other factors do you think are contributing to the rise of obesity and the prevalence of metabolic syndrome in the obese and the non-obese?

In other news I’ve been thinking some about future brown bag Monday topics. Leave a comment and let me know which topic you be interested in discussing first and I’ll do my best to write about it next week.

  • The impact of fertilizer and pesticide use in conventional farming on our fresh water resources
  • A look into the food trade of the United States with the rest of the world
  • Genetically modified organisms and their impact on our health (covered a bit last Friday)
  • Seed savers exchange and the importance of preserving open-pollinated seeds
  • The decline in healthy top soil in the United States
  • Specify your own topic

Lolo’s Dad

Brown Bag Monday: Who’s Cooking Your Food?

My wife and I have yet to purchase Michael Pollan’s latest book Cookedbut we are Colbert fans and last week Michael was on to publicize it. Michael said his book could be summarized into a single concept: who’s cooking your food? “As long as a human being is cooking for you and not a corporation you are fine.” According to Michael eliminating corporations from cooking for you may be the single biggest aspect of a healthy diet.

He went on to explain a few of the reasons why, when the food industry attempts to cook for us, that they have such a negative impact on our health. First these businesses are really great at doing what they do and they can crank out any kind of food in massive quantities. When we go to the store we are bombarded by endless quantities of any food item our heart may desire. Many of these items we’d rarely if ever make for ourselves — which is key. If we cook for ourselves or one another then we naturally cut out a lot of junk food because it is too much of a pain to make.

Next corporations are going to select the cheapest ingredients and from there they will improve the flavors by adding salt, sweeteners (corn syrup), and fats (mostly trans fats from soy). Since taste is only half the battle they also take great care to make their food look pretty. Maybe they’ll add Yellow 5 or Yellow 6 (both of which have been banned by most European Countries¹) or maybe they’ll use carbon monoxide in their packaged meat.

TLC published the following article on their website ‘Top 10 Most Common Ingredients in Fast Food‘. During their research they found that the Big Mac from McDonald’s contains 67 distinct ingredients! I’m sure if we were to try and build something comparable at home, we’d never end up with 67 ingredients in our burgers because we don’t have access to McDonald’s magic chemistry kit.

Now that I have a greater understanding for the message in Cooked I’m even more excited to pick up a copy. After all we are always looking for more “localvore flimflam” over here anyways. Gotta love Colbert!

What other downfalls do you see or concerns do you have about corporations cooking for you?

Lolo’s Dad

¹ Wikipedia ‘Criticism of the Food and Drug Administration

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P.S. Here’s a photo update of garden bed #1. So far I’ve had 3 transplant casualties and may have a fourth soon; though I’ve been thinking that for awhile now and the little guy just continues to hang on! To be honest I forgot which plant he is, I think a Japanese eggplant, but he’s going to have to survive for me to know for sure.

The other deaths included one of my Brussels Sprouts which I accidentally snapped during transplanting. If you look closely you can see him laying in the dirt gutter towards the back just to the left of tomato number three (or is it tomato number four? You will notice a gap in the tomato row where one of them died as well). I figured the least I could do is let him compost and give something back to the bed.

And speaking of composting you’ll also see cut toilet paper rolls. I used these to screen the plants from the wind when they were really tiny. The rolls worked great but now I’ve given each plan it’s own stick to lean on, so into the gutters they go too!

I just planted potato seedlings under the drippers in the far back right. It will be interesting to see if I get anything from them or not.

Finally here is the skeleton for bed #2 which I built today. Time to start digging!

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Brown Bag Monday: What is Your Food Culture?

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In just over sixty years, America has lost its food culture. In this great essay “The New American Food Culture” John Ikerd of Agricultural Economics at the University of Missouri writes that currently, “the characteristics of America’s dominant food culture are cost, convenience, and appearance.” How did we get here?

In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver explains that historical food cultures developed in local regions from “the ancient synergies between what their land can give and what their bodies need.” At the end of World War II our explosives factories began producing fertilizer to be used to grow our food. The heavy use of all this new fertilizer produced unprecedented yields for farmers. Our food system quickly invented new ways of converting these massive yields into processed foods derived mostly from corn and soy derivatives.

At the same time, as our crop production skyrocketed, advances in transportation and preservation meant that virtually any ingredient we desired could be purchased year round from supermarkets. In a 2001 publication “Food, Fuel, and Freeways” the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture calculated that the average number of miles a food product had traveled to enter the conventional Iowa food distribution system was 1,518 miles. Their study also found that the number of commodities produced by 1% or more of Iowa farms had dropped from 34 in 1920 to 10 in 1997 (Corn, Soybeans, Hay, Cattle, Hogs, Oats, Horses, Sheep, Chicken and Goats). For those trying to eat locally in Iowa, if you aren’t hooked up with a small local farmer, the only fresh local ingredients you can get are corn, soy, and meat (unless you like to eat hay and oats).

These advances meant that the majority of Americans could leave farming behind, urbanize and focus on ‘more important’ things like engineering transistors. With farming no longer in our minds fewer of us understand how food grows or appreciate the miracle of plants producing food for us to eat. 

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A local farmer highlighted this new world order for me at our Slow Foods Book club last week. She mentioned that the only time the public really reaches out to her is when their favorite ingredient is no longer available at the supermarkets. Of course if the supermarket doesn’t have something then it’s really out of season!

Luckily books like Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and documentaries like “Food, Inc” are starting to turn the tide and make us think about locality and sustainability as key elements to our new food culture. It sounds like we are coming full circle and I’m very happy about that. So what is your region’s traditional food culture? How many generations do you have to go back to find traditional, local food prep and recipes in your family? Do you and your parents still cook and eat this way?  How do you think we should go about learning our food culture again?

One great resource I came across with my garden bed project was “What to Plant Now” from Mother Earth News. Here are some Brussels sprouts that make me happy.

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Lolo’s Dad

Brown Bag Monday: Are You Willing to Pay?

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I took a class last quarter on the topic of business and the environment. The format of the class was to read books on different environmental issues and discuss them as a group. Industrial food production was one of the main topics we explored. As we delved in to all of the health, environmental and animal welfare issues created by our food system, we could not deny that there must be a better way to produce our food. Fortunately, there ARE some amazing alternatives to industrialized agriculture. But, they are inherently smaller operations that do not benefit from the economies of scale our country’s main industrialized food suppliers take advantage of to drive down price. Therefore, the food they produce costs more to the consumer. One of our class discussions centered around the question, “Are You Willing to Pay?”

Americans pay less for their food, as a percentage of their income, than any other country. Here is an interesting article that compares the US to other countries and how we have gotten to this point through legislative moves intended to decrease our food prices that have had many unintended consequences. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, right? The above article puts American’s food expenditures at about 6% of income. Mint.com, put out a blog post last week stating Americans spend 7% on food.  I have also seen numbers in the 10% range. This Gallup pole attempts to put a dollar amount to what Americans spend on food, stating the average American spends $151/week on their food.

My answer to the posed question, “Are you willing to pay?” is an emphatic, “Yes!” At least that’s my gut reaction. I wanted to look at the numbers to see if that really is true. Let’s use the conservative benchmark of 10% as the average of what Americans spend on food (including restaurants), so if I really am paying more it should be somewhere north of 10%.

Looking at the last twelve months in our expenditures we paid 13% of our income on food. This includes food related items, groceries, restaurants, coffee shops, etc. So, the numbers do seem to support my gut reaction. What was a little shocking to me was the amount we spent eating out. Of that 13%, almost 40% of that was on restaurants, coffee shops, etc. Now we are busy people; we both work full time, I go to school at night, and we are new parents. Often times, we both come home after dark, hungry, and get bit by the lazy bug. But we both agree this number is a little ridiculous.

As families begin to change their food consumption habits, there are other behavioral habits that begin to evolve as well, which makes this discussion of how much you have to pay to eat sustainably a little more complex. If we go back to the advice of Humble Roots Farmer, Dan Gannon, he says the first step you should take is to grow your own food. We have taken that step this year with my husband’s garden box endeavor. To quote Ron Finley, “Growing your own food is like printing your own money.” Taking this step will actually reduce your food expenditures. Dan’s other piece of advice is to prepare your food and enjoy it with friends and family. This means eating out less (a lot less in our case). Since the birth of our daughter, we have inherently started to stay home more. All of the sudden, trying to figure out what meal to make out of radishes, grapes, and a frozen pack of ground beef is a lot more appealing than packing an infant up for a trip to a restaurant. In this article, fellow blogger Beth H. argues that being environmentally friendly is directly correlated with being frugal. So in reality, while the sticker price of the food that we buy may be higher than industrial prices, the other changes in our behavior may offset those higher prices.

We had a good discussion with our readers in our post on Whole Foods about the power of voting with the almighty dollar. After visiting Coffee Pot Ranch, I really want to support them as I have seen with my own eyes the pleasant, healthy environment these animals have lived. Their prices are expensive and its painful for me to pay after spending significantly less on meat, even on organic, humanely raised alternatives for the past decade. After considering our budget, the behavioral changes we are making to our spending habits, and our garden initiatives, I think I am ready to make the step and pay even more for our meat.

So what do you say? Are you willing to pay to align your food purchases to your values? Do you have sticker shock on organic food? Have you had to make changes in your spending habits? We look forward to your comments.

Lolo’s Mom