World on a Plate

Exploring culture. One plate at a time.

Category: Organics

Supply & Demand

The entire premise of the Local Food Challenge is to seek and if you don’t find, keep asking for a local equivalent food product.  While there has been public dissention and debate over the long ranging impact of this notion I do believe that collectively we can bring about change in our food system.  In fact I read somewhere recently that if we were to be attacked (remember we’re constantly being watched these days!) our "local food system" otherwise known as Albertson’s or Safeway, would keep that service area supplied for just three days at the most.

Viewed in this prism, I do get more than a little concerned. 

Conventional produce costs are low, so low that without subsidies it can’t be profitable. So, how would a family farmer expect to compete.  Most made a decision from a mix of philosophy and economics to become organic farmers. But this choice is not without its challenges and the number of fewer and fewer family-owned farms is our proof. The number of previously certified organic farmers who are still organic but not certified is growing also.

In the past month, when I’ve mentioned the Local Food Challenge I’ve received a wide mix of responses. One of the most common being, ‘Organics is so expensive, I have a family.’  All the more reason you might want to look closer.

The University of California-Davis recently conducted a study and reported that U.S. shoppers who consistently choose healthy foods spend nearly 20 percent more on groceries.  Two of the findings of this study were the following:

    • "organics represent only 2 percent of the food industry, both in the U.S. and worldwide. And less than 10 percent of U.S. consumers buy organic items regularly, according to survey data from Nutrition Business Journal and the Hartman Group, a research firm specializing in the natural-products market. The $10.8 billion industry may be booming, but it’s not even close to overtaking conventional sales."
    • "Most organic fruits and vegetables — the largest sector of the organics market — are only 10 to 30 percent more expensive than their conventionally grown counterparts."

The findings of this study and a perspective is offered in a recent Grist article.  While the author articulates it well, what’s missing is some basic grounding in economic theory.  And this is were the debate comes in. Costs will only decrease if supply is not limited to a few.  We need more producers and suppliers so that many of us don’t get annoyed at paying $6 for a half gallon of Horizon Organic milk.  It certainly does get expensive being so principled.  One commenter switched to organics and did a year to year comparison and while yes it was more expensive per item she realized that the family food bill decreased by 20%.  She had omitted a lot of impulse buying of junk food.

Interviewed in this article is Thomas Dobbs,  a sustainable-agriculture economist, who offers  "if just one-third of American shoppers bought organic foods on a regular basis, most prices would come down to that 10 to 30 percent markup we’re seeing on produce today." 

One of the reasons that organic food is more expensive is because it reflects more of the real costs of growing food.  Currently there are no subsidies in place for organic farmers. I’m not sure this is a good idea given the present practice and the intangible and tangible "rewards."  U.S. agriculture could take a lesson from our European counterparts who are approaching wider adoption of organics with  ‘agri-environmental’ measures.  The organic farmer is seen as an environmental steward. 

So what’s a hungry concerned person to do?  Keep asking for organic, for local and for quality food goods made by artisan food producers.  This will create an environment and preception of opportunity.  More producers and manufacturers will want a piece of the pie.  And who wins?  We all do.  It will also make us all heatlhy in mind, body, spirit and purse.

Clint, Make my BLT


Gary Ibsen is a long-time advocate of certified organic, sustainable farming and the practice of seed saving. He has grown heirloom tomatoes for more than 30 years and is currently growing more than 500 heirloom tomato varieties from seeds he has personally harvested. Heirloom seeds are originally sourced from family farms around the world and typically over many generations.

Now Ibsen has announced a new variety called ‘Clint Eastwood’s Rowdy Red’ all in honor of Carmel’s most famous resident. This new heirloom tomato possesses a deep-red color, with a beefsteak fruit that has the kind of robust, tomatoey flavor that many prefer. He chose to name it ‘Clint Eastwood’s Rowdy Red,’ after the actor’s character named Rowdy Yates in the Rawhide television series."   

For the past 14 years Ibsen has celebrated the love apple with his Carmel TomatoFest. The festival offers a tomato “tasting” of 350 varieties, including the recently released “Julia Child”, an extravagant country BBQ and a sampling of exemplary gourmet tomato entrees created by top chefs from 60 of America’s finest restaurants. The festival also includes a tasting of more than 100 Monterey County and California premium wines, a savory salsa showcase featuring 90 of the nation’s best tomato salsas, and an international olive oil tasting featuring extra-virgin oils from eight countries and California. Attendees can also purchase hard-to-find heirloom tomato seeds. 

Monterey is 115-miles from San Francisco. Reservations are required in advance by ticket purchase. General admission tickets are $85. Special VIP/Hosted Entrance tickets are $150, and a Deluxe Package ticket including a dinner-dance on September 10 at Carmel Valley Ranch Resort is $220. Tickets may be purchased through the Website at or by calling 1-800-965-4827. Net proceeds are donated to local youth charities. The event is a sellout every year, so interested persons are encouraged to buy their tickets early.

Image: Poster by Gary Ibsen

Eating Local – Week One


Life at the day job has been grueling bordering on abusive.  So without dwelling here’s my report on the first week. I think I was a bit burnt out from the Tour de France effort. Image: (c) J.Brophy, Seascape, Tomales Bay

Week One got off to a less than ideal start.  On Day 2, at 8:15pm after a 12 hour work day, with the Clash’s "Lost in the Supermarket" playing on my IPOD I could be found wheeling a grocery cart up and down Trader Joe’s. 

So what crosses my mind as I carefully read labels and consulted the map of California in my head is that this is going to be more of a re-education than I anticipated.  What I’m also thinking, is that eating "local" as defined by the Localvores and others (within 100 miles) may not be the easiest thing to do if you work 50 hours a week, commute another 20, or have family responsibilities. And while I’m not here to make excuses, I think we need to be aware that defining our foodshed as 100 miles while living in a city may be a bigger challenge than simply saying, eating organic is OK.

Historically, many cities started as trade centers for agriculture. A recent Earthwatch Radio show (a podcast) reported on a Canadian government survey on agriculture land use in Canada. Only about 5% of its land is suitable for agriculture, and most of it is being consumed by urban development.  This is forcing farmers to work land that can be less than desirable. 

In fact the loss of agriculture land is being felt around the world. Just look for urban sprawl as confirmation. City dwellers, such as myself, like to think we are entirely self-sufficient. Clearly after Week One I know that we are not. 

So over the weekend I stocked the larder with local cheese, dairy, fruits and vegetables.  I am easing up on the 100-mile rule.  I’m moving out by 25-mile increments. Giving up Brokaw’s Hass avocados is not a long term proposition.  My overarching goal is to make a sustaining change. The question, then becomes, if I can’t get <insert food item> within 100-miles how far do I need to go.  Why substitute or omit a food from my diet particularly if it’s of inferior quality or simply available within another 25 miles?  I’ve also replaced my brown and white sugars with organic versions.

The other solution is to renew my CSA membership with Eatwell.  This will hopefully help me with getting fresh local eggs, veggies and fruit during a very busy work week. 

So here we are at the start of Week Two. My head is a lot clearer and I have a new resolve.  Maybe due to yesterday’s outing to Tomales Bay with MALT on a two-farm tour. One of those farms Sartori Strawberries, where the owner, Russell Sartori sold his herd of dairy cows years ago to begin focusing his attention on organic strawberries.  The former 100-year dairy farm now grows several acres of this sweet, juicy coastal variety.  Taste is after all, reason enough.

Stage 10- Born to Rhone Deux


Nestled beneath the impressive Mont Blanc, Europe’s rooftop at 15,771 feet, is the Rhone-Alpes region which borders Switzerland and Italy. The area extends out toward the Rhone wine areas west of Lyon.

Charolais_1 It’s capital, Lyon is the second largest in France and a mecca for gourmands. The region itself offers 24 microclimates allowing for a wide variety of agriculture and food production. So with the chicken farms of the Bresse and the cattle ranches of Charolais, wild game (guinea fowl) of the Dombes, fish from the Savoy lakes, fruits and vegetables of the Rhône valley and the poultry of theForez region are all within easy reach and supply Rhône-Alpes battalion of grand chefs.  There are a total of 62 Michelin-starred restaurants of which five have three stars and 11 have two stars. The 10 Beaujolais crus and the wines of Côtes-du-Rhône, along with a wide range of cheeses including Bleu du Vercors-Sassenage (AOC), Reblochon (AOC) all pairing well with the region’s specialties.

Today the start of the race shifted to a different starting point due to a farmer’s protest.  They were protesting the reintroduction of wolves in the Alps. So naturally my mind wandered to what these farmers where growing and what the organics looks like here ? 

Organics is still a relatively niche market in France, representing only 0.5% of total retail food sales. More and more supermarkets are outlets for selling organics.  Biocoop is a smaller version of our Wild Oats or Whole Foods. It has over 230 stores today and is expanding everyday–much like Whole Foods.  Health food stores and open air markets make up 35% of total sales; supermarkets 45%.

Ab_02 In 1981 organic legislation was passed; in 1985 the state-approved organic logo started appearing gaining wider acceptance of organics in France and throughout Europe. Products with this logo contain more than 95 percent organic components, and are produced or processed within the EU.

By 1999 more than "60 percent of the organic land is located in the six regions of Basse Normandie, Bretagne, Pays de la Loire, Languedoc-Roussillon, Midi-Pyrénées and Rhône-Alpes, which account for less than 40 percent of the French agricultural area." (French Ag Report 2003)

The Rhône-Alpes is one of the most dynamic regions in France in the agro-food industries. The irony is that while some of the best producers, farmers and cheesemakers can be found so can the French HQ of Monsanto, one of the leaders in GMOs as does Bayer Crop Science, one of the largest "crop protector" companies.

All of this makes me believe that there is room for opportunity everywhere, much like there is here in the U.S., for organic advocacy.  The region also sounds very similar to the Bay Area and California in general. Well, all except for the Alps.

Image:  Pajaro Street Grill

Batman & Milk

Batmanmilk I am not a fan of blockbuster movies. The formula, the overpromising, it’s always a disappointment. However, during summertime I find myself in the theater more often than not watching these commercial ventures. Already I’ve seen Star Wars III and Cinderella Man (worth the price for the storytelling alone and for Russell Crowe’s remarkable performance).

The next flick on my list is today’s release of "Batman Begins" which early speculation suggests Hollywood has finally gotten the story right. The other night I was at a friend’s house for dinner and picked up a recent copy of Rolling Stone. I was drawn to the ‘Got Milk’ ad (the milk mustache ones–the uninspired, flat, dull ones for the national milk board). After rummaging around on the Internet I found a press release snippet, "Batman, a masked crusader uses his strength, intellect and an array of high tech contraptions to fight the sinister forces that threaten the city." The ad copy reads: "For the hero in all of us. Milk’s 9 essential nutrients give me the strength and energy I need to fight the forces of evil. Not drinking milk? Now that would be a crime." 

Actually, it could do just the opposite.  If you are going to drink milk, drink organic milk.  Recent news stories on Horizon (Salon; reg possibility; thanks to Jen) who has been less than forthcoming on whether or not they pasture their "organic" cows have raised activists’ voices. Seems that in a quest to meet demand they are procuring milk that is potentially slipping through a USDA organic-standard loophole.  And if cows don’t pasture they don’t get what they need to produce all the vitamins and minerals that are essential nutrients to the people’s health. If Batman only knew he might come fight for those of is who want the facts on what we are eating and drinking.

Organic Pudding

Bottles While pulling together material for yesterday’s IMBB event I learned a few things related to gelatin. 

First I came across "It’s Pudding!" which is a new organic and new pudding line available on the market. While the name is a bit odd to me–say, "No Kidding!" they will be offering flavors including chocolate, vanilla, rice, tapioca, and banana this summer. It’s also certified Kosher OU.  It will be sold in 4-ounce containers as 4- packs. for around $3.99.  "It’s Pudding!" is made with all natural ingredients and no artificial flavors, colors or preservatives. It will be available in the coming months in the refrigerated section of natural food stores and specialty sections of supermarkets nationwide. The puddings are made by Lifeway.  The company was named as Forbes’ 38th best small business and Fortune Small Business’ 47th Fastest Growing Small Business. 

The company is also America’s leading supplier of the cultured dairy product known as kefir. Kefir is a milk-based beverage that contains ten types of "friendly," active probiotic cultures. The liquid is a cultured, enzyme-rich food filled with friendly micro-organisms that help balance your insides. It’s more nutritious than yogurt as it supplys complete proteins, essential minerals, and valuable B vitamins. 

In the course of my research I also cleared up a long held food belief that gelatin is made from horses hooves.  While it’s no longer common I’m not certain knowing where it is from is making me feel any better. 

And the best thing I learned?  Any time you see a call for a small box of Jell-O you can use a packet of unflavored gelatin such as Knox and then substitute fruit juice for the water used in the recipe. 

Late July Organics

Pb_rich_lg Cape Cod Potato Chips makes a great chip. Twenty-five years ago the Bernard family began producing a potato chip that not only tasted great but was made without trans fats, hydrogenated oils, corn syrup, artificial flavors, artificial colors or preservatives. It’s not not your typical chip.  It’s thicker, crunchier and tastes, well, like a potato.  It certainly makes a green girl feel less guilty about her snacking.

So when I heard that the company has founded Late July Organic Snacks, and that they are hoping to do for sandwich crackers what they did for potato chips in the ’80s–well it’s worth checking out.  One of the first product roll-outs will be a a replacement for those vending machine orange and peanut butter crackers. The difference being that creamy, organic Valencia ground peanut butter and aged, organic cheddar cheese will be sandwiched between their organic Classic Rich Crackers.

In the organic food category organic snack foods are the red-hot.  Large food companies such as Frito-Lay has emerged as the No. 1 seller of organic snacks. It recently introduced organic Tostitos chips and Doritos. But remember just because it’s organic doesn’t mean that it’s good for the you. 

Late July’s  USDA certified organic snacks are available nationally in natural products stores, gourmet stores and supermarkets such as Whole Foods and Wild Oats.  The packaging is pretty swell, too.

Go Organic

Usda Sixty-five percent of U.S. adults are aware of organic foods and beverages — and nearly as many (57%) say they are concerned about chemicals used to grow food. What’s more, barely 30% of consumers say they trust the U.S. government to regulate pesticides and other chemicals that affect the health of their food, according to a new national survey from the Natural Marketing Institute commissioned for this April’s "Go Organic! for Earth Day" campaign.  Other key findings included:

  • –Two-thirds of Americans who use organic food (44% of the U.S.
    population) would like organic food served in school cafeterias.
  • –65% of consumers perceive organics as better for their health, 61%
    perceive organic food as safer to eat, and 55% consider organics better
    for the environment.
  • –Organic food users tend to be better educated, younger, and more likely
    to be employed — 73% of college-educated consumers are aware of
    organic foods, compared to 59% awareness among those without a degree.

For more information on the 2005 "Go Organic! for Earth Day" campaign, visit .

Viva la Revolucion!

Cuba_map Friday night I attended a lecture featuring David Suzuki, a leading Canadian environmentalist.  In my view his lecture was a bit too general and simplistic for the environmental sophisticated audience.  However he tossed out an interesting statistic in the Q&A section in response to organics, food and consumption that piqued my interest.  Eighty per cent of food in Cuba is organic. 

In 1990 with the collapse of trade relations with the Soviet Union, Cuba was at the brink of a national food crisis. Also in place was a 30-year economic embargo by the U.S.  With the loss of the of its trading partner came the loss of importing
food. In addition, part of this import mix was $80 million annual dollars in pesticides.

Cuba was also faced with some of the same problems we face in America including mono cropping and rural-urban migration.

In "Hungry for Profit: The Agribusiness Threat to Farmers, Food and the Environment", Peter M. Rosset outlines the case study for sustainable agriculture in Cuba:

In response to this crisis the Cuban government launched a national effort to convert the nation’s agricultural sector from high input agriculture to low input, self-reliant farming practices on an unprecedented scale. Because of the drastically reduced availability of chemical inputs, the state hurried to replace them with locally produced, and in most cases biological, substitutes. This has meant biopesticides (microbial products) and natural enemies to combat insect pests, resistant plant varieties, crop rotations and microbial antagonists to combat plant pathogens, and better rotations, and cover cropping to suppress weeds. Synthetic fertilizers have been replaced by biofertilizers, earthworms, compost, other organic fertilizers, natural rock phosphate, animal and green manures, and the integration of grazing animals. In place of tractors, for which fuel, tires, and spare parts were largely unavailable, there has been a sweeping return to animal traction.

One of the biggest challenges faced by supporters of organic agriculture is the established agroindustry, which claims that organic, small-scale, sustainable methods of food production are not economically viable. The popular perception is that toxic chemicals, the demise of the family farm, and the consolidation of the control over our food system into a few, powerful, transnational corporations are all necessary if we are to feed the world’s growing population.

In a 2000 report Havana there were 8,000 organic gardens cultivated by 30,000 people and producing a million tons of food annually.  Gardeners are mostly growing lettuce, tomatoes, bok choy, onions, chard, radishes, cabbage and broccoli.  The government deregulated prices and the created farmers markets, which legalized direct sales from farmers to consumers. Some of the urban gardens, called organiponicos (state-owned urban gardens), were established as employee-owner cooperatives with the members sharing in all the profits made. Farmers markets followed next door to the garden sites throughout the city.

Cuba, with a population of 11, 141,997 (2000) has actively turned that myth promoted by corporate agriculture into a reality by proving that small to medium sized farms can feed a nation. 

Cuba Organic Support Group

Vote with Your Fork

Nogmo On my list of things to do this weekend was to catch up on the news of Slow Food’s Terra Madre event.  Well, Julia at Mariquita Farms has done such a great job.  As a thank-you I’ll put in a plug for their husband Farmer Andy Griffin’s free bi-weekly newsletter.  They started the newsletter in 1999 because "we saw a demand for information about where and how food is produced, especially sustainably-grown food."   I’ll just add the link for Alice Waters Speech.

Along the same theme on Thursday night a few friends(J&J and H) and I went to a benefit opening of the documentary, The Future of Food (there’s a trailer available). It was a great San Francisco eco-food event to benefit Slow Food.  There was a mix of organic farmers, local chefs, food journalists, activists and foodies.  I was loving the names that were popping up in conversations around me, "I’m working with Traci (Des Jardin)…well, when Thomas (Keller) did "the book" I was asked to prepare the pate de choux dessert…there’s Alice (Waters), oh look there’s Nigel (Eatwell) and Michael Pollan…on and on it went. The film finally started albeit late.  The film is the work of Deborah Koons Garcia (yes, Jerry’s wife) and is all about GMO (genetically modified organism) foods.  It’s educational, compelling and inspiring.  Know what you eat and vote with your fork.  And yes, see the film–in San Francisco it’s at the Roxie. For more background on GMOs read this perspective over at Organic Gardening.   What a great evening that could only happen here in The City by the bay.