Archive for the ‘Organic food’ Category

8 Delicious Uses for Ugly Fruit

Mutant bell pepper. Image credit: Moria

It’s no secret in the farming community that a lot of what they produce never sees the inside of a human digestive tract. Why? Because it’s ugly (or undersized, scarred, has a bruise, or is just on the wrong side of ripe).  As consumers, we want our produce to be both beautiful and tasty. And as organic peach farmer Nori Naylor points out, this attitude results in a lot of waste before we even leave the market. Even worse when consumers demand heirloom varieties and then refuse to buy them because they’re not as pretty!

I’d love to say that I slap on a blindfold and choose my peaches democratically, but the truth is that I’m that annoying person standing in front of the peaches who spends ten minutes looking for the perfect peach: round, beautifully blushed, fragrant, and practically glowing with its own inner light.

Food waste is a tremendous misuse of resources and how we choose our food — as well as whether we eat it once it comes home with us — makes a difference. Some of it is out of our hands (e.g. bird or insect-damaged fruit doesn’t meet safety standards), but some of it isn’t. Now that I think about it, most of what I love to do with fruit doesn’t require it to be beautiful. Here are some of my favorite ways to use ugly fruit. What about you?

(And the inevitable caveat: not all of these ideas are low energy, but they’re still more energy and water efficient than throwing it away. Probably.)

1. Salsa

This heirloom tomato kinda looks like an embryo. Image credit: ellenm1

Heirloom tomatoes are pretty gnarly looking compared to the perfectly uniform beefsteaks at the supermarket. Even if the shape doesn’t put you off, the splits might. Here’s a recipe from Jan at Slow Money Farm for salsa that’s awesome when you make it with ripe heirloom tomatoes (no matter how ugly).

about 1 lb of ripe tomatoes, chopped and seeded
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
4 oz green chilies, chopped (or another hot pepper)
1/3 c chopped red bell pepper
1/3 c chopped yellow bell pepper
1/2 c chopped green bell pepper
2 T red wine vinegar
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper (or to taste)
1/4 c chopped fresh cilantro
tortilla chips

Combine all, stirring thoroughly to mix. Can be done in a food processor and adjusted to be thinner / thicker as desired. Thanks, Jan!

2. Fruit leather

Paying .75 cents each for these highly plastic-wrapped bits of dried fruit is ridiculous.  When I was growing up (waaaay back when), we made fruit leather in big cookie-sheet-sized rectangles. We might not have saved any resources if we individually wrapped them for later — but that issue never came up. We ate it all right then and there. Here’s a basic fruit leather recipe. I remember that the stuff with raspberries and apples was especially good.

3. Applesauce (or other fruit sauces). 

Mottled organic apples. Image credit: Gudlyf

Here’s how I make applesauce. (I’m an imprecise cook. Sorry.)

  • Peel apples, cut roughly into fourths around the core.
  • Put as many as I have (at least 6) or will fit in my big 4 quart pot.
  • Add a little water to the bottom of the pot (dunno, 1/2 cup?)
  • Add a TB or two of sugar and a hefty dash of cinnamon
  • Simmer for about 30 minutes on medium with the lid on
  • Mash, and adjust sugar if necessary.

Need more precise directions? Here’s a basic applesauce recipe. I have it on the authority of a local heirloom apple grower that mixing apple varieties produces a richer, more complex apple flavor. (Read: whatever’s left in the produce drawer.) Applesauce can substitute for oil in some baked goods if you’re watching your weight; just store in the freezer.

4. Fruit crisp

Can’t use up those peaches in time? Image credit: orchidgalore

I make a kicky, zippy plum crisp every year when we’re inundated with plums from my mother’s tree. However, most stone fruits (and berries) make great crisps. Peach and strawberry, blackberry and apple…there are lots of possibilities here. You almost don’t need a recipe to make crisp, but I particularly like this one (I omit the bottom crust, which makes it both easier and healthier.)

5. Jams / conserves / jellies

I haven’t gotten into home canning yet. That’s why this section is blank. I’ve been told it’s fun.

6. Smoothies

Another obvious one. I tend to put in whatever fruit that needs using up with a splash of orange juice, sometimes some frozen fruit to round things out. It always ends up tasting fine. Then again, I avoid putting in vegetables. I can’t bring myself to drink anything dark green. (My lukewarm attitude towards kale and wheatgrass: yet another way in which I fail as a greenie.)

7. Fruity ice cream / sorbet

Imperfect plums. Image credit: bangli 1

My mother recently gave me a secondhand Donvier ice cream maker that had sat in her cupboard, unloved, for many years. Iffy as I was about yet another single-function kitchen gadget, I tried it and fell in love. Regular ice cream is too heavy and too sweet for me, but I’ve been mixing up tangy fruit ice creams using perfectly ripe summer fruit.  Slightly overripe or blemished would be fine as well. This recipe, for plum ice cream, is delightful (and easy!) and is a great base recipe to try other fruit ice creams.  (Go easy on the sugar if you’re using a really sweet fruit, like peaches — 1/2 cup is plenty.) Next up: coconut milk based ice creams.

8. Avert eyes. Proceed as usual.

I think my point is that very little of what we do with food requires it to be beautiful. I mean, it’s just going to end up being macerated, mixed with stomach acids and pancreatic juices, and dripped down as a whitish homogenized substance to our small intestines. (Just took a test on the digestive system and am full of details you don’t want to hear.)

Here’s my challenge to self: if I pick up a piece of fruit with a mild bruise or scar this week, I’m still going to get it as long as it passes the sniff test. If I don’t die, I’ll keep doing it.

What would you add to this list? Do you eat ugly fruit?

Finally, check out this ringspot virus infected watermelon. It’s perfectly safe to eat, but it takes the cake for bizarre looks.

6 Questions to Ask Before Buying Organic

Is organic more eco-friendly? It depends.             Image credit: fruitnet

How awesome would it be if a tidy little green and white label could tell you that your food was grown with minimal impact on the environment and evidence-based consideration for long term human and ecological sustainability? If certified organic had a 1:1 correlation with environmental and social responsibility, I would jump on the 100% organic bandwagon. Right now.

Unfortunately, organic is a marketing term, and a highly profitable one. The cynical part of me sees the way big corporations have gotten in on the action and wonders: if organic growing practices have a higher cost that is passed on to the consumers, why is it so profitable that huge corporations want in? What am I actually paying for?

While I still think that more of the farmers who are paying closest attention to sustainability are organic, buying organic food doesn’t excuse us from continuing to ask questions about the impact of our food. Answers, as always, are hard to come by.

(Here I want to acknowledge how hard it is to wrench food from the earth. As someone who has managed to get aphids on indoor herbs, I have tons of respect for farmers who go out there and grow food in the face of unpredictable weather and fierce competition from insects, bacteria, viruses, and small mammals. I also recognize that, however you farm, you drastically alter the ecosystem of the area you farm. There’s no way around that. When it comes to eco-friendly farming, we’re always already talking about compromises.)

Anyway, I’ve come up with some questions to ask before buying organic. It’s more of a wishlist than a realistic set of questions to interrogate your local farmer with on Saturday mornings, but it’s a way to start thinking about these complex issues. Most of these also apply to conventional agriculture. What would you add?

Pest management strategies?                                        Image credit: kumaravel

1. How does this organic farm manage pests?

Contrary to popular thought, organic does not mean pesticide free. It usually does mean free of synthetic pesticides (some synthetic substances, like pheromones, are allowed — the National Organic Program has a list of organic-OK pesticides that all certified farmers abide by), but it doesn’t tell you how often [natural] pesticides were used, how many different ones, how much, or how safe. Natural pesticides are sometimes less efficient than synthetic equivalents, resulting in either crop loss, higher quantities of pesticides, or both. (See this study comparing environmental impact of synthetic and natural pesticides.)

Unfortunately, natural pesticides are not necessarily gentler on animals or soil. According to Professor James McWilliams of Just Food, sulfur, which is a commonly used natural fungicide that is allowed in organic agriculture, is responsible for many farm worker injuries, is toxic to fish, and contributes to topsoil pollution. Another, copper sulfate, persists indefinitely, bioaccumulates in fish, and is classified by the EPA as a type I toxin (most toxic; glyphosate, in comparison, is a type III). Read more about pesticides used in organic farming here. Like synthetic pesticides, some are relatively safe, some are very toxic, some bioaccumulate, some don’t. They need to be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Better answers for this question would be things like crop rotation, crop diversification, integrated pest management, and cultivating beneficial predator populations.

What gets me is this: by drawing a line between natural and synthetic, the National Organic Program creates a binary based on ideology, not safety records. There is nothing intrinsically safer about natural pesticides. I would prefer to support a farmer who used integrated pest management to control pests, using the lowest effective dose of an appropriate, well-tested chemical (synthetic or otherwise) as a last resort.

2. Does the farm till to control weeds? How often?

How eco-friendly is tilling?     Image credit: ryanovineyards

Tilling seems like an intrinsic part of farming, but should it? Farmers till soil to get rid of weeds, but tilling is also responsible for increased soil erosion, moisture loss, run-off, poor soil quality, and the subsequent need for more fertilizers. No-till farming has benefits in reducing labor and machinery and improving soil quality and sustainability. However, with no-till, farmers still need to control weeds. Here are your three choices: tilling, spraying conventional toxic herbicides, or using glyphosate and glyphosate tolerant GMO crops. Pick your poison.

3. How suitable is the crop for the environment in which it’s being grown?

Growing coconuts in NorCal is probably not a good use of resources. And because it’s not economically beneficial, we don’t tend to do it. But what happens when it is profitable to grow a crop that doesn’t fit the environment in which it’s grown? The most famous example is probably tomatoes. If you get tomatoes in winter, they probably come from either Florida or Mexico. Florida: tons of pesticides (soil is packed with nematodes and terrible for tomatoes). Mexico: American demand for certified organic tomatoes (and basil and peppers)  is decimating local water tables. Closer to home, California’s aquifers are also under stress from both organic and conventional agriculture. Not too surprising, given that we spend 6 months of every year bone dry but grow food year round.

4.  How efficient is this organic farm compared to a non-organic farm growing the same variety under similar environmental conditions?

Here’s another of those pick-your-poison scenarios. Done well, organic agriculture can have less of an impact on soil health, local animal populations, and waterways. But many scientists (no, Rodale is not considered a scientific organization) remain unconvinced that organic can meet the efficiency levels of conventional agriculture. Water and land are also limited resources, and the more inefficient the farm, the more pressure on local ecosystems. Read more about organic farming efficiency and ways that careful management can narrow the gap to 13% (still considerable). Since efficiency difference varies by crop, maybe instead of the Dirty Dozen, we need an Efficient Eleven (or whatever) guide to buying organic. Then again, agricultural efficiency has driven massive population growth. Then again, dropping agricultural output to curb our population seems like it would be an unpopular and possibly inhumane idea. Ack!

5. How do nutrient levels compare in the same variety of organic and non-organic produce under similar environmental conditions?

Same thing, really. We do tend to see increased pesticide residues (well below accepted safety standards) in conventional agriculture compared to organic, though organic isn’t pesticide free, either. When it comes to nutritional content, studies and articles not produced by the organic industry tend to be inconclusive. (I dunno, I kind of think that Americans should just eat more fruits and vegetables and not worry about minor nutrient differences between conventional and organic.) Still, it would be interesting to see more studies and more lists of fruits and veggies in which organic does make a difference.

Got food? Thank a farmworker! Image credit: National Farm Worker Ministry

6. How does this farm treat farmworkers? 

This piece of information is frustratingly hard to find. Unlike GMOs, I can’t hop online and get a reasonable idea of which farms/products I want to avoid for ethical reasons. And tragically, farm workers are some of the most (if not the most) disenfranchised people in the country. They are exposed to the highest levels of toxic chemicals and have little or no legal recourse even when they have children with terrible birth defects as a result of illegal chemical exposure. I would gladly pay more for organic if it guaranteed that farm laborers were paid a fair wage with adequate protection from toxins and health care.


Whew. Sustainable food is one big, messy problem with no simple or easy answers. I think I could be reading up on it for the rest of my life and still be unsure what the best thing for me to do as a consumer. Right now, I buy a mix of organic and conventional; the percentage varies on where I’m shopping, and how much more organic costs than conventional. I really, really should try to talk to more farmers to get answers to these questions and make more decisions based on detailed knowledge, but again, there’s that whole farmers-market-phobia thing. Damn you, introversion.

Did I flub anything (I’d especially love to hear from organic farmers)? Are there any questions you would add to my list? How do you feel about buying organic?

Guest Post: What Organic Certification Really Means

This is a second guest post by Kelly Tooker, Master Gardener and environmental educator. There are lots of misconceptions about what organic actually means, and the USDA doesn’t seem to offer a tidy one page summary for the intelligent lay person. That’s where Kelly comes in. She breaks down what you’re getting when you buy organic — and what you’re not. 

The National Organic Program

What is ORGANIC?

The term “organic” simply means that something is or was once living.

The term “Organic” is used in marketing and manufacturing to describe the way in which agricultural products are produced, processed and certified to meet consistent national standards. These standards are regulated under the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) of 1990. Organic production is a system that is managed in accordance with the OFPA and regulations in Title 7, Part 205 of the Code of Federal Regulations.

What is the most common misconception?

Organic means no pesticides. False

Organic means that the product certified to the USDA standards as being produced and processed using methods that integrated cultural, biological and mechanical practices (see article on IPM) that foster the cycling of resources, promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity.

Organic crops. The USDA organic seal verifies that irradiation, sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers, prohibited pesticides, and genetically modified organisms were not used.

Organic livestock. The USDA organic seal verifies that producers met animal health and welfare standards, did not use antibiotics or growth hormones, used 100% organic feed, and provided animals with access to the outdoors.

How does the label work?

To use the term Organic and apply the USDA Organic seal at least 95% of the ingredients must be produced organically under the law. Any remaining ingredients must consist of non-agricultural substances.

Who has to follow the law?

Operations whose gross income from organic sales totals $5,000 or more.

So, what does this mean to me as a consumer?

Well, this is marketing. You are a consumer. There is a growing body of consumers who are concerned about the way their food is produced and processed. Learn more about each company you support, you vote with your dollar.

Your local farmer at the Farmer’s Market or CSA may not be able to afford certification. But they may meet your consumer demand for no pesticide use. Talk to your local farmer and learn about his practices.

The program states “no prohibited pesticides.” It does not identify which are prohibited and whether or not these are synthetic or natural (derived from plant, animal or mineral). Certification is site-specific.

Learn how commercial farming works. It is a business. They are trying to make a profit.

Is Organic the same as non-GMO?

No, but that’s a whole other big topic which I would like to address separately because so many people get the terms confused. I will post information on genetically modified organisms (GMO) on As you read above, the current Organic labeling program certifies that [known] genetically modified organisms were not used in organic crops.

Do I buy organic?

Yes, I selectively vote with my dollars.

Further, I support my local farmer. I strive to eat local and seasonally. I produce as much of my own food as I can. I have not eaten fast food in over 15 years (except Chipotle). I am brand loyal to companies that I see making a difference.

How much of your food is certified organic? Would you buy non-certified local produce if you knew it was grown without pesticides?

About the author: 
Kel is a Master Gardener, Master Composter/ Recycler, and Naturally Beautiful Backyards Host Gardener. She has lived in USDA Zone 8 (Western Garden Zone 6) for most of her life and just recently relocated to Zone 5!

Kel began gardening in 2004. Her first gardening project was to establish a butterfly habitat garden and multi-use space for a young family. Her next project was the development of an urban pollinator habitat and a 10 month edible garden. Future entries will chronicle a 7,000 sq ft lot in a historical district.

Kel continues to pursue educational opportunities and holds an Organic Gardening certificate from OSU Extension. She has worked as an environmental educator in a range of positions including curriculum development and career & technical training at the high school level. She writes about a wide range of environmental topics.

Kel posts regularly as MonkeyDragon on and Tweets @Kelsgarden.

Photo by USDAgov

Would you eat a GMO heirloom tomato?

Brandywine tomatoes are practically the poster child for organic, heirloom produce. Knobbly, warty, and deeply flavored, they’re a far cry from perfectly round red tomatoes. At $3/lb at the farmers’ market, Brandywines are also pretty pricy.

Want to know why you have to pay so much? Brandywines are prone to nematodes, microscopic worms that destroy tomatoes from the roots up. Farmers lose a lot more of their Brandywines to disease than more modern, disease-resistant hybrids. And because they harvest less, more land and water go into producing each pound of these heirloom tomatoes. In using more natural resources than hybrids, these organic, heirloom tomatoes might actually have a larger footprint than their conventional or hybrid counterparts.

Here’s the thing: with our existing technology, we could introduce better disease resistance simply by moving a disease resistant gene from a different type of tomato into the Brandywine, in basically an accelerated version of what plant breeders have been doing for centuries. No interspecies genes, no genes from viruses or bacteria, nothing that we don’t already eat whenever we eat a non-heirloom tomato. A GMO Brandywine could use water and space more effectively and require fewer or no pesticides.

Would you eat this hypothetical GMO heirloom tomato? What if it could be shown to be lower impact than its unmodified cultivar? What if it were clearly labeled?

…and what if you didn’t instinctively flinch at the idea of GMO and everything it stood for?

I’m currently reading Josh Schonwald’s The Taste of Tomorrow, which has a provocative chapter questioning whether the schism between organic and GMO is more ideological than rational. I’m discovering that my problem with GMO is not about the actual science at all: it’s about Monsanto’s business practices, lobbying, and seed patenting. No, I don’t think making farmers dependent on a corporation is a good idea. Yes, I think the Diamond v. Chakrabarty decision that ruled that genes could be patented was a disaster.

But as far as actual genetic modification goes, I’m neutral. It’s a different, and potentially complementary, approach to solving the same problems organic farmers face: disease prevention, yield, nutrition. I’m intrigued by Vitamin A fortified golden rice that could help prevent blindness in some of the poorest areas on the planet. In China, a form of cotton has been genetically modified to contain bacteria that acts as a natural pesticide. It’s helped to reduce pesticide use by 80%. That’s a lot of pesticides that didn’t go into our ground, air, and water. In Hawaii, after ringspot virus devastated papaya trees, scientist Dennis Gonsalves developed a disease resistant GMO papaya variety, released the seeds to farmers for free, and pretty much single-handedly saved the Hawaiian papaya industry and the livelihoods of many small farmers.

Of course there are concerns with GMOs.  I think it’s perfectly legitimate to be concerned about long term effects on human and planetary health, the development of resistance to GMO, monocropping. Like you, I’m upset about the corporatization of food and Monsanto’s monopolistic policies. Although GMO produce goes through rigorous testing, we don’t always know what to test for, and it’s possible, even likely, that there will be results we could not have predicted. Increased production, for example, often triggers an increase in population/consumption (why hello, industrial animal farming), and we’re still biological creatures, after all. Increasing efficiency while decreasing consumption is the hardest challenge we’ve ever faced as a species.

But nor is organic always synonymous with sustainability. Organic tomatoes imported from Mexico are sucking local water tables dry. The organic strawberries at the farmers’ market are still spayed with pesticides that are not necessarily less toxic than synthetic counterparts. We usually think of biodegrading as a good process, but some organic pesticides degrade into toxic chemicals. Is a water-hungry, disease-prone organic plant really ‘greener’ than a GMO with higher yields that requires fewer pesticides? I don’t know.

Everything’s a compromise. Call me a bad greenie for breaking with the ‘organic = good, GMO = bad’ binary, but here’s what I think: Wrenching humanity off its current course of self-destruction and on to a more sustainable path is a big, messy, complicated problem. And ignoring potential solutions just because we’re ideologically — not rationally — opposed may not be helpful in finding solutions. It’s possible we’ll need GMO technology when the climate starts changing too quickly for our old plants and ways of agriculture. It’s possible GMO and organic could complement each other for more sustainable agriculture and stable food supplies. One thing is clear: we can’t go backwards.

What do you think about GMOs? Would you eat a GMO Brandywine?

Photo by Amanda Quintana-Bowles 

How Green is Chocolate?

Nothing says romance like human slavery and deforestation?

Here’s a purely theoretical question just in time for Valentine’s Day: Would you give up chocolate if you knew it was ethically or environmentally problematic?

Because of course it’s both.

When Kevin and I got engaged (as in, we had a calm discussion and came to a satisfactory mutual agreement for future plans), I sneered at the thought of an engagement ring because of the many issues with gold and diamonds. I barely skipped a beat when I went vegetarian and bid farewell to beef chow fun and bacon. But spending the rest of my life without so much as a chocolate chip cookie? Now that makes me quail a little. Fortunately (or unfortunately), giving up chocolate might not be something we have to choose: some experts predict that climate change will drastically reduce cocoa production in West Africa in the next few decades.

Chocolate is fascinating stuff with a colorful history. A couple of my favorite factoids: cacao pods grow directly out of the trunks of the trees; flowers are pollinated by tiny local midges rather than bees; and chocolate was a beverage centuries before it was a confection. The active ingredient in chocolate, theobromine, has a caffeine-like effect on our bodies. Cacao’s Latin name, theobroma cacao, literally means food of the gods. Well-named, right?

But the story of chocolate today — the innocuous, ubiquitous candy bar — is pretty darn sinister. If you’re in the habit of acting out of ethical or environmental concerns, here are 5 things you never wanted to know about chocolate. You’re welcome.

  1. The production of chocolate frequently involves child labor, exploitation, and in the worst cases, human trafficking. A 2011 report from Tulane University found more than 1.8 million children in West Africa (which produces 69% of the world’s cocoa) involved in growing cocoa. The process of making chocolate involves so many people and steps that the industry cannot guarantee bean to bar traceability. Hershey’s has even been accused of using forced factory labor in the US. Fair trade is better, but frankly, with monitoring out of sight and out of mind, it’s hard to be 100% sure that any chocolate is slavery-free.
  2. Growing cacao is responsible for rainforest loss. Unsustainable cacao farming methods have resulted in unproductive land that forces farmers to clear more rainforest.  The ironic thing is that cacao grows much better (and quite sustainably) in rainforests — but farming that way just isn’t as productive or profitable and can’t supply consumer demand in developed countries. We are part of the problem because we expect and buy cheap chocolate.
  3. Cacao farmers often struggle with poverty and poor working conditions while the real profits go to big corporations.  One problem with switching to growing cash crops is that farmers destabilize their own food and water supply. Another problem is that kids in farming families that are just barely making it can’t be spared to go to school.
  4. Chocolate often contains palm oil. So even if the cocoa was fairly traded, the palm oil in your chocolate bar could be responsible for deforestation. The palm oil industry is incredibly dirty. If you didn’t see the recent story about the bounty hunters and the pregnant orangutan, it might just make you a little disgusted at being human.
  5. Chocolate travels a long way from where it is grown, to where it is processed, and to where it is sold and consumed. Like tea and coffee, it comes with a high carbon footprint. I think we’ve forgotten that all of these things are luxuries.
It’s not all bad news: chocolate can be produced sustainably, and we can support the people who are doing it right. But it’s going to cost more, and we’re going to have to eat less of it. The way I see it, knowledge is a responsibility to change. I’ll be researching before reaching for my next box of cocoa powder or bag of chocolate chips. Will you?
How do you feel about chocolate and its associated problems? Would you give it up or change your buying habits?
Photo by miguelpdl

8 Reasons Never to Buy Another Winter Tomato

That pretty little red orb hides a lot of dirty secrets. I just finished reading Barry Estabrook’s Tomatoland: How Modern Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit, and am profoundly unsettled. If you’ve bought a supermarket tomato in the dead of winter, odds are that it came from Florida. (But don’t worry — if it came from Mexico, it has its own host of problems.) The conditions that produced it are so appalling that I am never buying another out of state, out of season tomato. Here’s why.

  1. They’re tasteless. Pretty and red, yes. But also mealy with, at most, a slight watery tartness to them. Compared to the full glory of a summer ripened tomato that explodes with flavor and juice when you bite, winter tomatoes are so disappointing that they hardly merit the name. Why are they tasteless? Tomatoes that have been bred for travel are picked green and gassed with ethylene until they turn a beautiful, uniform red. They are bred for toughness and uniformity, not taste. Apparently you can drop kick one across the room without bruising one. You could probably give someone a concussion if you lobbed one of these.
  2. They are less nutritious. Not just tomatoes, but many conventionally grown crops have lower vitamin levels than they used to 50 years ago —  due to both selective breeding and the heavy use of chemicals. Modern tomatoes, which have been bred for looks and hardiness, have lost iron, calcium, and vitamin A — but have 14 times more sodium.
  3. Florida tomatoes are doused with  five times as much fungicide and six times as much pesticide as California tomatoes. Florida is a crappy place to grow tomatoes, yet it produces 1/3 of all tomatoes available in the US, and most of the off-season ones. Tomatoes like warm, fairly dry weather. Florida is warm, but it’s also humid. The soil is essentially sand, so nutrition has to be pumped in, and the humidity gives rise to lots of nematodes, insects, and weeds that aren’t killed off every winter. Because it’s so far from being an ideal place to grow tomatoes, farmers end up spraying their crops with some of the deadliest pesticides known to man — and lots of them.
  4. They travel far. There are so many good reasons to buy local: you’re supporting your local economy, you get to develop relationships with your local growers, you don’t rack up the carbon footprint of food from far away, and locally grown food generally tastes better. Whether your winter tomatoes are coming from Canadian hothouses, Mexican hydroponic plantations, or Floridan fields, they’re using up a lot of oil to get to you. And they don’t even taste good.
  5. If your winter tomato comes from Florida, it leaves behind a long trail of human rights abuses. Being a farm laborer is crappy wherever you are in this country, but Florida seems to be one of the worst places, with the fewest protections and support for laborers. In some cases, the tomato industry has become outright slavery. The heavy and poorly regulated use of pesticides on tomato fields has caused chronic illness and debilitating birth defects among the children of laborers.
  6. If your winter tomato comes from Mexico, you might want to read this article on how organic tomatoes raised for export in Mexico are sucking wells dry and preventing small farmers from raising the crops they need in order to eat. Sound familiar? Oh yeah, similar story with bananas, coffee, chocolate…
  7. It’s not hard to grow or preserve your bounty of  summer tomatoes. My mom literally just sticks extra tomatoes in the freezer. Freezing does change the texture, but in the winter, tomatoes go into soups and sauces and recipes that don’t require the crispness of fresh tomatoes. I also freezer-canned a few jars of roasted tomato and garlic sauce (definitely should have made more of that), and of course, you can do real water bath or pressure canning.
  8. There’s a steep price for being able to eat the same foods year round. The cost is tallied in oil, pesticides, social justice, and taste. Is it really worth it for that bland supermarket tomato?

Unfortunately, it’s not just about refusing to buy tomatoes in the winter. Restaurants and fast food joints continue to use them, and I admit that one of my occasional indulgences is an In-N-Out grilled cheese (animal style!), with its requisite slice of tomato. Now that I know the story behind the tomato in my sandwich, will I stop going? Request that they leave it out? I haven’t decided yet.

If you’re interested in the story of tomatoes, I suggest you check out Tomatoland for yourself. Prepare to be appalled.

Do you buy tomatoes in the winter? Will you stop?

Photo by La Grande Farmers’ Market

Thoughts on Honey & Sustainable Sweeteners

Sugar is hell on the environment, and we eat far too much of it. Even though the familiar white and pink bag looks totally innocuous, sugar (according to a 2004 WWF study) is responsible for more biodiversity loss than any other crop (yes! more than palm!). It’s a water and chemical intensive crop, and processing it produces yet more chemical waste, often in fragile and threatened equatorial regions. Even if you buy fair trade, organic sugar, you’re doing a good bit of environmental damage for something that we don’t even need in our diets.

There are plenty of other alternative sweeteners, but some of them are highly processed (high fructose corn syrup and synthetic low calorie sweeteners like Splenda), some of them taste kind of funny (stevia), and none of them are local to me (brown rice syrup, agave, coconut sugar, maple syrup).

And then there’s honey. The beekeeper at my local farmers’ market is a brusque woman with a perennially bruised thumbnail and a talent for winding honey samples around toothpicks without so much as a drip. Her wares range from pale gold (alfalfa) to warm amber (wildflower) to dark brown (tarweed). And the flavors vary, too — the fragrant neroli-laced scent of orange blossom, the toasted marshmallow sweetness of meadowfoam. If you’ve only had commercially produced honey, you are seriously missing out.

Honey is the only sweetener that is produced within 30 miles of me. I can talk to a local, independent farmer (she says her honeybees aren’t experiencing colony collapse, incidentally) and support my local economy. And although I still use a little sugar for baking, honey is my sweetener of choice for just about everything else.

You might be turned off by the details of how honey is produced, but I think it’s fascinating. Honeybees collect nectar and regurgitate it in a half-digested form. Then worker bees fan the stuff to evaporate the water content. The remaining substance is a very shelf-stable form of food for the bees over the winter and in times of low food. Beekeepers encourage their bees to produce more honey than they need and collect the excess, making sure to leave enough for their hives. (Starving your hives is not a good business practice.) Honey is naturally antibacterial and can be used for everything from treating allergy symptoms to soothing dry, irritated skin. 

Of course, there are ethical questions about eating honey. It might be an environmentally sound option, but is it right to exploit bees and take their food?  

Maybe not, but it might be the lesser of two evils. It’s important to first realize that honey is actually something of a byproduct. Our agricultural system heavily depends on semi-domesticated bees to pollinate crops — most nuts, most stone fruits, berries, melons, some vegetables. Commercial beekeepers make more of their money renting out their hives to farmers than from selling honey. And while we used to have lots of native pollinators, habitat destruction has forced us to rely on honeybees for pollination. Even a strict plant-based diet involves the systemic exploitation of honeybees.

That in itself is not a good reason to exploit honeybees further. But ultimately, it comes down to a choice. Choose local honey, and you can visit the farm, support an independent farmer in your community, see how the bees and human workers are treated, and make a good guess at how the total carbon footprint involved in producing and transporting the honey. Choose another sweetener, and everything is suddenly much more opaque — from the location and size of the farm, to how it’s processed, and the total impact on local biodiversity, economy, and workers.

Do you eat honey? Do environmental considerations influence your choice of sweetener?

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