Archive for August, 2009

Link Between Nitrate Levels and Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Diabetes

Thursday, August 27th, 2009

Researchers have found a substantial link between increased levels of nitrates in our environment and food with increased deaths from diseases, including Alzheimer’s, diabetes mellitus and Parkinson’s.

Led by Suzanne de la Monte, the researchers studied the trends in mortality rates due to diseases that are associated with aging, such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and cerebrovascular disease, as well as HIV. They found strong parallels between age adjusted increases in death rate from Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and diabetes and the progressive increases in human exposure to nitrates, nitrites and nitrosamines through processed and preserved foods as well as fertilizers. Other diseases including HIV-AIDS, cerebrovascular disease, and leukemia did not exhibit those trends. De la Monte and the authors propose that the increase in exposure plays a critical role in the cause, development and effects of the pandemic of these insulin-resistant diseases.

The researchers recognize that an increase in death rates is anticipated in higher age groups. Yet when the researchers compared mortality from Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease among 75 to 84 year olds from 1968 to 2005, the death rates increased much more dramatically than for cerebrovascular and cardiovascular disease, which are also aging-associated. For example, in Alzheimer’s patients, the death rate increased 150-fold, from 0 deaths to more than 150 deaths per 100,000. Parkinson’s disease death rates also increased across all age groups. However, mortality rates from cerebrovascular disease in the same age group declined, even though this is a disease associated with aging as well.

De la Monte notes, “Because of the similar trending in nearly all age groups within each disease category, this indicates that these overall trends are not due to an aging population. This relatively short time interval for such dramatic increases in death rates associated with these diseases is more consistent with exposure-related causes rather than genetic changes.” She also comments, “Moreover, the strikingly higher and climbing mortality rates in older age brackets suggest that aging and/or longer durations of exposure have greater impacts on progression and severity of these diseases.”

De la Monte says, “We have become a ‘nitrosamine generation.’ In essence, we have moved to a diet that is rich in amines and nitrates, which lead to increased nitrosamine production. We receive increased exposure through the abundant use of nitrate-containing fertilizers for agriculture.” She continues, “Not only do we consume them in processed foods, but they get into our food supply by leeching from the soil and contaminating water supplies used for crop irrigation, food processing and drinking.”

Nitrites and nitrates belong to a class of chemical compounds that have been found to be harmful to humans and animals. More than 90 percent of these compounds that have been tested have been determined to be carcinogenic in various organs. They are found in many food products, including fried bacon, cured meats and cheese products as well as beer, wine and water. Exposure also occurs through manufacturing and processing of rubber and latex products, as well as fertilizers, pesticides and cosmetics.

Nitrosamines are formed by a chemical reaction between nitrites or other proteins. Sodium nitrite is deliberately added to meat and fish to prevent toxin production; it is also used to preserve, color and flavor meats. Ground beef, cured meats and bacon in particular contain abundant amounts of amines due to their high protein content. Because of the significant levels of added nitrates and nitrites, nitrosamines are nearly always detectable in these foods. Nitrosamines are also easily generated under strong acid conditions, such as in the stomach, or at high temperatures associated with frying or flame broiling. Reducing sodium nitrite content reduces nitrosamine formation in foods.

Nitrosamines basically become highly reactive at the cellular level, which then alters gene expression and causes DNA damage. The researchers note that the role of nitrosamines has been well-studied, and their role as a carcinogen has been fully documented. The investigators propose that the cellular alterations that occur as a result of nitrosamine exposure are fundamentally similar to those that occur with aging, as well as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Type 2 diabetes mellitus.

De la Monte comments, “All of these diseases are associated with increased insulin resistance and DNA damage. Their prevalence rates have all increased radically over the past several decades and show no sign of plateau. Because there has been a relatively short time interval associated with the dramatic shift in disease incidence and prevalence rates, we believe this is due to exposure-related rather than genetic etiologies.”

The researchers graphed and analyzed mortality rates, and compared them with increasing age for each disease. They then studied United States population growth, annual use and consumption of nitrite-containing fertilizers, annual sales at popular fast food chains, and sales for a major meat processing company, as well as consumption of grain and consumption of watermelon and cantaloupe (the melons were used as a control since they are not typically associated with nitrate or nitrite exposure).

The findings indicate that while nitrogen-containing fertilizer consumption increased by 230 percent between 1955 and 2005, its usage doubled between 1960 and 1980, which just precedes the insulin-resistant epidemics the researchers found. They also found that sales from the fast food chain and the meat processing company increased more than 8-fold from 1970 to 2005, and grain consumption increased 5-fold.

The authors state that the time course of the increased prevalence rates of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and diabetes cannot be explained on the basis of gene mutations. They instead mirror the classical trends of exposure-related disease. Because nitrosamines produce biochemical changes within cells and tissues, it is conceivable that chronic exposure to low levels of nitrites and nitrosamines through processed foods, water and fertilizers is responsible for the current epidemics of these diseases and the increasing mortality rates associated with them.

De la Monte states, “If this hypothesis is correct, potential solutions include eliminating the use of nitrites and nitrates in food processing, preservation and agriculture; taking steps to prevent the formation of nitrosamines and employing safe and effective measures to detoxify food and water before human consumption.”

Organic Center Response to the FSA Study

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

An advance copy of a study appeared today that will be published in the September edition of the “American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.” The published paper, “Nutritional quality of organic foods: a systematic review,” was written by a team led by Alan Dangour, at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and funded by the United Kingdom’s Food Standards Agency (FSA).

In their written report, the London team downplayed positive findings in favor of organic food. In several instances, their analysis showed that organic foods tend to be more nutrient dense than conventional foods. Plus, their study omitted measures of some important nutrients, including total antioxidant capacity. It also lacked quality controls contained in a competing study released in 2008 by The Organic Center (TOC). Last, the FSA-funded team also used data from very old studies assessing nutrient levels in plant varieties that are no longer on the market.

The London team reported finding statistically significant differences between organically and conventionally grown crops in three of thirteen categories of nutrients. Significant differences cited by the team included nitrogen, which was higher in conventional crops, and phosphorus and tritratable acids, both of which were higher in the organic crops. Elevated levels of nitrogen in food are regarded by most scientists as a public health hazard because of the potential for cancer-causing nitrosamine compounds to form in the human GI tract. Hence, this finding of higher nitrogen in conventional food favors organic crops, as do the other two differences.

Despite the fact that these three categories of nutrients favored organic foods, and none favored conventionally grown foods, the London-based team concluded that there are no nutritional differences between organically and conventionally grown crops.

A team of scientists convened by The Organic Center (TOC) carried out a similar, but more rigorous, review of the same literature. The TOC team analyzed published research just on plant-based foods. Results differ significantly from the more narrow FSA review and are reported in the study “New Evidence Confirms the Nutritional Superiority of Plant-Based Organic Foods.”

The TOC findings are similar for some of the nutrients analyzed by the FSA team, but differ significantly for two critical classes of nutrients of great importance in promoting human health – total polyphenols, and total antioxidant content. The FSA team did not include total antioxidant capacity among the nutrients studied, and it found no differences in the phenolic content in 80 comparisons across 13 studies.

Unlike the London study, The Organic Center review focused on nutrient differences in “matched pairs” of crops grown on nearby farms, on the same type of soil, with the same irrigation systems and harvest timing, and grown from the same plant variety. It also rigorously screened studies for the quality of the analytical methods used to measure nutrient levels, and eliminated from further consideration a much greater percentage of the published literature than the FSA team.

While the FSA team found 80 comparisons of phenolic compounds, the TOC team focused on the more precise measure of total phenolic acids, or total polyphenols, and found just 25 scientifically valid “matched pairs.” By mixing together in their statistical analysis the results of several specific phenolic acids, the FSA team likely lost statistical precision.

Instead, the TOC team focused on studies reporting values for total phenolic acids, and also applied more rigorous selection criteria to exclude poorer quality studies.

The TOC team found –

  • Twenty-five matched pairs of organic and conventional crops for which total phenolic acid data was reported. The levels were higher in the organic crops in 18 of these 25 cases, conventional crops were higher in 6. In five of the matched pairs, phenolic acid levels were higher in organic crops by 20% or more. On average across the 25 matched pairs, total phenolics were 10% higher in the organic samples, compared to conventional crops.
  • In seven of eight matched pairs reporting total antioxidant capacity data, the levels were higher in the organically grown crop. Of 15 matched pairs for the key antioxidant quercetin, 13 reported higher values in the organic food. In the case of kaempferol, another important antioxidant, the organic samples were higher in six cases, while five were higher in the conventional crops.

In the TOC study, there were an ample number of matched pairs to compare the levels of 11 nutrients, including five of the nutrients in the FSA review. For the five nutrients covered in each review, the TOC team was in general agreement with the FSA findings for two (nitrogen and phosphorus).

The London team did not assess differences in key individual antioxidants, nor in total antioxidant activity, important nutrients that have been measured in several more recent studies.

Across all the valid matched pairs and the 11 nutrients included in the TOC study, nutrient levels in organic food averaged 25% higher than in conventional food. Given that some of the most significant differences favoring organic foods were for key antioxidant nutrients that most Americans do not get enough of on most days, the team concluded that the consumption of organic fruits and vegetables, in particular, offered significant health benefits, roughly equivalent to an additional serving of a moderately nutrient dense fruit or vegetable on an average day.

Why the Different Results?

A review of the London-based team’s methodology and study design points clearly to why the FSA and Organic Center studies reached some different conclusions.

Inclusion of Older Studies

The FSA review included studies over a 50-year period: January 1958 through February 2008. The TOC team included studies published since 1980. Most studies published before 1980 were found flawed for purposes of comparing the nutrient content of today’s conventional and organic crops.

Most of the older studies used plant varieties no longer in use, and did not measure or report total phenolics or antioxidant capacity (since these nutrients were just being discovered). The older studies used analytical methods that are now considered inferior, compared to modern methods.

Further, since the 1950s, plant breeders and growers have consistently increased the yields of food crops, leading, in some cases, to a dilution of nutrients. In 2004, one of us (Donald R. Davis) reported evidence for a general decline in some nutrient levels in 43 garden crops between 1950 and 1999 (Davis et al., “Changes in USDA Food Composition Data for 43 Garden Crops, 1950 to 1999,” Journal of the American College of Nutrition, Vol. 23(6): 669-682; a

summary of the Davis paper is posted).

Similarly, an Organic Center report by Brian Halweil describes in detail the evidence linking higher yields and nutrient decline (

“Still No Free Lunch: Nutrient levels in the U.S. food supply eroded by pursuit of high yields,”).
Thus, results in the FSA study are likely confounded by the team’s decision to include data from over three decades ago.

New Studies Support Greater Nutrient Density in Organic Foods

Since February 2008, the cut-off date of the London study, some 15 new studies have been published, most of which use superior design and analytical methods based on criticisms of older studies. The Organic Center is updating its earlier analysis with these additional studies. These new studies generally reinforce the findings reported in the March 2008 TOC report, particularly in the case of nitrogen (higher in conventional crops, a disadvantage), and Vitamin C, total phenolics, and total antioxidant capacity, which are typically higher in organically grown foods.

The Center’s study finds that protein content and beta-carotene, a precursor of Vitamin A, are typically higher in conventionally grown foods, but since both are present at ample or excessive levels in the diets of most Americans, these differences do not confer a nutritional advantage nearly as important as heightened levels of phenolics and antioxidants in organic foods.

Exclusion of Studies Analyzing Results on “Integrated” Farms

The FSA team excluded studies comparing organic foods to “integrated” and biodynamic production systems, stating that “integrated” systems are not conventional. Most conventional U.S. fruit and vegetable producers are now using advanced levels of Integrated Pest Management. Thus, “integrated” systems are now a more accurate description of “conventional” agriculture in the U.S., than a definition grounded in monoculture, the calendar spraying of pesticides, and excessive applications of chemical fertilizers. The London team did not report in the published paper which “integrated” studies were dropped, but we suspect some important U.S.-based studies may have been eliminated.

TOC Study Applied Much Stricter Screens for Scientific Validity

The two teams agree that many published studies are methodologically flawed, and hence should not be included in comparative studies. But the FSA and TOC teams used very different rules to screen studies for scientific quality and to select matched pairs for analyses.

The FSA team cites five criteria: definition of the organic system; specification of the plant variety (i.e., crop genetics); statement of nutrients analyzed; description of laboratory method used; and, a statement regarding statistical methods for assessing differences. The London team states that they simply required some discussion of these issues in published papers, but did not set or apply any qualitative thresholds in judging scientific validity.

The Organic Center team focused on the same factors (plus several others) and used stated, objective criteria for assessing them. The TOC team reviewed the statistical power and reliability of the analytical methods, a process that eliminated dozens of results. Finally, the TOC team insisted upon a close match of soils, plant genetics (variety), harvest method and timing, and irrigation systems, all factors that can bias the results of a comparison study.

Inclusion of Market-Basket Studies

The FSA team included some market basket studies, for which there is no way to know the specific circumstances of the farm locations, the plant genetics, the soil type, or harvest method and timing. In the Organic Center study, market basket results were judged as “invalid” based on several quality-control screening criteria.

Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

By Bryan Walsh

Hamburger
Somewhere in Iowa, a pig is being raised in a confined pen, packed in so tightly with other swine that their curly tails have been chopped off so they won’t bite one another. To prevent him from getting sick in such close quarters, he is dosed with antibiotics. The waste produced by the pig and his thousands of pen mates on the factory farm where they live goes into manure lagoons that blanket neighboring communities with air pollution and a stomach-churning stench. He’s fed on American corn that was grown with the help of government subsidies and millions of tons of chemical fertilizer. When the pig is slaughtered, at about 5 months of age, he’ll become sausage or bacon that will sell cheap, feeding an American addiction to meat that has contributed to an obesity epidemic currently afflicting more than two-thirds of the population. And when the rains come, the excess fertilizer that coaxed so much corn from the ground will be washed into the Mississippi River and down into the Gulf of Mexico, where it will help kill fish for miles and miles around. That’s the state of your bacon — circa 2009. (See TIME’s photo-essay “From Farm to Fork.”)

Horror stories about the food industry have long been with us — ever since 1906, when Upton Sinclair’s landmark novel The Jungle told some ugly truths about how America produces its meat. In the century that followed, things got much better, and in some ways much worse. The U.S. agricultural industry can now produce unlimited quantities of meat and grains at remarkably cheap prices. But it does so at a high cost to the environment, animals and humans. Those hidden prices are the creeping erosion of our fertile farmland, cages for egg-laying chickens so packed that the birds can’t even raise their wings and the scary rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria among farm animals. Add to the price tag the acceleration of global warming — our energy-intensive food system uses 19% of U.S. fossil fuels, more than any other sector of the economy.

And perhaps worst of all, our food is increasingly bad for us, even dangerous. A series of recalls involving contaminated foods this year — including an outbreak of salmonella from tainted peanuts that killed at least eight people and sickened 600 — has consumers rightly worried about the safety of their meals. A food system — from seed to 7‑Eleven — that generates cheap, filling food at the literal expense of healthier produce is also a principal cause of America’s obesity epidemic. At a time when the nation is close to a civil war over health-care reform, obesity adds $147 billion a year to our doctor bills. “The way we farm now is destructive of the soil, the environment and us,” says Doug Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist with the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). (See pictures of what the world eats.)

Some Americans are heeding such warnings and working to transform the way the country eats — ranchers and farmers who are raising sustainable food in ways that don’t bankrupt the earth. Documentaries like the scathing Food Inc. and the work of investigative journalists like Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan are reprising Sinclair’s work, awakening a sleeping public to the uncomfortable realities of how we eat. Change is also coming from the very top. First Lady Michelle Obama’s White House garden has so far yielded more than 225 lb. of organic produce — and tons of powerful symbolism. But hers is still a losing battle. Despite increasing public awareness, sustainable agriculture, while the fastest-growing sector of the food industry, remains a tiny enterprise: according to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), less than 1% of American cropland is farmed organically. Sustainable food is also pricier than conventional food and harder to find. And while large companies like General Mills have opened organic divisions, purists worry that the very definition of sustainability will be co-opted as a result. (See pictures of urban farming around the world.)

But we don’t have the luxury of philosophizing about food. With the exhaustion of the soil, the impact of global warming and the inevitably rising price of oil — which will affect everything from fertilizer to supermarket electricity bills — our industrial style of food production will end sooner or later. As the developing world grows richer, hundreds of millions of people will want to shift to the same calorie-heavy, protein-rich diet that has made Americans so unhealthy — demand for meat and poultry worldwide is set to rise 25% by 2015 — but the earth can no longer deliver. Unless Americans radically rethink the way they grow and consume food, they face a future of eroded farmland, hollowed-out countryside, scarier germs, higher health costs — and bland taste. Sustainable food has an élitist reputation, but each of us depends on the soil, animals and plants — and as every farmer knows, if you don’t take care of your land, it can’t take care of you.

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The Downside of Cheap
For all the grumbling you do about your weekly grocery bill, the fact is you’ve never had it so good, at least in terms of what you pay for every calorie you eat. According to the USDA, Americans spend less than 10% of their incomes on food, down from 18% in 1966. Those savings begin with the remarkable success of one crop: corn. Corn is king on the American farm, with production passing 12 billion bu. annually, up from 4 billion bu. as recently as 1970. When we eat a cheeseburger, a Chicken McNugget, or drink soda, we’re eating the corn that grows on vast, monocrop fields in Midwestern states like Iowa.

But cheap food is not free food, and corn comes with hidden costs. The crop is heavily fertilized — both with chemicals like nitrogen and with subsidies from Washington. Over the past decade, the Federal Government has poured more than $50 billion into the corn industry, keeping prices for the crop — at least until corn ethanol skewed the market — artificially low. That’s why McDonald’s can sell you a Big Mac, fries and a Coke for around $5 — a bargain, given that the meal contains nearly 1,200 calories, more than half the daily recommended requirement for adults. “Taxpayer subsidies basically underwrite cheap grain, and that’s what the factory-farming system for meat is entirely dependent on,” says Gurian-Sherman. (See the 10 worst fast food meals.)

So what’s wrong with cheap food and cheap meat — especially in a world in which more than 1 billion people go hungry? A lot. For one thing, not all food is equally inexpensive; fruits and vegetables don’t receive the same price supports as grains. A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that a dollar could buy 1,200 calories of potato chips or 875 calories of soda but just 250 calories of vegetables or 170 calories of fresh fruit. With the backing of the government, farmers are producing more calories — some 500 more per person per day since the 1970s — but too many are unhealthy calories. Given that, it’s no surprise we’re so fat; it simply costs too much to be thin.

Our expanding girth is just one consequence of mainstream farming. Another is chemicals. No one doubts the power of chemical fertilizer to pull more crop from a field. American farmers now produce an astounding 153 bu. of corn per acre, up from 118 as recently as 1990. But the quantity of that fertilizer is flat-out scary: more than 10 million tons for corn alone — and nearly 23 million for all crops. When runoff from the fields of the Midwest reaches the Gulf of Mexico, it contributes to what’s known as a dead zone, a seasonal, approximately 6,000-sq.-mi. area that has almost no oxygen and therefore almost no sea life. Because of the dead zone, the $2.8 billion Gulf of Mexico fishing industry loses 212,000 metric tons of seafood a year, and around the world, there are nearly 400 similar dead zones. Even as we produce more high-fat, high-calorie foods, we destroy one of our leanest and healthiest sources of protein. (See nine kid foods to avoid.)

The food industry’s degradation of animal life, of course, isn’t limited to fish. Though we might still like to imagine our food being raised by Old MacDonald, chances are your burger or your sausage came from what are called concentrated-animal feeding operations (CAFOs), which are every bit as industrial as they sound. In CAFOs, large numbers of animals — 1,000 or more in the case of cattle and tens of thousands for chicken and pigs — are kept in close, concentrated conditions and fattened up for slaughter as fast as possible, contributing to efficiencies of scale and thus lower prices. But animals aren’t widgets with legs. They’re living creatures, and there are consequences to packing them in prison-like conditions. For instance: Where does all that manure go?

Pound for pound, a pig produces approximately four times the amount of waste a human does, and what factory farms do with that mess gets comparatively little oversight. Most hog waste is disposed of in open-air lagoons, which can overflow in heavy rain and contaminate nearby streams and rivers. “This creek that we used to wade in, that creek that our parents could drink out of, our kids can’t even play in anymore,” says Jayne Clampitt, a farmer in Independence, Iowa, who lives near a number of hog farms.

To stay alive and grow in such conditions, farm animals need pharmaceutical help, which can have further damaging consequences for humans. Overuse of antibiotics on farm animals leads, inevitably, to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and the same bugs that infect animals can infect us too. The UCS estimates that about 70% of antimicrobial drugs used in America are given not to people but to animals, which means we’re breeding more of those deadly organisms every day. The Institute of Medicine estimated in 1998 that antibiotic resistance cost the public-health system $4 billion to $5 billion a year — a figure that’s almost certainly higher now. “I don’t think CAFOs would be able to function as they do now without the widespread use of antibiotics,” says Robert Martin, who was the executive director of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production.

See more pictures of what the world eats.

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The livestock industry argues that estimates of antibiotics in food production are significantly overblown. Resistance “is the result of human use and not related to veterinary use,” according to Kristina Butts, the manager of legislative affairs for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. But with wonder drugs losing their effectiveness, it makes sense to preserve them for as long as we can, and that means limiting them to human use as much as possible. “These antibiotics are not given to sick animals,” says Representative Louise Slaughter, who is sponsoring a bill to limit antibiotic use on farms. “It’s a preventive measure because they are kept in pretty unspeakable conditions.”

Such a measure would get at a symptom of the problem but not at the source. Just as the burning of fossil fuels that is causing global warming requires more than a tweaking of mileage standards, the manifold problems of our food system require a comprehensive solution. “There should be a recognition that what we are doing is unsustainable,” says Martin. And yet, still we must eat. So what can we do? (See pictures of an apartment outfitted for goat-milking.)

Getting It Right
If a factory farm is hell for an animal, then Bill Niman’s seaside ranch in Bolinas, Calif., an hour north of San Francisco, must be heaven. The property’s cliffside view over the Pacific Ocean is worth millions, but the black Angus cattle that Niman and his wife Nicolette Hahn Niman raise keep their eyes on the ground, chewing contentedly on the pasture. Grass — and a trail of hay that Niman spreads from his truck periodically — is all the animals will eat during the nearly three years they’ll spend on the ranch. That all-natural, noncorn diet — along with the intensive, individual care that the Nimans provide their animals — produces beef that many connoisseurs consider to be among the best in the world. But for Niman, there is more at stake than just a good steak. He believes that his way of raising farm animals — in the open air, with no chemicals or drugs and with maximum care — is the only truly sustainable method and could be a model for a better food system. “What we need in this country is a completely different way of raising animals for food,” says Hahn Niman, a former attorney for the environmental group Earthjustice. “This needs to be done in the right way.”

The Nimans like to call what they do “beyond organic,” and there are some signs that consumers are beginning to catch up. This November, California voters approved a ballot proposition that guarantees farm animals enough space to lie down, stand up and turn around. Worldwide, organic food — a sometimes slippery term but on the whole a practice more sustainable than conventional food — is worth more than $46 billion. That’s still a small slice of the overall food pie, but it’s growing, even in a global recession. “There is more pent-up demand for organic than there is production,” says Bill Wolf, a co-founder of the organic-food consultancy Wolf DiMatteo and Associates. (Watch TIME’s video “The New Frugality: The Organic Gardener.”)

So what will it take for sustainable food production to spread? It’s clear that scaling up must begin with a sort of scaling down — a distributed system of many local or regional food producers as opposed to just a few massive ones. Since 1935, consolidation and industrialization have seen the number of U.S. farms decline from 6.8 million to fewer than 2 million — with the average farmer now feeding 129 Americans, compared with 19 people in 1940.

It’s that very efficiency that’s led to the problems and is in turn spurring a backlash, reflected not just in the growth of farmers’ markets or the growing involvement of big corporations in organics but also in the local-food movement, in which restaurants and large catering services buy from suppliers in their areas, thereby improving freshness, supporting small-scale agriculture and reducing the so-called food miles between field and plate. That in turn slashes transportation costs and reduces the industry’s carbon footprint.

A transition to more sustainable, smaller-scale production methods could even be possible without a loss in overall yield, as one survey from the University of Michigan suggested, but it would require far more farmworkers than we have today. With unemployment approaching double digits — and things especially grim in impoverished rural areas that have seen populations collapse over the past several decades — that’s hardly a bad thing. Work in a CAFO is monotonous and soul-killing, while too many ordinary farmers struggle to make ends meet even as the rest of us pay less for food. Farmers aren’t the enemy — and they deserve real help. We’ve transformed the essential human profession — growing food — into an industry like any other. “We’re hurting for job creation, and industrial food has pushed people off the farm,” says Hahn Niman. “We need to make farming real employment, because if you do it right, it’s enjoyable work.”

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One model for how the new paradigm could work is Niman Ranch, a larger operation that Bill Niman founded in the 1990s, before he left in 2007. (By his own admission, he’s a better farmer than he is a businessman.) The company has knitted together hundreds of small-scale farmers into a network that sells all-natural pork, beef and lamb to retailers and restaurants. In doing so, it leverages economies of scale while letting the farmers take proper care of their land and animals. “We like to think of ourselves as a force for a local-farming community, not as a large corporation,” says Jeff Swain, Niman Ranch’s CEO.

Other examples include the Mexican-fast-food chain Chipotle, which now sources its pork from Niman Ranch and gets its other meats and much of its beans from natural and organic sources. It’s part of a commitment that Chipotle founder Steve Ells made years ago, not just because sustainable ingredients were better for the planet but because they tasted better too — a philosophy he calls Food with Integrity. It’s not cheap for Chipotle — food makes up more than 32% of its costs, the highest in the fast-food industry. But to Ells, the taste more than compensates, and Chipotle’s higher prices haven’t stopped the company’s rapid growth, from 16 stores in 1998 to over 900 today. “We put a lot of energy into finding farmers who are committed to raising better food,” says Ells. (See pictures of the effects of global warming.)

Bon Appétit Management Company, a caterer based in Palo Alto, Calif., takes that commitment even further. The company sources as much of its produce as possible from within 150 miles of its kitchens and gets its meat from farmers who eschew antibiotics. Bon Appétit also tries to influence its customers’ habits by nudging them toward greener choices. That includes campaigns to reduce food waste, in part by encouraging servers at its kitchens to offer smaller, more manageable portions. (The USDA estimates that Americans throw out 14% of the food we buy, which means that much of our record-breaking harvests ends up in the garbage.) And Bon Appétit supports a low-carbon diet, one that uses less meat and dairy, since both have a greater carbon footprint than fruit, vegetables and grain. The success of the overall operation demonstrates that sustainable food can work at an institutional scale bigger than an élite restaurant, a small market or a gourmet’s kitchen — provided customers support it. “Ultimately it’s going to be consumer demand that will cause change, not Washington,” says Fedele Bauccio, Bon Appétit’s co-founder. (See pictures of two farms in Nebraska.)

How willing are consumers to rethink the way they shop for — and eat — food? For most people, price will remain the biggest obstacle. Organic food continues to cost on average several times more than its conventional counterparts, and no one goes to farmers’ markets for bargains. But not all costs can be measured by a price tag. Once you factor in crop subsidies, ecological damage and what we pay in health-care bills after our fatty, sugary diet makes us sick, conventionally produced food looks a lot pricier.

What we really need to do is something Americans have never done well, and that’s to quit thinking big. We already eat four times as much meat and dairy as the rest of the world, and there’s not a nutritionist on the planet who would argue that 24‑oz. steaks and mounds of buttery mashed potatoes are what any person needs to stay alive. “The idea is that healthy and good-tasting food should be available to everyone,” says Hahn Niman. “The food system should be geared toward that.”

Whether that happens will ultimately come down to all of us, since we have the chance to choose better food three times a day (or more often, if we’re particularly hungry). It’s true that most of us would prefer not to think too much about where our food comes from or what it’s doing to the planet — after all, as Chipotle’s Ells points out, eating is not exactly a “heady intellectual event.” But if there’s one difference between industrial agriculture and the emerging alternative, it’s that very thing: consciousness. Niman takes care with each of his cattle, just as an organic farmer takes care of his produce and smart shoppers take care with what they put in their shopping cart and on the family dinner table. The industrial food system fills us up but leaves us empty — it’s based on selective forgetting. But what we eat — how it’s raised and how it gets to us — has consequences that can’t be ignored any longer.

With reporting by Rebecca Kaplan / New York

The original version of this article mistakenly referred to the Bon Appétit Management Company as the Bon Appétit Food Management Company

See the top 10 green ideas of 2008.

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The Tale of Two Cattle
How did your hamburger get to your plate — and what did it eat along the way? The journey of beef illustrates the great American food chain

ORGANIC (1% of all cattle)
This is the way all beef used to be raised — and how some people still imagine it is. Bill Niman tends a small herd with one of the lightest hands in the business and produces what Bay Area chefs swear is unparalleled beef

Diet: Grass
Niman’s cows eat only grass, along with a smattering of hay. That’s the normal diet for cattle. Their rumen, a digestive organ, can break down grasses we’d find inedible

Supplements: None
Niman gives no supplements whatsoever to his cattle — no drugs, no hormones, no additives. That’s not ironclad for organic beef — some companies might use antimicrobials — but generally the animals are supplement-free

Environmental Impact: Living with the Land
To prevent his ranch from becoming overgrazed, Niman shifts his cattle around the land, ensuring that the grass has time to recover between feedings. The result is a surprisingly low-impact hamburger, since grass doesn’t need chemical fertilizer to grow and its presence helps prevent soil erosion. There’s no need to clean up manure — with Niman’s low cattle density, the waste just fertilizes the land

Human Impact: The Omega Effect
Beef has a bad rep among nutritionists, but that might be partly unfair for grass-fed steaks. According to research from the University of California, grass-fed beef is higher in beta-carotene, vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids than conventional beef

CONVENTIONAL (99% of all cattle)
The vast majority of all American cattle start off on open ranges, but that’s where the similarity to their organic cousins ends. They’re shifted after a few months to the tight quarters of an industrial feedlot, to be fattened up as fast as possible

Diet: Grass and corn
Conventional cattle feed off grass pasture for the first several months, but at the feedlot, they’re switched to a heavily corn-based diet, which makes them gain weight faster but also makes them get sick more easily

Supplements: Chemicals
In part to help them survive the crowded conditions of feedlots, where infections can spread fast, conventional cattle are given antibiotics in their feed, and sometimes growth hormones, bloods and fats

Environmental Impact: Waste
A 1,000-head feedlot produces up to 280 tons of manure a week, and the smell can be powerful. All that feed corn requires millions of tons of fertilizer and, ultimately, a lot of petroleum

Human Impact: Fat Attack
Feeding corn to cattle for the last several months of their lives doesn’t just get them fatter faster; it also changes the quality of the beef. Corn helps produce that marbled taste many of us love, but it can result in beef that is higher in fat — helping to fuel the obesity epidemic

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Uncle Matt’s Sponsors Local Senior Citizen Basketball Team, Winner of the 2009 Summer National Senior Games

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

Clermont, FL (August 26, 2009) Uncle Matt’s Organic is pleased to announce that one of its sponsored organizations has put Clermont on the map … at least in the active senior world of sports! Local area Magic Seniors basketball team went all the way to first place in the 2009 Summer National Senior Games held at Stanford University in San Francisco during the first two weeks in August. The National Senior Games Association is a non-profit member of the United States Olympic Committee and the tournament is the fastest growing and largest multi-sport event in the world for seniors. The team took first place in the 80+ male basketball division.

Hugh Ressler, member of the team, noted “We played five games and won them all. We beat California in the semi-finals and Louisiana in the final game. All of the games were close.” Team members included John Read (Bellview), Norval Brown (Clermont), Ron Harp (Clermont), Bud Smith (St. Petersburg) and Hugh Ressler (Clermont). “We all feel a great sense of gratitude for the support we have received from Uncle Matt’s Organic to make this dream come true. Not to mention the vim and vigor that Uncle Matt’s Organic Orange Juice provides each day as a part of our healthy diet!” added Ressler.

According to Matt McLean, Founder and CEO, “We are so proud of our local Magic Senior basketball team for this major sports accomplishment. This sponsorship is part of our Project Sunshine program, where Uncle Matt’s Organic supports community based projects like Magic Seniors that make a difference in the quality of life for our families and the environment.”

Uncle Matt’s Organic offers premium quality organic juices and organic citrus produce. The company’s products have no synthetic additives or preservatives. To further assure high quality standards, the juice is certified Kosher and Pareve by Orthodox Union. Produce and finished products are produced under the strict regulation and guidelines of Quality Certification Services, the largest and most respected organic certifier in Florida. Products are available in health food stores and supermarkets around the country. The company is an active member of OTA and supports the Organic Farming Research Foundation. For more information, see www.unclematts.com.

Choose Organic! It’s worth it.

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

When you choose organic, you do more than help yourself. You’re making a difference for your family, the home in which you live and the environment around us. You’re also investing in your future. It’s worth it.

Find out more: http://www.organicitsworthit.com/

Organic and All-Natural Kids Snacks and Baby Foods: Seven Case Studies

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

Health-conscious parents seem committed to continuing to buy healthy food for their children despite the recession, even as they economise in other areas.

Sales of the leading organic kids’ brands have surprised most commentators by continuing to grow:

- In the US, the $100 million (€71.9 million) Annie’s brand has recorded sales growth of 25% since September 2008, with no sign of its growth abating yet.

- In the UK sales of organic baby food increased by 11.7% while non-organic sales grew at just 7%, with even established organic kids brands, such as Germany’s Hipp, growing at 8%.

- Many new kid-specific brands have all seen double-digit growth, driven by organic or all-natural brand credentials, even as consumers economized in other areas.

While organic brands have performed well, there are other brands that argue that being certified organic isn’t essential – what parents need more is the reassurance that a product is made with ingredients that are “as natural as possible” and free from artificial preservatives, colours and sweeteners.

This 42-page report looks in detail at these different approaches. Using seven detailed case studies we analyse the performance and strategies of leading organic and “all-natural” kids’ snacks and babyfood brands in the US and UK.

The report uses sales data, comparisons of product pricing and marketing strategies, advertising messages and claims, as well as interviews with the CEOs at all the companies profiled.

The report summarises what the companies profiled see as the keys to success, discussing the natural vs organic arguments, branding, positioning, pricing, sourcing healthier ingredients and the challenges of securing distribution.

US: Pesticides in your peaches: Tribune and USDA studies find pesticides, some in excess of EPA rules, in the fragrant fruit

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

As we munch into the fragrant core of peach season, shoppers face an array of choices for the same fuzzy fruit but little guidance on which type to pick. Expensive organic? Pricey farmers market? Cheap peaches from the grocery store?

Cost is certainly important. But there are essential numbers that go beyond the price tag of a peach, or any other item from the produce aisle.

Which contain the highest levels of pesticides?

Preliminary 2008 U.S. Department of Agriculture tests obtained by the Chicago Tribune show that more than 50 pesticide compounds showed up on domestic and imported peaches headed for U.S. stores. Five of the compounds exceeded the limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency, and six of the pesticide compounds present are not approved for use on peaches in the United States.

These are the types of findings that have landed peaches on one environmental group’s “Dirty Dozen” list — 12 fruits and vegetables that retain the highest levels of pesticide residues — and give many consumers pause as they shop grocery aisles. It seems that peaches’ delicate constitutions, fuzzy skins and susceptibility to mold and pests cause them to both need and retain pesticides at impressive rates.

Although most pesticides in peaches were found at levels well below EPA tolerances, some scientists and activists remain concerned about even low-level exposure, especially to pregnant women and children. They point to studies, for example, that show cognitive impairment in rats after dietary exposure to chlorpyfiros, a pesticide that showed up in 17 percent of conventional peaches tested by the USDA.

For assurance, some shoppers turn to farmers markets, which don’t guarantee reduced pesticide use but do allow shoppers to discuss pesticide practices with the farmer. Organic, meanwhile, does come with the expectation that the fruit will be free of synthetic pesticides. Yet no government agency ever tested that promise until this year — and so far those tests have been limited to lettuce, with no published results.

To get some hard facts and new insights, the Tribune paid for lab tests on California organic peaches bought here and local farmers market peaches from Illinois and Michigan.

The newspaper sent these samples to the same federal lab where the USDA does its pesticide testing and found promising results. Of the 50 compounds the Tribune had tested for, one showed up on the organic peaches and three or fewer pesticides were detected on the Michigan and Illinois peaches.

“Our growers [in southwest Michigan] pride themselves on being very careful,” said William Shane, district fruit educator for Michigan State University, when he learned how Michigan peaches fared in the test. “We also tend to have smaller operations and it’s easier to keep track of pesticide use.”

The better results in the Tribune’s small sample may also be attributable to the fact that the wider 2008 USDA conventional tests included peaches imported from Chile.

Chilean peaches have, in the past, shown a higher incidence of certain pesticides than U.S. peaches. The conventional samples, taken from more than 700 sites, also included peaches from areas like Georgia and South Carolina where a broader range of pesticides are often needed to control pests and fungus.

More surprising, however, was the presence of the unapproved pesticide fludioxonil on the organic peaches from California. According to Shane, the pesticide is often used on conventional peaches postharvest to slow rot and extend shelf life.

University of Illinois entomologist and extension specialist Rick Weinzierl suggested that the unapproved pesticide could have come from drift or cross-contamination at processing facilities. “But there is always the chance that a farmer is not doing what he is saying,” he added.

Rayne Pegg of the USDA’s agriculture marketing service confirmed that fludioxonil is not an approved compound for organic farming but added, “as long as the concentrations don’t exceed 5 percent of EPA tolerances, it can be sold as organic.” In fact, the USDA allows such levels of any legal pesticide to be present on organic produce. In the wake of recent allegations about slipping standards in the USDA’s National Organic Program, Congress has widened a probe into the NOP and recently USDA announced an independent audit of the program. The organic world was further rocked last month by a controversial British review of nutrient studies that challenged the nutritional benefits of organic produce.

Supporters of organic foods complained that many important studies were left out of the review, and the debate on nutrition ignores the question of pesticide residue.

Although the 1996 Food Quality Protection Act sets pesticide tolerances at levels that offer “a reasonable certainty that no harm will result from aggregate exposure to the chemical residue,” some scientists worry about exposure among children and pregnant women.

Alex Lu, who teaches environmental exposure biology at Harvard, has studied a particularly troubling class of pesticide called organophosphates, or OPs, which showed up consistently in the systems of Seattle-area children ages 3 to 11 who ate non-organic diets. When the children switched to an organic diet for five days, these pesticide levels became nearly undetectable, the study found.

The professor acknowledged the importance of fresh produce in a young diet but is concerned that conventional produce consumption translates too easily into the presence of OPs in these developing systems. He advises against giving children conventionally farmed produce from any items on the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen,” which is culled from FDA and USDA test results. Other produce on that list are strawberries, apples, nectarines, cherries, lettuce, bell peppers, celery, pears, kale, imported grapes and carrots.

Lu is even more concerned about the dietary habits of pregnant women.

“Don’t eat conventional peaches while you are pregnant,” he said. “It’s a critical time. Spend a little bit more money to buy organic just to be safe.”

Dr. Catherine Karr, who serves on the American Academy of Pediatrics Environmental Health committee, stopped short of advising against conventional peaches for children altogether.

“You want to maximize the healthfulness of children’s diets by making sure they get plenty of fruits and vegetables,” she said. “But … you want to minimize their exposure to pesticides, and we know that the best way to do that is by giving them as much organic produce as possible.”

According to the USDA, when its Pesticide Data Program discovers the use of unapproved pesticides or pesticide residues that exceed federal tolerances, it reports them to the FDA and EPA. Because of the length of the complicated screening and reporting process, these violation reports are not used for enforcement but rather to highlight potential problem areas.

“Consumers should feel confident that we collect this data and provide it to the proper regulatory agencies for enforcement,” said USDA spokesman Justin DeJong.

Source: chicagotribune.com
Publication date: 8/13/2009