Gotham Grazer Blog

Hope for Declining Honey Bees

Scientists have determined that Varroa mites are a huge danger to honey bees. These parasitic creatures suck the pollinators' blood, transmitting a number of viruses and causing rapid declines in colony health. New research being performed at Washington State University is showing that mushroom spores can actually kill off the mites, before the mites kill off the colony. This video by bioGraphic further explains the threat of the Varroa mite, and how using mushrooms as a natural killer could save millions of honey bees.

Fighting Biology with Biology

Could fungi be the best way for farmers to ward off pests?

 A kudzu bug killed by  Beauveria bassiana , seen growing out of the body.  Courtesy of Brian Lovett/University of Maryland Entomology

A kudzu bug killed by Beauveria bassiana, seen growing out of the body.
Courtesy of Brian Lovett/University of Maryland Entomology

Use of fungal pesticides is on the rise, and their popularity may continue to increase over the next few years.  

What are the pros?
Most obviously, fungal pesticides do not affect human, animal or environmental health in the way that synthetic pesticides do.  They can target specific pests, rather than eradicating all biodiversity in an area.  And since they are living organisms, they can evolve with the pest, preventing resistance. 

The cons?
As of right now, fungal pesticides are more expensive than synthetic pesticides, which is an automatic turnoff for farmers.  Their effectiveness can also be altered by environmental conditions, such as humidity and temperature, making them less dependable.

For more details on this topic, check out the original article on NPR.

The Cost of Cover Crops

Are we at the point where we need to incentivize sustainable farming practices?  

 Practical Farmers of Iowa

Practical Farmers of Iowa

The state of Maryland has been paying farmers, in some cases up to $90 per acre, to plant cover crops on their fields.  Cover crops (generally grasses and legumes) are grown after main crops have been harvested; they help to prevent erosion and runoff, and replenish nutrients in the soil. Maryland's program has seen much success - cover crops can be found on over 50% of the corn fields in an area called the Eastern Shore. 

In Iowa and Illinois, where no payment program exists, less than 3% of the corn and soybean farms have cover crops.  Environmental planners from both states want to see that number rise to around 60%, in order to reduce nutrient runoff into streams.  

Many farmers don't bother with cover crops because they do not have the time or resources for the extra labor, but advocates of the practice say that farmers inevitably save money because they do not have to buy as much fertilizer.

Check out the full article on N.P.R.

Reevaluating Food Needs for the Future

For years, researchers have been saying that food production will need to double by 2050 in order to meet the needs of the rising population.  

A study recently published in BioScience offers new information that this is likely not the case. After analyzing current projections for food demand and population rise, researchers estimate that only a 25% - 70% increase in food production will be necessary.  Although this is a wide range, it is still much lower than 200%, and can be achieved using rates that are similar to past increases in food production.

USDA NRCS

According to one of the co-authors of the study, Mitch Hunter, "This additional breathing room may be critical, because our analysis also shows that agriculture’s environmental footprint must shrink drastically to safeguard the ecosystems that humans rely on."  For instance, researchers say that by 2050, agricultural greenhouse gas emissions need to be cut by 80% in order to avoid significant global temperature increases.  This dramatic reduction would be nearly impossible if food production were to double within the same time-frame.  With more accurate projections of what global food needs are going to look like, there can be more precise planning for intensifying sustainability goals within agriculture.  For more details on the study, check out the full article on Grist.

How to Effectively Integrate Produce into School Lunches

School lunches might have a variety of fruit and vegetable options, but many factors contribute to whether students will actually eat them.

 PHOTO: NICHOLAS GRINER/HOWARD COUNTY PUBLIC SCHOOL SYSTEM

PHOTO: NICHOLAS GRINER/HOWARD COUNTY PUBLIC SCHOOL SYSTEM

This article from The Wall Street Journal highlights five ways that schools are working to get students more interested in eating fruits and vegetables:

 

1. Visibility
Studies show that when fruits and vegetables are placed at the front of the lunch line, students are more likely to put them onto their plate. One study also observed that children who were given carrots as snacks before lunch time - when they were most hungry - were likely to finish all of the carrots.

2. Marketing
Rather than placing fruits and vegetables in large industrial trays, schools are using colorful bowls and unique display techniques to peak interest.  Fun names such as "x-ray carrots" and "turbo tomatoes" are also making a difference.

3. Tracking
This is not necessarily a direct means for improving vegetable intake, but tracking what students are putting onto their trays, and what they are throwing out, is a useful way to see which food items students prefer most.  With the proper adjustments to the menu and the lunch line set-up, tracking can ultimately improve produce consumption and help find solutions for food waste. 

4. Professional Chefs
A study performed by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health showed that partnerships between chefs and cafeterias - both long and short term - showed a 30% increase in produce consumption.  Bringing in a professional chef, especially one who shows students how to make yummy, healthy dishes, can get students to connect to their food in new ways.

5. Classroom Education
Food education needs to expand beyond the cafeteria.  Bringing fruits and vegetables into the classroom allows students to have a hands-on learning experience where they can become acquainted with new food items. Farm field-trips and classroom gardens are other means to get students excited about healthy eating.

 

Check out the full article to see the different case studies and research that brought about this advice!

 

Food Label Standardization By 2018

Unclear labels are a huge issue when it comes to food waste. 

We've all thrown out food from our refrigerator that was past it's expiration date.  What most people don't know is that the date on food products is not always telling you when it expires; sometimes, the date is an indicator of when the food will no longer be at its "peak flavor."  As a result, we end up throwing out food that is still perfectly safe to eat.

Advocates have been seeking a more concrete labeling system for years; the differences between "Sell By," "Best If Used By," "Use Before," "Expires On," and the other varying labels are just too subtle.  

As of a few weeks ago, the two largest grocery trade groups, the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, landed on two universal labels: "Use By," which indicates when a product is no longer safe to eat, and "Best if Used By," which indicates when a product may no longer be at its peak quality.  Although this new labeling system is voluntary, we hope that most manufacturers will get on board and have these labels widespread by 2018. For more info, check out the original article from The Washington Post.

Decoding Animal Welfare Labels

Buying meat and egg products has never been
more confusing.

Although organic certification comes from the USDA, humane certification is a whole other sector.  Turns out, there are multiple non-profits that give out animal welfare certifications, and each has slightly different requirements. For those of you who are thinking, "Don't all organic farms treat their animals kindly?" this is unfortunately not always the case. 

Organic farms have certain humane regulations that they must meet, but the extent to which those regulations are carried out and enforced can often be determined by the farm.  On the flip side, not all farms that are humanely raising meat are certified organic.  If both factors - organic and humane - are important to you, then you need to look out for two separate labels.

A recent article in The New York Times decided to parse out the differences between the top three animal welfare certification organizations (right), as well as point out some of the controversies that exist within this labeling system.  We recommend that you give it a read!

The Dose Makes The Poison

An article in The Washington Post is convincing readers that pesticide residues pose no risk, but it's a bit more complicated than that.

The Environmental Working Group keeps a “Dirty Dozen” list, which identifies the top 12 fruits and vegetables with the highest amount of pesticide residues.  The goal of the list is to educate consumers about what they are putting into their bodies, and to encourage them to purchase organic versions of these crops.  However, according to this article in The Washington Post, the list actually discourages people from buying fruits and vegetables all together.

A study performed by The Illinois Institute of Technology, where 500 low-income Chicago residents were surveyed on their organic/non-organic buying habits, found that upon learning about the “Dirty Dozen” list, consumers were less likely to buy any fruits and vegetables at all, regardless of their status on the list. 

Toxicologist Carl K. Winter says that consumers should not be wary about eating non-organic foods.  According to Winter, the pesticide residues on these fruits and vegetables “pose no risk to consumers,” because “actual exposure levels are typically millions of times lower than those that are of health concern.”  (There are many scientists and professionals that would disagree with this, but for the purposes of this blog post, we will assume that Winter is correct.)

In a nutshell, this article is saying that since there are nearly-zero health effects from pesticide residues, it is not necessary to buy organic produce. That’s worthy information to share with the public, but it ignores an important entity that does face true risks from pesticide usage: the environment.

When conventional farms use pesticides, they are contributing to the pollution of our air and water systems, diminishing biodiversity, and destroying soil health.  On the other hand, organic farms do the opposite - they deter pests without using synthetic chemicals.  This, along with other organic farming practices, can help to cleanse the environment of pollutants, improve biodiversity, and increase soil organic matter.  Organic farms become living ecosystems, whereas conventional farms have one goal: produce, produce, and produce. 

Although this article makes some valid points, it does a disservice to its readers by painting the picture that we shouldn’t bother with buying organic food.  Yes, you can be healthy without eating organic - this is something that we stress to our Gotham Grazer students all the time.  But in order to eat healthy and protect the planet, buying organic food is going to be necessary. 

New "In-Between" Organic Certification

The path to becoming an organic farm is not an easy one.

Aside from the strict regulations that organic farms abide by, there is actually a three-year transition period in which conventional farms must enforce organic practices, but cannot get any of the credit.  Although the demand for organic products is on the rise, many farmers are hesitant to make the switch, because it usually results in a drop in profits during this three-year time frame.  In response, the USDA has approved a proposal for a new transitional label which will make buyers aware of a farm's "almost organic" status.  This will allow farmers to charge their crops somewhere in between organic and non-organic prices, giving them the financial support they need to successfully become organic.  For more on this, check out the original article from NPR.

Bronx Hot Sauce

If you live in NYC, this hot sauce should be in your pantry!

Check out Edible Bronx's interview with King Phojanakong - restaurateur, chef, and creator of Bronx Hot Sauce.  In the interview, Phojanakong discusses what inspired him to become a chef, how he developed his unique hot sauce, and the role that the Bronx community plays in the sauce's creation.  In fact, one of our Gotham Grazer schools harvested their first round of peppers to be used in the sauce this past November!

Gene Editing vs. Genetic Modification

Gene editing and genetic modification might sound like the same thing, but in the world of food science, the distinction is important.

"Gene editing," or the process of cutting and pasting segments of DNA, has made its way into the agricultural industry.  In this New York Times article, we learn that this new way of genetically-altering food aims to enhance nutritional value, increase shelf life, and improve crop yields.  Real-life examples include soybeans that have healthier fatty acids, potatoes that stay fresh for a longer time, and wheat that has an increased resistance to fungal diseases.

The goals stated above are not so different from that of the G.M.O. movement, so what makes gene-edited crops so different from genetically modified crops?  The latter, which is associated with big-name companies like Monsanto, Dupont, and Syngenta, involves inserting genes from other organisms (usually bacteria) into the crop's genome.  In contrast, gene editing deals solely with altering the genes that already exist within the crop.  This process more closely mimics nature in that a random mutation could technically have caused the same result.

Although many see gene editing technology as a major improvement, others are already fearing a repeat of the controversies that exist within the G.M.O. movement.  As of right now, gene editing is not included in current regulations, and the FDA has yet to explain if, when, and how the regulations will be adjusted.  

Baldor Specialty Foods Leads in Food Waste Elimination

Within two years, Baldor Specialty Foods has successfully diverted all of its organic food waste.

This Foodtank article highlights Baldor Specialty Foods, a major produce distributor in the Northeast with locations in NYC, Boston, and Washington, D.C.  Baldor's food waste program, "sparCs," redistributes edible food scraps to a variety of local organizations, where are they utilized in juices, soups, sauces, and other yummy dishes.  Meanwhile, scraps that are not necessarily meant for human consumption, such as cantaloupe rinds, are either composted or reprocessed for animal feed. Check out the article for more info on their success!

Fighting Livestock Methane Emissions With Seaweed

Seaweed has become a trending snack for humans.  Is it now a necessary snack for cows? 

This article, by Rebecca Rupp from National Geographic's "The Plate," reviews new findings that adding algae to livestock feed could reduce the amount of methane these animals release.  Cows (as well as sheep, goats, deer, and a handful of other mammals with ruminant biology) have a four-chambered stomach, and must ferment their food in order to fully digest it.  Because of that fermentation, cows release methane on a daily basis; so much so, that livestock cause more anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions than transportation exhaust

The obvious solution to this dilemma is to cut back on livestock production, but this is much easier said than done.  Although plant-based diets have become more and more popular, only about 3% of the American population are committed vegetarians and vegans.  It would take a dramatic upheaval in consumer demand, as well as a certain level of political intervention, to significantly decrease the number of CAFOs in America.

With this in mind, scientists in Australia have turned to the unique chemical properties of algae to disrupt methane production within the cow itself.  After experimenting with a number of different seaweed species in artificial cow stomachs, it was found that Asparagopsis taxiformis cut methane production by about 99%.  

 Photograph by Rasmus Loeth Petersen, Alamy

Photograph by Rasmus Loeth Petersen, Alamy

Seaweed farming, when done properly, can be quite sustainable.  Seaweed is hardy and grows much faster than conventional crops; it filters organic pollutants, acts as a carbon sink, and does not require fertilizer or even land.

However, as mentioned in Rupp's piece, seaweed farming is nowhere near ready to take on the task of feeding the world's livestock population:

“Scientists calculate that it would take some 6,000 hectares (about 15,000 acres) of seaweed farms to supply a mere 10 percent of Australia’s 29 million cattle; to supply America’s 92 million would take over thirty times more.”

Seaweed farming may be sustainable at a small scale, but there is no telling if it will remain sustainable once the industry is expanded.  With all of these moving parts to consider, we are very interested to see how this discovery develops over the next few years.

 

When Wasted Space Becomes Opportunity

Design student Philippe Hohlfeld is looking to shake up the shipping industry in a major way. 

After learning that China exports twice as much as it imports, Philippe Hohlfeld was curious as to what happens to the extra shipping containers that lack cargo.  The answer? Nothing - they are shipped back to China, empty and unused.  Hohlfeld saw this as an incredible business opportunity and came up with GrowFrame - a hydroponic system that is not only tailored to produce greens within the closed containers, but that can fold up when not in use.

“I was obsessed with finding something that I could manufacture while shipping,” says Hohlfeld. “The problem is that most products require enormous energy, large machinery and multiple processes. Farming, however, requires relatively little energy, only needs nutrients and plants, and after one process, the whole thing is finished. It was a perfect fit for manufacturing in containers.”

Hohlfeld acknowledges that his project is ambitious, but we can all agree that this would be a great way to use an immense amount of empty space.  Check out the article for more details on how GrowFrame works and why it would be so beneficial!

Shedding Light on Genetically Modified Crops

Are genetically modified crops fulfilling their ultimate goal - solving hunger?

According to The New York Times, the answer is no.  This article takes a closer look at the failures (and successes) of GMOs, and unpacks a lot of the misconceptions and controversies surrounding the industry.  

  Photo by Jeremy M. Lange for The New York Times

Photo by Jeremy M. Lange for The New York Times

The article compares crop yields and pesticide usage in Europe, where genetically modified seeds are outlawed, to North America, where genetically modified seeds are part of conventional farming methods. The results show that the U.S. and Canada have not seen any dramatic improvement in crop yields, while herbicide use has increased drastically:

"Since genetically modified crops were introduced in the United States two decades ago for crops like corn, cotton and soybeans, the use of toxins that kill insects and fungi has fallen by a third, but the spraying of herbicides, which are used in much higher volumes, has risen by 21 percent."

Such an increase in herbicide use has had noted effects on the environment, from the development of herbicide-resistant weeds to the pollution of groundwater.  Additionally, more herbicides means more toxic residues on our foods.  While many people argue that genetically modified crops are dangerous to humans, there is no scientific evidence that proves this; it is the over-use of pesticides, however, that has been shown to negatively impact human health.

What can we do?

When it comes to increasing yields, genetically modified crops are not getting the job done. And in any case, kicking production into high-gear on tired and depleted soils isn't exactly the most sustainable way to feed the rising population.  To truly address the issue of hunger, we need to adapt our cities and towns to be self-sufficient in crop production.  Abandoned lots, empty buildings, manicured lawns, and secure rooftops - such spaces exist almost everywhere, and they are the perfect places for gardens and greenhouses.  It's time to make locally grown food the solution!

 

 

Antibiotic Resistance: A Growing Problem

It's survival of the fittest in the world of microorganisms.

"Superbugs," caused by antibiotic resistant bacteria, are becoming more and more prevalent in our world of modern medicine.  A large reason for this is the excessive amount of antibiotics that are used on livestock to prevent diseases.  To put things into perspective, an article from The Guardian notes that, "A whopping 70% of all medically-important antibiotics are sold in the US for use in livestock."  With such a high volume of antibiotics being used, bacteria that are resistant are bound to persist.   

According to that same article, many chicken producers have begun to decrease their use of medically important antibiotics within the last decade. The article assesses why chicken producers seem to be ahead of the game when it comes to reducing their use of antibiotics, and why it is important for producers of beef, pork, and other meats to catch up. 

 

 

Our Agricultural System, As Told Through Photography

 Photo by George Steinmetz

Photo by George Steinmetz

It's hard to put into words how truly massive our agricultural system is.

That's why we love this New York Times article by George Steinmetz, consisting of aerial photographs and videos of crop fields, concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), and food processing facilities.  The title of the article - The Dizzying Grandeur of 21st-Century Agriculture - could not be anymore fitting.  These stunning, yet somewhat haunting, images put into perspective the journey our food goes through before it gets to our plates. 

The White House Garden is Here to Stay

Amazing news from the White House!

Michelle Obama's garden will continue to thrive after the Obama presidency has ended.  Thanks to a donation made by The W. Atlee Burpee home gardening company and The Burpee Foundation, the upkeep of the garden is now ensured for at least 17 more years.  Although the First Lady was hesitant to start a garden in the first place, it has become one of her most memorable contributions while in the White House, along with her Let's Move initiative.  This garden does more than provide fresh produce; it teaches its visitors about the importance of fresh and local food, and it inspires others to start gardens of their own!

Plastic Packaging - Will It Ever Be A Thing Of The Past?

In a few years, your cheese might come wrapped up in "milk" instead of plastic.

To tackle the issue of plastic waste (and a declining dairy industry), the USDA is developing a biodegradable - and edible - form of food packaging primarily made out of casein (a protein found in milk).  The new packaging film is not as effective as plastic when it comes to preventing water damage, but it is roughly 250 times more effective at blocking out oxygen.  Ideas of spraying casein onto food products to make them last longer, as well as the development of dissolvable, single-serving packages of soup and coffee, were also mentioned.

Although this could be a great win against the use of plastic, the article fails to discuss a few problem areas.  For example, how will this packaging affect those who are vegan or allergic to casein?  Will products that have been sprayed with casein preservative be labeled as such?  

Another cause for concern is how this benefits the industrial food system.  According to the article, milk consumption has been in decline for years; the hope is that the casein packaging could be a way to utilize excess milk that is processed into powder.  However, some might argue that the dairy industry is a large contributor to environmental issues, such as climate change and pollution, and that we should not be searching for ways to "save" it. 

That being said, it is good to know that the issue of plastic packaging is on the USDA's radar, and we hope that as this new product is developed, these questionable areas are addressed.

 

Introducing the Brown Bin

Still believe that composting is inconvenient?

The DSNY recently expanded their curbside Organic Collections program to include a wider range of neighborhoods.  Rather than dropping off your food scraps at a designated location, this program allows you to place them in a bin on the street.  When your landfill waste and recycling gets picked up, so will your compost!  Click here for more info, and to find out if you are eligible to participate in this great initiative!