Gotham Grazer Blog

Classroom Update: Food Packaging Design Challenge

Our students are tackling real issues in the food industry by designing innovative, sustainable methods for packaging food.

The students have been working in groups for about three weeks, creating prototypes of biodegradable packages for specific food items.  Aside from being biodegradable, the designs need to be strong, long lasting, and able to properly preserve the food items they hold.  Some groups took the challenge a step further, and created packaging that not only holds the food item, but is essential to the aesthetic of the product as a whole. Check out their incredible designs below!

Coincidentally, the New York Times recently published an article entitled, "Packaging Food With Food to Reduce Waste."  The article cites Ecovative (a company that the class actually studied), which is creating packaging from fungal mycelium.  A number of other organizations are running with similar concepts - Biocopac Plus aims to replace BPA with tomato peels; Shrilk combines left over shrimp shells with silk to produce a substitute for plastic wrap, and Ohoo is a liquids container made out of seaweed. 

Although it sometimes seems that we are surrounded by unnecessary plastic packaging - in food, product shipment, etc. - it is reassuring to know that this issue is a high priority for many organizations - and students!

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!

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.  

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!



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. 

Honeybee Deaths: No Small Matter

A few weeks ago, officials of Dorchester County, South Carolina took preemptive measures to ward off the Zika virus with an aerial spraying of the pesticide naled.  Naled is specifically used for mosquito control, but when applied at the wrong time, it can be detrimental to other insects - including honeybees.  Unfortunately, the beekeepers of Dorchester County woke up to find hives destroyed, and millions of honeybees dead.

Why does this matter?

Aside from the fact that these apiaries are now facing huge setbacks, South Carolina just lost a few million of its pollinators.  Unfortunately, the term “pollinator” is not even mentioned until the last few sentences of the article, but it is this function of bees – pollination – that makes them crucial players within our food system.

Bees alone pollinate one-third of our global food crops.

It is hard to make people, especially children, realize the significance of that percentage, especially when bees are associated with pain or danger.  For instance, it’s safe to say that at some point in our childhood (and probably adulthood), we have all stood fearful and frozen, waiting to see if the bee that is circling us will attack.  In reality, bees will usually only sting unless threatened, and honeybees can actually die after they sting a human.  Despite whatever personal grudges an individual might have towards bees, these creatures are not interested in attacking humans; they are interested in doing their job to support the hive

With panic over the Zika virus increasing, this may not be the last mass casualty of honeybees that we see, making now, more than ever, an important time to become an advocate for these essential pollinators.