Au revoir from The Conscientious Omnivore

sleeping cow

Sleeping cow. Photo by Flickr user Daniela Bergmann [~nachtmahr~], used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

After 2½ years, 740 posts, and 44,000 page views (and counting), it’s time to put this blog to bed for a well-deserved rest.

I started “The Conscientious Omnivore” as a way to share some of what I was reading, watching, and listening to as I sought to educate myself about the modern food system. I occasionally provided original content, such as one (and only one) recipe, which became the blog’s most popular post, our re-creation of Whole Foods’ classic curry tofu salad. Mostly, though, I passed along interesting pieces of reporting that I’d discovered online. Over time, we covered a wide range of topics under the broad umbrella of “how does the modern food system work?” These included everything from the many ills of factory farmed meat, eggs and dairy; the marketing of junk food to kids; agriculture in the face of climate change and growing global population; seasonal eating, farmers’ markets, and community supported agriculture (CSA); the explosive growth in the craft beer movement; the controversies around genetically modified organisms; and the often deplorable conditions in which farm workers toil. I still care a great deal about these and the many other issues we’ve touched upon, but the time has come for me to step away from the keyboard.

Since I started this blog in September 2011, an ever-increasing number of mainstream media outlets, alternative news sources, and of course bloggers have begun producing regular (sometimes great) writing on “the food beat.” So, even without my curatorial hand to guide you, there’s no danger of running out of reporting and reflection on how our food comes to be. In my absence, let me encourage you to consider adding some or all of the following to your favorites or your news feed:

Finally, whether you are a one-time visitor, a regular reader, or anyone in between, thank you for stopping by the blog! Whatever it was that piqued your curiosity and brought you to these pages, my parting message to you is the same encouragement that I give myself: Keep questioning. Keep learning. And most importantly—with your voice, your vote, your hands, and your dollars—keep working toward a food system that is more sustainable and sustaining, humane and healthful, and diverse and delicious for all.

What chicken cages have to do with pork

hen house

Photo by Flickr user robotika, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Frank Morris recently produced a great piece for NPR about opposition to California’s efforts to improve the living conditions of egg-laying chickens. As he describes,

most U.S. hens live crammed into very close quarters, according to Joe Maxwell, with the Humane Society of the U.S. And he says that’s just wrong.

“There are some things we should not do to animals,” says Maxwell.

California voters felt the same way, and six years ago they passed Proposition 2, requiring California producers to provide cages that are almost twice as large as most chickens have now. The Legislature followed that with a law requiring that all eggs sold in California be raised under those conditions.

Six farm-country states have joined a lawsuit against California over the issue, with support from other parts of the animal-ag business. As Morris details,

Don Nikodim with the Missouri Pork Association calls it “a clear violation of the U.S. Commerce Clause.”

Now, why would pig farmers care about henhouse restrictions?

Because when a huge state like California slaps restrictions on food it imports, farmers all over the country become alarmed. And Nikodim says this won’t likely stop with eggs.

“Logically, the next step is, we should extend our authority on how you produce pork to other states as well,” he says. “Then is it dairy, is it beef, is it corn — go down the list.”

Nikodim is worried that restrictions on cramped pig stalls, called gestation crates, may come next.

Check out the full piece here.

Diversity and homogeneity in agriculture around the world

sunflower farm

Aerial view of a sunflower farm. Photo by Flickr user Milan Andric [mandric], used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Last week NPR’s Dan Charles reported on rising uniformity in world agriculture. As he details,

Increasingly, there’s a standard global diet, and the human race is depending more and more on a handful of major crops for much of its food….

[Authors of a new study] uncovered two big trends.

The first: “Hey, actually, there’s places where diets are diversifying, where they’re adding crops,” says [researcher Colin] Khoury.

In parts of Asia, such as China, rice is a declining portion of the average person’s diet as they add other foods that are now more available. In the U.S., meanwhile, people are eating more imported foods, like mangoes and coconut water.

But here’s the second discovery: Those bigger menus of food also are getting more and more similar to each other, from Nanjing to Nairobi. Everybody is relying more and more heavily on a few dozen global megafoods.

Many of those foods are part of what you’d call a standard Western diet, including wheat, potatoes and dairy. But other megacrops come from the tropics, such as palm oil….

Smaller crops, meanwhile, are getting pushed aside. Sorghum and millet, for instance, are grown quite widely around the world, but they’re losing out to corn and soybeans. Other small crops that you only find in certain areas could disappear altogether.

Check out audio and text versions of the story (as well as links) here.

Eat Wisconsin fish, urges UW campaign

EatWiscFishLook what showed up in my Twitter feed today. I don’t generally act on organizations’ suggestions that I give them a bit of my attention, but I had already planned to mention the new Eat Wisconsin Fish campaign today, and I figured there was no need for this bit of outreach to derail me.

So, what’s the scoop? As Aaron Conklin describes,

More than 90 percent of the seafood eaten by Americans is imported from other countries. That’s a puzzling statistic for those of us in Wisconsin, where a proximity to two of the five Great Lakes and a fleet of fish farms gives us access to a wealth of delicious Wisconsin fish.

That’s one of the reasons why the University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute is using the month of March to launch its Eat Wisconsin Fish campaign, an effort designed to educate consumers about the benefits of eating local fish.

The Institute has complied a wealth of information online. There’s a good dose of boosterism in the campaign, so you’ll have to dig a little deeper if you want the full story. For example, Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch rates Lake Trout from Lake Michigan as a fish to “avoid.” As the UW Sea Grant Institute’s website describes,

Historically, lake trout, along with whitefish, sturgeon and herring, were one of the “big four” species of Great Lakes commercial fishing. As early as the 1880s, lake trout numbers began declining, probably due to overfishing and pollution of their spawning areas. However, it was the invasive sea lamprey that nearly wiped out lake trout when the lamprey entered the Upper Great Lakes in the 1930s. Today, Lake Superior supports the only remaining naturally sustaining population of lake trout in the Great Lakes.

Lake trout are a favorite target of sea lamprey, eel-shaped parasitic fish that have no natural predators in the Great Lakes. Sea lamprey have been managed since 1960 by using the selective chemical TFM that kills young lamprey in streams and rivers. This keeps lamprey numbers low, but without continuous treatment the lamprey population would explode again. After TFM treatments lowered the numbers of lamprey, fisheries biologists began restocking the Great Lakes with lake trout. Some remnant wild lake trout populations in Lake Superior remained, and they eventually fully recovered. However, wild lake trout were completely eliminated from Lake Michigan. The lake trout rehabilitation program in Lake Michigan, coordinated by the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, began in 1965. Since then, 2-3 million yearling lake trout have been stocked each year, funded by the federal government. The fish grew well to adult size, but they failed to reproduce. Finally, in 2013, the Green Bay office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced the discovery of a significant number of young and wild lake trout in several areas of Lake Michigan. It appears that lake trout are finally reproducing again in Lake Michigan. While it will still take significant effort to completely restore the population, this is an important step forward.

If you’re a fish eater, do consider local fish. But, like all aspects of the modern food system, it’s worth being curious and getting informed. Consider the pros and cons of wild versus farmed, the problems and strengths of different catch methods, concerns regarding specific species, and more.

Importantly, all diners—but especially women of childbearing age and children—should take into consideration health concerns regarding their consumption of inland (non-Great Lakes) fish.

The unfiltered truth about caffeine

Coffee! If you're not shaking, you need another cup.

Photo by Flickr user Timothy Appnel [timaoutloud], used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Journalist Murray Carpenter has a new book out next week titled Caffeinated: How Our Daily Habit Helps, Hurts, and Hooks Us. As Scientific American summarizes, “His book examines the caffeine industry, the coffee and other products it churns out, and the complex effects the chemical has on our bodies.” Kirkus Reviews says that “Carpenter blends intriguing historical episodes with interviews, accounts of treks to caffeine-related locations and a multitude of test results.”

For a preview of some of the book’s themes, Maddie Oatman of Mother Jones interviewed Carpenter. Take the following as just one example of the lessons learned in his research:

There’s no standard amount of caffeine in each cup of coffee—even within the same brand.

“Starbucks gives an approximation of 20 milligrams per ounce. One 16-ounce cup of Starbucks puts you at about 320 milligrams of caffeine. One 16-ounce cup of Starbucks is for many Americans a good daily dose of caffeine.

“One researcher found that a 16-ounce cup had 560 milligrams of caffeine. The researcher, Bruce Goldberger, went to the same Starbucks and ordered the same blend of coffee for six days, and found that the levels varied more than twofold. He’s not the only one to have found those things. Even espresso shots, which are much more regimented, can vary.”

Check our her full post here.

Breastfeeding in a restaurant? Shocking!

Photo by Flickr user Jared Klett, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Thanks to HuffPost, I recently read Tony Posnanski’s essay titled, “You Can Breastfeed in My Restaurant Anytime.” An assistant restaurant manager, he describes a recent Valentine’s Day dinner rush when a customer complained about bad service, bad drinks, and bad food, and then went one step further: He complained about a breastfeeding patron nearby, who had the audacity not to hide her feeding child under a blanket. As Posnanski describes,

let’s forget the fact that breastfeeding (or feeding a child for that matter) is important for the development of a child. Let’s forget the fact that Florida has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in America. Let’s forget the fact that it is a law that mothers can breastfeed their children in any public location in Florida without any ridicule, covered or not…

Do you think I would ask a mom to go to her car or somewhere away from her family because a man or woman is offended by a breast and nipple? A nipple and breast designed for feeding a child, not for pornography or the satisfaction of admiring them?

I would never make a scene about it nor would I ever allow anyone I work with to do so…. A mom has every right to feed her child anywhere public in Florida. Most people do not know that. Everyone should. It is a law. Moms should know that as well.

I was reminded of a similar story here in Madison that caused a bit of an uproar last summer when a well-meaning-but-in-the-wrong staff member at a just-opened restaurant didn’t respond in quite the same way. As Jessica Vanegeren reported for The Capital Times,

A breastfeeding mother dining at a new pizzeria in one of Madison’s most progressive neighborhoods was asked to leave her table and move to an area free of customers [after another patron complained], setting off a backlash against the owners that continues to spread on social media….

According to 2009 Wisconsin Act 148, or the right to breast-feed law that took effect in March 2010:

“A mother may breast-feed her child in any public or private location where the mother and child are otherwise authorized to be. In such a location, no person may prohibit a mother from breast-feeding her child, direct a mother to move to a different location to breast-feed her child, direct a mother to cover her child or breast while breast-feeding, or otherwise restrict a mother from breast-feeding her child as provided in this section.”

In other words, the restaurant patron who is uncomfortable should be asked to move, not the mother and child.

The Madison incident is detailed in full here, the owners’ apology here, and photos of their “free pizza for moms and kids” peace offering here. (For the record, the Grampa’s Pizza is apparently well-worth a visit, despite the early law-breaking.)

UW-Madison yields bounty of organic ag research

Three colour carrots

Photo by Flickr user Thom Wong [The Sunday Best], used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

A new report [PDF] highlights research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that’s meant to contribute to the success of organic farming in our state (and beyond). As Bob Mitchell writes for UW-Madison News,

The report, published by the UW-Madison Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS) and the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, summarizes 23 studies conducted by researchers in the university’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) in partnership with farmers across the state. The scientists are evaluating production practices for many of the state’s main agricultural products — dairy forages and pasture, soybeans, potatoes, vegetables and fruits, among others — as well as farm management and marketing.

The report also takes a more in-depth look at how some of the organic research projects have benefited the state’s farmers.

The study summaries make for pretty interesting reading. For example, Mitchell highlights efforts to develop an organic, no-till system that’s been 8 years in the making. Another that caught my eye in the report is an ongoing USDA-funded program to develop better organic carrots; as its summary explains,

Significant progress has been made in carrot breeding for conventional production systems, such as breeding for nutritionally superior varieties across multiple color classes including orange, red, purple and yellow. While these high-value carrot varieties are in demand, much of this germplasm has not been improved for organic systems. Organic producers need varieties that germinate rapidly with good seedling vigor, compete with weeds, resist pests, take up nutrients efficiently and are broadly adapted to organic growing conditions.

For more, check out Mitchell’s overview and the full report [PDF].