Archive for September, 2011

Posted on September 26, 2011 - by

Got a Brandywine Beauty? Save the Seeds!

A lovely tomato from a FRESH supporter’s garden

Perfectly ripe heirlooms in a perfumed cascade of colors—who doesn’t love a juicy summer tomato? Little wonder that the French nickname these beauties pommes d’amour, or “apples of love.” As the weather gets cooler, the last of this year’s harvest is coming to an end. However, you can still reap the benefits of a bountiful crop next year by saving the seeds. Here are some tips on how to harvest seeds from tomatoes so that you can enjoy them once again.

  1. Take a fully ripened tomato and cut it in half. Scoop or squeeze out the seeds and juice into a small, labeled container. If done carefully, the tomato itself can be saved for eating, sun-drying or canning.
  2. Add a little water to the container so that the seeds can float, then loosely cover it and set it in a warm place for 3-5 days where the odor will not bother you. Stir or swirl the mixture once or twice a day. The seeds will ferment and mold will grow at the surface. This mold is your friend; it eats the gelatinous coat around the seeds that stops germination. It also produces antibiotics that prevent disease.
  3. The viable, mature seeds will sink to the bottom. Pour off the excess water and solids at the top. Add more water and repeat this step until the seeds are clean and the water being poured off is almost clear.
  4. Spread the seeds onto a paper towel or plate and let them dry for 1-3 days. Keep them away from direct sunlight. Stir them to make sure they do not dry in clumps.
  5. Store the seeds in a dark, cool place in an airtight container. Don’t forget to label them with the name, variety and date you saved them!

Do you have tips on how to harvest and save seeds from your garden? Share your ideas and leave a comment below!

By the way, if you have ever wondered why supermarket tomatoes taste like cardboard, check out our review of Tomatoland. This new book discusses the seedy underbelly of Florida’s industrial tomato industry, and its environmental and social costs. It’s a must-read for anyone who has eaten or plans to eat a tomato.

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Posted on September 19, 2011 - by

No Fracking Way

What is hydraulic fracturing, and what is it doing to our water supply?

Six months ago I sat in the office of an oil and gas industry leader and listened as he marveled at the technological innovations that were responsible for the worst oil spill in US history.

“You’re sitting up on the surface and drilling at the sea floor a mile away. And you’re doing it all with little robots, and the guy with a joystick is making it happen,” he explained. “The industry’s technological capability in doing what it did is absolutely mind-boggling. It’s just like going to the moon. It’s that sophisticated.”

We encountered the limits of sophistication when the Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in April of 2010. The blowout reminded the country, albeit fleetingly, of how dangerous our addiction to fossil fuels is, whether we pump oil into our cars or spill it in the ocean. The vastness of the BP disaster clarified the cost of using deepwater drilling to get cheap fuel, but that practice is not the only form of energy adventurism that threatens our health and security.

Imagine that you reach for the faucet one morning—but instead of clean water a brown stream spews out, heavy with the smell of chemicals. You light a match and hold it up to the water, and a fireball erupts, engulfing the sink. Sound implausible? So did the notion that a blown-out deepwater well could gush for months, foiling our best attempts to cap it.

Widespread cases of water contamination have been reported in regards to hydraulic fracturing (also referred to as ‘hydrofracking,’ or simply ‘fracking’), a process used to release methane gas from hard shale rocks thousands of miles below the earth’s surface. Across the country, families are contending that their water has been irreparably damaged from natural gas drilling.

The hunt for domestic sources of alternative energy awoke a slumbering natural gas industry, which increased production globally by 40 percent between 1999 and 2010. Utility companies are attracted to natural gas because of new emissions regulations that make coal expensive, and safety concerns that cloud the future of nuclear power. Hard times in agricultural communities have made the idea of leasing land to energy companies increasingly attractive to landowners. Many communities have placed their bet on the hope that drilling can bring jobs and investment back to rural areas.

There’s lots of natural gas beneath US soil, but until recently much of it was trapped in shale rock formations thousands of miles beneath the surface. Now, technical advances have unlocked many of the reserves, kicking off the nation-wide hydrofracking boom.

The process involves drilling a horizontal well at a depth of up to 8,000 feet, and pumping in water, sand, and toxic chemicals. The pressure creates fissures in the shale, a sedimentary rock containing high concentrations of organic material including natural gas, which is released into the tiny cracks and pumped to the surface.

Hydrofracking uses over 500 chemicals, between 80 and 300 tons per frack. The drilling process produces millions of gallons of polluted wastewater, which can contain corrosive salts, carcinogens like benzene, and radioactive elements like radium. Those compounds occur naturally belowground and so can be released along with natural gas by the high pressure.

Industry officials insist that fracking occurs thousands of miles below drinking-water aquifers, and that the distance is too great for contamination. Some of the controversy is simply about a subtle difference between fracking and drilling. Natural gas drilling practices have been clearly linked to numerous cases of water contamination that have resulted in fines and penalties for shale drilling companies; however, as the New York Times reports the industry position that “fracking” refers specifically to the injection of chemicals into the shale forms the foundation for claims that fracking, specifically, has never been proven to contaminate groundwater.

Semantic squabbles aside, the fact is that polluted water and other health concerns increasingly appear in shale drilling hotspots throughout the country. Foul-smelling and discolored water, respiratory and skin infections, and explosive gas build-ups originating in waterlines are just part of the toll natural gas drilling has taken on nearby communities.

An investigation by ProPublica revealed that environmental health cases related to emissions and waste from hydrologic fracking go back a decade in Wyoming and Colorado, where drilling has long been underway. Cases are emerging now in Pennsylania, where the fracking craze exploded when energy companies began targeting the Marcellus Shale formation in 2008.

Neither the federal government nor states have a system for tracking reports about water contamination. Nor have they pursued a full investigation into the human health risks of natural gas drilling.

Federal oversight is hogtied by an exemption known as the Halliburton Loophole, which was built into President Bush’s 2005 energy bill. The loophole excuses natural gas drilling from the Safe Water Act and from disclosing chemicals used during fracking. That means that it’s up to states to police the practice.

Establishing effective regulation is complicated by the fact that very little comprehensive research has been done. Officials often struggle to investigate suspected cases of groundwater contamination, because energy companies legally seal the details of complaints through legal settlements with landowners.

It all sounds too familiar. I spent several weeks reporting on the aftermath of the BP disaster in Louisiana communities, and I saw how much the rush into deep water had crippled the coastal economy. Rural America needs diversified investment, true support for small and mid-size farmers, better healthcare and education opportunities, and a comprehensive energy policy—not explosive tap water and corporate control. Hydraulic fracturing is not a solution for our economic and energy problems. It’s a symptom of them.

The EPA is currently weighing public comments on hydraulic fracturing. If fracking is truly as safe as energy companies claim, research and regulation by the EPA won’t get in the way of production. But it’s crazy to resign ourselves to fumbling about in the dark, 8,000 miles below the surface, putting our health and our land at risk. Sign now to tell the EPA: conduct a thorough review of fracking and hold corporations accountable for polluting our water. It’s a resource too precious to barter in exchange for short-term solutions.

Photo: Flickr/PJ Ray


Posted on September 16, 2011 - by

Sustainable restaurant realities: If it won’t sell, we can’t offer it

Today’s guest writer is Johanna Kolodny, the forager for Print Restaurant in Manhattan, discussing the challenges of getting customers to try unfamiliar seafood in restaurants.

Variety may be the spice of life, but at Print we tend to stick to the same fish, which include but are not limited to snapper, halibut, black sea bass, and salmon. At any one time, we have two if not three fish entrees on the menu. The chef continues to buy these fish because they sell. Don’t get me wrong, these are delicious choices, but I’d like to introduce new options to our menu. By diversifying the seafood that we eat, there is less danger that any one species will be overfished.

Some of the fish that I’ve offered the chef include flounder, hake, haddock, pollack, Gulf of Maine rockfish, bluefish, and sheepshead, but he has rejected these options. I think he believes they won’t sell, hence he’s not taking a chance. The chef once bought golden tilefish and it barely sold, so he said he’d never buy it again. In the end, I can’t really blame him because this is a business. He’s tried amberjack and triggerfish several times, but they were also not very popular. And from personal experience, I can tell you that these fish all tasted absolutely divine.

I suspect there are two reasons customers don’t buy these fish. The first is that they’ve never heard of it. Secondly, people think of these fish as being “lower grade.” At least these are my best guesses. The chef would buy practically any fish as long as it sold (not including endangered or threatened species), but I’m having a hard time figuring out how to convince the chef that these fish will sell and then actually following through with my promise. Waitstaff education is definitely key, but what else can I do? Or perhaps I’m not offering the proper education? I do repeatedly tell the staff that they can always seek me out to ask any questions.

When eating at other restaurants, I wonder how they sell the fish that either don’t sell at Print or that the chef is hesitant to buy? What is their selling strategy? Do they even have to push the dishes? Who are their customers? And how do we get those customers to our restaurant? Not only do I want people who have more open minds and are adventurous, but I also want to change customers’ perceptions about a fish they might not otherwise eat. These are just some of the questions that I think about daily.

How do you decide to order something new at restaurants? For me, when I go to a restaurant that I either like or anticipate I’ll enjoy, I trust that the chef won’t serve something that isn’t scrumptious. So, every menu item is fair game. Of course, mood and cravings do play a role in one’s choices. However, if I’m in the mood for seafood, then I am willing to try any of the three fish on the menu, for instance. So the next time you are dining out and see an unfamiliar fish on the menu, don’t be shy, ask the staff some questions, and give the dish a shot. You never know, you may have just discovered your new favorite food.

For more information on Johanna Kolodny’s work as a forager, check out the Print Restaurant blog:


Posted on September 14, 2011 - by

What We’re Reading: Barry Estabrook’s Tomatoland

Flickr: Thelonius Gonzo

It’s high season for tomatoes, that luscious fruit that the French once called pommes d’amour—apples of love. Here in Oregon, vines in street-side gardens bend low beneath the weight of the red and yellow orbs. Fantastically shaped heirloom varieties overflow their boxes in the grocery stores and farmers markets.

In a few short months this seasonal bounty will be replaced by stacks of red tomatoes, uniform in their size, shape, and firmness. Most of them will have been grown in Florida.

From October to June, nearly all of the fresh tomatoes available in America’s grocery stores come from the Sunshine State, which produces a third of the country’s total tomato harvest. That’s a billion pounds of succulent fruit every year.

But Florida tomatoes are neither delicious nor healthful, writes Barry Estabrook in his new book Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit. The tomatoes that Estabrook encounters during his undressing of Florida’s industrial tomato industry are flavorless, rock-hard, and lacking in the nutrients once concentrated in the fruit. That’s because tomatoes have been bred to be durable and uniform—so that they can be shipped thousands of miles in the winter and still catch the consumer’s eye—but not necessarily to taste good.

The taste and texture of the insipid Florida tomato are but the smallest of its evils. The true focus of Tomatoland is the human and environmental cost of the system that satisfies our off-season cravings for fresh produce—the tons of chemicals dumped, the workers poisoned, beaten, and enslaved. Estabrook’s expose shines a harsh light on the many injustices inherent in Florida’s tomato industry, but it raises just as many questions about our food system as a whole. Estabrook isn’t just out to bemoan the ruin of his favorite sandwich-stuffer. He’s protesting the decline of American agriculture as it sinks beneath the weight of market pressure. It’s not just Floridians. We’re all living in Tomatoland.

Estabrook swiftly outlines the journey of the tomato from its birthplace in Peru to domestication in Latin America and Europe, to genetics laboratories in California, and finally to Florida, where a businessman exporting tomatoes to New York in the early twentieth century established an enduring model for commercial success: the tomatoes he shipped were green, cheap, and produced in the off-season.

As it happens, Florida is a terrible place for growing tomatoes. The state’s sandy soil holds few nutrients, and so demands intensive fertilization. The heat, humidity, and infrequent frosts nurture hordes of destructive pathogens and pests that growers control with toxic pesticides and fungicides. Each year, Florida tomato farmers spray eight times the amount of chemicals on their produce as do growers with similar crop sizes in California, the second leading tomato producer.

Estabrook offers chilling accounts of the consequences of such chemical-intensive farming techniques. He tells the story of three mothers who worked in tomato fields belonging to Ag-Mart, whose babies, born within seven weeks of one another, were either deformed or died soon after birth. Estabrook goes on to share a riveting report of the legal hearings that ultimately established that Francisca Herrera’s preventable contact with pesticides was responsible for her son Carlitos’ disability; he was born with no arms or legs.

Perhaps the most important question raised in Tomatoland is about the vulnerability of the people who harvest our food, particularly undocumented immigrants. Workers like Herrera who are injured—accidentally or intentionally—on the job are often reluctant to seek legal protection because of their undocumented status (as was the case for Herrera). Poverty, as well as language and literacy barriers make it easier for employers to exploit a migrant work force. Work in Florida’s tomato fields often amounts to very real, modern slavery, with workers locked up at night, and beaten for refusing to work or for trying to run away.

The stories of abuse are emotional, but Estabrook honors his role as a journalist by including the voices of the big men in the tomato business. Estabrook challenges the excuses given by the industry for its shameful practices, but Tomatoland doesn’t argue that the root of the problem lies with exploitative tomato farmers. It’s the system that demands the cheapest product, with no mechanism of accounting for the hidden costs. It’s an appalling lack of enforcement of already-weak agricultural labor laws. It’s industry cartels, like the Florida Tomato Committee, that manipulate the market for self-interest.

Tomatoland does document positive signs of change. He writes at length about the success of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), which fought to improve labor conditions and ultimately established a “fair food agreement” that gave workers rights to and extra penny per pound picked. He tells the stories of several farmers, activists, and researchers who are finding more sustainable and just ways of growing and buying tomatoes.

The one thing Estabrook doesn’t do is suggest a fix for America’s broke-down industrial agricultural model. If his assertion that the 1 cent a pound raise for tomato pickers amounts to 20 to 30 dollars more per day falls a bit flat, perhaps it’s because there really is no satisfying fix to a system that never worked to begin with.


Posted on September 9, 2011 - by

Better Food in 2012

Why the Farm Bill matters

Flickr: TonyParkin76

A tall stack of paper will determine what you and your family eat for the next five years.

It’s a piece of legislation known as the Farm Bill, and it’s up for reauthorization in 2012. The bill helps the government set the agenda for our food system, by allocating billions of dollars to back up agricultural policy and nutrition assistance. We believe it could use some rethinking.

Currently, many families don’t have access to affordable, healthy food; small-scale farmers can’t compete with big agribusiness; and our land is being diminished by pollution and erosion. Thanks to deregulation and consolidation, a small but powerful group of companies controls the prices that farmers receive for their products, leaving small and midsized farms vulnerable to market fluctuations. Meanwhile, supermarket mergers have left just five firms collecting more than half the retail profit, so that the cost of groceries stays high for consumers even while farmers settle for low prices.

The 2012 Farm Bill presents an opportunity to fix a broken food system. Activists, entrepreneurs, and consumers are making strides locally, but we need policy at the federal level that supports small and midsize farms, protects public and environmental health, and upholds the right of low-income families to healthy food.

The bottom line? If you eat and pay taxes, this bill matters.

What is the Farm Bill?

The Farm Bill is a hefty piece of legislation that determines how our tax dollars are put to use in the food system. Initiated during the New Deal, the legislation was originally intended to stabilize commodity prices. Now the bill generally keeps the price of certain commodities artificially low.

Overall, the bill dictates which programs and producers get government funding, and how much; it influences how our food is grown, processed, and distributed; and ultimately the bill determines what kinds of foods are affordable and available locally.

Congress reauthorizes the farm bill every four to five years. The 2008 version is up for renewal in 2012, in the context of growing public interest in food and agriculture, economic instability that particularly affects food access for poor families and the prospects for small producers, and political leadership bent on cutting social and environmental programs in the interest of corporate greed.

What does the Farm Bill really do?

The greatest percentage of the funding allocated in the Farm Bill goes to nutrition programs. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which provides food stamps, is the country’s largest food assistance program. Nutrition assistance is a particularly important issue in the 2012 bill thanks to the recession. Enrollment in the program has grown dramatically since 2008. SNAP serves 43 million Americans, half of them children.

The next largest slice of the budget goes towards farm subsidies. Subsidies largely support corn, wheat, rice, soybean, and cotton production in the Midwest. Because subsidies drive down the cost of a few dominant crops, those products have been increasingly used by food companies, for energy, and in livestock feed—to the detriment of marketplace diversity, regional networks, and consumer health.

The farm bill also allocates funding for conservation. The legislation supports some of the United States’ largest and most effective conservation programs. The programs pay farmers to take fragile land out of production, encourage erosion control, and protect the water supply by increasing wetland and riparian buffer habitat.

Finally, a tiny fraction of the funding supports a variety of other projects, including rural development and investment in organics.

Who is involved?

In the House, the Agriculture Committee will be led for the first time by Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK), known as a supporter of commodity producers. The Ranking Member is Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN). Sixteen of twenty-six Republican members of the committee are new to Congress, as are several Democrats from non-traditional and urban districts.

The new chair of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry is Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), who has shown her support for specialty crops. Pat Roberts (R-KS) assumes the role of Ranking Member.

What’s Next?

While the powerful agricultural industry lobbies hard in Congress to influence the redrafting process, representatives aren’t used to hearing from all the other Americans who have a stake in the legislation. That means that your input matters. Stay tuned for information about taking action in support of fair, healthy, and sustainable food systems.

What would you like to see in the 2012 Farm Bill? Leave your ideas and questions in the comment section.


Posted on September 1, 2011 - by

When Waltzing with the Naked Chef, Hold On to Your Seachoice Seafood Guide

Photo: Blue Water Cafe

Today’s guest post is courtesy of Ana Simeon from Sierra Club BC and Seachoice.

You’re watching your favourite cooking show and the chef is putting together something mouth-watering like “Pan-Seared Chilean Seabass” or “Grilled Monkfish with Olive Sauce.”

Enthused, you may be tempted to rush out to get the Chilean seabass. With candles and wine, the meal is a success and your culinary prowess toasted by your family and guests. And then a niggling thought pricks the bubble of contentment: isn’t Chilean seabass on the taboo list? You look up “Chilean Seabass” on your Seachoice iPhone app and, true enough, there’s a long laundry list of crimes against the ocean – from illegal overfishing (over 50% of Chilean seabass on the market is thought to be illegally obtained) to by-catch of internationally endangered wandering albatross and grey-headed albatross. Oh dear, oh dear!

Although many chefs are beginning to take ocean health into account when concocting their creations, this is a process that has taken root most strongly at the restaurant level, but has yet to penetrate the TV networks.

Does it mean you have to stop watching those benighted cooking shows? Not at all. For every red-listed fish there is a delicious, and more sustainable, alternative waiting to take its place. For example, sablefish has been described as the “fish version of chocolate” and its smooth, silky taste (with 50% more Omega 3’s than salmon) more than holds its own against the commercially touted Chilean seabass. To get you started, here’s a recipe for Caramelized Sablefish with Tangy Orange-Tamarind Sauce from Vancouver’s fabled Blue Water Café:

As a cooking show viewer, you’re also in a perfect position to educate chefs and networks about sustainable seafood. Call in or drop them an email – spread the word!

The table below lists ocean-friendly substitutes for red-listed seafood in your favourite recipes:

Red-Listed Species Best Choice Alternative
Chilean Seabass Sablefish(AK, BC)
Cobia (US Farmed)
King Crab Dungeness Crab (Canada; US West Coast)
Flounder or Sole Halibut (Pacific)
Marlin (Blue or Striped) Swordfish (harpoon and handline from Canada,
North Atlantic and East Pacific)
Monkfish Sablefish (AK, BC)
Orange Roughy Pacific Cod (Alaska)
Red Snapper Tilapia (US farmed)

We’d love to hear of your experiences substituting these ocean-friendly choices! Email us at or comment below.

Ana Simeon works as communications coordinator and grassroots organizer for Sierra Club BC and Seachoice, a coalition of five internationally respected Canadian conservation organizations working to shift the market to sustainable seafood. Ana also writes for BC print and online media on environmental topics. Providing social media and online content for Seachoice taps into her passion for local food, food security and all things culinary.

Ana enjoys hiking, bird-watching, and grows a sizeable vegetable garden with her husband Tom. On cold, rainy days, she keeps to her fireside with a book from her extensive collection of 1930 British detective fiction.