Tag Archives: Sustainable

From Fast Food Nation to Pro Food Ventures

In 2001, Houghton Mifflin Company published a book by Eric Schlosser titled Fast Food Nation –The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. Much like the work of Upton Sinclair in his 1906 title The Jungle, Mr. Schlosser, an award-winning investigative journalist exposed how the explosive growth of fast food in America had “hastened the malling of our landscape, widened the chasm between rich and poor, fueled an epidemic of obesity, and propelled American cultural imperialism abroad.”

For a handful of people, this book provided enough incentive to act, but nowhere near the critical mass needed to show up on most radar screens. That started to change with Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, published in 2006 and the 2009 release of Food, Inc., a food documentary incorporating much of the work of Schlosser and Pollan. Still, unless you were seeking out information on America’s industrial food system, and specifically how it was negatively impacting health, regional economies, and the environment or global trade, you probably had no idea that there were significant problems with America’s abundant food system.

TIME Magazine changed that with its August 21, 2009 cover story titled Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food. TIME brought the story of industrial food to mainstream America through its 40 million readers and Web users worldwide. As America’s most trusted new source, it shifted the balance of the debate about our need to reform our food system toward the sustainable food advocates that have been waging a noble, but slow campaign. Here are some highlights from TIME describing how ripe the time is for innovations in how we grow, sell and prepare food in America:

  • “…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.” • “…obesity adds $147 billion a year to our doctor bills.”
  • “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.”
  • “…quantity of fertilizer is flat-out scary: more than 10 million tons for corn alone — and nearly 23 million for all crops.”
  • “…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.”

When you consider this was presented to at least 40 million Americans, a vast majority who don’t know where their food comes from, you get a sense of how this single article will likely impact the evolution of sustainable food. The TIME article’s author specifically states, “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.”

As sustainable food discussions move into the mainstream, so will the opportunities for entrepreneurs and existing companies to bring to market innovative approaches to selling higher quality, healthier foods to increasing percentages of consumers, businesses and institutions. As these companies grow, they have an increasingly realistic chance to break the near death grip that industrial food has put on America’s food system:

  • Seed Companies: What was once a highly diversified, regional industry is now controlled primarily by pharmaceutical and chemical companies, including Monsanto, Dupont and Syngenta.
  • Farms: According to the USDA, “Small farms, while numerous, account for less than 2% of all U.S. farmland, while large farms account for 67%. Consequently, the growth in the number of large farms has increased the concentration of crop production.”
  • Meat Packers: According to Sustainable Table, four companies controlled processing of >80% of country’s beef and three of these same four companies joined a 4th in processing >60% of country’s pork. Four major companies in broiler chicken processing provide >50% of our chicken supply. Same for turkey meat.
  • Food Processors: The Top 50 U.S. processors accounted for $326 billion or ~25 percent of the global market. Add in European giants like Unilever, Nestle, Cadbury Schwebbs, Danone, etc., and you fast approach a majority of the market.
  • Food Retailers: Wal-Mart is at top of the heap with nearly $100 billion in food sales. The next 49 companies all report income over $1.0 billion dollars. On global scale, the USDA reports “Top 15 global supermarket companies account for >30% of sales.”

There are already examples of sustainable food innovations throughout the food chain, from Will Allen’s Growing Power to an alliance between Good Natured Family Farms and Ball Food Stores, to name a few. Early pioneers, with dirt on their hands, lessons learned and progress made, played a critical role in blazing trails for new ventures. Some of those companies have grown dramatically, e.g., Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (NASDAQ: GMCR; market cap of ~$2.5 billion). Others have been acquired by larger companies, e.g., Stonyfield Yogurt (acquired by Groupe Danone), Ben & Jerry’s (Unilever), Burt’s Bees (The Clorox Company). Still others have remained independent.

The next wave of ProFood start-ups will have the advantage of leveraging the many lessons learned by these pioneers. Unlike earlier sustainable food entrepreneurs, this next-generation will also have the benefit of a growing number of mission-driven investors showing up sustainable food conferences, e.g., Slow Money Alliance and New Seed Advisors, looking to drive sustainable food forward.

Extending the Pro Food Pathway

Guest Blogger: Carrie Oliver is the CEO & Founder of The Oliver Ranch Company and founded The Artisan Beef Institute. Carrie is dedicated to helping people learn more about what’s on their plate and discovering that, like a fine wine, a lot goes into raising better cattle. She blogs at Discover the World of Artisan Beef and Twitters under @OliverRanch.

What better way to shake off a bad case of writer’s block than to meet the origin of your last meal face-to-face?  Earlier this summer a fellow food entrepreneur, Rob Smart, had written a post on his Every Kitchen Table blog about Pro Food, a burgeoning post-organic food movement, to which I’d been trying to respond for weeks.  Casting around for a distraction I turned to Twitter only to see a post from one pastured pork farmer, Heather Walters (@Rosemont_Farm) to another, Neal Foley (@PodChef):

Heather:   @Podchef &^%$!! that was a horrid link!

Who can resist clicking through a link like that? Much to my surprise, I was met with an image of three heads in a wheelbarrow, two pigs and one cattle, the latter with shaggy black hair and horns.  Horrid perhaps to Heather, but even more haunting to me since Neal had so graciously served me some mouth-watering rib-eye steaks for dinner a few weeks before.

Me:            @Podchef Hmm, re: horrid links & chicken carcasses… is that the beef I tasted?

Neal:         @OliverRanch Re, the heads in the barrow? Yes, that bottom one was Torino the steer & some of his piggie friends.

I had just met my meat. And my writer’s block was cured.

What does all this have to do with Rob’s original post, and its follow up, The Five Stones of Pro Food?  Rob outlined a set of principles on which food entrepreneurs could draw to create and support a new, pro-consumer, pro-farmer food system.  The five stones are decentralization, triple bottom line, sustainable food, transparency, and accessibility.

I relate to Rob’s five principles; I founded my own company in part on principles like these.  But while these are great business and moral guidelines, they didn’t quite capture my heart or frankly, my stomach. At the end of the day, to truly drive change, I believe that food still has to be about food.  My heartstrings need a tug and my stomach has to yearn for this food.  My stomach is all about “food appeal” (flavor, texture, and other functional benefits) and my heart is all about community (emotional and experiential benefits).

As a fellow food entrepreneur, Rob has graciously allowed me to use the story of Torino the Steer to cast a couple more stones.

Consumer Feedback Results in Better Food

In a more decentralized, transparent food system we have the chance to create and celebrate feedback loops between farmers and consumers, so that producers can incorporate consumer appeal into their decision criteria.  With Torino the Steer, we have the ideal, you might even argue utopian scenario: the person who most influenced the flavor and texture of that beef ate at the same table as I, and the other main influencer, the butcher, was just one phone call away.

I gave feedback to Neal, “This beef is just delicious!  It has a great chew, straightforward personality and medium impression.  It has a sweet almost delicate start and is a bit herbal. It’s an ideal steak for someone just embarking on a journey of artisan beef discovery (what I call Gateway Beef™).”  Neal’s response?  “Well that’s interesting, there are actually 11 herbs growing on that pasture; they were planted there in the 1950s and have thrived ever since.”  Now Neal has his first confirmation that the herbs are a good thing, not just a random thing.

Imagine if every farmer could access that kind of feedback.  OK, granted we cannot all sit down with our farmers and share a meal together, but greater transparency should result in the consumer knowing who made their food and give them the ability, one way or another, to tell the producer what they find most appealing.

The value? I can buy beef from Neal and know that I’ll enjoy it. I also discovered that I like beef that is finished on herby pastures.  We both can tell others what the beef tastes like so they have an idea if they might like it, too.  And Neal can consider what he might do next time – stay the course or work to make his beef even better.

Of course this extreme case isn’t easily scalable and the next most proximate – farmers markets and CSA programs — also serve a limited market.  However, I think entrepreneurs should be excited by the possibilities of using the Internet and new retail formats to take these types of experiences to larger market segments.  As long as we create and maintain transparency, even at scale we can create or enable a continuous, self-reinforcing feedback loop between farm and fork, thus improving the flavor, texture, and overall quality of the food we eat.

Advantage:  Pro Food

Community

Sitting down to share a meal with friends, family, and strangers has long been a communal activity.  Together with knowing more about what is on my plate, I think we need to start reversing the disturbing trend towards depersonalizing our cooking and eating experiences.  It wasn’t that long ago that a natural part of the dinner conversation was about where the butcher sourced the turkey and how we simply must tell Mr. Jones that the milk from his Jersey cows is the only milk we buy.

Shopping in today’s big box stores, including conventional supermarkets, warehouse stores and so on is, comparatively speaking, a complete disconnect.  From a food-community point of view, we’ve become detached.  An unseen stock person stacks pre-wrapped consumables on the shelf at midnight.  Not that this impacts the food itself in any way, but this is about as far from an intimate food experience as one can get.

By way of contrast, eating Torino the Steer with Neal and his family was a supremely communal act. Having seen first hand the way this family loves their land, livestock, and the other food they raise, I enjoyed that meal and came to appreciate my food at a deeper level than had I purchased the salad, berry pie or rib-eye steaks anonymously at a supermarket.

Indeed, ask anyone who’s been to a dinner on a farm or met a producer at an in-store demonstration, farmers market, or CSA pick up: there is something about knowing the source of one’s food that creates a certain sense of community, if not bonding, with the people in who make our food.

While knowing everyone who had a hand in bringing every food item to our plates is impractical, we can begin to restore a sense of community around food simply by letting our customers know where it came from in the first place.  Who knows where that first baby step might take us?

In a Pro Food system we’ll also probably see each other a lot more.  Some entrepreneurs might create small footprint, neighborhood stores in which we will recognize and befriend other patrons and store employees over time.  I still remember shopping with my mom at Robert’s Market in Oakland.  Half the time spent shopping seemed to be chatting it up with the butcher or friends she ran into in the aisles.

This is not a clarion call for a return to the past.  For better or worse, big box supermarkets beat out mom & pop stores for a reason, namely price.  To their credit, Wild Oats and Whole Foods reintroduced the concept of knowledgeable employees and presented food artistically, taking some of the commodity out along the way. How can today’s entrepreneurs challenge the current retail business model to extend the reach of such community based shopping experiences beyond high-income urban centers?

Other entrepreneurs, including myself, might create online or other communities outside of brick and mortar to achieve similar goals.  Social media tools offer the opportunity to build personal relationships and create rich discussions across political, geographical, professional, or personal boundaries.  A case in point:  a recent Twitter-based #AgChat discussion on antibiotic use in livestock included sustainable food advocates, farmers, ranchers, public relations managers, trade associations, veterinarians, journalists, food bloggers, butchers, and lawyers.  Just about the most inclusive community you could imagine, with a total contribution much greater than the sum of the parts.

Advantage:  Pro Food

The opportunity to rethink our food system is not by nature limited to entrepreneurs.  In fact, I would argue that our successes will fall short of expectations if we try to innovate without taking advantage of the two big constituents that I have talked about here, namely the consumer, and the food community in its broadest sense.  Decentralization, triple bottom line, sustainable food, transparency, and accessibility are important pillars, but I’ll bet our future will be brightest if we engage the consumer and encourage community at every juncture along our path.

Is Buying Food Locally More Important than Eating Local Food?

One of my favorite times of the year is upon us – The Harvest Season.

This weekend, my family will trek out to the Wellspring Harvest Fest – A good ol’ hoe down and celebration of the season!  Wellspring Farm is the community supported agriculture (CSA) program we have supported for the last four years, and the Fest is an incredible celebration of the season’s bounty, where the Wellspring CSA community gathers to eat incredible food, avoid rotten tomato on our faces in the infamous tomato toss (might need to renamed the “late blight” toss this year), tour the farm on a hay ride and add our own painted touches to the farm’s annual Harvest Fest sign.

In a couple more weeks, we will be joining many people throughout Vermont and I believe the country in an “Eat Local” challenge, where for one week my family will commit to eating as much locally grown or raised food as possible.

These celebrations, while wonderful opportunities to connect with our local/regional food community, also make me think about what we will do over the remaining 50 weeks of the year. Will conventional food thinking settle back in? It seems likely for most people, making the challenge of building up regional food economies all the more difficult.

Does it have to be that way? Are there things we can do to support regional food throughout the year, especially in regions where the growing season is short and/or the breadth of products grown and raised are narrow?

There is one thing that immediately jumps to mind. Raise the importance of “Buy Local” to the same level afforded “Eat Local,” since without a thriving farm-gate-to-your-plate regional food infrastructure, progress toward more sustainable food systems will be slow going. Seems easy enough…on the surface, but rebuilding and strengthen regional food economies will be the farthest thing from “easy.”

Over the last 50 years, America’s food landscape has changed considerably, especially in terms of how power and control over the food we eat has concentrated in the hands of large-scale, and often global corporate interests. Here’s a snap shot that I’m betting most people haven’t seen before:

  • Seed Companies: What was once a highly diversified, regional industry is now controlled primarily by pharmaceutical and chemical companies, including Monsanto, Dupont and Syngenta. And while most of Monsanto’s press is about genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the company has quietly bought up a large number of seed companies to gain access to a rapidly expanding seed patent portfolio. Dupont is following suit.
  • Farms: According to the USDA, “Small farms, while numerous, account for less than 2 percent of all U.S. farmland, while large farms account for 67 percent. Consequently, the growth in the number of large farms has increased the concentration of crop production.” What is especially problematic with this trend is that farms in the middle have all but disappeared, which are the types of farms that will be needed to support regional food systems.
  • Meat Packers: According to Sustainable Table, four companies controlled processing of over 80% of the country’s beef and three of these same four companies (along with an additional fourth) process over 60% of the country’s pork. Four major companies in broiler chicken processing provide over half of the country’s chicken supply. Same for turkey meat. Large scale meat packing operations don’t do regional well (prefer CAFOs) or local at all.
  • Food Processors: Euromonitor International reports that the packaged food industry is worth almost $1.6 trillion. While there’s some debate about how accurate that number is, consider that the Top 50 U.S. processors alone accounted for $326 billion or nearly 25 percent of the global market. Add in European giants like Unilever, Nestle, Cadbury Schwebbs (which Kraft is attempting to gain control of in a $16.7 billion takeover), Danone and others, and you fast approach a majority of the market. Leaves little room on food retailers’ shelves for local or regional processed foods.
  • Food Retailers: Wal-Mart is at the top of the heap with nearly $100 billion in food sales. The next 49 companies all report income over $1.0 billion dollars. On a global scale, the USDA reports that “The top 15 global supermarket companies account for more than 30 percent of world supermarket sales.” Serious concentration that is buying up or crushing regional food chains and killing off mom-and-pop stores left and right.

With this in mind, take a couple minutes to consider your local food retail landscape.

How many locally or regionally-owned food stores or member-owned food cooperatives are there? If any, how much impact do you think they have on your region’s food economy? In other words, do they represent enough demand to support regional farmers, distribution, processing, etc.? Check out their shelves next time you shop there (or make a special trip if you haven’t shopped there before). Where do you think that food is coming from?

As each of gets a clearer picture, which may seem bleak at first, you should also see tremendous opportunities to change how consumers interface with the food they eat.

For example, imaging developing innovative, regional food retail formats open every day (v. once-a-week farmers markets and CSA programs) that provide consumers with real choices in the food they buy. Such choices, financed by our three votes per day (i.e., breakfast, lunch and dinner), will empower every one of us to buy more of the food we eat from local sources. This increasing demand for regionally grown, raised and processed food, as well as other sustainable foods, will justify increased investments in the infrastructure needed to provide more regional foods to consumers every day. Instead of spiraling down, as is the case with the industrialized food system, we will be spiraling up.

Ultimately, the choice of how we spend our food dollars is up to us. But until we have more convenient (e.g., open seven days a week), transparent (e.g., origin labeling) food retail options to choose from, do we really have a choice? Not as much choice as we deserve, so let’s get started in changing that.

Your first task – after finishing your successful “Eat Local” challenge this harvest season, assuming you participated – is to increase your financial support (i.e., spending our food dollars) of local and regional food retailers.

And if you can’t find one, then maybe you or someone you know should consider opening one yourself.

Happy Harvest!

Agriculture 2.0 – The First Sustainable Agriculture Conference

On September 17, 2009 at the New York Marriott Downtown in New York City, eight sustainable food growth companies will be pitching their businesses to investors attending NewSeed Advisor’s Agriculture 2.0 conference – reportedly the first sustainable agriculture investment conference.

The brainchild behind this inaugural event is Janine Yorio, who after 12 years working in finance has “committed to applying her insider knowledge to an industry with integrity, one that revolves around people and which contributes to the greater good of mankind and mother earth.”

For sustainable food entrepreneurs, while the opportunity for you to formally present at Agriculture 2.0 has passed, there are still plenty of reasons to attend if you can. For example, there will be much to learn from your peers at the eight companies highlighted below. You will also have the opportunity to meet with venture capitalists, private equity investors, high net worth individuals, government officials, entrepreneurs, academics and farmers – all focused on alternative agriculture.

Not a bad way to spend a day.

Visit www.newseedadvisors.com for more information and to register. You can also reach Janine on Twitter (@newseedadvisors).

Brief Profiles of Presenting Companies:

  • Good Natured Family Farms (Kansas City, KS) – Good Natured Family Farms was started to give small family farms a market for their products by banding together to product quantities required to sell to local food retailers, without going through middlemen. The alliance now has more than 100 sustainable family farms distributing dairy, meat and fresh produce to Hen House Markets and Balls’ Price Choppers in Kansas City and the Mercantile in Lawrence, Kansas.
  • Bio Soil (Hattiesburg, MS) – Bio Soil Enhancers has been working with bioremediation (using microorganisms to return the natural environment to its unaltered state) for more than 20 years. The company is leveraging its experience to increase crop and garden output and reduce the need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides through organic means.
  • HQ Sustainable Seafood (Hainan, China) – HQ is an integrated aquaculture and aquatic product processing company, with operations based in the environmentally pristine island province of Hainan, in China’s South Sea. Its mission is to increase profitability through the introduction of zero-toxin products while respecting the environment and communities in which it works.
  • Sky Vegetables (Needham, MA) – Sky Vegetables is in the rooftop farming development business. Never heard of that? Imagine the rooftop of your favorite grocery store being home to a hydroponics greenhouse, wind turbine and/or solar panels, composting systems and rainwater harvesting. Next, imagine the food grown in the greenhouse traveling “downstairs” to be sold to consumers.
  • Marrone Bio Innovations (Davis, CA) – Organic pesticide manufacturer that screens naturally occurring microorganisms to identify those with novel and effective pest management characteristics. They then use their “efficient process” (lab and field testing, fermentation process development, scale-up and formulation), to develop them into products in approximately three years and for approximately $3 million, compared to new chemical pesticides, which take at least $180 million and up to 10 years to discover and develop.
  • Farm Power (Mount Vernon, WA) – Farm Power facilities utilize anaerobic manure digesters to harvest methane gas from manure, which is burned to create electricity for sale, while sending the processed manure back to farm partners as an organic fertilizer free of pathogens and odor. Capturing methane has the added benefit of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by thousands of tons per year.
  • Dakota Organic Prairie (Harvey, ND) – Dakota Prairie offers organic flours specifically developed to meet the needs of food manufacturers. Its product line includes white, whole wheat, rye, soft, gluten-free and spelt flours, along with cracked grains, whole grains and bran flakes, which provide “a home-baked taste and texture that is full-flavor, hearty and wholesome.” The company is passionate about quality and organics, and utilizes a state-of-the-art computerized European mill to ensure consistency.
  • Vital Farmland (San Francisco, CA) – Farmland LP, a U.S. private equity fund, acquires conventional farmland and converts it into certified organic, sustainable farmland. Its investors benefit from the security of owning farmland while participating in the growth and profitability of the organic market.

Related Links:

Planting the Seeds of Change

Guest Blogger: Joya Parsons is an organic market gardener working toward making a sustainable, local food system a reality. She runs Quite Contrary Garden and Homestead in Laurel, Delaware. She blogs at Quite Contrary Gardens and Twitters under @Kubileya

Seeds. They seem like such a small thing when compared to the big, complex problems the world is facing—climate change, poverty, war, famine, peak oil and an exploding population. They’re so small, in fact, that most will fit easily under your thumb.

But stop and think again. Without those tiny grains, what would be left on Earth?

Seeds are the bedrock of our food chain, the basic element of our sustenance. If they were to disappear tomorrow, we would follow them into oblivion with lightning speed. And, the most pressing issue people are often unaware of is that they are currently under grave and direct threats.

Sounds ominous, huh? Wondering why? Well, the answer is two-fold. First, we have witnessed a staggering loss of genetic diversity. In the past century, world agriculture has lost 75% of its genetic diversity to globalization, standardization and monoculture farming; 95% of the tomato varieties that existed in 1909 have become extinct; 91% of corn – gone. In addition, 95% of the cabbage varieties your great-great grandma grew have been consigned to oblivion. And though this may not seem on the surface to be a big deal, in reality it could mean the difference between full bellies and famine.

Genetic diversity in the food plants we grow is more than just the number of tomatoes listed in your favorite seed catalog. Diversity ensures that there are sufficient, genetically diverse and well-adapted varieties of any given plant to respond to any given situation. When a crisis arises, such as a new fungal disease or a severe drought, diverse genetics ensure that some varieties will naturally have genes that enable them to resist the threat and grow on, passing their genetic strengths on to the next generation. Without that diversity, with a significantly narrower gene pool to draw upon, crops and plants become susceptible to complete annihilation when these new threats arise. Such a disaster is not unprecedented.

The Irish Potato Famine of the 1840’s had such a devastating effect on Ireland’s population not only because they depended so heavily upon that one crop, but because they relied on only one variety. When the fungus hit, the one variety in wide cultivation was extremely susceptible and the mainstay of the Irish diet was destroyed within two seasons. Even as recently as the United States corn blight of the 1970’s, when 80% of American corn was of a similar genetic heritage and some 10 million acres of the crop were lost in a single season, we have seen the perils of lack of diversity.

The second threat to our seeds comes from industrial agriculture’s relative recent access to patents, as well as genetically modified organisms and seed company acquisitions, resulting in significant industry consolidation. Understanding this requires just a little micro-course in plant patent history (For a more complete history, check out the three-part series at Cooking Up A Story). In 1930, the Plant Patent Act was passed, which allowed plant breeders, a relatively new profession, to patent a single, specific plant that they had bred themselves. Patents were limited to only that specific plant and any asexual propagations of said plant. Seeds, as the result of sexual reproduction, were specifically barred from patent. Fast-forward to 1970 and the passage of the Plant Variety Protection Act. This legislation gave plant breeders the right to patent an entire variety of genetically similar plants, as well as their seeds and all subsequent generations. Fast-forward again, this time to 1980. The United States Supreme Court decision of Diamond v. Chakrabarty, a 5-4 split decision, gave individuals, and corporations acting as individuals, the right to a utility patent for laboratory engineered organisms, including seeds, under the 1952 Patent Act. Yes, that’s a bunch of gobblety-gook.

What it means is this: corporations have been given the power to own life. When you combine this with the consolidation of the global seed market by these same corporations, entities such as Monsanto and DuPont can not only own life, they can also control access and set the going price of those living things. In buying up every major seed supplier, they are systematically eliminating competing varieties and crowning their own patented seeds as the only choice in the marketplace.

Unfortunately, that’s not all. The right and ability to patent life extends to the genetic level, thanks to Diamond v. Chakrabarty. A corporation, like Monsanto for instance, can own a single gene and by extension, own any form of life containing said gene. This is a problem in the plant world because, let’s face it, plants are promiscuous. They pollinate far and wide with any willing partner. So, genetically modified corn containing Monsanto’s patented genetic sequence can cross-contaminate a nearby field of non-GM, non-corporate owned corn, and simply by the act of drifting pollen, transform every seed produced by that corn into Monsanto’s property.

So, this is a screwed up situation. But what can we do about it? We’re just the little people, with no real say in what happens on the giant, global corporate stage, right? Well, not really. We can take our seeds back. We can keep them out of the hands of Monsanto and DuPont. We can breed back our lost diversity in our own backyards, with our own hands, to serve our own communities and interests. Here’s how…

First, we must learn how to avoid plants and seeds that are already under patent, which can be difficult! If you are lucky, there will be a number next to the plant listing in the seed catalog, or a quick Google of the variety name will turn up a number. If the letters PVP are in front, you can search the Plant Variety Protection database. Now, this doesn’t always work, since many PVP registrations refer to a variety number, rather than a name and you may have to scroll through the entire “tomato” section (or whatever section is relevant) to double check that your variety is not listed or, if it is, that the patent has not yet expired. Another tactic is to check through the USDA Plant Inventory files, which list all varieties to come on the market in a given year going back to 1998. As a very general rule, all seeds listed as F1 hybrids are probably patented (or at least they were at one time) and any seeds introduced more than twenty-five years age can no longer be under patent.

These information sources are great, but they are not 100% reliable or complete. In order to really make sure that your money isn’t going into Monsanto’s pockets, heirlooms and open-pollinated plants that came into existence before 1970 are almost a sure bet. These seeds have been perfected over decades, centuries in some cases. They’ve survived through the years because farmers and gardeners have recognized their merits, superior taste and performance. They were, by and large, created on the front lines, in backyards and farmlands far, far from the clutches of any corporate entity.

But planting patent- and corporate-free seeds is only the first step. The next step is where we really begin to take back our seeds. We have to save them from season to season. We have to relearn what our grandparents knew and cut the corporate stranglehold by providing seeds to ourselves and our communities– tomatoes, peppers, kale, radishes, lettuce and more. When we begin to do this, magic will happen.

Seeds and plants are not static copies of their ancestors. Even the oldest heirlooms are dynamic, living beings constantly adapting and evolving. If we understand, even on just a very basic level, how to choose the best plants to save seed from—the ones with the best tasting fruit, the ones that get through the season with the least pest damage, the ones that grow the fastest or yield the most, then the seeds we save will grow into better and better plants every year. They will adapt to whatever region of the world we live in. After a couple generations and a few genetic mutations and cross-pollinations, our seeds will begin to transform. Even if I start with a Green Zebra tomato (developed by private citizen and plant breeder Tom Wagner) and another gardener across the country starts with the same tomato, within a matter of a few years saving seeds, we will have created two different, genetically divergent lines. Within a decade or so, the two lines may not even bear much resemblance to one another anymore, both having changed and adapted to local conditions. I’ve seen this phenomenon first-hand among my local gardening group. The seeds we select and save from season to season become the superstars of our gardens, performing better and better every year. This is how the great diversity in heirloom vegetables came into being in the first place and we can repeat it to create new ‘heirlooms’ that we can pass on to others. If we the people can do this, we will begin to rebuild the lost diversity in our agricultural heritage.

It will be a slow process. It will take decades, possibly more than one lifetime, to regain even a fraction of what we have lost. However, with the looming threats of climate change, new diseases, and corporate gate-keepers intent on restricting access to the most basic elements of human life, this project, this truly grassroots mission could not be more important. It’s time to take back what belongs to all of us. It’s time to take responsibility for preserving and rebuilding the agricultural wealth that genetic diversity assures, corporations be damned.

Who knows? When the next devastating plant disease comes rolling through the countryside, the variety that saves the entire crop for the future of humanity may be the very one we grew and saved in our own backyards.

Some seed sources dedicated to diversity and non-patented seeds to get you started:

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

Seed Savers Exchange

J.L. Hudson, Seedsman

Freedom Seeds

Organic Heirlooms

Native Seeds of the Southwest

Amish Land Seeds

Heirloom Seeds

Victory Seeds

How Eating Local for One Week Might Just Revolutionize Our Food System

This post is the first in a series supporting the Eat Local Challenge 2009 from City Market/Onion River Co-op in Burlington, Vermont. The Challenge is the week of September 21, 2009.

Local food. 100-mile radius. Seasonal eating. All great ideas, but why would anyone commit to abide by such rules for an entire week in a place like Vermont? That’s what City Market is asking its customers to do as part of the Eat Local Challenge 2009 the week of September 21. My family has enthusiastically agreed to take their challenge, as well as write about our experience. This initial post should give you a flavor of what to expect.

According to the Mad River Valley Locavore Project, an organization with an outstanding local food track record, the Eat Local Challenge “is an event where participants pledge to eat only locally grown and produced foods.  Participants will have the option of choosing to pledge by the meal (one or more meals), by the day (one or more days), or for the entire week.

By challenging ourselves in such ways, we will increase our awareness of the food we eat, where it comes from, how it was grown, who grew it and more. Regardless of how far any of us has already come, there is always room to learn more, but given the complexity of today’s industrial food system and large-scale conventional supermarkets, increasing our understanding of food can be very challenging. Thankfully, in Burlington and communities throughout Vermont we have food cooperatives, farmers markets and community-support agriculture (CSA) farms that allow us to get much closer to local foods.

The fact is most Americans take their food for granted. Cheap, convenient food is everywhere, and is often treated as an accessory in today’s fast-paced lifestyles. The problem is much of what we consume today isn’t really food; it is highly processed calories made to resemble food. Sophisticated marketers wrap those calories up in slick packaging and push them into the marketplace with large marketing budgets. And what appears cheap at the register is made so through taxpayer-funded crop subsidies, industry-friendly regulations and deferred costs related to our health, the environment and regional economies.

As you might imagine, tracing ingredients in such processed foods back to their sources is nearly impossible, since doing so would expose the inner workings of industrial food’s “black box”, which brings me back to the importance of locally grown and/or processed foods.

Over the next several weeks leading up to the challenge, I will be sharing more on why supporting local foods is important. Being 100% local in a place like Vermont for one week will be tough. Doing so year round nearly impossible, except for the most committed. But making such efforts is exactly what consumers – who have grown accustom to having whatever foods they want, whenever they want them – must do in order to reclaim control over the food we eat.

Is Whole Foods Losing Its Sustainable Luster?

Lost in the ear-splitting uproar over Whole Foods CEO John Mackey’s controversial venture into the health care debate, is a bigger, though less subtle story.

It’s a story about how a small, well-intentioned sustainable food company lost its way. It’s a story of how that company went from a single natural foods store in Austin, Texas to industry juggernaut, with every intention of dominating the natural foods retail category, in the nearly-identical way its conventional competitors came to dominate their sectors, i.e., achieving massive scale through acquisitions, new stores and eliminating smaller competitors.

Along the way, that company, Whole Foods, traded in any sense of purpose it had regarding regional food systems to pursue increasingly larger financial objectives, e.g., $12.0 billion in sales by 2010, up from $8.0 billion in FY08 sales and maintaining its 30% CAGR in sales since ’91 IPO. Today, Whole Foods, which publicly trades on the NASDAQ exchange (symbol: WFMI), owns the natural foods retail category, providing solid annual financial returns to its shareholders. Significant accomplishments considering Whole Foods’ humble beginnings.

But alongside this growth, a company with great potential to fundamentally change sustainable food lost its luster. Although shareholders, who have earned handsome returns over the years – 15% CAGR in stock price since IPO – cannot complain, sustainable food advocates can. Here’s why.

After acquiring 19 regional chains since 1991, beginning with New Orleans-based Whole Food Company and ending with its recent $565 million acquisition of Wild Oats (#2 national chain with 110 stores, compared to Whole Foods’ 191 stores), the resulting natural foods landscape now resembles the highly concentrated, conventional food retail space more than it does the regional food systems that sustainable food advocates identify as key to improving the food we eat.

The problem with Whole Foods isn’t necessarily its management or financial performance; it’s that the company has morphed into what amounts to a “sustainable” version of Wal-Mart and Kroger and every other multi-billion dollar supermarket chain. As evidence, the original Whole Foods Market opened in 1980 at 10,500 square feet, quite large compared to other natural foods stores at that time. By 2008, its 276 stores averaged 36,000 square feet, and it plans to open 70 new stores through fiscal year 2013 at an average size of 47,300 square feet, slightly above the conventional food supermarket median average of 46,755 square feet. Taken together, these stores will occupy over 13 million square feet of retail space, stocked with tens of thousands of packaged, processed and perishable items, purchased almost entirely through large national distributors, much like any other large supermarket.

There’s every indication that these massive Whole Foods “natural foods” stores will continue popping up in more regions, including smaller markets, e.g., Burlington, Vermont, a city of less than 40,000 citizens in a county barely breaking 150,000 people. Burlington is home to one of the more vibrant sustainable food communities in the country. There are no Whole Foods Markets or Trader Joes in this town. Instead, residents frequent food cooperatives, farmers markets and community supported agriculture (CSA) farms, purchasing above-average quantities of food from local farms and processors.

Whole Foods entering markets like Burlington begins the systematic weakening of the fabric of such vibrant regional food economies. Unintentional or not, Whole Foods’ very presence in these markets undermines established relationships between regional food retailers and suppliers, including farmers, processors and related service providers.

When you consider Whole Foods in this light, you see yet another national, multi-billion dollar corporate giant entering regional markets, amassing market share through lower prices (leveraging economies of scale from its large-scale distribution partner, United Naturals Food Inc.), chronically injuring or killing off local and regional businesses, and exporting massive financial value out of each region. Do they care that regional farmers and food processors are stuck having to find new channels to market or entirely new markets? Difficult to say, but smaller suppliers don’t work well within Whole Foods’ centralized distribution system, which clearly favors large-scale sustainable food suppliers, many of which are now owned by the world’s largest food processors, e.g., Stonyfield Yogurt, Kashi, Muir Glen (more).

The unfortunate part of all this is that most people associate Whole Foods with organic and sustainable food, which is deserved for the good work the company has done over the years, but less so when you consider the overall sustainability of the large-scale, nationally-controlled food system that Whole Foods is now part of. In my book, Whole Foods is only slightly better than Wal-Mart or Krogers, respectively the 1st and 2nd largest supermarkets in America, which is what the debate should really be focused on.

Perhaps there are reasons to “boycott” Whole Foods. One could protest its decision long ago to turn over its long-term objectives to shareholders, rather than considering all stakeholders, especially regional farmers and food processors; but that isn’t going to change Whole Foods, since it can’t undo what is done without certain financial ruin.

Rather than boycott, why not leverage Whole Foods’ evolution into a Kroger, Safeway or Albertsons-style supermarket in more sustainable clothing? Tell your friends, family and coworkers that they can get anything they are accustomed to buying at conventional supermarkets at a Whole Foods instead. Tell them doing so is more sustainable than those alternatives, which is generally true.

Then, knowing that your personal defection from Whole Foods will have little impact, start shopping at a local food store or regional chain offering produce, meats and other regionally-produced foods. Your challenge will be finding such businesses since they were likely acquired or put out of business by Whole Foods years ago.

In time, a new generation of Pro Food ventures will show up to fill this void, region by region. Until then, you might want to start a garden.