in the news: beef recalls and dairy labeling

  • this second headline from the AP is a couple of weeks old now, but describes Monsanto's efforts to restrict labeling dairy that's hormone-free:

    Ben & Jerry's in fight over labeling

    Monsanto is apparently backing a new farmers' group, American Farmers for the Advancement and Conservation of Technology, which is trying to ban companies like Ben & Jerry's from labeling their products "rBGH-free." notably, rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone) is produced by Monsanto and sold to dairy farmers in increase milk production. such hormones are not permitted in organic dairy, but are another means used in conventional factory farming to boost yield. the safety of such hormones remains indeterminate, but this statement gives me pause for thought from from a physician and professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago's School of Public Health. certainly neither the USDA nor the FDA are known for protecting consumer and environmental health over the demands of big business.

    Monsanto, interestingly, is trying to frame this as a question of protecting farmers' "technology," nicely sidestepping issues of health or humane animal practices. Regardless, this debate is another reminder of the advantages of small-scale organic dairy farming over industrialized agribusiness. You can keep up with the pro-organic side of things over at OrganicConsumers.org, including the latest statement from Oregan Physicians for Social Responsibility.


sustainable seafood watch guides

the Monterey Bay Aquarium has released their yearly Seafood Watch guides, including regional guides to consuming seafood in the US, and downloadable pocket-sized ones to print out and take with you. the guides recommend which fish and shellfish are caught and managed sustainably, and which to avoid, in terms of both conservation and health concerns (such as overfishing and mercury levels). the guides include information on which fishing methods are preferable, such as farmed vs. wild caught, environmentally responsible (hook and line, harpooning, trolling) vs. damaging techniques with a lot of bycatch (e.g. dredging, trawling, purse seining).

fish is often touted as a good source of lean protein, low in saturated fat, and fatty fish in particular provide needed omega-3's (like salmon, mackerel, and herring). but of course, between rising levels of mercury, PCBs, and other organic pollutants, and conservation issues, commercial fishing is not a particularly sustainable enterprise. overfishing and marine habitat destruction are particularly damaging consequences of the seafood industry.

for those of us who still want to include seafood in our diets, the guides recommend wild Alaskan salmon, farmed catfish, farmed shellfish, striped bass, and sardines (among others), while discouraging the consumption of farmed salmon, Chilean seabass, Atlantic cod, orange roughy, shark, and imported sturgeon. the recommendations for some fish, like tuna, vary according to where they're caught and by what method -- farmed US sturgeon are fine, but not wild-caught Caspian, tuna as long as it was caught by trolling, but not longline, American farmed tilapia but not Chinese.

like most foods, it requires more than changing consumer habits to rein in an industry and protect environmental resources, but this kind of information is incredibly useful in allowing us to make informed decisions. i've been including more herring and sardines in my diet, as they're high in calcium and omega-3's, low on the food chain, sustainably caught, and really tasty.

last week, i experimented with a bastardized take on the traditional Sicilian pasta con sardine, using diced canned tomatoes, garlic, onions, and fennel seed (rather than the traditional fresh fennel, dried currants, and pignoli). this recipe is more of a cross between the traditional recipe and pasta puttanesca (another favorite with anchovies, olives, and capers).

pasta sauce with tomatoes, sardines, and fennel

1 cup onion, sliced or diced (about one small onion, or 1/2 a large onion)
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 tsp fennel seed, whole
2 whole sardines, cured and packed in oil (you could use fresh too), lightly rinsed
1 28 oz. can diced organic tomatoes
1-2 tsp olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
fresh-grated parmesan (optional)

heat the oil over medium-high heat, and sautee the onions until translucent. sprinkle on a little sea salt to release the liquid faster, then add the garlic and fennel seeds. sautee for another minute or two, then add the sardines. mashup up the sardines with a wooden spoon -- they won't entirely dissolve but they should disintegrate into smaller pieces throughout the pan. once the sardine pieces have broken up evenly, add the tomatoes. bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer on low for 15-20 minutes. you can mash the tomato chunks with the back of your spoon to break them down faster. when the sauce has reduced somewhat (it should be thicker but not a paste), add salt and freshly ground pepper, and serve over al dente pasta (such as spaghetti, linguine, or fettucine). add grated cheese if desired (i never eat parmesan over puttanesca, but it was good with the sardine sauce).

i actually made this to accompany baked polenta cutlets, as polenta is supposed to complement fish. it was good, but perhaps slightly better with pasta. you could also try making it with crushed tomatoes, or even tomato sauce for a quicker cooking time. the flavor of the fennel really enhances the sardines, but you definitely have to like the taste of cured, briny fish!


cheap corn and the lure of ethanol

yesterday's news drew attention to two new studies in Science on the problems of biofuels as a panacea for the damage wrought by reliance on fossil fuel energy. i don't find it that surprising that burning more biomass isn't a great way to reduce carbon emissions, even if the plants' growth is supposed to offest their greenhouse impact by absorbing CO2. by taking into account the effect of converting existing cropland to biofuel farming, one of the studies found that "corn-based ethanol, instead of producing a 20% savings, nearly doubles greenhouse emissions over 30 years and increases greenhouse gases for 167 years. Biofuels from switchgrass, if grown on U.S. corn lands, increase emissions by 50%." both studies suggest that to offset greenhouse gases (GHG), biofuels will have to come from waste products and abandoned agricultural land: "[i]n contrast, biofuels made from waste biomass or from biomass grown on abandoned agricultural lands planted with perennials incur little or no carbon debt and offer immediate and sustained GHG advantages" (Land Clearing and the Biofuel Carbon Debt, Fargione et al).

it's unfortunate that even a hardy cover crop like switchgrass might not be as promising a solution as it looks (though the studies do suggest that integrated properly, such perennials could provide efficient biofuel with low carbon impact), but i also take this as a reminder of the negative consequences of enormous federal corn subsidies. corn-based ethanol has been an attractive fuel alternative because it creates a potential new market for all that cheap corn grown in the midwest, which has long outpaced demand. ethanol offers American agribusiness a new market for their undervalued product, while promising the political expedience of claiming to reduce our "dependency on foreign oil." but unless biofuels can be shown actually to reduce carbon emissions, they only people they'll benefit are big corporations, at the expense of the rest of us.