To Fish or To Mine?: Saving Bristol Bay and Alaska's Fishing Industry

By: Michael Engle

Alaska is the site of an ongoing political battle, between two opposing interest groups, that will shape the state, national, and world economy for generations. Its legacy will be profound, as this economic decision will determine Alaska's course in fishing or mining.

Bristol Bay lies northwest of the Aleutian Mountain Range; it is separated from the Gulf of Alaska by the Alaska Peninsula. It is, currently, Alaska's most vital fishing ground, as it houses rainbow trout and five distinct varieties of salmon. Fishing in Bristol Bay has been identified as an important economic activity, accounting for 75% of local jobs, and $175 million per year to the economy. It is the center of a cultural tradition, as 2009 marked the 125th anniversary of local fishing. Bristol Bay also carries great international importance. In 2008, National Geographic identified Bristol Bay as one of only three "well-maintained" fisheries in the world. The other two are located in Iceland and New Zealand.

On the other hand, the Bristol Bay network is also home to large reserves of presently unmined natural resources. There is gold and copper within the Kvichak and Nushagak Rivers, which both flow into Bristol Bay.  If the Pebble Limited Partnership were to be allowed to proceed with its construction, the Pebble Mine would represent Alaska's largest mine. However, it is almost assured that any infusions to the Alaskan economy from the new mining would be offset by losses within the fishing industry. Mining would cause many disturbances to the local ecology, as it would not only produce large amounts of waste, but it would also require the construction of new dams (which are not guaranteed to survive earthquakes of a typical magnitude, relative to Alaska), while greatly disrupting the fishes' spawning grounds.

In a recent election in October 2011, the local Alaskan population passed the Save Our Salmon initiative, which subsequently prohibited the Lake and Peninsula Borough from issuing permits to mining projects that would negatively impact the fishing industry. It remains to be seen whether or not this election will serve as anything more binding than a straw poll, because the state legislature has the power to form economic policy that would override the local government. For now, even though the area's course of economic action is still to be decided, the locals have indeed voiced their opinion--by a vote of 280 to 246, the residents of the Lake and Peninsula Borough of Alaska prefer to forgo the area's mining possibilities, in favor of maintaining its fishing.

For more about Bristol Bay's fishing industry, click here. To read about the environmental impacts of a prospective mine, click here.

Photo:FishPhotog

For more on food politics, follow me on Twitter (@MarcusCooks)

Promoting Organic Farming: An Interview With The Rodale Institute

By: Justin Chan

Many people are accustomed to going to their local grocery store and picking up fruits and vegetables that have been processed through conventional methods. More often than not, these products have gone through a series of chemical spraying, which keeps parasitic pests from cluttering around the food consumers eat. Some critics have voiced health concerns over this procedure but concede that these products are affordable to those who cannot purchase healthier food. One organization, the Rodale Institute, is determined to change the perception that only the rich can afford organic food and that organic farming is not sustainable.

Headquartered in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, the Rodale Institute is a nonprofit organization that focuses on promoting organic agriculture and farming through research and outreach. Its Farming Systems Trial, for instance, compares conventional chemical agriculture with organic farming. The institute also offers workshops, tours and programs geared at raising awareness about the benefits of growing food organically.

We got an inside look at the workings of The Rodale Institute through an interview with the organization's executive director, Coach Mark Smallwood. Check out what he had to say about their mission...

What kind of work is the Rodale Institute involved in?

We were founded in 1947 by J.I. Rodale, who was the first North American to use the word "organic agriculture." This is where the organic movement was born. We are focused on research. We have greenhouse and compost operations. We plant different styles of gardens. We have livestock here. We have a dairy operation here. With everything we do, there's a research component. We have had hundreds of publications and scientists come through here. In fact, in 2011, we celebrated the 30th anniversary of our Farming Systems Trial, the longest-running side-by-side comparison of conventional and organic farming.

The Farming Systems Trial has three core farming systems: a manure-based organic system, a legume-based system and a synthetic-based conventional system. Can you briefly describe these management practices?

A manure-based system is designed to mimic a beef or dairy operation. The source of nitrogen here is composted manure. The process is much like [one conducted by] a dairy farmer who has access to lots of farm manure. Farmers here compost it and apply it as a fertilizer. There are also two different treatments they can use to apply the manure: a till or a no-till system. A legume-based system uses legumes such as ryes and clovers as a source of nitrogen. This system also applies these legumes through a till or no-till treatment. The conventional system uses chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Like the other two systems, the conventional system can be used with a till or no-till treatment, but the no-till treatment involves a chemical process.

According to your research, organic systems in the Farming Systems Trial are shown to match its conventional yields and even outperform them in years of drought and environmental duress. How is this possible?

There's more organic matter in organic soil. It's the organic matter and the biology that lives in the soil that holds water like a sponge. So in a drought, those plants do better.

What kind of impact has your Agriculture Supported Communities program had on food desert communities so far? What is the difference between the effects of this program and that of a community supported agriculture system?

Well, this is the first year we started the ASC program. We've hired five new interns. They're from Ohio, Missouri, Texas, New Jersey, and Alberta, Canada. At the end of our eight-month training program, they will go back to the food deserts they were recruited from and create their own businesses. We'll teach them how to grow organically and market their products. In regards to your second question, usually a person has to come up with a lump sum of around $700 in a community supported agriculture system. Some people can't afford that kind of money. Our program is a pay-as-you-go shareholder agreement. Unlike community supported agriculture systems, our program also accepts SNAP (Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program) money. We accept food stamps.

Although the global market for organic products has grown, food prices have gone up particularly in countries in Africa and the Middle East. What do you think needs to be addressed in order to make organic food more affordable in these countries?

Well, like I said, there are two ways to grow food: conventionally or organically. Conventional farming is supplemented by government funding. It aims to provide as much food as possible at an affordable price, and that's its goal. Organic farmers, on the other hand, try to grow as much nutritious and healthy food as possible. In order to make organic food more affordable, these government subsidies should go to organic farmers instead. One of the major problems with growing food conventionally is that there can be groundwater contamination.

Global warming has been a huge issue lately. How have organic farmers adjusted to extreme weather changes?

I can speak regionally. We've seen our season extended here in Pennsylvania. It's been warmer. The question now is how we can take advantage of it. Still, during this past growing season, we had a really wet spring, which made it really difficult for farmers to plant. Then, we went through seven weeks of drought in June and July. In August, we had the most amount of rainfall in the history of Pennsylvania. The cycles are unpredictable, and it's difficult for farmers to adjust to them.

In cities where local farmers often have to compete with huge supermarket chains that sell chemically-altered food, what is the most effective way for these farmers to expand their appeal?

The most effective way for these farmers to expand their appeal is to have the government stop subsidizing the chemically-produced food and have it reflect the true cost of what that food is. If you look at the Chesapeake Bay, there's a dead zone that's been created by chemical agriculture. The government can charge the taxpayers to clean up the bay but not the farmers. That lowers the costs that these farmers have to pay. It's the government's fault. The issue here is that it's being lobbied by lots of dollars. We meet with politicians all the time to talk about this issue.

For more information about The Rodale Institute, visit their website here.

Photo courtesy of the Rodale Institute.

For more awesome interviews, follow me on Twitter (@MarcusCooks)

Harvesting The Florida Stone Crab: Animal Cruelty or Ecological Ingenuity?

By: Michael Engle

"Sustainable seafood" generally refers to the ideals of respecting certain seasons, not taking too many fish out of the sea at one time, and/or determining minimum and maximum sizes of legal catch. Normally, when an animal is killed or fished, its culinary yield is limited to a resulting number of meat portions, plus a batch of stock made by boiling the leftover bones. What if, almost like a perennial flower, the same individual animal could be fished repeatedly for food? Not only does this concept exist in real life, but it is a culinary tradition in Miami Beach, FL.

The Florida stone crab is one of the most unique regional foods in the USA. Unlike the Delaware blue crab, there is almost no meat in the stone crabs' bodies. To compensate for their meatless bodies, the stone crabs' claws, which, in the wild, are strong enough to crush an oyster's shell, are prized as delicacies.  Stone crabs occasionally lose their limbs to predatory attacks; however, since their claws regenerate in a year's time, the crabs can survive with one or--theoretically--no remaining claws. The Florida stone crab is fished with a similar strategy, in order to mutually cater to the restaurants and the pool of wild crabs. Because these techniques closely resemble natural processes, it is questionable to suggest any animal cruelty in the harvesting of stone crab claws.

Crab claws are specifically amputated so that the diaphragm between the body and claw is left intact. If done properly, the crabs will lose a minimal amount of blood in the process, and the wound will heal quickly. Consequently, bad cuts will result in a greater loss of blood, and longer odds of survival. Single-amputee crabs have a 75% chance of survival, while double-amputees only have a 50% chance. Furthermore, if a crab survives the following year, its newly-matured claw will always be bigger than last year's claw.

Despite the unique nature of stone crab claw harvesting, there are still plenty of standards in place. By law, crab claws must measure 2.75 inches (70 mm), from the tip of the claw to the first joint, for the crab to be considered mature enough to be fished. In addition, there is an annual moratorium on stone crab fishing, from May 15 to October 15. Aside from these rules, it is proper technique to cook the claws briefly, and immediately upon collection. Once pre-cooked, the claws may be chilled before reheating for service. This allows the crabmeat to remain tender, while preventing it from sticking to the shell.

One of the oldest, and most famous, stone crab establishments is Miami's Joe's Stone Crabs. In addition to its key lime pies, Joe's ships its crab claws worldwide, so you don't have to travel to Florida in order to try them. But the question remains: would you eat Florida Stone Crabs knowing the harvesting techniques behind them?

What do you think? Is Florida Stone Crab harvesting animal cruelty or just a technique resembling a natural process?

Photo: Andrea Westmoreland

For more on food news, follow me on Twitter (@MarcusCooks)

Learn About Food Justice at the Just Food Conference 2012

Attention to all of you local food lovers and advocates: Join the Just Food Conference! CSA members, community gardeners, urban and rural farmers, food professionals and entrepreneurs will gather for two days of hands-on workshops, discussions, skills-building sessions, and good food.

Learn about cooking and food preservation techniques, CSA trends, and the food justice movement in New York City and beyond, as well learn ways you can mobilize to create good food projects in your own community.

This is the time of year to start thinking about lining up your CSA share. The non-profit Just Food has been keeping tabs on New York City CSA's and as a result, weekly deliveries of fresh produce have increased significantly in this wonderful metropolis. There is no doubt that you will learn more about CSA's, meet farmers and more at the 12th annual CSA conference Just Food is hosting.

Click here for more information.

Just Food Conference 2012

When: Friday, February 24th, 9AM- 7PM Saturday, February 25th, 8AM - 6PM Where: Food and Finance High School 525 West 50th Street, New York, NY

For more local food events, follow me on Twitter (@MarcusCooks)

Vegucate Yourself: An Interview with Filmmaker Marisa Miller Wolfson

By: Michele Wolfson

If you haven't heard of filmmaker Marisa Miller Wolfson yet, then you should get to know more about her right here, right now. Her film called Vegucated tracks the lives of three meat and cheese loving New Yorkers who pledge to adopt a vegan diet for six weeks.

One great aspect of this film is the way it balances the issues tactfully and thoughtfully while also including many humorous moments. Marisa and I have a couple of things in common; we both have the same awesome last name, and both believe that when it comes to animal rights it's important to not only talk the talk, but to walk the walk as well. Those of us who feel that real changes need to be made in the food industry have to actively seek ways to make those changes happen.

I caught up with the vegan educator over lunch at 'Snice, a delicious vegetarian cafe located in the West Village for an interview and here's what she shared with us:

What originally inspired you to create this movie?

What actually gave me the template for the movie was watching "Supersize Me."  When I was watching that film I thought, okay, Morgan Spurlock could detox on a vegan diet, why doesn't someone make a film that shows the reverse of that? In "Supersize Me" we are shown what not to eat, but I wanted to make a film on what we should be eating while also including ethical reasons because Spurlock's movie is mostly about health. The animal ethics are a huge reason for why I went vegan.

And then I was working at Kind Green Planet, the non-profit and my boss Mary and I were at Candle 79 and I was telling her my idea and we thought it would take a year to make the film... and it took 7 years. We had never made a film and I had never taken a film class but our hope is that our film has enough heart.

Your movie premiered this fall in Toronto and then all over the states. What has the response been so far?

It's been incredible. We knew it would go down well in Toronto just because that was during the week of the Toronto Vegetarian Food Fair, which is the largest Veg Fest in North America. We ended up with a record breaking crowd there, which was exciting, but it was when we started going to the Midwest that I started feeling really good. You know, when we had our U.S. premier in New York it was mainly friends and family that came out to support us whereas the next day when we were in the middle of nowhere in Warrensburg, Missouri, showing it to an audience that was 95 percent non-vegetarians and the feedback was very positive.

The best compliment though was from a farmer's daughter who was at the Minneapolis premier. She said that her parents run a factory farm and she was blown away by the film and really appreciated how respectfully we treated the issue and how much compassion that we had for the farmers and that was the goal. It was not to criticize anyone or judge people and put them out of business- it was about shedding light and making a statement that we are all in this together and how important it is that we go in a more compassionate direction together.

The film goes beyond promoting Veganism as a healthy lifestyle choice by exposing the viewer to urgent environmental and global issues that we face in today's world. What are some positive ways that would help reverse the damage that has been done? 

1. People need to know that the food and climate change connection is so strong. Particularly animal agriculture is one of top most significant contributors to the world's environmental problems at every scale from local to global.

2. Make personal choices that are in alignment with your beliefs. If you care about the environment, then know that switching from a normal car to a hybrid actually creates less of a change than switching from the American diet to a vegan one. So on a personal level, people should go as vegan as they can. And even if you aren't vegan but don't agree with factory farming, then it is crucial that you don't support factory farming because then the market will react. Vote with your dollars because it's not enough to just say that you don't like factory farming. Talk is cheap. We need to walk the walk as well.

3. Get involved in your community. Know where your representatives stand on these issues because we have a lot of room for improvement when it comes to farm policy.

What have been the greatest rewards from making this movie? What has been some of the greatest challenges?

Well the rewards are when I get emails, and I just got one on my way over here, when someone decided to make a change. When people say they've decided to go from veg to vegan or people go from eating meat to eating a completely vegan diet. Even when people say "I'm going to eat more vegan" or "I'm going to do meatless Mondays." Whatever it is, that's the most important thing because it means that you are making an impact.

Seven years and so much money, oh, people have no idea how much money goes into making a film. You stop and think, "Oh my gosh, I could have bought a house with this!" And, yes... you could have bought a house, but you could also try and change the world. When I am actually seeing the affects of the changes made and reading about them- there is no better feeling in the world.

The challenges have been, many. Every part of the process as a total newbie has involved me scratching my head thinking "Oh my gosh, what now? How am I going to get through this next phase?" And we're doing that now, but we just have to put one foot in front of the other and keep going.

What are your favorite vegan foods to munch on that people need to know about?

Kale chips, which I love! They are becoming more popular now than ever before. You can even make your own. I never munched on kale before I went vegan and I love it now. I do love a mushroom, walnut pate. I have one in my fridge right now. And any form of the chickpea. I love hummus, you can put dill in there or cilantro if you like it, there is just so much that you can do with chickpeas. I love avocados and dark chocolate! "So Delicious" Ice Cream is phenomenal. That should be the first vegan ice cream that you try. All of their flavors are amazing and not all of their flavors are soy, there are also coconut based ones.

What advice do you give to people who say they are having a difficult time sustaining a vegan lifestyle?

Well I try to figure out what the problem is. Sometimes it's not knowing where to shop for food or not knowing where to go out to eat. It's usually not a concern about getting the proper nutrition, but it's most often about people not knowing what to cook and how to get their family socially through this. Here are two solutions:

  1. Get vegucated! If you have this kind of third party information in a 76-minute film, people will process the information more easily than committing to something like reading a 200-page book.
  2. Get social. Leave your comfort zone and seek out other like-minded folks whether it's through a meet-up, vegan drinks or getting involved in a local veg friendly organization. It's important to have the emotional support.

Be sure to check out a free screening on February 22nd at Whole Foods Tribeca where there is a Wellness Club. Everyone is invited to get a whole-foods, plant-strong, all-you-can-eat delicious dinner starting at 6 pm. Guests can get dinner at any time between 6 and 8pm. The movie will start at 6:15. After the screening, there will be a Q&A film subjects Ellen and Tesla plus the writer-director Marisa.

There will also be a screening at the NYC Vegetarian Food Festival on March 3rd. Click here to digitally rent/buy the film!

For more great interviews, follow me on Twitter (@MarcusCooks)