going, going..gone? farmland in the balance

There’s a lot of talk about how farmers are getting old. But what we hear less about is the fact that when those farmers retire, their land may disappear too.

Call it a “quiet crisis.” Nationwide, America has lost 72 million acres of farmland since 1982, about one-third of it to development. That trend is likely to accelerate as farmers die and retire. In Iowa, people over the age of 65 own 56 percent of the farmland, and 30 percent is owned by those over 75. In Maine, some 400,000 acres—one-third of the state’s agricultural land—is expected to change hands over the next decade. The global consequences of losing that land are frightening. I explore them — and what we can do — in my latest column for the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture.

Take a look and as always, feedback is welcome.

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One fish, three meals

Paul Greenberg in his Manhattan Kitchen. (Photo courtesy of the Washington Post)

Author Paul Greenberg was standing in his Manhattan kitchen, cleaver in hand. He had already fluidly removed two fillets from a gleaming red snapper, shipped overnight from the Gulf of Mexico. Now it was time to take off the head, which he would use to make a spicy Korean soup. “This,” he said with a laugh, “is where it gets gnarly.” Then with a swift chop he severed the fish’s head from its body.

It would have been easier to buy a few fillets or, for this dish, to ask a fishmonger for the head. (Sometimes they’ll give it to you free.) But Greenberg, best-selling author of “Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food,” wanted to make use of a whole snapper in service of a larger point: Americans need to eat more American seafood.

It’s a point he makes compellingly clear in his new book, “American Catch: The Fight for our Local Seafood” (Penguin Press, June 2014). The United States controls more ocean than any other country on Earth. Yet despite our 2.8 billion acres of ocean, 94,000 miles of coast and 3.5 million miles of rivers, 91 percent of the seafood Americans eat is imported.

It gets fishier, Greenberg says. Much of what we import is farmed; shrimp and tilapia top the list. Meanwhile, one-third of what we catch is sent overseas. “There are of course subtleties to the ridiculous international fish swap we’re engaged in here in America, but after three years of pounding my head against the data, what I realized is that we’re basically low-grading our seafood supply,” Greenberg said. “We’re sending the good wild American stuff that makes you heart healthy and smart to Asia and importing all this farmed stuff from Asia that doesn’t really do too much for you from a health perspective.”

In this story, Greenberg and I sort through the complexities of U.S. seafood and cook three delicious Asian recipes using one fish. By using almost everything, we made three meals for four,  bringing the cost of the snapper to less than $5 a serving.

Check out the whole story or, better, go read Greenberg’s book, which is fantastic.  And as always, let me know what you think.

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Servings of small change

Guernica Magazine: Talk to me about going to Huntington in Jamie Oliver’s wake. Were you concerned about how you’d be perceived?

Jane Black: It was tricky. When I wrote that first story about Oliver, I’d say, “I’m calling from the Washington Post, but my fiancé is from West Virginia,” and they’d be much more responsive. We would joke that Brent was my “hillbilly fixer.” Because the minute you say you’re a journalist from Washington, all these guards go up and people think you’re this jerk who’s going to come in and humiliate them and write about how nobody has any teeth. Which is what people who drop in—or, lazy people—tend to do. So the combination of the two of us was a good one. I had been steeped in these issues for ten years.

Brent Cunningham: And I was your beard.

This is one of the good outtakes from Brent and my interview with the lovely Meara Sharma of Guernica Magazine. She graciously gave us a a whopping 6,000 words to talk about class and food and our book. Naturally, we jumped at the chance.

The interview is a primer on our book. In it, we tackle tough subjects, including our contention that we are on a path to creating an alternative food system that feeds only the one (or two) percent. It is, I hope, provocative and will to get people thinking.

Please take a look. Feedback welcome!

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Should we fear or embrace gmos?

My second column for the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture looks at this sticky topic–one I have been loathe for many years to take on. It was one of those debates that was utterly predictable. On one side were what I call the “slippery slope-ists” who argued that the science of genetically modifying crops was too new for us to truly understand the risks, and the companies selling the patented seeds were using them as a way to solidify their stranglehold on American agriculture. On the other side were the “tech-can-save-the-world-ers,” who claimed that without GMOs, we would be unable to feed the world’s growing population. (The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that we will need 70 percent more food by 2050 just to keep up with population growth.) Both sides were fear-mongering, and it was impossible to know who was right.

But the debate has happily become more pragmatic and nuanced in recent months. (Even Mark Bittman publicly ended his war on the technology.) Food activists are realizing that their fears have less to do with the technology itself than the way it has been used by Monsanto to sell more herbicides and crush competition in the seed world.

Still, we need more proof that GM food is safe for the environment and for human health. For that, we need more testing and regulation. My proposal? The Environmental Protection Agency should investigate how and if the use of GM crops is endangering the land. The FDA should scrutinize GM crops the same way it does new drugs. These efforts would increase consumer trust in the food system (a win for GM skeptics) and, in theory, help feed the world (a win for proponents of GM food). It would also help end the ugly food fight over genetically modified food.

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Consumer demand can drive change–but only if everyone is hungry for it

Today I start a new column for the Stone Barns Center. Each month, I’ll weigh in on one of the big issues facing the food system. For the inaugural column, I take on a topic close to my heart: how to make the food movement more inclusive. Take a look and let me know what you think.

If you happen to be shopping at a supermarket this summer, you may be lucky enough to pick up a melon called Melorange. It’s a cross of a cantaloupe and European heirloom varieties of melon known for their fruity and floral aromas. By comparison, tasters say, the flavor of a regular cantaloupe is uninspiring.

Who do we have to thank for this marvel of a melon? Wait for it—Monsanto.

Before you choke on your morning cup of Fair Trade coffee, you should know that the Melorange is not genetically modified. The company uses high-tech scans and computer models to speed up traditional plant breeding. According to an excellent piece in Wired Magazine, what might take nature 1,000 years to produce, Monsanto can do in just a few years—without splicing a single gene.

American consumers will happily eat processed foods made with genetically modified corn and soy. But they have made it crystal clear that fruits and vegetables are another story. There is still plenty to dislike about Monsanto—its strong-arming of farmers, its restricting the use of patented seeds, to name a few examples. But the Melorange proves that even Big Bad Monsanto listens when consumers speak.

The term “vote with your fork” was coined in the 1990s, and it has been used so often since that it has become a platitude, one unfortunately associated with wealthy elites who pay top dollar for heirloom tomatoes at their Sunday farmers market. But consumer demand also has pushed Big Food to become more sustainable, too: Walmart this month struck a deal to sell organic food at cut-rate prices. McDonald’s and others have forced pork producers to phase out inhumane gestation crates. Chick-fil-A announced it will transition to all antibiotic-free meat within five years.

It is certainly true that many of the problems in American agriculture and food production are systemic. But given the disheartening gridlock in Washington—all but guaranteed to continue thanks to recent Supreme Court decisions on campaign finance—sweeping political change will be slow. Building consumer demand for a healthier, more sustainable food system is the most effective—maybe the only—way forward.

Read the rest of the column here.

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Why are there still so many antibiotics in America’s meat?

It’s the stench, a pungent mix of ammonia and wet earth, that gives it away. This neat row of brick buildings in the Dutch village of Bergeijk is a massive chicken farm. Inside the six barns are 175,000 birds, hidden from the neighbors’ view and without any access to the outdoors or even natural light. To see them, visitors must slip into sterile blue jumpsuits and plastic booties, a low-tech but effective type of biosecurity that stops people from sneaking in any dangerous bacteria—or taking anything out.

Precautions are especially important now, but not because the flock of birds looks sick or particularly unhappy. New government rules have forced farmers like Kees Koolen to cut their use of antibiotics, which for decades has served as a cheap and easy way to keep birds healthy and plump for their short, 6-week lives. Koolen, a 55-year-old with a round face, ruddy cheeks, and pale blue eyes, has been raising meat birds, or “broilers,” for 30 years, and he wasn’t keen on the idea of giving up his wonder drugs. But in just 3 years, Koolen has successfully cut the antibiotics used on his farm by 55% without making any substantial changes to production.

The Netherlands—arguably America’s agricultural twin—has drastically reduced its use of antiobiotics in meat, and Dutch citizens are already reaping the health benefits. So what is the U.S. waiting for? In my latest story for Prevention Magazine, I explore how the Netherlands is getting antibiotics off its farms and what the United States needs to do to follow suit. Take a look and let me know what you think.

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  • About Me

    Jane BlackI am a Brooklyn-based food writer who covers food politics, trends and sustainability issues. My work appears in the Washington Post, (where I was a staff writer), the New York Times, Slate, New York magazine and other publications. On this site, you will find my blog and links to my written work and my Washington Post columns.

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