Finally, a farm post!
The markets are in full swing right now. We’ve been fortunate to have great weather on market days this year, in spite of our relatively cool, wet summer. It’s a lot of work to schlep stuff like tables, tents and full coolers to market, but it’s one of my favourite things to do – after working hard in the greenhouse and fields to grow everything and keep the weeds & insects from taking over, it’s rewarding to take it all to market and have people come back every week to get more, and let you know how much they enjoyed everything.
The market is also a place to make connections. A few weeks ago, an older man walked his bicycle up to my table and started asking me about the market – it was his first visit. As we chatted, another older man walked his bike over (yay bikes!) and asked me if we had any wild garlic. We don’t, but I showed him what garlicky stuff I could offer him, and the other guy turned and said “hey, I have tons of that stuff growing in my backyard.”
welcome to another sporadic post. I promise that in the months since the last entry I’ve accumulated some extra good stuff to write about!
The main growing season is slowing a bit now as the summer veggies have given in to the first frosts, and the winter veggies become our main focus. Those summer veggies held on for a long time this year – we had our last harvest of peppers and eggplants in October! We’re still harvesting winter veg as we move through December, as many people are surprised to learn. The cold storage and root cellar are gradually filling up with goodies like carrots, beets, potatoes, onions, cabbage, parsnips and celeriac. It’s amazing how resilient some plants are.
We’re also down a market now, and another ends within the next weeks. Having one less market per week to worry about is a bit of a relief, even though I really enjoy working the markets (despite the early mornings and the long drives sometimes made in the dark). This season I was grateful to learn how appreciative people are of the food. One market was in an area with a racially diverse population, and residents of differing backgrounds often recognized the vegetables as ones they would use traditionally but which can’t be found at the big supermarkets. Many market-goers were excited to tell me what they liked to make with specific vegetables. I learned that Independence day in Mexico is often celebrated by making stuffed poblano peppers; that basil is not only common in Italian cooking, but also Iranian; was recommended an at-home cough remedy made with radishes that was used in eastern Europe during periods of communism, when no antibiotics were available; and had regular customers coming back each week for months at a time because they found veggies like tomatillos at our stand – items which are part of their cultural menus, but were not on any grocery store shelves. It’s so rewarding to know people feel connected to what we grow. I hope this sparks ideas for folks who want these kinds of foods, which can be grown in their own backyards or on their own porches.
As promised, this is a post about food labeling! And some of the issues around labeling, lack thereof, and its health implications (human, non-human, and ecological). Disclaimer: this information was largely gathered from the internet and I assumed it was current at the time I wrote this post. If you find something that’s more up-to-date, I’d be happy to include it.
Take a look at the following logos, which appear on food packages, and see if you can figure out what they mean. Which ones follow stringent regulations in order to carry such a symbol? Which are governed by third-party certifiers? What does each one indicate about the food in the package?
There’s so much to figure out label-wise when you’re trying to make more informed purchases, or find a higher quality product. Read on to see what I found when searching for the true meaning of some common food labels (and definitely do your own research too!)
You may observe a label like this one on food packaging:
According to their website, items with this label have been found to contain less than 1% GMO ingredients. (GMO = Genetically Modified Organism: a plant or animal that has been genetically altered, by having a gene from a different species inserted into its own DNA sequence.) They generally test foods with ingredients that are likely to be GMOs, such as canola, soy, corn, and beet sugar. This page has more information about the process. The Non-GMO Project is voluntary, so relying solely on this to determine whether you’re buying GMO products is not reliable, although it’s a step in the right direction. There are currently no labeling laws in place in Canada that tell the consumer whether the food they’re buying has been genetically modified, even though almost everything containing corn, canola, or soy is GMO. Most of the corn and soy grown in North America is genetically modified, and most of it is fed to animals, who are then eaten by humans. Processed foods that contain things like corn syrup or canola oil almost certainly contain GMOs. So it’s easy to see how we unknowingly consume these items – they’re everywhere! Even Whole Foods can’t escape them.
Aside from human health concerns about consuming GMOs and being exposed to the chemicals used on them, other major concerns are their threat to biodiversity, the monopolies that GMO seed companies have over certain crops (and thus the lack of food sovereignty that is happening in many countries), and the damage being done to the land and ecosystems that sustain us. I will do a more extensive post on GMOs later.
2 examples of what might be lost if we continue to narrow our crop diversity by using GMO crops – glass gem corn, and many indigenous Peruvian potato varieties:
(corn picture from Milkwood Permaculture)
It’s scary to think that our currently precarious food security could so easily be lost if the few GMO crops we grow face drought or other disasters. But people are doing something about it! Check out the interview below with the incredible Vandana Shiva, international food activist, working to preserve biodiversity in food systems and to ensure food security for all. She talks more about monopolies over seeds, and how people in India are fighting for control over their own crops.
Seed banks and other organizations such as Seeds of Diversity help farmers and food enthusiasts preserve rare varieties by helping people grow them and save seed, some of which is stored for future use.
‘Cage Free’, ‘Free Range’ and ‘Free Run’
As seen on egg cartonsc, meat packages, etc. These terms are not regulated, but are generally taken to mean that the hens who laid the eggs were not caged. Over 90% of Canada’s hens are kept in battery cages in warehouses and suffer severely as a result. ‘Free run’ hens are kept in warehouses, and according to the Chicken Farmers of Canada, they must “be able to move freely around the barn”. There is no legal definition of ‘free run’ in Canada. ‘Free range’ hens are generally also kept in warehouses and are given some access to the outdoors, but there is also no legal definition for ‘free range’ in Canada. This lack of regulation means that a label can be slapped onto an egg carton without the farm having met any guidelines, and then sold at a higher price as a ‘specialty’ item. As you can see, large warehouses without cages are still extremely crowded and welfare concerns obviously still exist.
As I was writing this section of the post and was seeking links to add to the above paragraph, I Google searched “free range” and one of the first things that came up was this company’s website:
Notice at the bottom it says “Ltd”. This symbol is not an indication of how animals were raised before they became the meat that this company is selling; it is the brand of a company that sells meat, meant to trick the unknowing consumer into thinking they’re buying something that was maybe more “humane” or “naturally raised”. The website states what the company “specializes” in, but their products are not held to any specific, across-the-board standard. This is why we as consumers should be vigilant when reading labels: companies can almost put whatever the hell they want on a label and get away with it, even if it’s misleading or deceiving. What a dirty ploy to make money off of people who are trying to make better choices. This is definitely a reminder to me of how important it is to remember that when someone’s selling you something, they’ll try to sell it by showing you what you want to see. It’s also a stark reminder of our lack of labeling laws.
Product of ____ , or Made in ____
This is a complex one. Until recently, a “Product of Canada” claim was based on the fact that 51% of the processing costs were incurred within Canada (ie, it had nothing to do with the food itself). “Made in Canada” could be applied if most of the key processing was done here. This is a sticky subject so if you’d like to learn more, take a look here. Ultimately, regulations about this label have become more stringent than they used to be.
A regulated term in Canada, a product that is certified organic must meet the Canadian Organic Standards for that product. There is way too much to get into here, so I suggest you read them yourself if you’d like to learn what the standards are. To be sold under an organic label, a third party certifying body must inspect the farm and review its records annually to ensure the farm is complying with the Standards. Examples of certifying bodies include Ecocert, Quality Assurance International, and Pro-Cert; their seals will appear on the packaging of certified foods. Products grown outside of Canada, but shipped and sold here, do not have to comply with Canadian Organic Standards to be sold as organic in Canada. It’s important to note that not all farmers choose to be certified, even though they may be using organic growing methods; it’s not always economically feasible, and small farms that sell directly to consumers may not find it effective as a marketing tool. If you’re unsure, you can always ask your farmer about their practices. Again, keep in mind that you are being sold something – it’s good to have specific questions to ask. Many small farmers try hard to maintain transparency and are happy to talk about their farm practices. I would be wary, though, of products in grocery stores that claim to be organic but have no certification seal.
Quality Assurance International (QAI) is a third-party certifier of organic foods. This symbol means the product meets organic standards.
A vague, loosely regulated term. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) states that “A natural food or ingredient of a food is not expected to contain, or to ever have contained, an added vitamin, mineral nutrient, artificial flavouring agent or food additive” (emphasis mine). It also “does not have any constituent or fraction thereof removed or significantly changed, except the removal of water” (emphasis also mine). In this document the CFIA does not define what a “significant change” is. It also does not mention whether these definitions must be adhered to in order for a food to be labeled ‘natural’, so it’s safe to assume that this label is not regulated. Many people assume that a food labeled ‘natural’ was grown or raised a certain way, and will pay more for such an item, even though there’s no actual standard ensuring that this is the case.
Until recently there hasn’t been much in the way of regulation when it comes to labeling foods as “local”. The definition of what’s considered local (ie. how far it traveled to reach one’s plate) differs depending on who you talk to. The recently created Local Food Plus label has popped up all over Ontario. Interestingly, their website mentions nothing about what “local” means, although after much searching I finally found their Certification Standards (PDF) which states that the farm must be within the same province as the distributor and must be owned by someone who lives in the province. Their criteria for maintaining certification focus mainly on ‘sustainable’ practices for farms and for processing plants, ie. reducing greenhouse gas emissions on the property, treating workers fairly and providing a standard of care to animals which is above the minimum provincial standards. A farm or processor can become certified by adhering to 75% of the criteria listed, and can pick and choose which parts of it they wish to, or do, comply with. The Local Food Plus certification system has expanded from Ontario to some other provinces.
I recently saw a sticker around my hometown that says “buy local”. It appears on supermarket doors and the like. I found this curious because almost every business I saw it displayed in was a chain or franchise. The location of that specific store may be local, but the products being sold generally are not, and the store itself may not even be locally owned. This is a puzzle to me – my guess is it’s a marketing ploy, but I didn’t have the chance to ask anyone about it. I suppose it encourages people to stay in town to do their shopping.
Demeter certification indicates that a product was produced using biodynamic methods. The Demeter website does not outline what certification entails, but biodynamic farming is similar to organic farming in some ways.
I haven’t seen this much, but I know it exists. US-based Vegan Action has developed a logo to put on foods that contain no animals or animal products. There are more out there but they are obscure in my experience. Here’s a list of some examples. Veganic certified would mean that not only does the food contain no animal ingredients, it was also grown without animal inputs such as bones, feathers, or manure. More information on veganic agriculture here, also mainly for the USA and the UK. I didn’t find much about certification standards.
Another meaningless label. I think this one is meant to evoke the image of the idyllic red barn with frolicking animals around it. It’s definitely a marketing ploy. This claim is not monitored or regulated in Canada.
Battery caged hens lay “farm fresh” eggs.
So, you can see that this is a slippery slope. It’s very frustrating to have to do so much searching to determine how our food has actually arrived on our plate. We want to trust our farmers, government and other authorities to provide us with factual information and transparency, especially when it comes to something as important as food, but unfortunately we’re still at the stage where sleuthing is necessary in order to find out the real story of our food. As you may have noticed from the descriptions of each label listed above, the USA and the UK are pretty far ahead of us on this issue.
I want to mention again the importance of asking questions. For instance, I love farmers’ markets. They can be great places to source local/organic/etc food and connect with growers – but many are not exclusively selling local/organic/etc food. A few years ago at my local market I was checking out one of my favourite tables, that of an organic farm nearby. As I browsed, I overheard the vendor talking to a customer who’d asked where the garlic was from. To my surprise, the vendor’s answer was “China”. Asking questions is always a good way to find out what you’re really getting, and who is really selling what they grow, versus who’s distributing the same food you’d get from the grocery store. (I gave this vendor a break and kept buying from them despite this incident, due to their reputation, honesty about the garlic, and the fact that it was late winter – their own garlic stores may have run out by then, and they probably brought in the other garlic to meet the demand of market-goers). Unfortunately, distributors selling imported food in farmers’ markets is common, but people are working to include more actual farmers and to cut down the number of distributors who sell at markets. One example is the Victory school market in Guelph and the Dufferin Grove market in the west end of Toronto.
I encourage you to do your own sleuthing and find out more about where your food comes from. Much of the information I included here was found through web searches and looking at the websites of governing bodies. If you’re interested in improving labeling laws in Canada, the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN) is working towards mandatory food labeling for GMOs.
This will likely be my last post before I leave on my WWOOFing adventure on Wednesday, so stay tuned for some updates on those farms!
For folks who read my last post, there are some events coming up that may interest you:
Cedar Row farm sanctuary, near Stratford, is having a work bee & potluck for Mothers’ day on May 12th (this Saturday). I visited this lovely little place in the fall.
Also on May 12th is an open house at Wishing Well Sanctuary, a newer one near Toronto.
May 6th was the first Open Day of the season at the wonderful Donkey Sanctuary of Canada in Guelph. They’ve done some new renovations to make life easier for everyone. If you go for a visit, be sure to say hi to Werther, my sheep pal, and scratch some donkey ears!
So, almost a month ago, I spent my last day as a farm employee pruning apple trees in the sunshine. We finally finished the “big” orchard that week, and went on to do the few big Melbas near the greenhouse (they were massive!) As I was finishing up the last one, a bright robin hopped through the grass a few feet away making little chirp noises, and I felt so lucky (yet again) to be there. The next day I came back to volunteer. I have some free time before I leave for WWOOFing, so of course I want to spend some of it at the farm! We did some pre-germination stuff, which I missed last year (the senior interns had worked on it before the rest of us arrived). Then we went on to seeding in the greenhouse (which is virtually bursting at the seams right now) where some Red Admirals, the first butterflies of the season, fluttered around.
And before I left town, I was thrown a fantastic surprise party by the farm crew! Part of what makes it so hard to leave for months on end, and not know where I’ll be when I get back, is leaving behind this awesome group. Working & learning alongside folks really makes for a tight knit bunch.
I’ve seen some interesting graphics floating around the internet lately, & thought it was about time to do a post about nutrition. I came across this chart recently and it reminded me of a few things.
I think soil is an appropriate starting point here, since the soil feeds the plants and the plants use nutrients from it to grow, so it’s a pretty important part of the picture. On our first CRAFT day last season, the interns at the host farm did a skit about soil science to illustrate the interactions between different minerals and elements present within it.
Looking at the practices of organic and non-organic agriculture give us some idea of why the differences shown in the chart may exist. A typical rotation for large-scale, non-organic plant agriculture is corn and soybeans. These same two crops will be grown back to back a number of times over a few years, in a huge monocrop (which is one of these):
Just one crop is grown, over a vast expanse of land, at a time. Different plants need different nutrients to grow, but having just a two-crop rotation grown on the same piece of land over and over again depletes the same nutrients over and over. The soil becomes void of them over time, so nutrients need to be added if the land is to be used again. Common amendments in this situation would be commercial fertilizers, many of which are synthetic, and are a quick fix rather than a long-term solution. Runoff from these products is a concern as it’s a pollutant and has created “dead zones” in coastal waters. I won’t even get into chemical pesticides here.
Organic plant agriculture focuses largely on improving soil health by looking at the big picture. Instead of seeking immediate gains from using chemical fertilizers (which are not permitted in organic production), overall soil health is nurtured through proper crop rotations (ie. planting a wider variety of crops over a number of seasons, with each type using different nutrients, and providing nutrients back to the soil). Organic amendments exist and include rock phosphate, compost, and the use of cover crops. The overall health of the soil is the very basis of successful organic growing. Caring for the land in this way ensures that the soil remains balanced and properly able to feed crops. It’s no wonder organic plant foods can be more nutritious than conventional.
That’s not to say that monocropping is unheard of in the organic world. It does exist, especially in “big organics” – for instance, if you buy a mass-produced jar of jam that’s certified organic and is available at chain stores year-round, you’d be making a safe bet that what’s in the jar came from a fruit monocrop, since a huge amount of it would need to be grown in order to achieve this level of distribution. It’d probably be leaning more towards conventional agriculture if we made a scale. But buying something from a farm that uses the CSA model, or from a farmers’ market, you’re probably getting something that was done on a smaller piece of land, with more crop diversity (which would likely mean healthier soil) and a better rotation.
If you’re in the market for some new cookbooks & are wondering about the nutritional/other advantages of organic & whole foods, or you just want to learn more about nutrition in general, I recommend Jae Steele’s books. She’s a holistic nutritionist based in Toronto, and aside from lots of recipes, her books have extensive but easy-to-read sections on digestion, food combining, where to source good food, how to do cleanses, and much more. Out of my large and ever-growing collection of cookbooks, hers are the ones I go to most often!
Speaking of ‘certified organic’ and food labeling, that’s a tough area to navigate as a consumer. I won’t talk about it here because it’s such a huge thing to cover, but I’ll devote another post to it soon.
For folks interested in the hen rescue I mentioned in a previous post, here’s a video update:
Just two weeks til I take off on my wwoof adventure!
After a week off to move back to town and sort my life out, I’ve started working at the farm again. It’s strange to be away from the farmhouse, not have a woodstove to warm up in front of, no trails and forest behind the house, and not to wake up to the sound of coyotes in the night. I’m also missing the farmhouse crew, and my house in town feels so empty since everyone else here is in school. But it’s been good to be in town, where everything is a quick bike ride away (I’m trying to relish the last few weeks of bikeable weather) and to catch up with friends.
After spending 6 1/2 months farming, though, having an entire week with nothing to do but set up my room seemed like forever. It was so good to return to the farm to start my winter work there, even without the big group of interns.
It’s part of a suit that’s worn to protect workers when pesticides are being sprayed – a remnant from a time when the land maybe wasn’t farmed organically. The helmet has a built-in ventilation system so the worker who is spraying doesn’t have to breathe in the chemicals that are being put on the plants. (The small black canister on the back is the fan).
Finding information about the ill effects of chemicals used to grow food is not difficult. Pesticides are neruotoxins, hormone disruptors, carcinogens, and can cause birth defects. How can we be applying known poisons to food on a regular basis and not expect them to impact anything but their target pests? It’s no wonder things like the helmet exist.
A full-body suit would look something like this:
Finding this helmet has made me so grateful that I have access to food that’s free from chemicals. It’s unfortunate that such substances are approved for use on food – something people are going to consume, that will be taken up by the body and integrated into it, that’s supposed to keep us in good health. It’s troubling that these practices are still considered safe, when the fact that such protection needs to be worn when using these chemicals makes it obvious that these are NOT safe things to be exposed to. I feel the need to mention that organic farming does allow for some pest control measures via sprays and amendments, although from my experience it’s less common and not routine like it is for many conventionally grown crops. I would guess that this sort of thing is quite common in “big organic” industry (ie. if you get something like organic jam at a grocery store that is branded and available widely in stores, it comes from a big producer, probably with many farms contracted to grow for them in order to be able to produce such a large supply. To keep a consistent product, measures such as spraying would likely be taken on these contract farms). This is a bit of a sidebar, but for more information about who owns what in the “big organic” industry, take a look here. Thankfully I’m lucky enough to know what did or did not get put on my food from the farm.
It’s also very disheartening to know that there’s no regulation in Canada that makes the labeling of genetically modified foods and conventionally grown foods mandatory. Instead the onus is put on organic producers to label their foods, which means paying to have their farms inspected annually in order to stay certified. For small producers this is often impractical and unaffordable. But the absence of mandatory labeling for chemical use and genetic modification essentially makes us unable to choose whether to buy and consume foods that are contaminated; we are not given a choice because almost everything that’s available in stores is conventional, and we can’t tell the difference unless we have access to an alternative that’s clearly labelled (like something that’s certified organic). But it’s sadly unsurprising that these labeling laws aren’t in place. Who would willingly buy a product if it was labelled as such, given the choice and access to alternatives? Economic disaster would occur for the companies producing these foods if people knew what was in them and chose to avoid them. When money is put before health, something is very wrong.
corn monocrop – from http://www.agefotostock.com/en/Stock-Images/Rights-Managed/AGS-163816-D-5744
One thing that was emphasized in my organic ag class, the only one I ever took (and the only one that made any sense out of all my agriculture courses at school), was the importance of looking at the bigger picture. Non-organic food is cheap, because so many costs are externalized by industrial agriculture – environmental destruction, human and animal health, destruction of forests (including rainforests), soil degradation, water contamination, air pollution…if no one is held accountable for contributing to these problems, and companies are allowed to continue practices that aggravate them, what is going to happen to our food supply? What will happen to our water, the ecosystems we’re a part of, our health? Soil degradation has become an issue of increasing worry to me, because not all land can grow food, and we’re so quickly building houses and factories on the valuable farmland we have left. Over 1/3 of Ontario’s best farmland can be seen from the CN tower – sitting underneath Toronto and the GTA. Where do people expect our food to be grown if we keep covering up our farmland with concrete?
I could go on and on. A main frustration for me is that the government is not taking a strong enough stance on food safety (nor on access to safe and healthy food – the worst food is often the cheapest, so people who have limited funds commonly have no choice in the matter, either).
This is why I feel so lucky to be able to eat what I eat. I have the choice to eat some foods grown without toxic chemicals, to eat plant foods instead of animals, and to eat some foods that didn’t travel halfway across the world to get to my plate. I have this choice because I’m fortunate enough to have access to such food, to be able to afford it, and to have the knowledge that gives me the power to decide what I wish to consume (and what practices I wish to support). If I were living in extreme poverty, lived in a food desert, or did not come to learn about our food system, I would not be able to make these choices. But everyone should be able to, and better yet, no one should ever be forced to choose affordability over health!
I leave you with some websites of note. Knowledge is power.
The Dirty Dozen and the Clean 15: about which produce contains the most vs. the least chemical residues. This is a good place to start!
Stop the Mega Quarry – one example of how farmland and water sources (and our environment in general) get eaten up by industry. If you drink water you’ll want to look at this.