Hoop dreams: A Baltimore community farm gets winterized

as seen from Whitelock St.

as seen from Whitelock St.

On a recent crisp October weekend, Reservoir Hill community members, friends, farmers, and two bus loads of Johns Hopkins undergraduate students gathered at the Whitelock Community Farm for a modern barn raising. The various volunteer groups, totaling close to 50 people, built an inexpensive but practical hoop house using a clear plastic roof and a PVC-pipe spine to extend the newly established farm’s growing season. Construction of the 20 foot by 30 foot hoop house was managed by Thor Nelson, an architect/planner who lives a block from the farm site, and paid for by a grant from Parks and People. The Reservoir Hill Improvement Council (RHIC) chipped in Federal Stimulus money to fund materials for a shed and farm stand on the property, and coordinated the volunteer support from Johns Hopkins. Read More >

Reading between the lines: FDA indicates consumer preference not a reason for salmon labeling

FDA hosted a hearing on Tuesday, September 21 to discuss the hypothetical labeling of genetically engineered (GE) salmon. Just fifteen hours earlier the FDA finished hearing the debate on GE salmon approval, which gave the impression that FDA was moving faster on the issue than it actually is.  This compressed schedule caused frustration among experts, leading George Kimbrell of the Center for Food Safety to say “it is inappropriate to hold hearings on labeling before [GE salmon] are approved.”

In oral statements made before the FDA panel, Food and Water Watch (FWW) speaker Patty Lovera and the Alexis Baden-Mayer of Organic Consumers Association were not in favor of GE salmon, although if approved, Lovera recommended mandatory labeling of GE salmon. When pushed by the FDA panel on the material reasons for labeling, pro-labeling advocates often cited a lack of data on allergenicity of GE salmon or consumer preference. In a major break with other consumer advocacy groups, Gregory Jaffe from the Center for Science in the Public Interest indicated a preference for no GE labeling.

Salmon fillets in the grocery store (source: http://www.ctbites.com/home/2009/10/14/the-fresh-market-opens-in-westport.html)

Salmon fillets in the grocery store (source: http://www.ctbites.com/home/2009/10/14/the-fresh-market-opens-in-westport.html)

If GE salmon is approved, the FDA has indicated that labeling will be based only on material differences in GE salmon compared to non-GE salmon, and not based on consumer preferences for GE labeling. These views may not be consistent with surveys that show 70% of American consumers want GE food to be labeled, from data reported by Jaffe.

Industry groups, including Richard Carnevale of Animal Health Institute, stood in line to argue that there were no material reasons why GE salmon should be labeled. The CEO of AquaBounty, Richard Clothier gave a series of other arguments against mandatory labeling, including the “slippery slope” that may lead to labeling of all GE foods and if labeling “complicated the process it would be a pity.” It appears that all stakeholders, including the FDA, realize this is a complicated process, and are willing to work through the difficult decisions.

If GE salmon is approved, consumers will have the ultimate say in its success. Salmon is the 3rd most consumed seafood product in the US and its popularity and high market price will likely continue,whether or not consumers know what kind of salmon they are eating.  It remains to be seen if the aquaculture industry realizes that the rising interest in communicating where and how our food is raised may be a benefit as opposed to a liability.    Elliot Entis, the founder of AquaBounty, indicated he would be in favor of voluntary labeling as a type of product branding. Entis was in favor of calling their salmon “Panama Reds,” although one can only wonder if this is just a red herring.

– Dave Love

Independent advisory committee grills FDA on genetically engineered salmon

In a chilly hotel ballroom in the Washington DC suburbs, the FDA this week is considering whether to allow genetically engineered (GE) animals in the human food supply. The test case is an Atlantic salmon that has been engineered with Chinook salmon genes to express a growth hormone. The result is a fast-growing salmon that reaches market sooner than non-GE farm raised salmon.

A cast of stakeholders—industry, advocacy groups, academics, and regulators—are writing the storyline, but the climax— a pending decision by the FDA— is still a month or more away.One thing is clear, this FDA decision on GE salmon will set a precedent for other GE food animals in the US, and may influence regulations and practices in other countries already farming or considering farming salmon.

aquadvantage-salmon

AquaBounty's AquaAdvantage Salmon (http://www.aquabounty.com/PressRoom/)

Is GE salmon a drug?

The approval mechanism for GE salmon, however convoluted it may sound, is as new animal drug. Approval of new animal drugs is under the purview of FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM). This approval process is similar to other GE animals used for pharmaceutical production (e.g. goats that produce drugs in their milk), and for research purposes (e.g. transgenic mice).  Several speakers on both sides of the issue, including Bruce Chassy of the University of Illinois who is pro-GE, were confused why FDA did not instead allow its Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) to take charge of regulating GE salmon as a food. One can only speculate that since CVM has been working with the drug sponsor, AquaBounty, for about a decade, certain CVM staff may feel some ownership over the issue. A clear rationale for why CVM and not CFSAN was in charge was not well articulated by FDA.

FDA carefully frames the issue.

To focus the debate, FDA’s CVM will consider just four main questions for GE salmon approval: i) are the inserted genetic elements harmful for salmon health?; (ii) are the salmon safe for humans to heath based on a “reasonable certainty of no harm”?; (iii) are the inserted genetic elements durable, heritable, and affect salmon such that it improves salmon growth rates as matching product claims?; and (iv) are there environmental risks if GE salmon escape? While striving to answer these key questions is admirable, the methods to address each issue use a reductionist view. Therefore the assessment is not designed for systems thinking about the intersection and interactions among diet, health, food production, and the environment.

What is missing from the debate?

What FDA is not considering in its decision is just as important as what it is considering. The FDA is not interested in assessing the food safety of the whole fish but rather its component parts in a non-additive way (i.e. hormones, nutrients and their separate toxicity or allergenicity). The FDA is not considering risk-benefit trade-offs in health from salmon consumption. The FDA will not consider ethical arguments against genetic modification, or biotechnology arguments for increasing food production as means of feeding the world. Animal welfare issues will also not be considered, as admitted by one FDA panelist.

An independent advisory committee was highly critical of the science.

A major component of the FDA hearings on September 20, 2010 was peer-review and recommendations from an independent advisory committed called the Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee (VMAC). In what many considered a surprise, the VMAC committee was antagonistic of the FDA summary of the sponsor’s environment and food safety studies. On several instances the VMAC committee were concerned about the low sample size and power of the sponsor’s studies. The FDA responded that it had not performed power calculations to identify what an appropriate sample size should have been. Most VMAC committee members felt that larger and better-designed studies of food and environment safety were needed. This is a strong statement that the FDA should not ignore.

More to come from the next day of hearings, so stay tuned..

– Dave Love

Tour dem veggies: An East Baltimore bicycle garden tour

starting the ride from Duncan St Miracle Garden

starting the ride from Duncan St Miracle Garden

Fueled by cherry tomatoes and lemonade, three-dozen bikers (this blogger included) hit the pavement last Saturday afternoon for a seven-mile tour of seven great community gardens in East Baltimore. We started the ride at the 22-year old Duncan Street Miracle Garden, a one-acre fruit and vegetable haven. Along the ride I was searching for secretes to a successful community garden, but it turns out there are no hard-and-fast rules; gardens are themselves heirloom varieties, each unique and charming.

Some community gardens had neatly arranged raised-beds, such as Montessori gardens beds built from old book shelves, or the checkerboard pattern beds of the Homestead Harvest garden. Montpelier Orchards, the newest garden on the tour, had a neatly mowed lawn between rows of trellised young raspberries plants and a small olive tree dwarfed by a tall garden gate with arbor. Others took a wild and free-form approach with natural reseeding tomatoes and sunflowers, making every step a delicious adventure.

Montessori School Garden

Montessori School Garden; raised beds made from old bookcase

I had always believed Robert Frost’s line “good fences make good neighbors,” that is until I learned that many community gardens benefit from the opposite philosophy. Participation Park steward Scott Berzofsky said “the fact that there is no fence was important from the beginning… we wanted to have a commons.” Brentwood Gardens also lacks a fence, and encourages neighbors to glean on a regular basis. Cucumbers were free for the taking; just one example of the “gift economy” at work.

Several gardens gave animals a prominent role, such as the chickens and bees at the Montessori School garden. Apparently playing with chickens during recess is a favorite activity. Brentwood is preparing for chickens this summer by building a coop and purchasing permits from Baltimore City. For more on chickens in Baltimore see my previous post. Brentwood also raised goldfish in modified rain barrels to eat mosquitoes. I’ve never heard of this use, though I didn’t get a single bite while standing next to the barrel in ankle deep grass.

Our last stop was Real Food Farm, where three hoop houses sit peacefully in a grassy field in Clifton Park.Head farmer, Tyler Brown, gave an impassioned pitch for urban commercial farming that grabbed the crowds’ attention.Leaving the farm hungry and tired, the bikers headed back to the Duncan Street garden for a great spread of food donated by leading Baltimore restaurants, live music, and lively conversations with new acquaintances and old friends.

sunflowers at Participation Park Garden

sunflowers at Participation Park Garden

Gardens in the tour:

  • Duncan Street Miracle Garden :: 1800 North Duncan Street
  • Participation Park :: 1100 Forest Street
  • The Montessori School Garden :: 1600 Guilford Avenue
  • Brentwood Garden :: 1700 N. Brentwood Avenue
  • Homestead Harvest :: 632 Homestead Street
  • Montpelier Orchard :: 918 Montpelier Road
  • Real Food Farm :: 2706 St Lo Drive

Congratulations Parks and People, the Community Greening Resource Network, and any other volunteers for turning a hot, muggy Saturday into a memorable event!

– Dave Love

CLF generated map of Baltimore community gardens

Response to “Math Lessons for Locavores” op-ed

Grist.org recently invited bloggers through it’s Grist Talk: Food Fight series to respond to an August 20th op-ed piece, Math Lessons for Locavores,” by Stephen Budiansky in the New York Times.  What follows is my response:

“I agree with Mr. Budiansky that freight is by some measures cheap, and that the interstate system and trains are convenient conduits from farms to distributors to markets, although this idea is not so new.

community garden in Waverly neighorhood, Baltimore, MD

community garden in Waverly neighorhood, Baltimore, MD

A more interesting question to tackle is: what does the desire to be a locavore say about our disjointed food system, and is there room for improvement by developing regional food systems?

Mr. Budiansky’s argument runs thin when we take a hard look at what consolidated industrial farming and food animal production “return to our land,” as he puts it. It is difficult to be in favor of a farming approach that relies upon mono-cropping using genetically modified seeds and synthetic fertilizers. Likewise, food animal production facilities make for poor neighbors when their (virtually unregulated) wastes and associated land application and spray-field sites spread allergens and antibiotic-resistant bacteria throughout farming communities.

So why pick on locavores? Because when they seek local food, they may also be seeking to buy organically grown or raised foods, from small to mid-sized farms, which can impact entrenched agribusiness interests. Changing food preferences and buying habits may be changing the way food is grown, distributed, and consumed.

For example, the American Meat Institute was defensive when the Meatless Monday campaign, for which Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future serves as a scientific advisor, suggested on NPR that reducing meat consumption one day a week could be good for your health, by potentially reducing saturated fat intake. It isn’t surprising: the average American spends about $550 annually on meat. If the conventional food-animal industry improved production methods by removing growth-promoting antibiotics and recognizing animal welfare, both the quality of their products and the perceptions of their customers may increase.

Food decisions carry weight, and so the lesson here is to speak with your fork and the farms will follow!”

– Dave Love

[This post originally ran Monday, August 23 on Grist.org]


Maryland public hearing on proposed oyster policy draws a crowd

Citizens descended on the small town of Wye Mill, Maryland at Chesapeake College Thursday, August 5th to attend the final public comment period for Maryland’s sweeping new oyster policies. The overcast and muggy weather provided a sober backdrop for intense discussions on how Maryland will manage the future of the Eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica)— a bivalve mollusk central to the culture and livelihood of generations of watermen.

Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) staff reviewed a package of eight regulations, ranging from expanded oyster sanctuaries, changes to public shellfish fishery areas, leasing for shellfish aquaculture, to a study of power dredging. According to the Southern Maryland Online, more than a thousand people have already commented on these proposed oyster policies, which were posted on February 2010.

Tom O’Connell, Director of DNR Fisheries Service defended the plan saying “there is broad stakeholder agreement that the status quo is not acceptable” and that the policies as presented will “make it better for the oyster, the oystermen, and aquaculture.”

Eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica)

Eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica). Image by Tony Weeg/Creative Commons

One of the main points of contention was over expanded oyster sanctuaries. Conservation groups see these sanctuaries, instead of lost resources, as preserves where oyster populations can grown and evolve natural resistance to menacing oyster diseases. An appropriate analogy is the creation of “national parks” or sanctuaries for oysters where they can flourish, in addition to “national forests” or public waters where oysters can be selectively, commercially harvested. Signs of natural disease resistance have been reported in Chesapeake Bay oysters, which highlights need for increasing oyster sanctuaries.

There is a growing sense of urgency to approve the state’s plan. Stephanie Westby, a fisheries scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation called for “ new management strategies while we still have something to protect.” A member of the Queen Anne’s Conservation Association echoed support for the new DNR plan and pointed out that rockfish and blue crabs have both rebounded from overharvesting following management the state, and oysters are next on the list of species that need saving.

Questions about the plan to increase oyster sanctuaries from 9% to 25% of remaining oyster beds and carve out private lease areas drew sharp criticism from one oystermen who asked, “why take my bottom from me?”

Marylanders have historically regarded oyster bottom— sea floor capable for growing oysters— as public property, while most other states on the East Coast, including Virginia, consider oyster bottom as privatized, leasable land. Transitioning from public oyster grounds to leasable plots in selected areas is a first step in developing oyster aquaculture in Maryland.

More than 90% of oysters consumed in the US are raised by aquaculture, so Maryland’s latest decision to promote aquaculture along with wild harvesting is consistent with, if not somewhat lagging national trends. Read More >

Book Review: The World is Blue: How Our Fate and the Ocean’s Are One

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By my estimation, seventy-five-year-old author Dr. Sylvia Earle has spent more than 1% of her life underwater. If her dives were connected in time, it would be as if she slipped into the ocean on New Year’s Day and did not re-emerge until some time after Labor Day.

Her book chronicles her experiences as a 1960s pioneer in underwater exploration, with stirring accounts of the inquisitive fish and mammals she met in the deep blue. Anthropomorphizing these animals would be an insult, given all the trouble humans have caused by overfishing, pollution, and acidification of the oceans. With these issues, she deftly takes an animal’s perspective in deconstructing our troubled oceans.

I once found an enterprising hermit crab with its vulnerable posterior neatly tucked into a discarded Bayer aspirin bottle, a modern, lightweight, durable substitute for a traditional snail shell. A decorator crab on a nearby reef had artfully placed a disposable fast-food ketchup envelope on its back along with bits of algae, hydroids and normal camouflaging elements. The ketchup container actually helped the crab blend in with other trash.

Over half of all humans live near the coast where impacts are felt from habitat destruction to overfishing. One report in the journal Nature found industrial fishing has removed 90% of all large fish from the ocean. As oceanic currents sweep away human litter, a convergence of garbage is amassing in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. To make a small dent in the trash issue, Earle tells of the Ocean Conservancy’s yearly coastal clean-up that in 2008 drew participants from 100 countries, collecting 6.8 million tons of trash with the top 10 offenders being: 1) cigarette butts; 2) plastic bags; 3) food containers; 4) caps and lids; 5) plastic bottles; 6) paper bags; 7) straws and stirrers;  8) cups, plates, eating utensils; 9) glass bottles; and 10) beverage cans. So many of these items are food related, which is a sign to me that our food system is in disrepair. Read More >

Oil disaster may not affect seafood prices drastically, but Gulf remains in peril

The Deepwater Horizon/ BP oil rig has been leaking for seven weeks and counting, and is already responsible for one of the worst environmental disasters in our nation’s history. The spill, among other things, highlights our intimate connection to aquatic ecosystems.

bp-31-closed

NOAA fishing area closure map

Last week, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) expanded the Gulf of Mexico fishery closure area to nearly 76,000 square miles, (which is a surface area more than 1.5 times larger than the state of Mississippi) and which enshrouds much of the coastline (see below). High-number animal fatalities, such as dolphins (29 dead) and sea turtles (228 dead) are indicators of the impacts the spill has had and will have on marine life. Food system effects are already rippling through both coastal and inland seafood markets as some brace for potential increases in seafood prices.

Media reports understandably focus on the lives and futures of Gulf Coast fishermen, as well as the issue of tightening regulations on offshore drilling. But, aside from the disturbing images seen in the media, many are wondering how will those of us who do not live near the Gulf be affected? Read More >

Locally grown, Locally shared: A new model for giving in Baltimore, MD

Over a hundred Baltimore residents gathered on Saturday night for the 4th edition of an innovative fundraising event called STEW. STEW is a joint project of Baltimore Development Cooperative and Red Emma’s Bookstore Coffeehouse, where attendees pay $10/person for the opportunity to share a multi-course locavore meal and listen to the financial needs of three amazing local non-profits. At the end of the meal, attendees vote on how to distribute their +$1,000 of pooled donations.

stew3_b-1

The Velocipede Bicycle Project presenting at STEW IV

The eponymous 2640 (St Paul St) housed the event, which contained three communal tables—dressed in brown paper tablecloths, mismatched silverware, cups, and plates—spanning the length of a church hall. The meal left this blogger pleasantly surprised about the delicious variety available within a 40 mi radius of Baltimore, and in April no less! Food was donated by local farms: Calvert’s Gift Farm, Great Kids Farm, Participation Park, Real Food Farm, and Truck Patch Farms. Volunteers cooked and served the food, with a warm and professional feel.

The inspiration for STEW, as decribed on their website, was “the ’network dinners’ organized by the art-activist collective campbaltimore in 2006, Incubate Chicago’s Sunday Soup, Brooklyn’s FEAST, as well as the amazing dinner that took place at 2640 during the City From Below conference.”

stew1_crop

Rod and Amanda at STEW IV

The first course was a tangy and sweet salad of mustard greens, sorrel, and radish tops, which was followed by a presentation by the Velocipede Bike Project, a community bicycle cooperative in the Station North neighborhood of Baltimore. The next course was piquant and crunchy sliced radishes in sorrel butter and roasted asparagus rubbed with salt and pepper. Following these veggies, another group presented on the International Drag King Community Extravaganza to drum up support for this rotating annual event to be held in Baltimore in November 2010.

To much excitement, the main dish and the namesake of the event was a delicious rabbit and dumpling stew (or) a strikingly green, vegan spring onion soup. After slurping up the last drops of soup from my bowl, Follow Your Dreams Inc. (FYD), a youth center and recording studio in the Harwood neighborhood of Baltimore, gave a stirring request for funding along with a deeply introspective, spoken-word poetry piece by a young FYD participant. Over desserts of vegan dark chocolate brownies, buttermilk panna cotta, or almond sponge cake, the attendees voted on how the three groups would receive their pooled money.

The funding breakdown by group was as follows:

· Follow Your Dreams, Inc. ($665)

· International Drag King Community Extravaganza ($170)

· Velocipede Bike Project ($170)

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future was well represented at STEW IV by Amanda, Angela, Becca, Brent, Jillian and myself (Dave). I’m looking forward to STEW V next month, to learn about, interact with, and support other deserving Baltimore non-profits.

– Dave Love

Urban Chicken Farming

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Two very curious chickens peck at my camera

This past Saturday, the Baltimore Food Makers held their monthly potluck in Northeast Baltimore at the home of an urban chicken farming couple. Our hosts distilled a lifetime of farming know-how into a short tour of their backyard chicken coop, and fielded questions about their three hens, poultry health, nutrition, and productivity. Apparently, three hens can produce about seven eggs a week this time of year. When asked how their neighbors liked living near chickens, they said most were agreeable. One neighbor was leery of living near chickens, but after receiving eggs as gifts he apparently changed his tune and now wants to bird-sit when they are away on vacation.

I was excited to see some of my Baltimore neighbors obviating the poultry industry by raising their own hens for eggs. As this was my first encounter with urban chicken farming I wanted to learn about the Baltimore City ordinance allowing chickens, which reads:

[Baltimore City Health Code, Title 2, 2-106; Title 10, Subtitles 1 and 3]

Chickens.

1. No person may own, keep, or harbor any chickens without:

a. Obtaining a permit from the Bureau of Animal Control; and

b. Register with the Maryland Department of Agriculture, Domestic Poultry and Exotic Bird Registration Division.

2. No more than 4 chickens of the age of 1 month may be kept.

3. All chickens must be confined at all times to a movable pen.

a. No pen may be closer than 25 feet to any residence.

b. Each pen must be kept clean, free of all odors and materials that can attract rodents.

c. Each pen must be moved frequently to minimize turf destruction and the build up of manure borne pathogens such as coccidiosis and roundworm.

d. Pens with feed boxes and nest boxes must allow 2 square feet per hen.

4. The chickens must be provided with shade during warm weather.

5. Potable water and proper feed must be made available.

6. All chickens must be provided with access to a well-constructed shelter that provides suitable protection from inclement weather.

7. All chickens must be afforded veterinary care if they are known or suspected to be sick or injured.

For more information about urban bird farming in Baltimore, visit the Charm City Chickens, or for general information see any of the great blogs/web sites (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc) dedicated to this endeavor.

Dave Love