Issue 1: COVID-19, Gardening, Urban Ag & Organics Labeling

Breathe properly. Stay curious. And eat your beets.” 

–Tom Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume

This week I wanted to talk vegetables and fresh produce, since that’s what disappeared first in our 2-week food supply. (Although I’ve still got several gallons of various kimchi and ferments waiting to be opened at the 3-week mark. See recipe here).


COVID-19/SARSCoV-2 Updates

In the US, food vendors, farmers’ markets, and plant nurseries are deemed essential services. To quote the CDFA, per Executive Order 7H, ‘essential business’, as it relates to food and agriculture, includes:

  • farms and farmer’s markets
  • food manufacturing, processing, storage, and distribution facilities 
  • nurseries, garden centers, and agriculture supply stores
  • restaurants/bars (provided compliance with all applicable executive orders is maintained)

More information is available here from the California Farmers’ Market, and a more broadly informative site related to farmers’ markets, food safety and COVID-19 can be found here at NC State University Extension, although much of it applies to food producers, general safety and handwashing.

I did find that COVID 19 Coronavirus Prevention: A Dozen Things to Know About Leafy Greens (California Leafy Greens Marketing Association) seemed useful.

But overall — since SARSCoV-2/COVID-19 is not a food-borne illness, and has little likelihood of survival on fresh produce, you’re better off heading to an open-air farmers’ market (if possible) or at least, filling up at local grocer’s produce section, than avoiding fresh produce altogether.

“The beet is the murderer returned to the scene of the crime.

The beet is what happens when the cherry finishes with the carrot.

The beet is the ancient ancestor of the autumn moon, bearded, buried, all but fossilized; the dark green sails of the grounded moon-boat stitched with veins of primordial plasma; the kite string that once connected the moon to the Earth now a muddy whisker drilling desperately for rubies.” 


From Marion Nestle’s What To Eat

This week I covered the following chapters:

  1. The Supermarket: Prime Real Estate
  2. Fruits and Vegetables: The Price of Fresh
  3. Organics: Hype or Hope
  4. Produce: Safe At Any Price

There is an additional chapter on GMOs with her Produce section (chapters 2-4) but I’m relegating that to later reading. 

First, not newsworthy but may bear reminding: the longer and further food travels, the greater the drops in nutrients, flavour and overall quality. In addition, foods from countries outside the EU, US and Canada may not (likely do not) follow food safety and in particular, organics protocols. And not all foods bear Country-of-Origin Labeling (COOL), which makes it difficult or impossible to support local or even regional producers. 

As for farmers’ markets, due diligence can be tough but check with your market organizer to find out what, if any, regulatory action they take or protocols in place to ensure that farmers are, in fact, selling what they produce, i.e. not buying wholesale from a distributor and reselling at market.

Quotes from WTE

In supermarket terms, ‘fresh’ refers to foods that spoil faster than others. It does not mean that foods were picked earlier that day, or even that week.” –p. 28

If organic foods are grown in better soils, you would expect them to be more nutritious, and you would be right. This is easy to determine for minerals…. But differences in the vitamin or phytonutrient content of a food plant are more likely to be due to its genetic strain or to how it is treated after harvest.” –p. 52

“[A]ll fruits and vegetables have something good about them, even though some have more of one good thing and others have more of another. That is why we nutritionists are always telling you to eat a variety of foods. It’s the mix that is most beneficial and most protective. . . . Surely the best reason to eat blueberries is that they are delicious in season.” — p. 54

If supermarket shopping: wash produce that sits under misters, as the misting heads are often not properly cleaned and may grow molds and algae.

In some detail, Nestle supports her argument that organics certification is by and large trustworthy, while adding the caveat that it does not necessarily mean more nutritious and as many of us know, by no means guarantees organics production is more beneficial or safer for soil, water or biodiversity (although see Evanylo et al., 2008). But aside from the obvious reduction in synthetic pesticide application, it has also opened markets to awareness of regenerative farming practices, which will continue to make produce grown with better and better methods available (MacKay et al., 2001; Reeve et al., 2016; Rhodes, 2012)

Summary

  • From a general food safety and specifically COVID-19 perspective, fresh, whole produce is safe when purchased from a local or regional supplier. If in doubt, wash thoroughly using guidelines below.
  • Farmers’ markets are deemed essential services, and should be the first stop for buying produce. If organics are prohibitively expensive or not available, buy conventional if that’s what’s available: fresh produce has relatively low transport costs from an emissions perspective (i.e. is rarely air-shipped) and supports local economies and producers.
  • Add variety for greater nutritional benefit rather than trying to stock up on a few key “superfoods”; supported also by literature on the nutritional value of weeds  (Stark et al., 2019).

Strategies To Calm The Nervous System

Reduce blood sugar spikes. Increase consumption of slow-to-digest whole grains (not whole grain products like breads and pastas, but whole grains such as kamut, spelt and quinoa). 

Reduce inflammation through exercise, meditation, rest and diet. Eating anti-inflammatory foods can be a natural remedy for anxiety because they are important for neurotransmitters synthesizing and balancing your mood and stress response. In addition, it’s also important to eat healthy fats, unrefined carbohydrates and protein. 

From a climate- and ecologically-friendly perspective, these include:

    • regeneratively pasture-raised meats and eggs from as local a source as available
    • nutritional yeast
    • yogurt or kefir from pastured dairy goats or cattle
    • leafy greens, e.g. spinach, kale, chard, collard greens, dandelion, chicory
    • fresh vegetables, e.g. celery, bok choy broccoli, beets, artichokes
    • fresh fruits, e.g. all berries, pineapple, banana, figs
    • sea vegetables, e.g. kelp, nori
    • unprocessed (lard) and minimally processed vegetable fats (avocado, oil)
    • beans, e.g. black, adzuki, chickpeas, fava; soak 24 hrs to sprout before cooking
    • legumes, e.g. lentils, peas
    • nuts, e.g. walnuts, almonds, cashews, hazelnuts
    • seeds, e.g. flax, chia, hemp, pumpkin, sesame)
    • unrefined non-wheat grains, e.g. kamut, farro, quinoa, barley

Support the brain and central nervous system.

Harvard Medical School advises eating foods rich in B vitamins to help ward off anxious feelings.

Overall, B vitamins have positively impact the nervous system, and deficiencies are linked to anxious disorders.

Studies supporting reduction of stress after high doses of B vitamins after 12 weeks (Stough et al., 2011); another in depressed adults given a vitamin B complex had reduced symptoms after 8 weeks (Lewis et al., 2013). Similar results from choline (found in eggs) in modulating behavioural plasticity (Chin et al., 2019).

Vitamin B1 (thiamin) Deficiency: pins-and-needles sensation in the toes or burning feet, especially at night. Food sources: beef liver, seafood, brewer’s yeast, beans, eggs, sunflower seeds.

Vitamin B6 Deficiency: nerve cell communication suffers; neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin depend on B6 for production. Food sources: Bananas, potatoes, chickpeas.

Vitamin B12 Deficiency: tingling and numbness in hands and feet. Food sources: clams, fish, eggs, meat, dairy.

Magnesium Required for many functions including regulating muscle and nerve function, blood sugar levels, and blood pressure and producing bones, DNA and protein. Food sources: best sources (1 serving provides >15% of RDI) are dark leafy greens, dark chocolate, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Other sources include avocados and bananas.

Copper Essential for the production of neurotransmitters, but deficiency unlikely. Food sources: liver, oysters best; prunes, dark, leafy green vegetables, and nuts.

Zinc Food sources: oysters, cashews, liver, beef, poultry, eggs

Healthy foods for good nervous system function include the following:

Whole leafy greens Contain abundant nutrients, vitamins and antioxidants to boost overall health and slow aging of brain and nervous system.

Whole grains Brown rice in particular contains high levels of vitamin B6, which helps to protect against mental deterioration caused by high levels of harmful homocysteines. Whole grains also include magnesium, which is important for the health of your nervous system. Stabilized rice bran contains one of the highest levels of antioxidants of all known foods.

Cocoa Antioxidants that reduce oxidative stress that can lead to Alzheimer’s and similar neurological ailments. High in magnesium.

Whey Naturally calming. Rich in amino acid L-tryptophan, which the body cannot produce and is vital in the production of serotonin.

Garlic Antioxidants, and can help prevent aging of the brain and prevent infections.

Sardines, salmon, albacore tuna Plenty of omega-3s to ease depression and anxiety and also help reduce inflammation.

Fermented vegetables (sauerkraut, kimchi) High in multiple B-vitamins, vitamin C, folic acid, and vitamin K.


From the Scientific Literature Database

Amundsen, R. N. (2013). Urban farming: Victory gardens for sustainable communities. 2013 Energy and Sustainability Conference, 1–3. https://doi.org/10.1109/IESC.2013.6777068

Anderson, C. R., Pimbert, M. P., Chappell, M. J., Brem-Wilson, J., Claeys, P., Kiss, C., Maughan, C., Milgroom, J., McAllister, G., Moeller, N., & Singh, J. (2020). Agroecology now—Connecting the dots to enable agroecology transformations. Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, 44(5), 561–565. https://doi.org/10.1080/21683565.2019.1709320

Chin, E. W. M., Lim, W. M., Ma, D., Rosales, F. J., & Goh, E. L. K. (2019). Choline Rescues Behavioural Deficits in a Mouse Model of Rett Syndrome by Modulating Neuronal Plasticity. Molecular Neurobiology, 56(6), 3882–3896. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12035-018-1345-9

Evanylo, G., Sherony, C., Spargo, J., Starner, D., Brosius, M., & Haering, K. (2008). Soil and water environmental effects of fertilizer-, manure-, and compost-based fertility practices in an organic vegetable cropping system. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, 127(1), 50–58. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.agee.2008.02.014

Lewis, J. E., Tiozzo, E., Melillo, A. B., Leonard, S., Chen, L., Mendez, A., Woolger, J. M., & Konefal, J. (2013). The effect of methylated vitamin B complex on depressive and anxiety symptoms and quality of life in adults with depression. ISRN Psychiatry, 2013, 621453. https://doi.org/10.1155/2013/621453

MacKay, A. D., Harrison, T., Moss, R. A., Fraser, T. J., Rhodes, A. P., Cadwallader, D., Fisher, M. W., & Webby, R. (2001). Moving towards low-chemical and caring farming systems. 4.

Nogeire-McRae, T., Ryan, E. P., Jablonski, B. B. R., Carolan, M., Arathi, H. S., Brown, C. S., Saki, H. H., McKeen, S., Lapansky, E., & Schipanski, M. E. (2018). The Role of Urban Agriculture in a Secure, Healthy, and Sustainable Food System. BioScience, 68(10), 748–759. https://doi.org/10.1093/biosci/biy071

Reeve, J. R., Hoagland, L. A., Villalba, J. J., Carr, P. M., Atucha, A., Cambardella, C., Davis, D. R., & Delate, K. (2016). Chapter Six – Organic Farming, Soil Health, and Food Quality: Considering Possible Links. In D. L. Sparks (Ed.), Advances in Agronomy (Vol. 137, pp. 319–367). Academic Press. https://doi.org/10.1016/bs.agron.2015.12.003

Rhodes, C. J. (2012). Feeding and healing the world: Through regenerative agriculture and permaculture. Science Progress (1933- ), 95(4), 345–446. JSTOR. https://doi.org/10.3184/003685012X13504990668392

Siegner, A. B., Acey, C., & Sowerwine, J. (2020). Producing urban agroecology in the East Bay: From soil health to community empowerment. Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, 44(5), 566–593. https://doi.org/10.1080/21683565.2019.1690615

Stark, P. B., Miller, D., Carlson, T. J., & Vasquez, K. R. de. (2019). Open-source food: Nutrition, toxicology, and availability of wild edible greens in the East Bay. PLOS ONE, 14(1), e0202450. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0202450

Stough, C., Scholey, A., Lloyd, J., Spong, J., Myers, S., & Downey, L. A. (2011). The effect of 90 day administration of a high dose vitamin B-complex on work stress. Human Psychopharmacology, 26(7), 470–476. https://doi.org/10.1002/hup.1229


In The Public Space

Part scrapbook of images, part diary of encounters with preposterous plants, this blog adds rich chapters to our awareness of the vegetable world. Scroll through to find vintage seed packet artwork or a review of artichoke tea.

  • Role of urban and small space gardening for food security is a hot topic. In the literature, analyses have shown in the past that while globally urban agriculture may produce 15-20% of food, in developed countries it is largely disincentivized by economics and convenience (Siegner et al., 2020) and does not contribute significantly. It will be interesting to see how this changes with COVID-19 and the sudden and rapid increase in interest in all things related to gardening, farming and resilient lifestyles. Growing reference to WWI and WWII Victory gardens(Amundsen, 2013; Nogeire-McRae et al., 2018)  and examples such as Cuba’s responses to food crises suggest the dependence of developed nations on industrialized models may be changing as more and more people look to decrease their reliance on centralized food systems (Anderson et al., 2020)
  • Resilience.org has a Gardening for resilience series (2010), and straightforward general info that is useful if you’re just starting out 
  • Kiss The Ground has a list ofpopular free resources and a  regenerative gardening course starting in April

Inspiring Examples

  • The Urban Homestead (Pasadena CA) produces 6,000 POUNDS of fruit and vegetables on 1/10th of an acre
  • Natalie Topa’s apartment in Nairobi, 5th Floor Farm, as filmed by Morag Gamble (September 2019, 40 min video)

Your Requests

“I’m interested in learning about different metrics to consider (e.g. carbon footprint, water demand, distance transported), inputs like water, fertilizers and pesticides or herbicides, honey bee usage. And specifics like what is my best milk-like substance option. What labelling means and which ones are worth using as basis for decisions.”

Since labelling is a big topic and touches on nearly every aspect of our food systems, I decided to start by tackling it first with an overview of the most common labelling options that causes people concern: organics. Other future topics will cover labeling in terms of grass-fed, free-range, pasture-raised, and related terms. For now — bear in mind that generic terms including “100% natural” and “farm-raised” have no certification or regulation behind them (and are thus essentially meaningless). But y’all knew that already, I’m sure… 

TL;DR: internationally, “organic” is reliable in terms of ensuring much lower levels of pesticides in and on foods, but very unlikely to be zero. Issues include spray drift from nearby properties (although testing of organics by individual farms has helped to reduce this); and products with a lot of ingredients. Statistically, organics operations can show improved soil and water health, but individually, organic farms at scale may (or may not) perform better than conventional production operations, and organics labelling does not explicitly measure for improvement in these aspects (see “Alternatives” below). Additionally, lower transport distance and fresher/closer to harvest are more strongly associated with higher nutrient value than organic status.  

  • A comparison of Canada Organics vs. USDA Organics, from the Organics Council (August 2019)
    • Since 2009, the United States-Canada Organic Equivalence Arrangement (USCOEA) recognizes our national organic systems as equivalent, with exceptions:
      • Any Canadian product derived from an animal treated with antibiotics cannot be labeled or sold as organic in the US, even if it is considered organic in Canada. 
      • Any US products produced by hydroponic or aeroponic methods; from aquaculture; with the use of sodium nitrate; or derived from non-ruminant animals (e.g. poultry, pigs) not in accordance with livestock stocking rates set out in Canada’s Organic Standards, cannot be sold or labeled as organic in Canada. 
  • Regional overviews of organics labelling
    • USDA overview and Organics 101
    • Canadian Guide to Organics (2018) PDF version 
      • FAQ on the Canadian Organic Growers (COG) website
      • Functionally equivalent to USDA organic
      • does not allow radiation with the exception of microwave and UV; 
      • animal welfare standards prohibit certain practices, e.g. use of battery cages (laying hens), but animal welfare standards are more thoroughly covered by other certifications that I’ll get into with meat, eggs and dairy.
    • European organics equivalency with USDA Organics labelling
      • equivalency similar to that with Canada
      • more detail from the Organic Trade Association in this overview
  • A comprehensive infographic on organics in the food industry, from MPH Online
  •  A critical look at organics labelling and how technology and tracking data could help consumers make more informed choices, from Quartz (article by Jon Eldon, 2014)
    • Two companies offering food tracking technology:
      • HarvestMark provide tech-based solutions, e.g. scannable barcodes on consumer packaged fresh produce, to allow consumers to trace their food back to the producer. 
      • Supplyshift for businesses to track their supply chains and measure global impact so that they can share this information with consumers.
  • A more recent (2018) article from NYC Food Policy that more thoroughly critiques organics labelling, and addresses misperceptions and issues (search “misperception” and “issues” to go straight to those sections in this long article). 

Labelling alternatives to watch for…

  • Savory Institute’s LAND TO MARKET™ Program and press release video
    • The program has three areas of emphasis:
      • recognizing farmers and ranchers for their positive ecological outcomes;
      • providing sourcing solutions for conscientious brands and retailers; and
      • empowering consumers to “vote” for a regenerative future through their purchase power. 
    • “. . . a grassroots program that allows every participant in the agricultural sourcing network to regenerate the land on which we all depend. This program brings together leading ecologists and soil scientists, farmers and ranchers who produce food and fiber, brands and retailers who source livestock-derived supply, and consumers who buy food and fiber products at retail. . . .”
    • LTM is a dedicated regenerative ag label that depends not on what doesn’t go in but rather, verified ecological outcomes, e.g. water and soil quality, which are monitored by trained professionals. 
    • Scroll to the bottom https://savory.global/era-of-regenerative-agriculture/ for a list of further resources including videos, articles and books.
  • Regenerative Organic Certified, also released in March 2020 after ExpoWest in Anaheim, California, from Rodale Institute

Podcasts

From John Kempf’s Regenerative Agriculture podcast:

Why Regenerative Agriculture?

Measuring Nutrient Density with Dan Kittredge

Providing Affordable Food As Medicine

Living Home Grown with Theresa Loe, “Live farm fresh without the farm”, Episode 4: Growing Food In Small Spaces (37 min)

Seattle Urban Farm Co., Episode 101: Container Gardening with Sara Glasberra (41 min) 

For a lot of podcast episodes to choose from, go to Urban Farm U’s episode library here with over 500 titles in alphabetical order. 


Books

Sarah J. Morath (2016), From Farm to Fork: Perspectives on Growing Sustainable Food Systems in the Twenty-First Century, available on Amazon and reviewed in Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, formerly known as the Journal of Sustainable Agriculture. Note: the review is behind a paywall but can be accessed using the DOI in Sci-Hub (as of 30th March 2020, found at www.sci-hub.tw). 

Eliot Coleman’s The New Organic Grower, 3rd Ed. is out and available at Chelsea Green here. Additionally, Chelsea Green’s Lessons in Resilience Collection  is up and they are giving a 35% discount off all gardening books. Unfortunately I have not had great luck or reports on CG shipping to or within Canada; if you need help getting a copy let me know. 


Closing Remarks

Next week, I’ll be covering land-based meats, including labeling, welfare, ranches and operations to watch and be inspired by, and fun stuff. Thanks, and have a great week!

Want to support more of my work? Here are a few ways you can do that:

      • forward this ‘museletter’ to someone you think would like it, 
      • become a supporter through Patreon
      • or just shoot me an email and tell me what you liked, what you hated (it’s okay, I can take it! really) or what you’d like to see more of.

 

Author: Susan Cousineau

I’m an evolutionary ecologist who grows a little food and cultivates close friendships with farmers. My mission in life is to engage, inspire and educate on the integral relationships between food, ecology, health, and climate.