Learning to eat and live sustainably means becoming familiar with a whole new lexicon.
Here are a few words and phrases that will be regulars in this section, defined for you with the help of experts asked to pretend they were explaining them to their next-door neighbors.
“Natural” is a word that doesn’t really mean anything when you see it in the grocery store. It is little more than a marketing tool to entice you to buy one box of cereal or package of granola bars over another. Except for meat and poultry, no federal rules define the word. The USDA says those can only be labeled “natural” only if they are minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients or added colors. The label must spell this out clearly to prevent confusion for consumers.
This term generally refers to how egg-laying hens are treated. If you see the term on a package of chicken meat, it doesn’t mean anything because chickens raised for meat are never kept in cages. (Another marketing ploy is “no hormones added.” It’s illegal to give hormones to poultry.) Cage-free, which represents about 8 percent of the eggs produced in this country, doesn’t necessarily mean cruelty-free. But it does mean that the birds are not locked in cages, immobilized for their entire life. They are able to walk around inside of barns, but usually do not go outside. They can lay their eggs in nests, spread their wings and engage in other important natural behaviors.
“They’re not living on Old McDonald’s farm,” said Paul Shapiro, vice president of farm animal protection for the Humane Society of the United States. “If you were to go to a commercial cage-free operation, it’s still tens of thousands of birds who are indoors at all times. But compared to the sheer horror of battery cage confinement for egg-laying hens, it’s an improvement.”
Free range means that a farm animal has some type of outdoor access, but is not necessarily being raised on pasture. There are no governmental guidelines for how much space each animal needs nor for the quality of the range. The term doesn’t even mean the animals actually go outside – merely that they can.
Organic agriculture is an approach to farming that relies on biological systems, soil- enrichment and natural materials, says Mary Yurlina, director of MOFGA Certification Services LLC. Organic farmers rotate crops, apply compost, and use certain tillage techniques, for example, to produce healthy soils that feed their crops and keep weeds, pests and diseases under control. While organic farmers can use a narrow range of products to fight insects and diseases, these are used as a last resort. Genetically modified organisms, sewage sludge application, and ionizing radiation are strictly prohibited.
Organic livestock are fed certified organic feeds, pasture or browse, and are raised with ample access to the outdoors. No antibiotics or hormones are allowed, and only a limited range of carefully reviewed healthcare products may be administered when animals are sick. Also, farm practices may not harm natural resources and biodiversity. Organic producers must keep records to document that their practices meet the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) Rule, and they are verified annually with a farm plan review and on-site inspection.
Sustainability has typically been described as a three-legged stool, the three legs being the environment, economics and social justice. All three legs have to remain in balance for the stool to remain standing. Stephen Mulkey, president of Unity College, defines sustainability as the “use of present resources in a way that does not compromise future generations.” We are far from that goal, he continued, and are, in fact, “eating into the capital of the planet in terms of our use of natural resources.” The central issue for sustainable agriculture? Climate change. Mulkey argues that Maine is way behind in anticipating and preparing for the changes that will be coming over the next decade or two. Farmers need to be thinking about what they’ll plant and how severe storms and floods will affect their land. Fishermen need to consider what they’ll do if the lobster population crashes.
“We’re way out of balance at this point,” Mulkey said. “Could we ever achieve sustainability? Not in a single generation. We can’t do it overnight. We’re talking a multi-generational banquet, essentially. You and I will set the table, and the next generation may cook the meal, and the generation after that may be able to sit down and eat it.”
It sounds like something that escaped from Jurassic Park. To people who are sick of hearing the word, it is just as scary. The word “locavore” was coined by four northern California women in 2005. They were, perhaps, the first to draw a 100-mile radius around their homes and declare that no food would pass their lips if it hadn’t originated within that “foodshed.” Two years later, the Oxford American Dictionary designated “locavore” the 2007 Word of the Year.
Eating like a locavore is considered a more sustainable way to live, and apparently Mainers are pretty good at it. Every year a Vermont-based local food advocacy group called “Strolling of the Heifers” releases a ranking of states according to their commitment to local foods. That commitment is measured with data such as the per capita number of farmers’ markets, CSAs and food hubs in each state. This year, Maine was No. 2 on the list, just after Vermont. A food hub, by the way, is a distribution and processing center that gives local farmers better access to retail, institutional and other markets.
The French came up with the concept of terroir as a way to describe how wine grapes in different regions, or even different vineyards, embody the landscape where they grow by expressing variations in flavor and other qualities. The idea is that everything that surrounds the vine, including the soil and climate, interacts with it to assert “a sense of place.” Is it growing in a mountainous region or in the flatlands? Is it exposed to saltwater from the ocean, or does it grow beside a freshwater stream? “Everyone knows there’s Cabernet Sauvignon, there’s Sauvignon Blanc, there’s Syrah,” said Chris Peterman of the Maine chapter of American Sommeliers. “But even though that same grape grows in all different parts of the world, it’s different in all parts of the world because of how it grows, where it grows and what’s around it.” Today, some Americans use terroir to describe many other foods, such as cheese, chocolate, coffee, tomatoes, oysters and wheat.
Farm-to-table is not a new phrase, but its definition has come to mean much more than the fact that the potato on your plate came from an Aroostook County field. “Farm-to-table describes a cuisine, a method by which food moves from its source to your mouth, and a movement,” says Colleen Hanlon-Smith, executive director of the Maine Federation of Farmers Markets. “Regardless of the context this phrase is used in, it implies that the person using it should know where their food is coming from, by name of farm, forest or fishery – ideally by first name of farmer, forager or fisherman.”
Many people think of farm-to-table as a modern ideal, but in researching the term we discovered a newspaper article from the early 20th century that used the phrase to describe an experiment by the U.S. Postal Service in which it delivered agricultural products – eggs, butter, vegetables, watermelons, even live poultry – from farms directly to consumers.
The experiment was not an unqualified success. “One of the striking features which has come to my attention in making this campaign to bring the producers and the consumers together is the fact that some farmers have been charging top prices for their products,” Boston postmaster E.C. Mansfield wrote in his report on the project. “It was assumed when the plan was first broached that the consumer would get the benefit of lower prices as a means of reducing the cost of living, and that the producer, by sending direct by parcel post, could afford to sell at rock bottom prices. This, however, has not proven, generally, to be so…”
If you’ve ever picked up a box of food at your local farm without knowing what’s inside, chances are you already know what CSA stands for: Community Supported Agriculture.
A CSA is an agreement between a farmer and a consumer in which the consumer pays for produce and other agricultural products up front, and in return gets a regular share of the harvest throughout the growing season. The farmer benefits by getting money early in the year to help pay for the costs of seeds and equipment before the harvest comes in.
As CSAs have grown in popularity – there are now more than 180 in Maine – some farms have tinkered with the traditional format. At Snell Family Farm in Bar Mills, the CSA has evolved into a more flexible, market-based model. Customers pay for a share and get a little extra money added to their account by the farm as an incentive to sign up. They can shop for their food at the Snell stand at the farmers’ market instead of getting a weekly “mystery basket” of vegetables, and it builds a face-to-face connection.
“We tend to know our CSA customers by name,” said Carolyn Snell. “They’re likely to know us by name and they feel like they’re part of the action. If they go on vacation, they don’t miss out. If they don’t like kohlrabi, they don’t get loaded up with it. But it’s not the same kind of adventure eating as a traditional CSA.”
For the farm, Snell says, having a CSA means more sustainable financing. Rather than take out big operating loans, the farm’s CSA memberships cover spring payroll and pay for seeds, pots and compost.
CSF stands for Community Supported Fishery, and Maine was the first place in the country to have one. A CSF supports local fisheries by allowing customers to pay up front for a share of the catch, whatever that may be from week to week.
“Basically all we did was hijack the idea from the farmers with the CSAs, where you buy a share of the crop at a set price and then you get a bag of vegetables every week,” said Glenn Libby, president of Port Clyde Fresh Catch in Tenants Harbor. “We started out doing that with shrimp.”
That was in 2007. Today the buy-direct concept has grown to include all kinds of seafood and different ways of delivering it. Instead of paying up front for a supply of seafood that’s a surprise every week, Libby’s customers now join an e-mail list and use an online shopping cart to order exactly what they want. Fresh Catch still delivers, but they also ship seafood by UPS. The CSF has also partnered with local farmers markets and local farm CSAs. Across the country, most CSFs are still following the original model set up in Maine seven years ago. According to localcatch.org, the idea has spread to 192 locations in the United States and Canada.
In the public mind, slow food is simply the opposite of fast food. But it is really an organization whose name has come to define a global movement.
In 1986, an Italian journalist was outraged to discover that McDonald’s was about to open a restaurant next to the Spanish Steps in Piazza di Spagna, one of Rome’s most storied spots. Concerned that the encroaching fast food culture would threaten traditional Italian foodways, he organized a protest against the industrialization of food and “homogenized eating.” Instead of signs, the protesters carried bowls of handmade penne. Thus Slow Food, an organization that now has more than 1,300 local chapters and 100,000 members worldwide, was born.
Portland’s chapter is largely inactive except for partially funding Mainers who attend the biannual Slow Food Terra Madre international conference in Italy. But its members are still carrying out the goals of Slow Food through their dedication to preserving local food traditions and the biodiversity of species that provide us with food.
“We want to maintain the cultural and regional food traditions that have existed over centuries and evolved over centuries,” said Karl Schatz, owner of Ten Apple Farm in Gray and a leader of the Portland Slow Food convivium, “and we don’t want those traditions to be wiped out and replaced by the globalization of easy industrial food or things like McDonald’s or Pizza Hut.”
GMO stands for genetically modified organism, and it’s probably one of the most complicated and controversial topics in agriculture today. Farmers, scientists and consumers fiercely debate the safety and ethics of genetically altering our food supply, and state legislatures all over the country are considering bills that would require such products be clearly labeled. Last year, Maine became only the second state (after Connecticut) to pass a bill requiring GMO foods to be labeled. But the bill can’t take effect until four contiguous states pass similar laws.
GMO-free means that a food does not contain organisms whose genetic material has been altered through genetic engineering. In January, General Mills announced it had made Cheerios GMO-free (followed shortly after by Post Grape Nuts), but carrying the label hasn’t apparently made much difference in sales.
Grass-fed means the animal has not eaten any grains, ever, from weaning to harvest.
Grass-fed cows can graze on grain crops only if the plants haven’t developed a grain head yet, explains Ben Hartwell, who raises grass-fed beef at Sebago Lake Ranch in Gorham. That means the beef in the grocery store labeled “grass-fed, grain-finished” by definition isn’t grass-fed beef, at least not according to the USDA. Most cattle headed for market eat grass until they are sent to the feedlots to be put on grain and gain weight fast. Hartwell’s animals eat grass from May through December, then munch on hay and hay silage (stored grass) through the winter. They are also allowed to have a mineral supplement. Hartwell’s farm is not certified; certification for grass-fed animals means they are not given any antibiotics or hormones, and Hartwell occasionally uses antibiotics.
Why is grass-fed important? Some people think the meat tastes better. Additionally, grass changes the fat profile of the animal so that it contains more omega-3 fats – the kind that are good for you – and fewer omega-6 fats. “People have been conditioned to want lean meat, and in grain-fed versus grass-fed there’s no advantage in the lean parts,” Hartwell said. “All health benefits of grass-fed are in the fat. It’s all good fat versus bad fat.”
The term means that the animal has been raised on pasture. It is not the same thing as grass-fed since pasture-raised animals may eat grains.
When you bite into an heirloom apple, or taste a forkful of roast pork from a heritage pig, you may be tasting the same flavors your great-grandmother enjoyed a century ago.
Heritage animals and heirloom fruits and vegetables have carried their traits and tastes over generations, thanks to farmers and gardeners who have seen their value and maintained their stock. Some are, perhaps, naturally drought-resistant, or maybe their fat has a particularly unique flavor. They are genetically distinct foods that, for one reason or another, have not fit into the industrialized food system and never became commercial crops. Scientists believe it’s important to preserve heritage and heirloom varieties partly because they are not as susceptible to being wiped out by diseases or pests as a modern monoculture crops.
Contact Meredith Goad at 791-6332 or at:
NEXT WEEK: Green Glossary, Part Two