Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

In the late 80’s and 90’s,  farmers, food manufacturers, distributors, retailers asserted that their products were “organic”. There were multiple standards that were voluntarily adopted and hopefully posted as the basis of assertions on product labeling (sometimes).

In the 90’s, the USDA finally realized that distinctly  “organic” food was desired, demanded, by many consumers, and that there was a great deal of doubt in consumers’ mind whether a particular product was in fact “organic”.

They organized stakeholder discussions to formalize a coherent standard. There was a great deal of argument, compromise, and now after the standards have been published and applied, there is a great deal of lobbying and fudging.

Does the term “organic” on a package mean the same thing to you as you imagine, that you desire as a standard. In the 70′ and early 80’s, the rage word was “natural”, and there even was some basis of standards for a time, based on the principles of accuracy in advertising. (“Natural” is no longer assessed. It is just an assertion at this point.) “Organic” assertion was considered special, an unusual degree of care in growing and processing, really natural.

That standard is dissolving as the standards are asked to be relaxed to accommodate industrial organic farming, industrial in method, industrial in supply path (not local), industrial in distribution, industrial in retailing and mass communications/branding.

Currently, there is a great deal of interest in local food (and even some interest in decentralizing economy as a whole, not just food). But, noone knows what the term “local” means.

In conducting test evaluations in preparation of the use of the “locus” designation, many have discovered that they do use a considerable amount of non-local ingredients and packaging to the extent that it is difficult to confidently state that the food is local, if 100% of inputs are incorporated into the assessment (especially if packaging is included in the assessment).

What do consumers think is meant by the term local? If a locally sited company making a corn salad uses locally grown sweet corn, locally grown peppers, imported salt, imported spices, glass packaging from China, lidseals from Chicago, and the non-local components comprise 45% of the cost, is that a “local product”?

If only the food components are considered, and the average sourcing of the product adds up to 100 miles away, is that a local product? If the most local 95% of ingredients adds up to 50 miles away, is that a local product?

Where is it a local product? If a product that is prepared and packaged in Northampton, MA and is a local product in Northampton, is sold in Philadelphia, is that a local product in Philadelphia? How about New Haven?

I want to know, and I’m hoping that other consumers want to know.

There is good reason to emphasize local food and local value addition. And, there is good reason for consumers to be aware of where their food and products/services come from.

The options for disclosure include “off/on” measurements like organic certification (though within three categories of what is “organic”). This product is either local or it is not. (That is misrepresentative to put on packaging as products are sold in other places than where they were prepared.)

Another option is to describe the geographic center of gravity of processing, but that leads to sometimes absurd and incomprehensible results. An example is a food product prepared in Brattleboro, VT with produce from various points in the Connecticut River Valley (near Brattleboro), but other ingredients from Oregon and California. The numeric computation adds up to somewhere in upstate New York, that doesn’t resemble anything coherent about the products. (its a hypothetical example, not real).

In contrast, the option that locus adopts is to define a region in which a product can be sold in which it complies with “100-mile” certification and another larger circle to comply with “500-mile” certification for general products.

If locally made is an important assertion for consumers to consider in their decisions, then the criteria should be clear to consumers, consistently assessed, and rigorously enforced. Otherwise the term “local” will go the way of “natural”, just an assertion, not something that can be relied on.


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What is sustainability?

As a definition, I like the one articulated by the 1987 Brundtland Report, “Meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.

My own definition:


In the few cases where I’ve been engaged to conduct “sustainability audits” for small companies, the criteria for their inquiry included input/process/output analysis on water usage, carbon footprint, recycling, solid waste disposal, etc.  They also included social metrics like compliance with “living wage” guidelines, non-discrimination compliance, assessments of employee satisfaction, assessments of stakeholder relations.

Although the food businesses cited interest in the local food movement (“100 mile diet”), none incorporated an assessment of LOCUS, or participated in LOCUS disclosures on their products.

LOCUS is a product disclosure that defines the geographic average site of value addition for a product or service, and the degree of variance from that geographic average. LOCUS is stated in latitude and longitude. As a product disclosure, a small map of North America is printed with a green area identifying where a product can be sold to comply with “100-mile” diet (LOCUS within 100 miles, with less than 100 mile variance), and in blue with “500-mile” compliance.

Retailers and manufacturers may also be assessed for their organizational LOCUS compliance/excellence. A bronze level retailer makes 25% of its revenues in the blue zone. A silver level retailer makes 50% of its revenues in the blue zone. And a gold level retailer makes 75% of it revenues from blue zone products/services.

Similar guidelines apply to manufacturers and producers.

Although there is no definitive research conducted, or even possible, a very very small percentage of food purchased at groceries in the country, comply with either metric.

If the site of value addition (LOCUS) is not disclosed, then those that desire to eat locally won’t know if they are in fact. (I have some ultra-orthodox Jewish friends – and family – that are very conscientious about only eating kosher food. They are religious about it.)

If the LOCUS of products and services is disclosed, then there will be a means for consumers to include that consideration in their purchasing decisions. If not, and there is no governmental emphasis on regional economic development and balance, and no consumer preference possible, then we will experience an increasingly global marketplace, with all of its negative consequences.

  • Maldistribution of income/purchasing power
  • Vulnerability to unavailability of key goods due to political instability and supply chain disruptions
  • Inflation due to very likely long-term increases in transportation costs

Regionally healthy and balanced economies are important.

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Local Food

Some friends have organized a local food gathering next week in Holyoke. If you can go, go.

I’ve worked in the food business a few times in my life, as an alfalfa sprouter in Ossining, NY serving the New York area, as the bookkeeper for a prominent food cooperative in Washington, DC, as a landscaper/urban garden developer in Portland, OR, and as controller of a granola manufacturer in Western Massachusetts.

There is a lot of confusion about what is local food, and if and why it is important at all.

Like all products that we use, there is something real, even intimate, about knowing the person who grew and/or cooked food that you are eating. Buying direct from a farmer is a wonderful experience. Eating a home-cooked meal, or a skillful aesthetically prepared meal is a treat.

But, and it is a big but, most of the food that we eat, that people eat, is NOT close to its source. Most of the food that we eat is industrial food. Anyone that eats grains or any commercial meats, or produce from a supermarket (especially now that it is nobody’s in-season, except for some very unique greenhouse operations), is eating food that has a long and wasteful industrial supply chain.

With the way that we settle, its got to be that way. In New York, a very very very small proportion of food originates within 10 miles of where it is consumed, even at 50 miles, the measure is very very small proportion. At 200 miles, maybe it reaches very small proportion. (only one “very”).

Those of us that are interested in local food tend NOT to desire that New Yorkers migrate en masse out of the city, towards where we live.

As much as the Connecticut River valley supports unique access to local agriculture, to local food, it cannot support New England. It doesn’t even try. Some large % of Connecticut River valley land is taken up by sprawl suburban tract homes and conveniently flatland industrial uses. Some other large % of Connecticut River valley land is used for tobacco, not food.

So, even out of our regional potential to feed maybe 1/10th of the regional population, we feed maybe 1/100th of our regional food needs regionally. Two dozen sweet corn a year, vegetables for a month, maybe a couple meals of free-range chickens or beef, is not much.

Why does it matter?

  • Cost – To transport a pound of grain 2000 miles costs around .18/pound, only 500 miles maybe .11/pound. Out of a pound of oats that costs 1.20/pound retail, close to a quarter of that is transportation costs. And, as the both the cost of oil for the transportation, the cost of the oil for fertilizer, and the competition of grain land for ethanol production, the cost of all grains will be increasing for a while.
  • Community – Its a very different experience to know where your food comes from than to buy industrial food anonymously. I can thank the farmer. I can thank the soil, the sun, knowing it in its place.
  • Community independance – Our relationships with other communities, regions, nations, becomes strained when we are dependant. Relationships between communities and the markets, that can be respectful, fair commerce, becomes exploited with our dependance. In the American market system, everyone is dependant, so the system is maintained and ensured. We are all equally dependant on the railroads, truck, industrial farming corporations, oil supply chain, corrupt public policy, misuse of land, soil depletion, agricultural runoff.

Quaint doesn’t cut it. The most that we can say is with a great deal of self-righteous vanity “I’m personally independant of the rat race.” Maybe trust-babies can say that. Its another very very very….. few.

Can we grow grain in the Connecticut River Valley? Likely not much. Its too wet. The land is not open enough to support big combines, and there is not the supporting processing, market, distribution infrastructure regionally.

Vegetable protein? (soybeans largely). The valley is also not well suited for soybean production. The growing season is sufficient but with no room for error. And, there is not the supporting infrastructure to do so.

Meat protein? That is more possible, and animals don’t need bottom land to graze on. But, meat production in the country is very industrial, unhealthily so (cruelly to the animals, unhealthy to workers and consumers). Hopefully, we will NEVER create an industrial meat production industry in the Valley. Free range beef and poultry is a possibility, but free range meats have lower yeilds per acre than industrial. To radically increase the acreage dedicated to meat would compete for acreage for other purposes. (I’d be happy if it competed with tobacco, but not so happy if it competed with vegetables or corn.)

Limited grain, limited protein. We are NOT the breadbasket that we thought. There are just too many of us living here. We can go quaint and boutiquey (living in Montague, or Leyden), but we can’t support our population. We’d have to compromise our values to do so, go semi-industrial if not fully industrial.

We might be the vegetable breadbasket of New England though. And, our farmers might make a good living growing berries, fruits, vegetables, sweet corn. And, we can certainly be the gourmet meat breadbasket.

I guess you’ve got to do what you can.

Its an example of my “engineered life” observation.Its the world in which we live. The second definition of “sustainable”.


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Food prices are going up.

There are many causes.

One primary cause is that food commodities are genuinely global commodities and are affected by changes in demand and in supply anywhere on the planet.

A component  cause of very current food price swings is the relatively rapid decline in the value of the dollar. In addition to higher cost relative to the global market, there is an effect of more exports out of the country, shifting the relationship of available domestic supply to demand.

On the supply side, there is drought in many grain producing regions, Russia, China, Eastern Europe, Australia, some parts of North America. Although crop yeilds are very high relative to long term historical patterns, they are stabilizing, the low-hanging fruit and complex industrial agricultural systems are largely already employed at least in the US. The amount of available land for grain production is finite, and needs to be managed to avoid soil depletion (already a very large pestilence everywhere). It is impossible to simply plant and harvest the same plot of land year in and year out.

On the demand side, there is continually increasing population, and the great kicker for demand for corn is the consistently increased dedication of corn crop to ethanol production. According to the University of Kansas 2010 survey, between 35 and 40% of corn acreage is used for ethanol production currently. And, that is during an extended period in which the cost of oil is stable and relatively low compared what it is likely to rise to when the world economy recovers to 2007 levels.

Virtually all grain and other food commodities have risen in price over the last six months, ranging from between 10% to around 80% for corn.

In modern agriculture, fuel (in fertilizer, agricultural chemicals) and water are the largest cost components of agricultural production. Labor is relatively small per unit, as is even the amortized cost of mechanization, even seed stocks.

In three years, it is nearly a certainty that the cost of fossil fuel will increase (also causing an increase in the % of corn and other agricultural stocks used for fuel/ethanol). And, there is a continual global scarcity of water. Water is more expensive in the marketplace than oil currently, even as those of us that live in urban water districts think of water as free. Many economists describe the market price of water as underpriced, heavily subsidized, in many cases stolen.

Plan for it to continue. The price of water, fuel, food will continue to increase,  and the value of the dollar relative to world currencies will continue to decrease.

Its hard to see a creative political or even entrepreneurial response to those realities, any of the factors, given the recent “performance” of Congress and the corporate world relative to investing in value addition (industry) domestically which would strengthen the dollar, and the utter failure of policy makers and corporate world in developing energy and water conservation services.



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If we were really interested in some indication of whether a product or service complied with a definition of “sustainable”, what would that include?

When people speak of sustainable currently, most people think of something comprehensive, more than one characteristic.

So what characteristics would that entail? How important is each characteristic to consumers and to an assessment of “objective” sustainability? How could that be measured, disclosed, audited and how would stakeholders (suppliers, distributors, retailers, etc.) come to consent?

I like using food as an example because I am familiar with the industry, its supply chain paths, some of the key institutions (at least in natural foods), the demands of consumers. Most importantly we put food into our own bodies, and are more concerned about food than about something that is less intimate. (Not enough of us.)

Once a diclosure is mandated by law, it is usually complied with. There are severe and expensive penalties and other means of accountability for violations. (Mandatory recalls, fines). The discretionary disclosures are more contreversial and actively contested.

The characteristics that I care about for food are:

1. Bio-dynamic/Organic/natural/conventional (There are objective designations only of organic and conventional, and the organic guidelines took 15 years to get defined and approved.)

2. Nutritional components, ingredients (FDA mandated)

3. Whether the production, handling, distribution, retailing was done in a quality and hygenic manner. (Assumption that if it reaches stores that it complies with health and safety laws. There are varying quality standards however, and many manufacturers have custom and industry certifications.)

4. Recyclable packaging – Life cycle (No law on compliance, nor disclosure definitions.)

5. Where it was made – Locus (No law on disclosure of manufacturing location or average location of value addition – Locus)

6. Whether living wage was paid throughout the supply chain (No law or convention on disclosure. Assumption is that throughout the supply chain, providers abided by applicable federal and local employment law, ie minimum wage, etc.)

7. How much energy was consumed to make, package, deliver the product (No law or convention)

8. What toxins were generated in the process of manufacture, transportation, distribution (No law or convention, some implication of absence of toxins in some processes by organic certification)

Well, even though only a small portion of the information that I would regard as important for a citizen’s consideration is currently required by law or convention, there is no current mass movement for more complete disclosure.

What gets in the way?

Certainly there are some data collection obstacles and inconveniences. More importantly, there are institutional objections particularly made by larger, global institutions. In natural foods, as in all food supply, large institutions dominate the business.

Retailing – Whole Foods Market (publicly traded),  Trader Joes (European privately held) , large grocery chains, even coops are often large businesses now

Wholesaling – United Natural Foods (publicly traded, almost a monopoly)

Manufacture – More small businesses, but institutionalized into serving the global/continental supply chain.

Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods Market don’t want LOCUS disclosure. United Natural Foods don’t want LOCUS disclosure, unless pressed by an actual regional foods, regional economy movement.

LOCUS disclosures disadvantage mass production, mass distribution, mass retailing.

When the Sustainability metric is proposed (in addition to organic and kosher designations), there will be a fight about regionalism vs globalism. Globalism will likely win, sadly.

Please support regional economy though. It is optimal in a sustainable society, affording optimal mix of economies of scale with accountability and minimization of transportation requirements.

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Currently there is no product or supplier designation for compliance with comprehensive sustainability definitions.

Its hard to know if that is because the definition of sustainability is difficult to articulate and/or difficult to define a consented universal definition.

There are ISO type certifications of suppliers, manufacturers, distributors, retailers, etc, and those aren’t used as widely or disclosed widely on products or even on shareholder communications.

Aside from product disclosures and direct stakeholder relations, companies don’t generally communicate much with the public, or are asked to. We see product packaging, job ads, financial reports and only on publicly traded companies, maybe some other marketing oriented educational programs. Those are very limited communications.

And, on product packaging, there are limited disclosures. I am most familiar with food packaging. I’m looking at an organic multi-grain bread from Trader Joe’s (probably manufactured by Vermont Bread – a perishable that requires local distribution by an organic certified manufacturer).

On the package is “Trader Joe’s”, “Multigrain Bread” “No artificial colors or flavors, no artificial preservatives”. Net wt 20 oz, a barcode, USDA required nutritional information, USDA Organic certification, and identification of the certifying agency – QAI, and a kosher certification logo.

No indication of where the product was made or where the ingredients to the product was made, or where the product complies with 100-mile and 500-mile sourcing (LOCUS). No indication of fair trade authorization, living wage compliance, ISO 9000 series (quality) certification of the manufacturer and supply chain, ISO 14000 (environmental) certification of the manufacturer and supply chain,  life cycle handling requirements of product and packaging.

Consumers don’t ask for it, the federal government doesn’t require it, retailers don’t require it.

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In looking at my family’s expenditures, I would have expected food to be at or near the top of the list.

A sustainable society includes how I live, how simply and fully I and my family are able to meet our needs, and how society is structured to optimally realize live and let live.

Please take a look at prior posts on food:


Introducing “Locus”

Food (Living Lightly) – Person

Food (Living Lightly) – Family

Food (Living Lightly) – Community

Food – Living Lightly (Region)

Food – Living Lightly (Planet)

Food – Current Action Plans – What we CAN do


There is MUCH talk about sustainability. Certainly MANY people, especially in our region, are doing wonderful things towards sustainable and simple food model.

Its really possible.

Simple things make a difference. Eat Together. Buy local produce. Form buying clubs. Garden.

Please make the shifts in your own life that realize simplicity and sustainability and most importantly for the planet, encourage sustainability (even by increments and stealth even) as social norm.

An example of stealth, is the budding effort of the Sustainable013 group to matchmake groups of individuals from all settings and needs to eat together.

No conspicuously hip, not even among particularly hip people, but community building.


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