Good News, Bad News, Who Knows?

The Washington Post ran a story yesterday about unapproved GMO wheat that was found on an Oregon farm.  At this point it’s a big mystery how this happened, as this particular GMO wheat was last tested by Monsanto in a ‘controlled’ setting in 2005.

From what I’ve observed so far, most in the organic industry are initially viewing this as a potentially catastrophic event, claiming that drift from GMOs is more widespread than we previously thought and that GMO contamination of organic fields is inevitable.

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Indeed, it is quite unsettling that this wheat has so randomly turned up- and makes me wonder how (in the hell!?) the courts have yet to make Monsanto and others who hold the patents to GMO crops liable for cross-contamination.

However, is this incident bad news?  It feels like it.  Our first reaction to news like this is usually based on fear- fear of the unknown.  But to know if something is truly bad, time must pass.This classic story of the Chinese rice farmer illustrates this point perfectly…

A farmer’s only horse ran away. The neighbors, trying to console him, said, “What terrible news about your horse. What will you do?” But the farmer said, “Bad news, good news… who knows?”

A few days later, the horse returned, leading an entire herd of wild horses. The neighbors exclaimed, “How wonderful!” The farmer replied, “Good news, bad news… who knows?”

The next day, the farmer’s son tried to ride one of the new horses. The horse threw the son, who broke both legs. The neighbors said, “What a misfortune! Your son won’t be able to work on the farm.” The farmer stood still and said, “Bad news, good news… who knows?”

Within the week, news of a war had broken out.  Soldiers arrived in the village, taking new recruits.  All the young men were drafted to fight, except for the farmer’s son.

From the WaPo article:

“The discovery could have far-reaching implications for the U.S. wheat industry if the growth of the engineered product turns out to be far-flung. Many countries around the world will not accept imports of genetically modified foods, and the United States exports about half of its wheat crop.”

cargoI contend that this event could actually be good news- it could be a paradigm shift that favors the non-GMO movement.  As an entire commodity industry is now threatened with losing its export business, we in the organics industry could be gaining some substantial allies.  Cargill, for example, might be quite concerned at this point, as they are responsible for 25% of the US’s grain exports.  Imagine Cargill’s export lobby and Monsanto’s GMO lobby battling against each other….

Good news?  Bad news?  Who Knows?

Posted in business, environment, food, GMOs, organic foods | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Certifiably Uncertified

A couple of years ago I was having a conversation with MOM’s Grocery Director about some products that we don’t carry.  She said something that caught my attention- that there’s a faction within the organic industry that considers itself “too cool to be organic.” A growing number of farmers and artisan producers feel like their products are “beyond organic”- and that going through the process of third-party organic certification is a wasted effort.

Kathleen Merrigan, one of the organic farming industry’s most stalwart supporters, retired last Friday, May 3rd.  As she departed, she wrote in the National Organic Program’s most recent newsletter about her biggest fear for the future of organics:

KathleenMerrigan“I could list out many challenges and opportunities facing organic agriculture, but as I head out the door, I want you to know the one issue that weighs heavily on my mind,” she wrote. “I meet too many young people who think organic status is insufficient or not relevant to them. They claim to be ‘beyond organic’, ‘natural’, better than organic, ‘authentic.’

“They worry about the paperwork, fees, and being regulated by government. We must change this trend. I wish I had an hour to spend with each one of these budding farmers to explain the history of the organic farming movement and why it is important to act collectively. What we have done together is bigger than any one person or organization. What we have done together has mattered.”

I can relate to these young farmers and producers.  As the owner of MOM’s, I’ve come across some regulations over the years that are rather ridiculous, seemingly created by bureaucrats who make a living out of over-thinking everything.  This results in a plethora of minutiae-based regulations that cater to the lowest common denominator.

However, I realize that no set of regulations is going to be perfect.  Some people and organizations will find fault with the organic certification process and standards, so they choose to throw the baby out with the bath water by not participating.  Even worse, some say the organic standards aren’t good enough, so they form a circular firing squad and actively attack the entire certification process.

For the organic movement to continue to grow, we are going to have to realize that perfect is the enemy of good, that not everyone can be pleased.  To be effective, we need to adhere to a common set of less-than-perfect standards.  Those who farm organically but opt out of the certification process are making it easier on themselves, but they are hurting our movement… the same movement that is able to exist because of these uniform standards and certification processes.

When shopping at farmers markets, roadside stands, or buying local or artisan products, please consider the value and power of collective action; give priority to those who go through the organic certification process.  They are selflessly investing in our industry.

Posted in food, local food, organic foods | Tagged , , , , , | 8 Comments

Scott Fights Scotts

There’s a creek that runs through my neighborhood.  I walk it frequently.  I consider myself the unofficial keeper of this creek, as I uproot invasive mustard plants and pick up dozens of bags of trash along a mile stretch of the creek.  photo (9)

Yesterday evening, my son and I were walking our dog along the creek.  My son caught a frog in his net. image

I don’t know if they’re a native species, but there are patches of these stunning flowers all along the creek.image (1)

We saw a great blue heron, a kingfisher, a pair of nesting mallards, and this barred owl: image (2)

I recently saw a large fish that swam and looked like a trout (I’ve seen trout in rivers in CO).  A couple of days later, I saw a similar fish dead in the water.

On our walk last night, I came across some algae blooms. photo (10)

Algae is caused by excess nitrogen from lawn fertilizers and chokes the oxygen out of our waterways, making it difficult for other marine life to thrive. If you happen to fly into National Airport, take a look down at the Potomac River and you’ll see vast swaths of algae blooms.

As I walk in my neighborhood and drive through others, I am astounded at how many people put chemicals on their lawns, chemicals that are killing our creeks and rivers and hurting the Chesapeake.

I remember years ago almost falling out of my chair when I saw this ad by The Chesapeake Club:

I thought its message was one that would reach the mainstream and at least get people to skip adding chemicals in the spring – and bring attention to the fact that lawn chemicals do indeed hurt the Bay.

Scotts Lawn Care ads have shown up on my facebook page this past month.  When I first saw an ad, I shook my head, thinking “here is yet another industry that I’d like to see eliminated.”  (Others include coal, bottled water, and to a large extent, petroleum.)

Then I started to read the comments and was surprised and delighted that there are many others who feel the same as I do: Screen Shot 2013-04-12 at 11.08.35 AM Screen Shot 2013-04-10 at 10.07.41 AM Screen Shot 2013-04-10 at 10.07.59 AM Screen Shot 2013-04-12 at 11.12.29 AM Screen Shot 2013-04-12 at 11.13.45 AM Screen Shot 2013-04-12 at 11.17.23 AM Screen Shot 2013-04-09 at 11.01.32 AM

My friend, Matt Logan, is president of a group called Potomac Riverkeeper.  I suggested to him early this week that we team up to do something about the lawncare chemical industry’s saturation of chemicals on lawns.  I was pleasantly surprised when he sent me an article showing that a law in MD was passed in 2009 that somewhat limits the application of lawn chemicals (the legislation generally copied Annapolis’ existing law).

Regulating the supply is a good start.  The next step is to decrease demand by educating consumers and changing their behaviors.  Please join this campaign to save the Chesapeake watershed – and take comfort in knowing that there are many on board already.

Posted in bugs/animals, environment, home, Lawn, Living, nature, water | Tagged , , , , | 48 Comments

Man Walks Dog, Terrorizes Neighborhood

When my wife and I were looking for a house to buy 15 years ago, I told her about a rule I had: the “let-the-dog-out-without-worrying-about-it-getting-hit-by-a-car” rule.  I wasn’t even sure we’d ever get a dog, but figured this rule would also apply to future kids.  Our neighborhood has large yards, lots of trees/forest, and all streets are dead ends.  

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About 2 years ago, we did indeed get that dog.

Meet Winnie

Meet Winnie

When I was a kid, the friendly dogs went free, following the pack of roaming kids.  In these past 2 years, I’ve discovered the world of dog-ownership has changed a great deal…

SCANDAL #1:  I let my dog walk off leash.  She’s half whippet and half black lab.  She was made to run.  As we walk she chases squirrels, chipmunks, deer, and fox.  She will never catch a fox.  I don’t think she really wants to catch a deer.  But she has hit the lottery a couple of times and caught a squirrel and 2 chipmunks.  She is extremely obedient (thank you previous owners, whoever you are!).  I can literally snap my fingers and she’s at my side – or better yet, call “Winnie, come!” and she jerks in my direction like I yanked hard on a tight leash.  I don’t let her approach pedestrians or other dogs, because I know that those people don’t know whether my dog is friendly.  However, I know from the harsh glares of some of the neighbors (even other dog owners), a lecture I once received from a neighbor, and some whispers I’ve heard through the neighborhood grapevine, that I am considered a menace by quite a few people.

SCANDAL #2:  I cut through some neighbors’ yards.  I take my dog through the woods, as I walk along a creek often picking up trash.  To get back to my neighborhood, I need to cut through some neighbors’ backyards.  I made the mistake of doing this while one of our older neighbor’s kids was visiting and doing yardwork.  She was in the front yard and as I came walking out of her driveway and on to the street, I said “Hi.”  She was about 40′-50′ away, yet physically startled and exclaimed, “Oh!”  My dog followed behind me as we entered the street.  Less than 2 weeks have passed since then and I can tell that this was a traumatic experience for my neighbor’s daughter, as this “no trespassing” sign has since been posted.

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The elderly woman who lives there is as sweet as can be.  I wonder if she knows that this sign is there?

I had a similar experience with a neighbor when we first got our cat and let her outside.  She “escaped” (or in retrospect, “went”) into our neighbor’s bamboo.  A woman, who was also visiting her elderly mom, came running out asking me who I was and what I was doing on their property.  I guess it didn’t help settle her nerves that at the time I was in my bathrobe and slippers.

SCANDAL #3:  And this is a big one… I don’t pick up my dog’s poop.  I get that we, being a civilized society and all, don’t want dog poop lying around in places where we might step – places like sidewalks, walkways, or an entire yard of any house with kids.  But when did we become so generally rigid that we need to strictly control where animals poop outside?!?

In this neighborhood we have herds of deer, fox, opossums, raccoons, squirrels, birds, and cats pooping all over the place.  What is it about a dog’s poop that drives people into a rage – turning neighbor against neighbor?  I’ve trained my dog to poop in the woods, in ivy, or in areas where I’m very, very certain nobody is going to walk.

Our closest neighbor has 3 dogs and generally lets them poop wherever.  Their German shepherd was pooping right at the bottom of our stairs where our kids frequently run.  We politely asked them to keep an eye on their dog – and that pooping anywhere but there is fine.

Apparently, a dog pooped in a neighbor’s yard across the street…

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Honestly, I think it was our dog’s poop (however, rumor has it from a dog-walking neighbor who saw the offending poop pile, that it was the poop of a big dog, so my wife thinks it might have been the German shepherd).  In the 10 years that our neighbor has lived there, I recall seeing them in their front yard twice – once to put up a bird box and once to plant a tree.  They are empty nesters.  A lawn service cuts their lawn.

In all my years growing up with dogs roaming all over the place, I never once recall a grown-up making a fuss over where a dog pooped.  Now, it feels like people are obsessed with it.

Maybe this a symptom of something good – and what happens in an area like Montgomery County, where life has become so good and easy for so many that dog etiquette is a big deal?  I think of my childhood days growing up in a middle-class neighborhood in PG County, when kids and dogs roamed free for hours on end, neighbors knew and helped each other, and we suffered together through real problems.

Posted in bugs/animals, home, Living, nature, personal | 86 Comments

The Powerful Organic Consumer

trainIn this past Sunday’s Washington Post, there was an article in which Whole Foods’ co-CEO Walter Robb was interviewed on their decision to require labeling of GMO products in 5 years.

WF’s decision is a game changer.  There have been many efforts to push for legislation to require labeling- and there are now ballot initiatives in multiple states pushing for GMO labeling- but the consumers couldn’t wait that long!

In the interview, Robb speaks frequently of the consumers’ influence in their decision…

As we began to look at our position, I think it became clear that this was a step that we needed to take. Fundamentally, [customers] were right about the fact that food should be labeled so that they had the right to choose.

…the encouragement of our customers — it all led to us saying this is the step we need to take as a company.

Would you sell products that have GMO ingredients that are labeled? Or would you prefer to be a completely GMO-free store? Is that the end goal?  “It’s our customers who are going to make those choices. We’re just going to put a label on it and let people make their decisions.

For customers who want the non-GMO choices, they can choose right now. Organic, by law, doesn’t allow GMO technologies.

The FDA has made their decision [that GMO crops are “substantially equivalent” to traditional crops], but it obviously has not satisfied people, hence all the activism around this.

WF deserves much credit in that they listened to the consumers and responded.  However, the real force of influence is The People.

We are fortunate that Whole Foods exists.  They are a $12 billion behemoth and a real avenue for change.  With their massive size (and influence), they have the ability to dictate to the entire industry such edicts.  But they are mostly a reflection of the consumers’ desires and demands.  In the end, it is you, the consumer, who deserves the lion’s share of the credit.

Posted in food, GMOs, organic foods | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Family Dinners, A Family Value

me and my sister, circa '86 or so

me and my sister, circa ’86 or so

People are usually surprised to learn when I tell them that even though MOM’s typical store footprint is about 1/4 the size of a typical Whole Foods store, our average purchase is about 20% higher.  Our customers buy much more per shopping trip.

Why?  Because our customers by and large buy ingredients to make meals for the week, rather than buy the meals themselves.  MOM’s keeps growing, but trends are heading in the opposite direction, as modern culture’s priorities shift and people’s lives become more hectic.

When I was a child, the sounds and smells of an active kitchen were very comforting.  I would sometimes visit the kitchen to see what was going on.  I don’t remember a single instruction from my mother about how to cook, but somehow I learned, seemingly through osmosis.

My family ate together multiple times per week.  This brought a routine to my otherwise confusing and unpredictable childhood.  I learned much about current events.  My father in particular loved to debate with my older siblings at the table, so I learned how to think critically.  Such benefits have been well-documented.*  I was lucky in that my mom had the opportunity to stay home and chose to sacrifice her career and apply her organization skills and good work ethic for the direct benefit of her family.

It is not easy cooking meals and eating together as a family.  It takes planning, time, work, and the courage to say “no” to a world around us that is speeding up.  Today, I admire not only the stay-at-home parents who make such sacrifices, but also the incredible dedication of families with 2 working parents who are still able to pull off this feat.  Food and The Family are such important parts of some of our lives- and I feel that MOM’s has become an outpost for those people whose priorities are becoming increasingly less mainstream.

*[I believe some of these statistics are somewhat unscientific, however… eating dinner together might be more of a symptom (vs. a cause) of a family who has other qualities and values that are beneficial to children- like a 2-parent household, an emphasis on structure, good priorities, working one well-paying job instead of 2 low-paying jobs, etc.]

Posted in food, Living, MOM's Organic Market, personal | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Infinite Shades of Grey

The battle against GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) has gained much momentum these past few years.  It seems like the issue really caught fire when this picture went viral on the internet in the spring of 2012.

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Kashi was lambasted when their products were found to have GMOs. And consumer activism, as usual, had a big impact, as Kashi took major action to change their ways.

The California Prop 37 to label products with GMOs was fought hard and lost in November, which intensified the battle even further. MOM’s watched closely and financially supported Prop 37.
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We hear from our customers almost constantly on this issue- and many want us to pull all products that haven’t been proven to be without GMOs.  And quite a few also want us to stop offering organic and GMO-free products that are owned by large corporations who actively fought against Prop 37.

We won’t do either, and here’s why:

Until there are federally mandated GMO labeling laws, any non-organic product that hasn’t been verified GMO-free could contain GMO’s. Thanks to the Non-GMO Project, many manufacturers have started testing their products to verify (and label them) as GMO-free. And this is great – the more information the consumer has, the better. However, the Non-GMO Project is still in its infancy – and the vast majority of products have not been tested or labeled. Every food retailer in the United States – including MOM’s, Whole Foods, and every other natural grocer – still stocks products that have not been verified GMO-free. It is the manufacturers’ responsibility to test their products. If a manufacturer does not do this, the only way to be sure products do not contain GMOs is to lab test them – continually. It is not feasible for a grocery store to lab test products and police the entire food industry. However, when thousands and thousands of consumers vote with their spending dollars, we see the finest results (as with Kashi).

What we do at MOM’s is put great pressure on manufacturers to get their products tested (or to go organic- as all certified organic products are GMO-free).  For new products, we require food manufacturers to use organic or verified GMO-free sources for ingredients that may be genetically engineered, like corn and soy.

There are manufacturers of clean, organic, GMO-free products who have been purchased by large food corporations who do and sell bad things.  Right here in our backyard, Honest Tea is an example of this.  As a result of the chart above, Honest Tea is hearing loud and clear the discontent from its previously diehard customers.  Some are choosing to stop buying their products.  That is their choice, and I can see why they’d make that choice.

Seth, who founded Honest Tea, has been a friend of mine for years.  Yet, even though he is still the CEO of Honest Tea, I am now less inclined to purchase those products since the profits ultimately go to a corporation that I think makes the world a worse place (their high-fructose corn syrup sweetened products lead to obesity, they produce tons of plastic waste with their Dasani bottled water, they fight against legislation such as Prop 37, they sell mostly products that aren’t organic- which add chemicals to the environment, etc.).

But should we stop selling products like Honest Tea, Cascadian Farms, and Muir Glen?  No- because we are foremost dedicated to supporting the organic farming industry, more than we are against sleazy corporations (although, it’s pretty close!).  Buying an organic product, no matter who is making money off of it, helps organic farmers and helps the environment.

[As a side note, I am not upset that Honest Tea was purchased by Coke.  Seth can be very convincing and passionate about what he stands for and I am hopeful that he will influence Coke to take baby steps (with huge impacts, given Coke’s monstrous size) towards doing the right thing.]

Of course, the best case scenario is to buy organic products that are owned by ethical companies, which I strongly urge everyone to do, but buying organic products that are owned by enemy corporations falls into one of life’s infinite shades of grey.

Posted in GMOs, MOM's Organic Market, organic foods | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments